Thursday, August 29, 2013



Big thanks to Christine Ahern of View from an Independent Bookstore, who asked three weeks ago about the word curmudgeon. Her request inspired this look into the various ways we refer to cranky, old-fashioned people.

Curmudgeon entered the English language in the 1570s, & nobody really knows where it came from. Some have posited that the first syllable may come from the word cur, meaning a dog of either vicious or cowardly demeanor, combined with the Gaelic word, muigean, meaning disagreeable person. Sadly, no data supports this. Whether we know its parentage or not, the word curmudgeon is marvelously descriptive. Those of you who appreciate vicious, nasty, or biting quotes should definitely consider The Portable Curmudgeon, by Jon Winokur, which features quotes from notable curmudgeons like HL Menken, WC Fields, Dorothy Parker, Fran Lebowitz, Oscar Levant & others.

More recently, the term geezer has been the word of choice to refer to cranky, old-fashioned people. Geezer entered English in 1885 from the Cockney term guiser, which meant a silent, muttering, or grumbling person.

In the 1580s, the term malcontent entered the language from French. Though the word has no association with old-fashionedness, it did refer (& still does) to a rebellious or complaining person and seems to live in the same grumpworthy category.

A killjoyanother term with no age-association - is a person who kills joy. This word came to English in 1772, simply by connecting two words that were already in use.

Though the world’s most famous (or infamous) misanthrope was a curmudgeonly chap featured in Moliere’s play, The Misanthrope, the word itself has no direct connection to old ways or old age. It simply means one who hates people (landing it in my generally grumpworthy category). Misanthrope came to the language in the 1560s from Greek.

In 1780 the Scots loaned English their word foggie, which we English–speakers have held onto ever since as the word fogey. The original Scottish word referred to old veterans or pensioners & may or may not have an association with various root terms for moss, old-fashioned, or bloatedness.

Codger entered the language in 1756,most likely coming from cadger, which means beggar. Cadger’s root, cadge, is of unknown origin.

Americans added fuddy-duddy to English in 1871. Nobody is quite certain of its roots. It meant then – as it does now – old fashioned.

Another American term most of us have lost came from the Carolinas in the 1860s. The term is mossback, & it meant conservative, reactionary, & old fashioned, which referred directly to southerners who refused to join the Confederate army, & instead of joining the cause, hid in the woods “till moss grew on their backs.” Given todays’ political world, isn’t it fascinating that 150 years ago, those who refused to go to war were perceived as conservative?

In recognition of the folks in a family most likely to be old-fashioned, please use the comments section to share notable family names for grandparents & such. Some of my favorites from my family include Gommee, Other Dad, Moof, & Muddee (a shortening of Mother Dear).

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

Thursday, August 22, 2013



Two weeks ago, Anne R. Allen posed a question in the comments section of Wordmonger regarding the word dish. I hope you’ll find the story of dish as satisfying as I did.

Dish occupies about one full page of the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Dish first appeared in Old English as early as 700 AD, meaning disk, plate or table. The disk or plate meaning came from what is known as Vulgar Latin, while the table meaning came through an early Italian or French dialect.

By the mid-1400s dish could refer to a type of food served, as in “Elton brought the most peculiar dish to Gliselda’s potluck.”

Around that same time the verb form appeared, meaning to serve food. We see vestiges of this form in the modern idiom to dish up.

By the 1940s, the idiom dish it out was born, meaning to administer punishment.

Somewhere around 1900 the noun dish picked up the meaning what one likes, as in “Who would’ve guessed that juggling live squid would become little Balthazar’s dish?”

By 1920 the noun dish acquired the meaning attractive woman, as in “That Myrtle Mae is one serious dish!” About this same time the adjective dishy was born, applying to both male and female attractiveness.

Dish’s closest relations include disk, disc, discus, dais & desk.

Some additional dish idioms include:

To dish on someone
To do the dishes
To dish the dirt
Revenge is a dish best served cold

Some lost meanings for dish include:
A specific measure of corn
In tin-mining, a gallon of ore ready for smelting
In the game of quoits, a quoit
To cheat, defeat completely or circumvent

In celebration of one of the many meanings of dish, please leave a note in the comments section regarding a favorite family dish of the edible variety).

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

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Imitative Annoyances

Imitative Annoyances

Thanks to Victoria Heckman, whose comment on last week’s post suggested looking into the etymology of the word huff, a word of imitative (or onomatopoeic) origin. This week, we’ll start with huff, then take a look at a few more words of imitative origin that refer to something annoying.

Huff made its way into English in the mid-1400s, as an imitation of an exhalation. By the 1590s huff picked up the meaning bluster with indignation. The idiom Victoria noted, to leave in a huff, showed up in 1778.

In 1727 the word tiff came to English, meaning an outburst of temper, also based on the imitative sound of an exhalation, or slight puff of air. By 1754 tiff picked up the meaning, a small quarrel.

Another word imitating a puff of air is guff, which arrived in 1825. By 1888 it picked up its modern meaning, empty talk or nonsense, as in that’s a lot of guff.

