This is one word whose supposed origin seemed so fanciful that I at first dismissed it as uninformed folklore when it appeared in an internet discussion group I was reading. But, upon looking it up, I found that the London district of Soho does have an odd and true origin.

Soho was first used as a cry in rabbit hunting. It was yelled when the hunters had sighted the rabbit, equivalent to Tally Ho in fox hunting. The words Sohou, Sohou appear on a seal, bearing the image of a hare, dating from 1307. The following appears in the 14th century manuscript Kyng Alisaunder:

So ho! so ho! We ben awroke of dogges two!
(Soho! Soho! We’ve been avenged of the two dogs.)

The area where the London neighborhood now occupies was once pasture land where hunting took place. Mill’s Dictionary of English Place Names gives a 1632 date for the place name, but it is not clear whether this is actually the date of a citation using the word as the location in what is now London or whether it is a citation of the hunting cry. The earliest citation in the OED of the place name is from an 1818 letter by poet John Keats:

Then who would go Into dark Soho, And chatter with dack’d hair’d critics.

The origin of New York City’s Soho district is another story. The New York neighborhood got its name from an acronym, “SOuth of HOuston Street.” In the late 1960s, the city was redeveloping the area and used the acronym widely in its planning documents. From the New York Times, 19 October 1969:

What’s so special about the South Houston Industrial Area (known in planning jargon as SOHO), a 40-block district bounded by Houston St. on the north, Canal on the south, West Broadway on the west, and Lafayette on the east? For one thing, it coincides with one of the city’s finest architectural areas, the cast-iron district. And for another, the spacious loft buildings that once harbored mostly small businesses have been infiltrated by thousands of artists and their families.

The name stuck, undoubtedly because of association with the London neighborhood.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Dictionary of English Place Names,

alright v. all right

Is alright all right? Or is it an abomination.

Fowler, who despite his being invoked as a prescriptivist icon is usually pretty reasonable in his commandments, rejects alright and seems to be a major source of the objection to the word. In his classic 1926 Modern English Usage, Fowler writes:

all right. The words should always be written separate; there are no such forms as all-right, allright, or alright, though even the last, if seldom allowed by the compositors to appear in print, is often seen (through confusion with already & ALTOGETHER in MS.

But times change and so does what is considered acceptable in standard English. Robert Burchfield, in his 1996 updating of Fowler’s work injects a class distinction into the usage:

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Soccer is an abbreviation for Association Football. The Football Association was formed in London in October 1863 when representatives of eleven clubs and schools met in an attempt to standardize the rules of the game. One of the rules prohibited the carrying of the ball, a rule that would lead to the Rugby-oriented clubs leaving the Association several months later. The name Association Football was coined to distinguish it from Rugby. From the 1873 Football Annual:

To play with the feet is the main object of Association Football. Hands should not, and must not be used.

Within a few decades the clipping of association began to appear. From a 21 February 1889 letter by Ernest C. Dowson:

I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches.

And from the Lock To Lock Times of 24 October 1891:

A sterling player, and has the best interest of the “socker” game at heart.

And the modern spelling appears in the November 1895 issue of 19th Century:

When the boat-race, sports, and “soccer” are in most men’s minds.

So while soccer is commonly used in North America as the name for the sport, the name did not originate on this side of the Atlantic.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

smart aleck

A smart Aleck is a know-it-all. It is American slang dating to the mid-1860s. Aleck or Alec is clearly a reference to a person, but who the original Aleck or Alec was is a mystery that has been lost to the ages. From the Carson Appeal (Nevada) of 17 October 1865:

Halloa, old smart Aleck—how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?

Some have suggested that the term derives from a character, Dr. Smart-Allick, created by British humorist J.B. Morton. This is not the case as the term was well-established before Morton was even born—so Morton’s character took his name from the term, not vice versa.

The a possible origin has been suggested by Gerald Cohen in a 1985 article in Studies In Slang. Cohen tentatively traces the origin to an 1840s New York City confidence man named Aleck Hoag. Hoag and his wife Melinda operated several confidence games where Melinda would pose as a prostitute and Aleck would rob the johns of their valuables. Hoag escaped arrest by paying off the police. He eventually tried to cut the police out of the scheme and the pair was arrested. Cohen hypothesizes that it was police who dubbed him “Smart Aleck,” because he was too clever by half. This is a tantalizing possibility, but definitive proof is lacking.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Studies in Slang, Part 1)

smoking gun

This phrase, meaning incontrovertible evidence of guilt, is of relatively recent origin, dating to the Watergate era. From the New York Times of 14 July 1974:

The big question asked over the last few weeks in and around the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing room by committee members who are uncertain about how they felt about impeachment was, “Where’s the smoking gun?”

