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abba | abecedarium | abuse | abusive | acre | afghan | ain't | alimony | Angela | answer | antebellum | apple of one's eye | apropos | archetype | aunt | awesome | awkward | baker's dozen | barbecue | barber | barefaced lie | Benjamin | betray | Big Apple | Big Dipper | binge | bite the dust | bloody | blue moon | blues | bodacious | boost (steal) | bootleg | boycott | break a leg | bridal | bride price | Bruce | buck | the buck stops here | bum | bus boy | butterfly | buy the farm | cable | campaign | cancel | cartwheel | Casey | celebrate | Celtic/Gaelic words in English | Chevrolet | Cheyenne | Christopher | chron- | cloud | cocktail | coffee | cold turkey | commitment | community | con- | contagion | coon | copacetic | cornucopia | cosmopolitan | country names | courage | crepuscular | custody | cyborg | Damien | dashboard | David | dawn | days of the week | dead as a doornail | deism | dendron | despair | divorce | doctor | domino | donate | doublet | downtown | dragoon | duck soup | Dudley | Dutch |

From Lukas Vogel:

I am looking for information about the word Cheyenne. I could not find any information on the net. Maybe it comes from French? It is also a first name (woman), but quite seldom.

Cheyenne, the name of an American Indian people, is the French Canadian rendering of the Lakota Sioux (another American Indian people) word sahiyela. Sahiyela is what the Sioux called the Cheyenne. The French Canadians were the first Europeans to give the sahiyela a name, and it stuck. Shahiyela, or Shaiyena, comes from Sioux (Dakota) shaia, which means `to speak red, or unintelligibly.' The Dakota considered their own speech `white.'

From Fort Collins Public Library Patron Jason:

Melanie, This is the first time I've used electronic resources for etymological research, and your site has been helpful. I was wondering what you can tell me about the word dendron and the relationship between words like rhododendron and dendrite. How did shrubs get mixed up with the nervous system? Does the meaning of the word have anything to do with the fossilized remains of trees?

Greek dendron means `tree;` hence that root's seemingly wide applications. Rhododendron is a combination of Greek rhodon `rose' and dendron ` tree,' so the rhododendron is literally a `rose tree.' A dendrite with respect to the fossilized imprint of parts of a tree literally means `of a tree' (from Greek dendrites `of a tree'). The use of the term dendrite to describe the branching part of a nerve cell came about because of the "branching" and hence `tree-like' aspect of that part of the nerve cell.

From Bert Staddon:  UPDATED JAN 2006

I am interested in the origin of the phrase buy the farm. There are derivative euphemisms for sudden death but I can only guess at where the original expression came from. I'll watch your web site.

There are many proposed explanations for this phrase.  It first turns up in the 1950s.  It was apparently U.S. Air Force slang for "to die in a plane crash".  There are earlier instance of "buying something" referring to death.  Michael Quinion cites the Royal Air Force term to buy a packet (where a packet is a bullet) which dates from World War I.  He feels these are all ironic usages, suggesting that someone was buying something s/he did not want.

From Mike Ehrlich:

I know that the word cyborg was coined by a sci-fi writer. I'm trying to determine the name of the author and the title for which it was created.

Cyborg is a combination of cybernetic and organism. One source indicates that it was first coined by Dr. Manfred Clynes in an article (Clynes, M. and Kline, N.S., "Cyborgs and Space," Astronautics, September 1960, pps 26,27,and 74-75, N.Y. American Rocket Society). The term was subsequently used by science fiction writers. I have been unable, so far, to identify which science fiction writer used the term first. 

From Roger :

How about abecedarium? It sounds Latin, but I haven't found a Latin dictionary on the Internet yet. Do you have any clue?

Abecedarium means `alphabet' in Medieval Latin and comes from Late Latin abecedarius, which itself comes from the names of the letters A B C and D plus the affix -arius whose English equivalent is -ary `of or relating to.' The Middle English derivative abecedarian refers to `one who teaches the alphabet,' and it also has come to mean `elementary or rudimentary,' for obvious reasons.

