Thursday, December 31, 2015



As we start a new year, we typically hope it will be a good one. In my humble opinion, one way to make it a good year is to focus on our own expressions of genuine kindness.

Kindness is a big word. Its synonyms provide a little insight into the vast nature of kindness.

One who is compassionate expresses a propensity for sympathy & mercy.

Benevolence implies altruism, a charitable nature, the tendency to be looking out for others more than oneself, & a stalwart commitment to doing good.

One who is benign is gentle & mild.

A gracious person exudes a kind warmth, a courteous elegance, & shows a propensity for tact, charm, & good taste.

Someone who is thoughtful is contemplative & encourages the well-being & happiness of others.

Those who have an innately kind disposition or character are said to be kindhearted or kindly.

One who is courteous shows gracious consideration toward others & displays good manners & etiquette.

One who is sympathetic shows a susceptibility to the feelings of others & sometimes an altruism inspired by that susceptibility.

One who is empathetic has the capacity to understand others’ points of view & can strongly identify with another’s situation & emotions.

Here’s to a new year filled with all the many facets of kindness.

Big thanks to this week’s sources, The 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster & the OED

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Song for Christmas Eve

A Song for Christmas Eve

This evening marks the 101st anniversary of a remarkable event that took place in France during World War I. Known as the Christmas Truce, & celebrated in song and story, surging with a 1984 recording by folksinger, John McCutcheon.

First, a look at the etymology of the word truce, then onto the Christmas Truce: what some might call a temporary ebb in hostilities, some might call a miracle, & some might call a reflection of the true nature of humanity.

Truce showed up in English in the 1200s, meaning treaty, covenant, or faith. It came from an Old English word that meant pledge, promise, faith or agreement, which came from a Proto-Indo-European verb meaning hope, believe, or trust.

The Christmas Truce was an unsanctioned agreement between German and British soldiers to cross into No-Man’s Land on Christmas Eve &/or Christmas day, where to quote McCutcheon’s song, “with neither gun nor bayonet, we met them hand to hand.” The men sang carols, shook hands, shared food, liquor & cigarettes, played soccer, & traded photographs of the people back home that they loved.

Based on a word meaning hope, believe or trust, the Chirstmas Truce offered exactly that to soldiers who’d spent the previous weeks huddling in muddy trenches, surrounded by the horrors of war. The generals in charge didn’t participate, but a lot of infantrymen did, and not all on that one Christmas Eve. Afterward, soldiers arranged follow-up unofficial truces as the war dragged on, so that all told, up to 100,000 soldiers took the opportunity to lay down their guns & celebrate peace.

Here’s a Christmas wish for more of the same in the very near future.

If you’ve got six and a half minutes & you’d like to hear John McCutcheon sing the song, you can do so here.

Peace to you all.

Big thanks to this week’s sources, Eyewitness to History, Wordnik, Etymonline, & the OED

Thursday, December 17, 2015



In this season of giving, why not take a look at the word give?

Give is a word that has been with English speakers for a very long time – actually, even before we had a language called English to speak. Give takes up a whopping seven and a half pages of the OED & has seventy-two meanings, both transitive & intransitive. Wow.

Give came from the Proto-Indo-European word ghabh-, which interestingly meant to have, to hold, to give & to receive. This means that every one of the original meanings of ghabh- can be associated with the holiday season.

Some intriguing bits of trivia:

-The reason we can give someone a cold is the thankfully forgotten belief that by infecting others we can heal ourselves (give someone a cold while taking that person’s health).

-In Old English give started with a y & was spelled yiven (mostly). Nobody knows why, but it looks as though give’s Old Norse cousin gefa (give) influenced it enough to change that initial letter.

-The idiom I don’t give a ____ has been around since the 1300s. Early words that filled in the blank were a straw, a grass & a mite.

-The idiom what gives? was born in the 1940s.

-The related word gift showed up in the 1300s. In Swedish, gift means poison.

-One of the earliest English meanings of gift was natural talent, inspiration

-Some other idioms that employ the word give include:
-give up
-give the finger
-give someone a break
-give the shirt off one’s back
-give someone the shaft
-give someone the nod
-give someone the evil eye
-give someone five
-give someone the creeps
-give someone a shot
-give someone the third degree
-give someone the low down
-give someone the green light
-give someone a hard time
-give someone a hand
-give someone some skin
-don’t give up our day jobs

May this season of giving be very good to you.

Big thanks to this week’s sources Learn American English Online, Wordnik, Etymonline, & the OED

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce

One of the many stunning authors born in December is Tamora Pierce, a writer of middle grade & teen fantasy. Her books introduce readers to fascinating, intelligent, strong, female protagonists. December 13 is her birthday, & we’ll celebrate by enjoying a few quotes from Ms. Pierce & her characters.

