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.

banjax

A friend of mine, who is renovating a bathroom in her house, posted the following to Facebook yesterday:

The real skylight is one floor above in the bathroom we’re renovating. A water leak during demolition banjaxed my entire kitchen ceiling.

To which another friend replied:

Outstanding use of “banjaxed.”

I’d never noticed the word before, although I should have as it appears in several rather famous books that I have read. It’s Irish slang meaning to batter or ruin.

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planet, dwarf planet

Our word planet ultimately comes from the Greek πλάνητ-, πλάνης (planet-, planes) meaning wanderer, a reference to the motion of the planets relative to the stars. The word came into English via Old French planete and the Latin planeta. While the etymology of the word has never been in doubt, exactly what constitutes a planet has constantly changed over the centuries and is still hotly debated today.

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dwarf planet, planet

See planet.

Publishing By the Numbers

Fivethirtyeight.com, Nate Silver’s website on polling, data, and statistics, has a podcast called What’s the Point? that recently delved into the use of data by book publishers. It’s a neat discussion about the industry and how publishers make decisions about whether or not to publish a book and how to market it if they do.

livelong

Livelong is not a common adjective. Its use, for the most part, is restricted to one expression, all the livelong day, although as late as the nineteenth century the livelong night was also common. In these expressions the word is simply an intensified version of the adjective long. But why live-? We don’t use that word to intensify anything else.

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Finding Movie Quotations

Ever get a line from a movie stuck in your head but you can’t remember the film it’s from? Or you’ve got a twenty riding on a bar-bet about the accuracy of a TV quote?

Despair no more. The site QuoDB.com has the answers.

The site is a huge database of movie and television scripts, and it will pinpoint down to the second where in the film the quote appears. For instance, I looked up the word multi-pass:

01:09:24 Multi-pass.
The Fifth Element (1997)
01:09:18 - And this is?
01:09:21 - Leeloo Dallas. Multi-pass.
01:09:24 - Multi-pass.
01:09:25 - She knows it’s a multi-pass.
01:09:27 - My wife. We’re newlyweds. Just met.

The site tells me the word appears five other times in the film, and details on those are only a mouse-click away.

Definitely a site worth bookmarking.

[Tip o’ the hat to Languagehat]

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Kryptonite in the OED

The latest additions to the OED Online includes an entry for kryptonite. Definition:

In the fictional world of the comic book hero Superman: a substance that renders Superman weak and powerless. Hence in figurative or allusive use: something that can weaken or damage a particular person or thing; an Achilles heel.

And the dictionary includes the following note:

Kryptonite is most commonly depicted as a green mineral that came to earth from Krypton, Superman’s home planet, following its destruction. Other types have appeared in various comic books, films, etc., each having different properties.

Kryptonite first appears on the Superman radio program in 1943. It’s comic book appearance dates from 1949. The earliest figurative use cited by the OED is from 1965.

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The Word The Internet Didn’t Know

Not really.

The word parbunkells got a flurry of press coverage starting a few days ago, such as this piece from Popular Mechanics. Artist Julia Weist rented a billboard in Queens to feature the word, claiming that it was a forgotten seventeenth-century word that did not appear on the internet. Gizmodo declared the word to be “dead to the digital world—and to almost every living person.” Weist was trying to make a point about how information is shared over the internet, telling Gizmodo:

The word has also become a shortcut to a portrait of meaning making and content production on the Internet, both human and non-human, in the sense that you can search for it and see spools of information, reaction, conversation, re-context- ualization and response. In that sense it’s all or nothing, and now that word has been used, the more usage the better.

But she chose a bad example to make her point, and the mainstream media covering the story got a lot wrong. 

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Teaching Registers

The Economist’s Prospero blog has a post on the necessity of teaching different registers of speech. It uses Portuguese as an example, which I can’t speak to, not knowing the language, but the fundamental point the article makes is a good one: “Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing.”

It’s a good point. Students are smart, and they instinctively know how to switch registers—they do it all the time in their own speech. The only thing that needs to be done is make them aware that they do it. It’s not a difficult concept.

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