Friday, December 26, 2014

Regional language request

Regional language request

Thanks to a phone call from Dennis Rogers of Pflugerville, Texas, I’ve been reminded of my interest in regional language use. This week’s brief post includes some examples I hope this taste will get you sorting through your memories for regional usage you can send my way for a future post.

Dinkum entered English n 1888, meaning hard work. Hailing from Australia, dinkum added the meaning honest & genuine by 1894. Though it may have its roots in Lincolnshire, nobody’s really sure where dinkum came from.

The Old English word for ant was æmete, which explains why in some parts of England ants are called emmets, Interestingly, holiday tourists in & around Cornwall are also known as emmets.

Swivet appears to have come from the Kentucky environs in at late 1800s and nobody’s sure about its roots. A swivet is a fluster, a confusion. A related idiom is “Don’t get your knickers in a swivet.”

May your week find you avoiding emmets & swivets of all kinds, enjoying good company and good food, & getting a restful respite from dinkum (first meaning).

In the meantime, please send any regional words, idioms or turns of phrase my way.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Suko’s Notebook,  Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

More critter etymologies

More critter etymologies

Aardvark came to English in 1833 from Afrikaans (a branch of Dutch). It’s a compound Dutch word meaning earth-pig (aard = earth & vark = pig). Big thanks to Paul Fahey for suggesting I look into aardvark.

And thanks to Christine Ahern for asking about raccoon, which came to our language from Algonquian in the 1600s, written raugroughcum in Captain John Smith’s journals. It translates to he scratches with the hands.

Another English word that came from Algonquian is moose, written by various “first inscribers” as muns, moos, mooz and moz. The story is that an earlier form was moosu, meaning he strips off. This referred to the animal’s habit of stripping bark from trees for its meals.

The word penguin first referred to the now-extinct great auk of Newfoundland. Apparently the birds we now call penguins share some characteristics with the great auk. Sir Francis Drake wrote this word into English in the 1570s. The one proposed source is pooh-poohed by most etymologists, but for the sake of interest, I’ll state it here. In Welsh, pen means head and gwyn means white, and the long-gone great auks of Newfoundland had a big white spot between their eyes.

The word slug came to English in 1704 to refer to a shell-less land snail. It was taken from the word sluggard, which referred to a slow-moving & useless person. Though the existence of slugs pre-dates the existence of sluggards (or any people for that matter), we anthropocentric humans labeled those lazy people a good 500 years before labeling the shell-less snail.

Toad came from who-knows-where about the time we started calling English English. It had several forms including tadie, tadige & toadie. Rest assured, hard-working etymologists are – as you read - digging through old manuscripts to solve this centuries-old mystery.

Like toad, barracuda remains a mystery. It arrived in English in 1607 probably through American Spanish from some Caribbean language, but nobody knows but the barracudas, & they’re not talking (it can’t be easy to enunciate through all those teeth).

If an Old English speaker were to have seen what we would today call a hamster, s/he would have correctly referred to it as a German rat. By the 1600s, though, the German word hamster showed up in English, eventually eclipsing the less attractive moniker. It is thought that the German word hamster may have come from a combining of the Russian word chomiak and the Lithuanian word staras. Though my sick and twisted sensibilities wish chomiak meant German and staras meant rat, my sensibilities are dead wrong. Both words mean hamster.

So, are any of you out there celebrating the holidays by wrapping up a German rat for someone you love?

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Critter etymologies

Critter etymologies

Many etymologies of animals' names are pretty straightforward. Fish, for instance, comes from a source that meant fish. The original word for fly meant to fly. Ho hum. Some names for critters, though, are a tad more interesting.

Plover made its way to English around 1300 from Vulgar Latin through French. Its original meaning was belonging to rain. Apparently the plover made its migratory way through the British Isles just as the rainy season began.

Frog comes from fruska, a Proto-Germanic word meaning hop, and has been with us since we started calling the language English.

