Monday, 23 May 2016

Figurative versus Literal Idioms: 'Burying the Hatchet' and 'Stealing someone's Thunder'

John Dennis
Many idioms in English seem fundamentally figurative but some originate from literal beginnings.

To 'bury the hatchet' means to bring about peace between two opposing sides or parties. It goes back to the Native American custom where opposing sides placed a tomahawk on the ground to declare a truce.

When we 'steal someone's thunder' it seems purely metaphorical: either diverting attention away from someone who perhaps deserves it or to lessen someone's authority. However, the idiom does have more literal beginnings. John Dennis was a (largely unsuccessful) playwright who invented a machine to make the sound of thunder for his plays. Disasterously, the play which the machine was made for closed early due to poor attendance. The play which followed Dennis's used the same thunder machine which has been left backstage. Dennis, who was apparently in the audience, stood up and declared 'By Jove! They've stolen my thunder!' and the idiom has stuck ever since.

Where does the pudding ‘Spotted Dick’ get its name from?

The pudding was first mentioned in 1849 in a cookbook. Some county councils banned the name so the pudding had to be called a ‘Spotted Richard’ instead.

The word ‘spotted’ is in reference to dried fruit in the pudding, whereas ‘dick’ is a dialect word meaning ‘plain pudding’. It’s probably a corruption of the word ‘puddick’ which changed to ‘puddink’ and then shifted to form our word ‘pudding’. 

Where does the phrase 'In the Buff' come from?

The first people to be ‘in the buff’ were soldiers because the leather that they wore was made of buffalo hide. It had a pinkish-beige colour much like a white person’s skin. Over time, it switched in meaning to describe anyone who had a lack of clothes on.

Incidentally, ‘buff’ meaning muscled or hunky originated in 1980s California and meant ‘toned or polished’. This is where the verb stems: to 'buff out' a scratch from a car, for example.

The Origin of 'Gin'

Dr Sylvius
Gin was first distilled in the 1600s in Holland and soon became a popular drink, especially amongst the poor because it was cheap to make and consume. For no more than a penny people could get drunk. In 1751 there were approximately 7000 establishments where people could buy gin in London.

Gin was first made by a Dutch Professor of medicine, Dr Sylvius, who wanted a diuretic to get rid of excess water in the body. He used distilled juniper berries which were potent as well as fine-tasting. Patients reportedly kept asking for repeat prescriptions. Before long, the drink lost its medical connotations and became a recreational tipple. The Dutch called this drink ‘Genever’ (their word for ‘juniper’).

When English soldiers were first introduced to gin, they confused its name with the Swiss city Geneva which is why for a long time ‘gin’ was spelt with a capital ‘G’ as people believed it was a proper noun. Over time, ‘Geneva’ was shortened to ‘gin’.   

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Uncommon Words for Common Things

'Aglets' are the small pieces of plastic tubing found at the end of a shoelace which stops the thread unravelling. The word derives from Old French ‘aguillette’ meaning ‘needle’ - the idea of piercing a shoelace through a shoe’s eyelets just like a needle passes through material. Before the invention of plastic, aglets were made from metals such as copper, brass and silver.

‘Borborygmus’ is the name given to a rumbling stomach.

A ‘burgee’ is the little triangular flag that flies from a boat or dinghy.

The small pink corners of the eye are called ‘caruncula’.

A ‘dewclaw’ is the fifth claw on the inner part of a dog’s leg above their toes, so called because it was believed to brush the dew off of grass when it walked through it.

Anyone who enjoys baking and cake decorating may be familiar with ‘dragees’ which are the small silver balls found on birthday cakes.

The dusty remnants at the bottom of cereal boxes are called ‘fines’.

‘Glassine’ is the specific type of paper that lines boxes of chocolates and truffles.

An ‘interrobang’ is the name given to the non-official punctuation mark which uses both a question mark and exclamation mark, generally used to express surprise. For real?!

You will see ‘muselets’ around the corks of champagne bottles – the formal name for the wire mesh.

The ‘philtrum’ is the vertical groove between the nose and top lip.

The pink and blue aniseed-flavoured Liquorice Allsorts are called ‘spogs’ (ironically containing no liquorice).

A ‘lunula’ is the half-moon part at the base of a fingernail, seen most commonly on the bases of thumbnails.

Forks have ‘tines’ – simply, the prongs.

A ‘tittle’ is another name for the dot above lower-case letters I and J.

