confabulation, confab, fable

Confabulation is a word with two meanings. It can mean simply a conversation, formed from the Latin con (together) + fabulor (to speak, talk). This sense appears in the mid fifteenth century. By the early seventeenth century it had become a verb, to confabulate meaning to converse or talk. And confabulation was clipped to confab by the beginning of the eighteenth century.

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fable

See confabulation, confab, fable.

zeppelin

This word for a dirigible airship comes, of course, from the name of Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who designed such airships. Ironically, the word appears in English before it does in German. On 14 February 1896 the Washington Post referred to Zeppelin’s design for such a craft as a Zeppelin air ship, but the German Luftschiff Zeppelin doesn’t appear until 1904. By 1908 and the publication of H. G. Wells’s The War in the Air, the stand-alone noun zeppelin was being used.

Ferdinand Zeppelin had first formulated his idea for an airship in 1874, but didn’t patent the invention until 1895. Zeppelins were first flown commercially in 1910.

The most famous zeppelin was, of course, the Hindenburg, which exploded and crashed spectacularly at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on 6 May 1937 after a transatlantic crossing. Thirty-six people died, thirteen passengers, twenty-two crew, and one member of the ground crew. While the Hindenburg crash is the most famous of airship disasters, it was not the deadliest. It was preceded by the crashes of the British R38 airship in 1921 (44 dead), the French Dixmude in 1923 (52 dead), the British R101 in 1930 (48 dead), and the USS Akron in 1933 (73 dead).

Cf. airship, blimp, dirigible


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2014, s. v. Zeppelin, n.

Image: US Navy

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dirigible

Today, the word dirigible is almost always used as a noun, referring to a zeppelin-type airship, and I always had it in my head that the word was related to rigid, a reference to the rigid frame of such an aircraft. But that is not the case. The word began life as an adjective meaning capable of being directed or steered. It was formed from the Latin verb dirigere, meaning to direct, steer, or guide. So a dirigible is a steerable balloon.

The adjective dates to the late sixteenth century but in the 1880s began to be applied specifically to balloons. By 1907 the word was being used as a noun to refer to Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s airships.

Cf. airship, blimp, zeppelin


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. dirigible, adj. and n.

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airship

Today, the word airship refers to a dirigible aircraft, a flying machine with a rigid frame that is buoyed by gas bags and powered by engines, but it wasn’t always that specific. Originally, airship referred to any type of balloon or aircraft, and it wasn’t until 1900 and the advent of Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s flying machines that the word started to be applied specifically to dirigibles.

The word is, of course, a compound of air + ship and dates to at least 1817. But English wasn’t the first language to compound similar words. The German Luftschiff dates to 1735 and the French navire aérien to 1784. The English word was undoubtedly modeled on these.

Airship continued to be used to refer to other types of aircraft, including airplanes, through the 1920s, so if you find an old use of the term you have to rely on the context to tell you exactly what type of aircraft it refers to.

Cf. dirigible, blimp, zeppelin


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2008, s. v. airship, n.

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love bug

I moved to Texas last August, and this spring I’ve been subject to two assaults. The first is by allergies, which I’ve experienced in more temperate climes, but which are especially bad in the Texas spring when everything is in bloom. The other is by swarms of Plecia nearctica, commonly known as the love bug.

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four-twenty, 420

There are many origin stories for 420, a slang term referring to marijuana, but unlike most slang terms, researchers have been able to pin down its actual origin with specificity. 420 was first used by a group of students at San Rafael High School in 1971, and it refers to the time of day, 4:20 pm, when they would meet to search for a mythical crop of marijuana plants.

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fiscal, procurator-fiscal

I have been watching Shetland lately, a police procedural set, obviously, on the Shetland Islands. One of the words that keeps popping up is fiscal. The detectives talk of referring matters to the fiscal or someone has to fly to Aberdeen to meet with the fiscal office. At first I thought it was just a reference to monetary matters—after all investigations cost money and a high-profile murder case is going to need a lot of that—but it soon became clear that the context the word was used had to do with the prosecution of crimes and matters relating to what in the United States would be handled by a coroner’s office. I had stumbled on a common word that means something quite different in the jargon of the Scottish legal system; fiscal is shorthand for procurator-fiscal, the title given to a prosecutor in Scotland.

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procurator-fiscal, fiscal

See fiscal

kick the bucket / bucket list

This evocative phrase meaning to die is of uncertain etymology. The most likely explanation is that it does not refer to a washing tub or pail, the sense of bucket that most of us are familiar with. Instead, it comes from another sense of bucket meaning a yoke or beam from which something can be hung. The imagery evoked by the phrase is that of an animal being hung up for slaughter, kicking the beam from which it is suspended in its death throes.

This sense of bucket probably comes from the Old French buquet, meaning a trébuchet or balance. The more familiar sense of pail is likely from the Old French buket, meaning a tub or pail.

Shakespeare uses this sense of the word in Henry IV, Part 2 (III.ii.261):

Swifter then hee that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.

The imagery here is of someone hanging pails or casks of beer or ale on a yoke on another man’s or men’s shoulders. Shakespeare’s use of the verb to gibbet implies a gallows, as this verb was not a simple synonym for hang, but rather only used in reference to the gallows or to stringing someone up for moral opprobrium. The line is in the context of Falstaff describing Thomas Wart, a recruit to the army, saying his thin and death-like appearance is ideal for the army because in the speed and heat of battle, he is too thin for a musketeer to actually hit.

The earliest known use of the phrase to kick the bucket is from Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where it is glossed as:

To kick the bucket. to die. He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.

It is often suggested that the term refers to a hanging, where the hanged stands on a pail which is then kicked out from under him. There is no evidence to support this and it probably got its start as speculation attempting to make sense of the phrase long after the sense of bucket meaning beam was forgotten.

The term bucket list, a list of things one wants to do before one dies, derives from kick the bucket, but it’s of much more recent origin. It comes from Rob Reiner’s 2007 film The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The term bucket list appears in 2006, before the movie’s release, but the early citations are all in reference to the film.


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989 (with September 2013 additions), s. v. bucket, n.2; gibbet, v.

The Riverside Shakespeare, second edition, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, 1997, 948.

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