phat

Phat is a slang spelling of fat, originating and common among African-Americans. It has come to the attention of standard English speakers relatively recently, but like many such slang terms of a subpopulation it is much older than those outside of the subgroup. Time magazine records it as early as 2 August 1963:

Negro argot...Mellow, phat, stone, boss. General adjectives of approval.

Given the source, we can safely assume that phat was in slang use at least as far back as the 1950s. Its recent appearance in mainstream publications and writing is largely due to crossover from Hip-Hip into mainstream American culture.

Phat is also a word that frequently is given a false acronymic origin. The exact acronym varies with the telling, Pretty Hot And Tempting, Pretty Hips And Thighs, and Pussy Hips Ass Tits have all been suggested. There is no evidence supporting any acronymic origin.

Rather, phat is most likely simply a slang respelling of fat. Such respellings are common in slang. And fat has a long history of meaning rich, abundant, or desirable. Fat has been used this way in English since the early 17th century, and in other languages for far longer. The specific sexual connotation of phat is likely just a specialization of the general meaning. Some suggest it may be a clipping of emphatic. Again, there is no evidence for this last, but at least it’s more plausible than any of the acronymic origins.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

peloton / platoon

Unless you follow the sport of cycling, you are not likely to run across the word peloton, which means a group of cyclists, usually the main mass of cyclists in the race.

Peloton is a French word. It’s literal meaning is little ball and in this sense it dates to the early 15th century in French.

By 1616 the French were using the word to mean a small group of soldiers, presumably because a small group of soldiers in tight formation resembled a ball. The word platoon is a variant of peloton, appearing as ploton in Middle French by 1572 and as plauton by 1611.

Platoon was the first form to be borrowed into English. From Robert Monro’s 1637 His Expedition With The Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mac-keyes:

Eight Corporall-ships of Musketiers, being thirty-two Rots divided in foure Plottons, every Plotton being eight in front, led off by a Captaine.

We see the -oon ending by 1687, when John Dryden uses it in his translation of Louis Maimbourg’s History of the League:

Thus was the Royal Army Marshall’d, which consisted of betwixt 9 and 10000 Foot, and 2800 Horse, divided into seven Squadrons, each of them with a Plotoon of Forlorn Hope before them.

By 1734 the modern spelling of platoon was in use.

The military sense of peloton made the jump to English a bit later, by the beginning of the 18th century. A Military and Sea Dictionary of 1702 cross-references it with the word platoon. And there is this from Nicholas Tindal’s 1744 translation of Rapin de Thoyras’ History of England:

Before he suffered any peloton of his battalion to discharge.

As for cycling, the French were using peloton in the cycling sense by 1884 and this sense had transferred over to English by the mid-20th century. From Cycling magazine of 12 July 1939:

A prominent worker at the head of the peloton throughout the race.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

peanut / peanut gallery

A peanut is the seed of Arachis hypogaea, native to Brazil. The origin of the name is obvious, a compounding of pea + nut. Although, technically a peanut is not a nut, but actually a legume. The name appears by the beginning of the 19th century. From a letter by Washington Irving published in the Morning Chronicle on 1 December 1802:

I amused myself with eating pea-nuts.

Peanut is also a slang term for a simple or inconsequential person or for a child. From an 1864 work by Mark Twain, published in Early Tales & Sketches:

I am no peanut...I could invent some little remedies that would stir up a commotion,...if I chose to try.

Peanut gallery refers to the balcony section of a theater—presumably from hoi polloi eating peanuts in the cheap seats. From the Mountain Democrat of Placerville, California of 10 June 1876:

As a bid for applause from the political pit and peanut gallery it was a masterpiece.

The term was popularized in the 1950s by the television show Howdy Doody, in which the host, Buffalo Bob, would call the child audience the peanut gallery. In doing so, Buffalo Bob was combining two different slang traditions.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

pay through the nose

This phrase dates to the 17th century. From Giovanni Torriano’s 1666 Piazza Universale:

Oft-times rich men engrossing commodities, will make one pay through the nose, whereas they might sell the cheaper.

The underlying metaphor is a bit mysterious. It may be from the idea of bleeding through the nose.

There is another 17th century slang term for money, rhino. In Greek, of course, rhino means nose. It seems logical that these two are connected, but what significance a nose has with money is simply not known. From Thomas Shadwell’s 1688 The Squire of Alsatia where rhino is used for money and rhinocerical for rich:

The Ready, the Rhino; thou shalt be rhinocerical, my Lad.

Popular folklore has it that this phrase dates back to 9th century Ireland. Viking raiders would demand tribute from the local Irish and slit open the noses of anyone who refused to pay. I do not know whether not Vikings were among the first to practice this crude form of rhinoplasty, but it is most definitely not the origin of the phrase. Eight hundred years of an underground existence is just too long to be plausible.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd & 3rd Editions)

paparazzi

Paparazzi, plural of Paparazzo, comes from the name of a character in Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita. In the movie, Paparazzo was a photographer who would go to great lengths to take pictures of American movie stars. From Time magazine, 14 April 1961:

Kroscenko...is a paparazzo, one of a ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at point-blank range.

And the plural from the same issue:

When Katharine Hepburn passed through town recently, the paparazzi mounted Vespa scooters...to waylay her at Fiumicino Airport.

