Tag: etymology

Why do we love to give people and places nicknames?

Nicknames

What’s in a nickname? Corruption, initially. Which is not to say that there is anything inherently dishonest about nicknames; the history of the word stems from an error. Originally “an eke-name”, meaning an additional name, “a neke name” formed out of an incorrect word division that blended the noun with its indefinite article. By the […]

What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

Jolly Roger

The traditional swashbuckler, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So a […]

The language of cocktails

Gin Rickey

People and places Biographical details of Colonel Joseph Kyle Rickey are sparse and difficult to track down, but those we have offer a fascinating sketch of an eclectically talented American. Born in 1842 and variously employed as a soldier, politician, and entrepreneur, Rickey’s name stands out in an age of pioneers and frontiers for one […]

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Higher-cynths, lower-cynths, and Seeze Pyders: why Lear’s ‘nonsense’ language is more than just fun

Edward Lear

You’ve heard of a writer called Lear? His two hundredth birthday’s this year. They called him absurd But he wrote undeterred, That remarkable writer called Lear. If there were no other reason to remember Edward Lear with fondness (and there are, in fact, very many), his popularization of the limerick would be enough. Like so […]

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Solar System

‘Watson’, says Holmes, ‘when you lie here and see all those stars what do you think?’ ‘Well, Holmes,’ says Watson. ‘All that grandeur and majesty. I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t someone in charge. How about you?’ ‘Me?’ says Holmes, ‘I think: Who’s pinched the tent?’ Venus and Jupiter have been extra-bright recently and […]

Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

Beer

There are many hundreds of words and phrases for being drunk, not just in modern times, but also throughout the history of slang. A study by one of today’s leading chroniclers of slang, Jonathon Green, of half a millennium’s worth of collected material—amounting to almost 100,000 words and phrases—shows the extent to which the same […]

Tracing the birth of words: from ‘open’ to ‘heffalump’

New words

Open for longer It is always immensely satisfying to be able to pinpoint the genuine birthday of a word in English, although there will always be some words for which this will be impossible. It can be difficult to trace exactly when a word first made its appearance on paper (and when it was used […]

Which words came to life 100 years ago? New words in 1912 from ‘ambivalence’ to ‘jazz’

Jazz

On April 15, 1912, readers of the Los Angeles Times opened their papers to the headline “The World’s Greatest Steamship Wrecked.” Less than two weeks earlier, they had read something else of historical note, at least to etymologists: the April 2 edition contained the earliest citation yet found for the word jazz. At that time, […]

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