Thursday, June 28, 2018



Whisk broom. Kitchen whisk. Whiskers. Whiskey. 

All related? Not quite.

It seems whisk’s initial foray into English happened in the 1300s. It came from an Old Norse word meaning a wisp of hay — something to sweep with — imagine a rustic whisk broom. The Old Norse word’s source (a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to turn or twist) is also the source of Sanskrit, Old English, German, Danish & Czech words meaning respectively, a noose, a brush, a broom, to clean, & a wisp of straw.

Whisk’s initial foray into English involved no use of the letter H. The H appeared in whisk sometime in the 1570s. 

By the 1400s, whisk (at the time, wisk) could also be used as a verb, meaning to move with a rapid, sweeping motion. In the 1500s whisk/wisk picked up the meaning to brush or sweep lightly. 

Sometime around 1600, the similarity between a mustache and a broom or brush gave birth to the words whisker & whiskers. In time, whiskers generalized to mean any facial hair.

The word whisk was also used in the 1600s to refer to a popular card game we now call whist.

Though we’ve lost this particular meaning, back in the 1600s a woman’s neckerchief or scarf could be called a whisk.

By 1660, whisk also meant an implement for beating eggs.

In the 1800s, the word whisk could be used to denote a swarm of insects. A shame to have lost this one, I’d say.

The apparently related words whisky & whiskey have no relationship at all to whisk & whisker. In the 1700s, folks speaking Gaelic enjoyed the water of life, which they called uisge beatha. In usage, that latter part of the term faded away, and uisge, Anglicized, became whiskey. Though many modern drinkers embrace the distinction between the two spellings — whiskey (distilled in Ireland) & whisky (distilled in Scotland) — the Scots originally spelled theirs the same as the Irish. Scotch whisky mysteriously lost its E sometime in the 1800s.

If any of these caught you by surprise, please let me know in the comments section.

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018



The frog most readers probably imagine comes from a source that — not surprisingly — meant to hop. This Proto-Indo-European root made its way into Russian, Sanskrit, Dutch, German, Old Norse, & Old English, & is now defined as an insect-eating anuran amphibian of the family Ranidae

But the word frog does not stop at amphibians.

Like buttons, zippers & Velcro, frogs can be used as garment closures (a decorative cord fastening). This meaning came about in the mid-late 1700s. It grew out of an earlier 1700s meaning, an attachment on a belt to hold the scabbard of a sword. No one is certain of the root of this meaning of frog

Florists use frogs in the bottom of vases to support plant stems in flower arrangements. This meaning most likely came from the similarity of the rounded backs of early plant-stem-holders to the rounded backs of insect-eating anuran amphibians

The bit of a violin bow the violin player grips is also called a frog (the jury is out regarding this meaning’s origin).

And the word frog has been used as a slur against French people, due to an English stereotype regarding people’s diets in France.

And then there are frog youth: In 1877, a small child might have been referred to as a tad. Etymologists are moderately sure tad was a shortened form of tadpole, which was born of the word tadde, an alternate form of toad. Toad came to English in the 1300s from nobody-knows-where, & was added to the Middle German word poll, meaning head. It wasn’t until 1915 that tad began to mean a small bit. Polliwog, another term for frog youth, showed up in the 1400s from a word meaning wiggle added to poll-, that German word for head that also appears in the word tadpole.

Frogs do appear to hop rampant, eh?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.

Thursday, June 14, 2018



Some words do a lot of work. Fair is one such word.

One sort of fair appears to have come from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant to make pretty. It moved from there through Germanic languages to land in Old English with three different meanings: 
-morally good (when applied to people or policies) 
-pleasing to the sight (when applied to people, places, & objects), & 
-bright, clear, & not rainy (when applied to the weather). 

By 1200, the prejudices of the day contributed to another meaning — light of complexion, eyes, or hair. About the same time, fair added the meaning according to propriety or justice. By the 1300s, fair added the meaning equitable, free of bias, or impartial. By the late 1300s, fair picked up three more meanings: -promising or auspicious, 
-of considerable size,
-(when applied to wind) favorable for a ship’s passage.

Along the way, fair spawned some idioms:

fair play — 1590s
the fair sex — 1660s
fair weather friends — 1736
fair game — 1776
fair ball & fair catch — 1856
fair haired (meaning favorite or darling) — 1909

AND there’s another fair that came through Old French & Vulgar Latin from Latin. This fair means a celebration or trade opportunity & the place where the celebration or trading occurs.

There’s a whole lot of fairing going on.

Any thoughts? Please use the comment section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.

Thursday, June 7, 2018



Sometime around the year 1200, Norse speakers generously gave English speakers the word bull. Since then, bull has had a wild ride.

That original bull meant male bovine. Its Norse source may have come from a Proto-Germanic word meaning to roar. Some etymologists argue that the word boulder may have come from this same source, as water in a river roars over the boulders. Hmmm. Other etymologists argue that bull’s Norse source came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to blow or swell.

That same Proto-Indo-European source meaning to blow or swell gave us the bull in Papal bull. It appears the Pope’s new policies (or clarifications of old policies) were documents sealed with wax, & the wax appeared to be a swelling on the paper of the document, & voila — a bull

By 1610 or so, the original meaning of bull expanded, applying not only to male bovine, but to male alligators, elephants, & whales.

In 1711 anyone boldly grappling with a difficult situation could be said to be taking the bull by the horns.

By 1714 bull could be used to refer to an upward trend in the stock market

In the early 1800s, a popular song introduced the idiom bull in a china shop to refer to someone recklessly using force in a delicate situation.

By 1859 a policeman could be pejoratively referred to as a bull.

There are three potential sources for the bull that means insincere or deceptive talk. Yes, indeed, it may be a shortening of the crass word bullsh**, however, some records suggest its use preceded its crasser comrade. Bull’s other possible sources include an Icelandic word meaning nonsense, an Old French word meaning deception or trick, & a Middle English word meaning false or fraudulent talk. If any of the latter three are the true source, then the four-letter word bull may have given birth to the cruder eight-letter term bullsh**.

The word bulldoze was born during one of America’s uglier times. In the late 1800s a bulldose was a severe beating or lashing — one strong enough to subdue a bull. These lashings weren’t being administered to bulls, but to humans, specifically, black citizens trying to exercise their right to vote (specifically granted by the 15th amendment in 1870). By the 1880s, bulldose/bulldoze came to also mean to intimidate by violence. It wasn’t until 1942 that an earth-moving piece of heavy equipment was called a bulldozer

Any thoughts on all this bull? Leave a note in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.