Paparazzo is an actual Italian surname. Fellini said he came across the name in an opera libretto and it “suggests...a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging.” It has also been suggested that Ennio Flaiano, who co-wrote the film with Fellini, may have contributed the name. In the Abruzzi dialect, native to Flaiano, paparazzo is a clam, which is metaphor for the opening and closing of a camera lens. The -azzo suffix also has pejorative connotations in Italian. Or the name may have been taken from George Gissing’s 1909 By the Ionian Sea, which was translated into Italian in 1957. Gissing used the name in his novel and took it from a real person he had met in his Italian travels.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

pandemonium

Pandemonium was coined by Milton in his 1667 Paradise Lost:

A solemn Councel forthwith to be held At Pandæmonium, the high Capital Of Satan and his Peers.

To get the word, Milton combined a couple of Greek roots, pan meaning all + demon, with the Latin -ium ending. So pandemonium is literally the place of all demons. While pandemonium is a relatively modern invention, the word demonium, meaning abode of demons or hell, did exist in classical Latin.

Within a century or so, the word was being used in extended senses, referring to things akin to a real hell and eventually to the modern meaning of confusion, tumult, or uproar. From the 1755 M—cki—n’s Answer to Tully:

As I had at the Beginning...waggishly term’d the Audience my Pandemonium; a Hiss was the most proper Token of Applause.

The term does not derive, as is often thought, from the name of the Greek god Pan. Nor does its origin have anything to do with the excitement over the arrival of Pandas at the National Zoo in Washington in the 1970s (although I’m sure many journalistic wags overused the term “pandamonium” in describing this event).

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

pale, beyond the

The word pale dates to the 14th century and comes to us from the Latin palus, or stake, via French. The original English meaning was the same as in Latin, a stake, particularly one used to make a fence or border marker. You can still find this sense in the modern paling fence or palisade. From Wycliffe’s c.1382 translation of Ecclesiastes:

In þe wallis of it he is picching a pale.
(In the walls of it he is building a pale.)

From the literal sense of a fence or boundary line, the metaphorical sense of boundary or limit developed by the 15th century. From The Brut, or the Chronicles of England, c.1450:

Al þe cuntre þat was of þe Englisshe pale shuld come and bring...thaire goodes, and breke doun theire houses.
(All the country that was of the English pale should come and bring…their goods, and break down their houses.)

By the late 15th century, the word was also being used metaphorically to mean a domain or field of knowledge, influence, etc. From Caxton’s 1483 translation of Voragine’s The Golden Legende:

The abbote...and xxi monkes...went for to dwelle in deserte for to kepe more straytelye the professyon of theyr pale.
(The abbot…and 21 monks…went for to dwell in the desert for the keep more straightly the profession of their pale.)

The phrase beyond the pale makes its appearance in the 17th century. From John Harrington’s 1657 poem The History of Polindor and Flostella:

Both Dove-like roved forth beyond the pale To planted Myrtle-walk.

Over the centuries, various specific uses of pale to mean a specific region have been used. It has been used to refer to the regions of Ireland ruled by the English (16th century) or to the areas of Russia where Jews were permitted to settle (19th century). The phrase beyond the pale is not from any of these specific senses, but rather from the general one of boundary or limit.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

pagan

The English word pagan is from the Latin paganus or someone who lives in a rural district, or pagus. In Latin, the word meant a villager or rustic, and was also used as an antonym for miles, or soldier. So when applied to a person, paganus means civilian.

The word makes its English appearance in the 14th century. The original English sense is the same as we use it today, meaning someone not belonging to society’s dominant religion, specifically a non-Christian. From Thomas Malory’s Morte Arthure, probably written sometime before 1400:

I sall...euer pursue the payganys þat my pople distroyede.
(I shall...ever pursue the pagans that my people destroyed.)

How it made the transition from the Latin for rustic or civilian to the English meaning is uncertain. Generally, one three explanations is proferred.

The first is that the English sense is a development from the rustic sense. As Christianity spread in the cities of the Roman empire, in the countryside the worship of the Roman gods continued for much longer. So those from the countryside were less likely to be Christians.

The second is that it is a development of the civilian sense. Christians called themselves milites, or soldiers of Christ. Pagans were the opposite.

Finally, again from the rustic sense, it came from the idea that those in the countryside were not part of urban society. They were a people apart. The metaphor was applied to religion as well, a people apart from the community of Christians were pagans.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

mind your Ps and Qs

The origin of the phrase mind your Ps and Qs, meaning to be careful of one’s behavior, is not known. Explanations for the phrase abound. Some are plausible, some are not. Let’s start with what we know.

The phrase dates to at least 1779 when it appears in Hannah Cowley’s Who’s The Dupe?:

You must mind your P’s and Q’s with him, I can tell you.

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sweeps

Four times a year, American television viewers are subjected to sweeps periods. The sweeps are when the A.C. Nielsen Company measures the audiences in all 210 US television markets.  Nielsen continuously measures national programming, but local audiences are only measured in November, February, May, and July-August. The ratings gathered during these periods are used to set ad-rates and to make decisions about local programming. During sweeps months, the networks schedule new episodes of programs, specials, original productions, and other shows that are likely to draw a larger-than-ordinary audience. In non-sweeps months, viewers get a lot of reruns.

The measurement of these local markets was not begun by Neilsen, but rather by a competitor, the American Research Bureau, now known as Arbitron. By 1961 Arbitron was measuring every television market in America at least twice a year. It comes from the metaphor of sweeping up or gathering the data. From Newsweek, 30 November 1970:

There is a temptation to look one’s best during sweeps, but the practice of “loading,” or temporarily beefing up programming, is specifically forbidden by Federal unfair-competition regulations.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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