charger plate

For those of you that have not dined in a really fancy restaurant lately, a charger plate is a large dish that is on the table when you are seated and other plates and dishes are placed, or loaded, on top of it.

The word first appears as the Middle English chargeour in the c.1305 work Legends of the Holy Rood:

I was that cheef chargeour, I bar flesch for folkes feste.
(I was that chief charger, I bore meat for the people’s feast.)

The root in French is uncertain. It is either the Anglo-Norman chargeour meaning that which loads or the Old French chargeoir meaning a serving utensil.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


A chairman is the leader of a committee or parliamentary body. The origin is, as one might guess, a compound of the words chair + man. The chair is a reference to a seat or position of authority and the man is, of course, a reference to the person who occupies it. The word dates to 1654 when it appears in John Trapp’s Commentary of the Book of Job:

I sate chief, and was Chair-man.

In more recent times the word has come under criticism for being sexist as not all such leaders are male. A backlash by those who want to preserve the old patterns of speech has resulted in some propagating a false etymology that states the -man is not a reference to a person at all and is, therefore, not sexist. This ill-informed view states that the -man comes from the Latin manus, meaning hand, that the chairman is the hand of the one sitting in the chair guiding the meeting. This is complete bunk.

(Source Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Caesarean section..

A Caesarean section, also spelled Caesarian or Cesarean and often without the upper case C, is the surgical delivery of a child. It is a term with an interesting etymology and lots of associated folklore.

The Birth of J. Caesar, 1506 woodcut from Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve CaesarsThe term comes from the name of Julius Caesar, who according to legend was delivered by this method. From R. Jonas’s 1540 translation of Roesslin’s Byrth of Mankynde:

They that are borne after this fashion be called cesares, for because they be cut out of theyr mothers belly, whervpon also the noble Romane cesar the .j. of that name in Rome toke his name.

Although this is where the term Caesarean comes from, this legend about Julius’s birth is almost certainly false. While surgical deliveries were known in ancient Rome, they invariably resulted in the death of the mother and Julius’s mother, Aurelia, lived well into her son’s adulthood. It is possible that one of Julius’ ancestors was delivered in this fashion and bequeathed the name to the family. Although Pliny reports that the name comes from caesaries, or hair, as the future dictator of Rome was born with a full head of hair.

The term Caesarian section dates to 1615, first appearing in Helkiah Crooke’s A Description of the Body of Man.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; National Library of Medicine, Cesarean Section: A Brief History)


This phrase, meaning a situation where two bureaucratic regulations frustrate one another, comes from the 1961 novel of that name by Joseph Heller:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Within ten years of the novel’s publication, the term was being used generally. From the March 1971 Atlantic Monthly:

In the opinion of many sociologists, the "combination of diagnosis, evaluation, treatment and classification" so highly rated by Dr. Karl Menninger is in fact the Catch-22 of modern prison life.

Heller originally titled his novel Catch-18, but at the request of his publisher changed it. Leon Uris had just published Mila-18 and the publisher did not want confusion between the two books.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

capital / capitol

The words capitol and capital seem to be very similar, but they are from different Latin roots.

The more general term, capital, has various senses, meaning punishable by death, principal, a seat of government, and wealth used in an investment. It first appears in Middle English in the 13th century and comes, via Old French, from the Latin capit?lus. The Latin root, caput, means head or money paid out. (This Latin root is unrelated to the German kaputt, meaning broken.)

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Antedating: General For Attorney General

Back in the issue of 31 March, I stated that the practice of addressing the US attorney general as general dated to the Clinton administration. Hugh Rawson has written me with an antedating of the term to the Nixon administration and Attorney General John Mitchell. In his book Blind Ambition, John Dean quotes G. Gordon Liddy as saying to Mitchell on 27 January 1972, "Now, General, this operation will be equipped with its own operational arm."

Good Words For Good Friday

This Good Friday we take a look at some of the words associated with Easter and Lent. There are a lot of good, old words in the names of various holidays of this season that survive as relics from the language of yore.

The period preceding Easter on the church calendar is Lent. It’s a period of fasting and penitence that encompasses the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Lent, or as it was known earlier, Lenten, is from the Old English lencten, which was the name of the season we now call spring. Lencten dates to around 1000 with the religious sense appearing around 1290. Today, only the religious sense survives.

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call a spade a spade

The spade in question here is a shovel, not a black person. The phrase means to speak bluntly, without euphemism or delicacy.

The phrase comes to us from Plutarch (c.46-c.120 A.D.), the Greek biographer and essayist, although not in its current form. Plutarch used the phrase to call a bowl a bowl in his Apophthegmata. The Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536) translated Plutarch and made an error when he came to this phrase. He confused the Greek word for bowl with that for a shovel; in Greek they are very similar, coming from the same root. This was carried into English by Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Erasmus’ work:

Philippus aunswered, that the Macedonians wer feloes of no fyne witte in their termes but altogether grosse, clubbyshe, and rusticall, as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.

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Cabal is most often used to denote a conspiracy, particularly one which controls an organization or government. The word entered the English language from the French cabale and ultimately comes from the Hebrew qabbalah, the medieval body of arcane and mystical Jewish teachings. The earliest use of cabal cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1616, cited in John Bullokar’s An English Expositor:

Cabal, the tradition of the Jewes doctrine of religion.

Within a few years, the word had generalized to mean any secret tradition or teaching, not just the particular Jewish tradition. David Person, in his Varieties of 1635, writes:

An insight in the Cabals and secrets of Nature.

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Bloody is a British swear word that until recent decades was considered highly offensive. This is a bit strange to most Americans, who do not see it as particularly offensive, and to Australians who use it is a staple of their dialect, sort of an all-purpose adjective. The word was so scandalous that the 1914 London opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion will be forever remembered because of the uproar over Eliza Doolittle line “not bloody likely” in the third act. (The 1938 film version of the play was the first British film to use the word.) Like many swear words, the origin is a bit mysterious. No one is certain exactly to what the blood refers.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it derives from a reference to the aristocratic rowdies of the Restoration (i.e., those of noble or aristocratic blood). This is supported by early uses as an intensifier, which are in the form bloody drunk. From G. Etherege’s 1676 Man of Mode:

Not without he will promise to be bloody drunk.

And the poet John Dryden wrote in 1684:

The doughty Bullies enter bloody drunk.

Popular derivations include the belief that it comes from the oath God’s Blood or is a corruption of the phrase By our Lady. Alternately, some suggest it is a reference to menstruation. None of these have any real evidence to support them.

Lexicographer Eric Partridge disagreed with all the above, stating, Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “there is no need for ingenious etymologies: the idea of blood suffices.”

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th Edition.)

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