This word for a firearm most likely comes from a Scandinavian woman’s name. It was and is common practice to name siege engines and cannon after women. Two famous examples are Mons Meg, the 15th century mortar that can be seen at Edinburgh castle, and Big Bertha of WWI fame. In this case, a weapon or weapons seem to have been named after a woman or women named Gunnhildr, and the name generalized to mean all such weapons.

Both gunnr and hildr mean war in Old Norse, making it an apt name for a weapon, even though there is no historical personage of significance named Gunhildr. There is at least one known example of a particular siege engine named Gunnhildr. A 1330 munitions list from Windsor Castle reads:

Una magna balista de cornu quae vocatur Domina Gunilda.
(A large ballista from Cornwall called Lady Gunilda.)

There is also this from a somewhat earlier poem The Song Against the Retinues of the Great People, written in the opening years of the 14th century:

The gedelynges were gedered Of gonnylde gnoste; Palefreiours ant pages, Ant boyes with boste, Alle weren y-haht Of an horse thoste.
(The lackeys were gathered out of Gunnild’s spark; the grooms and pages, and boys with their boasting, all were hatched of a horse’s dung.)

Gonnylde here may be a transitional form between Gunnhildr and the Middle English gonne, and gonnylde gnoste appears to be a reference to some type of explosive (gnást being Old English for spark).

Variations on gonne, in the modern sense of a firearm, appear in English records written in Latin and French starting in 1339. The first recorded use of of gonne in an English language text is by Chaucer in The Hous of Fame (c.1384):

Went this foule trumpes soun As swifte as pelet out of gonne Whan fire is in the poudre ronne.
(Went this foul trumpet sound As swift as a pellet out of a gun when fire is running in the powder.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This European name for part of the west coast of Africa has given rise to a number of terms and senses, but its origin is unknown. The name first appears in Portugeuse as Guiné, but beyond that we have no clue where it comes from.1

It seems strange that a derogatory term for an Italian or Hispanic would come from the name for a region in Africa, but Guinea did not always carry this meaning. Dating back to the mid-18th century, the word was used to refer to blacks in the Americas. The following notice appeared in the South Carolina Gazette on 12 May 1748:

Run-away, a likely well-made Guiney Negro Man, named Toney.2

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One might assume that this term is a 20th century one. After all, warfare in that century was often characterized by guerrilla combat. Guerrilla warfare is the choice of the oppressed seeking to throw out foreign oppressors, and the 20th century has seen lots of colonial wars. The term, however, is much older.

It dates to the Napoleonic campaign in Spain (1808-1811). The earliest English usage cite is by the Duke of Wellington in 1809 in his Dispatches 1799-1818:

I have recommended to the Junta to set...the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.

In Spanish the word is a diminutive of guerra or war; so guerrilla is literally little war.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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)

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