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.


The English name for the Asian country is not originally a native Chinese one. It first appears in Sanskrit writings about two thousand years ago. It was brought to Europe by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. The first English usage appears in 1555 in Richard Eden’s The Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India:

The great China whose kyng is thought...the greatest prince in the world.

The ultimate origin is not quite certain. Most commonly it is thought to come from the Ch’in (or Qin in the Pinyin transliteration system) dynasty of the 3rd century B.C. Alternatively, it could come from Jinan, an ancient city in Shandong province.

The porcelain product is so named because that technique of earthenware manufacture originated in China. It was brought to Europe in the 16th century by the Portuguese. Its appearance in English dates to at least 1634, when it was used by Thomas Herbert in his A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile:

They sell Callicoes, Cheney Sattin, Cheney ware.

China-ware was clipped to China within a few decades. From Henry Cogan’s The Voyages and Adventures of F.M. Pinto (1653):

A Present of certain very rich Pieces of China.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Place Names of the World, by Adrian Room)

charley horse

This term for a cramp or pulled muscle in the leg is originally a baseball term, or at least it first gained widespread use in baseball jargon. The reference is a mystery. No one knows who Charley was or why he may have had a lame horse.

The earliest known use of the term is from the Boston Globe, 17 July 1886:

Several years ago, says the Chicago Tribune, Joe Quest, now of the Athletics, gave the name of “Charlie horse” to a peculiar contraction and hardening of the muscles and tendons of the thigh, to which base ball players are especially liable from the sudden starting and stopping in chasing balls, as well as the frequent slides in base running. Pfetlor, Anson and Kelly are so badly troubled with “Charley horse” there are times they can scarcely walk. Gore had it so bad he had to lay off a few days, and is not entirely free from it now. Williamson, too, has had a touch of it.1

(A search of the ProQuest archives of the Chicago Tribune fails to turn up the story about Joe Quest referenced in the above quotation.)

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Department of Foot In Mouth

Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, got off to an inauspicious start at his first press briefing on Tuesday by using the term tarbaby when asked about the government collecting phone records on millions of Americans:

I don’t want to hug the tarbaby of trying to comment on the program, the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

The term has a history of use as a derogatory term for African-Americans. Snow was using the term in its sense meaning an intractable problem that brings discredit to those who attempt to solve it and undoubtedly did not intend any offense, but he did display significant insensitivity in using it.

The term comes from 1881 Joel Chandler Harris story of Uncle Remus, where Brer Fox smears a doll with tar in hopes of using it to ensnare Brer Rabbit:

Brer ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun what he call a Tar-Baby.

From this original use, the term was extended to its metaphorical sense of a difficult problem. But by the 1940s, the term was being used as a racial epithet. From Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal of 1948:

"I didn’t know she was a tar-baby.""Don’t be so dumb. Can’t you see it by her jaw?"

Sometimes people take offense at words and phrases like nitpicking, picnic, or call a spade a spade, falsely believing there to be a history of racist usage in them. In such cases, people should not be afraid to use the term in question–if someone takes offense, one can simply point out their error. But in this case, the term does have a long history of racist usage. Snow would have been better served choosing a more neutral metaphor like playing in traffic or touch the third rail.

Department of Motherhood & Apple Pie: Official, no wait, National, no wait, Common and Unifying

Is English the national language or is it a common and unifying language? In a fit of linguistic demagoguery the U.S. Senate would have it both ways. Within the span of a few minutes the Senate declared English to be the national language and then the common and unifying language. Not a single senator voted against both wordings. (Three were not present for the vote.)

On Wednesday, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) submitted an amendment to the immigration reform bill pending action in the Senate that would make English the "national language" of the United States. The United States has never declared an "official" or "national" language, although several of the individual states have. The amendment passed the Senate on Thursday in a 63-34 vote.

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Molecular Mixology

This Wednesday’s New York Times had an article by Peter Meehan ("Two Parts Vodka, a Twist of Science") that used the term molecular mixology, the practice of applying knowledge of chemistry and cooking techniques to make distinctive cocktails–I almost wrote original instead of distinctive, except that it seems most of these new cocktails are variants of old classics, like the Martini, instead of being new creations. The term was new to me, so I looked for its origin.

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Sit, Google, Sit

Objections in China over the name Google has chosen for itself in Mandarin. An online petition is circulating asking Google drop the name Guge. The name Guge is represented by the Chinese ideograms for harvest and song, or it can mean valley song or grain song. Chinese users of the search engine believe it has rural or traditional connotations, the opposite image the high-tech giant should be trying to cultivate.

A survey of Chinese internet users last year by the China Internet Network Information Company found that over half of the respondents failed to spell Google correctly. The search engine company is trying to counter this by pairing its English name with the Chinese name.

Some have suggested that Google be known as gougou, or dog dog. A suggestion that Google flatly rejects. Others suggest the English-Chinese blend Good gou, or good dog, in acknowledgement of Google’s behavior toward the Chinese government.

(Source: Straits Times, 22 & 30 April 2006)

Immigrants & The English Language

This past Monday was A Day Without An Immigrant, a one-day strike by immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, to demonstrate the economic importance of immigrant labor in the United States and to protest a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would make illegal immigration a felony.

This past week also saw a stir over a Spanish-language version of the national anthem, with many believing it is unpatriotic to sing the song in any language other than English.

As this newsletter is about language, this week we look at a couple of myths and misconceptions about immigrants and the English language.

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charger plate

For those of you that have not dined in a really fancy restaurant lately, a charger plate is a large dish that is on the table when you are seated and other plates and dishes are placed, or loaded, on top of it.

The word first appears as the Middle English chargeour in the c.1305 work Legends of the Holy Rood:

I was that cheef chargeour, I bar flesch for folkes feste.
(I was that chief charger, I bore meat for the people’s feast.)

The root in French is uncertain. It is either the Anglo-Norman chargeour meaning that which loads or the Old French chargeoir meaning a serving utensil.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


A chairman is the leader of a committee or parliamentary body. The origin is, as one might guess, a compound of the words chair + man. The chair is a reference to a seat or position of authority and the man is, of course, a reference to the person who occupies it. The word dates to 1654 when it appears in John Trapp’s Commentary of the Book of Job:

I sate chief, and was Chair-man.

In more recent times the word has come under criticism for being sexist as not all such leaders are male. A backlash by those who want to preserve the old patterns of speech has resulted in some propagating a false etymology that states the -man is not a reference to a person at all and is, therefore, not sexist. This ill-informed view states that the -man comes from the Latin manus, meaning hand, that the chairman is the hand of the one sitting in the chair guiding the meeting. This is complete bunk.

(Source Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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