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.


Despite the claims of some that the name of this game is an acronym, its origin is unknown. The place of origin, however, is known and it should come as no surprise that the game comes from Scotland.

The earliest known reference to golf is from 1457 in the Acts of James II of Scotland, where it is banned. It seems that golf was taking too much time away from military training:

And at the fut bal ande the golf be vtterly cryt downe and nocht vsyt.
(And [playing] at the football and the golf is to be utterly condemned [lit. “cried down”] and not engaged in [lit. “used”].)

It is sometimes claimed that golf comes from the Dutch kolf or kolv, literally club, and is the name of a sporting implement in a variety of games. There are some problems with this explanation, however. The Dutch words appear later than the Scottish and none of the Dutch games resemble golf, so they are not likely predecessor games. Nor are any of the Dutch games named kolf or kolv, although one is named kolven. Finally, the early Scottish forms are with an initial g. If the Dutch word is the origin we should expect a c or a k.

Another claim is that it comes from the Scots gowf, meaning a blow with an open hand or used as a verb meaning to strike. Still, evidence of 15th century use of this word is lacking, so that term could just as easily come from the game instead of the reverse.

As for the allegation that it is an acronym standing for Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden, that is just silly.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This business buzzword of the 1990s is actually about 30 years older. It appears in adjectival form in The Economist of 4 April 1959:

Italy’s “globalised quota” for imports of cars has been increased.

The word globalization itself appears in Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of 1961.

It’s even older in a more general, non-economic sense. It was used in reference to the spread of American racism by U.S. troops during the Second World War. From The Chicago Defender, 15 January 1944:

The American Negro and his problems are taking on a global significance. The world has begun to measure American by what she does to us. But—and this is the point—we stand in danger [...] of losing the otherwise beneficial aspects of the globalization of our problems by allowing the “Bilbos in uniform” with and without brass hats to spread their version of us everywhere.

And from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1951):

Replacing the central mythos of the medieval Church, this new culture pattern is in process of “globalization,” after a period of formation and formulation covering some three or four hundred years of westernization.

And in an entirely different sense, globalization was used in the 1920s by Belgian psychologist Jean-Ovide Decroly as jargon for a stage in a child’s development. He published La Fonction de Globalisation et l’Enseignement in 1929.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; ADS-L; Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary; ProQuest Historical Newspapers)


Glitch is from the German glitschen, via the Yiddish gletshn, meaning to slip. The term is technical jargon in the electronics world to describe what happens when the inputs of a circuit change. When this occurs, the outputs briefly spike to some random value before settling to the correct value. If the circuit is queried during a glitch, a wildly inaccurate response may result. From this it acquired a more general sense meaning any malfunction.1

The term gained popular currency through the U.S. space program. From John Glenn’s 1962 Into Orbit:

Another term we adopted to describe some of our problems was “glitch.” Literally, a glitch is a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit which takes place when the circuit suddenly has a new load put on it...A such a minute change in voltage that no fuse could protect against it.2

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 903.

2Oxford English Dictionary, glitch, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 4 Jan 2009 <>.


Gig is an interesting word with a variety of senses, not all etymologically related.

The oldest sense is that of a top or other whirling object. Originally whirligig, the origin is unknown but is probably echoic. From Promptorium Parvulorum Sive Clericorum, Lexicon Anglo-Latinum Princeps, c.1440:

Whyrlegyge, chyldys game, giraculum.
(Whirligig, child’s game, giraculum.)1

This sense of top is the source of some other senses, such as a giddy or flighty person, fun, merriment, and a whim.

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