Another word that came to English as Old English was born is weasel. It came from the Proto-Germanic word, wisulon, & means stinking animal. Interestingly, wisulon is also the grandmother word to another slightly larger animal with a distinctive smell, the bison.

In the mid-1400s, caterpillar came to English from the French word chatepelose, meaning shaggy cat. Apparently, many languages named the caterpillar after other animals: American English - wooly bear, Portuguese – lizard, Italian – both little cat & little dog.

Narwhal came to English in the 1650s through Danish & Norwegian from the Old Norse word nahvalr. The pale hide of this animal inspired the Old Norse to call it the corpse-whale (na- meaning corpse & hvalr meaning whale).

Muskrat made it into English in the 1610s from the Algonquian word muscascus, which meant it is red.

The very unlikely animal the platypus got its name, not from any number of unexplainable physical characteristics, but from its flat feet. Platy is Greek for flat & pus is Greek for foot. Platypus came to English in 1799.

Shark arrived in English in the 1560s. Its origin is a complete mystery.

Good readers, I’m hoping you’ll suggest a critter or two in the comments section. I’m hoping to do a second critter etymology post.

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Don't Bogart My Capo

Don’t Bogart My Capo

Some time ago I played in an old time string band. Whenever a particular musical acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) showed up at our rehearsals or shows, our banjo/guitar/harmonica/mandolin player’s capo would disappear. Thus, this post’s title.

For those of you who don’t know the word, a capo is a device used primarily by guitarists. It temporarily shortens the length of the strings, which changes the key without changing the fingerings.

Capo came to English in 1946 from Italian & Latin and means head stop. A capo stops the vibration of the strings early, functionally moving the head of the instrument closer to the instrument’s body.

The word capo can also refer to the head of a mafia family. This meaning entered English a few years later in 1952.

Capo has a couple of cousins with stories to tell.

Caprice means a sudden change of mind or whim, though it originally meant a shivering. It came to English in the 1660s from French. Though some believe its origins lie in the word capro, or goat, most evidence suggests that caprice comes from the Italian term capo riccio, meaning frizzled head, which suggests that one’s caprices can surprise one to the point that they curl the hair on one’s head.

The Italian term capo muffare meant to muffle the head. In time, this term made its way to Paris, where it became the French slang word camuffare, to disguise. According to a 1917 Popular Science Monthly article, the word camouflage was brought into English that same year by journalists to more efficiently describe military efforts to hide troops & artillery. In previous years, “Sometimes a whole paragraph was required to explain this military practice,” but the introduction to English of the word camouflage ended all that.

Just think of the trees we could save if all bureaucracies could engage in this one simple practice.

So, good readers, do your caprices curl the hair on your head? Do you have any suggestions of new words to take the place of complex concepts?

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.

Thursday, November 27, 2014



Two weeks ago in the comments after the Onomatopoeia post, Christine asked about the words dive, mucus, cough & flutter. Of the three, only cough is onomatopoeic, & appeared in English somewhat dubiously in the 1300s from a German source. Though it didn’t pass the onomatopoeic test, the word flutter led me down the path that introduced me to the topic of this post. Thank you Christine.

Flutter  appears to have been around since we started calling our language English. Linguists refer to flutter as a frequentative verb. This particular sort of verb is built from a verb that communicates a single action. The frequentative verb communicates that same action, repeated. Flutter’s parent verb is float. With a bit of imagination we can see how fluttering is a bit like floating over & over again.

Ripple came to English in the 1400s from the word rip. It hadn’t previously occurred to me that ripples in a stream could be perceived as many, many rips in the water’s surface.

In the 1580s, the parent verb drip gave us the frequentative verb dribble. Soccer players applied this word to their sport as early as 1863, & it made its way onto the basketball court by 1892, only one year after the “invention” of the sport.

To sway from side to side, as a duck does, is to waddle. Given the definition, it’s no surprise that waddle’s parent verb is wade. Waddle appeared in English in the 1590s.

