Thursday, December 28, 2017



Since 1854 we’ve been able to apply the word vegetable to humans we feel are dull & inactive. However, as both etymologists & vegans might argue, this shade of meaning flies in the face of the original vegetable & its countless cousins.

Vegetable came from the Proto-Indo-European root *weg-, which meant to be strong & lively. This same root gave us heaps of other strong & lively words.

Vigor showed up in 1300 through Old French from *weg-

Vigil appeared in the 1200s through Anglo-French & Latin, from a word meaning watchfulness.

*Weg- gave us the words watch, awake, & wake through Old English about 1200, meaning a state of vigilant wakefulness.  

In the 1500s, waft showed up through Middle Dutch and German, meaning to move through the air (like the breath that keeps us strong & lively).

This watchfulness shade of meaning made its way through French to English in 1802, to give us the word surveillance.

Vigilante came to us in 1856 through Spanish.

In the early 1400s, *weg- made its way through Latin to become velocity, meaning swiftness or speed.

By 1702 we began referring to a band of soldiers  who remained watchful, dressed & armed through the night as a bivouac. This word came to English through Swiss-Alsation.

In the 1200s the word wait was born — originally to watch with hostile intent.

Though etymologists haven’t quite nailed it down, the words witch & wiccan may very well have come through Germanic languages from *weg-.

Nothing like a watchful, vigilant, wafting & vegetable-like witch, eh?

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

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Christmas meal

The Christmas meal

Just what you were hoping for — etymologies for a few items on the traditional Christmas dinner table.

The word turkey showed up in English in the 1540s & originally applied to the guinea fowl of Madagascar (which the English mistakenly believed came from Turkey). The turkeys on many Americans’ tables today are another bird altogether, a species first domesticated by the Aztecs. Spanish conquistadors met their first new world turkeys in 1523, and brought them back to Europe & northern Africa. Within fifty years, those new world turkeys had become the main course of choice for most British Christmas dinners. 

Apparently, the ancestors of the word ham had their sights on moving up in the world. The original source of the word ham is a Proto-Germanic word for shinbonethis word became an Old English word meaning the hollow or bend of the knee, and from there we have the modern English word ham, meaning the thigh of a hog (usually salted or cured). This upward-moving definition is a good things, as a hog’s shinbone wouldn’t be much of a holiday feast.

And of course, there’s the Christmas goose. Its source is the Proto-Indo-European word *ghans-, meaning goose. This word’s progeny form a multi-cultural (or multi-lingual, I suppose) cornucopia of words meaning goose, in all these languages: Sanskrit, Lithuanian. German, Old Frisian, Old Norse, Latin, Polish, Greek, & Old Irish.

In the 1580s, yam made its way into English through Spanish (igname) or Portuguese (inhame) from a West African language, where nyami simply meant to eat

And to close all this off, the word cranberry came to English in the 1640s — an American English adaptation of the German word kraanbere, a similar berry found in Europe, most likely named kraanbere because the stamen of the flower of this bere, (berry), resembles a kraan (crane).

May your holiday (Christmas or otherwise) be filled with tasty food, stellar people, & general wonderfulness.

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Does Casanova = cad?

Does Casanova = cad?

The explosion of allegations of impropriety among men with power has got me thinking. 

When I was young (lo these many years ago) the terms defining such men didn’t always have negative connotations. Given the culture at the time, labeling men with terms like Casanova, ladies’ man, Romeo, Don Juan and even playboy wasn’t necessarily negative. Though this could reflect a naïveté on my part, I’m pretty sure it mostly reflected the patriarchal nature of the era. 

I don’t think there’s any argument that in this regard we have entered a new era.

To that end, here are some modern definitions of words you might find upon looking up synonyms for the term Casanova, Don Juan, or ladies’ man

cad - a man or boy whose behavior is not gentlemanly, an ill-mannered fellow, a mean, vulgar seducer

Casanova - a man of carnal adventures — a connoisseur of seduction

Don Juan - a serial seducer, also a dissolute nobleman & seducer of women - the hero of many poems, plays, & operas

gallant - initially (early 1400s) a seducer of women, then a man of fashion & pleasure, & then, a man who is particularly attentive to women, eventually a dashing man who pursues women

lady-killer - a man who is very successful at attracting women, but soon leaves them 

lecher - a man who indulges his sexual desires excessively & without restraint

libertine - one who acts without moral restraint & has no care for what others think 

Lothario - a jaunty rake

lounge lizard - an idler & pleasure seeker in search of women to support him

masher  - a man who annoys women not acquainted with him by attempting familiarities

philanderer - a man who engages in serial, insincere love affairs), 

playboy - a well-to-do man who spends much time & energy in pleasure seeking & dissipation 

poodle-faker - British army slang for an ingratiating man who flirts, especially for social or professional advancement

Romeo - a passionate admirer & seducer of women 

satyr - a lustful or lecherous man

skirt chaser - a man who habitually tries to seduce women 

smooth operator - a man who appears pleasant, relaxed and confident in an attempt to  deceive; a con artist or clever scoundrel 

wolf - a man who flirts aggressively with many women

womanizer - an adulterous man

paramour - one engaged in sexual love as distinct from other kinds of love, an illicit or secret lover 

rake - a man habituated to immoral conduct

Are all Casanovas cads? Please leave a comment.

