condom

The origin of the word condom is unknown. There are three commonly given explanations that may be true, although none of them have any significant supporting evidence and all three must be classified as mere speculation:

  • It is named after the village of Condom in southern France. This hypothesis was first proposed in 1904. Other than the similarity in form and the general English association with all things erotic to France, there is nothing to suggest that this is in fact the origin.
  • It is from the Latin condus, meaning that which preserves, a reference to the device’s original use for preventing syphilis.
  • It is from the Persian kondü or kendü, an earthen vessel for storing grain. This is a reference to the sheath’s function as a receptacle for semen. It supposedly made its way into English via Greek and Latin.

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colonel

One of the more common questions posed by readers of this site is where does the word colonel come from and why is the pronunciation so at odds with the spelling?

Colonel is originally Italian, a colonello being the commander of a military column, or in Italian colonna. The French adopted the military rank, and in so doing switched the L for R (L/R switches are a common pronunciation shift), producing the French word coronel.

English adopted the French word, with an R spelling coronell in the mid-16th century. From a letter written by a T. Ellis in 1548:

Certen of the worthiest Almaynes at the desire of their coronell...reentred the same.

Starting in the late-16th century, translations of Italian military treatises started using the etymologically correct L spelling, and by the mid-17th century, colonel was the accepted English spelling. But the R pronunciation was firmly established and did not change. From Robert Barret’s The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres (1598):

In the time of...Henrie the eight...those were intituled Colonels, or as some will, Coronels, which the Spaniardes do call Maesters de Campo.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

cold war

Claim for coinage of cold war is disputed. It was probably coined independently by both George Orwell and by journalist and speechwriter Herbert Bayard Swope. It is often ascribed to columnist Walter Lippmann, who did not coin it, but was instrumental in popularizing the term.

Prize for first published use goes to George Orwell who used it in a 19 October 1945 article in the Tribune:

A State which was...in a permanent state of “cold war” with its neighbours.

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cold turkey

This phrase meaning suddenly, without preparation or to speak frankly is originally a reference to food. Cold turkey is literally something that can be prepared quickly and with little effort. Hence, the figurative use of something sudden and quick.

The earliest known use of the term is from 1910 in Robert Service’s The Trail of ‘98:

One morning I got up from the card-table after sitting there thirty-six hours. I’d lost five thousand dollars. I knew they’d handed me out “cold turkey,” but I took my medicine.1

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brass monkey, cold enough to freeze the balls off a

This phrase is often said to have a nautical origin involving cannon balls, but cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey is instead both literal and anatomical in origin. And although now the phrase is used almost exclusively in the canonical version given here, in early usage the parts of the monkey’s anatomy varied, as did the temperature, with the phrase being used to refer to hot weather as well.

The OED2’s entry on monkey includes the following citation from Frederick Chamier’s 1835 Unfortunate Man. (When the entry for monkey was updated for the 3rd edition, the editors decided that this phrase should instead be under the headword brass. But they have not yet updated the entry for brass, so the entry and all the citations for this phrase have vanished from the current online version; temporarily, one hopes. If consulting the online version, one must search in the 2nd edition to find the phrase and citations.) While not in the form we’re familiar with today, it establishes monkeys as metaphorical instruments of weather measurement:

He was told to be silent, in a tone of voice which set me shaking like a monkey in frosty weather.1

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coin a phrase

Sometimes interesting words and phrases are right under our noses. After using it countless times on this site, a reader asked me where the term to coin a phrase came from?

The verb to coin originally meant to literally mint a coin. It dates to the 14th century, first appearing in Robert Brunne’s Langtoft’s Chronicle, written about 1330:

The kynge’s side salle be the hede & his name writen; the croyce side what cite it was in coyned & smyten.
(The king’s side shall be the head & [have] his name written [on it]; the cross side [shall have] what city it was coined & smitten in.)

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cocktail

Perhaps H.L. Mencken said it best:

The cocktail to multitudes of foreigners, seems to be the greatest of all the contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of humanity, but there remains a good deal of uncertainty about the etymology of its name and even some doubt that the thing itself is of American origin.

Nowadays, we’re somewhat more certain that the word is American in origin than Mencken was, but there is still considerable question about its exact etymology. The explanation best supported by the evidence is that the noun meaning a mixed, spirituous drink is taken from an earlier adjectival use meaning something stimulating or that would “cock one’s tail.”

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chow

This term for food is a clipping of the older chow-chow, a Chinese-English pidgin word of unknown origin meaning food or, in particular, a mixture or medley of foodstuffs.

Chow-chow first appears in 1795, in Aeneas Anderson’s A Narrative of British Embassy to China:

Chow-chow...victuals or meat.

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cloud nine

The phrase on cloud nine describes a state of euphoria or elation and the reference is of unknown significance. It is an Americanism and is first recorded in 1957 in George P. Elliot’s Among the Dangs:

I waited awhile, but he was off on cloud nine.

Although the phrase with the number nine dates to 1957, there are variants using other numbers dating back to the 1930s. Albin Jay Pollock’s 1935 The Underworld Speaks: An Insight to Vice—Crime—Corruption has:

Cloud eight, befuddled on account of drinking too much liquor.

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church key

Church key, an American slang term for a bottle opener, is first attested to in 1951, although it is undoubtedly older.

It’s so called because the bottle openers resemble the heavy, ornate keys that unlock big, old doors like those found in churches. The origin may also be related to the irony of associating churches with drinking.1


1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 422.

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