Thursday, December 29, 2016

To go

To go

Locked in poorly-lit word-dungeons, etymologists studying countless languages have done their best to construct the mother language for Indo-European languages. This hypothetical language is called Proto-Indo European.

One of the many proposed word-parts in this academically constructed language is ei-, meaning to go. Following is a very abbreviated list of some of the modern progeny of that ancient, imagined root, ei-.

exit to go out — appeared in English from ei- in the 1530s through Latin.

Mahayanaa branch of Buddhism — appeared in English from ei- in the 1700s from a Sanskrit word meaning the great vehicle.

itineraryroute of travel — appeared in English from ei- in the 1400s from Greek through Latin.

Janus Roman god of portals & doors — came to English about 1500 through Latin, most likely from ei-.

sedition revolt, uprising — came to English from ei- in the 1300s through Old French.

circuit a going around — appeared in the 1400s from ei- through Old French & Latin.

errant misplaced, originally traveling or roving — came to English from ei- in the the 1300s through Latin & Anglo-French.

suddenunexpected — arrived in English in the 1300s through Anglo-French & Vulgar Latin from ei- through a verb meaning to come or go stealthily.

itineranttraveling — appeared in English from ei- in the 1560s through Late Latin.

yew evergreen tree that symbolizes death & mortality — showed up in Old English from ei- through Proto-Germanic.

obituary - registry of deaths - appeared in English from ei- in the 1700s through a Latin word meaning departure.

Look at all the places we’ve been taken by two little letters meaning to go. Bravo & brava to the etymologists who have put ei- into the mouths of people who couldn’t even have written those letters, since they had no alphabet to begin with. As 2016 prepares to go, imagine all the wild places 2017 might take us.

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Words o' the season

Words o’ the season

Recently, controversy has erupted regarding the use of merry Christmas vs. happy holidays. Though the controversy is intriguing, I find myself etymologically interested in the difference between wishing someone a merry time vs. wishing that same someone a happy time.

Merry made its way into Old English before records of such things were kept. Merry meant agreeable, sweet, pleasantly or melodiously. Merry’s source was a Proto-Germanic word meaning brief. Yes, brief. Some argue the connection came through the idea that happiness is fleeting, therefore merriness is also fleeting. Others argue a connection to the thinking behind the idiom time flies when you’re having fun or the idea that one enjoys one’s pastime in brief jots between sessions of getting more important work done. During Middle English, merry broadened its meanings to include fine, pleasant-sounding, pleasant-tasting, handsome, & of course, there was the often satirically used Merrie Olde England.

Happy made its way into the language in the late 1300s. It originally meant lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous, or turning out well. These meanings morphed within the century to very glad, which grew in the following century to mean pleased & content.

Blessed is another adjective we hear over the holidays. The adjective form showed up in English in the 1200s, initially meaning both supremely happy & consecrated. Blessed came from the verb bless, which seems to have been a part of Old English from the start, initially meaning to consecrate, make holy or give thanks. The verb bless has what to the modern sensibility seems an undignified beginning. It came from a Proto-Germanic word, meaning to hallow or mark with blood. Those who first translated the English Bible appear to have chosen this word in an attempt to make the newly arriving Christian religion feel familiar.

Joy is another word we see & hear at the holidays. Joy appeared in English in the 1200s meaning a feeling of pleasure & delight. It came through the French word joie, which meant delight, bliss, joyfulness (& was also used to refer to erotic pleasure). The French word came from a Latin word meaning expressions of pleasure or sensual delight. The Latin word’s source — the grandmother word of all this joy -- was a Proto-Indo-European word meaning rejoice, which throws some light on how those Latin-&-French speaking folks might have been rejoicing.

May the season find you experiencing whatever sort of joy, blessedness, happiness or merriment appeals most to you.

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

Thursday, December 15, 2016

More yule-ish words

More yule-ish words

Last week we considered the yule-ish words jolly, egg-nog, wreath & yule. This week we’ll head into the holiday season, with a few more yule-related words.

