The coldest winter…San Francisco

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
--Mark Twain

Open up just about any guide book or web site about San Francisco and you’ll find this quote. The trouble is, Twain never said it, or at least it doesn’t appear in any of his published works or extant letters and papers. The quote is sometimes attributed to other writers, but the clear favorite is Twain.

But Twain did write about the San Francisco climate and his conclusions were completely at odds with this alleged quote. In chapter 56 of Roughing It:

The climate of San Francisco is mild and singularly equable. The thermometer stands at about seventy degrees the year round. [...] It is as pleasant a climate as could well be contrived, take it all around, and is doubtless the most unvarying in the whole world.

Although, Twain did once say something sort of like the alleged quote, although it wasn’t about San Francisco. In an 1880 letter he quoted a wit, who when asked if he had ever seen such a winter, replied, “Yes. Last summer.” Twain commented, “I judge he spent his summer in Paris.”

So this appears to be a case of popular misattribution of a witty saying, possibly based on a mangling of what he said in the 1880 letter. Twain is a frequent victim of false attributions, and I say “victim” because Twain’s actual writings tend to be wittier and more insightful than most of the quotes falsely attributed to him. A good rule of thumb is that unless the source of a Twain quote is given, one should be skeptical that he ever said it.

(Source: The Quote Verifier)

flea market

Generally, the word flea connotes low-rent or cheap, because such places were often infested with fleas (cf. fleabag). The term flea market is a translation of the French marché aux puces, literally market with fleas, an open-air market where second hand goods are sold. From the Belfast News-Letter of 28 July 1891

There is going on just now near the Barriere de Montreuil, at the extreme east end of Paris a sale of rubbish, familiarly known to its frequenters by the unattractive name of the “Flea Market.”

The term quickly jumped the pond to America. From the Janesville Gazette (Wisconsin) of 4 November 1891:

Near the Barriere de Montreuil, in Paris, they have sales of odds and ends known as the “flea market.” A woman recently bought a dilapidated old mattress and, cutting it open, found 14,000 francs in gold.

Some suggest that the term is also influenced by the fact that the locations of such markets are not fixed and jump around like fleas. While this may be a characteristic of the markets, it does not appear to be the origin.

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

Audio Pareidolia

I’ve long been aware of the phenomenon of pareidolia, the seeing of recognizable objects, usually faces, in random visual stimuli. Famous examples of pareidolia include the “face” on the Cydonia Mensae region of Mars or images of the Virgin Mary on pieces of toast. Our brains are really good at pattern recognition, so good in fact that we often detect “meaningful” patterns in random data. We commonly see faces because our brains are “hardwired” to be particularly good at identifying faces.

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Wordorigins On Facebook

I’ve created a Facebook page for If you’re a Facebook member, do a search on “wordorigins” and it will pop right up. Take a look, become a “fan” of the page if you are so inclined. I’m a novice when it comes to Facebook, so if you have any suggestions on things to do with the page to promote the community on Facebook, I’ve started a thread in the discussion forum on the subject. 

Word Parts Dictionary

Sheehan, Michael J. Word Parts Dictionary: Standard and Reverse Listings of Prefixes, Suffixes, Roots, and Combining Forms. Second ed. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2008.

This is a rather specialized dictionary that will appeal to certain subpopulations of the logophile universe and will be a valuable addition to any reference library. It will chiefly be of interest to those who invent words, are avid crossword puzzle creators or fans, or are studying for a serious spelling bee competition. Those who routinely come across mysterious words that are not in standard dictionaries or who are trying to reconstruct dimly remembered words may also find it useful. But for most of us, the book will be of limited utility, as access to a good standard dictionary can give most of us the answers we seek in this arena.

Which is not to say that the Word Parts Dictionary isn’t an impressive effort. Sheehan divides the dictionary into three parts. The first is a straightforward alphabetic listing of prefixes, suffixes, combining forms, and common roots of compounds with their meaning and etymology. The second section is a reverse dictionary, where you can look up the meaning and find all the relevant affixes associated with the concept. The third organizes the entries into semantic categories, like colors, eating habits, shapes, and numbers.

So if you find yourself periodically puzzling over word roots, Sheehan’s dictionary may find a valuable place on your bookshelf.