Another frequentative word that came about in the 1590s is puzzle. We can see the associated shade of meaning in its parent verb, pose within the phrase pose a riddle.

Straddle is most likely a frequentative form of the verb stride. English users first wrote straddle about 1560.

The 1590s brought us the wonderful figurative word muddle, frequentative of mud. It seems likely that muddle initially meant to bathe in mud, then by the 1600s, muddle picked up its figurative meaning, to destroy the clarity of.

The frequentative verb ogle showed up in writing in the 1680s & comes from the OId English word for eye, oege.

Frequentatives abound! Even as I finish this entry, I feel more posts on this theme bubbling under the surface of my blogworthy self.

Had any of you heard of frequentatives? Any thoughts on them?

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline & the OED.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving Anagrams & Anashams

Thanksgiving Anagrams & Anashams

Sometimes a Wordmonger just wants to have fun. For me, anagrams fit that bill. In case you don’t know, an anagram is made by shuffling the letters in a word or collection of words to come up with new words or phrases.

Below are some Thanksgiving-themed anagrams. Each list includes an item that looks like an anagram, but is not – a wolf in Gram’s clothing, or perchance an ana-sham? Search for the bad examples, then check the first comment for the answers.

If you like playing with anagrams & you’d rather not do so in an old school fashion, check out, where you can generate dozens upon dozens more anagrams for each of these examples.

Saving  Knight
Gnat King Hive
Van Gigs Think
Vast Nigh King

Good times
Modest go I
Misted  goo
Dim  stooge
Most dogs go
God  smote I
Midges too

Family and Friends
Dairyman  sniffled
Marinated  fins fly
Fairylands find me
Admirals fed Finny
Raided fanny films
Dandies manly riff

Turkey and dressing
A syringed drunkfest
A dredge sinks runty
Dear Stinky gardens
A kings yurts redden
A sundered kings try
A seedy drink grunts

A tired gut
Taut ridge
Urge it Tad
Guitar diet
Gut tirade

Thanks for playing, and may the week’s gratitude eclipse the week’s gut tirade.

My thanks go out to the designers of the anagram generator at

Thursday, November 13, 2014



Bunches of English words are imitative, or onomatopoeic. Some have even been put to music…

Splish-splash I was taking a bath

This post considers some not-quite top-40s, yet equally enjoyable examples.

Didgeridoo, an aboriginal Australian word, was first written down in English in 1924. Presumably, the name imitates a didgeridoo’s sounds just as it is filled with air.

Another great music-related onomatopoeic word is oom-pah, born in 1877 (when John Phillips Souza was only twenty-three years old). This word imitates to the sounds made by the tuba and sousaphone.

Starting out meaning mindless babbling, & morphing into a word meaning crazy or silly, we have gaga, which appeared in English in 1920.

We call a petty quarrel a spat, because spat sounds like a slap or smack, often an element in a squabble. Spat first showed up in English in 1804.

Squabble most likely has imitative roots, also. It seems some Scandinavian speakers had an onomatopoeic word referring to a babbling quarrel. This word made its way into English somewhere around 1600 in the form of squabble.

Squabbles or spats might also include any number of words imitative of a hit or strike. Slap, whack, thump, bonk & bash are examples.

Heaps of imitative words refer to the noises we sometimes make:

yodel showed up in English in 1827
hiss showed up as early as the 1300s
he-he, imitative of laughter, showed up sometime before Middle English
sneeze showed up in the late 1500s. Its pre-Germanic root
(fneu-s) was imitative.
howl came to English during the 1200s from an unspecified Germanic
guffaw showed up in English from Scottish in 1720
gag appeared in the 1400s & may have Old Norse roots
blather has either Scottish or Old Norse roots, both of which are imitative

Keep your ears open this week for words that just might be imitative, & in all your spare time between noticing possibly imitative words, feel free to leave a comment.

