Despite many alternative claims, the first appearance in print links the term O.K. to a political organization that supported the reelection of President Martin Van Buren. The New York New Era of March 23, 1840, carried an article on the Democratic O.K. Club. The initials stood for Old Kinderhook, a Van Buren epithet derived from […]
The word salary evolved from salarium argentium, or “salt money”. Salt money was fees paid to Roman soldiers to buy the then precious commodity. In some instances, salt was indeed used as money.
The phrase “to look a gift horse in the mouth” is as old as the fourth century A.D. and once had a literal meaning. Up to a certain number of years, a horse’s age can be determined by examining its teeth. To perform such an examination on a horse you’ve been given is looking a […]
The phrase upside down was believed to be an early form of upsedown or up so down. The phrase came into popularity during the Elizabethan Age.
The phrase passing the buck probably came into use in American poker games during the late nineteenth century. In 1872, Mark Twain wrote that players would pass an object, a buck, to remind them of who was to deal. It is also possible that buck is an old word for bet.
No, the word crap is derived from the first flush lavatory or toilet. Crapper’s Valveless Water Waste Preventor was developed in 1837 by English sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper.
The old saying waiting till the cows come home is almost 400 years old. It refers to the early-morning hour when cows line up at the farm gates, ready to be milked.
It derives from the Latin nescius, or “ignorant,” which comes from nescire, or “not to know.” In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the phrase a nice person connoted foolishness rather than agreeableness. Over the years, however, nice has gained its more favorable, if bland, connotation.
The origin of the word Kismet is from the Turkish gismat, “portion” or “lot”. It means fate or the completion of destiny.
The phrase “In Like Flynn” is believed to have originated with Ed Flynn. Flynn was head of New York City’s Democratic party machine from 1922 to 1953. Flynn’s political machine was always “in” power. The phrase gained further popularity in 1942, when swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn (1909-1959) was tried and acquitted on charges of the […]
The term Stark Naked is a corruption of the term start naked. In the thirteenth century, when the phrase originated, start took the Anglo-Saxon form steort, which meant “tail” or “rump.” Therefore, stark naked refers to someone naked to the tail.
The metal measurer that measures foot size is called the Brannock device.
It was coined by New York’s Finest along Twenty-third Street in the years before World War I. At the corner of Twenty-third Street and Broadway, traditionally the windiest corner of the city, men used to stand outside the famous Flatiron Building for free looks at ladies’ well-turned ankles. The police dutifully moved the audience along, […]
Throughout history, the wolf has been known for its insatiable appetite. This came to represent hunger and need. Thus, the Wolf is a symbol of the troubles that must be kept away.
At one time there was no difference between a Preface and a Foreword. Preface was the Latinate term, foreword the Anglo-Saxon one, for a brief opening comment about a book’s purpose. Now, many consider an author’s introductory comment to be the preface, and anyone else’s comment to be the foreword.
In Old English, scot meant a payment, or one’s share of a payment. To go scot free meant escaping that charge.
According to Oklahoma history, it is in honor of the state’s first settlers. They crossed the border into Oklahoma Territory sooner than the rest and obtained the choicest pieces of land. In 1889, Oklahoma Territory was opened for settlement, and the federal government attempted to close and police the borders until a designated time when […]
A Fascist general named Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Sierro is said to have coined the phrase during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). As four Fascist army columns closed in on Madrid, the general described his supporters inside the city as a “fifth column.” The term came to mean any group of subversives trying to […]
It depends on whom you ask. Some editors will still change “to boldly go where no man has gone before” to “to go boldly . . .” But other pundits now consider the taboo against split infinitives all but passé. The taboo was introduced by eighteenth and nineteenth-century grammarians for unknown reasons.
There are several theories for the origin of the word hoodlum. One has to do with a gang of thugs in San Francisco led by a man named Muldoon. A fearful reporter, writing about him in 1877, spelled the name backward, Noodlum, and the compositor mistook the N for an H. A second theory claims […]
Yes, Dr. Thomas Lushington (1590-1661), an English chaplain who liked his liquor. The City of Lushington, a London drinking club, may have borrowed its name from him. In the nineteenth century, the City of Lushington in turn became the source of the word lush, originally a slang term for beer and eventually another word for […]
There are several theories. One is that the phrase refers to greased-pig contests once held at county fairs, where the winner kept the pig and thus brought home the bacon. Another theory revolves around the town of Dunmon, England. There, in A.D. 1111, a noblewoman decreed that any person who knelt at the church door […]
A cathartic is a medicine that stimulates movement of the bowels. Aristotle, in his Poetics, used the medical term catharsis (in Greek, literally “purgation” or “purification”) as a metaphor for the way a stage tragedy “cleans out” the emotions of a spectator by arousing terror and pity.
No, the word shyster did not come from Shakespeare’s Shy-lock. It came from a Mr. Scheuster, an unscrupulous American criminal lawyer in the 1840s.
A fathom is Six feet deep. How far is a league? A League can vary from 2.4 to 4.6 miles. What is the area of an acre? An acre is 4,840 square yards, or 43,560 square feet.
Probably not. In French, gaga means a silly old man, and the meaning may simply have been modified. However, some think it is short for artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who, it is said, revealed mental imbalance in his work.
The word Nightmare was named after a creature but not a horse. According to ancient superstition dating back to the eighth century in England, people thought a female monster or spirit, a so-called mare, would sit upon a sleeper’s chest. This would cause a feeling of suffocation from which the sleeper would try to free […]
Angry, hungry, and gry, which is a now obsolete unit of measure that is equal to 0.008 inch.
A fortnight is fourteen days.
The male side of a family is called the Spear side. A distaff was a stick with a cleft end, used to hold the flax or wool from which a woman spun thread. The distaff was considered a woman’s tool, while the spear was a man’s. Both ways of describing genealogy are now rarely used.
The oldest letter in the alphabet is o, first used by Egyptians in about 3000 B.C. The newest letters are j and v. The consonant j was not distinguished from the vowel i until the 1600s, and not until the Renaissance was the consonant v distinguished from the vowel u.
Semantics is the study of meaning. Approached from the philosophical point of view, it involves the relationships between words; approached from the linguistic point of view, it deals with changes in meaning over time. Semiotics is the study of signs and the use of signs in human communication.
The word petard refers to a type of bomb or mine once used to break down walls and gates. To be hoist is to be blown up. Therefore, to be hoist by one’s own petard is to be, literally or figuratively, blown up by one’s own bomb.
You should not use the word irregardless ever. The word is redundant because the negative prefix “ir” does the same work as the negative suffix “less”. Use regardless instead. Irregardless, some folks use it anyway.
The word bedlam, now used to describe a scene of uproar and confusion, was originally a contraction of Bethlehem. It referred to Saint Mary of Bethlehem, a religious house in London that was converted into a hospital for the insane in 1402. The term came to mean a lunatic asylum, one of its inmates, or […]
The American expression to Beat the Band is not more than a century old. It referred to the aim of arriving at a parade site before the band passed.
A perimeter is the distance around the boundary of a closed plane figure, such as a rectangle or circle. A parameter is a quantity that, when varied, affects the value of another quantity. Parameters are established to aid in determining an unknown figure.
Not surprisingly, the name refers to a part of the lion. In England, before the sixteenth century, the weed was called lion’s tooth because of its serrated leaf’s resemblance to the lion’s incisor. Later, the French translation, dent de lion, was adopted into English and eventually became anglicized to “dandelion.”
Both types of professionals practice law in Great Britain, but their roles are different. A barrister represents clients in open court and may appear at the bar. A solicitor is allowed to conduct litigation in court but, with only a few exceptions, not to plead cases in open court. In practice, most plaintiffs and defendants […]
The phrase best man is of Scottish origin and recalls the days when a bridegroom simply kidnapped the woman he wanted as his bride. To help him in that task, the groom enlisted a cadre of friends. The toughest and bravest of these groomsmen was the best man. Had women kidnapped men, they might have […]
The practice, also called anthropophagy, is derived from the Spanish word for the Caribs. The Caribs were a West Indian tribe known for cannibalism.
