Title Excerpt Author Date Total Comments Recent Comment
Katy, bar the door Katy (or Katie) bar the door is an American catchphrase used to warn of impending danger. The bar the door part is self-explanatory, referring to locking a door against intruders. But who is Katy? There’s no satisfactory answer to that question, but the phrase is connected with traditional folk music… Dave Wilton 08/19/18 0
crisis actor The term crisis actor originated in the emergency preparedness community and originally referred to actors available for hire to participate in disaster and mass casualty drills as victims, witnesses, criminals, etc. Hiring trained actors is thought to increase the realism and effectiveness of such drills. But after the December 2012… Dave Wilton 08/16/18 0
unicorn We all know a unicorn is a mythical creature resembling a horse with a single horn projecting from its forehead, but the term has some quite interesting slang uses. The word comes to English via Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England after the Norman conquest, and ultimately from… Dave Wilton 08/15/18 0
whole nine yards, the Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The phrase doesn’t have one particular origin, nor does it represent one particular metaphor. Instead, it seems to have evolved from a… Dave Wilton 08/12/18 9 04/13/08
gaffe A gaffe is a mistake, a blunder, especially a verbal faux pas made by a politician. The word is a borrowing from the French, but its English use may been influenced by a Scots word as well as by a Vaudeville method of removing a floundering performer from the stage.… Dave Wilton 08/11/18 0
testilying Testilying is a blend of testify and lying and refers to someone, especially a police officer, committing perjury. It seems to have first arisen within the ranks of the New York City police department in the early 1990s. The term came into the public consciousness as a result of a… Dave Wilton 08/10/18 0
polycule Polycule is a relatively new word from the world of polyamory. A blend of poly[amory] and [mole]cule, it refers to a graphical or physical model of a polyamorous relationship, and by extension a name for the group of people in that relationship. Dave Wilton 08/09/18 0
butler A butler is the chief servant in a household. The word comes to us from Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England following the Norman Conquest. The Anglo-Norman word was buteiller, a cup-bearer or servant who served wine. The word ultimately comes from the medieval Latin buticularius. It is… Dave Wilton 08/08/18 0
saved by the bell Saved by the bell, which the OED defines as “to be rescued from a difficult situation,” comes to us, as should be no surprise, from the world of boxing. It originally and quite literally referred to a boxer who was about to be beaten into submission only to have the… Dave Wilton 08/04/18 0
Bechdel test The Bechdel test is an informal way to determine whether a film or TV show exhibits bias against women in the female characters it presents. It’s named for its inventor, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test, including Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, whom Bechdel credits with the… Dave Wilton 08/02/18 0
Welcome to Wordorigins.org Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons.… Dave Wilton 08/01/18 0
incel Incel is a portmanteau of involuntary celibate, referring to a person, usually a heterosexual man, who desires a sexual or romantic partner but is unable to find one. The term arose as a self-identifier and spawned a virtual subculture as those people reached out for support on the internet. But… Dave Wilton 06/29/18 0
cotton-picking, cotton-picker Cotton-picking is a difficult adjective. On the one hand its origin is rooted in a metaphor for slavery in the American South, and as such carries racist connotations with it. But on the other hand, it’s often used without any racist intent at all. So while someone might use it… Dave Wilton 06/28/18 0
white shoe The adjective white shoe is used in the United States to denote the establishment, the privileged, moneyed, and usually conservative, elites who traditionally run American businesses. But why white shoes? Dave Wilton 06/20/18 0
yodel Yodeling is associated with Alps, so it’s no surprise that the English word is borrowed from German. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb to yodel as “to sing or call using a distinctive style of vocalization characterized by repeated rapid alternations of pitch between the low chest voice and… Dave Wilton 06/09/18 0
run it up the flagpole The phrase run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes is credited to Madison Avenue admen of the 1950s. The phrase, and many others like it, is used in the context of brainstorming or “spitballing ideas” and refers to making a suggestion to see if people like it.… Dave Wilton 06/03/18 0
