Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sip, Slurp, Gulp & Slug

Sip, Slurp, Gulp & Slug

As summer approaches, it’s likely we’ll all soon be enjoying some cool beverages. So, here’s to all that:

Sip comes from a Low German word, sippen, meaning to sip. It entered English as supan in the 1400s.

Gulp also entered the language in the 1400s & appears to be onomatopoeic, meaning to gush, pour forth, guzzle or swallow. Gulp most likely came from the Flemish word gulpe, which meant stream of water or large draught.

Slurp is most likely another onomatopoeic word. It came from the Dutch word slurpen & entered English in its verb form in the 1640s, but took until 1949 to become a noun.

Glug is also onomatopoeic & showed up in the language in 1768 from some unspecified source.

Slug was first recorded meaning take a drink in 1756. It may have come from the Irish word slog, to swallow, or from a colorful English idiom meaning to take a drink, to take a slug (as in to take a shot – gosh those English folks were funny).

In the 1540s, the noun swig meant a big or hearty drink of liquor. A century later, swig graduated into use as a verb.

By 1889, the idiom to take a snort entered English, meaning to have a drink of liquor, especially whiskey.

Whether you’re gulping, slurping, demurely sipping or letting down your hair & taking a snort, may your summertime liquid refreshments bring you joy.

Oh, & please leave a comment.

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

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Walking Idioms

Walking Idioms

English is rife with idioms involving walking. Most have pretty shakily documented origins, but here are a few verifiable ones:

In the 1570s the idiom walking stick was born.

In 1769 the first written usage of walk the plank occurred.

In 1846 the idiom walking sickness was coined. Oddly, the term walking pneumonia has unclear beginnings, though the particular strain (mycoplasmal pneumonia) was named “atypical pneumonia” in 1938.

In 1848 the idiom worship the ground s/he walks on entered the language.

A walk in the park was born in 1937, and sometime thereafter, the term no walk in the park was conceived.

And imagine my surprise. I expected the term walking bass to be associated with stride piano and musicians like the inimitable Fats Waller, however, the walking bass was created over two centuries earlier by Johann Sebastian Bach & his baroque pals. I apologize. My musical ignorance is showing.

In a similar vein, though most people of my generation might assume the idiom a walk on the wild side was conceived in 1972 by songwriter Lou Reed, the earliest usage of the phrase was actually Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side.

The idiom walk the green mile comes from the death row of a Louisiana prison, in which the condemned took their final walk down a hallway of green linoleum.

World War I gave us many idioms, among them (sadly) the walking wounded.

The walk a mile in someone’s shoes idiom comes from the Cherokee. It’s no surprise that the original walked-in shoes were moccasins. What do you bet nobody paid for the idiom?

Please add a comment, or a walking idiom I haven’t included.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, The Word Detective, & Etymonline,

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Heebie-Jeebies

The Heebie-Jeebies

There are some great words out there for those moments when one feels as though death is dragging its bony finger up one’s spine. Here are a few.

Comments like, “that man gives me the willies,” were favorites of my great grandmother, Sally Rather King. This usage of willies (unlike other forms which beg for another post) came about in 1896 (a decade or two after my great grandmother was born) & is believed to have come from another idiom, to give one the woolies, which was most likely a reference to the feeling of itchy wool on the skin.

The Middle English word chittern, to chitter or chatter, gave birth to the modern term the jitters, which is defined as extreme nervousness. This particular form of the word jitter didn’t enter English until 1925.

Whimwham (or wimwam) most likely came from the Old Norse term hvima, to let the eyes wander, or the related Norwegian word kvima, to flutter. In modern usage, whimwham means both a fanciful object & the jitters. The second meaning generally occurs within the phrase a case of the whimwhams.

Those of us who regularly experience the jitters, whimwhams and willies might be labeled lily-livered, a term born in 1625 in the play Macbeth, by the ultimate coiner of words, William Shakespeare.

Then, of course, there are the heebie-jeebies. Many modern speakers of English assume that beneath the heebie-jeebies lurks anti-Semitism. This assumption is unfounded. The term heebie-jeebies was coined in 1923 by Bill De Beck, cartoonist of the comic strip “Barney Google,” and when it comes to that particular prejudice, De Beck’s work seems squeaky clean.

So folks, do all these drag-a-finger-up-the-spine words give you the heebie-jeebies, or would you rather leave a comment noting experiences you’ve had which inspire a raging case of the whimwhams?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, The Word Detective, & Etymonline,

Thursday, May 9, 2013


The Boondocks

Boondocks came to English in 1910 from the Tagalog word bundok, meaning mountain. American soldiers (who were occupying the Philippines at the time), brought it home to America, though in the process, the meaning morphed from mountain to any remote & wild place. By 1964, we had shortened boondocks to boonies.

Hinterland (or hinterlands) showed up in English in 1890 from German, -land meaning, well, land, & hinter- meaning behind (as in hind, behind, & hindmost). Interestingly, as far back as the 1300s, hinder had made its way into Middle English. One of the hinder-related words we’ve lost over time is the word hinderling, meaning a person who has fallen from moral or social respectability,

Though stick (in the form of stician) has been a part of the language since folks spoke Old English, the boondocks meaning of the sticks didn’t show up until 1905.

Those Old English speakers also used the word wildnis, which has changed over the centuries to wilderness. It was initially an adjective meaning wildness & savageness, though along the way it took on a nounly mantle.

Another modern synonym is the idiom the middle of nowhere. I’ve been unsuccessful at finding when this idiom entered the language, but along the way I learned that nowhere had some siblings who didn’t last as long. Nowhat made a stab at existing in the 1520s & nowhen fought for its life unsuccessfully in 1764.

As a kid I was flummoxed at the term desert island because it seemed to me it always meant something closer to deserted island. Mystery solved: the word desert entered English from French in the early 1200s, meaning wasteland or wilderness. It wasn’t until a century later that desert started meaning treeless, waterless region, which, arguably, could also be a wasteland, or the sticks, or the boondocks, or…

What other terms do you know that refer to distant, remote places? Or might you have something to say about all this? I hope you’ll leave a comment.

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

Thursday, May 2, 2013



Last week’s post took a look at words that started out in various languages as the verb “to dance.” This week, we’ll consider another action – to chew.

Not surprisingly, our modern word chew (spelled ceowan) started out meaning to bite, gnaw or chew when it made its way from one of the Germanic languages into Old English.

Both chow (1500s) & chaw (1520) are variants of the word chew. It’s also very likely that jaw (1300s), jowl (1570) and cheek (825) were born of that Old English word ceowan.

The Proto-Indo-European word mendh- which became the Latin word mandele, meaning to chew, gave birth to mandible, munch, mastic, masticate, mustache, paper maché & mange (a tiny bit of mildly disturbing imagination will help connect those dots).

Ruminate entered English in the 1530s, from Latin, meaning to chew the cud or turn over in the mind.

Champ, which came to English in 1905, meaning to chew noisily, is probably onomatopoeic in origin.

English is rife with chew-inspired idioms, including:

Chew someone out
Chew the fat
Chew something over
Chew something up
Bite off more than one can chew
Chew away at something
Chew one’s cud
Chew one’s tobacco
Mad enough to chew nails (in my neighborhood, we spat nails in lieu of chewing them)

I hope this post has given you something on which to chew. If so, please let me know what you’re thinking in the comment section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Free Dictionary & Etymonline,