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.

trigger warning, trigger

Trigger warnings have been a focus of some rather highly charged discussion at universities across North America lately. A trigger warning is a notice posted at the beginning of material, such as that depicting rape or violence, that may act as a catalyst or trigger for those suffering post-traumatic stress, so that they can mentally prepare themselves to view the material or to avoid it altogether. In the university context, there have been a number of student requests that professors provide trigger warnings for any such material that the students will encounter during their course work. The debate is over whether or not such warnings are warranted or appropriate in the university environment, and if so, how and when they should be delivered and for what types of material.

Putting aside the argument (which is actually less about the warnings per se and more a proxy and rallying flag for familiar progressive and conservative positions in a more general political debate), where and when did the term trigger warning arise?

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Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar

If you’re not familiar with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, you should be. This particular column takes on the passive voice and other modes of ambiguous grammar.

I particularly like the “past exonerative tense.”

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[Tip o’ the hat to Matt Sergi for pointing this one out to me.]


Tracing the origin of this word has been a difficult one for etymologists and lexicographers. Because it has been a taboo word for many centuries, there is little record to go on. But modern etymologists have pieced together the history, albeit with some gaps still existing here and there.

We know that fuck is of Germanic origin. Note that is Germanic and not German—an important distinction. It does not come from the modern German verb ficken. Instead, these two words probably share a common root. Fuck also has cognates in other Northern European languages: the Middle Dutch fokken meaning to thrust, to copulate; the dialectical Norwegian fukka meaning to copulate; and the dialectical Swedish focka meaning to strike, push, copulate, and fock meaning penis. And both French and Italian have similar words, foutre and fottere respectively. These derive from the Latin futuere. The relation between this Latin root and the Germanic ones, if any, is uncertain.

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I was shocked to realize that I had not included the etymology for raccoon on this list, not because it’s a particularly challenging one, but because after living in Toronto for five years, encounters with raccoons have become a daily occurrence. The city is overrun with them, to the extent that when one died, it got a memorial worthy of a rock star.

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I Could Care Less

xkcd does it again:

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When Not to Correct People’s English

No comment necessary…

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Internet Quotes: Langland on the Decline of English

I’ve come across the following quotation in a number of places, such as this article from The Economist:

There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.

The quotation is attributed to William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who died in 1386. The problem is that I could only find the quotation in modern translation and it sounds distinctly un-Middle Englishy, so I doubted that it was authentic. Because I could only find it in translation, tracking it down was difficult—it’s hard to search for a Middle English quotation if you don’t have the Middle English diction. It turns out that the quote is genuine, but it is a rather free translation.

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Sometimes you find an antedating that is much earlier than you expected. Such is the case with blaster, the science fiction word for a ray gun.

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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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