sixes and sevens, at

At sixes and sevens means in confusion or disorder. It is a very old catchphrase and originally relating to gambling with dice. There are many minor variants of the phrase. Sometimes and is replaced with or or at is replaced by on or set on. The plural numbers also occasionally appear as singular.

It originally referred to betting one’s entire fortune on one throw of the dice. It connoted carelessness, and over time the phrase came to mean confusion, disorder, and disagreement. The phrase dates to c.1374 when it appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:

Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene.
(Let not this wretched woe gnaw at your heart, But manly set the world on six and seven.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

shrink

Why is a psychiatrist called a shrink? The term is a clipping of headshrinker, a US slang term that dates to 1950. It is based on a metaphor that evokes the image of a head-hunter who preserves shrunken heads. The idea is that a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst messes or screws with your head. From Time magazine 27 November 1950:

Anyone who had predicted that he would end up as the rootin’-tootin’ idol of U.S. children would have been led instantly off to a headshrinker.

The clipped form appears some 15-odd years later. From Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 The Crying of Lot:

It was Dr Hilarius, her shrink or psychotherapist.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

short shrift

What is a shrift? And why is it short? Shrift is an Old English word meaning penance. The phrase short shrift originally referred to the brief, perfunctory period given to a condemned prisoner to confess his sins prior to execution. It has come to idiomatically mean to quickly dispose of a matter or dismiss something out of hand.

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shark

Shark is an interesting word, appearing much later than one might expect and with an unknown origin. The word apparently was used, and perhaps coined, by sailors on John Hawkins’s 1568-69 expedition. This expedition returned a specimen of the fish to London. Where they caught the fish is not recorded, but the trip was one to the Caribbean and was famous for a battle with the Spanish fleet off Veracruz in Mexico. From a 1569 selection in Black-Letter Ballads and Broadsides, published in 1867.

Ther is no proper name for it that I knowe, but that sertayne men of Captayne Haukinses doth call it a sharke.

It has been suggested by some that the word derives from the Mayan word for the fish, xoc, pronounced /showk/. Usually such exotic sources must be treated with skepticism, but given the destination of the Hawkins’s expedition, it is possible that the sailors adopted a local Indian word for the fish.

Some have also pointed out the similarity to the German (Austrian dialect) word Schirk, meaning a sturgeon, but there is no known connection and the similarity is undoubtedly coincidence.

There is, however, another German connection with the word shark. The sense of the word meaning a disreputable person who preys upon others is probably from the German Schurke, meaning scoundrel or villain. This sense appears in English in 1599 and was probably an adoption of the German word, altered by English folk etymology to become shark, in allusion to the fish and its predatory habits. From Ben Jonson’s 1599 The Comicall Satyre of Every Man Out of His Humor:

Charac., Shift. A Thredbare Sharke. One that neuer was Soldior, yet liues vpon lendings. His profession is skeldring and odling, his Banke Poules, and his Ware-house Pict-hatch.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

shit

It is commonly believed that our so-called “four-letter words” are all Anglo-Saxon in origin, dating back to the earliest days of our language. In most cases, this is a false assumption. Most of our modern swear words are much more recent than the Old English era. Shit, however, does go back to an Old English root, *scítan . It has cognates in most of the other Germanic languages and shares a common Germanic root with modern equivalents like the modern German scheissen.

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seed

Seed is an old word, dating back to the Old English sǽd. From Psalm 126 (125 in the Catholic Bible) in the Vespasian Psalter of c.875:

Gongende eodon & weopun sendende sed.
(Going they went & wept carrying seed to sow.)

The verb, meaning to sow seeds, dates to c.1440 when it appears in a translation of Palladius on Husbondrie:

The spaces that in heruest sowe or sede Me wol, may best ha now their pastynynge.
(The spaces that in autumn one would sow or seed, may best have now their plowing.)

One of the perennial questions asked of me (usually during some big sports tournament) is what the origin of the word seed in sporting competition. It comes from the verb sense meaning to sow a seed. To seed a tournament is to select who will play who. The sporting usage comes from the practice of deliberately placing the better players of a tournament so that they will not face each other in the early rounds. This seeding is done to produce a “crop” of excellent matches in the later rounds. This use of the verb to seed dates to 13 January 1898 when it appears in the magazine American Lawn Tennis:

Several years ago, it was decided to ‘seed’ the best players through the championship draw, and this was done for two or three years.

The noun appears in 1933. From M.D. Lyon’s The Aldin Book of Outdoor Games:

“But why put my beloved lawners last?” wails the Thibetan “seed.”

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

secretary

This word derives from the Medieval Latin secretarius, which is based on the Latin secretum, or secret. The original meaning is someone employed to handle confidential or secret business. From John de Trevisa’s 1387 translation of Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden:

Þanne his secretarie [L. secretarius] tolde hym what he hadde i-seie and i-doo.
(Then his secretary told him what he had said and done.)

By the 15th century, the word was being used in the sense of someone who handled the correspondence of another. In early use, it was usually in reference to a servant of the king and was mixed with the earlier sense of one who handles confidential affairs. From the Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun:

Kyng Armyne...cawsyd hys secretory a lettyr to make.

This sense evolved in two separate directions. On the one hand, secretary came to mean a clerk who handles mundane matters for someone important and on the other it came to mean a high-ranking government official empowered to act in affairs of state, a minister of the crown or, in the US, the president. By 1599, the term was being used as the official title of such high officials, as in secretary of state or principal secretary.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

sea change

This term, meaning a type of metamorphosis, is yet another one coined by Shakespeare. It is from Ariel’s song in The Tempest (I,ii):

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made:
Those pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Quite literally, the sea had metamorphosed the corpse of Ferdinand’s father into something else. Shakespeare quite literally meant simply a change wrought by the sea, but starting in the 20th century, usage came to focus on the extent of the metamorphosis rather than the agent of the change. Early metaphorical use was done in allusion to Shakespeare, as in this line from Ezra Pound’s 1917 collection Lustra:

Full many a fathomed sea-change in the eyes That sought with him the salt sea victories.

By mid-century, the term was being used without direct allusion. From Albert C. Baugh’s 1948 A Literary History of England:

An interesting paper suggesting that romance is transplanted epic, which has undergone a kind of sea-change in the passage.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

screw the pooch

The phrase screw the pooch, meaning to mess up, commit a grievous error, has its first known appearance in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff:

They were the heroes of Kennedy’s political comeback, the updated new frontier whose symbol was a voyage to the moon. To announce that the second one, Gus Grissom, had prayed to the Lord: “Please, dear God, don’t let me fuck up"—but his prayer had not been answered, and the Lord let him screw the pooch—well, this was an interpretation of that event that was to be avoided at all costs.

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scuttlebutt

You’ll see many false nautical origins on these pages. People like to ascribe nautical origins to words and phrases, even when they’re not accurate. But in this case, scuttlebutt does indeed come from the age of sail.

Scuttlebutt is an early 19th century nautical term for an open cask of water kept on deck for use by the crew. The term comes from scuttle (to cut a hole in) + butt (a large cask). Sailors would gather about the cask and trade stories and gossip, much like modern office workers do at the water cooler or coffee pot. By the turn of the 20th century, American sailors began using the term scuttlebutt to refer to these sea stories and gossip. And eventually the term became associated with any gossip or rumor and divorced from its nautical origins.

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