The Proto-Germanic word for basil or mistletoe (as if basil is anything like mistletoe) made its way into Old English, where it was combined with a word meaning twig to become our modern word mistletoe. Druids were big fans of hanging mistletoe in celebration of their winter rites, & as Christianity spread, the practice continued. We typically don’t discuss the Druids’ activities under the mistletoe, but the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe appears to have established itself sometime in the 1800s. 

The word menorah entered the English language in 1886. It came from a Hebrew verb meaning to give light, to shine. Menorah shares a Semitic root with minaret, which appeared in English in the 1680s from Arabic through Turkish & French. 

And two yule-related words we don’t typically associate with eating came from words referring to either the act of eating or the food itself. Creche made its way into English in 1892 from Old High German through Old French. In Old French, creche meant a crib, manger, or stall, but creche’s source word (the Old High German one) referred to the fodder the critters ate while in a crib, stall or manger — their food. Speaking of mangerin the 1300s the French word mangier, meaning to eat, gave birth to the English word manger in much the same way. Once more, critters in a manger eat. 

And though most of us would rather not think about it, when truly little critters of the mite variety munch away on the larger critters in the manger, we employ another word based on the French verb to eatmange!

May your holiday festivities involve mistletoe, menorahs, creches & mangers and altogether avoid mange.

Please leave any comments int he comments section.

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

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Yule-ish words

Yule-ish words

As we head into the holiday season, here are a few Yule-related etymologies.

The word yule showed up in Old English from Old Norse long before anyone was writing down English or Norse. Yule originally referred to a two-month spate of Pre-Christian winter festivities some might refer to as heathen or pagan. Interestingly, nobody’s sure where the Old Norse got the word yule, but we do know it’s related to another winter-associated word, jolly.

The word egg-nog appeared in American English in the 1770s, a combination of egg & nog, the latter showing up in the 1690s & referring initially to a strong, old beer brewed in Norfolk. Then there is egg. The chicken-duck-or-goose sort of egg first entered the language in the mid-1300s from an Old Norse word that probably referred to birds &/or bird eggs. However, earlier than that, back in the 1200s, the Old Norse verb, egg, entered the English language, meaning to goad or incite. This fact poses the question of whether egg-nog was originally more about whipping eggs into beer or goading one’s compatriots into drinking more.

When the word wreath came to Old English it originally translated to that which is wound around. Wreath has some intriguing linguistic brethren: an Old High German word meaning twisted, a Frisian & an Old Norse word meaning angry, & a Dutch word meaning rough, harsh & cruel. All these came from a Proto-Indo European word meaning to twist or bend. It wasn’t until the 1560s that wreath meant a garland of flowers or greenery.

Next week we’ll explore a few more yule-related words, but in the meantime, I’m hoping you’ll have something to say in the comments section about these ones.

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

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Big idioms

Big idioms

The word big appears in many idioms. Here are a few.

Back in the 1600s, Louis XIII went bald. Bummer for him, as folks of the time believed a hirsute man was a powerful man. His answer to his problem was to wear a wig. Soon, wigs became tres cool in court. They grew and grew in importance & sheer mass. In time, the most glorious wigs required internal scaffolding (I don’t make these things up). Of course, only the wealthiest & most powerful could afford the most absurdly tall wigs. By the time the 1700s came along, the high & mighty became known as big wigs or bigwigs.

The big cheese didn’t get big until it crossed the pond in 1910. Previous to that (in merry old England), the word cheese was used to mean the best or first rate, (though in recent times cheese & cheesy have come to mean the opposite) But the idiom meant first rate when it arrived in the USA. By the 1920s, the big cheese shifted to mean the boss or the important person.

On a related note, a person who thinks highly of him/herself is said to have a big head. This idiom meaning conceited appeared in 1850.

The idiom big band came about in 1926 and doesn’t refer to the size of the band as much as the sort of music the band in question plays. Typically, a big band consists of one to two dozen instrumentalists (& sometimes a vocalist or two) playing swing music of the 1930s and 1940s.

