kangaroo court

Strangely, the term kangaroo court is not Australian in origin. The term refers to an improperly constituted and illegitimate court, especially one constituted by people who are otherwise outside the law, prisoners, mutineers, etc. What kangaroos have to do with it is not known for certain. There are plenty of guesses, but no strong evidence.

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meh

It is with no lack of irony that a word expressing apathy is one of the hot words of the last decade. That word is meh, an expression of indifference and absence of interest in the topic at hand, a verbal shrug of the shoulders. As of this writing, urbandictionary.com has some 298 user-supplied definitions of meh. Many of these definitions are duplicative, of course, but the fact that 298 different people took the time to write definitions and record examples of its use is indicative of the fervor that meh generates.

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Internet Quotes: Camus on Autumn

[This is the first in what will be an irregular series of posts on various quotations posted to the internet. The internet is a wonderful source of information, but when it comes to quotations it is abysmal. I’ll lay good money down, giving odds, that any given quotation taken from the internet is defective in some way. ]

A friend of mine posted a picture of some autumn leaves to her Facebook feed today, and inscribed on the picture was:

Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.
—Albert Camus

A nice sentiment, a bit treacly for my taste, but nice nonetheless. But alarms bells went off in my brain when I saw the quotation was ascribed to Camus. The sentiment didn’t sound like the dark and gloomy writer that I was familiar with. But hey, people write all sorts of different things, and maybe Albert penned this in one of his more manic moments.

So I set out to look it up. 

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meat

Vegetarians don’t eat meat, at least they don’t nowadays. But had there been vegetarians a millennium ago, they would have. For, you see, meat did not always mean the flesh of animals. In Old English, the word mete meant simply “food.” From the Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (5.4):

he in his hus eode ך mete þigde
(he went into his house and accepted meat).

Bede’s original Latin has “ieiunium soluere” (break his fast).

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march

March has many different meanings; the Oxford English Dictionary has six different entries for march as a noun and two as a verb. But the sense considered here is the one of walking or moving forward.

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luxury

Today, we associate luxury with wealth, opulence, and indulgence, but the word originally meant “sexual desire,” or plain and unadorned “lust.”

Luxury is first recorded in English in 1340 and comes to us from French, one of those words imported by the Normans when they conquered England in 1066. The earliest known English use is found in the Ayenbite of Inwyt, a confessional text copied by a Kentish monk in 1340. It’s a translation of the French Somme le Roi, a very popular book in its day:

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lunch, luncheon

Lunch and luncheon have a very confused etymology. One might think that luncheon is the original, and that lunch is a clipping of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Both words originally referred to a hunk or thick slice of food, often bread or cheese. The common view is that lunch came first and that it evolved from lump, in an analogous fashion to hump and hunch and bump and bunch. Luncheon is an extension of the shorter word. Then sometime in the eighteenth century the shorter word disappeared, only to pop up again a few decades later as a clipping of luncheon. But this common view is by no means certain, as the early history of the words is thoroughly confused.

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louse, lousy

Most of us use the word lousy, meaning “bad, poor,” without thought as to where the word comes from. But unlike many words, the etymology of lousy is rather obvious and the metaphor underlying its current meaning is clear.

The word comes from louse and the original meaning was “infested with lice.” Louse, in turn, is from the Old English lus, and has cognates throughout the Germanic languages. 

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libel

Today, the word libel refers to a false, defamatory, written statement and the verb to libel means to write such a statement. (Libel should not be confused with slander, which is an oral statement and generally considered a less serious matter because it is ephemeral and less likely to cause lasting damage.) The word, like many legal terms, comes to English from French. Ultimately the word comes from the Latin libellus, or “little book.”

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imp

We all know that an imp is a small devil or demon, or somewhat more playfully, a mischievous child. But it was not always so. Would you believe that imp originally meant a shoot of a plant, a sapling?

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