The U.S. Navy defines a boat as “a vessel that can be hauled aboard a ship.” In ordinary usage, however, large vessels are often called boats as well as ships.
In the process of deduction, you derive conclusions from assumed statements by using the rules of logic, moving from the general to the specific. In induction, you make inferences from experiments or observations to build a general law, moving from the specific to the general.
It is not an animal, but an official edict or decree from a pope. The term comes from the Latin bulla (a knob or seal). It originally referred to the seal that was placed on the pope’s official documents.
A median is the point that divides a series of numbers so that half are on one side, half on the other. In the series 1, 4, 8, 20, 24, 27, 42, the median is 20. The mean is the average of a series, found by dividing the sum by the number of elements. In […]
There are several words in the English language that use all five vowels. These include the words sequoia and facetious.
Spelunking is the exploration of caves as a hobby. It is not to be confused with speleology, the scientific study and exploration of caves.
Rather than measuring the time that passes during a meeting, the word minutes refers to the Latin minutus, or “small.” This is because the occurrences of the meeting are meant to be noted shortly and quickly, not that the events themselves are unimportant.
Writers should busy themselves with other things. Insure and ensure can be used interchangeably to mean “make certain.” In the United States, however, the spelling insure is generally preferred to ensure, and only insure can be used to mean “indemnify against loss.”
English is the wordiest language, with approximately 455,000 active words and 700,000 dead words.
Sweatshops were referred to as such not because the workers sweat a lot. In the 1840s in England, the word sweating meant the exaction of tedious work at low wages. The term sweatshop, a place where workers were “sweated”, was coined in the United States in 1867. Originally referring only to the garment industry, it […]
In the eighteenth century, the best meat of any meal went to the men of the house and their friends. The women and children ate the umbles, the tongue and entrails, baked in an umble pie. In time, the dish went out of fashion, but the phrase took on a new life that it still […]
The term probably dates back to fifteenth-century England, where strict laws were passed to prohibit bakers from underweighing their bread. Since weights could not be precise, bakers adopted the practice of giving 13 loaves on every order of 12. However, another theory has to do with the common folk phrase devil’s dozen, meaning 13. Bakers […]
The phrase, which has come to refer to a completely inebriated person, derives from sailing, but not from the sails, as one might think. In the early 1800s, chains were used to regulate the angle of the sails, and these were called sheets. When the sheets were loose, the boat would become unstable and “tipsy,” […]
The phrase “to 86” generally means “put an end to”. It is said to have been part of a number code used in diners and soda fountains. In those early days, 86 meant “we’re out of that dish,” “don’t serve that customer,” or “don’t serve another drink to that customer because he’s already had too […]
The Latin phrase et al., short for et alia (“and other things”) and et alii (“and other people”), is more specific than et cetera (“and the rest”). Only et al. can refer to people.
The abbreviation eg., standing for the Latin exempli gratia, or “for the sake of example,” means exactly that, a series of examples: “large dogs, e.g., Saint Bernards and Great Danes.” The abbreviation i.e., standing for id est, or “that is,” explains the subject you have mentioned: “large dogs, i.e., those over 3 feet tall and […]
An aglet. The metal hoop that supports a lampshade? A harp. The indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle? A kick or a punt.
Homographs are two or more words that are spelled alike but have different meanings and sometimes different pronunciations, such as lead (the metal) and lead (to conduct). Homophones are pronounced alike but have different spellings and meanings, such as rite, right, and write. Homonyms are spelled or pronounced alike but have different meanings, such as […]
In its earliest use, the phrase pin money did mean the money to buy pins, the primary fasteners for clothing before buttons and zippers were invented. But by the sixteenth century, the phrase came to mean the money used for incidentals.