louse, lousy

Most of us use the word lousy, meaning “bad, poor,” without thought as to where the word comes from. But unlike many words, the etymology of lousy is rather obvious and the metaphor underlying its current meaning is clear.

The word comes from louse and the original meaning was “infested with lice.” Louse, in turn, is from the Old English lus, and has cognates throughout the Germanic languages. 

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Today, the word libel refers to a false, defamatory, written statement and the verb to libel means to write such a statement. (Libel should not be confused with slander, which is an oral statement and generally considered a less serious matter because it is ephemeral and less likely to cause lasting damage.) The word, like many legal terms, comes to English from French. Ultimately the word comes from the Latin libellus, or “little book.”

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We all know that an imp is a small devil or demon, or somewhat more playfully, a mischievous child. But it was not always so. Would you believe that imp originally meant a shoot of a plant, a sapling?

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Watson’s Potty Mouth

A bit of amusement for a Sunday morning.

It seems that the IBM Watson computer, the one that bested the Jeopardy! champs, developed a foul mouth after being given access to the Urban Dictionary. Watson is seven years old; so the behavior seems age appropriate.

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The word hag, like the woman it represents, is old, tracing back to the Old English, but hag does not appear to be a very common word until the sixteenth century, when it underwent an explosion of usage and popularity. And while today hag simply means an ugly old woman, the history of the word indicates that it once meant something darker and more sinister.

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A galoot is an awkward and not-too-intelligent person. It’s often used in affectionate deprecation; you might call a friend “a big galoot.” But most people would be surprised to find that the word has an origin in Royal Navy slang and that it is associated with a man who is perhaps the most colorful lexicographer in history.

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Political jargon terms often have a short life. Some may remember, but almost no one now uses, terms such as to bork or hanging chad. Gerrymander, however, is one of the more successful political jargon terms of all time, but its survival that is somewhat unfair to its namesake, Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), a signer of The Declaration of Independence, governor of Massachusetts, and vice president of the United States. To gerrymander is to draw a state’s voting districts in such a way as to give political advantage to one’s own political party, but Gerry was only tangentially and reluctantly associated with the practice.

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"Obscene” words are funny things. Supposedly, a word is classified as obscene because of its meaning, what it represents. But very often the meaning seemingly has nothing to do with it. Frak is a case in point. Frak is a euphemism for that more familiar four-letter word that you can’t say on U. S. broadcast television without incurring hefty fines from the Federal Communications Commission. So screenwriters use words like freak, frap, frick, and frig as substitutes for the expletive. But frak goes a bit further and takes on all the valences of its more suspect progenitor. Despite meaning exactly the same thing as fuck, and despite being used in exactly the same manner and context as fuck, frak is okay, while fuck is not.

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The modern adjective fond refers to the quality of having affection, liking, or eagerness for someone or something. But this was not always so. In Middle English, fond could mean “insipid, flavorless” or “foolish, stupid.” The verb fonnen meant “to be foolish or misguided, to fool or make a fool of someone,” and the modern fond comes from the past participle of that verb, fonned.* The word fun comes from the same root, and the modern verb to fondle is derived from the verb fonnen, appearing in the eighteenth century.

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flop, flip-flop

In the midst of his 2004 presidential campaign, Senator John Kerry said of his vote on funding for the war in Iraq, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” This may be one of the most bald-faced and succinct examples of flip-flopping in American politics, but it is hardly the first. Flip-floppers, or simply floppers, as they were originally known, have been so-called for over a century, but they’ve been around under other names for a lot longer.

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