From Chad Cotton :

I have recently run across a misspelling of a word, cancelation, after which I began to question why the word cancel has only one l, but cancellation and cancelled have two. If you have any clues, I would appreciate it.

Actually, the double l or single l is accepted as correct in cancelled/canceled and cancellation/cancelation. But the etymology of cancel may explain why both forms are correct.

The etymology of cancel is rooted in the etymology of chancellor. Etymologically, a chancellor was an attendant or porter who stood at the cancelli, or `lattice-worke bar,' of a court in Roman times -- hence the Latin term cancellarius. Note that the initial c in both of those Latin words is pronounced as ch. Over the centuries the cancellarius's status rose to court secretary, in due course with certain legal functions. The word came into English, via Anglo-Norman canceler or chanceler, in the time of Edward the Confessor, denoting the king's official secretary, a post which developed into that of Lord Chancellor, head of the English judiciary. The court over which he presides (in the U.K.), Chancery, gets its name by alteration from Middle English chancellerie, which came from an Old French derivative of chancelier `chancellor.'

The word's ultimate source, Latin cancelli `crossbars, lattice, grating' (a diminutive form of cancer `lattice'), came to be applied to the part of a church or other building separated off by such a screen: hence , via Old French, English chancel `part of a church containing the altar and choir.' And a metaphorical application of the notion of a lattice or bars crossing each other has given English cancel, via Latin cancellare and Old French canceller, which originally meant `cross something out.'

From Morgan Birge, II :

What does the name David mean?

David is Hebrew for `darling or beloved of God,' from Dodavehu. The name is found in different forms in many languages, including Davide (Italian), Davyd (Russian, Ukrainian), Dawid (Polish and Yiddish), Dewey and Dovydas (Lithuanian), and Taavetti (Finnish).

From Christopher D. Muellert :

I am trying to find any information on Saint Christopher, and perhaps I could start here, because I realize that etymology deals with names, also.

Indeed it does. My brother's name is `Christopher,' so I've known the etymology of this name for some time. The first half of the name comes from Greek Kristos and refers to Christ (the name means, ultimately, in Greek, `anointed'). The second half, -pher comes from Greek pherein which means `to carry.' Therefore, Christopher means `Christ-bearer.'

It is interesting to note that there is no historical St. Christopher. Instead, the name comes from a legend of a large, strong man who offered to carry a small boy across a river. As they crossed the river, the man, Christopher, felt the boy growing very heavy and he began to think he would drown under the weight. As he was beginning to panic, the child revealed himself as the Christ Child, carrying the world on his shoulders.

Spotlight on: Awkward.  When awkward was coined, in Scotland and northern England, it meant `turned in the wrong direction.' Middle English had an adjective awk, which meant `the wrong way round, backhanded,' and hence `perverse,' and with the addition of the suffix -ward this became awkward. Awk itself was adopted from Old Norse afugr, which is related to German ab `away' and English off. The suffix -ward, which underlies toward(s), forward, and a host of other English adverbs and adjectives, comes from a prehistoric Germanic *-warth. This in turn goes back to the Indo-European base *wert- `turn' (source also of English convert, version, etc.) -- so etymologically, awkward denotes `turn the wrong way round.' Awkward follwed a similar semantic path to awk, via `perverse, ill-adapted' to `clumsy.'

From Morgan Birge, II :

I've been trying to find the meaning of two names: Damian and Rupert. Any suggestions?

Damien comes from Greek damazein `to tame.' The name was popular among early Christians, and it may reflect their espousal of placidity and contemplation.

Rupert is the Low German and Dutch variation of Robert; the name was made famous in England by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who was a general for his uncle Charles I during the English civil war in the 17th century. Robert comes from Old English Hreodbeorht, from hrothi `fame' and berhta `bright' and translates to `shining in fame.' After the Norman conquest of England, the Norman-French version of the name, Robert replaced the Old English one.

From Freddie Robert:

I was attending a dinner function when someone at the table asked the following question, "Where does the word or phrase bus boy come from?" No one could give an answer. Can you help?