And there is this from the same paper on 21 July 1974:

Representative Robert F. Drinan, a Massachusetts Democrat who is among the president’s outspoken critics, said that the section of the summary that focused on alleged abuses of Presidential power contained “the smoking gun” tying Mr. Nixon directly to wrongdoing in the Ellsberg case.

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sleep tight

The rhyming phrase good night, sleep tight is a remnant of an archaic sense of tight meaning soundly, properly, or well.

The use of tightly in this sense dates to Elizabethan times. From Shakespeare’s 1598 The Merry Wives of Windsor:

Hold Sirha, beare you these Letters tightly.

The use of tight, without the -ly, appears by 1790 when it is used in a poem by James Fisher:

I charg’d them tight, An’ gart them pay o’ lawing clink, Mair than was right.

The familiar rhyme appears by the late 19th century. From a poem published in the 9 August 1897 Naugatuck (Connecticut) Daily News:

As from the staircase she would call:
“Good night, sleep tight, my dear!”

I heard one false explanation for the origin of the term while visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon. The tour guide (tour guides are notorious sources of apocryphal information) told us that the sleep tight derived from the fact that Elizabethan beds had a foundation consisting of a rope net. When the bed began to sag, one would tighten the net. Well, such beds do exist (there is one in the Bard’s birthplace), and the use of tightly to mean soundly does date to Elizabethan times, but as we have seen the rhyme and specific association with sleep appears much later.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition;

skid row

This term for a run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, tend to congregate is American in origin. It comes from an older term, skid road, referring to a logging road paved with tree trunks, or skids. From the 1880 New York Adirondack Survey:

Advised that lumbermen had cut “skid roads” on which logs were drawn..., I changed the route.

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I have to give the unsatisfying “origin unknown” for this one. It can be traced to American slang usage from the Civil War period, but it may be considerably older and possibly not American in origin. From The Agitator of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania of 12 January 1860:

You’d oughter seen that gang skedaddle.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from some 18 months later in the New York Tribune of 10 August 1861:

No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they “skiddaddled,” (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).

It is sometimes said to be of Swedish or Danish origin, but there is no evidence for this. It may be from English or Scottish dialect, but the evidence for this is scanty. From the Atlantic Monthly of January 1877:

But my English friends lost no time in upsetting my hypothesis “Why,” they exclaimed, “we used to live in Lancashire and heard skedaddle every day of our lives.  It means to scatter, or drop in a scattering way.  If you run with a basket of potatoes or apples and keep spilling some of them in an irregular way along the path, you are said to skedaddle them.  Or if you carry drops of milk on the stair-carpet, to mark your upward course and awaken the ire of the housekeeper, you are said to have skedaddled the milk.”

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition;; ADS-L)

OED Revision of 15 March 2007

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary released a new crop of entries for the online OED on 15 March. Most of the new entries cover the range from Prakrit (the vernacular version of Sanskrit) to Prim (a clipping of Primitive Methodist). This range also contains the prefix pre- and a host of new pre- words are included. Perhaps the most notable of these is the airline jargon term pre-boarding, referring the custom of letting the disabled, those with infants, frequent flyers, and first class passengers to board the plane before the rest of the rabble.

In addition to the scheduled updating the Ps, as usual a number of significant new words were added from elsewhere in the alphabet. These include the Pig Latin ixnay, the exclamation ta-da, and from the world of computing the verb to virtualize and the noun wiki.

Also of note is that the editors have discovered that the verb to set no longer has the longest entry in the OED. It has been supplanted by the verb to make, which took the title back in June 2000 when it was updated. To set, however, may stage a comeback and could very well reclaim its position when the editors get to updating the Ss. Rounding out the top ten longest entries are, in order, to run, to take, to go, pre-, non-, over-, to stand, and red.

See the OED website for more details.


Sideburns are whiskers that are worn on the sides of a man’s face, especially when the beard on the chin is shaved. The term is an alteration of the name of General A.E. Burnside (1824-81), a Union general in the US Civil War more famed for his whiskers than his abilities on the battlefield.

The term burnsides, referring to a style of whiskers worn by the general, occurs as early as 1875. From the Cincinnati Enquirer of 6 July of that year:

His whisker was of the Burnside type, consisting of mustache and “muttonchop,” the chin being perfectly clean.

Within a decade or so of the appearance of burnside, the order of the syllables was reversed. Presumably, as memories of the Civil War and the name Burnside faded, folk etymology took over and tried to make sense of the term by emphasizing the side.

From the Chicago Journal of 1 August 1887:

McGarigle has his mustache and small sideburns still on.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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