Crackerjack meaning excellent or superb is an Americanism dating to 1888. Crack-a-jack is a variant. The origin of the term is obscure. From New York Times of 23 April 1888:

The Canadian owner, Mr. Forbes, has Rowland, Brait, and several others in McDonald’s stable, and Charles Miller has four, two of them being 2-year-olds which he expects will become “Cracker Jacks.”

The brand name for the caramel popcorn product comes from the slang usage. The name was trademarked in 1896.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; ADS-L; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times)


This contemptuous name for a poor, white resident of the southern United States comes from a 16th century term for a braggart or liar, one who makes cracks. From Alexander Barclay’s 1509 Shyp of Folys:

Crakars and bosters with Courters auenterous.
(Crackers and boasters with Courtiers adventurous.)

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Believe it or not the adjective cotton-picking comes from Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes cartoons and is used as a general adjective of disapproval, similar to damned. From a 1952 cartoon:

Get your cotton-pickin’ hooks offa me!

Bugs may not have been the first to use it, but he gets credit for first recorded use.

But the noun cottonpicker is older. It dates to around 1919 and refers to a contemptible person. From Joel Chandler Harris’s Dizzed:

What are these boys from the South? Are they cotton-pickers, corn-crackers, stump jumpers, ridge-runners or bog-leapers?

Cottonpicker has also served as a derogatory term for a black person since at least 1930. While cottonpicker has distinct racist overtones, the adjective cotton-picking does not carry them, instead being a reference to the unpleasant nature of the work.1

1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 491-92.


This slang word for a policeman most likely comes from caper, an Old French word meaning to seize, to take. It was adopted into English as to cap by 1589 when it appears in Richard Harvey’s Plaine Perceuall the Peace-maker of England:

Cap him sirra, if he pay it not.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the pronunciation and corresponding spelling had broadened to cop. From Edward Ward’s Dissenting Hypocrite (1704):

If the Cruel Stork should come, He’d Tyrannize and Cop up some [Frogs].

The shift to noun and the meaning of policeman (copper, one who cops) occurred about a century and a half later. From the 1846 Sessions Papers:

I have heard the police called coppers before.

The clipping to cop occurred by 1859. From George Matsell’s Rogue’s Lexicon of that year:

Oh! where will be...all the cops and beaks so knowin’ A hundred stretches hence?

There are several false etymologies floating about. One has it as an acronym meaning Constable On Patrol. Not only is the word older than any other known acronym, but the original form of the noun is copper, not cop.

Other stories have the word coming from either copper buttons on their uniforms or from their copper badges. There is no evidence to support this. The path from the Old French verb is rather clear.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


The origin of the word condom is unknown. There are three commonly given explanations that may be true, although none of them have any significant supporting evidence and all three must be classified as mere speculation:

  • It is named after the village of Condom in southern France. This hypothesis was first proposed in 1904. Other than the similarity in form and the general English association with all things erotic to France, there is nothing to suggest that this is in fact the origin.
  • It is from the Latin condus, meaning that which preserves, a reference to the device’s original use for preventing syphilis.
  • It is from the Persian kondü or kendü, an earthen vessel for storing grain. This is a reference to the sheath’s function as a receptacle for semen. It supposedly made its way into English via Greek and Latin.

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One of the more common questions posed by readers of this site is where does the word colonel come from and why is the pronunciation so at odds with the spelling?

Colonel is originally Italian, a colonello being the commander of a military column, or in Italian colonna. The French adopted the military rank, and in so doing switched the L for R (L/R switches are a common pronunciation shift), producing the French word coronel.

English adopted the French word, with an R spelling coronell in the mid-16th century. From a letter written by a T. Ellis in 1548:

Certen of the worthiest Almaynes at the desire of their coronell...reentred the same.

Starting in the late-16th century, translations of Italian military treatises started using the etymologically correct L spelling, and by the mid-17th century, colonel was the accepted English spelling. But the R pronunciation was firmly established and did not change. From Robert Barret’s The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres (1598):

In the time of...Henrie the eight...those were intituled Colonels, or as some will, Coronels, which the Spaniardes do call Maesters de Campo.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

cold war

Claim for coinage of cold war is disputed. It was probably coined independently by both George Orwell and by journalist and speechwriter Herbert Bayard Swope. It is often ascribed to columnist Walter Lippmann, who did not coin it, but was instrumental in popularizing the term.

Prize for first published use goes to George Orwell who used it in a 19 October 1945 article in the Tribune:

A State which a permanent state of “cold war” with its neighbours.

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cold turkey

This phrase meaning suddenly, without preparation or to speak frankly is originally a reference to food. Cold turkey is literally something that can be prepared quickly and with little effort. Hence, the figurative use of something sudden and quick.

The earliest known use of the term is from 1910 in Robert Service’s The Trail of ‘98:

One morning I got up from the card-table after sitting there thirty-six hours. I’d lost five thousand dollars. I knew they’d handed me out “cold turkey,” but I took my medicine.1

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brass monkey, cold enough to freeze the balls off a

This phrase is often said to have a nautical origin involving cannon balls, but cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey is instead both literal and anatomical in origin. And although now the phrase is used almost exclusively in the canonical version given here, in early usage the parts of the monkey’s anatomy varied, as did the temperature, with the phrase being used to refer to hot weather as well.

The OED2’s entry on monkey includes the following citation from Frederick Chamier’s 1835 Unfortunate Man. (When the entry for monkey was updated for the 3rd edition, the editors decided that this phrase should instead be under the headword brass. But they have not yet updated the entry for brass, so the entry and all the citations for this phrase have vanished from the current online version; temporarily, one hopes. If consulting the online version, one must search in the 2nd edition to find the phrase and citations.) While not in the form we’re familiar with today, it establishes monkeys as metaphorical instruments of weather measurement:

He was told to be silent, in a tone of voice which set me shaking like a monkey in frosty weather.1

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coin a phrase

Sometimes interesting words and phrases are right under our noses. After using it countless times on this site, a reader asked me where the term to coin a phrase came from?

The verb to coin originally meant to literally mint a coin. It dates to the 14th century, first appearing in Robert Brunne’s Langtoft’s Chronicle, written about 1330:

The kynge’s side salle be the hede & his name writen; the croyce side what cite it was in coyned & smyten.
(The king’s side shall be the head & [have] his name written [on it]; the cross side [shall have] what city it was coined & smitten in.)

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