devil to pay

This phrase arises out of the metaphor of selling one’s soul to Satan, a Faustian bargain. The earliest known use of the devil to pay is from 25 September 1711 letter published in Jonathan Swift’s The Journal to Stella:

The Earl of Strafford is to go soon to Holland, and let them know what we have been doing: and then there will be the devil and all to pay; but we’ll make them swallow it with a pox.1

There is a common belief that the phrase is nautical in origin and comes from the unpleasant task of caulking a ship’s keel, but this is not the case.

In the alleged nautical origin, the devil is a sailor’s name for the seam that runs along the length of a ship’s keel and the verb to pay means to smear or cover a seam with pitch or tar to make it watertight. This sense of pay is different from the transaction sense, coming instead from the Middle French poier and ultimately from the Latin picare, meaning to smear with pitch. Nautical enthusiasts claim that the sailor’s phrase the devil to pay and no pitch hot is the original form. But that nautical form does not appear until 1744, several decades after the shorter form is attested to. From the 1744 Gentleman’s Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton:

It was the devil to pay and no pitch hot? An interrogatory adage metaphorically derived from the manner of sailors who pay their ship’s bottoms with pitch.2

It appears that the sailor’s expression is a play on words based on the shorter, Faustian sense.


1Jonathan Swift, The Journal to Stella, edited by George A. Aitken (London: Methuen & Co., 1901), 304.

2Bartlett Jere Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977), 105.

Department of Animal Speech

News reports from a few weeks ago told of researchers at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland who have discovered that bottlenose dolphins use signature whistles, to identify themselves to others in their pod. In typical fashion, the news reports played this up, saying that dolphins had "names" for one another and some even going so far as stating that this is proof of animal use of language.

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denim / jeans

These two words for the same type of fabric derive from place names, but from the names of two entirely different places.

The word denim comes from the French phrase serge de Nîmes, or serge from Nîmes, a town in southern France. Gradually the latter part of the phrase became clipped into the modern denim. From Edward Hatton’s The Merchant’s Magazine of 1695:

Serge Denims that cost 6l. each.

Similarly, jeans also comes from a place name, this time from Italy, Genoa in particular. It comes from the French phrase jene fustian, meaning a type of twilled, cotton cloth from Genoa.

This name for Genoa comes from the Old French Jannes. The earliest English reference to Genoa as Jean is in the Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VII from 1495:

Cables...of Jeane makyng.

The sense meaning the cloth appears somewhat later. From Henry Swayne’s Churchwardens’ accounts of S. Edmund and S. Thomas, Sarum, 1443-1702 from 1567:

ij yerdes of Jene fustyan.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

dark and stormy night

Edward Bulwer-LyttonThe phrase “It was a dark and stormy night...” has become synonymous with bad and melodramatic writing. Cartoonist Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame had Snoopy habitually starting novels with this line. It is so clichéd that the most famous annual “bad writing” contest is named after its author, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.  The line is the opening of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The full quote is:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

(Source: Project Gutenberg)

Dago

This derogatory term did not originally refer to Italians, which is its chief sense nowadays. Dago comes from the Spanish given name Diego, and over time has extended in meaning to include Portuguese and eventually Italians. It dates to the 1830s. From E.C. Wines’ 1833 Two Years in the Navy, referring to the natives of Minorca:

These Dagos, as they are pleasantly called by our people, were always a great pest.1

The application of the term to Italians dates to the 1870s. From Francis Henry Sheppard’s 1875 Love Afloat: A Story of the American Navy:

Our band is all broke up. Arrowson has got every Dago, and Greaser, and nigger against me.2


1Oxford English Dictionary, Dago, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 2 Jan 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50057107>.

2Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 553.

jeans

See denim.

curmudgeon

The origin of curmudgeon is not known, but that has not stopped a couple of explanations, neither with any real evidence supporting them, from circulating.

What we do know is that appears as early as 1577 in Richard Stanyhurst’s A Treatise Contayning a Playne and Perfect Description of Irelande:

Such a clownish Curmudgen.

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cockpit

Cockpit seems a rather strange choice to denote the pilot’s compartment on an airplane, but once the semantic history of the word is known, all becomes clear.

Cockpit originally referred to a place for cock-fighting, literally a pit for fighting cocks. Thomas Churchyard writes in The Worthines of Wales (1587):

The Mountaynes stand...In roundnesse such as it a Cock pit were.

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cyber-

The prefix cyber- was first used in 1948 by Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), an American mathematician, when he coined the term cybernetics in his book of that title:

We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics.

Wiener based it on the Greek kubernetes, or steersman, which is also the root of the word govern. Wiener may also have based his word on an 1830s French usage of cybernétique, which meant the art of governing, but whether he took it directly from the Greek root or was familiar with the French term is unknown.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

cut to the chase

This phrase meaning get to the point comes from the early days of Hollywood. Originally, it literally referred to a cut from a dramatic scene to an action one (the chase). The literal sense dates to J.P. McEvoy’s 1927 novel Hollywood Girl, where it is given as a script direction:

Jannings escapes...Cut to chase.

Figurative use comes sometime later. From F. Scully’s 1955 Cross My Heart:

I am the sort who wants to “cut to the chase” As far as I’m concerned, we can read the instructions later.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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