nimrod The use of nimrod to mean an idiot or inept person is often said to come from young viewers misinterpreting a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Warner Brothers cartoon does play a role in the word’s history, but it’s not Bugs Bunny,… Dave Wilton 05/27/18 0
Major League Team Names It’s called the “great American pastime,” and baseball has been an integral part of life in the United States for, give or take, the last 160 years. So here are the origins of the names of the Major League Baseball teams, past and present. For those not familiar with the… Dave Wilton 05/16/18 0
plead, pleaded, pled The verb to plead, meaning to make an appeal or argument, especially in a legal setting, comes to us from the Anglo-Norman French plaider. It makes its English appearance in the thirteenth century. The verb would be just another unremarkable borrowing from French following the Norman Conquest, but the verb… Dave Wilton 05/14/18 0
Is Two Better Than One? My Facebook feed has filled with people posting about this Washington Post article about a study that purportedly shows that “science” has shown that typing two spaces after a period is superior to typing just one. The number of spaces that should follow a period is one of those eternal… Dave Wilton 05/08/18 0
Butterick’s Practical Typography This website is a wonderful resource for all things typographical, that is fonts, font sizes, spacing, and all those subjects relating to how a document looks. https://practicaltypography.com/ Dave Wilton 05/08/18 0
April fool No one knows the origin of April Fool’s Day or the expression April fool. The expression appears in the seventeenth century, and the association of the month April with fools, especially those foolish because of love or lust, appears to have arisen on the European continent and was imported to… Dave Wilton 04/25/18 0
Swearing In Tarantino Movies Who says linguistics is dull? Stephen Black is a British data scientist who has done yeoman’s work creating a tool for analyzing profanity in Tarantino’s movies. He’s also done an online concordance and tools for the King James Bible. [Discuss this post] Dave Wilton 02/17/18 0
The Oxford Comma and the Law The legal dispute between the Oakhurst Dairy and its drivers has been settled. As widely reported in the media, the dispute hinged on the use, or omission, of the Oxford comma. But the media, or at least the New York Times, is still getting it wrong. The ambiguity in the… Dave Wilton 02/09/18 0
ADS Word of the Year: fake news On 5 January, the American Dialect Society chose fake news as its 2017 Word of the Year. The ADS defined fake news as either “disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news” or “actual news that is claimed to be untrue.” The phrase was considered during the organization’s deliberations for the… Dave Wilton 01/07/18 0
food desert, food swamp A food desert is an area, often an urban one, with poor access to food, especially nutritious food and fresh fruits and vegetables. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation from a 1988 Australian newspaper: New Caledonia, surely more of a food desert than anything outside five kilometres from the… Dave Wilton 12/29/17 0
2017 Words of the Year (WOTY) As I did last year, and on occasion before that, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I select twelve terms, one for each month. Since similar lists often exhibit a bias toward words… Dave Wilton 12/23/17 0
cyclone Cyclone, a noun meaning a wind storm that revolves around a center of low pressure, has a somewhat interesting etymology in that it is a modern coinage using ancient roots. It is also one of those rare words that we can pinpoint its precise origin, a situation somewhat more common… Dave Wilton 08/31/17 0
hurricane As of this writing, hurricane Harvey has devastated much of the Texas Gulf Coast. (Here in College Station, Texas, we’ve avoided the worst of it, although it would be an understatement to say there has been a lot of rain.) But where does the word hurricane come from? It turns… Dave Wilton 08/29/17 0
5 Ways to a Faster PhD This article has absolutely nothing to do with etymology or language (except in the tangential way that it is about professional studies in the humanities), but it’s something I wrote about the problem of how long it takes to complete a PhD in the humanities. It’s probably not of much… Dave Wilton 07/27/17 0
star-spangled, spangle We all know that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner in 1814 after watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor: O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? But most of us don’t know… Dave Wilton 07/05/17 0
spangle See star-spangled. Dave Wilton 07/05/17 0
laneway Sometimes you don’t notice dialectal terms until you move away from the region. After having lived in Toronto for six years and then having moved on to Texas, I have just noticed the term laneway. In current use it refers to a back alley running behind urban homes and is… Dave Wilton 06/29/17 0
Emojis and the Law Currently, my favorite podcast is Opening Arguments, in which interlocutors Andrew Torrez, a real-life lawyer, and Thomas Smith, not a lawyer, discuss topical legal questions. While they typically stick to the law, in a recent episode they delved into the intersection of linguistics and the law. In the episode, the… Dave Wilton 06/28/17 0
armadillo The armadillo is an American mammal of the order Cingulata. There are a number of species of armadillo, of which the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is perhaps the most familiar to English speakers. That species is found in South and Central America and in the southeastern United States, as far… Dave Wilton 06/10/17 0
satellite In his prepared statement to Congress of 8 June 2017 (released 7 June), former FBI Director James Comey wrote about a 30 March phone call he had with President Trump: The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it… Dave Wilton 06/09/17 0
arch I used the word arch the other day—not in the usual sense of a curve, but in the sense of jocular, waggishly clever—and immediately got to wondering where that word came from. Dave Wilton 06/06/17 0
akimbo To stand akimbo is to have one’s hands on one’s hips with the elbows turned outward. The word dates to the fifteenth century, but its origin is unknown. There are, however, a number of competing hypotheses. Dave Wilton 06/03/17 0
confabulation, confab, fable Confabulation is a word with two meanings. It can mean simply a conversation, formed from the Latin con (together) + fabulor (to speak, talk). This sense appears in the mid fifteenth century. By the early seventeenth century it had become a verb, to confabulate meaning to converse or talk. And… Dave Wilton 05/25/17 0
fable See confabulation, confab, fable. Dave Wilton 05/25/17 0
zeppelin This word for a dirigible airship comes, of course, from the name of Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who designed such airships. Ironically, the word appears in English before it does in German. On 14 February 1896 the Washington Post referred to Zeppelin’s design for such a craft as a Zeppelin air… Dave Wilton 05/06/17 0
dirigible Today, the word dirigible is almost always used as a noun, referring to a zeppelin-type airship, and I always had it in my head that the word was related to rigid, a reference to the rigid frame of such an aircraft. But that is not the case. The word began… Dave Wilton 05/06/17 0
airship Today, the word airship refers to a dirigible aircraft, a flying machine with a rigid frame that is buoyed by gas bags and powered by engines, but it wasn’t always that specific. Originally, airship referred to any type of balloon or aircraft, and it wasn’t until 1900 and the advent… Dave Wilton 05/06/17 0
love bug I moved to Texas last August, and this spring I’ve been subject to two assaults. The first is by allergies, which I’ve experienced in more temperate climes, but which are especially bad in the Texas spring when everything is in bloom. The other is by swarms of Plecia nearctica, commonly… Dave Wilton 04/25/17 0
four-twenty, 420 There are many origin stories for 420, a slang term referring to marijuana, but unlike most slang terms, researchers have been able to pin down its actual origin with specificity. 420 was first used by a group of students at San Rafael High School in 1971, and it refers to… Dave Wilton 04/20/17 0
fiscal, procurator-fiscal I have been watching Shetland lately, a police procedural set, obviously, on the Shetland Islands. One of the words that keeps popping up is fiscal. The detectives talk of referring matters to the fiscal or someone has to fly to Aberdeen to meet with the fiscal office. At first I… Dave Wilton 04/16/17 0
procurator-fiscal, fiscal See fiscal Dave Wilton 04/16/17 0
kick the bucket / bucket list This evocative phrase meaning to die is of uncertain etymology. The most likely explanation is that it does not refer to a washing tub or pail, the sense of bucket that most of us are familiar with. Instead, it comes from another sense of bucket meaning a yoke or beam… Dave Wilton 04/15/17 1 07/05/08
bucket list See kick the bucket. Dave Wilton 04/15/17 0
nuclear option In U. S. politics in recent years, the term nuclear option has been employed to refer to the elimination of the filibuster rule in the Senate. The Senate requires a supermajority, currently three-fifths or sixty votes, to invoke cloture and end debate on a subject and proceed to a vote.… Dave Wilton 04/09/17 0
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