Thursday, December 26, 2013

Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne

So what the heck does auld lang syne mean, anyway? People all over the English speaking world raise glasses, smooch, or eat a dozen grapes while singing or listening to that enigmatic song.

We of the English-speaking world have the Scots to thank for the phrase, & Robert Burns to thank for popularizing it (though others had put the phrase to paper before Burns).

Auld lang syne is translated in several ways, among them: times long ago, times long since, old times gone… At the end of the year we “raise a cup of kindness to” all the events that preceded the toast. Whether the events were good or bad, the song entreats us to look upon them kindly, then make our way into the new year wiser for having experienced those times.
Auld was an Anglo-Saxon term that means old. Born in the 1300s, it survives today, still spelled auld in Scottish. Its Anglo-Saxon root meant aged, antique, primeval, experienced, or adult. Auld has its roots in a verb meaning to grow or nourish. Auld’s relatives include the words elder, eldest, alto, alumni, adult, adolescent & alumnus. Though many languages make a clear distinction between adjectives used for “old” inanimate things & those used for “old” sentient beings, auld (& its modern pal, old) can be applied to both.

Lang translates to long, something that extends considerably from end to end. It also showed up in English in the 1300s. Its relatives include along, lunge, lounge, linger, prolong, elongate, longitude, & longing, & ling (as in ling cod).

Syne means since. Syne showed up in Scottish in the 1300s. Oddly, it took a couple of centuries for its equivalent, synnes or syns, to appear in English, and another century or so for those spellings to morph into since. It means from the time when, or as a consequence of the fact that. Over time its relatives appear to have faded away, leaving it an etymological orphan.

May you have superb good fortune this year, especially when it comes to looking kindly upon past events & looking forward to an auspicious future.

Feel free to leave a comment if inspired to do so.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. & Wordnik

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Festive Anagrams

Festive Anagrams

Anagrams are the sort of sick fascination we word nerds embrace. For those who haven’t previously played with anagrams, an anagram can be made by using all the letters in a given word, phrase or sentence & re-arranging them into something new.

For instance, here are two anagrams of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

Deep northern lurid horse deed
Horror: deep tennis hurdle deed

Below please find some anagrams. Each group can be translated into a phrase we’re likely to hear this time of year.

Festive Anagram 1
Ahoy, hippy lads
Holy yap aphids
Ashy hippo lady
Soy aphid phyla
Popish lady hay
Aphid hay ploys

Festive Anagram 2
Hydro jot towel
Jowly red tooth
Jetworthy lode
Do lower thy jot
Drooly Jethwo
Throw, pot, yodel

Festive Anagram 3
Reenact a hope
Prehost a cone
A coherent ape
Create a phone
A threep canoe

Please translate the three festive anagrams into their original forms & leave your translations in the comments section, OR play around with a festive anagram of your own & enter your list of translations in the comments section for others to ponder (old schoolers prefer to create anagrams with pen, pencil & grey matter, however this online anagram tool is speedier.

My thanks go out to this week’s source: the Andy’s Anagram Solver

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Succinct & Wordy

Succinct & Wordy

We use all sorts of words to describe writing. Here’s a look at some:

The synonyms wordy & verbose both come from the Proto-Indo-European word were- that meant, not surprisingly, word. Were- made its way through Latin (verbum) to become the English word verbose, while another branch of the were- family tree made its way through Germanic languages (Old Saxon, Frisian, Dutch and Old High German) to become word. Wordy. At some point the Scots generously donated that final –y to wordy, as they did to many English words.

A writer who is wordy might be referred to as prolix, which showed up in English in the 1400s, through Old French, originally from Latin, prolixus, where it meant extended, with a literal translation of flow forth or flowing liquid, a metaphor that works just fine for any of us who’ve spent time on the listening end of a prolix speech or lecture.

In the 1580s, concise came to the language from the Latin word concisus, meaning cut off or brief. Concise is constructed of two bits, con- or com-, meaning with, & -cise or -cide, to cut. This means the word concise translates to something like with cutting, & cutting is exactly what we have to do when our language needs to be more concise.

A synonym of concise is succinct. It’s modern meaning, brief or concise showed up in the 1500s, but its initial meaning in English was “having one’s belt fastened tightly,” & that’s exactly what those of us who tend toward wordiness feel when we’re told we need to be more succinct. The word was born of a Middle French word, which came from the Latin succinctus, which originated in a word meaning to gird from below, arguably referring to an early “support garment” – one that likely felt a bit constricting -- which at least offers imaginative evidence that it was our wordier ancestors who moved succinct into its present meaning.

Fellow writers & readers, what do you have to say about verbosity or succinctness? When writing, do you naturally tend toward one or the other? When speaking?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. & Wordnik

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Fish Idioms

Fish Idioms

Here at Wordmonger I’ve had a fine time celebrating dog idioms, dish idioms, walking idioms, skin idioms, & idioms made from the words in the title of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars. This week it’s time for idioms based around the word fish, a word that takes up nearly three full pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Big fish in a small pond is an idiom started in America in the early 1880s. Many people prefer being the big fish in a small pond, although escaping into the larger sea can have its advantages.

Though Chaucer included the term “a fish that is waterless” in Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, the first time the term a fish out of water appeared in print seems to be three centuries later. You might say it’s the rare bird who enjoys feeling like a fish out of water, though I have appreciated that situation many times – a year in American Samoa as one of the few palagi on the island, a couple of years as the only Anglo in the Cal State Northridge Pan African Studies Gospel Choir, the list goes on…

There is, of course, the possibility that the fish in the water think of the fish out of water as queer fish, a British idiom that appeared in 1919, applied to anyone who might appear odd or eccentric.

Etymologists argue about the origins of fine kettle of fish (& its sibling, pretty kettle of fish). Some are moderately certain the idiom was born of a Scottish term kettle of fish, which referred to a picnic of sorts, in which the local landholder invited his minions to enjoy a day off work. This event called for the minions to light a fire on the riverbank, suspend a giant kettle over it, catch fresh fish, cook them in the kettle, and serve them to the visiting nobles. No one is certain how the theoretically positive experience could have collected a negative connotation, but I do wonder about those “lucky” minions who were invited to do all the work. Other etymologists suggest a pretty kettle of fish may have originated as a pretty kiddle of fish. Kiddle was a word used to refer to nets thrown across a river to catch the fish. Perhaps when the catch was particularly successful (or pretty), hauling in a bunch of flapping, unhappy fish made a bit of a mess? The jury is out & sparring etymologists continue to duke it out.

In 1660, John Evelyn first penned the idiom bigger fish to fry, which may be the sort of thing that leads a big fish in a small pond to venture into the larger sea, where he may feel like a queer fish, or a fish out of water, or might discover that life out of his little pond is a pretty kettle of fish.

What other fish idioms can you add to the list? Please leave a comment suggesting an idiom or two.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What came first, the turkey or the yam?

What came first, the turkey or the yam?

Most Americans will join family members this week to express their gratitude for one another & for something near & dear to my heart – food. In celebration of Thanksgiving, Wordmonger takes a look at the origins of some of the words that might fit in the sentence, “Uncle Ambrose, would you please pass the ______?”

The word turkey showed up in English in the 1540s & originally applied to the guinea fowl of Madagascar (which Brits mistakenly believed came from Turkey). The turkeys on many Americans’ tables today are another bird altogether, a species first domesticated by the Aztecs. Spanish conquistadors met their first new world turkeys in 1523, and brought them back to Europe & northern Africa. Within fifty years, those new world turkeys had become the main course of choice for most British Christmas dinners.

Potato entered English in the 1560s form the Spanish patata. The Spanish had borrowed the word from the people of Haiti, who called their native sweet potato batata. By 1565 voyagers returned from Peru with a similar, yet much paler tuber and it became established in Ireland as a food source. By 1590, the name potato was applied to it as well. Oddly, this interloper was referred to both as the Virginia potato (another example of geographic confusion), or the bastard potato (because it wasn’t nearly as important at the time as the sweet potato). Though the sweet potato still reigns today in many third world countries, that white-fleshed tuber first found in Peru reigns supreme in the first world.

In the 1580s, yam made its way into English through Spanish (igname) or Portuguese (inhame) from a West African language, where nyami simply meant to eat.

In the 1530s, the term stuffing was born, meaning a seasoned mixture used to stuff fowls before cooking. Its synonym, dressing was used as a verb as early as the 1300s to mean to prepare for cooking. It came from the OId French word drecier, to raise, hoist, arrange or set a table. By the 1500s, dressing joined stuffing to mean a seasoned mixture used to stuff fowls before cooking.