In 1765, ugh showed up, imitating another sort of exhalation, a cough. By 1837 ugh morphed to become an interjection of disgust.

Squib, a short piece of sarcastic writing, showed up in English in the 1520s. Though etymologists haven’t determined that it has its origin in the firework of the same name, if it indeed does, then it is imitative of the sound of that particular firework, which hisses (as might the unfortunate targets of sarcastic writing).

In the 1620s, the imitative word squelch was born. It meant to fall, drop or stomp on something soft with a crushing force (imagine the sound of collapsing onto a sofa fashioned of marshmallow crème). Squelch picked up a second meaning in 1764, to suppress completely.

The final imitative annoyance for this post took me by complete surprise. The Sanskrit word mu referred to a gnat or fly, & was imitative of the sound of such insects. In time, mu made its way into Latin, where it became the noun, musca, fly. By the time it reached English, it referred to a particularly annoying little fly, so it picked up a diminutive ending to become mosquito.

It’s enough to make one exhale a puff of air, isn’t it?

Future posts will include the words suggested last week by Christine Ahern & Anne R. Allen. Thanks to them in advance. So, did anyone out there already know that mosquito is imitative in origin? Have any of you ever collapsed onto a marshmallow crème sofa? Come on, fess up.

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

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Unknown Origin

Unknown Origin

Countless words in the language come from who-knows-where, kind of like the actions of difficult people. Here are a few words that fit in both categories.

The verb, to carp, entered English in the early 1200s probably from an Old Norse word meaning to brag. Though its present meaning may have been influenced centuries ago by the Latin word carpere, to slander, this hasn’t been proven just yet, so our modern verb carp is officially of unknown origin.

Another verb to crab, meaning to vex or irritate, showed up in English in the 1400s. Though it may have its roots in the Swedish word scrab, meaning bad-tempered, the origin of scrab is a mystery to etymologists.

Humbug, meaning trick, jest, hoax or deception, appeared in English in the 1750s & became instantly popular – nearly as popular as the numerous wild theories as to humbug’s origin. It continues to vex etymologists, as the puzzle remains unanswered, though speculation has been going on since the word’s arrival in the language,

The verb, to beef, showed up in the 1880s, meaning to complain, from the noun beef, meaning a complaint, which appeared in that same decade. Though the hypothesis has been floated that both these meanings stem from soldiers lodging complaints about the quality of the beef they were served, it remains a hypothesis, & nobody knows for sure.

Tantrum entered the language in 1714. Its source is almost universally considered unknown, though a contributor at English Language & Usage suggests possible connections to the prankish capering involved in something called the tarantula dance. This same contributor also dug up a 1675 usage (not recognized in most etymological sources) in which tantrum clearly refers to the male organ. All this goes to prove that day and night, hard-working etymologists are mining the circuitous & oddly fascinating depths of word history.

What other words do we use to describe the actions or nature of difficult people? Leave some suggestions in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, English Language & Usage, & Etymonline.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Food = Mess

Food = Mess

When it comes to etymologies, food is messier than one might think.

Though some have assumed the military term mess comes from the Latin word for table (mensa), it actually comes from another Latin word, mittere, to send away or put, & simply suggests that someone has put the food on the table. It appeared in our language in the late 1300s. Interestingly, mass in the religious sense comes from the same source. So, the word mess isn’t really a mess at all, but these food words are:

Hash comes from the French word hacher, to hack or chop into small pieces. It entered English in the 1660s.The French word came from the Old French word for ax, hache. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that hash & hatchet are related. Here’s hoping nobody’s hash was hacked or chopped into small pieces with a hatchet (a messy process at best). By 1735, hash acquired the secondary meaning, a mix or mess.

Shambles showed up in English in the late 1400s, meaning meat or fish market, and came from the Old English word scomul (or scaemul), meaning stool or table for vending. By the 1540s, shambles meant slaughterhouse. This meaning became generalized by 1590 to mean place of butchery, & it wasn’t until 1901 that the meaning of shambles became generalized enough to mean confusion or mess.

Hodgepodge entered English in the late 1300s as hotchpotch, a kind of stew. It appears that the word is a hodgepodge itself, the first bit coming from Old French, meaning to shake, and the second part coming from German, probably derived from Late Latin, meaning cooking vessel (related to our modern day cooking vessel, the pot). Though multiple sources list possible ingredients for this kind of stew, each source seems to provide a different list. My read on this is that nearly anything one shook into the pot for a few centuries on the British Isles could’ve been referred to as hodgepodge.

In 1894 a variant of bologna was born – baloney! The term referred to a sausage made of odds & ends. By 1922, possibly through association with the term blarney, baloney came to mean nonsense, which isn’t quite a synonym with mess, though one could argue that the odds & ends that went into bologna/baloney might qualify as such.

Anyone who has ever bussed a table or eaten in the vicinity of a two-year old is familiar with the equation food = mess. Might these etymologies simply reflect that reality?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations (Castle Books, 2002), Wordnik & Etymonline.