A butler is the chief servant in a household. The word comes to us from Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England following the Norman Conquest. The Anglo-Norman word was buteiller, a cup-bearer or servant who served wine. The word ultimately comes from the medieval Latin buticularius. It is cognate with the word bottle, which is from the Anglo-Norman botel and the medieval Latin buticula

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saved by the bell

Saved by the bell, which the OED defines as “to be rescued from a difficult situation,” comes to us, as should be no surprise, from the world of boxing. It originally and quite literally referred to a boxer who was about to be beaten into submission only to have the bell ring, signaling the end of round. The origin is so obvious that it shouldn’t require evidence, but there is an absurd-on-its-face explanation that the phrase comes from devices rigged onto coffins that those buried alive could ring if they woke up after having been buried. This myth is pernicious and is repeated by many who should know better.

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Bechdel test

The Bechdel test is an informal way to determine whether a film or TV show exhibits bias against women in the female characters it presents. It’s named for its inventor, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test, including Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, whom Bechdel credits with the idea. The test is in three parts:

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Incel is a portmanteau of involuntary celibate, referring to a person, usually a heterosexual man, who desires a sexual or romantic partner but is unable to find one. The term arose as a self-identifier and spawned a virtual subculture as those people reached out for support on the internet. But over the years that subculture and the term itself morphed into one associated with violent misogyny. Ironically, however, the movement was started and the term incel was coined by a bisexual woman.

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cotton-picking, cotton-picker

Cotton-picking is a difficult adjective. On the one hand its origin is rooted in a metaphor for slavery in the American South, and as such carries racist connotations with it. But on the other hand, it’s often used without any racist intent at all. So while someone might use it innocently, that person’s audience might legitimately misinterpret the speaker’s intent.

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white shoe

The adjective white shoe is used in the United States to denote the establishment, the privileged, moneyed, and usually conservative, elites who traditionally run American businesses. But why white shoes?

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Yodeling is associated with Alps, so it’s no surprise that the English word is borrowed from German. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb to yodel as “to sing or call using a distinctive style of vocalization characterized by repeated rapid alternations of pitch between the low chest voice and the high falsetto or head voice.” The German verb jodeln dates to at least the eighteenth century, and the older Middle High German jolen meant to sing loudly and wildly.

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run it up the flagpole

The phrase run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes is credited to Madison Avenue admen of the 1950s. The phrase, and many others like it, is used in the context of brainstorming or “spitballing ideas” and refers to making a suggestion to see if people like it.

The earliest use of the phrase that I can find is in the April 1957 film 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Reginald Rose, where it is uttered by Juror #12, a feckless advertising executive played by Robert Webber:

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The use of nimrod to mean an idiot or inept person is often said to come from young viewers misinterpreting a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Warner Brothers cartoon does play a role in the word’s history, but it’s not Bugs Bunny, but rather Daffy Duck, who utters the word. Nor did Daffy invent the insult, rather it comes from a slow change in the word’s meaning over the years.

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Major League Team Names

It’s called the “great American pastime,” and baseball has been an integral part of life in the United States for, give or take, the last 160 years. So here are the origins of the names of the Major League Baseball teams, past and present.

For those not familiar with the structure of American professional baseball, the Major League Baseball consists of, and has consisted of since the early days of the twentieth century, two leagues, the National League (founded 1876) and the American League (founded 1901). But at various times, particularly in the nineteenth century, other leagues existed, and I make reference to them below when needed. There are also a number of minor leagues, which now exist primarily as “farm” teams to develop player talent for the majors. And until the middle of the twentieth century, professional baseball in the U.S. was segregated, with African-Americans not permitted to play in the two major leagues. There were separate Negro leagues, with the best teams every bit the equal in player quality with the white, major league teams. Following the integration of baseball with Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Negro leagues folded. Where I could find the information, I’ve included the origins of Negro league team names.

The dates listed after the team names are the dates the name came into baseball use, not the date the modern organization that currently uses the name was founded.

Oakland Athletics (1859). Athletics is probably the oldest sports team name still in use, dating to 1859 when an amateur Philadelphia team dubbed themselves the Athletics. The name was used, off and on, throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century for a number of professional, Philadelphia teams. The modern American League franchise played in Philadelphia (1901-54) and Kansas City (1954-67) before landing in Oakland in 1968. Since moving to the Bay Area, the name has alternated back and forth between Athletics and A’s, depending on the whim of the moment. 

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