Interested in more imitative words? See Imitative Annoyances & Kiss.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Didgeridoo Origins & Use,  Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & Etymonline

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Going Over

Going Over

This week I’d like to branch out in my weekly celebration of words. Instead of considering the words themselves, their origins & how they do or don’t relate to one another, here’s a short post celebrating an author & her vision in assembling those words I’m always taking apart. The events in her story occur in East & West Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down, so one might think her book would be about communism, capitalism, public policy, & all. Instead, her book delves into the aches, dreams, nightmares, & wonders of being human. Her book knocked my socks off (or knocked off my socks for the grammarians out there).

Ada is a graffiti artist squatting in a neglected buiilding in West Berlin. At night, she sneaks out to the wall.

I work alone and in nobody’s hurry. I work from my one black book and from the things that I know about sky and vanishing, fear and wanting. I tilt the flashlight up on the bricked-in windowsill behind me and stand inside its shine, the cans of color at my feet and the rabbits on the opposite side of the wall looking for nibbles in the death zone. There’s nothing like heat in this light….Precision is the trick of the wrist. Curves jet from the shoulder. If you want a halo bigger than you’ve earned the right to be, you paint with your whole body.

Throughout the book, the author assembles her words in ways that floor me & inspire me. I hope you’ll consider finding a copy of Beth Kephart’s novel, Going Over.

My thanks go out to Ms. Kephart & her wonderful team at Chronicle Books. You can find her book in libraries & bookstores everywhere, & here.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stymie, bamboozle & stump

Stymie, bamboozle & stump

I know. This week’s post title sounds like a law firm consisting of difficult partners.

I started out thinking it would be fun to look into the etymologies of words meaning to get in the way, & I was surprised to learn that about half the words meaning to bamboozle were, by definition, bamboozling. It’s wonderfully ironic that so many of these words’ histories have stymied etymologists.

Stymie first appeared in English in 1857. Today it means to thwart, hinder, or get in the way, though its original meaning (as a noun) was specific to the game of golf – the condition in which the opponent’s ball blocks the hole. Most sources list its origins as unknown, though some etymologists posit Scottish roots from the Scottish word stymie, meaning a person who sees poorly. Though logic would suggest it might be related to the sort of sty one might get in one’s eye, no such connection seems to exist.

Who would have thought that stump was originally a verb? In the 1200s, stump meant to stumble over an obstacle. Not until the 1400s did stump refer to the part of a tree left in the ground after felling. In the 1800s stump added two verb meanings, to go about making political speeches, & to baffle or bring to a halt.

To hinder is to obstruct, harm, interfere with or get in the way of. Hinder first showed up in English in the 1300s as a noun meaning situated in the rear of. It appears to have come through Old English from Germanic sources. Its verb form followed within the century, meaning to delay or put back. One of its notable yet now-gone siblings was the word hinderling, a person fallen from social respectability, a wretch.

Though the English word veto clearly comes from the Latin, meaning I forbid, the Latin word’s origin is unknown. Our modern word veto means to forbid, prohibit, oppose, or hinder.

The word thwart started out in English as an adverb in the 1200s, meaning across. It came through Old Norse from terkw-, Proto-Indo-European for to twist. After a century or so, thwart picked up the meaning to oppose or hinder, & it has held onto that meaning ever since.

Bamboozle’s roots are – what a surprise – bamboozling. It first showed up in English in 1703, meaning to con, hoodwink or make a fool of. Bamboozle may have come from the Scottish word bombaze, to perplex. It may have its roots in French through the word embabouiner, which means to make a baboon of. Nobody knows for sure. Rest assured, though, hard-working etymologists are working night and day to verify the origin of bamboozle.

And from the Shameless Self-promotion Department:
Sunday, November 2 at 9 PM (PST) I’ll be presenting
several short pieces from the SLO Nightwriters’ Anthology
on KEBF 97.3 & streamed on the web.

So good followers, any thoughts about all this thwarting, vetoing & hindering?

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