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.

callow

Callow is a word that dates back to the beginnings of the English language, but it has shifted in meaning significantly over the past eleven-hundred years. Today it means ‘inexperienced, green,’ and it often appears in the phrase callow youth. But way back when it was associated with aging, for in Old English the word calu meant ‘bald.’

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chauvinism

Today we associate chauvinism with sexism, the belief that men are superior to women, but this is a relatively recent development in the word’s history. The original sense of the word was superpatriotism, the blind, bellicose, and unswerving belief that one’s country is always in the right.

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blitz

Blitz is a clipping of blitzkrieg, the German word meaning lightning war, which referred to the high-speed, offensive tactics used by the German army in the opening months of World War II. In English, blitz originally referred to a sudden, violent military attack, especially one by air, or as a verb to conduct such an attack. And the blitz refers to the German air raids on London during 1940.

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awesome, awful

When I type awesome into the search box on urbandictionary.com,* the first definition that pops up is “something Americans use to describe everything,” and the second is “a ‘sticking plaster’ word used by Americans to cover over the huge gaps in their vocabularies. It is one of the three words which make up most American sentances [sic]. The American vocabulary consists of just three words: Omygod, awesome and shit.” Both these definitions date to 2006, and presumably both are from Britons. (The second is written by the aptly named “Spleenvent.”) In addition to demonstrating the validity of McKean’s Law, which states that any criticism of another’s language will itself contain at least one error, these definitions are pretty good, if highly informal, descriptions of how the word is used today.  You have to go to the third entry to find a “real” definition: “formidable, amazing, heart-stirring, wonderful. Veronica Mars fans are awesome.” But this state of affairs was not always so. 

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awful, awesome

See awesome, awful.

ADS Word of the Year: #blacklivesmatter

The American Dialect Society has voted on its Word of the Year for 2014, choosing the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, which became the rallying cry on Twitter and other social media outlets for those protesting the failure to obtain indictments against the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. It is the first time the ADS has chosen a hashtag as its Word of the Year. The word hashtag itself was the society’s choice for 2012.

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merry, God rest you merry

It wasn’t even yet 7 am on New Year’s Day when I debunked my first word myth of the year. A friend sent me a newspaper article in which a university professor claims that the merry in the title of the Christmas carol God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen actually meant mighty or strong. “The word ‘merry’ means strong or mighty, as in ‘merry old England,’ and the word ‘rest’ means to keep or make. So the title translates to ‘God keep you mighty, gentlemen,’ and refers to the lamplighters and additional men hired to patrol during the holidays,” said the professor, who will remain nameless here out of my desire not to embarrass him for his slipshod research techniques.

The first stop for any inquiry into the English language should always be the OED. And had the professor done that, he would have discovered that God rest you merry is a catchphrase meaning may “God grant you peace and happiness,” and it dates to at least 1534. Besides the Christmas carol, its second most famous appearance is in Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (And one need not go to the OED. Wikipedia gets it right and even debunks the false meaning of merry.)

Where the idea that merry means strong or mighty comes from is a mystery, but as the Wikipedia entry testifies the mistaken idea has some currency. Merry has never been used to mean such. The modern word is from the Old English mirige, which meant pleasant, joyful, or sweet. No dictionary that I know of records merry as having a definition of strong or mighty at any time from the Old English period right up through the present.


Sources:

“merry, adj.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2001.

“miri(e (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2013.

“mirige, adj.,” Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1898.

“rest, v.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2010.

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God rest you merry, merry

See merry, God rest you merry

Strong Language

There’s a new blog in town, one aimed at “language geeks to talk about things they can’t talk about in more polite contexts.” Specifically, the blog Strong Language is all about vulgarities.

Strong Language is the brainchild of linguist James Harbeck and editor Stan Carey, who each have their own excellent language blogs. The blog also features contributions from other writers about language.

Posts in the first week of the blog’s existence have included a discussion of some of Francis Grose’s more salacious notes that never made it into any of the print editions of his eighteenth-century slang dictionary, a piece by Ben Zimmer on the shit-ins of the 1960s, and a post on dog excrement in medieval Ireland.

So if you like words and aren’t easily offended, check it out.

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