egg on

This term meaning to encourage or incite has nothing to do with throwing eggs. The verb egg dates to 1200 and is from the Old Norse eggja. From the Trinity College Homilies, c.1200:

Alse the deuel him to eggede.
(And the devil egged him.)

The phrase to egg on is 16th century. From Thomas Drant’s 1567 Horace His Arte of Poetrie, Pistles and Satyrs Englished:

Db, Ile egge them on to speake some thyng, whiche spoken may repent them.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

eeny, meany, miney, moe

These are simply nonsense words used in various children’s counting-out rhymes. The words have no intrinsic significance and variants are found in several different languages. There is no canonical version of the rhyme and a great number of variations on the rhyme are found.

The oldest known versions date to 1855 and are found in the publication Notes & Queries:

The Schoolboy Formula...Eeny, meeny, moany, mite...Eeny, meeny, tipty, te.

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eavesdrop

Most people know that to eavesdrop is to listen in on a conversation to which one is not a party. But where does this word come from? What does it have to do with eaves and roofing?

Eavesdrop, or originally eavesdrip, is a very old word. It is originally a noun referring to the water dripping off the eaves of a building or ground on which such water would fall. From medieval times there were legal restrictions on building close to one’s property line so that the eavesdrop would not damage the neighbor’s land. From the Kentish Charter of year 868 (yfæs drypæ = eavesdrip):

An folcæs folcryht to lefænne rumæs butan twigen fyt to yfæs drypæ.
(A right of the people to live without restraint except it is uncertain in the eaves drip.)

The word eavesdropper, meaning one who stands in the eavesdrop of a building and listens to conversations within, dates to 1487. From the Nottingham Borough Records of that year, mostly in Latin except for the word in question:

Juratores...dicunt...quod Henricus Rowley...est communis evys-dropper et vagator in noctibus.
(The court…was told…under oath that Henry Rowley…is a common eavesdropper and a prowler in the night.)

Or for a fully English quote, we go to c.1515 and Richard Pynson’s Modus Tenendi Curiam Baronis:

Avb, Euesdroppers vnder mennes walles or wyndowes...to bere tales.

The verb to eavesdrop makes is not recorded until 1606. It’s not certain whether it’s a backformation of eavesdropper, or if that noun comes from the verb which existed, unrecorded, in earlier years. From the 1606 comedic play Sir Gyles Goosecappe:

We will be bold to evesdroppe.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition.)

Easter

Easter, or Eastre as it is originally, was the name of a pagan goddess of the dawn whose festival was held on the vernal equinox. The Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices (as they did with Saturnalia and Christmas) for their celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The pagan holiday roughly corresponded with the time of year of the crucifixion and resurrection (Passover).

From the translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History commonly attributed to King Alfred, c.890, a statement by Nechtan mac Der-Ilei, king of the Picts, on accepting the Roman Catholic doctrine of when to celebrate Easter, an event that happened c.710:

Ic ðas tide Eastrena ecelice healdan wille.
(I will observe this date of Easter forever.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dyke

This term for a lesbian is a clipped form of bulldyker, an American slang term that dates to at least 1906. The origin is unknown, but the fact that bulldyker is the earliest known form by several decades limits the possibilities significantly.

From J. Richardson Parke’s Human Sexuality (1906):

In American homosexual argot, female inverts, or lesbian lovers, are known euphemistically as “bulldykers,” whatever that may mean: at least that is their sobriquet in the “Red Light” district of Philadelphia.1

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Dutch treat

This is one of several derisive terms referring to the Dutch. Dutch treat is an Americanism referring to the supposed Dutch trait of being miserly. It dates to at least 1887. From the August issue of Lippencott’s Magazine of that year:

“You’ll come along too, won’t you?” Lancelot demanded of Ormizon. “Dutch treat vous savez.”1

The adverbial form go Dutch dates to 1914, first recorded in Sinclair Lewis’s Our Mr. Wrenn of that year.2


1Oxford English Dictionary, Dutch, a., n. (adv.), 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 6 Jan 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50071137>.

2Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 683.

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.

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