From her novel Lady Knight
Threats are the last resort of a man with no vocabulary.

From her novel Page
If arrogance were shoes, he'd never go barefoot.

From her novel Squire
Haven’t you ever noticed that people who win say it’s because the gods know they are in the right, but if they lose, it wasn’t the gods who declared them wrong? Their opponent cheated, or their equipment was bad.

From her novel The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
Men don't think any differently from women - they just make more noise about being able to.

From various interviews:
I'm of the Samuel Goldwyn school of writing: If you need to send a message, call Western Union.

 I distrust any advice that contains the words 'ought' or 'should'.

Girls are 50% of the population. We deserve to represent 50% of the heroes.

You look as scary as a buttered muffin.

And from her story collection Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales
Without reading, we are all without light in the dark, without fire in the cold.

If you haven’t wallowed around in the fantasy worlds of Tamora Pierce, I highly suggest you put her on your reading list.

Big thanks to this week’s sources Dare to Be Stupid, The Atlantic, Goodreads

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Words of Georgia

Words of Georgia

Nothing like an etymological tour of arbitrary states of the USA. First was California, then Pennsylvania, and this week we’re off to Georgia.

The word jarhead, meaning US Marine, showed up first in print in 1985 in a biographical book about WWII. Interestingly, the word jarhead was in use much earlier. In the 1920s in the state of Georgia, jarhead meant mule.

Though other sources have been proposed, the most likely source of the word lulu heralds from the state of Georgia. 15-year-old Georgian vaudeville performer, Lulu Hurst, became a sensation in 1883. She could cause canes, umbrellas, or chairs held firmly by resolute audience members to move and shake (or so it seemed). Once her methods were discovered, she quit show business, even cancelling a vaudeville tour of Europe. Ever since, though, something amazing or remarkable can be referred to as a lulu.

Snake oil took America by storm in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Linguists aren’t certain where the term was first uttered, but it certainly made its way to Georgia. There appears to be little correlation with the remedy’s ingredients & its name, though records show many charlatans and barkers claimed it was made of rattlesnake oil. In Georgia, snake oil was said to cure rheumatism & gout, in Pennsylvania it was said to cure deafness, & in the states in between, it was said to cure pretty much everything in between.  

From relative obscurity in an Atlanta, Georgia strip club in 2005, the word twerk became a national sensation. It could be argued that countless earlier dancers danced in a manner meant to simulate copulation, but the honor of introducing greater America to the term goes to The Ying Yang Twins. Before their big hit in 2005, the term was popular in southern hip-hop circles for at least ten years.

Much earlier in Atlanta (1886), Dr. John S. Pemberton invented Coca-Cola. The inspiration for the name came because the original ingredients were derived from cola nuts and coca leaves. Pemberton marketed his fizzy drink as a “brain tonic” and “intellectual soda fountain beverage”. An interesting non-Georgia related historic tidbit is that in 1950, the wine growers & communists of France joined together to attempt a ban on Coca-Cola, which was seen as both a threat to the French wine industry & an ugly example of American capitalism.

How about all these Georgia words? I hope you’ll leave a comment or two.

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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Words of Pennsylvania

Words of Pennsylvania

Last week’s post on words born in California caused me to wonder about words that began their lives (as English words) in other states. So why not Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania was home to a group of German immigrants known in the region as Pennsylvania Dutch. Heaps of fascinating words made their way into English through this group of folks. One such word is the verb ferhoodle, to confuse or perplex. Ferhoodle didn’t make its way into English until 1956 & came through what linguists call Pennsylvania German (when the Pennsylvania German folks mentioned their homeland – Deutschland - it sounded like Dutch to somebody).

In 1830 the word hex showed up in English, courtesy of this same group of people. The original German word was hexe, to practice witchcraft. It was used in English initially as a synonym to the noun witch, but later grew to mean magical spell.

In 1919 the word dunk showed up in the language, meaning to dip. Its Pennsylvania German source word meant to soak. Dunk made its way into the world of basketball in 1937.

But not all Pennsylvania-born words come via those early German settlers.

Bits of seasoned pork dipped into cornmeal, fried and pressed into cakes are known as scrapple, a take-off on the word scraps, most likely from Old Norse, & born in Pennsylvania about 1850.

One of the native Iroquois tribes of Pennsylvania loaned its tribal name to the conestoga wagon in the 1750s. Later, an abbreviation of the word conestoga came to mean cigar. First known as stoga & later as stogie or stogy, the cigar was thus named due to conestoga drivers’ fondness for cheap cigars.

