Thursday, December 27, 2018

You're welcome

You’re welcome

This time of year there’s a heap of Thank yous going on & a lot of you’re welcomes to boot. 

Thank you has been in English usage since 1400, and comes from Germanic languages from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to think or feel. I love the idea that thankfulness is associated with something as basic as consciousness: simply thinking & feeling. There’s something to ponder in the new year.

To my complete surprise, you’re welcome didn’t show up in English until 1907, though welcome has been in English usage since at least 600 AD. Back then welcome looked something like wilcuma. Old English speakers used this word to welcome guests with a kindly greeting. Welcome has two word parts: willa, meaning  pleasure, desire or choice, & cuma, meaning guest. Etymologists translate wilcuma’s original meaning as greetings to one who suits my will or wish

May all those who visit you in the coming year suit your will or wish, & may you find many an opportunity for heartfelt thank yous.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Put-downs starting with S

Put-downs starting with S

For those moments in life when you just need a put-down that starts with the letter S:

Schlemiela fool or bumbler — arrived in English in the 1860s from a Yiddish word which probably came from the name of a general involved in ill-fated battles & at least one ill-fated extramarital affair.

Scofflawone who habitually ignores the law — arrived in English in 1923, as the winner of a contest posed by Delcevare King, who asked people to coin a word to define those who ignored the 18th amendment by drinking or making illegal alcohol.

Scoundrel an unprincipled knave or rogue - showed up in English in the 1580s. Though its origin hasn’t been pinned down, it may have come from a French word meaning to hide oneself.

Sharka predatory person or swindler — Appearing in English in the 1560s, shark may have come from a Mayan word meaning shark, however, many etymologists insist shark was initially applied as an insult to humans, probably from a German word meaning rascal. When it came time to put a name to a toothy, predatory fish, the word shark seemed to fit.

Skinflint a stingy, miserly person — showing up in English in the 1700s, skinflint defines an individual who is such a cheapskate, s/he would try to scrape skin off a piece of rock (flint) for profit.

Slob — an untidy, loutish individual — slob appeared in English in the 1780s from a Scandinavian source, meaning mud & mire, & by the 1860s, it gained its modern meaning.

Sluggard — a lazy person or idler — coming to English around the 1400s, probably from a Norwegian word meaning slow, it originally applied to slow-moving people, boats, & animals.

Stooge — an incompetent underling — arriving in English in 1913 meaning a stage assistant or straight man (& butt of a comedian’s jokes), stooge grew to mean incompetent underling by the 1930s. It may have come from the word student, as students sometimes assisted actors on stage.

So which S word would you love to put to use? Which one would you likely avoid using? 

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words,, Wordnik, Merriam-WebsterCollins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Six intriguing idioms

Six intriguing idioms

Every idiomatic phrase has a story. Here are a few I find entertaining.

In the 1800s, English speakers in America borrowed a Cree word for marmota monax (also known as the groundhog). They squeezed it into sounds that made some sort of sense in English, & ended up with woodchuck. These rodents were powerfully effective diggers, and regularly dug up the dirt roads, yielding chuckholes. Today, though rodents aren’t responsible, we still call the cavities in asphalt & cement roads, chuckholes

Some early puritans held the belief that a human was made of two halves: the body, & the spirit. Given puritanical thinking regarding the body, it should be no surprise that the spirit was considered the better half. When Sir Phillip Sydney wrote The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, he applied this concept to marriage. Ever since, any married individual has a better half.

The word bootlicker was born in the US of A’s youth. When hunters returned from a successful hunt (which often involved dressing and skinning), they weren’t very good at cleaning up their footwear, and stray dogs would follow them to lick their boots. The story goes that the trained hunting dogs would never stoop so low (hmmm), so bootlicker refers to the fawning behavior of curs.  

The most plausible of the many possible origins for getting one’s ducks in a row has to do with bowling. When bowling first made its way to America, a narrower-then-usual pin was used, which resembled a duck looking upward, & was called a duckpin. In those early years, machinery didn’t set up the pins for the next bowler, so someone had to run down the lane to put the ducks in rows. Voila.

In China, a task that requires synchronized multiple hands can be accompanied by the phrase (said in unison), gung ho, which translates to work together. And it’s no surprise that when a bunch of people work together, amazing things can be accomplished. English-speaking observers impressed by such things as the Great Wall, figured it took a bunch of enthusiasm to manage such a project. Ever since, gung ho! has meant very enthusiastic (in English, anyway).    

There are a couple possible origins for put up your dukes, & duke it out. Some etymologists link this to the British cockney tradition of labeling one thing by the name of something else that rhymes. Apparently, before 1700, fingers were referred to as forks. Cockney speakers combined this information with the royal title the Duke of York. Since fingers were already called forks, obviously, hands must be dukes! Makes perfect sense, right? Story #2 involves a specific Duke of York — Frederick Augustus, who was “widely admired” as a bare-knuckle fighter. So, fo course, why not call fists dukes?

I’d love to know which of these origin stories you find most intriguing OR most satisfying.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Webb Garrison’s Why You Say It, , Phrases.orgCollins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Vital forces

Vital forces

Long ago, there was a root that mostly meant vital force, or life. We modern English speakers no longer have that word, but we have its grandchildren.

One of them made its way through Greek & Latin to become eon, an indefinitely long period of time. 

Another came through Old English to become the word each, meaning any, all, every. So did ever, meaning at any time, & every, meaning each individual without exception. This root also gave us the word never, meaning not ever, & never’s Old English synonym, no.

Making its way through Latin & Old French, this root grew into eternal, meaning enduring, everlasting, endless, as did the word eternity, meaning forever.

It also came through Greek & French to become hygiene, the healthful art.

Its Latin progeny include longevity, meaning great age or long life, & primeval, or first age.

Another came to English through Sanskrit to become Ayurvedic, pertaining to the traditional Hindu science of medicine.

Through a Scandinavian source, this word became nay, meaning not ever.

Who knew? Vital forces, indeed. 

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, November 29, 2018



We hear a lot about avatars these days, mostly related to avatar’s most modern meaning, a digital representation or handle of a person. Truth is, this word & its forebears have been around quite some time. The first English application of avatar came about in 1784, & meant descent of a Hindu god in an incarnate form, which came from a Sanskrit word meaning the same thing. Linguists cite the source of the Sanskrit word as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *tere-, to overcome, pass through or cross over.

*Tere- is the source of many English words.

Through & thorough appeared in English in the 1300s. Initially, both meant from end to end & side to side. It wasn’t until the 1500s that through took on the meaning in one side & out the other & thorough began to mean exhaustively complete.

And because air passes through the holes in the nose, we have the word nostril, which came through Old English from a PIE root meaning nose combined with the PIE root *tere-, to pass through. Another word that came from that same Old English word initially meant to pierce or penetrate. By the 1590s this word picked up the meaning a shivering exciting feeling, & became our modern world thrill.

Because the Greek gods gained their immortality from drinking the nectar of the gods, the word nectar translates to overcoming death. In this word, *tere- became -tar, added to the PIE root *nek- (death), which also gave us necromancy & many of its kin. And nectar gave birth to the word nectarine.

*Tere- also made its way through Latin to become the combining form trans-, which gave us transparent, transcontinental, treason, transition, transcend, transcribe, transect, transient, transaction, transgender, & many more.

All this adds up to the fact that the root *tere- is responsible for 75% of the words in the sentence Her avatar’s nostrils thrilled as the treasonous necromancer thoroughly transfixed the nectarine.

Life is funny

Please let me know which words or transformations in this post surprised you most.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018



This week, which here in America involves many different sorts of mixing, let’s celebrate mix — more specifically, *meik-, the Proto-Indo-European root of the word mix.

This root word’s progeny have landed all over the world & appear in:

Sanskrit — misrahmixed
Welsh — mysgu — to mix
Old Church Slavonic — meso to mix
Russian — meshatmix
Lithuanian — maišauto mix or mingle 
Greek — misgein - to mix or mingle

And, of course, *meik- is responsible for heaps of English words:

mash soft mixture from Old English
meddleto interfere —  from Old French
medleyassortment or mixture (originally, hand to hand combat) from Old French
melangecollection of various things — from Old French
miscellaneouscollection of difficult-to-classify things — from Latin
mestizo/mestizaperson of mixed parentage — from Spanish
mustanghalf wild horse of American prairie — from Mexican Spanish
pell-mell — confusedly — from  Old French
promiscuous — having or involving many sexual partners, but initially a disorderly mix — from Latin
melee — confused fight or brawl — from Old French
promiscuoushaving many sexual partners, though it originally meant an indiscriminate, disorderly mix — from Latin

May this season find you mixing it up when it comes to food, to the folks with which you spend time, & possibly even the ways you think. Thoughts or comments? You know what to do.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Snuggle, cuddle, hug

Snuggle, cuddle, hug

Great sounding words, eh? I’ve no idea what it is about that short U sound in snuggle, cuddle, & hug that somehow speaks of coziness & comfort, but it does. Where did we get these comfy words, anyway?

Back in the 1560s when hug made its way into English it was spelled hugge. As it does today, it meant embrace. Though we’re not sure what its original source was, here are the two primary contenders:

-the German word hegen, to foster or cherish
-the Old Norse word hugga, to comfort.

Snuggle appeared in English in the 1680s. It came from the word snug.  Like hug, snug has a questionable background. Some contenders for snug’s roots include:

-the Old Norse word snoggr, short-haired
-the Old Danish word, snog, neat & tidy
-the Old Swedish word, snygg, trim & dapper

When snug appeared on the scene in the 1590s, it was used primarily to refer to a ship, & meant trim or compact. In time, snug added the meanings in a state of ease or comfort, & fit closely. It seems snuggle was born of these two meanings.

Cuddle is another word of questionable origin. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to cuddle as “a dialectical or nursery word” & some etymologists suggest it may have come from a now-defunct English word meaning embrace. That word was cull (which is the root of the word collar). Meaning to lie close or snug in a warm embrace, cuddle appeared first in English in the 1520s.

May late November find you engaged in just the right quantity & quality of snuggles, cuddles & hugs.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

When hippos fly

When hippos fly

Most all of us have heard that the word hippopotamus means river horse, & it does. What most of us don’t know is that -potamus (the part that means river) comes from a word meaning rushing water which came from a root word meaning to rush or fly

From the meaning to rush or fly feather was born, as was pinnate (feather-shaped), pinion (wing joint), & pterodactyl (wing-finger). Stretch your imagination a bit further (imagine someone swaggering with a fancy feather on his/her hat), & the word panache makes sense. Imagine the pointy part of a feather pen, & you see why pin & pen share a root This meaning also gave us pinnacle (pointed peak),& pinniped (fin or pin-footed sea mammal).

Some of this root’s to fly-related progeny include ornithopter & helicopter.

But along with meaning to fly, this root meant to rush, which morphed into words meaning to rush in, to grasp, to desire. From these we get the words: petition, appetite, centripetal, compete, perpetual, impetus & impetuous.

Because what goes up must come down, & this root is all about flying, it also gave us the words symptom, & ptomaine.

Who knew?

Please be kind enough to use the comments section to let me know what was most surprising in all this.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, November 1, 2018



It’s time to vote. Why not ponder some voting-related words?

The word election came to English in the late 1200s, from the French word elecion, meaning choice, election or selection. This term came from the Latin word electionem, which has its roots in the Latin word legere, which meant to choose, or read.

Vote entered English in the mid-1400s, & comes from the Latin word votum, a vow, wish, promise or dedication. This suggests a much more active role than most modern Americans appear to understand. Imagine the difference in mindset if we all envisioned each vote as a promise or vow. Imagine the difference in the outcome if we all actually turned out to vote (in 2016 only 55% of eligible Americans chose to vote).

The term suffrage which has always intrigued me. Suffrage came to English in the 1300s and meant prayers or pleas on behalf of another. It comes from the Latin word suffragium, which refers to the right to vote or to lend support. Again, prayers, pleas, & support seem to reflect a different understanding of voting, an understanding closer to the idea of a promise or vow. Interestingly, suffrage also suggests the elections of the past weren’t entirely sweet & light, as the word parts that add up to suffragium are sub- & -frangere, which respectively mean under & shouting.

The word ballot comes from Italian word pallotte, or small ball, due to the Venetian practice of voting by casting a particular colored ball into a bowl or basket. From this we have the term to blackball. I’m forced to wonder whether casting small balls into a basket might be less hackable than our present practices.

Dear followers, please have something to say this voting season. Here on Wordmonger, you can feel safe, free from shouting & blackballing.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymoniline, The OED , CNN, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The Ottawa Citizen. This post is an updated version of a 2012 Wordmonger post.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Speak up!

Speak up!

Etymologists work hard studying languages. This study involves the proposal of languages that appear to have existed & can be built based on the products of these languages’ progeny. One such proposed source language is Proto-Indo-European, & one of the root words etymologists believe came from this proposed language is a word meaning speak. Though this root word was never written when this proposed language was spoken (assuming it was spoken), we write the root *wekw-. It appears to have given birth to a steaming heap of English words.

After passing through Latin:
vociferous - 1600s
vocabulary  - 1500s
avocation  - (we also refer to an avocation as a calling — & isn’t a calling voiced?) 1400s

After passing through Latin, Old French & Anglo-French:
vouch  - 1300s

After passing through Latin & Old French:
voice  - late 1200s
vowel - 1300s
vocal - late 1300s
invoke, revoke, provoke, & evoke — 1400-1600s
convocation - 1300s 
advocate - 1300s
equivocate - late 1300s

And after passing through Greek & Latin:
epic - 1500s

All that from the idea of speaking up.

Voting day is soon upon us. Speak up.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

All things mole

All things mole

October 23 is mole day. The creators of mole day had a very particular mole in mind, but I’m not one for mole restraint, so here are the etymologies of a healthy variety of moles

The mole being celebrated on October 23 was born of the word molecule, & was coined by German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald in 1900. This particular mole establishes a unit of measurement helpful to chemists. It reflects Avogadro’s Number (6.02×10^23), the number of molecules or particles in one mole.

A mole can also be a structure of stones, earth, or concrete creating a breakwater or pier. This mole comes through Middle French & Latin from a Greek word meaning effort, & appeared in English in the 1500s.

A mole can also be the small, burrowing mammal, Talpa, europea. This mole came to English in the 1300s, most likely from the word moldwarp, which translates to earth-thrower. In the last century, this sort of mole can also be a large machine that tunnels through rock. From this same shade of meaning came the sort of mole that is a spy that operates secretly within an organization (another sort of burrowing altogether).

And coming to us during the long, darkish time of Old English, another mole meant spot, mark, or blemish. This mole originally applied to spots & blemishes on fabric, & comes from a Proto-Indo-European verb meaning to stain, soil, or defile.

And let’s not forget the amazingly tasty chocolate/chile condiment, molé. Molé appears to have made its way into English in 1900s. For decades, historians have been engaged in academic knock-down-dragouts regarding the birth of the sauce itself, but at least linguists are sure about its etymology. Molé comes from a Spanish root meaning sauce. It’s the same root that added to the Nahuatl word for avocado, gives us the word guacamole.

Thanks for coming by & celebrating all things mole (& molé) with me. Please leave any comments, whether formole or informole, in the comments section.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Long road to the farm & ranch

Long road to the farm & ranch

Wouldn’t you think the words farm & ranch would have pretty simple etymologies? I did, & I was dead wrong.

Ranch showed up in English in 1808 meaning country house. By 1831 ranch also referred to a stock-farm & herding establishment. What I find interesting, though, is the long, twisted road from this word’s roots.

Ranch’s great grandmother-word was a Proto-Germanic word meaning something curved. Its next incarnation was in the Frankish language, where it meant row or line. From there it moved to French to mean install in position, and from there it became a Spanish verb meaning to lodge or station. From there, different forms of that Spanish verb were born, first meaning group of people who eat together, then mess hall, then small group of farm huts. It was this last one, rancho, that became the English word ranch in 1808.

Wild, eh?

The same goes for the word farm, which started out as a Proto-Indo-European verb meaning to hold firmly. From there it moved into Latin, meaning constant, firm, strong, stable. That form gave birth to a Latin verb meaning to fix, settle, confirm, or strengthen. And when Medieval Latin came along, a form meaning fixed payment was born.This moved into Old French to mean a rental or lease agreement, & when farm finally made it into English in the 1200s, it meant fixed payment or fixed rent. By the 1300s, farm meant a tract of leased land, & it wasn’t until the 1400s that farm came to mean cultivated land. What a long, strange trip our simple four-letter word farm has had.

Who knew? 

Thanks for coming by, & feel free to leave a comment about these long, strange trips.


My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.