Thursday, January 28, 2016



English boasts some wonderful words having to do with complaints.

The word whine has been with us since English became English. In Old English it had two uses: to refer to arrows as they hissed or whistled through the air, & to refer to a dog’s whines (an imitative word). In 1520 whine added the meaning to complain in a feeble or annoying fashion.

The same Old English roots gave us the word whinge, to complain peevishly. A British dialectical term born in the 1500s, whinge has made its way across the Pond. I hope others appreciate its trans-Atlantic voyage as much as I do.

Beginning in 1888 in England a complaint could be referred to as a beef. Etymologists suggest this probably came from British soldiers’ complaints regarding the mystery meat their superiors were claiming was beef.

The term belly-ache, meaning stomach pain appeared in the 1590s. It picked up the figurative meaning to complain in 1888. Interestingly, the first recorded uses of belly-ache in America reflected the figurative meaning of the term.

In 1825 an English word meaning to gnaw came into use. Within only three years it picked up the meaning to complain. This word is nag, which appears to have come from a Scandinavian source. It seems to have no etymological relationship to the word nag meaning old horse, which came from Dutch.

The English verb kvetch, to complain, made its way to us in 1953 (the noun, meaning a chronic complainer arrived before that in 1936). The original literal Yiddish verb’s meaning was to squeeze or press.

I’m hoping you’ve got something to say about all these kvetch-worthy words. If so, please leave a note in the comments section.

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fall again

Fall again

Last week we considered some descendants of the Latin root cadere, to fall. This week we’ll take a look at some less likely descendants of that same word.

When the conductor’s baton falls it establishes the cadence, of the piece. Cadence showed up in English in the late 1300s, meaning flow of rhythm in verse or music.

The past participle of the Latin word cadere was casus, meaning a mishap, accident, chance or opportunity (not only can we fall on bad times, we can fall on good fortune). Casus gave birth to a number of English words, one of the first being case. Used as early as the 1200s to mean what befalls one, then in the 1300s adding its grammatical sense & the meaning an instance or example. From there it blossomed to include all the meanings of case we employ today.

In the late 1300s the word occasion came to English. It traveled through Old French from casus, & throws light on an occasion (or falling) being referred to with the idiom “what’s going down”.

Another form of casus/cadere is cidere. It brought us the word incident (meaning event) in the early 1400s. It also brought us recidivist, to fall back again, a word used to refer to one who falls back into sin in the 1400s & adding the meaning a relapsed criminal in the 1800s. Also born of cidere is the word coincide, meaning to fall together. Coincide showed up in the 1700s. And though a fallen apple might get turned into cider, there is no etymological relationship between cider & cidere.

When cadere made its way into Vulgar Latin, it was used to refer to the fall of the dice, then made its way through French to show up in the 1300s as the English word chance. In French law when land went to the state due to the lack of heirs, the Latin word excadere, to fall away became in French escheat, which made its way into English in the 1400s as cheat.

All from a little old word meaning to fall. I’m hoping, dear reader, you’ll post a comment. I’m particularly interested in which of these descendants of cadere surprised or intrigued you most.

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A fall

A fall

The words cadaver, decay, accident, decadent, cascade & deciduous all share a source: the Latin verb cadere, meaning to fall.

I’m hoping your eyes just glanced back over that list of words, causing your brain to experience a satisfying little jolt. Given the opportunity, we can “see” the fall in each of those words.

Cadaver appeared in English in 1500, meaning dead body.

Decay, meaning to decrease, made it into English a few years earlier after a tour through Old French & Anglo-French.

Accident appeared in English in the 1300s, meaning an occurrence or incident. Its Latin root was accidentem, to happen, fall out or fall upon.

Decadent, meaning in a state of decline or decay, showed up in 1837, a back-formation of decadence.

Cascade, a synonym for waterfall, came to English in the 1640s through Italian, then French.

Deciduous, meaning that which falls off, showed up in English in the 1680s straight from Latin.

Next week we’ll take a look at some not-so-obvious descendants of this same root. In the meantime I’m hoping you’ll use the comments section to let me know whether your brain experienced that satisfying little jolt mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.

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

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A decent doxology

A decent doxology

Last week my loving wife asked about the source of the word doxology. Before getting to my trusty dictionary, the in-brain-search yielded possible connections to paradox & heterodox. But the in-brain-search would never have come up with a connection to the word decent. And that’s one of the things I find intriguing about etymologies. So often, a good word history includes a surprise.

Doxology showed up in English in the 1640s, meaning a hymn of praise. The first bit of the word came from the Greek word doxa, meaning glory, praise, or opinion. Doxa is a later form of the Greek word dokein, meaning to appear, seem, or think. It’s plausible that the think element of dokein grew to mean opinion. I’d love to know the circumstances that caused an association between opinion & praise or glory.

A heterodox is something not in accordance with established doctrine, which makes perfect sense, since its two word parts add up to mean the other opinion. Heterodox came to English in the 1630s.

The word paradox arrived in English in the 1530s. In this case, para- meant contrary, so a paradox is something contrary to what one might expect.

A word that should have popped up in my in-brain-search is orthodox, which came from the Greek word orthodoxos, which originally meant, having the right opinion. Since ortho- means right, true, or straight, this original meaning shouldn’t surprise us. Today, the word orthodox is most often used to mean traditional.

All the doxa-related words above came through Greek from the Proto-Indo-European root dek, meaning to greet or be suitable. But when the Latin-speakers got hold of dek, it became decere, to be fitting or suitable. This Latin word gave birth in the 1530s to the English word decent, which initially meant proper to one’s rank or station, then went on to add these meanings:
By 1600, good taste; 
By 1712, satisfying;
About that same time, tolerable;
By 1902, kind or pleasant; &
By 1949 the backstage question “Are you decent?” came to mean “Are you dressed?”

And from the “what is the world coming to?” department, the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the 1814 birth of the word decentish. Who knew?

If you’ve got any comments regarding decency or doxa, please do so in the comments section.

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