ground zero

The original sense of ground zero is the point on the earth’s surface at or directly below a nuclear detonation. The term dates to 1946. From the Chicago Daily Tribune of 30 June of that year:

Within a radius of one kilometer (.62 of a mile) from ground zero (the point beneath the blast center), men and animals died almost instantaneously from the tremendous blast pressue and heat; houses and other structures were smashed, crushed, and scattered; and fires broke out.

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Gringo is a borrowing from Spanish and is alteration of Griego, or Greek. In Spanish, the phrase hablar en griego, to talk in Greek, means to speak unintelligibly. This is akin the the English phrase, it’s Greek to me. Both apparently come from the Medieval Latin proverb, graecum est; non potest legi, it is Greek; it cannot be read.

P. Estaban de Terreros y Pando’s 1787 Diccionario Castellano contains the following:

Gringos, Ilaman en Malaga a los estranjeros, que tienen cierta especie de acento, que los priva de una locución fácil y natural Castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo, y por la misma causa con partiuclaridad a los Irlandeses.
(Gringos, they call in Malaga those foreigners who have a certain type of accent which keeps them from speaking Castilian easily and naturally; and in Madrid they are given the same name, and for the same reason, particularly to the Irish.)

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green room

The exact origin of this theatrical name for the room in which actors wait for their cues is not known. It probably refers to a room that was actually painted green, but which room and which theater is lost to the ages. The earliest uses are in reference to the London theater. From Colley Cibber’s 1701 Love Makes A Man:

I do know London pretty well, and the Side-box, Sir, and behind the Scenes; ay, and the Green-Room, and all the Girls and Women~Actresses there.

There is lots of theatrical folklore associated with the name, none of it with any basis in fact. Often it is stated that the room is green because this is a soothing color—which is probably not true as this relies on 20th century psychological theory. Another story is that it is called green because the actors would also be paid here—but English money isn’t green like U.S. currency. Besides, in 1701 they would most likely be paid in coin, not notes.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

graveyard shift

This term for a late-night work shift dates to around the turn of the 20th century. It is a reference to the desolation and loneliness of late-night work. The term gets it start in nautical circles with the form graveyard watch. From G. Tisdale’s Three Years Behind The Guns of 1895:

I am to stand the first lookout in the graveyard watch.1

1907 sees the move dry land and shift replaces watch. From Collier’s magazine of 26 January of that year:

From the saloons came the clink of the chips. For it was the “graveyard gamblers” shift...The small hours of the morning, when the carelessly speculative world is asleep, are theirs.

And a year later, in the Saturday Evening Post of 7 November 1908, we see:

A month later he and his fellows went on the “graveyard” shift. “Graveyard” is the interval between twelve, midnight, and eight in the morning.2

The term does not date to the 16th century as is claimed in the internet lore titled Life in the 1500s. Nor does it have anything to do with men stationed in graveyards listening for those accidentally buried alive to ring bells in their coffins to alert others that they are alive, nor is it a reference to medical students robbing graves in search of cadavers.

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 955.

2A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, edited by Mitford M. Mathews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 736.

grandfather clause

A grandfather clause is an exception to a rule that allows someone who previously had the right to do something to continue doing it even though the law forbids it to others. For example, when I turned nineteen, the state of New Jersey allowed me to drink alcohol. Later than year, they raised the drinking age to twenty-one, but since I was already of legal drinking age, I was grandfathered at that young age and could continue to legally consume alcoholic beverages. But why grandfather?

The term comes from discriminatory practices of certain Southern states against blacks. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some Southern states had laws requiring payment of a poll tax or taking of a literacy test before one could vote. The poor and illiterate were denied the right to vote. This would have been a race-neutral measure except for clauses in the state constitutions that exempted someone from poll taxes or literacy tests if their grandfather had had the right to vote. This meant that virtually all whites, whose grandfathers could vote before the imposition of these laws, were allowed to vote, while most blacks were denied the right to vote. Over the years, the term has lost the racial stigma and no longer connotes racial bias.

From the New York Times, 3 August 1899:

It provides, too, that the descendents of any one competent to vote in 1867 may vote now regardless of existing conditions. It is known as the “grandfather’s clause.”

