dunce

This word meaning a stupid person is an eponym for John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308), a leading scholar of philosophy and theology. Scotus was born in Duns, Scotland and his writings formed the philosophical core for a Scholastic sect named after him, the Scotists. In the 16th century, humanists and reformers began attacking the Scotists for splitting hairs and engaging in useless philosophical discussions. In retaliation, the Scotists railed against the new learning of the Renaissance. As a result, Duns’s followers became associated with those who refused to learn. As William Tindale put it in 1530 in An Answere Unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge:

Remember ye not how [...] the old barkyng curres, Dunces disciples and lyke draffe called Scotistes, the children of darknesse, raged in euery pulpit agaynst Greke Latin and Hebrue.

The sense meaning an idiot dates to at least 1579. From John Lyly’s Euphues, The Anatomy of Wyt from that year:

If one be hard in conceiuing, they pronounce him a dowlt: if giuen to studie, they proclaime him a dunce.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dressed to the nines

The phrase to the nines means perfection. Today, it appears almost exclusively in the form dressed to the nines, but it has not always been paired with dressed and does not exclusively relate to sartorial perfection and the various explanations that discuss nine items of clothing are incorrect. The most likely explanation for the phrase is that nine, in some numerological systems, connotes perfection.

From the Scottish poet William Hamilton of Gilbertfield in his 1719 Epistles to Ramsay:

How to the nines they did content me.

Two lines from Robert Burns, both penned before 1796, use the phrase:

‘Twad please me to the Nine.

And:

Thou paints auld nature to the nines.

The form with dressed appears in the latter half of the 19th century. From Thomas Hardy’s 1876 The Hand of Ethelberta:

When she’s dressed up to the nines for some grand party.

It is sometimes said that the nine in the phrase is a corruption of eyne, the Old English word for eyes. But the phrase appears too late for this to be likely.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, New Edition)

doughnut

Any number of people have inquired about the origin of the name of this pastry. The dough part is easy enough, but why nut?

The term doughnut is first attested to 1809 in Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York. But Irving does not refer to the toroidal confection that we know today. Instead, what he describes are small balls of fried dough, what we would today call doughnut holes:

An enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.

The nut comes from the size and shape of these balls, literally nut-like objects made out of dough.

Thoreau references oblong-shaped doughnuts, what we might today call a cruller, in an 1847 Atlantic Monthly article:

The window was...the size of an oblong doughnut, and about as opaque.

Apparently, the familiar toroidal shape did not become standard until the 20th century.

Some wags have claimed original spelling was "doughnought," referring to the hole in the middle. This is simply not true.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dork

The original sense of dork is penis. It is probably an alteration of dick, dating to the early 1960s.

From Jere Peacock’s 1961 novel Valhalla, in a reference to 1953:

You satisfy many women with that dorque?1

In 1964, the familiar spelling was captured in the May issue of American Speech:

The word dick itself serves as a model for two variants which are probably Midwestern, dirk and dork, also meaning “penis.”2

The sense of a contemptible person dates to at least 1967. From Don Moser’s and Jerry Cohen’s The Pied Piper of Tucson of that year:

I didn’t have any clothes and I had short hair and looked like a dork. Girls wouldn’t go out with me.3

Some contend, incorrectly, that dork originally meant a whale’s penis. That’s only half right; there is nothing particularly cetacean about the word.


1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 638.

2Lawrence Poston, “Some Problems in the Study of Campus Slang,” American Speech 39, no. 2 (May 1964): 118.

3HDAS, v. 1, 638.

doozy

This adjective used to describe something excellent or of particular note is of unknown origin, although it may stem from a now obsolete slang term. It first appears in 1903 in Kleberg’s Slang Fables From Afar:

As soon as the races were billed he began to evolve schemes—one doozy scheme followed the other.

While the origin is not known for certain, the best guess is that it is a variant of an earlier slang term daisy, also meaning something excellent. From Samuel Foote’s 1757 The Author:

Oh daisy; that’s charming.