Since the 1800s, important issues have been big deals & we’ve had big fish in a small pond. People who talk a lot have been big mouths since 1889, and big business is a term we’ve been using since 1905. Since 1909 we’ve called New York the Big Apple, though it took until 1970 for New Orleans to become the Big Easy. People have been able to mess up big time or make the big time since 1910, a prison or jail has been the big house since 1915, & we’ve had big shots since 1929. The idiom Big Brother was born in 1949, big bang came about in 1950, & big ticket showed up in 1956.

It’s a big world out there, folks! Here’s hoping you’ve got something to say about all this bigness. If so, please do so in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: phrase finder,, the OED, &

Wednesday, November 23, 2016



Gratitude is a fine thing, and in honor of the one holiday that focuses on gratitude, let’s dip our toes into the etymology of the word thanks. It came to Old English through a heap of loosely related languages including Old Saxon, German, Old Norse, Danish, and Old Frisian. We can still see the relationship with the modern German word danke

All these terms shared the simple meaning, to thank. What I find fascinating is that the Proto-Indo-European grandmother of all these gratitude-expressing words meant to think or to feel. This might suggest that one must be thinkful in order to be thankful. The flipside being that thinklessness causes thanklessness. 

This post is intentionally brief, as I’m hoping you’ll take some time to indulge yourself in thinkfulness and thankfulness. If you are inspired to express gratitude about anything at all in the comments section, feel free.

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, the OED, &

(this is a slightly revised re-posting of a post I wrote in 2011)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

From sound to silence

From sound to silence

Our modern word sound comes to us from three sources.

Most the meanings of the word sound started in Latin, then bounced around between Old French and Old English before settling down into the meanings that follow.

As a noun, sound  can mean:
-sensation sensed through the ear

As a verb, sound can mean:
-to be audible
-to cause an instrument to make sound
-to measure the depth of

The noun meaning a narrow channel or body of water, however, came from the Old Norse word sund, which meant both swimming & strait.

The adjective form of sound meaning free from defect or injury came from an Old English word meaning safe, or having all faculties. This word was gesund, which, as you might have guessed, made its way into German to become gesundheit. 

The term safe & sound showed up in the late 1400s. Sound-proof was born in 1853, ultrasound came about in 1911, sound barrier in 1939, sound effects in 1909, & sound check in 1977. 

And the absence of sound is silence, a word that appeared in English in the 1200s from an unknown source through Latin & Old French.

Some silence-inspired meanings, words & idioms include:
-A Victorian idiom meaning the dead (1874)
-silencer - the mechanism that stifles the noise made by a firearm (1898)
-the strong silent type (1905)
-silent films (1914)
-the silent majority (1955)

And these two words together lead folks of a particular age to think of Paul Simon, whose “words like silent raindrops fell” (well, maybe not), in his 1965 hit song, “The Sound of Silence”. I hope you’ll join me in sending good thoughts to Mr. Simon, who just last month, celebrated his 75th birthday. 

And, as always, feel free to speak your mind in the comments section.

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

All from the bard

All from the Bard

Recent events have inspired politicians, pundits, and folks on the street to speak – shall we say – idiomatically. Any number of the printable idioms I’m hearing recently have been borrowed from William Shakespeare. Here’s to appreciating a brief sample:

“In a pickle”
from The Tempest

“Set your teeth on edge”
from Henry IV & The Winter’s Tale

“Not slept one wink”
From Cymbeline

“Makes your hair stand on end”
From Hamlet

“The world is my oyster”
(Actually, the original was, “The world’s mine oyster”)
From Falstaff

“Brave new world”
From The Tempest

“What’s done is done”
from Macbeth

May all your idioms be as well-tested.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: An English Muse, MIT’s Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Words from wise women

Words from wise women

In light of the election, I offer some thoughts gleaned from folks wittier, wiser, & sometimes much snarkier than I.