The verb form, to grandfather, is more recent, dating to 1953. From the Kentucky Revised Statutes of that year:

All certificates or permits grandfathered shall be subject to the same limitations and restrictions.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Proquest Historical Newspapers)

all your base are belong to us

Screenshot from <i>Zero Wing</i>” width=This nonsensical phrase first appeared as a subtitle in the introduction of the English-language release of the Japanese video game Zero Wing in 1991.1 It’s a shoddy translation that became an in-joke among video gamers, who in the spirit of Kilroy and Mr. Chad copied it as grafitti wherever there was a flat surface:

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This nickname for New York City comes from the name of a village in Nottinghamshire, England. Gotham is from the Old English gat (goat) + ham (homestead) or hamm (enclosure, pen).

Gotham has also been, since the mid-15th century, a term for a place with foolish inhabitants. The “wise men of Gotham” is a common sarcastic allusion. Whether this usage actually stemmed from the real village in Nottinghamshire, or was just a name randomly adopted for the purpose is not known. From The Towneley Mysteries (c.1460):

Now god gyf you care, foles all sam, Sagh I neuer none so fare bot the foles of gotham.
(Now God give you care, fools all together, I never saw none so fair as the fools of Gotham.)

Washington Irving was the first to apply the term to New York in his 1807 satirical work Salmagundi:

Chap. cix. of the chronicles of the renowned and antient [sic] city of Gotham.

Irving was relying on readers to recognize the tradition that Gotham was home to simpletons.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Mills’s Dictionary of English Place Names)


This is a very old word with a relatively modern meaning. It comes from the Old English godsibb, meaning a godparent or baptismal sponsor. It is a compound of god + sib (meaning blood relation as in sibling). From Wulfstan’s 1014 Sermo Lupi ad Anglos:

Godsibbas and godbearn to fela man forspilde wide þynd þas þeode.
(Gossips and godchildren to many of those destroyed far and wide while they thrived.)

By the 14th century, the term was being used to mean a close friend, one you might chose to be godparent to your children. It was applied to both men and women, although in later uses it came to be applied only to women. From William Langland’s 1362 The Vision of William Concerning Piers Plowman:

“Ic haue good ale, gossib,” quod heo. “Gloten, woltou asaye?”
("I have good ale, gossip,” they said. “Glutton, wouldn’t you call it?")

By the mid-16th century, gossip was being used to mean a flighty woman, one who would engage in idle talk. From Thomas Drant’s 1566 A Medicinable Morall, That Is The Two Bookes of Horace His Satyres Englished:

Full gosseplike, the father sage beginnes his fable then.

From there it came to mean the idle talk itself. From Sporting Magazine of 1811:

I was up to his gossip, so I took him.

And from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of 1820:

A kind of travelling [sic] gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

googol / Google

Rarely do we know the exact circumstances surrounding the coining of a brand new word. But in the case of googol, a mathematical term for the number represented by a one followed by 100 zeroes or 10100, we know exactly who coined it and when, Milton Sirotta, the nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner, and the year was 1938. From Kasner and Newman’s Mathematics and the Imagination (1940):

The name “googol” was invented by a child (Dr. Kasner’s nine-year-old nephew) who was asked to think up a name for a very big number, namely, 1 with a hundred zeros after it...At the same time that he suggested “googol” he gave a name for a still larger number: “Googolplex.”

Later in the book:

A googol is 10100; a googolplex is 10 to the googol power.

The name of the search engine and software company, Google, is a deliberate variant of the mathematical term. The company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came up with the name in 1998. They altered the spelling for trademark purposes.

The verb to google, meaning to search for something on the World Wide Web, particularly to search using Google’s search engine, is from the corporate trademark and dates to 2000. From Usenet,, 2 March 2000:

Just for your information (well, so that someone having this problem can google it) and for what it is worth…

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

goody two-shoes

A goody two-shoes is a prudish or morally upright person. It’s an odd term to the modern ear. What do shoes have to do with being good?

The term comes from the title character in the 1765 The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes:

The Pleasure she took in her two that Means obtained the Name of Goody Two-Shoes.1

The goody in the name has nothing to do with being good. Rather, it’s an abbreviated form of goodwife, the mistress of a house, the equivalent of the modern Mrs. Later readers, unfamiliar with that form of address, took it to mean pious or virtuous.

The slang usage is 20th century. From the Los Angeles Times, 30 May 1924, in a description of a boxing match:

The two showed much brotherly affection in the first and second round thereby bringing a Kansas tornado of yips and catcalls from the angered fans. Hollywood bugs brook no Goody-Two-Shoes bouts.2

1Oxford English Dictionary, two, a., n. (adv.), 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 4 Jan 2009 <>.

2”Callahan Defeated by Adams,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles), 30 May 1924, 9.

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