Thursday, October 26, 2017

The apostrophe has not left the building

The apostrophe has not left the building

Though the recent increase in frequency of apostrophe errors might suggest otherwise, reports of the death of the apostrophe are highly exaggerated

Writers, editors and English teachers worry about such things, as one can tell by the very existence of organizations like The Apostrophe Protection Society & articles like this Huffington Post piece. But I can’t find even one style guide that acknowledges the possible impending demise of the apostrophe. 

So this week I’m celebrating the life of this lovely & clarifying bit of punctuation.

It helps us out with contractions, working its magic to transform they are into they’re or we have into we’ve.

It helps us understand ownership, so instead of the smile that belongs to Ahmed we have Ahmed’s smile

It even helps us tell when something belongs to more than one person, so if a girl wields a club, it’s a girl’s club, but if more than one girl join together, we have a girls’ club

If you have a minute or two to celebrate the apostrophe, check out this brief video introducing the new Scholastic superhero, Apostrophe Girl, sing along with the Apostrophe Song by Shaun McNicholas, or peruse the painfully embarrassing photo archives of apostrophe abuse collected by John Richards of the Apostrophe Protection Society. 

If you have a tale of sad apostrophe use, or have stayed up nights worrying that these wonderful little beasts might be going the way of the passenger pigeon, feel free to share in the comments section.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hurt, ache, & pain

Hurt, ache, & pain

It seems there’s a lot of hurt, ache, & pain going around, so why not?

The word hurt appeared in English as early as 1200. Hurt not only meant to injure the body, feelings, or reputation, it also meant to charge against, rush, or crash into. It came from an Old French word with no definite source, though Celtic, Frankish, Middle High German, Norse, & Dutch roots have been suggested.

The verb form of the word pain came to English from Old French in 1300, meaning to strive, endeavor, hurt or strain oneself. It came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to atone or compensate. The noun form of pain showed up later that century, meaning punishment (it’s related to the word penalty).   Hmmm — punishment=striving? Does this reflect some sort of medieval “no pain no gain” thinking? 

The Old English word for the concept of suffering continued pain gave us the modern word ache. Descendants of what appears to be ache’s root also exist in Sanskrit &  Greek. Its meaning was fault or guilt.

So might our aches be caused by guilt? Do we bring them on ourselves? Must striving and endeavoring involve pain? And how often is it we find ourselves uncertain of the source of our hurt

Ponderings aside, may you avoid all the following aches:

tooth-ache (1200 or earlier)
belly-ache (1590)
back-ache (1600) 
heart-ache (1600)
stomach-ache (1763)
earache (1789)
headache (1934)

Comments? Here’s hoping you’ll avoid any hurtful ones.

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A mixed bag

A mixed bag

Here’s a collection of completely unrelated etymologies — just a small pile of intriguing ones I hope you enjoy.

Why do gambling card players throw money into the kitty? Before we English speakers called it kitty we called it kit, & before that we called it kist, a Middle English word which gave us the word chest — another word for a box into which one might put money.

Many Americans point to lobbying as one of our government’s problems. So what’s the source of lobby, lobbyist, & lobbying? Initially, those who wanted access to lawmakers simply entered the legislative chambers & made their case. When this became cumbersome (& I should imagine tiresome), they were bumped outside the chamber to the lobby (where, it appears, they still successfully sway votes & occasionally write legislation).

When something is false or fake we might label it as phony. It seems this word most likely came from a mispronunciation of Forney, the name of a chap who manufactured and sold brass rings that appeared to be gold. These became known as Forney rings, which in time shifted to phony rings, & soon phony broadened to mean anything fraudulent.

The idiom killed by kindness is based on an event some claim is true & some claim is folklore. The Athenian legislator Draco is said to have been well-liked (though his name also gave us the term draconian). He was responsible for the first written set of laws in Athens. Though the setting down of laws is typically seen as a good thing for everybody, Draco’s laws clearly favored those with power, money, & prestige. As the story goes, Draco was so well-loved that in response to his popularity, the crowd in the chamber showered him with caps, shirts & cloaks to the point that he was smothered to death, killed by kindness. I find myself reflecting on the possibility that those who can afford to dispense with their caps, shirts, & cloaks probably were quire fond of him.

Comments? You know what to do.

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

Thursday, October 5, 2017



This week we investigate whether a pie by any other name taste as sweet.

Sometime around 1300 the word pie appeared in English. It was used to refer to meat or fish encased in pastry. Some etymologists argue that it came from an Old English word for bakery, piehus, while others argue pie must have pre-dated piehus because the Old English word for house was — you guessed it — hus, thus the word for bakery might have simply meant pie house. Sadly, at the moment we don’t have enough linguistic forensic information to answer this pressing question.  

Pie seems to have a relationship with a Medieval Latin word meaning the same thing. It also seems to be connected with the word magpie. The connection may be that a medieval pie included various foodstuffs, while a pastry included only one, and a magpie has a fascination for collecting miscellaneous objects. Just think, if it tables were turned on those two words, we’d all be calling a black and white bird a magpastry

In the 1500s, a cunning person could be referred to as a wily pie.

By the 1600s, the word pie could be used to label a fruit-filled pastry.

In the 1830s, folks forced to face humiliation could be said to be eating humble pie. This idiom is based on umble pie, a pie made of inglorious animal parts — a dish eaten by folks who couldn’t afford anything else — thus the confusion with the word humble.

The inaccurate, yet ubiquitous idiom easy as pie showed up in 1889. 

As of 1904 we could label an inebriated individual as pie-eyed

By 1911, unrealistic hopes could be referred to as pie in the sky.

And in 1922 the term pie chart was born.

The word pi has no relationship to pie pi came through Greek from a Phoenician word meaning little mouth & appeared in English in 1748 to refer to the mathematical constant 3.14…

If you’re inspired to comment non-etymologically, consider sharing your favorite sort of pie

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