Title Excerpt Author Date Total Comments Recent Comment
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 03/01/18 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
cloture Cloture is the act of ending debate on a subject in a legislative assembly, and most often today it’s used in reference to the United States Senate. The word is a modern borrowing from the French clôture, which was used by the French Assembly in the nineteenth century. Its use… Dave Wilton 04/08/17 0
CMOS and the Singular They The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the major academic style guides in the US, is inching their way toward acceptance of the singular they, that is the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, generic, or non-binary. The University… Dave Wilton 04/04/17 0
Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, or DCHP-2, is an extremely valuable resource for studying any “word, expression, or meaning which is native to Canada or which is distinctively characteristic of Canadian usage though not necessarily exclusive to Canada.” And it’s available online for free. The second edition went… Dave Wilton 03/18/17 0
loo Loo, the British word for a lavatory or toilet is one of those words that has generated endless speculation and myth about its origin. While we don’t know for sure where the word comes from, we do have a pretty good guess. It’s most likely from the French lieu, meaning… Dave Wilton 03/12/17 0
Old English Dictionaries Peter Buchanan, who teaches at New Mexico Highlands University, has assembled an excellent introduction to the three major Old English dictionaries: John Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (a.k.a., Clark Hall), Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Bosworth Toller), and Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English (DOE). Buchanan’s discussion can… Dave Wilton 03/11/17 0
baseball When examining the origins of a word one must be careful to distinguish between the word and the thing itself. The origin of the word is often quite different from the origin of the thing that it represents. Such is the case with baseball. In this case the word is… Dave Wilton 03/07/17 0
vet Extreme vetting, or the detailed investigation into a person’s background, has been in the news of late as the term of art used by Donald Trump to describe what needs to happen to refugees seeking to enter the United States. Putting aside the fact that existing investigatory measures are already… Dave Wilton 03/04/17 0
sur- The other day I was wondering about the word surname. What is the sur-? prefix. The etymology, while perhaps not immediately obvious, is quite straightforward; the sur- is a French variation on the Latin super, meaning above or beyond. It comes to us, like many French roots, from the Normans.… Dave Wilton 02/27/17 0
A Dialect Coach Critiques Actors’ Accents The topic of actors’ accents has arisen from time to time on our discussion boards. In this sixteen-minute film from Wired magazine dialect coach Erik Singer examines some accents from big Hollywood productions. Yes, Kevin Costner’s English accent in Robin Hood is really that bad, but I was surprised at… Dave Wilton 01/28/17 0
The Last Punchcutter A delightful, short film about a dying art… And a short article on the film. [Discuss this post] Dave Wilton 01/22/17 0
What Did Old Norse Sound Like? My Old Norse expertise doesn’t extend to pronunciation so I can’t comment on the accuracy of this video, but Jackson Crawford’s academic credentials are quite respectable, so I’ll take his word for it. Plus, the image of a man in a cowboy hat reading Old Norse poetry is too good… Dave Wilton 01/16/17 0
American Dialect Society Word of the Year (ADS WOTY) The American Dialect Society (ADS) has decided upon its Word of the Year for 2016 and that word is dumpster fire, meaning “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation.” The term was commonly heard in reference to last year’s presidential election. It won in a run-off vote against woke, an African-American… Dave Wilton 01/07/17 0
waive, waif To waive something is to voluntarily give up the right to that thing or to refrain from enforcing a rule or regulation, and a waif is an orphaned or abandoned child. But the two words are very much related etymologically. Both date to the thirteenth century and come into English… Dave Wilton 12/29/16 0
waif See waive, waif. Dave Wilton 12/29/16 0
2016 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year (WOTY) Up until now, I’ve resisted jumping on the Word of the Year (WOTY) bandwagon. (I did come up with lists of significant words back in 2007 and 2008, but discontinued the practice.) Words of the Year have no linguistic relevance and are mostly marketing stunts pulled by the organizations that… Dave Wilton 12/22/16 0
In Defense of Puns This is about a year and a half old, but I just discovered it: [Discuss this post] Dave Wilton 12/17/16 0
throw the book at To throw the book at someone is to sentence them to the maximum penalty for a crime or offense. The term is an Americanism dating to the early years of the twentieth century. The “book” in question, however, is a bit uncertain. Dave Wilton 12/06/16 0
book, throw the b. at See throw the book at. Dave Wilton 12/06/16 0
Internet Quotes: Molly Ivins on Flag Burning “I prefer a man who will burn the flag and then wrap himself in the Constitution to a man who will burn the Constitution and then wrap himself in the flag.” This quotation, attributed to the late, great journalist Molly Ivins, has been making the rounds of the internet lately,… Dave Wilton 12/03/16 0
patient zero The term patient zero is an epidemiological term for the person who transmits an infection into a population that had been free of it. The OED records the first published use of the term being in Randy Shilts’s 1987 And the Band Played On, a book about the early years… Dave Wilton 11/06/16 0
What English Will Sound Like In 100 Years An online article by Michael Erard discusses the possible phonetic changes that English might go through in the coming decades and centuries. The best part of the article are three sound files of the opening lines of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, read in Old English, in modern Received… Dave Wilton 10/23/16 0
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