Thursday, September 27, 2018

Wreak, wretch, wrack, & more

Wreak, wretch, wrack, & more 

 So often, words that look similar have no etymological ties at all. But wreak, wrack, wretch, rack, & wreck are similar-looking words that actually are kissing cousins.

In the late 1300s, wrack referred to the bits that float onto shore after a shipwreck. It probably came from the Old English word wræc, which  meant misery or punishment. By the 1500s, wrack could be anything washed up on shore, including seaweed. This gave us the term wrack line

The oft-combined words wrack & ruin appeared in the 1400s. Though this term seems to have come from the original Old English word wræc, the spelling from the shipwreck meaning infiltrated people’s thinking, and voila! wrack & ruin. 

These days shipwrecks aren’t so common. Car wrecks are another matter. The word wreck comes from that same Old English term meaning shipwreck.

And when it comes to wreaking havoc, what a surprise — that old word wræc, meaning misery or punishment, had a verb form which meant to avenge or punish. And that form morphed to become our modern word wreak.

Those unfortunate souls who were the targets of all that havoc-wreaking got their title from the same Old English root, & were known as wretches.

Another Old English form of wræc gave us the word rack (which initially referred to an instrument which stretched leather (think punish). By the 1400s that leather-stretcher had found another use: a device of torture. Probably because this device was a series of connected bars, rack also means a device to support or hold items, antlers, to achieve or add up (rack up), a framework for displaying clothing, (off the rack), & a bed or cot (hit the rack).

And many of you might remember one of the many scourges of 1960s home fashion known as rickrack. As it happens, rickrack came to English in the 1880s as a reduplication of the word rack — the sort of rack used to stretch leather or torture people. So, we were correct back in the ‘60s when we claimed rickrack was torture.

Sorry for all the torture & punishment in this post — if you’ve got comments, leave them in the comment section.


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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Punctuation's unlikely past

Punctuation’s unlikely past

The word punctuation showed up in English in in the 1530s. Its source was a Latin word meaning to mark or point with dots, to prick or pierce. By the 1660s punctuation had morphed to mean a system of inserting pauses into written material. 

In the 1200s, the word question appeared in English, meaning a philosophical or theological problem. It came to us from Latin through an Old French word that meant question, problem, interrogation or torture. Hmmm. It wasn’t until 1849 that an orthographic mark denoting a question was referred to as a question mark (before that we called such a thing an interrogation point). 

In the 1300s the term exclamation made its way to English from Latin through Middle French. By 1824, the exclamation point could be used to denote surprise or increased volume. It wasn’t named the exclamation mark until 1926, and what a crying shame we lost the intermediary term for it, the shriek-mark.

The colon, period, & comma have more interesting tales to tell. They didn’t start out as orthographic marks at all. Each of them started out as a part of a sentence — as a string of words.

The word colon was first used to denote a limb, member, or part of a verse. This meaning morphed in the mid-1500s to mean a clause of a sentence. In time, we began to call the punctuation mark that sets off an independent clause a colon.

The word comma also first denoted part of a sentence; a short phrase or clause of a sentence or poem. Comma comes from a Greek word that meant that piece which is cut off. Now a comma is that orthographic mark that signifies a break between parts.

And period came to us through Latin and Middle French from Greek, where it meant a going around (it’s related to perimeter). By the time period made its way to Latin, one of its meanings was a complete sentence, & darned if we didn’t start using period to denote the mark that shows we’ve come to the end of a sentence.

What a wacky language. I’d love to hear whether any of this surprised you. Comment away—

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

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sheds, shacks, & hovels

Sheds, shacks & hovels

Lately, much of my writing (revising, actually) is happening in the garden shed I re-built for recording audiobooks. I call it the Shedio. So this week’s post is a re-posting from six years ago, considering the word shed & its various synonyms.

Shed is of questionable parentage. It appeared in English in the 1400s. It may have its roots in the word shade, but no certain evidence has jumped forth into the sunlight to prove this theory.

Similarly, the term shack has no definite parentage. It first appeared in print in 1878. Some etymologists argue that it may be a variant of shake, or possible have come from ramshackle (both of which predate it). Others claim it may have come from the Nahuatl word xacalli, wooden hut, through Mexican Spanish. Still nobody really knows from whence the shack came.

The word hovel isn’t really a synonym for shack or shed, but a hovel is a small building, & I have a fondness for the word. I lived a year in a place friends & family referred to as "hovel sweet hovel." It was one of seven tiny, decrepit buildings near San Luis Obispo Creek. I had to duck to enter, I couldn’t sit on the toilet with the bathroom door closed, & the mushrooms growing from the floor were not an interior decorating decision. Hovel showed up in English back in the 1300s, meaning a vent for smoke, & within a century had come to mean a shed for animals. It wasn’t until the 1600s that it came to mean a rude or miserable cabin. This last definition is particularly apropos. I learned afterward that the compound of seven hovels had been used in the 1940s to house the county’s Japanese residents as they waited to be delivered to internment camps. Misery indeed.

So, dear readers, please leave a comment with a tidbit of a tale regarding any shed, shack, or hovel experiences you’ve “enjoyed.”

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Rarely sighted idioms

Rarely sighted idioms

In the last couple of weeks we’ve considered rarely-sighted words (#1 & #2). Now it’s onto rarely-sighted idioms.

To throw a tub to a whale is to create a diversion. This idiom comes from whaling times. It seems when a whale got close enough to the whaling ship to threaten the safety of the whalers, they could sometimes divert its attention by slinging a barrel or tub into the sea. Amazingly, some whales were pleased to play with the tub instead of the ship. 

In Britain & Australia, a supercilious, pretentious, or self-important individual can be referred to as toffee-nosed. This slang term is considered rude, but then, isn’t self-absorption a bit rude? It comes from the word toff, a British term for a flashy dresser. 

Another British & Australian idiom is making whim-wham for a goose’s bridle. Its meaning rests somewhere between go away kid, you bother me, & none-of-your-business. It was/is typically used to deflect a nosy child’s questions. “What are you doing Grampa?” can be answered with, “I’m making a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle.”

The phrase to make a hames of something means to make a mess of something — to spoil something through ineptitude. It’s an idiom born in Ireland, & refers to a draft horse’s collar. The hames of the collar are the bits that connect to the traces, & apparently it’s easy to set them up backward, making a hames of it. 

And then there’s don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs, which means It’s seldom a good idea for the young to offer advice to their elders. This idiomatic advice was offered as early as the 1700s. Apparently egg-sucking in the 1700s was something everyone knew how to do, so why teach grandma how?

If you’ve got the screaming ab-dabs, you either are experiencing extreme anxiety, or suffering from delirium tremens. When this idiom appeared in the early 1930s, it referred only to the DTs, but within twenty years or so it generalized to mean extreme anxiety. Though most etymologists believe it is British in origin, some wonder whether it may have started in America, as evidenced by the 1914 Fields & Donovan tune “Abba-Dabba Honeymoon” — Hmmm.

I hope these have offered a chuckle or two & I haven’t made a hames of it. Any response? Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources:, Collins Dictionary, WorldWideWords, English Forums, & Free Dictionary.