Thursday, July 31, 2014



Since we humans tend to form groups, it’s no surprise that over the centuries English speakers have come up with countless words to label those groups. I hope you’ll enjoy this collection of words that refer to groups of people. Keep an eye out for those you find remarkable (some of my favorites include a w… of soliders, a s… of nuns & a s… of ascetics).

Groups of friends:
Circle, clique, host, multitude & troop

Groups of nuns:
Convent, nunnery, order, sisterhood & superfluity

Groups of soldiers:
Army, band, battalion, brigade, casern, century, company, crue, echelle, file, guard, host, kern, maniple, platoon, soldiery, squad, squadron, troop, velites, & wappenshaw

Groups of scholars:
Class, form, grade, school

Groups of prisoners:
Batch, clutch, colony & horde

Groups of monks:
Brotherhood, community, kellion, monastery, order, sangha (Buddhist), & skete (Ascetics)

Groups of rogues, ruffians, knaves or thieves:
Crue, picaros, gang, horde, mohock, den, gang, ring, thickness, raffle, & ropery

What's remarkable in all this? Please leave a note in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline  & David W.K. Godrich’s A Gaggle of Geese, 2011

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Musical slang

Musical slang

Good friend & guitar player Ed Gerhard is playing in California this week, so I’m celebrating by taking a look at some terms used among musicians.

Since the 1930s, musicians have used the term jam. Etymologists argue over its origin. One school argues that the verb jam and the noun jam session come from the understanding that when playing for their own amusement, musicians try to jam as many notes in as possible. Another school argues that the 1730s understanding of jam, fruit preserves, led to the 1930s musical term, as both are sweet and excellent.

A particularly sweet & excellent series of notes might be referred to as a riff, another word over which etymologists bicker. Riff appears to have been in use since 1917 or so. Some connect riff to riffle, as a riffle in a stream, while others suggest it comes from a shortening of the word refrain, which comes from a Latin term that meant to break off. Interestingly, since the 1920s, a musician who improvises a solo (possibly including any number of riffs) is said to be taking a break.

The noun gig, meaning job playing music, is quite the mystery, Nobody’s really sure what its origins are, though it showed up among jazz musicians slightly after the turn of the century, soon to be followed by the verb gigging & the past tense verb gigged.

As of 1789 an extemporizing pianist was said to be vamping. The great grandmother of the word vamp was the Anglo-French word vaumpe, which refers to the front section of a shoe. It appears that the musical vamp may have come from the fact that the fronts of shoes often had to be repaired, or revamped, & that a good piano player could take an old song and give it new shoes.

Giving a song new shoes takes some chops, a word that was first born in 1589 to refer to the flesh that covers the jaws. This leads to the speculation that by the early 1900s when the musical understanding of chops was born, it first referred to the technical facility of a player of a brass instrument. Chops has since generalized beyond music to apply to technical facility of any kind.

The original musical axe (or ax) was a jazz saxophone in 1955 (though nobody knows whose saxophone it was). This was apparently because, like the more traditional axe, it could get the job done. By 1955 the term axe was being applied to guitars. Once guitar players got hold of the term, it generalized to refer to almost any musical instrument (though I wonder about the concertina, the triangle, the bagpipes…).

Good followers, what instrument should simply never be referred to with the word axe? Also, did anything in this week’s post surprise you?

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Toponyms #2

Toponyms #2

Because toponyms occur when we use a place name to refer to something other than the place, it’s logical to assume toponyms would all come from places that exist somewhere on the globe. Some toponyms, though, come from places that exist in our imaginations – from fiction.

Shangri La first entered our collective imagination in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, in which Shangri La referred to a mystical and harmonious settlement in a difficult-to-reach valley. By 1938 the term Shangri La had come to mean any earthly paradise, the sort of place English speakers after 1610 might have called a utopia. The term utopia was coined by Thomas More in 1516 to refer to a non-existent perfect place. He coined the word by connecting the Greek word parts topos, meaning place with ou-, meaning not. It appears he intended to make it clear that a perfect place could never exist. Ever optimistic, we humans didn’t notice that part, & utopia’s meaning morphed to refer to a perfect place that actually could exist, creating the need to later coin the word dystopia, meaning exactly what Thomas More intended utopia to mean in the first place. Another fictional work, Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is responsible for a word used since 1726 to mean tiny. Lilliputian comes from Swift’s creation of a place in which thumb-sized people lived. He called his region Lilliput.

Another group named after a place is the Neanderthal, named after a valley near Dusseldorf, Germany where fossilized humanoid remains were found in 1856. Worthy of remark is the origin of the place name. Before the valley called Neanderthal got its name it was a favorite haunt of German pastor & poet, Jaochim Neander, whose grandfather had Hellenized the family last name, Neumann (new man) to Neander years before. The German word for valley is thal, voila, Neanderthal! By all accounts Pastor Neander was quite civilized & exhibited none of the stereotyped proclivities we modern English speakers associate with the term neanderthal.

