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.