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.

fascism, fascist

The term for a right-wing political ideologue arises in post-World War One Italy, but its etymological roots go back to the Roman Empire. Fascis (pl. fasces) is Latin for a bundle of rods, especially one bound with an axe, and carried before a Roman magistrate as a symbol of power and authority. English use of the word dates to the late sixteenth century, and the use of the image of fasces has a long history—bronze reliefs of fasces appear on either side of the speaker’s rostrum in the U. S. House of Representatives, for instance. 

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Why I dislike Bryan Garner

I don’t dislike the man. I’ve never met him. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, and given a chance, we’d probably get along just fine. But I don’t like Garner’s Modern American Usage, an Orwellian usage guide published by Oxford University Press.

Why don’t I like it? It’s not simply because it’s “prescriptivist.” I have no problem with giving advice on how to write well. As a teacher of composition, I tell my students how to write all the time, and hopefully I’m teaching them to write well. And it’s not because consistently following Garner’s advice will result in stodgy, unimaginative prose. There is a place for stodgy, unimaginative prose. For example, I tell my students that Garner’s is a good guide if you’re composing a cover letter for a résumé, where you want language that no one could possibly object to. What I object to is Garner’s attitude toward language and the methodology—if you can dignify his arbitrary and subjective process with that label—he uses to formulate his pronouncements.

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Leech is a noun with two distinct meanings, or perhaps it is more accurately stated that leech is two separate nouns that are spelled the same and often conflated. The word is the name for a type of blood-sucking invertebrate, and it also is an archaic term for a physician or healer. The two senses are associated because physicians used to (and in some limited applications still do) use the worms to draw blood out of a patient. The conflation of the two goes back to Old English, where læce is the word for both a physician and a bloodsucker, but the two senses apparently come from distinct roots.

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I learned a new word yesterday, graduand: a candidate for graduation at a school or university; someone who has completed the requirements of a degree, but hasn’t received their diploma yet.

The oldest citation in the OED is from the 1882 Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, so the word is bound to be somewhat older than that. The word comes to English from the medieval Latin graduandus, which is the gerundive of the verb graduare, to graduate.

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Who We Are

Dave Wilton

Dave Wilton has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Toronto, with a specialization in Old English language and literature. His research focus is cognitive approaches to Old English lit, and his dissertation examines how metaphors in Old English literature can explicate Anglo-Saxon ideas and conceptions of the mind, agency, and free will. Dave also has an M.A. from George Washington University in National Security Policy Studies and a B.A. from Lafayette College in Government and Law. He is also the author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford University Press, 2004).

In past lives, Dave has worked as a marketing writer/editor and as a product manager for 3D graphics and digital television technologies at NVIDIA and OpenTV, for Science Applications International Corporation as a manager of programs that dismantled the nuclear stockpiles of the former Soviet Union, and as an arms control negotiator for the Pentagon.


Lila is the staff assistant here at Wordorigins.org. Her duties include reception and greeting of visitors, multiple daily perambulations, self-defenestration, mastication of assorted objects, and olfactory investigations.

David Peterson on Invented Languages

David Peterson is the inventor of a number of languages used in various movies and TV shows, perhaps most famously Dothraki, the language of the nomadic horse people in Game of Thrones. This video is of a recent talk he gave at Google on how he, and others, create fictional languages. The depth of linguistic knowledge required in this craft and the art in how he applies it to create realistic languages is quite amazing.

The video is an hour long, but well worth it.

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Grits (Canadian political term)

I learned a new Canadianism this morning. The Liberal Party just won the federal election last night, and today the news outlets are referring to them as the Grits, as in this article from the Toronto Star:

The Grits were elected or leading in all 32 ridings in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, turning their backs on the 13 incumbent Conservatives and six New Democrats.

But the name for the Liberals is a very old one, and even predates the modern political party. The OED has citations from 1884, but antedatings can be easily found.

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John Oliver on Quotes

John Oliver goes off on bad quotations:

One thing he doesn’t mention, however, are quotation websites, which are notoriously unreliable. (I won’t provide any links because I don’t want to drive traffic to them.) Rule of thumb: if the specific source of the quotation is not given, down to the page number, don’t trust that it is correct.

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hip hip hooray

The cheer, also commonly spelled hip hip hurrah, as we know it today dates to the early nineteenth century, but its components go back a bit further. 

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