Thursday, January 29, 2015


This post celebrates a word all two-year-olds appreciate. Additionally, the good folks who wrote the OED appreciated it enough to give it a nearly two-page entry. No came to English as early as the 1200s through Old English from the Proto-Indo European word ne, meaning no, not, never. And ne is the grandmother of oh-so-many modern words:

Never, which started out as næfre, meaning not ever, came to the language even before no, appearing in the first Anglo Saxon tale to be written down in that barbaric tongue they called Anglish in the epic poem Beowulf, some time before 1000.

Nothing, which came to English as an adverb in 1200, added noun to its quiver in 1600, & added adjective in 1961.

The word not came from its earlier form, naught, arriving in English in the 1200s. Interestingly, naught came from an even earlier term no whit, meaning no thing.

The combining form non- showed up in the 1300s, giving us non sequitur, nonviolence, non-fiction, non-conformist, nonfat milk, & any number of other non-s.

Null, which came through Latin & Middle French, arriving in English in the 1560s and mostly meaning nothing, zero, void, is assigned eight different meanings in the OED – a delicious bit of irony.

Nil came through Latin & arrived in English in 1833,

Naughty showed up in the 1300s, meaning having nothing. By the 1520s naughty had picked up its second meaning, wicked, evil, or morally wrong. By the 1630s its third meaning applied to misbehaving children, & by 1869 its fourth meaning, sexually promiscuous, jumped on board. It occurs to me the etymology of naughty provides a fascinating sociological study.

Any nay-saying, followers? Any thoughts on NO?

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015



The word lie, meaning to speak falsely or tell an untruth, has been part of the English language since the 1100s. Its roots are buried deep in Germanic languages. Lie’s linguistic cousins show up in Norse (ljuga), Danish, (lyve), Gothic, (liugan), Frisian, (liaga), & German (lugen).
It shouldn’t surprise us that we have an impressive number of synonyms, near-synonyms & idioms available to substitute for that terribly direct & offensive three-letter word, lie.
Instead of lying, businesslike folk might reframe, mislead, evade, misspeak, or misstate, while artsy types might buff, burnish, embroider, or fictionalize. We can also whitewash, inflate, dissemble, spin, or stonewall, and those of us who lie regularly can lay claim to any number of afflictions: necessary disingenuity, factual flexibility, serial exaggeration, or the ever-popular; fictitious disorder syndrome.
Ah, but all lies are not equal. For instance, to lie is to make a deliberately false statement, to prevaricate is to quibble or confuse in order to avoid the truth, to fabricate is to invent a false story, to equivocate is to deliberately use ambiguity to mislead, & to fib is to tell a falsehood about something unimportant.
Good readers if you have any thoughts on all this dishonesty, I’d love to read them in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Ralph Keyes’ Euphemania, the 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Wordnik, Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The fall of Latin

The fall of Latin

The Latin word meaning to fall is cadere. It’s sister word (a combining form with the same meaning), is cidere. Before reading on, sort through your brain’s language center for English words that might have grown out of cadere or cidere.

Cascade, meaning waterfall, came to English in 1640 through Italian & French.

Cadence, meaning a flow of rhythm in music or verse, appeared in the 1300s through Middle French.

Decay showed up in the late 1400s through several varieties of French from the Latin decadere, to fall off.

Decadence arrived in the 1540s, meaning behavior that shows low morals.

Deciduous, meaning that which falls off, came to English in the 1680s straight from Latin. Originally, the falling items included petals, leaves and teeth. It wasn’t until the 1778 that deciduous referred to trees that drop their leaves (as opposed to evergeeens).

In 1705, the word coincide came to English straight from Latin, meaning to be identical in substance or nature, to fall together, or to agree.

In the late 1300s accident was born, meaning an occurrence, incident, or event. Over the centuries, that simple event definition morphed to mean a chance event, & then a mishap.

And we’ll finish off with a real killer, the English noun marker –cide, also from cadere/cidere, an important element in pesticide, homicide, genocide, suicide, & many other English words, all suggesting some sort of fall.

Followers, after reading those first three sentences, what cidere/cadere words occurred to you?

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

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How we think

How we think

The words science, conscience, omniscient & many others having to do with thought, knowledge & internal understanding all come through French from the Latin word scire, to know. Most of these words have been with us since the 1300s- 1600s – a part of our collective consciousness.

What I find fascinating about these scire-derived words is how they reflect, or even constrict the ways we imagine what thought & internal understanding are. The Proto-Indo European root of scire was skei, which meant to separate one thing from another, to cut or divide. Skei also gave birth to schism, rescind, schizophrenic, & shed (as in bloodshed or the shedding of skin).

Does knowledge & understanding really involve disjointed, separate facts more than the relationships between those facts? What happened to the value of the bigger picture? Might our collective understanding of learning be weakened through devaluing larger patterns & non-linear processes, even spiritual pursuits?

Could basing our understanding of knowledge and conscience on separation, cutting & division be responsible for an over-reliance on the value of discrete facts, on multiple choice tests, specialists, philosophy, Jeopardy, a dwindling reverence for generalists, & the loss of what we used to call a well-rounded education?


Maybe I’m just an etymology-fascinated crackpot. Maybe this line of reasoning includes some shred of truth. Please leave a comment (& I won’t be offended at all if you think I’m a crackpot).

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

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Regionial language

Regional language

Language grows and changes, often with some sort of epicenter. This week’s post takes a look at several words born in very specific spots.

The term jarheads arrived in English in 1979, used to refer to US Marines, is generally associated with the classic Marine haircut. Interestingly, jarhead came to English in the state of Georgia in the 1920s, meaning mule. Connection?

Another word born in Georgia & its environs is juke. Today, juke generally appears as half of a compound word or paired words (jukebox, juke joint, jook organ). Originally, juke was considered so derogatory and inappropriate it was not used in polite society. It meant wicked, disorderly, nasty, & showed up in English in the 1930s. When juke was first associated with coin operated phonographs, the industry fought the association, fearing the negative image would hurt business. In time, though, the negative connotation was eclipsed by the magic of choosing one’s tunes at the diner.

In Maine in the 1830s, the word sumptuous gave birth to the word scrumptious, meaning splendidly stylish. Within fifty years scrumptious had spread across the country and had come to mean tasty & delicious.

Another Maine-born word that arrived in the 1870s is the regional term moxie, which was originally written with a capital letter, as it was the brand of a bitter beverage & patented medicine said to “build up the nerve”. It appears to have its roots in the Abenaki language, in which moxie meant dark water. These days moxie means both courage & intelligence.

Tump is used in the American South and means to turn over or knock down. Though nobody knows its etymological roots, it was first written down in England in 1589.

And those wild folk of Connecticut have the word bundling, which means to share a bed for the night with someone of the opposite sex, fully dressed. The term has been used since the 1780s & many stalwart, upstanding Connecticuters (yes, I looked it up) have defended the moral nature of the practice.

So good readers, what regional usages are you aware of in this wacky language?

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