Thursday, April 30, 2015



Last week we took a look at rodents. Next, we’ll consider another underappreciated order of critters, the ungulates.

The word ungulate first showed up in English in 1802 from the Latin word ungulatus, or hoofed. Soon after that, in 1839 the word ungulates began representing the entire order of hoofed mammals.

Recent advances in DNA testing have completely changed our understanding of which critters are & aren’t ungulates. The old-school ungulates have now been sliced, diced & moved around. Who knew in 1839 that a hippopotamus was more closely related to a whale than it was to a rhinoceros? Who ever guessed that whales belonged in the order named for hooved mammals?

There are 257 species of ungulates on the globe as I type. In the next three weeks we’ll take a look at the etymologies of a few of them.

In the 1300s, the word rhinoceros appeared in English, taken from the Greek word rhinokeros, which meant nose-horned.

The word hippopotamus showed up in the 1560s. It came through Late Latin, but started with the Greeks, & meant river-horse. This spelling replaced the earlier Middle English word ypotame, which also means river-horse & also comes from Greek, but made its way through French before landing in England.

The word deer is an Old English word once spelled doer. It meant animal or beast. Heorot, the word the Old English used to refer to the modern critter we call a deer morphed in time to the word hart. It seems that the word deer won out over time because enough folks going hunting for any animals preferred finding deer to the other options (some which had nasty tusks). In time, the initially general term took on the more specific meaning.

An Algonquin language (most likely Narragansett or Abenaki) gave English the word moose in 1610 The word means he strips off, which refers to either the moose’s habit of using his palmate antlers to strip the bark off trees, or to the moose's use of the bark of trees to strip the "velvet" from the antlers.

Ungulate junior etymologists unite! What have you to say about all this ungulation?

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

Friday, April 24, 2015



This spring our neighborhood has seen a serious uptick in the grey squirrel population, which got me to thinking about the word squirrel, which led to this post.

In the early 1300s English speakers started using the word squirrel instead of the Old English word acweorna. Squirrel came from the Anglo-French word esquirel, which we can trace back through Old French, Vulgar Latin, & Latin to the Greek word skiouros, a word used to refer to – what a surprise – squirrels, though it translates literally to shadow-tailed. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1939 that the word squirrel added to its quiver a verb form, allowing us now to squirrel things away.

The word chipmunk came to English in 1832 from the Ojibwa word ajidamoo, which means one who descends trees headlong. The lack of phonetic similarity between chipmunk & ajidamoo is probably due to the English speakers translating the “foreign” sounds of the people they were busy displacing to sounds they were accustomed to hearing.

Though some marmots live in grasslands, European marmots tend to prefer higher altitudes. The word marmot came to English in the 1600s. We can trace it back through French & Swiss to the Latin murim montis, or mountain mouse.  

The vole lives primarily in fields. The word vole came to English in 1828,most likely from the Old Norse word, vollr, which means field.

We refer to a type of burrowing squirrel as a gopher, a word that arrived in American English in 1812. The Americans most likely borrowed the word from the Louisiana French speakers’ word gaufre, which meant honeycomb or waffle, a reference to the condition of the garden or field after the gopher has claimed it as its own.

Please share any of your rodential thoughts in the comments section.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

Up #3

Up #3

Thanks for tuning into the third of three posts on up, a brief list of a few more idioms that employ the word up.

1700s – to cheer up or become happier
1700s – bottoms up or cheers!
1809toss-up or an even matter
1818 – to turn up one’s nose or show disdain
1823 – to upend or turn over
1844 – to buck up or cheer up
1860 – to jack up or hoist or raise
1881 – to whoop it up or make a joyful disturbance
1896 – all choked up or overcome with emotion
1903 – to live it up or live extravagantly
1904 – to jack up or raise a price
1926 - to wrap up or put an end to
1933 – to mess up or make a mess of
1935 – to shack up or cohabit
1960upchuck or vomit

Please use the comments section to remark on any of these terms or the dates they appeared.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Go English, Albert Jack, Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Up #2

Up #2

The word up was spelled in a number of ways in Old English, including up & uppe. It meant up or upward & came from the Proto-Indo-European word upo, which also gave us the Greek word hypo (as in hypo-allergenic, hypochondriac & hypodermic).

In last week’s post I mentioned that up performs as an adverb, noun, verb & adjective. I missed something. Up also functions as a preposition.

Adverb – Marcel walks up the hill.
Adjective - Ophelia seems up today.
Verb - The grocer upped the price of blueberries today.
Noun - The market has its ups & downs.
Preposition - Madeleine’s speedy departure left Stanley up in the air.

And here are a few more uppish idioms:

1847 – The term getup (or get-up) refers to one’s costume. This appears to have come from the 1841 idiom getup meaning initiative or energy.

1853 – upholster is referred to by linguists as a “back formation” because it appears to be a base word, but actually came from the longer word (from 1610) upholsterer, which refers to a person who fixes furniture. Upholsterer comes from the word upholdester, which came from the word upholden back in the 1300s, and meant repair, uphold, keep from falling or sinking.

1891 – To send someone up the river, meaning to send someone to jail, originated in New York City, as the prison Sing Sing was up the Hudson River from the city.

1947 – upbeat, meaning with a positive mood, comes from the 1869 musical term upbeat, which labels the beat during a bar when the conductor’s baton is pointed upward.

1951 - To drive someone up the wall, meaning to annoy or irritate, came from the observed behavior of some animals (& patients) in cages.

Please use the comments section to tell me what’s up.

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

Friday, April 3, 2015

Up #1

Up #1

The versatile two-letter word up can function in English as an adverb, noun, verb, or adjective. Up plays a role in countless idioms & compound words. I hope you enjoy the few that follow.

~1400 – shut up - This idiom’s original meaning was to keep from view or use. It wasn’t until 1814 that it applied to shutting one’s mouth.

1530s – grow up  -- This idiom may have come from the late 1300s term grown-up, which was originally an adjective meaning mature, & added its noun meaning an adult in 1813. The directive, grow up, meaning be sensible, showed up in 1951.

1550s – start-up – This verb, meaning rise up, came from the term upstart, which appeared back in 1200. By the 1590s start-up added to its meanings, come suddenly into being.

1811 - up to snuff  - This idiom showed up some 160 years after the practice of inhaling powdered tobacco into the nose became all the rage in England. Its original meaning was sharp, wide awake, not easy to deceive, & most likely reflects the somewhat caffeine-like effects of snorting powdered tobacco.

1830 – seven-up – A children’s game that added a new & carbonated meaning in 1928.

1841 – smash up – A collision.

1897 – dustup – This term means a fight. It probably grew out of the 1680s ironic idiom to dust someone’s coat, which meant to beat someone soundly.

1977 - upload – A word we hear & understand constantly these days, yet just a few decades ago it would have left us all with wrinkled brows.

Please use the comments section to tell me what’s up.

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