And what would all this food be without family to appreciate it? The word family entered English in the early 1400s, meaning servants of a household. The English borrowed it from the Latin term familia, which meant family servants or the servants of a household. In the 1500s family began to mean those who lived under one roof, including parents, children, servants, lodgers & boarders. By the 1580s, family came to mean those claiming descent from a common ancestor. It wasn’t until the 1660s that the word family began to mean persons closely related by blood.

Dear readers, I challenge you to publically declare your word-nerdliness by offering an etymological comment at your family celebration. You might discover that your dear Great Aunt Boadicea shares your fascination for word history (or if not yours, at least mine).

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. & Wordnik

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tosspot Words

Tosspot Words

Though William Shakespeare often gets credit for coining the word tosspot, its first recorded use was in 1568, when Shakespeare was a mere four years old. The word means a lush, a drunkard or fool & hearkens back to the day when folk drank their ale or mead from pots. It seems a tosspot tossed back his or her pot, and was known for doing so a little too often.

A short time ago I ran into a second, more delicious usage of tosspot in the comments section of Anu Garg’s amazing AWAD (A Word A Day) listserv, in which Gregory M. Harris mentions the phenomenon of the tosspot word. Other than a referral back to his AWAD comment at Librarian’s Muse, I can find no other reference to this second meaning. Is the distinction real or imagined?

The proposed term tosspot word refers to the phenomenon of a compound word built of a verb, then a noun, in that order. Some examples include:


Big thanks to Gregory M. Harris who made the AWAD comment that got me interested in this phenomenon & inspired some happy pondering.

Should we embrace the existence of the tosspot word? Please use the comments section to vote yay or nay, or to lengthen the list, or to argue for why a word on the list doesn’t belong there, or...

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Librarian’s Muse, Etymonline. & A Word A Day

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sistere & its Progeny

Sistere & its Progeny

The Latin word sistere means to cause to stand. More to the point, sistere has a pile of intriguing descendants. I’m saving my favorite for last.

Resist showed up in English in the 1300s. Resist is constructed of re-, meaning against + sistere. It means to hold out against.

Desist appeared in English in the 1400s & is constructed of de-, meaning off + sistere. Desist means to stand aside, leave off, or cease. I love the idea that its  third meaning suggests that the phrase “cease & desist” is redundant.

Assist also came to English in the 1400s. Constructed of ad- meaning to + sistere, assist means to stand by, help or assist.

Consist came to English in the 1520s, meaning to stand or place together. Its parts are con-, meaning with or together + sistere.

Persist is made of per-, meaning thoroughly + sistere. Persist arrived in English in the 1530s. Persist means to continue steadfastly.

Insist, to persist or dwell upon, came into English in the 1580s. It’s constructed of in-, meaning upon, + sistere

Some less likely descendants of sistere include:

exist & existence
subsist & subsistence

And what was my motivation to focus on sistere & its progeny? I’m overly fond of one of sistere’s little-known descendants, resistentialism. Paul Jennings coined the word in 1948. Resistentialism is the seemingly spiteful behavior manifested in inanimate objects. I celebrated Veterans’ Day trimming a hillside of overgrown junipers, struggling with the resistentialism manifested by a pair of loppers.

Dear readers, what recent experience have you had with resistentialism?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Etymonline. &

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Gangs of Bees

Gangs of Bees

Earlier this month I received an unexpected gift. A researcher, author & gentleman named David W. K. Godrich decided I might enjoy the fruit of many years of his and his father’s labor. He sent me A Gaggle of Geese, a two-generation labor of love begun in 1940 and most recently updated in 2011. This week’s post was inspired by Mr. Godrich’s generosity.

His book consists of 238 pages of lists of collective nouns. Early on in the book, the entries for groups of bees caught my attention & inspired a little research of my own. Though each term in this list may have a slightly different meaning, and some are obviously alternate spellings of the same word, all are established descriptors for groups of bees.

an apian of bees
an apiary of bees
a bike of bees
a butt of bees
a cast of bees
a chit of bees
a colony of bees
a community of bees
a cote of bees
an erst of bees
a flight of bees
a grist of bees
a hive of bees
a multitude of bees
a nest of bees
a neast of bees
a play of bees
a smart of bees
a spew of bees
a spindle of bees
a swarm of bees
a swarme of bees

Good followers, how many of these are familiar to you?  Which are unfamiliar? What new collective noun would you suggest for bees? For groups of readers? For groups of writers?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Etymonline. Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms (Gale Group 2008) & A Gaggle of Geese, by David W. K. Godrich, fifth edition, 2011.