Our present meaning of the word cent came to English during the 1786 Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. Though from the times of Middle English cent (borrowed from Latin) had meant hundred, the Continental Congressfolk wanted to move away from the Revolutionary & Colonial dollars being divided into ninetieths (no kidding), so they embraced the suggestion of Robert Morris that they divide the dollar into one hundredths and label those hundredths with the word cent. The story is that the related word percent influenced Morris’s thinking.

And in 1965, Pennsylvanian Pauline M. Leet coined the word sexist by combining the word sex with the intent of the –ist from racist. Leet was the Director of Special Programs at Franklin & Marshall College. When her coined word hit the presses in the 1968 book by Caroline Bird, Born Female, it became a part of American parlance.

If you have anything to say about Pennsylvania &/or its contributions to English, please do so below in comments.

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Words of California

Words of California

In the world of words we tend to think in terms of languages, regions, & dialects. This week we’ll turn those tables & consider words born in a chunk of the map identified with no thought at all to language & dialect: the state of California.

In a case of etymology reflecting the uglier side of history, the abalone got its English name in 1850. The word abalone was stolen from the Spanish (abulon). And the Spanish stole it from the native Costanoan speakers of California who called the shellfish aluan.

In 1855 the word shenanigan became a way of defining wild behavior on the streets of San Francisco. It’s unclear where the word came from, but most linguists seem to lean toward the Spanish word chanada, a word meaning trick or deceit.

In 1856 Californians borrowed the Chinese pidgin word chow-chow, cut it in half and had chow, a new word for food. Interestingly, the pidgin word chow-chow was a reduplication of the Chinese word tsa or cha, meaning mixed.

Speaking of mixed, the word for the mixed drink, martini (born in 1886) may or may not have been born in California. Though some etymologists argue that martini comes from a popular manufacturer of vermouth, Martini & Rossi, others insist the drink was first mixed in Martinez, California, & was named after the town.

The word boysenberry was born in California. Named after its botanist father, Rudolf Boysen, both the word boysenberry & the berry itself (a blackberry/raspberry hybrid) showed up in 1935.

In 1964 the Californian word skateboard appeared. The practice of attaching roller-skate wheels to a piece of wood started in Southern California in 1963. By the summer of 1964 skateboarding was popular all over the country.

If you have anything to say about these pesky Californians messing with our language, please leave a comment.

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Token teacher toes?

Token teacher toes?

Often, the similarities in related words are obvious. Not so with the etymological descendants of the Proto-Indo-European word deik-.

Deik-‘s original meaning was to show or pronounce solemnly. A secondary meaning had to do with the directing of words or objects.

One of the descendants of deik- made its way to Greek to become diskos, meaning disk, platter, or quoit (a quoit is a ring of rope or iron thrown toward a peg in a game much like horseshoes). Diskos moved from Greek into Latin in the form of discus, where it meant disc or quoit. By the 1660s it made its way to English (spelled disc or disk) to mean round, flat surface, & picked up the meaning phonograph record in 1888, computer information storage device in 1947 (who knew?) & the usage disk drive in 1952.

Deik-‘s time in Greek also gave birth to the form dicare, to proclaim or dedicate. It then traveled through Latin to become dicere, to speak, tell or say, & showed up in English in the 1540s as diction, meaning a word. By the 1580s diction meant expression in words & by the 1700s it also meant choice of words & phrases.1748 brought the meaning speech or oratory. And in this same etymological strain in 1526 the word dictionary was born, meaning a repertory of phrases or words.

When the Germans (or Proto-Germans to be exact) got hold of deik-, it became taiknam, show explain or teach, which made its way into Old English as tacen, meaning sign, symbol or evidence, & then became our modern word token. This same Proto-German>German strain of deik- turned into the word teach. Its Old English form was tæcan, to train, warn, persuade, or give instruction.

Though etymologists don’t connect the word dactyl with deik-, it appears that deik may have also referred to fingers (probably due to its meaning show). Deik definitely referred to toes, even though few folks use their toes to show things. The toe strand of the family tree came through Proto-Germanic as taiwho, then into Old English as toe. Interestingly, the plural of toe was originally tan.

I hope all that inspires you to leave a comment.

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

November 11, 1922 brought the unsuspecting world Kurt Vonnegut. He didn’t have much to say initially, but as time progressed he proved to be a brilliant author, thinker, & master of satire, dark humor, & pointed social commentary. This November 11 would be his 93rd birthday. I’d like to celebrate with a tiny slice of what he had to say.

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.
I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.
Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.

I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles. So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.
Make love when you can. It’s good for you.

The universe is a big place, perhaps the biggest.

Oh, and then there’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Player Piano, A Man Without a Country, & a stunning & steaming heap of essays, articles, short stories and novels.

Have a favorite Vonnegut work or quote? Please leave it in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Curated Quotes,, The Christian Science Monitor, Karen Cushman, & NPR. Image from