Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to etymology. the study of word and phrase origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) In and of itself, etymology isn’t a terribly important or necessary field—knowing the origins of words and phrases isn’t going to save lives improve anyone’s quality of life, it won’t even help you become a better writer—but it can reveal fascinating insights into history and the nature of humanity. Language not only grows and changes with the times, it also is central to our identities.

Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting. And in the cases where it’s not, the search can help sharpen our critical thinking skills.

bowl, Super Bowl

With every new year comes the onslaught of bowl games: the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Aloha Bowl, and of course the Super Bowl. Why do we call these football contests bowls?

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Super Bowl, bowl

See bowl.

ADS Word of the Year for 2019

The American Dialect Society has held its annual conference over the past few days in New Orleans, and it has voted on its 2019 Word of the Year and its choice for Word of the Decade for the past ten years. The ADS is a professional group of linguists, lexicographers, and other language scholars, and they have been choosing a Word of the Year since 1990. They use a broad definition of word that encompasses any lexical item and includes phrases, abbreviations, emojis, and the like. While the group is scholarly, the WOTY selection is mostly for fun. The choice reflects the views of scholars but is not a scholarly endeavor. I have, upon occasion in the past, participated in the ADS WOTY selection, but I did not do so this year. See the winners and definitions of each nominee here.

So, the ADS’s choice for 2019 Word of the Year is:

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race, racism

Race and racism permeate nearly every aspect of present-day American culture. Yet the concept of race as most people perceive it today is a relatively new one. While demonizing the “other” and the idea of grouping people by kinship dates to antiquity, grouping people by skin color only dates to the early modern era, and the systematic classification of people into defined races wasn’t reified until the eighteenth century, although it did not spring up de novo. Geraldine Heng, Cord Whitaker, and other scholars of race in the medieval period have shown that the seeds of our present-day concept of race date to medieval Europe. Likewise, the word race itself has its roots in medieval writing.

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auld lang syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

The song is traditionally sung at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but what does auld lang syne mean and where does the phrase come from?

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2019 Words of the Year (WOTY)

As in past years, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I don’t try to select one term to represent the entire year. Instead, I select twelve terms, one for each month. During the year as each month passed, I selected one word that was prominent in public discourse or that was representative of major events of that month. Other such lists that are compiled at year’s end often exhibit a bias toward words that are in vogue in November or December, and my hope is that a monthly list will highlight words that were significant earlier in the year and give a more comprehensive overview of the planet’s entire circuit around the sun. I also don’t publish the list until the final week in December; selections of words of the year that are made in November (or even earlier!), as many of them are, make no sense to me. You cannot legitimately select a word to represent a year when you’ve got over a month left to go.

My list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American, them’s the breaks—although I have deliberately limited the number of Trump-related terms; given his ability to dominate the news cycle day in, day out, the list would otherwise be all Trump all the time.

I interpret word loosely to mean a lexical item, including phrases, abbreviations, hashtags, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily, or even usually, new, but they are associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention or relating to some event that happened during it.

So, here are the 2019 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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misdemeanor / high misdemeanor

As even non-lawyers know, in current U.S. legal parlance a misdemeanor is a less serious crime, whereas more serious crimes are classified as felonies. But what is the origin of the term? And how did it come to be used in the context of presidential impeachments in the phrase high crimes and misdemeanors?

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impeach, impeachment

The verb to impeach has a straightforward and unsurprising etymology, but the noun impeachment has an unusual twist.

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hobbit

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So begins J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. A hobbit, as anyone who doesn’t live in a hole in the ground knows, is a small humanoid creature with hairy feet and a fondness for pipe-weed. The two most famous hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are the protagonists of that novel and of Tolkien’s later The Lord of the Rings. But contrary to what most people believe, Tolkien did not coin the term hobbit.

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