A bus boy is one who quickly (in a perfect world!) clears tables in a restaurant, making room for new customers. He also does the waiters' bidding. Buses were relatively new on the scene in 1913 when this term first appeared, and people likened the waiters' assistants, as they rushed back and forth through the restaurant, to buses moving quickly back and forth through town. Hence the term bus boy.

From Paulo Quaglio:

I'm curious about the origin of the word downtown. I've looked it up in several dictionaries but none had a historical explanation. Could you please help me with that? Thanks a lot.

I've run into the same problem you're having: none of my sources gives any information on this word. However, I expect we can assume that the term springs from the fact that towns are often located in valleys, near water. Towns were centers of trade and commerce, so the facilities for such trade were often located in the oldest part of a town. As the town grew, the commerce center would remain in the valley, while the rest of the town grew outward from there, often uphill. Therefore, when one wanted to go to the commerce center, one would go `down,' hence downtown.

From Joyce Matrazzo:

I was wondering where the phrases bit the dust and kicked the bucket came from.

Bite the dust, meaning `die,' was popularized in the 1930's thanks to American Western films. Cowboys and/or Indians were often depicted as being shot and falling off their mounts and landing on the dusty ground, where they lay dead. However, 19th-century English translations of Homer's Iliad and Vergil's Aeneid both contain bite the dust meaning `die.' It is likely that the phrase in ancient Greek also came about because warriors fell to the dusty ground when they were killed in battle.

Kick the bucket, another euphemism for `die,' first appears in late 18th-century England. There are two possible explanations for its origin. The first is that bucket is an East Anglian term for a beam on which a pig is hung for slaughtering and which it kicks in its death throes. The second explanation is that the bucket refers to that upon which a person committing suicide by hanging stands and then kicks out from under himself to finish the act.

From Paul Pruitt:

What is the meaning of the name Dudley? I read somewhere that it comes from English meaning `people's field.' However, does the Dud- part mean what it does today, `not fruitful?'

Dudley is most commonly seen as a surname, and it is also a placename in the West Midlands, England. It comes from Old English Duda, a man's name, and leah `woodland clearing' or `meadow.' Hence, Dudley means `Duda's meadow.' The placename appears in the Domesday Book as Dudelei in 1086. The term dud first appears in 1307 as dudde and refers to a `cloak or mantle made of coarse cloth.' In 1508 the term duds refers to `ragged clothing.' In 1825 the word came to be used to describe `a person in ragged clothes,' and in 1908 to describe `a useless, inefficient person or thing.' The latter meaning was transferred during Word War I to `a shell which failed to explode,' i.e. `a failure,' and the failure meaning has been with us since.

From Dan Graur, Professor of Zoology:

I am curious about the origins of two words: hobo and bum. Hobo has been recently used to denote a piece of mobile DNA (transposable element) within the genome of the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster that induces asymmetrical mating barriers (hybrid dysgenesis).

First, I am amused by the fact that our friend Drosophila melanogaster shares a portion of my name (Melanie). As an example of how we can determine the meanings of words using etymology, I'll briefly state that the root melano- means `black' in Greek, so I assume that the Drosophila melanogaster possesses a black gaster, which is the enlarged part of the abdomen behind the pedicel in hymenopterous insects. Now, on to your query.

Hobo's origin is unknown, though it first appears in 1889, having then the meaning which it has today: `a homeless and usually penniless person who wanders from place to place.' Bum `vagrant, tramp,' on the other hand, comes from bummer, which is `one who loafs.' Bummer first appears in 1855, and its derivative bum appears in 1864. Bummer is thought to be a modified form of Bummler, German meaning `one who loafs,' and that came ultimately from German bummeln `to dangle or loaf.' Does hobo's meaning explain its use in referring to mobile DNA?

From Magdalena A. Reznik:

I'm working with a pair of words: give and donate. Is there any possible way to know about their etymology?

Certainly. Give belongs to a far-reaching family of verbs, including German geben, Dutch geven, Swedish giva, and Danish give, also Gothic giban. These all have their source in a prehistoric German *geban, a verb whose ancestry is uncertain, though it is thought that *geban is related to Latin habere `have,' despite habere's meaning being opposite to that of give. The connection is thought to be in the notion of `extended hands,' whether to give or to have.