And an ‘ullage’ is the space of a wine bottle not occupied by wine i.e. the space between the cork/lid and the top of the liquid itself.

An A-Z of Word Origins

A is for ‘alphabet’. The word derives from the Greek ‘alpha beta’ which are the first letters of the Greek alphabet.

B is for ‘bidet’. The word originates from a French word meaning ‘pony’ because you straddle a bidet in the same way you would sit on a small horse.

C is for the onomatopoeic ‘crepitate’ which means to make a crackling sound. It comes from Latin meaning ‘to rattle’.

D is for ‘dole’. Nowadays to ‘be on the doll’ means to sign up in order to get money. In the Middle Ages, to be on the dole meant you received food; the same concept applies today i.e. to give out or share something.

E is for ‘egregious’ which used to mean something remarkably good and it has since switched in meaning to mean the opposite. It derives from Latin ‘exgrex’ meaning someone standing outside of the flock i.e. something so good it stands out from all the rest. Our modern sense of the word, meaning something appallingly bad, was probably used ironically but then became more popular.

F is for ‘fridge’. ‘Fridge’ has a ‘d’ but ‘refrigerator’ doesn’t. This is because the word ‘fridge’ was inspired by the proprietary name Frigidaire in the 1920s.

G is for ‘gallant’. Women were described as such in the sixteenth century if they were elegantly dressed. It is linked to the word ‘gala’ and the idea of rejoicing and joy and the word ‘gallivant’ meaning to roam in a joyous whimsical mood.

H is for ‘horror’ which goes back to the Latin ‘horrere’ which literally means hair standing on end.

I is for ‘idiot’ which derives from Middle English through Old French meaning someone of low intelligence. Some of you may have read my blog post in the summer about the word ‘idiot’: the word goes way back to the Latin word ‘iodiata’ meaning an ignorant person, and Greek ‘idiotes’ meaning someone who preferred to remain a layman and remained private and not join in.

J is for the verb ‘jirble’ and means to spill liquid through clumsy hands (it has not yet entered standard English or the OED).

K is for ‘karaoke’ which originates from Japanese meaning ‘empty orchestra’.

L is for ‘lemur’ and goes back to a word meaning ‘spirit of the dead due to the animal's spectral face.

M is for ‘mistletoe’ and literally translates as ‘dung on a twig’.

N is for ‘nodding’ which, believe it or not, is linked to the word ‘innuendo’ through what’s called in linguistics as an ‘ablative gerund’. In the courts, ‘innuendo’ meant to refer or nod to someone; a judge may say ‘He innuendo the plaintiff’ i.e. this idea of nodding to someone to be addressed to get an explanation.

O is for ‘onyx’ and comes from a Greek word meaning ‘fingernail’ because it’s the colour thereof.

P is for ‘pantophobia’ which is a fear of everything.

Q is for ‘qintar’ which is a monetary unit in Albania. An alternative spelling is ‘qindar’. Both are useful to remember as the Q does not need the U (for Scrabblers!). 

R is for ‘ringxiety’; a word that hasn’t yet entered the OED but means ‘a mistaken belief that one’s phone is ringing’.

S is for ‘soliloquy’ which is a lovely sounding word applied to theatre when one character is alone on stage and speaking to the audience. You can ‘soliloquize’ something and be a ‘soliloquist’. The word derives from Latin ‘soliloquium’ – ‘solus’ (alone) and ‘loqui’ (speak).

T is for ‘tmesis’ and refers to a word being inserted within an existing word: examples would be ‘pretty un-bloody-likely’ or ‘I can’t find it any-blooming-where’. ‘Tmesis’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to cut’ and by using it in writing you are cutting up existing words.

U is for ‘umbrella’ and the word came from Italy in the early seventeenth century. It derives from Latin ‘umbra’ meaning ‘shade’. Umbrellas were originally created to protect someone from the sun hence its Latin root. Britain’s wet weather meant they began to be used more for staying dry about twenty years after the word’s first appearance. The word ‘umbrage’ has the same Latin root. An early sense of ‘umbrage’ was ‘a shadowy outline’, giving rise to ‘a ground for suspicion’ and led to the current sense of it meaning to take offence.

V is for ‘vespertine’ meaning ‘related to the evening’. It comes from Latin ‘vespertinus’ meaning evening.

W is for ‘wabbit’ which isn’t a nod to Elmer Fudd but to a Scottish adjective which means tired or slightly unwell. For example, ‘I’m feeling a bit wabbit’.

