star

This word for a celestial ball of flaming hydrogen dates back to the Old English word steorra. From the Vespasian Psalter, c.825:

Hergað hine alle steorran & leht.
(Plundered him all the stars & light.)

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squaw

Squaw is borrowed from the Narragansett word for woman and has cognates in the other Algonquin languages. It appears in English in 1634, shortly after the first European settlements in New England. From William Wood’s 1634 New Englands Prospect:

If her husband come to seeke for his Squaw.

Squaw is not, as is sometimes claimed, a Native American word meaning either prostitute or vagina. However, it is still considered by many to be offensive in the same way that addressing an English-speaking female by the word woman is offensive and non-Algonquin Indians may be offended by it because it is not a word in their language—like calling a Frenchwoman Frau.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

square meal

Square meal is an Americanism. It comes from the adjectival use of square to mean sturdy or substantial. There are older, related senses of the adjective square. In the 17th century, for example, square was used to describe someone who could eat and drink copious amounts. From Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues:

Vn ferial beuveur, a square drinker, a faithfull drunkard; one that will take his liquor soundly.

And from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Bonduca from c.1616:

By —— square eaters, More meat I say:...how terribly They charge upon their victuals.

The term square meal itself appears in the late 1860s, but does not become common until the 1880s. From the magazine All Year Round of 19 September 1868:

Roadside hotel-keepers...calling the miners’ attention to their “square meals:” by which is meant full meals.

There are various stories relating this phrase to the types of food (usually four in number) consumed. These stories are not true.

The style of eating, dubbed square meal and once required of plebes, first year cadets, at West Point, where eating utensils must be moved at right angles is derivative of the common usage, not the origin.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

spud

This word for potato comes from the digging implement used to uproot them. The word is of unknown origin and was originally used as a term for a short knife or dagger. This sense dates to the 15th century. From Promptorium Parvulorum Sive Clericorum, an Anglo-Latin lexicon from c.1440:

Spudde, cultellus vilis.
(Spudde, an inexpensive little knife)

Over time, spud came to mean a digging tool. From Samuel Pepys Diary of 10 October 1667:

We...begun with a spudd to lift up the ground.

Eventually the word changed in meaning, transferring to the potato from the tool used to dig the tubers up. From Edward Wakefield’s 1845 Adventure in New Zealand:

Pigs and potatoes were respectively represented by ”grunters” and ”spuds.”

An avid reader emailed me with a supposed acronymic origin of spud. The reader rightly was skeptical, but had found the reference in Mario Pei’s 1949 The Story of Language. Pei writes, “the potato, for its part, was in disrepute some centuries ago. Some Englishmen who did not fancy potatoes formed a Society for the Prevention of Unwholesome Diet. The initials of the main words in this title gave rise to spud.” Like all other pre-20th century acronymic origins, this one is false. This just goes to show you, that even language professionals can get taken in sometimes.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

spick and span

No, the phrase spick and span is not related to the ethnic epithet. It is an adjective meaning perfectly or brand new or a reference to refurbishing or cleaning that restores something to mint condition.

The original form of the adjective was span-new, a form that survived in dialectal speech into the 19th century. The word is from the Old Norse spán-nýr, literally meaning chip new, as in new as a chip just chiseled from a block of wood. From The Lay of Havelok the Dane, c.1300:

Þe cok bigan of him to rewe, and bouthe him cloþes, al spannewe.
(The cook began to pity him, and bought him clothes, all span-new.)

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McJob And The OED

Numerous media outlets over the past week have reported that the McDonald’s corporation is up in arms over the inclusion of the word McJob in the Oxford English Dictionary and other British dictionaries.

The OED, which added the word to its online third edition in March 2001, defines McJob as:

An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.

David Fairhurst, McDonald’s chief people officer in northern Europe, said of the definition, “We believe that it is out of date, out of touch with reality and most importantly it is insulting to those talented, committed, hard-working people who serve the public every day. It’s time the dictionary definition of McJob changed to reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding and offers genuine opportunities for career progression and skills that last a lifetime.”

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spic

Spic is a derogatory name for a Latin American or Spaniard. It is a clipping of an older, largely obsolete term, spiggoty, which was applied to immigrants from Central and South America because they did not spiggoty (speak the) English. The earliest known use of spiggoty is in the 14 March 1908 issue of the Saturday Evening Post:

All Americans are alike.  They do not bother to learn foreign languages when they go to a foreign country, but they force the natives to learn American.  So, when the Panamanians presented themselves, if the could talk English, they prefaced their attempts to cheat the Americans out of something—it really made little difference what—with the statement, accompanied by eloquent gestures:  “Spik d’ English.” If they couldn’t they said:  “No spik d’ English.” One or the other was the universal opening of conversation, and those early Americans soon classed the whole race of men who could or could not “Spik d’ Eng.” as “Spikities,” and from that grew the harmonious and descriptive Spigotty.

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spam

The brand name Spam, used for a potted meat product made by the Hormel Corporation, is a blend of spiced + ham. It was trademarked in 1937 and appears in the Official Gazette of the US Patent office on 26 October of that year:

Geo. A. Hormel & Company, Austin, Minn...Spam...For Canned Meats—Namely, Spiced Ham. Claims use since May 11, 1937.

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SOS

SOS was chosen as the universal distress signal by the International Radio Telegraph Convention of July 1908 because this combination of three dots followed by three dashes followed by three dots (...---...), was easy to send and easily recognized, especially since they were usually sent as a nine-character signal, which stood out against the background of three-character Morse Code letters. The letters themselves are meaningless. From John A. Fleming’s 1910 second edition of The Principles of Electric Wave Telegraphy:

This signal, S,O,S, has superseded the Marconi Company’s original high sea cry for help, which was C,Q,D.

SOS is another “word” with a false acronymic origin. SOS does not stand for Save Our Souls, Save Our Ship, Stop Other Signals, Sure Of Sinking, or any other phrase. The first recorded mention of the false acronymic origin is in reference to the Titanic sinking of 1912, which may account for the wide spread and endurance of the myth. From the New York Times of 16 April 1912, a misstatement by a man who should have known better:

“I don’t know the name of the wireless operator aboard the Titanic, but he probably used ‘S.O.S.,’ ‘C.Q.D.,” and everything else he could think of.”
“Yes," [Marconi] went on in answer to a question, “the ‘C.Q.D.’ was the old Marconi code call for a ship in distress, but the later signal was substituted in the international code. The ‘C.Q.’ was the call for all stations to attend, and the ‘D.’ was danger. The ‘S.O.S.,’ the operators say, means ‘Save our souls.’”

Not only was Marconi wrong about the meaning of SOS, but the D in CQD is not documented to stand for danger, distress or anything else either.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Proquest Historical New York Times)

son of a gun

Despite a persistent myth of a nautical origin, son of a gun is simply a rhyming euphemism for a more offensive insult. The gun has no significance other than it rhymes with son. The phrase first appears in the newspaper The British Apollo in 1708 in a distinctly non-nautical context:

You’r a Son of a Gun.

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