“The vote is a power, a weapon of offense & defense, a prayer.”
-Carrie Chapman Catt

“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, & the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.”
-George Eliot

“Though in paradise the lion will lay down with the lamb, in Paradise they will not have to submit their rival political views to general election.”
-Amelia E. Barr

“Money was the manure of politics.”
-Barbara Michaels

“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
-Lily Tomlin

“I’ve seen public opinion shift like a wind & put out the very fire it lighted.”
-Rachel Field

“A Platform is something a candidate stands for & the voters fall for.”
-Gracie Allen

“Women are young at politics, but they are old at suffering; soon they will learn that through politics they can prevent some kinds of suffering.”
-Nancy Astor

May the election itself & the week following it both go more smoothly than you anticipate. And if you have comments about the quotes, please share them.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Jon Winokur’s The Portable Curmudgeon & Rosalie Maggio’s The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Eight possibly presidential words

Eight possibly presidential words

Countless groups have published lists of words most used by our presidential candidates. Here’s a look at a sampling of those words whose etymologies I find most intriguing.

The word huge has gotten a lot of attention. Huge appeared in English in the 1100s from the Old French word, ahoge, which meant extremely large, enormous, or powerful. Nobody knows the source that preceded Old French.

Though a segment of the voting population is embracing the word nasty, etymologists haven’t quite come to terms with it. One school of thought gives nasty’s origin as the Dutch word nestig, meaning dirty, (it literally translates to like a bird’s nest). An opposing school of thought suggests nasty came through Old French from the Latin word villenastre, meaning infamous or bad. A third group says we simply don’t know where it came from. At least we can all agree nasty appeared in English about 1400.

An oft-used word that hasn’t received so much press is constant. Appearing in the 1300s through Old French from Latin, constant originally meant steadfast & resolute. It was constructed of the Latin parts com- & -stare, to stand together.

The opposite of constant would be inconstant, which happens to be one of the meanings of another oft-used word this electoral season: inequality. Coming from the Latin word inequalitas, which meant unequal, different in size, changeable or inconstant, the word inequality appeared in the early 1400s meaning difference of rank or dignity.

The words racism & racist have played quite a role in speeches and debates. The earliest forms, racialism & racialist came from South Africa in the 1870s. These early forms were eclipsed in the 1930s by the forms we know today. The root for these words, race, came to English in the 1500s through Old French & possibly Italian & had many meanings:
- wines with a characteristic flavor,
- a group of people with a common occupation,
- a generation, &
- a tribe, nation, or group of people of common stock.

Quagmire showed up in English in the 1570s meaning bog or marsh. By 1766 quagmire picked up the figurative meaning, inescapable, bad situation.

The word classy (now meaning stylish) comes from a meaning of class that appeared in 1772, a division of society according to status. However, the word class first showed up in English from French in the 1600s meaning a group of students, which interestingly came from a Latin word originally meaning the people of Rome under arms.

Please leave any huge or nasty thoughts on all these constant, classy, yet quagmire-like election-induced words in the comments section.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

What are you feeling?

What are you feeling?

Nothing inspires an emotional response like politics. Whether the present election cycle is getting you down or goading you to action, it’s affecting you. Join me in exploring the nuances of words that might pertain to your feelings.

On the not-so-positive side, you might be feeling:

appalledterror or dismay at a shocking but apparently unalterable situation

daunted – disheartened or intimidated

dismayedfear or discouragement at the prospect of some difficulty or problem which one doesn’t know how to resolve

horrified  -- horror, loathing or irritation at that which shocks or offends one

enervated – a loss of force, vigor, or energy

debilitated – temporarily weakened

undermined or sapped – weakened or impaired by subtle, gradual, or stealthy means

Or you might find this race for president is filling you with energy. If so, you might be feeling:

exhilarated – an enlivened elevating of the spirits

stimulated – roused from inertia, inactivity or lethargy

invigorated – filled with vigor or energy in a physical sense

vitalized – invigorated or animated in a non-physical sense

quickened – roused to action

Most of us are a hodge-podge of all these. I’m hoping you might leave a comment noting which reactions seem strongest in you.

(the above offer is good for the first ten folks who respond)

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