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Uncle Sam's meaty origins

Uncle Sam’s meaty origins

The image of Uncle Sam = the USA. words, they change over time. 

The first images of Uncle Sam appeared during and after the War of 1812. He was clean cut, wore a black suit, and appeared to be in his thirties. As the nation aged, so did Uncle Sam.

Most historians appear to agree that our modern use of the term Uncle Sam is based on New York meatpacker, Samuel Wilson. During the War of 1812, Samuel and his brother Ebenezer got the gig to supply meat to the soldiers on the battlefield. The US Army wasn’t Sam and Ebenezer’s only customer though, so in order to deliver the right meat to the right place, the barrels of salted beef and pork bound for the battlefront were labeled “US” (for United States). Since the New Yorkers who worked for Samuel and Ebenezer called Samuel Uncle Sam, the connection was made. Who feeds our boys in uniform? Uncle Sam.

As time progressed and President Lincoln became a prominent figure, cartoonists’ images of Uncle Sam became taller, older, leaner, and whiskered, leading eventually to the iconic Uncle Sam most of us think of today — the Army recruitment image drawn by James Montgomery Flagg in 1917.

So this term & image have morphed in meaning, starting out as a New York meatpacker, shifting to provider, then to recruiter, with many politically inspired twists & turns along the way.

Some may argue a picture is worth a thousand words. I’d submit that pictures and words may have more in common than we think.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reduplication III

Reduplication III

One of the alluring elements of any language is the music of it, & one of the ways we infuse a language with music is the repetition or near-repetition of sounds. Linguists call these childish-sounding gems reduplications. Here are a few:

Since 1741 those who move slowly have dilly-dallied

In 1940, a reduplication of the word super was born super-duper.

A reduplication of the word roll came to be in 1820 — roly-poly.

Since 1610 those who lie can be said to fib. Though fib isn’t a reduplication, it was born of the reduplication fibble-fable, a term of the 1500s meant to disparage the telling of fables.

Zigzag (or zig-zag) came to us in 1712. It’s likely this term grew from the German reduplication zickzack, a play on the word zacke, which meant tooth or prong.

Since the 1530s, when someone goes about doing something in a backward fashion, that person’s actions can be labeled arsy-versy, a reduplication of the somewhat titillating word, arse. Some Linguists suggest this term might also have been influenced by the word reverse.

And the reduplication ticky-tacky, brainchild of folksinger Malvina Reynolds, made its debut in 1962 to label the reiterating rows of tacky homes being built at the time. Listen to her song, “Little Boxes,” here.

First meaning feeble or poor in quality, & later meaning vacillating, the term wishy-washy has been with us since the 1690s.

And though this post was sparked by a conversation with good friend Anne Peterson about the term willy-nilly, the term in question is not a reduplication. It was born in the 1600s of the phrase will he, nill he, which meant with or without the will of the person in question. Willy-nilly doesn’t qualify as a reduplication because it’s not simply a near-repeated sound. Its roots clearly go back to two words that simply happen to rhyme. Proof that hardworking etymologists are exacting & don’t go about things willy-nilly.

If you're interested in more examples of reduplication, check out this post, or this one.

Please leave any comments on all this reduplication in the comment section.

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

November 26 marks the 185th birthday of a little known, feisty and fascinating human being. I know I’m supposed to be writing about words, but as folksinger Arlo Guthrie once said, “You can’t always do what you’re s’pose to do.”

I fell for Dr. Walker some years ago. I hope you might find her intriguing.
She was one of America’s first female medical doctors. In the late 1850s she opened her practice more than once, but failed miserably. People were under the impression that a woman couldn’t possibly practice medicine, so she had no luck attracting patients.

Her lack of professional success may have been affected by her strident insistence that the primary reason women “got the vapors” and fainted was the corsets that restricted their breathing. Another fashion-related opinion may have had something to do with it, too. She was among the Bloomerites, and scandalous as it was, she wore wool trousers — under her wool dress or skirt. Though it’s beyond the modern sensibility to comprehend it, Dr. Walker was arrested multiple times for those trousers.

When the Civil War broke out she wanted to do what she could for wounded soldiers, but it took two years of fighting with the US Army before she was allowed on the battlefield. Once there, she argued with the male doctors that they should embrace the newfangled practice of washing their hands between patients. This advice was not happily received. During free hours, she left the battlefield to treat injured civilians, whether northerners or southerners. After helping with an amputation in southern territory, Confederate forces captured her and she became a prisoner of war.

Four months later she was freed through a prisoner exchange and became the first female recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. It will not surprise the historians among you that 52 years later at the age of 85 she was stripped of the honor for nebulous reasons. She wouldn’t give the medal up, though, and wore it the rest of her life.

In her 70s and 80s her feistiness didn’t decline. She took to wearing men’s formal wear and fought with her fellow Suffragettes, arguing that there was no reason for a 15th amendment; the word men referred to all of humanity, and because of this, the Constitution already gave women the vote. All the Suffragettes needed to do was force Congress to accept the Constitution as it was written.

Remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Town of Oswego,, NIH

Thursday, November 16, 2017



Recent harassment disclosures seem to get uglier the deeper we dig. These are significant disclosures & spark significant emotion, but we Americans aren’t famous for our facility with emotional vocabulary. This week’s Wordmonger post asks, What are you really feeling about all this?

Our default word tends to be angry. Dictionaries tells us anger is a broad term which implies emotional agitation of no specified intensity, aroused by great displeasure. That doesn’t quite nail my emotional response to all this, so here are some options:

Fury is an overwhelming rage of a frenzied nature, bordering on madness. 

When we feel upset we’re experiencing an emotional toppling or disorganization.

Ire suggests that our anger & wrath are transforming into keen resentment.

When we are vexed, we are troubled, annoyed, irritated, & disturbed.

Wrath is deep indignation expressing itself in a desire to punish or extract revenge.

When we are enraged we experience uncontrolled anger that often results in violence.

Indignation is righteous anger aroused by what is considered unjust, mean, or shameful.

Smoldering means fully or partially suppressed rage and fury.

When we are incensed we are spitefully or furiously angry.

And rage is a violent outburst of anger unleashed through a loss of self control.

I’m hoping you readers will use the comments section to identify the emotions you’re experiencing in response to recent harassment disclosures. Even better — suggest how our society can constructively respond to all this.

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

& the 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.

Thursday, November 9, 2017



The word narcissist is getting a lot of play these days. The word appears to have been coined by Coleridge in 1822, but didn’t catch on until 1905. Narcissism means to show extreme love & admiration for oneself. The word comes from the Greek story of a young man who fell in love with his own reflection.

Other terms or idioms & their meanings include:

To be full of oneself  — to be annoyingly self-focused.

To have a swelled head  —  to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

The word egotist arrived in 1714 meaning one who makes too-frequent use of the first person. Since then it has morphed into meaning one who is boastful & conceited.

As of 1969, we began to say a person enthralled with him/herself was on an ego trip.

Or there’s the academic term from 1890 — egocentric — meaning limited in outlook or concern to one’s own activities or interests.

A more colorful term arriving in the 1520s is cocksure, a person as assured of himself as a barnyard rooster. A century or so later cocksure began to mean arrogant & overconfident to the point of annoyance. It seems DH LAwrence offered a “feminine version” of this word, but for some reason hensure never caught on.

And back in 1835 Davy Crockett gave us too big for your britches/breeches, an idiom he applied to General Andrew Jackson, a man Crockett believed overvalued himself.

In 1991, English received a contemporary version of too big for your britches courtesy of the British musical group Right Said Fred. Their first hit song was inspired by the self-infatuation of mirror-gazers at the gym & gave us the idiom too sexy for your shirt

Comments? You know what to do.

Thursday, November 2, 2017



I’ve always assumed that — like most homonyms — the verb to bear & the noun bear came from different sources & managed to land in English with the same spellings but different meanings. 

Apparently not. They each come from a Proto-Indo-European word which had two different meanings.

So, those who study steaming heaps of Indo-European languages in order to manufacture a proposed earlier language (Proto-Indo-European), came to the conclusion that way back in some imagined time & place, something shiny & brown was called *bher-, AND to carry or give birth was to *bher-.

Why not? Every language includes words that look & sound the same but mean different things. Why not this imagined language of the distant past?

The meaning shiny & brown gave us these modern words:


And look what the meaning to carry or give birth bore:

through Germanic languages

through Old English (look for barr)

through Greek & earlier Latin (look for for, phor, fer, or phag)

through later Latin for the most part (look for pher or fer)

I can hardly bear it.

Comments? You know what to do.

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