Thursday, April 27, 2017

Precarious prayer?

Precarious prayer?

It might be said that an unfortunate soul in a precarious situation “doesn’t have a prayer.” But who knew that the words precarious & prayer are kissing cousins (etymologically speaking)?

Their common ancestor is *prek-, Proto-Indo-European for ask or request. In time it became the Latin word precari, to beg, entreat, or ask earnestly. By the 1200s precari made its way into English (after a brief sojourn in France) as pray. Initially, pray meant simply to ask earnestly or beg. Within the next hundred years it began to mean pray to a god or saint

During its stay in Latin, precari developed another form, precarius, a legal term meaning held through the favor of another (based on the idea that one might beg or entreat another for help). This form came to English about 1640. Because dependence on another can be risky business, by 1680 this legal term gained common usage meaning risky because of one’s dependence on others. Linguistic sticklers argue that precarious continues to have only this original meaning, & that most of us misuse the poor word. However, modern dictionaries idenitfy 4-5 generally risky definitions before listing the meaning dependent on others under the heading “archaic.”

Prayer & precarious — kissing cousins.

In the comments section I’d love to hear whether any of you knew about this connection. It certainly surprised me.

Thursday, April 20, 2017



There are heaps of words we can use to define our state when we’re feeling out of sorts. Many of them have unknown origins. 

In 1727 one could be in a tiff, meaning quarrelsome or petty irritation. Though no one is certain of tiff’s source, it may have be an imitative word for the sound of a sigh or puff of air. 

In 1922 the word tizzy was born. Like tiff, nobody really knows its source, but some etymologists argue it may have grown out of the earlier term, tizzy, meaning sixpence piece, slang for the first coin minted with the profile of a head on it, taken from the Latin word testa, meaning head.

In 1939 the word snit came into the world, meaning a state of agitation or fit of temper. It appeared first in the play Kiss the Boys Good-bye by Clair Boothe Luce. Nobody knows its source.

Though the word hissy has been with us since 1905, hissy fit (meaning a dramatic tantrum) didn’t appear until 1983. Both hissy & hissy fit come from the word hiss, which has been around since the 1300s. Like tiff, hiss is onomatopoeic. 

Since the 1530s, a fit of ill feeling  has been referred to as pique (or a fit of pique). This comes from a Middle French word which meant irritation or sting.

When one takes offense, one might be miffed. This form of miff got rolling in 1797. But miff first showed up in English much earlier in 1620. At that time miff was a noun meaning fit of ill humor. It appears to be another onomatopoeic word based on an exclamation of disgust.

In the 1590s a pother was a disturbance or commotion. Nobody knows where this word came from, & by the 1640s to be in a pother meant one was flustered or irritated.

In the 1600s, one who quaked or trembled could be said to be in a dither. Dither came from the Middle English word didderen, which has no known source. By 1819 folks who were anxious & flustered were said to be in a dither.

These terms aren’t heard as much as they once were. If you could bring one back into popular usage, which would  you choose?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Fast idioms

Fast idioms

There are heaps of ways we refer to something being speedy or needing to be speedier. Here are a few:

-in a flash 
-in three shakes of a lamb's tail (only two shakes in the UK)
-quick as a wink 
-in the blink of an eye 
-quick as a bunny
-quick as lightning
-get  the lead out

Here are some for which I could find source information:

-fast track (1934 horse racing)

-pronto (1850) from Spanish &/or Italian from a word meaning prompt 

-breakneck (1560s) moving so fast one is likely to break one’ s neck

-giddy up (1909) a mispronunciation of get up, also spelled gee-hup, gee-up & giddap

-flat-out — most likely from horse-racing when horse & jockey flatten out to decrease wind resistance

-posthaste (1530s) with great speed  - a request written on the envelopes of letters

-lickety-split (1852) most likely based on lick - a speedy sprint while racing - also lickety-cut, lickety-click, & licketie — probably related to quick as a lick

-faster than you can say "Jack Robinson" has numerous proposed sources, none of them confirmed, but all intriguing:
-Jack Robinson was US Secretary of the Treasury in the late 1700s & was able to get things done speedily in Congress
-Jack Robinson was constable of the Tower of London, responsible for quickly successive beheadings
-Jack Robinson was an English gentleman well-known for speedy changes of opinion

Have you got a favorite idiom regarding speediness? If so, please let me know in the comments section.

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, Merriam-Webster,, ,&

Thursday, April 6, 2017



So how is it that one little four-letter word can be used in all these ways?

Irene’s car is fast.
Selma broke her fast.
Ramon was fast asleep.
Luigi held fast to Wanda’s hand.
Agatha indulged in fast living.

And how is the word shamefaced possibly related?

It all started with the Proto-Indo-European word fasto, which meant firmly, strongly, very. 

This word made its way into Old English as faeste, which meant firmly, securely, strictly.  

When fasto made its way into Old Norse, it became fast, meaning firmly, strongly, vigorously. 

The speedy meaning of fast most likely came from the vigorous sense of fast in Old Norse, though it may have come from the idea of the second-place runner holding fast to the runner before him/her. During the 1700s, this meaning of fast gave birth to the idea of fast living.

The meaning, withholding food, comes from an Old English word born of the hold firmly meaning. Someone who fasts shows firm control of him/herself.

The hold tight meaning of fast grew from the firmly/securely meaning, as did the idea of being fast asleep.

And shamefaced? This word was originally pronounced & spelled shamefast, reflecting the idea that one’s shame was stuck fast. Our modern word shamefaced came from a misunderstanding of the the original word.

Any thoughts about all this fastness? Please leave them in the comments section.

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, Merriam-Webster, &