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, sol.lists.freebsd.mobile, 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)
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 Shoes...by 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
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.
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 glitch...is 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.
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.
The term Generation X is much older than those that are usually assumed to belong to it. Generation X is a lost or disaffected cohort of youths; the X is a reference to the algebraic term for an unknown quantity. In recent years it has been applied to those coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, the children of the Baby Boomers, although the term is much older than this generation.
It dates to 1952 and originally applied to the youth of that period. From Holiday magazine of December of that year:
What, you may well ask, is Generation X?...These are the youngsters who have seen and felt the agonies of the past two decades..., who are trying to keep their balance in the swirling pressures of today, and who will have the biggest say in the course of history for the next 50 years.
Use in reference to the post-Baby Boom generation dates to at least 1989, when the Toronto Star of 24 February had this to say:
What if this Generation X turns around collectively and comes to the conclusion they can’t sit around waiting, and instead...start their own businesses.
That same article coined the term Generation Xer for a member of Generation X:
The other possibility...is that the Generation X-ers will cope by changing their goals or changing their behavior.
Credit for the coinage of Generation X is often mistakenly given to Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of that title, but while Coupland did much to popularize the term, he did not coin it.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)
A gargoyle is a stone figure that forms part of the gutter system of medieval cathedrals. It is a spout, in the shape of some grotesque creature, that carries rainwater away from the walls of the building. The word is from the Old French gargouille, or throat, and is a reference to the water passing through the throat of the stone figure. The same root gives us the modern noun and verb gargle.
From the c.1386 century poem, Saint Erkenwald (the extant manuscript, BL Harley 2250, dates to sometime before 1500):
Hit was a throghe of thykke stone...With gargeles garnysht aboute, all of gray marbre.
(it was a tomb of thick stone…with gargoyles garnished about, all of gray marble.)
According to myth, in the 7th century a dragon, named Gargouille rose from the waters of the Seine River in France. Unlike the typical dragons of mythology, this one did not breathe fire, but rather was a water dragon. The monster proceeded to lay waste to the countryside around Paris by drowning it. St. Romain, the Archbishop of Rouen, accompanied only by a condemned prisoner, set out to stop the beast. Upon confronting the monster, the saint formed a cross with his two index fingers, taming Gargouille. The dragon was led back to Paris, where it was slain and burned. The head, however, was saved and mounted on a building. This legend supposedly gave rise to the architectural practice of designing waterspouts to look like monsters.
Nowadays, to frog march someone is to pin their arms behind their back and hustle them along with a person at either side. The term is usually used in reference to prisoners in police custody. From J. Ferguson’s 1931 Death Comes To Perigord:
Cæsar slewed him round, and forcing both arms behind his back, got ready to frog-march him to the door.
But why frogs? The answer is that the modern concept of frog-marching is not the original. Originally, frog-marching was carrying a person face downwards, with a man holding each limb. The metaphor comes from the idea that a frog crawls on its belly. From the Evening Standard, 18 April 1871:
They did not give the defendant the "Frog’s March".
This citation from the Birmingham Weekly Post of 15 November 1884 makes the concept clearer:
Deceased was ‘frog’s-marched’that is, with face downwardsfrom Deal to Walmer.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
A French kiss is an open-mouthed kiss with tongue and the term dates to the beginning of the 20th century. From a 1918 letter appearing in Private Lindner’s Letters: Censored and Uncensored:
So I have decided to become a linguist. Being able to read French fluently and speak it wretchedly, and to speak German connectively but not to read it at all, I am taking up Luxembourg, which is a wonderful blend of the two, a sort of laison [sic] between tongues. (Not to be confused with French kissing.)1
But why French? The French have been associated with sexual practices dating back to the 18th century. From Henry Fielding’s 1749 Tom Jones:
But I am so far from desiring to exhibit such Pictures to the Public, that I would wish to draw a Curtain over those that have lately been set forth in certain French novels.2
In this case, Fielding was writing about risqué novels that were literally French. By the mid-19th century, the figurative sense was well established. From Robert Browning’s 1842 Bells and Pomegranates:
Or, my scrofulous French novel,
On grey paper with blunt type!3
1Clarence R. Lindner, Private Lindner’s Letters, edited by Gladys Dudley Lindner (San Francisco, 1939), 119.
2Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, In Four Volumes, vol. 3 (Basil: J.L. Legrand, 1791), 306.
3Robert Browning, Bells and Pomegranates, edited by Thomas J. Wise (London: Ward, Lock & Company, 1896), 144.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton