Department of Animal Speech

News reports from a few weeks ago told of researchers at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland who have discovered that bottlenose dolphins use signature whistles, to identify themselves to others in their pod. In typical fashion, the news reports played this up, saying that dolphins had "names" for one another and some even going so far as stating that this is proof of animal use of language.

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denim / jeans

These two words for the same type of fabric derive from place names, but from the names of two entirely different places.

The word denim comes from the French phrase serge de Nîmes, or serge from Nîmes, a town in southern France. Gradually the latter part of the phrase became clipped into the modern denim. From Edward Hatton’s The Merchant’s Magazine of 1695:

Serge Denims that cost 6l. each.

Similarly, jeans also comes from a place name, this time from Italy, Genoa in particular. It comes from the French phrase jene fustian, meaning a type of twilled, cotton cloth from Genoa.

This name for Genoa comes from the Old French Jannes. The earliest English reference to Genoa as Jean is in the Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VII from 1495:

Cables...of Jeane makyng.

The sense meaning the cloth appears somewhat later. From Henry Swayne’s Churchwardens’ accounts of S. Edmund and S. Thomas, Sarum, 1443-1702 from 1567:

ij yerdes of Jene fustyan.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dark and stormy night

Edward Bulwer-LyttonThe phrase “It was a dark and stormy night...” has become synonymous with bad and melodramatic writing. Cartoonist Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame had Snoopy habitually starting novels with this line. It is so clichéd that the most famous annual “bad writing” contest is named after its author, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.  The line is the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The full quote is:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

(Source: Project Gutenberg)


This derogatory term did not originally refer to Italians, which is its chief sense nowadays. Dago comes from the Spanish given name Diego, and over time has extended in meaning to include Portuguese and eventually Italians. It dates to the 1830s. From E.C. Wines’ 1833 Two Years in the Navy, referring to the natives of Minorca:

These Dagos, as they are pleasantly called by our people, were always a great pest.1

The application of the term to Italians dates to the 1870s. From Francis Henry Sheppard’s 1875 Love Afloat: A Story of the American Navy:

Our band is all broke up. Arrowson has got every Dago, and Greaser, and nigger against me.2

1Oxford English Dictionary, Dago, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 2 Jan 2009 <>.

2Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 553.


See denim.


Cockpit seems a rather strange choice to denote the pilot’s compartment on an airplane, but once the semantic history of the word is known, all becomes clear.

Cockpit originally referred to a place for cock-fighting, literally a pit for fighting cocks. Thomas Churchyard writes in The Worthines of Wales (1587):

The Mountaynes stand...In roundnesse such as it a Cock pit were.

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The prefix cyber- was first used in 1948 by Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), an American mathematician, when he coined the term cybernetics in his book of that title:

We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics.

Wiener based it on the Greek kubernetes, or steersman, which is also the root of the word govern. Wiener may also have based his word on an 1830s French usage of cybernétique, which meant the art of governing, but whether he took it directly from the Greek root or was familiar with the French term is unknown.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

cut to the chase

This phrase meaning get to the point comes from the early days of Hollywood. Originally, it literally referred to a cut from a dramatic scene to an action one (the chase). The literal sense dates to J.P. McEvoy’s 1927 novel Hollywood Girl, where it is given as a script direction:

Jannings escapes...Cut to chase.

Figurative use comes sometime later. From F. Scully’s 1955 Cross My Heart:

I am the sort who wants to “cut to the chase” As far as I’m concerned, we can read the instructions later.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

cut the mustard

This phrase is from a metaphor where the mustard is something that adds flavor or zest to life, something that is good. Something that cuts the mustard is very good.

The phrase dates at least 1898. From the Decator, Illinois Herald Despatch of 6 April of that year:

John J. Graves, tight but that ha cun’t cut the mustard.

Mustard has a long history of being used as a metaphor for something powerful or biting. First in a negative context, as in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546):

Where her woordes seemd hony,...Now are they mustard.

And somewhat later in a positive sense. From James Howell’s Lexicon Tetraglotton (1659):

As strong as Mustard.

The origin of the cut portion of the phrase is uncertain. It could be a reference to cutting a mustard seed, a very difficult task. Or it could be a conflation with a cut above, to cut the mustard is to be better than mustard.

The phrase is also rendered as to be the mustard and it’s very similar to keen as mustard.

Various explanations that it is a corruption of a military phrase to cut muster or that mustard is a difficult crop to harvest have no evidence to support them.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; ADS-L)


The word curfew originates in the medieval practice of ringing a bell at a fixed time in the evening as an order to bank the hearths and prepare for sleep. It comes from the Anglo-Norman coeverfu, the equivalent of the Old French cuevre-fe, or cover fire.

We can see the Anglo-Norman in the 1285 Statutes of London:

Apres Coeverfu personé a Seint Martyn le graunt.
(After Curfew person on Saint Martin the great.)

And the English a few decades later in the Seuyn Sages, c.1320:

Than was the lawe in Rome toun, That, whether lord or garsoun That after Corfu be founde rominde, Faste men scholden hem nimen and binde.
(Then was the law in Roman towns, that, when a man or boy is found roaming about after curfew, men should take and bind him fast.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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