hermetic seal

A hermetic seal is one that is air-tight, or in other words, tightly closed. Hermetic seems to be a reference to Hermes, the ancient Greek messenger-god. But how did Hermes become associated with an air-tight seal?

In the third century A.D., the philosophical school of the Neo-platonists arose in Alexandria. They associated the Egyptian god Thoth, the god of alchemy and mystical secrets and inventor of a magical seal, with Hermes, calling him Hermes Trismegistus. In the seventeenth century, English writers began using the adjective hermetic to refer to things that were sealed or secret. From Jeremy Taylor’s 1663 Sermon preached at the funeral of John (Bramhall) late Lord Archbishop of Armagh:

Not nature, but grace and glory, with an hermetic seal, give us a new signature.

So Hermes is associated with the seal only through the habit of conquering nations to associate their gods with the local gods.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

hello

It’s often stated that hello was created specifically for the telephone; that we didn’t have this word prior to Bell’s invention. This is not quite true.

It is true that the spelling and pronunciation of hello is only as old as the telephone. From John Hay’s The Breadwinners of 1883:

Hello, Andy! you asleep.

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hell in a handbasket

To hell in a handbasket simply means going to seed without effort, a handbasket being easy to carry. The phrase appears as early as 1865 in I. Winslow Ayer’s The Great North-Western Conspiracy In All Its Startling Details:

All who were thus incarcerated should be set at liberty; that thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would “send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket;” he said the meanest of those prisoners was purity itself compared to “Lincoln’s hirelings.”

A less common variant, go to heaven in a handbasket, dates to 1880, when it appears in the Washington Post on 16 November:

He feels that but for the almost superhuman efforts the Stalwarts, like Grant, Conkling, Cameron and Logan, made after the disaster in Maine, he would have had no more chance of election than of going to heaven in a hand-basket, and he will not quarrel with them.

(Source: ADS-L; Making of America (Michigan); Proquest Historical Newspapers)

heathen

This word for non-Christian or pagan is common in all the Germanic languages. It appears in Old English in the year 826. From the Charter of Ecgberht from that year:

Andlang dic to ðem heðenum birithelsum.
(All along the dike to the heathen city.)

The word clearly arose after the introduction of Christianity to the German tribes, but had to be quite early for it to appear in all the Germanic tongues, sometime in the 4th century or earlier.

It is believed to have originated in Gothic and spread to the other Germanic tribes. In the 4th century, Ulfilas, bishop of the Goths, translated the Greek Bible into Gothic, fragments of which survive. In Mark 7:26, which reads “Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth...” Ulfilas used the word haiþnô in place of Greek, or as it appears in the Vulgate gentilis, or gentile. Haiþnô literally means dweller on the heath. So the original sense is remarkably the same as the modern sense, someone living beyond the bounds of civilization and who has not received the word of God.

This hypothesis is not universally accepted however. Some point out that Ulfilas may have been influenced by Armenian and that heathen instead is related to the Armenian het’anos, which is derived from the Greek ethnos, meaning nation or people.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

hawk a loogie

This is a slang phrase with many variants. The verb is usually either hawk or hock and the subject varies between loogie, louie, and lunger. It means to cough up phlegm and dates to the 1970s.

Hawk is an old verb meaning to clear the throat or cough up phlegm. It dates to the late 16th century and is probably echoic in origin. From Richard Mulcaster’s 1581 Positions:

For hauking vp of blood.

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hat trick

Hockey fans know what a hat trick is, scoring three goals in a single game, but few know what it refers to. The trick part is easy enough, that is simply the sense of that word meaning feat or accomplishment, but why hat?

The term is originally from the sport of cricket. In the late 19th century, a bowler who took three wickets on three successive balls would be awarded a hat as a prize from his club. From John Lillywhite’s Cricketer’s Companion of 1877:

Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully.

By the early 20th century, the term was being used more generally for any three-fold accomplishment. From the Daily Chronicle of 12 August 1909:

It is seldom that an apprentice does the “hat trick,” but the feat was accomplished by...an apprentice...His three successes were gained on Soldier..., Lady Carlton..., and Hawkweed.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

harlot

Harlot is a borrowing from Old French into Middle English. It did not originally mean a woman of low morals, but rather a vagabond, villain, or otherwise low-life man. From Ancren Riwle, a Middle English tract written sometime before 1225:

And beggen ase on harlot, ȝif hit neod is, his liueneð.
(And beg as does a harlot, give him his needs, his livelihood.)

About a century later, it was being used to refer to a jester or a buffoon, a humorous enterainer. From Richard Rolle of Hampole’s Psalter, written sometime before 1340:

Hoppynge & daunnceynge of tumblers and herlotis, and other spectakils.
(Hopping & dancing of tumblers and harlots, and other spectacles.)

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happy as a clam

Several people have emailed me asking where the phrase happy as a clam comes from. They are confused about why anyone would assume that clams were happy. Frankly, I don’t understand their confusion. Wouldn’t you be happy if you got to spend your life at the beach, just lying in the surf with no responsibilities?

Well, they wouldn’t be confused if they knew the whole phrase. Originally, the phrase went happy as a clam in high water. The phrase is an Americanism, dating to at least the 1834 when it appeared in Harvardiana:

That peculiar degree of satisfaction, usually denoted by the phrase “as happy as a clam.”

The full phrase is recorded in Jonathan Slick’s 1844 High Life in New York:

They seemed as happy as clams in high water.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

handicap

Handicap comes from an old method of setting odds in a horse race or other contest. Two bettors would engage a neutral umpire to determine the odds in an unequal contest. The bettors would put their hands holding forfeit money into a hat or cap. The umpire would announce the odds and the bettors would withdraw their hands—hands full meaning that they accepted the odds and the bet was on, or hands empty meaning they did not accept the bet and were willing to forfeit the money. If one forfeited, then the money went to the other bettor. If both agreed on either forfeiting or going ahead with the wager, then the umpire kept the money as payment. The word is a shortening of hand in the cap.

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hack / hackney

How did a word for a taxi also become a term meaning overused and worn out?

Hackney comes from the Old French haquenée, meaning a gentle, riding horse, an ambling horse. It was adopted into English in the 14th century meaning a horse of middle size or fair quality. From The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun, a 14th century poem:

Ac nim a ligter hakenai & lef her the swerd Morgelai.
(But take a lighter hackney & leave here the sword Morgelai.)

Very early on, by 1393 at the latest, the word had also acquired the meaning of a horse for hire. From William Langland’s Piers Plowman (C Text) of that year:

Ac hakeneyes hadde thei none. bote hakeneyes to hyre.
(But hackneys had they none, hackneys for hire to boot.)

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