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.

emoji

Emoji are pictograms used in electronic communications. An emoji is a digital icon used to express an emotion or idea, a twenty-first century updating of the old ascii emoticons like the winking face, ;-), used to mark a joke or sarcasm. 

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right stuff

Today the phrase the right stuff is inextricably linked to test pilots and astronauts, thanks to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff and the 1983 Hollywood movie made from it about the early years of the U. S. space program. The right stuff is that ineffable quality that makes one right for a particular job, a combination of skill, determination, audacity, and intelligence, along with properly tempered ambition. But Wolfe was not the first to use the phrase in this sense; far from it.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Fututiones?

The Times Literary Supplement discusses how translating Catullus is fucking hard.

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take me to your leader

The phrase take me to your leader is a science fiction cliché, so much so that in the 2007 “Voyage of the Damned” episode of Doctor Who the time-traveling, title character said, “Take me to your leader! I’ve always wanted to say that!” (Another phrase in that episode that the good doctor always wanted to say was “Allons-y Alonso!”)

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Cunk on Shakespeare

Philomena Cunk examines the life and work of William Shakespeare:

Cunk, played by comedian Diane Morgan, has this to say about Richard III:

Shakespeare wrote loads of plays about royals, known as his history plays. It was his way of pleasing the king and queen by doing stuff about their families, a bit like when your mum buys the local paper because your brother’s court appearance is in it. Perhaps Shakespeare’s best history play is Richard Three, which is about this sort of elephant man king. He’d be done in computers now by Andy Serkis covered in balls, but in the original he was just a man with a pillow up his jumper. It’s quite modern because it’s a lead part for a disabled actor, provided they don’t mind being depicted as the most evil man ever. ["I am determined to prove a villain."] Richard Three is actually based on the real King Richard of Third, who was in the Wars of the Roses. ["A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse."] At the end he loses his horse and ends up wandering round a car park looking for it, where he eventually dies, because in those days you couldn’t find your horse just by beeping your keys at it and making its arse light up. It’s quite moving and human because we’ve all worried that we might die in a car park, if we like lose the ticket and can’t get the barrier up and just die in there. Shakespeare makes you think about those things.

The entire half-hour program is here:

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anaconda

The name of the giant constrictor snake of South America is most likely from the Sinhalese henakaňdayā, a Sri Lankan name for a whip snake (from hena = lightning + kaňda = stem). How the name shifted from a snake in South Asia to one in South America is the story of a series of errors and misappellations.

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poutine, pudding

Poutine is a contender for the Canadian national dish, although whether or not it can unseat Kraft Dinner (i.e., Kraft macaroni and cheese) in overall popularity is questionable. But the origins of both the dish and its name are shrouded in mystery, and its pedigree is not that long.

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pudding, poutine

See poutine, pudding

Internet/Web vs. internet/web

I like fivethirtyeight.com. Nate Silver and his crew have pioneered a new form of journalism, one based on data rather than punditry, but like anyone else, they get into trouble when they stray outside their wheelhouse. Most recently, a blog post on their website took on the announcement that the Associate Press (AP) has changed their stylebook to use lowercase letters when writing internet and web. Formerly, the news organization had advocated for Internet and Web. In so doing, they not only demonstrated a misunderstanding of how language works, but they also screwed up their analysis of the data.

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