And from F.H. Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy of 1887:

She’s the daisiest gal I ever saw! She’s—well she’s just a daisy, that’s what she is.

There are a couple of popular etymologies for doozy floating about that are worth mentioning.

Car enthusiasts often maintain that doozy is after the Duesenberg line of automobiles. Unfortunately for this story, the Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Company was not founded until 1913, a decade after doozy appears in print. Duesenbergs may have been affectionately known as doozies, but this is a link with an existing slang term, not a new coinage.

The second has doozy as an eponym for the Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1858-1923). The timing is right and she was quite famous in her day, but there is no evidence linking her with doozy.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dongle

The original sense of this computer term is a copy protection device that attaches to an I/O port of a computer. When a program is run, it checks for the presence of the dongle on the port. The software can be distributed freely, but people have to pay for the dongle to make it work. The concept, while clever, has largely been a market failure, although dongles have filled a small niche by enabling multiple, non-networked computers to share a single software license. The term dates to at least January 1982, when it appears in MicroComputer Printout:

The word “dongle” has been appearing in many articles with reference to security systems for computer software.

The word is most likely a blend of dong and dangle, as it can resemble a penis that hangs off a computer.

A company called Rainbow Technologies, which manufactured dongles, claimed that the term was named for its alleged inventor, a certain Don Gall. This is not true and no such person existed, at least as far as I can tell; the story was simply a fabrication of the marketing department.

A more general use of the term come to my attention a number of years ago in a conversation with my boss where she asked to borrow my dongle, meaning an interface cable for a notebook computer. From a 8 June 2006 alt.pets.rodents.rats Usenet post:

The 6230i supports Bluetooth [...] so a bluetooth-usb dongle for your PC would give your [sic] a wireless means to transfer data. That’s probably the slowest option, but this might not matter for the odd photo or two.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dolly

This word meaning a rolling platform on casters is American in origin, dating to about 1901. From Samuel Merwin’s and Henry Webster’s Calumet “K” of that year:

Other gangs were carrying them away and piling them on “dollies” to be pulled along the plank runways to the hoist.

Dolly is used prior to this to refer to several different devices and tools, however. The first of these was a washtub agitator that had four extensions and resembled a doll with arms and legs. From William Roberts’s 1792 The Looker-On:

The Dumb Dolly, or a machine for washing, is recommended.

Since then, dolly has been applied to various devices, few of them resembling dolls.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dollar

The origin of the almighty dollar is in what is now the Czech Republic. In 1519, a silver mine near the town of Joachimstal (literally “Joachim’s valley,” from the German Tal, meaning valley) began minting a silver coin called, unimaginatively, the Joachimstaler. The coin, which was circulated widely, became better known by its clipped form, the taler. In Dutch and Low German, the initial consonant softened to become daler. English adopted this form, eventually changing its spelling to the modern dollar. From a 1553 letter by R. Morysin and Sir. T. Chamberlayne:

The Duke of Wirtemberg...shall have for his charges 66000 dalers.

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dog eat dog

No, it’s not a doggie dog world. The phrase is dog eat dog, a reference to ruthless competition. It is a translation of the Latin proverb, canis caninam non est, dog will not eat dog. English use of the phrase dates to the late 18th century. From the Times (London) of 19 June 1789:

As it is an established fact, that sharper will not rob sharper, nor dog eat dog.

(Source: ADS-L)

dirt poor

This term is American in origin and dates to at least 1937. The exact reference is uncertain, but it is most likely to be evocative of the dust bowl and the extreme poverty and unclean conditions in which many had to live during the Depression.

From a Time magazine review of the Boris Karloff movie Night Key in the 26 April 1937 issue:

Nearly blind and dirt-poor, Inventor Dave Mallory (Karloff) devises a burglar alarm worked by electric eyes.

The bit of internet lore about Life in the 1500s claims that dirt poor dates to Shakespearian England where finished floors were rare. This is utterly false.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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