Thursday, February 26, 2015



Sometimes our words come from mispronunciations.

An apprentice or lackey for a more talented individual can be referred to as a student, at one time pejoratively mispronounced stugent. Though it’s not nailed down, some linguists assert  that in 1913 this purposeful mispronunciation spawned the word stooge.

The Spanish word juzgar means to judge. The court or tribunal where a judge might be employed is a juzgao. Some time around 1911 we Americans mispronounced juzgao & misunderstood its meaning, and voila, hoosegow was born,

In Turkish, the letter g can represent a sound somewhat close to an English w. The Turkish word yog, meaning to condense, is the root of the Turkish word yogurt (pronounced in Turkish yowurt). The spelling led to the English mispronunciation of yogurt, which entered the language in the 1620s.

The word for golden in Middle Dutch was gulden. In the late 1400s, English speakers mispronounced gulden, morphing it into guilder.

The word bulge, meaning a rounded projection or protuberance, appears to have been dialectically mispronounced about 1872 as bug, giving us the term bug-eyed. So even though some insects may be bug-eyed, the bug in bug-eyed doesn’t mean bug.

The word haphazard, meaning unplanned, random or ineffectual, appears to be the source of the crass & initially purposefully mispronounced word half-assed, which came to English in 1913.

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Haphazard Idioms

Haphazard Idioms

The following idioms don’t follow a theme or tell a story. They simply have individual elements I find fascinating. I hope you’ll agree.

The term blubbermouth, a crybaby or weepy person, has been around since 1400. Originally, blubber (spelled blober) referred to the bubbling, foaming sound & product of the tide. By the 1500s the term picked up the meaning whale oil, and a century later the meaning whale fat. Some weeping-related synonyms that have since fizzled out include blubberguts, blubberhead, & blubbercheeks.

Our figurative term can’t hold a candle to has wonderfully literal beginnings. Back when candles were first created, if a task needed to be completed after sunset, the most able person performed the task while a less able person held the candle. The least able person didn’t even have the aptitude to hold the candle while the work was being done.

A goody-two-shoes is an obnoxiously good individual. The term was born in the 1700s in John Newbery’s children’s collection, Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle. One of the stories featured a painfully poor girl who was fortunate enough to be given a pair of shoes. She was so pleased, she started most interactions by pointing at them & exclaiming, “Two shoes!” It’s not entirely clear how an eternally grateful individual morphed into an obnoxiously good individual, but we’ll let that mystery be.

Contrary to popular assumptions, the idiom out of sight, meaning excellent, has been in existence since 1896.

The term whipper-snapper, or small, cheeky person, appeared first in the 1670s. A century before that, the term snipper-snapper held a similar meaning, which is cited by some sources as whipper-snapper’s origin, though other sources claim whip-snapper, person in charge, is the origin of whipper-snapper.  

The term narrow-minded, meaning small-minded & bigoted, was born in 1625. Interestingly, its sister-word narrow-hearted, meaning mean, ungenerous & ignoble, has not survived.

So, did anything in that somewhat arbitrary list pique your interest? If so, please leave a comment.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words, Merriam Webster,  Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, February 12, 2015



Idioms. You gotta love ‘em. This one has a particularly interesting history.

The word starkers showed up in English in 1923, meaning completely naked. Its roots appear in the term stark naked, which English speakers were using as early as 1520. At this point in the family roots, there’s an unexpected fork.

One would expect stark naked & starkers’ origins to be stark, which came from the Old English word stearc, which meant obstinate, severe, rigid, stiff, stern, strong or violent. By the 1400s, the idiom stark dead came about. Though stark actually referred to the rigidity of a corpse, popular understanding led to the belief that stark was intensifying dead, much like saying truly dead or very dead. It appears this caused the meaning of stark to shift to mean utter, sheer or complete. By the 1640s, that newly established meaning contributed to the Idiom stark raving, possibly translatable today as totally psycho. By the 1830s, stark added a new meaning, bare or barren.

Some other words that were born into Old English of the stiff meaning of stearc include stork, thorn (who would’ve thunk?) & possibly stretch. A century or more later, starch, stereo, & sterile all came from the stiff or rigid meaning of stark.

But wait. What about that previously mentioned “unexpected fork” in the family roots? The two words or terms above that didn’t come from stearc are stark naked & starkers. They came from another Old English word, steort, which is also the root of the name of a bird called a redstart, a colorful critter named for its red derriere. All this because steort meant rear end, rump or buttocks, which leads to the realization that stark naked actually translates to mean butt naked.

Idioms. You gotta love ‘em.

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

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Words from dialects

Words from dialects

In my world as an audiobook narrator, I occasionally find myself researching dialects, -- a rich source of words that are just plain fun.

A Scottish dialect gave us spree, a frolic or drinking bout, which came to English in 1804 (though drinking bouts had been around for centuries).

Throwing an intriguing light on JK Rowling’s enigmatic headmaster, the word dumbledore became a part of the language in 1787, from a dialect spoken in the Cornwall region. It means bumblebee.

A Kentucky dialect gave us splurge. Meaning ostentatious display, it came to English in 1828, possibly from a mashup of the words splash & surge.

From a dialect spoken near Norfolk, dumpling came to be officially a part of English in 1600. It may have come from a German word meaning lump.

 In 1738 we gained the word kasbah, which came to us through French from a dialect of north African Arabic. The original word meant fortress.

The Cockney dialect gave us ain’t. Well, sort of. In the early 1700s ain’t was considered a proper English contraction for am not. A century later, people started using ain’t to mean are not & is not, causing ain’t to lose favor among grammarians, oozing its way into the category of Cockney slang.

A northern British dialect gave us keister, or buttocks. This meaning arrived in 1914, extrapolated from earlier meanings of keister safe or strongbox, & burglar’s toolkit.

And the Scots have keisters, too. From a dialect of Scotland we have the word fud, meaning buttocks. It’s a mystery where fud came from, but it is most likely from a Scandinavian source. Fud entered English in 1785.

And though I’d planned on ending with keister & fud, I can’t resist yen, which came from a Beijing dialect. Yen originally meant smoke, then grew to mean intense desire for opium. Today yen means a dreamy desire or hunger. It arrived in English in 1906 after making earlier attempts in the forms of yen-yen & yin.

And on a note of shameless self-promotion, my fourteenth audiobook became available this week. Why Grandma Bought That Car  (Kotu Beach Press) is a collection of short stories & verses, each one focusing on a transformational moment in a woman’s life. The author is good friend, Anne R. Allen, & I enjoyed sharing narrating responsibilities with good friend Claire Vogel. I’m hoping some of you may take a listen.

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