The oldest sense of this word is the verb, meaning to cobble together something in a makeshift manner, to adjust accounts or numbers to make them conform to requirements. It is a variant of the verb to fadge, meaning to fit, to make suitable. Fadge is of unknown etymology and dates to at least 1578. From George Whetstone’s The Right Excellent Historye of Promos and Cassandra from that year:

In good soothe, Sir, this match fadged frim.

The form fudge may date to as early as 1674 when it apparently appears in Nathaniel Fairfax’s A Treatise of the Bulk and Selvedge of the World (this appearance, however, may be a misprint for fridged, meaning to move, to fidget):

They up into such a smirkish liveliness, as may last as long as the Summers warmth holds on.

The interjection meaning nonsense, humbug dates to 1766. It probably comes, in equal parts, from the verb and from an inarticulate grunt. From Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield from that year:

The very impolite behaviour of Mr. Burchell, the conclusion of every sentence would cry out Fudge!

The name of the candy comes from the verb, a reference to it being easy to make. It is relatively recent, only dating to the waning years of the 19th century. From the 1893 yearbook of Vassar College, the Vassarion:

What is it that we love the best,
Of all the candies east or west,
Although to make them is a pest?

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


This slang term for the police dates to 1924. The origin is unknown. From an article about pickpockets in the Los Angeles Times of 30 January of that year:

A “mob” can “beat a pap” to the “leather” and get away with it with the ordinary “fuzz” lookin’ on. […] A mob in the parlance of the pickpocket is a gang of three or four pickpockets working together. The “wire” or the “gun” is the man who does the actual lifting of the victim’s money. A “pap,” if he is a man, is the victim. The other men who work with the “wire” are known as the “stalls.” The pickpockets refer to policemen in general as “the fuzz.”1

While the origin is unknown, one 1931 source, Godfrey Irwin’s American Tramp and Underworld Slang, proffers the following:

Fuzz, a detective; a prison guard or turnkey. Here it is likely that “fuzz” was originally “fuss,” one hard to please or over-particular.2

Explanations that the term stems from Fuzzy Wuzzy the poetic bear or, bear, the slang term for a policeman are incorrect. This slang sense of Bear does not appear until 1975 and is a reference to the “Smokey the Bear” hats that state troopers often wear.3

1”Pickpockets Dodging City,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles), 30 Jan 1924, A3.

2Godfrey Irwin, editor, American Tramp and Underworld Slang (New York: Sears Publishing Company, 1931), 81.

3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 114.

Grammar Girl: Quick & Dirty Tips

Fogarty, Mignon. “Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”

A twice-a-week podcast and blog on writing and style issues. Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. the Grammar Girl, is one of the more sensible prescriptivists out there, although she has an unfortunate tendency to conflate style with grammar and often fails to grasp that different registers have different requirements. (e.g., She frequently criticizes news headlines, without realizing that headlines are a highly stylized form of writing that has its own rules.) If you’re into listening to podcasts, the audio version is worth the few minutes a week it takes to listen.


The US state of Georgia is named after King George II who granted a colonial charter to James Oglethorpe and a group of other trustees in 1732. Oglethorpe named the colony after his patron.1

The etymology of the name of the Eurasian country is disputed. The most likely explanation is that the name is a transliteration of the Russian for the Gurz or Gurdzh people who occupied the land in ancient times.2 Others have linked the country to Saint George, the 3rd century soldier in Emperor Diocletian’s army who was martyred for his Christian faith and who, according to legend, fought and vanquished a dragon.

1Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, edited by Philip Babcock Gove (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1993), 950;
Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names, edited by Kelsie B. Harder (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976), 197.

1Adrian Room, Place Names of the World (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974), 95.


Columbia is a poetic name for the United States or even more broadly the Americas. It is, of course, a feminized version of the name Columbus. Use of a feminized form of Columbus’s name to refer to the new world began in England As early as the mid-17th century. Nicolas Fuller, an English clergyman, wrote in his 1660 Miscellanea Sacra:

[...] is every where called America: but according to Truth, and Desert; men should rather call it Columbina, from the magnani mous Heroe Christopher Columbus1

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