Thursday, February 27, 2014



Imagine my surprise when earlier this week I got a phone call from Carpinteria, a town about two hours south. The caller had been given a copy of Central Coast Family Magazine, which included a Wordmonger column. She asked whether I’d consider writing a column on words like tidbit & morsel. Darn tootin!

Tidbit showed up in English in the 1630s, made up of tid, meaning fond, solicitous or tender, and bit, which appeared in English in the 1200s, meaning a piece bitten off.  

The English got morsel from the French word morceau, meaning small bite, portion or helping, some time around 1200. Interestingly, the word mordant, meaning caustic (a figurative sense of biting), shares the same roots.

Smidgen came from smitch, a Scottish word meaning a very small amount, or an insignificant person. Smidgen entered English in the 1800s.

Dollop  made its way into English in the 1570s, from the East Anglian word, dallop, meaning a tuft or clump of grass. It wasn’t until 1812 that the meaning morphed to a lump, serving or blob.

Both jot & iota came to English in the 1630s from Greek. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, & (in Greek) also denotes anything small. An alternate spelling was jota, thus the word jot. The Greeks got the root word from a Semitic language we’re not entirely sure of, but the original root was probably something like the modern Hebrew word yodh.

In the early 1950s, Korean War veterans brought home to America the word skosh, their version of the Japanese word sukoshi, meaning few, little, or some.

In 1877, a small child might have been referred to as a tad. Etymologists are moderately sure tad was a shortened form of tadpole, which was born of the word tadde, an alternate form of toad. Toad came to English in the 1300s from nobody-knows-where, & was added to the Middle German word poll, meaning head. It wasn’t until 1915 that tad began to mean a small bit.

Which of these morsels intrigues you most? Please leave a comment.

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

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Heads Up

Heads Up

The English word head has its unlikely origins in the Proto-Indo-European word kaput. Somehow, as kaput made its centuries-long voyage through German, Dutch, Saxon and/or Frisian to Old English, it morphed to heafod. From Old English it moved into Middle & Modern English, where it managed to drop a syllable & become head.

Along the way it collected dozens of idioms, including:

1200s – head count (applied to people)
1300s – headwaters
1300s – headstrong
1500s – head count (applied to cattle)
1680s – head of a coin
1680s – head on a mug of bear
1748 – head on a ship (toilet)
1911 hophead, which became in time, pothead
1952 – heads up
1972head game
1984 – headbanger

& dozens more.

Because head has changed so much since it started out as kaput, it has a steaming heap of unlikely cousins, all from that same Proto-Indo-European root. Here is a sampling:

capital                                    caput                          madcap
cabbage                    capo                           chief
scalp                          cap                             capsize
chef                            captain                       cob
achieve                      capillary                     cadet
decapitate                 cape                           cephalic
mischief                    precipice                   handkerchief
corporal                     chieftain                     capitulate

Many connections to the head are obvious. Others, not so much. Might any of you have a hare-brained theory as to how some of these words are related to the head? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Food Words We May Need

Food Words We May Need

As Noam Chomsky and countless other linguists & psychologists point out, our thinking is limited by our language. This post is dedicated to some food-related words from other languages that we might consider adding to English, if only to expand our thinking (& have fun with pronunciations).

In Micronesia the people of the Gilbert Islands sometimes enjoy kamatuao, a meal one eats upon waking in the middle of the night.

Fulumizya is a Mambwe word from Zambia meaning to prepare food quickly for someone who is very hungry.

And why don’t we have a word for what all of us do to an avocado, peach, or tomato before buying it? The Tamil people have the word athukkugirathu, meaning to press fruit softly with the fingers.

The Italians perceive a difference between the average picnic & those particularly stellar picnics enjoyed in October. Those October picnic outings are known as ottobrata.

The Mandinka people of West Africa label the first meal cooked by a newly married bride bulunenekinoo.

When the people of Finland feel that particular hunger for salty food they experience hiukaista, & folks who speak Malay call that ravenous hunger we experience as we chase away an illness kemarok.

In the Easter Islands a person who can’t afford a meal but shows up at someone else’s table expecting to eat is a pakiroki.

And in the Czech Republic, an individual who loiters near a restaurant to eat the leftovers is a bufetak.

Do we need any of these words/ideas, or is English fine without them? Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s Adam Jacot de Boinod’s Toujours Tingo, OED, WordSense EU & The Telegraph

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Faux Etymologies about Food

Faux Etymologies about Food

People can be as creative with their stories about the origins of words that describe food as they can with various ways to prepare food. Here are just a few examples.

Because asparagus has also been called sparrow-grass, the false notion has arisen that sparrows used to loiter in the asparagus bed, thus the name. Actually, the word came to English in the 1500s from Greek (asparagos), & within the next two centuries it was eclipsed in popular usage by two colloquialisms sparrow-grass & sparagrass. During this whole time, botanists held onto the original word. Darned if those botanists didn’t win out in the end, when Victorian England’s fascination for properness found sparrow-grass to be unpleasantly common-sounding, & so asparagus was reborn. Interestingly, some die-hard British cookbook authors continue to refer to asparagus as grass.

Marmalade’s true ancestry starts in Greece, where a melimelon was the fruit that occurred when an apple was grafted onto a quince tree. The term translates to honey apple. Melimelon made its way through Portuguese and French to become marmalade in English, referring to preserves made from boiling fruit(s). Even though the term entered English in 1524, nearly 20 years before Mary Queen of Scots’ birth, some insist that the word marmalade was born as servants scuttled about trying to answer the ill Queen Mary’s demands for fruit preserves, whispering to one another, Marie malade (Mary sick).

Word had it back in the 1970s that gorp (a mixture of peanuts, raisins, dried fruits and such) stood for Good Old Raisins & Peanuts. I remember hearing this explanation myself while schlepping along some trail dwarfed by my CampTrails backpack. Etymologists refer to this sort of invention as a backronym. In fact, gorp probably comes from some collection of gulp, gorge, gobble &/or gorge. There’s also the possibility that it came about as a back-formation of gorper, which was an American term used in the 1950s meaning glutton or gulper.

The name artichoke has inspired many a tale of choking caused by undercooked artichokes. These stories make some sense; after all, who came up with the idea that we could boil a thistle for 40 minutes & then eat it? In fact, the word artichoke entered English in the 1500s from the Italian term articiocco. The Italians got the word from Arabic, & simply couldn’t pronounce al-harshuf well enough for it to look or sound much like its former self.

Which of these faux etymologies had you previously heard? Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations, OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik