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.