Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. 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.

Origin Unknown: Profile of Anatoly Liberman

Lapham’s Quarterly has a nice profile of etymologist Anatoly Liberman.

I don’t have much to say about the piece, except to highlight a couple of quotes. On why he pursues etymologies:

“Love is the wrong word,” he says. “Etymology is not a child or a woman. So there is nothing to love it for. It’s the excitement of discovery. Whether you discover a new particle in physics or the origin of a word, it’s really the same thing. It’s the excitement of the chase, the hunter’s feeling that you had your prey, and that you succeeded!”

And on the utility of Google:

“Can you do any searching with computers?” Liberman repeats the question in a resigned tone. “That’s what everybody asks. And, unfortunately, this answer is no. If you want to know the origin of a word, you will open the computer and Google the world heifer. Google will give you the titles of twenty etymological dictionaries, which is a waste to me. I have them all on my shelf. I know much more than a Google search, because I have every edition of every dictionary. I don’t need that. Sometimes Google Books will highlight a page, including Notes and Queries, that will show me something I may not know. But this is not even for dessert. These are crumbs.”

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Tommy, Tommy Atkins

The great joy of running this website is that now and again you discover a term that simultaneously connects with great historical figures and events and reveals how language, the most human of inventions, works. The British slang term for a soldier, Tommy, is just such a word. It is short for Tommy Atkins, and the word’s history, both purported and real, pulls in both the great, i.e., the Duke of Wellington, and the small, i.e., an example of how to fill out a government form correctly.

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ADS Word of the Year for 2015

Meeting in Austin, Texas this week, the American Dialect Society gave the nod to the singular they as its Word of the Year for 2015. The group, which has its members those who study how English is used in North America, also dubbed the singular they as the Most Useful word for the past year.

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piss poor, pot to piss in

The use of piss as an intensifier appears in the mid twentieth century U. S. slang. The first recorded use is in Ezra Pound’s Cantos LII–LXXI, lxix., which contains the line:

Bingham, Carrol of Carrolton Gone piss-rotten for Hamilton Cabot, Fisher Ames [etc.].

Why exactly piss is used in this fashion is uncertain, but it’s probably for the shock value.

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pot to piss in, piss poor

See piss poor.

poinsettia

This flower (Euphorbia pulcherrima), native to Mexico and associated with Christmas, has a rather straightforward etymology. It is named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as the U. S. minister (i. e., ambassador) to Mexico from 1825–30. An amateur botanist, Poinsett sent samples of the flower back to the States, and the name poinsettia became attached to the plant by 1836. The original Latin designation was Poinsettia pulcherrima, but by the 1860s it was recognized as being in the genus Euphorbia.

The association with Christmas began in Mexico. In Mexican Spanish the poinsettia is called flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve flower).


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition, September 2006, s. v. poinsettia, n.

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Boxing Day

Boxing Day is 26 December, the day after Christmas. It is celebrated in Britain and many of the Commonwealth countries, including Canada, but not in the United States. Two competing theories about the origin of the term are common. One is that the name comes from the Christmas box traditionally given to tradespeople on that day. The other is that it comes from the boxes of alms collected by churches in connection with St. Stephen’s Day, which in the Western church calendar falls on the day after Christmas. 

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reindeer

Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, are a species of deer native to the arctic and subarctic of Europe, Siberia, and North America. The word is a borrowing from the Scandinavian languages—it’s hreindýri in Old Icelandic and rendjur in Swedish. (The usual word in Swedish is simply ren, but rendjur is an older form.) The first element of reindeer is from the Germanic root rein, which is of uncertain origin, but is likely a reference to the creature’s antlers. Deer is a Germanic root meaning animal or beast, which only later specialized to mean the species of ruminant mammals. So the literal meaning of reindeer is likely “horned beast.”

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English Composition 101

This isn’t strictly on the topic of word and phrase origins, but it’s a topic I have recently gained considerable experience in. John Warner has penned an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “I Cannot Prepare Students to Write Their (History, Philosophy, Sociology, Poly Sci., etc...) Papers,” and I couldn’t agree with his conclusions more.

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