Tag: etymology

boomerang

Boomerang vocabulary: words that return to their origins

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” may have been good advice for Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it isn’t practical for a language. English is both an avid borrower (ballet, schmooze, wok) and a generous lender: consider German das Baby, French le week-end, and Japanese aisu kuriimu (‘ice cream’—try saying it out loud). Occasionally, […]

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Socialism

The changing meaning of ‘socialist’

You might hear socialist used a lot in political discussions, both positively and negatively. It’s a word that on occasion apparently confuses a large number of Americans, as many use it in a manner that is perhaps inconsistent with its intended meaning. Hence, a short primer on the word socialist. Socialist is first recorded in the […]

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nicknames

Why do we love to give people and places 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 […]

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The term swashbuckler is another word for pirate.

What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

The traditional swashbuckler definition, as it appears by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is 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 […]

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cocktail

The language of cocktails

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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Edward Lear

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

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 many children, I was always delighted to come across limericks. My favourite was about the young man of Nepal, who went to a fancy dress ball. […]

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solar system

Who’s in charge of the English language?

‘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 […]

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drunk

Why does English have so many terms for being drunk?

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 […]

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