Thursday, June 29, 2017



Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker, & Winston Churchill were masters of the paraprosdokian, a one-liner that ends in a manner that causes the reader to reconsider the beginning. 

A classic example is Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.

The word paraprosdokian comes from Greek. It’s a combination of para-, meaning against, & prosdokian, meaning expectation.

Here are a few anonymous ones:

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

War doesn’t determine who is right—only who is left.

Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

The last thing I want to do is hurt  you, but it’s still on the list. 

And here are a few more from luminaries:

Winston Churchill — “If you are going through Hell, keep going.” 

And another from Winston Churchill — “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”

Zsa Zsa Gabor —“He taught me housekeeping; when I divorce, I keep the house.”

Groucho Marx—”I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

Albert Einstein—“The difference between stupidity & genius is that genius has its limits.”

Dorothy Parker — “If all the girls who went to Yale were laid end-to-end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

Please leave a note in the comments with any other paraprosdokians you know, or with comments on the ones above.

Thursday, June 22, 2017



Many of us who love the English language cringe upon hearing the word orientate. Truth is, orientate is recognized by almost all respectable dictionaries. So what makes orientate so cringeworhty?

Orientate is what etymologists call a back-formation. It was born when English speakers “verbified” the noun orientation. What curls the toes of language sticklers is that we already had the perfectly good verb orient — why create a second, longer word with the same exact meaning?

Not all words created through back-formation make certain people wince. A bunch of words came to us by lopping off bits instead of adding bits. 

Secrete arrived in 1707 from secretion (1640).

Surveil came to us in 1904 from surveillance (1802).

Greed showed up in 1600 from greedy, which has been part of English since before anyone called it English.

Implode came to us in 1870 from implosion (1829).
Zip appeared in 1932 from zipper (1925).

Paginate showed up in 1858 from pagination (1841).

Incarcerate arrived in 1550 from incarceration (1530s).

Avid came to us in 1769 from avidity (1400s)

Mutate appeared in 1818 from mutation (1300s).

Humiliate arrive in the 1530s from humiliation (1300s).

And even the verb edit (1891) is most likely a back-formation of editor (1640).

Please leave any thoughts on all this in the comments section.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

To split or cut

To split or cut

We English-speakers (& users of the languages that preceded English) have done a whole lot of splitting & cutting. All the following words (& a bunch I couldn’t fit into this post) come from one Proto-Indo-European source. Etymologists write this word *skei-. It meant to cut or split.

It gave us the word shingle, a piece of wood split from a larger piece. The idea that a shingled roof involves overlapping pieces also gave us the meaning overlapping stones on the shore. It also gave us the idiom to hang out one’s shingle, & a hairstyle involving overlapping layers.

Appearing in Old English (some time between 400 & 1000 AD), the word shin appears to have come from the knowledge that the fibula in the lower leg appears to have split off from the larger tibia.

Shed also showed up in Old English, meaning to divide, separate, part company or discriminate. In modern usage, we still see this meaning in the phrase to shed one’s skin & in the term watershed, in which drops of rain falling on one side of a mountain are divided from the drops of rain fallowing on the opposite side.

Shiver, originally a small piece, fragment or splinter, came from *skei-, as did shiver, to break into small pieces, however the shivering we might do when cold or frightened comes from a different source altogether.
Coming to English in 1883 we have the word ski, which came from *skei- through Old Norse from a word meaning a long stick of wood — one split from a larger piece.

The root *skei- also made its way through Greek & Latin to arrive in English as the combining form schizo-, which gave us - among other words - schizophrenic, reflecting a condition originally understood to involve a split personality.

Though etymologists still argue over the origin of the word ship, one school of thought maintains ship came from *skei-  because the building of the earliest vessels involved the cutting or hollowing of a tree

And because knowledge involves distinguishing (or splitting) one thing from another, we have the words science, prescience, omniscience, conscience, & many others.

All from cutting & splitting. Who knew?

If you found all this intriguing or surprising, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Thursday, June 1, 2017



It shouldn’t be surprising that most words for laughter are imitative of the sound of laughter. Still, I find them intriguing, & occasionally worthy of… a laugh.

Cackle came to English in the 1200s, meaning a loud laugh. It’s considered imitative. Its source is the Latin word cacchination, which is also considered imitative, though to be honest, I’ve never heard a laugh that sounded much like cacchination.

Giggle appeared in the 1500s with no source. A giggle is a short, spasmodic laugh. Giggle is assumed to be imitative.

About a century later, titter appeared, also imitative, defined as a suppressed or nervous giggle.

Another century later, in the 1720s, the Scottish term guffaw caught on among English speakers. A guffaw is defined as a loud or noisy laugh, & not surprisingly, is imitative.

One term for a laugh that isn’t directly imitative is chortle. Formed through a marriage of chuckle & snort, chortle was coined by Lewis Carrol in 1872 in his brilliant poem, Jabberwocky. And yes, chuckle & snort are both imitative.

A snicker is a smothered laugh & came to English in the 1690s. Its sister word snigger appeared in 1706, meaning the same thing. Both are imitative.

The word laugh comes to English through Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European. English speakers started using laugh in the late 1300s. And like its funny friends, laugh is imitative. I’m hoping some of the forms of this word may give you a laugh.

Old Norse - hlæja
Anglian - hlæhhan
Old Saxon - hlahhian
Old Frisian - hlakkia
Dutch & German - lachen
Sanskrit - kakhati
Lithuanian - klageti
Greek - kakhazein
Old Church Slavonic - chochotati

Boy, those Old Church Slavonic folks must have been a laugh a minute, eh?

Comments? You know where to leave them.