The German word thal, valley, is also the grandmother of our modern word dollar, which came onto the scene in the 1550s. A particular valley was the home of a silver mine from which coins were minted as early as 1519. The mine was in a valley named after a chap called Joachim, Joachimsthaler, which was also the name initially given to the coin. In time, poor Joachim got dropped and thaler became dollar. I suppose this would make Joachim the unappreciated grandfather of the dollar.

Good readers, what say you about all this toponym foolishness, or the probability of one blog post including two different Joachims?

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Toponyms #1

Toponyms #1

English abounds with toponyms – place names we use to refer to things other than the original place. I hope you enjoy considering this smattering of toponyms.

Paisley – now a distinctive shape we print onto fabric, but originally a town in Scotland where such fabric was first made. Interestingly, the word paisley comes through Middle Irish from the word baslec, which came from the Latin word basilica, which means that the town was originally identified by its church.

Today, the word babel refers to a confused medley of sounds, but originally it referred to Babhel, the capital of Babylon. Babhel is a Hebrew word that started out as Bab-ilu, an Accadian word meaning the gate of God, which causes those of my generation to wonder what Ricky Riccardo was really singing about.

Our modern colors burgundy & magenta are both toponyms. Burgundy was originally a region in France named in Late Latin with the term Burgundiones, which translates to highlanders. In time, the wine of the area picked up the name, and the deep hue of the wine gave us the word burgundy as it refers to color.  On the other hand, the town of Magenta was where the Sardinians & French teamed up to fight the Austrians during the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859. The town was originally named after Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius. It wasn’t until a few short years after the battle that a deep reddish purple dye was discovered in that region, and voila, magenta.

Even in the 13th century some folks (well, royalty, anyway) enjoyed relaxing at the spa. Our modern word spa is a toponym taken from Spa, Belgium, a town blessed with mineral hot springs. The town’s name came from the Walloon word espa, which meant spring or fountain.

Because many of New York’s financial institutions ended up situated along the wall that once offered defense to the struggling Dutch town of New York, the adjacent street was named Wall Street. That struggling little town has done all right for itself to the point that we now use this toponym to refer to the entire American financial world.

My niece & nephew refer to those lovely plastic playgrounds some fast food restaurants offer as king cities. Any of you here in California will easily fill in the etymology on that one. In the meantime I’m hoping you’ll use the comments section to suggest new toponyms we should insert into the language.

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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Homonyms #2

Homonyms #2

Thanks, Christine, for suggesting some homonyms in your comments to last week’s post. We’ll start off with a homonym that takes its multiple-meaning status seriously.

Almost all forms of dessert/desert came to English through French. Dessert came to English in the 1500s in reference to the last course of a meal. The French word it came from is deservir, which (because serving the last course involved clearing the table of the previous courses) translates literally to un-serve, with des- meaning undo & servir meaning to serve. The wasteland meaning of desert came to English in the 1200s from Old French, which came from the Late Latin word desertum, which meant thing abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the meaning a waterless, treeless region eclipsed the wasteland meaning. The desert which means suitable reward or punishment (as in getting one’s just deserts) came through French from the Latin word deservir (not to be confused with the French word deservir). It meant to serve well. I suppose one is served well by getting what one deserves. But so much for nouns – the verb desert came through the Old French deserter in the 1300s from the Latin desertare (closely related to desertum), which meant to abandon. This particular desert is built of the word parts de-, meaning opposite or undo, & serere, meaning to put in a row. Serere also gave birth to the word series.

Christine’s comment also included the near-homonym pairs form/from & definitely/defiantly. In my humble opinion, the from & form confusion is a matter of typing more than a homonym issue. We just get typing away & muck it up. The confusion between definitely & defiantly, however, is another matter altogether. I’ve been grading English papers since the 1970s, & in my experience, these two words were never confused before computers. The confusion didn’t even exist with the first raft of word processors. I call this phenomenon a spellcheck-induced error. It occurs because many of us type definAtely instead of definItely. Our spell-checker “reads” our intentions & comes up with defiantly (which contributes to some hysterical sentences).

We’ll finish this post with a homonym trio I find intriguing: by, bye & buy.
By has been around since Old English was born & came from a Proto-Germanic word meaning about, near, or around. Though we pronounce it differently today, we find by’s sister (with the same meaning) at the end of place names that end in –by.  In Yorkshire alone there are over 210 place names ending this way (Wetherby & Selby, for instance). Our modern word buy, came from another Proto-Germanic source, the word bugjan, meaning to pay for. When it first entered English, the soft g sound remained at the end of the word, & is one of the reasons the past tense, bought includes the letter g. The completely unrelated word bye is a shortening of good-bye, which in the 1570s was spelled godbwye and was interestingly a shortening of something else -- the term God be with ye.

Thanks for joining me for another Wordmonger post. Please leave any comments on all this in the comments section. And please check out the orange KEBF note to the right.

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