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.