X is for ‘xylophone’. Interestingly, ‘xylo’ in Latin means ‘related to wood’ and is also the root of the word ‘xylography’ meaning to engrave wood.

Y is for ‘yellow’ which has plenty of negative connotations. It is related to ‘gold’ but also ‘gall’, ‘bile’ and melancholy. In the seventeenth century, it was yellow (not green) that symbolised jealousy probably because yellow was deemed to reflect a bitter or jaundiced point of view. The word ‘jaundice’ itself is from Old French ‘jaune’ (yellow) meaning a yellowish complexion. Yellow is now associated with cowardice – for example, since the 1920s, a coward has been known as ‘yellow-bellied’.

Finally, Z is for ‘zeugma’ which is a figure of speech where a word applies to two others, such as ‘he took his hat and his leave’ and ‘John and his driving licence expired last week’. 

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Short and Sweet Word Origins

Here’s a collection of short etymologies for a selection of words.

According to Greek mythology, when Theseus entered the Labyrinth to kill the Minotaur (half man, half bull), he unravelled a ‘clew’ behind him so he could find his way back. Then, a ‘clew’ was a ball of string. Over time, the meaning of the word ‘clue’ has become more figurative but has the same concept at its heart – the idea of getting to a destination using a navigational aid, whether physical or verbal. Our word ‘clue’ with the current spelling dates back to the mid-1500s.

'Robot' is one of few words to
enter English from Czech. 
The word ‘robot’ comes from Czech ‘robota’ meaning ‘forced labour’. It is one of few words taken from Czech in English and comes from Karel Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920).

‘Assassin’ means someone who kills for political or religious reasons. Members of a fanatical Muslim sect  during the Crusades used to smoke hashish and then murder the leaders of the opposing side. They started going by the name ‘hashishiyyin’ meaning ‘hashish users’ in Arabic. Centuries of mispronunciation has resulted in ‘assassin’ becoming naturalised in English.

When something isn’t genuine it may be described as ‘phony’. Pirates used to sell ’fawney’ which was British slang for fake gold rings. This is where our word ‘phony’ originates.

‘Whiskey’ is short for ‘whiskeybae’ which comes from an old English word ‘usquebae’, derived from two Gaelic words: ‘uisce’ (water) and ‘bethu’ (life). The literal translation of ‘whiskey’ is therefore ‘water of life’.

When something is in ‘quarantine’ it must be kept separate from something else. The word comes from French ‘qarante’ meaning forty. Whenever a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected it had to avoid contact with a shore for forty days.

‘Disaster’ comes from Greek ‘dis’ (bad) and ‘aster’ (star). The ancient Greeks used to blame calamities on unfavourable planetary positions.

A ‘loophole’ originally refered to the slits in a castle wall that cannons and archers would use to attack.

‘Muscle’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘little mouse’ because people used to think the bulges under the skin resembled small rodents.

In Latin, ‘luna’ means ‘moon’. Our word ‘lunatic’ originated because people thought human behaviour was altered by the changing moon phases.

If something is described as ‘lukewarm’ it is between hot and cold. It is actually a redundant word because ‘luke’ in Middle English means ‘warm’. Therefore, to describe something as ‘lukewarm’ literally translates as ‘warm warm’.

The word ‘mortgage’ derives from French and means ‘death pledge’.

If you have a ‘nightmare’ you have an unpleasant dream. The word comes from the Old English ‘mare’ and referred to a demon who would suffocate people in their slumber.

Americans call dollars ‘bucks’. This is because American frontier deerskins were used as units of commerce.

If you are an ‘addict’ you depend on something. The word comes from ancient Rome when soldiers were awarded slaves who were called ‘addicts’; the Latin word for ‘slave’. Today, if you are addicted to alcohol or other things, you are a slave to it.

‘Noon’ comes from the Latin phrase ‘nona hara’ meaning ‘ninth hour’ (ninth hour after sunrise). In ancient Rome, noon was around 3PM. The time shifted to midday because of events in Italy. ‘Nones’ were prayers generally uttered at 3PM but Benedictine monks in Italy said them closer to our 12PM midday.

Finally, the word ‘malaria’ literally means ‘bad air’ from Latin ‘mal aria’. It was used to describe the atmosphere of the swamps in Rome.

A selection of words that have quite interesting histories, I hope you’ll agree.