Articles, quizzes, and grammar tips for word-lovers everywhere

Tag: word origins

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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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 […]

Dishonesty or coincidence? The origin of the word ‘gasoline’

Gasoline

New research, published in the March 2012 update of the Oxford English Dictionary, shows that gasoline might have its origins not in gas as has long been thought (it is a liquid after all) but rather in the name of a London publisher. It then reached something close to its present form in the murky […]

An etymological trip around the USA

Waldorf Salad

This past month saw the publication of the fifth volume (Si-Z) of the magnificent Dictionary of American Regional English, an ongoing lexicographic project that has, over the past five decades, been tracking down and cataloging the seemingly infinite varieties of American English. DARE concerns itself with many words and terms that might not appear in […]

What is the origin of the word ‘serendipity’?

Origin of serendipity?

The wonderfully onomatopoeic serendipity, which is indeed often chosen as Britons’ favourite English word (alongside nincompoop and discombobulate), means the making of happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. It was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific […]

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