Donation entered English via the Scots around 1425, reaching Scotland from France, where it was also donation. The French form came from Latin donationem, from donare `gift,' itself from donum `gift.' Donate is the verb formed from the noun, and it first appeared in English in 1785.

From Old Pat:

What is the origin of buck as in pass the buck, the buck stops here, and so on?

A buck in this sense is a marker used in poker. It is placed in front of the player who is to deal the next hand. To pass the buck is then to place responsibility on someone else. The buck stops here is a phrase which apparently originated with Harry Truman. He was a poker player, and he had a sign on his desk carrying the phrase the buck stops here, meaning that the dealer's buck would not be passed from him; that is, he held final authority. Interestingly, silver dollars were often used as bucks, hence the use of buck to mean `dollar.'

From Vacation Now:

I'm curious if you can find more information about the origin/meaning of the prefix con- as in consciousness, concept, conscious, conduct, con-man.

Today's con- comes from Latin con- which means `together' and is also used as an intensifier. So conscious comes from the prefix con- and Latin scire `know,' and consciousness is the noun formed from conscious; concept comes from con- plus Latin capere `take;' conduct comes from con- and Latin ducere `lead.'

A con-man is short for confidence man, so named because one gives him money as a token of "confidence" in him.

From Emory T. Payne:

What is the etymology of bloody as the English use it?

Today's word bloody comes to us from Old English, where it was blodig. The Old English version comes ultimately from the Germanic *blotham, whose derivative *blothjan gaves us English bleed. German blut, Dutch bloed, and Swedish blod all come from *blotham, as well. Blood in the Romance languages comes from Latin sanguis (from which English gets sanguine), and the Greek word for blood was haima (English hemorrhage, hematoma, etc. come from the Greek source). As far as bloody being used as a chiefly British expletive, that dates from the 17th century. There is not a widely accepted explanation for its origin. One suggests that the word is a contraction of by our Lady, our Lady being Mary, the mother of God; another explanation is that the word became an `intensive,' as linguists call such words, by way of the nickname for Mary I of England, Bloody Mary.

From Bev Waller:

I'm curious as to the word abuse or abusive, such as in child abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse.

Abuse the verb, which before 1425 was abusen, was borrowed from Middle French abuser. That came from Vulgar Latin *abusare, from Latin abusus, the past participle of abuti `use up' (ab- `away' plus uti `use'). The noun abuse entered English in about 1439 as abus, coming also from Middle French, this time from abus, which came from Latin abusus, etc. Abusive first appears in the 16th century, formed from English abuse and the suffix -ive, which forms adjectives from verbs. The suffix usually comes directly from Latin -ivus.

From J.D. Hildebrand:

Is there an etymological link between Cronus, the king of the Titans in Greek mythology, and the prefix chron-?

What a great question! Cronus was a Titan who ruled the universe until he was dethroned by his son, Zeus. In Greek the name is actually Kronos. The prefix chron- or chrono- comes from Greek khronos 'time.' Though these words are similar, I suspect that their spelling is not quite so similar in the Greek alphabet. I have found no indication that the Greek term for `time' is related to the mythological Cronus. If anyone has additional information in this regard, please send me e-mail.

Spotlight on: Cloud.  In Old English the word for `cloud' was weolcen (whence modern English gets welkin, a poetical term for `sky'), which is related to German wolke `cloud.' At that time Old English clud (with a long u), the ancestor of cloud, meant `mass of rock, hill' (it is probably related to clod). As applied to `clouds,' presumably from a supposed resemblance between cumulus clouds and lumps of earth or rock, it dates from the 13th century.

From Old Pat Dowling:

I appreciate your quick response [to the query regarding pass the buck and the buck stops here]. Perhaps we can take it a few steps further back in the sequence. We now wonder why the gaming tables use the term buck. It would seem to have been borrowed from another game perhaps, or a hunter's term?

[See the entry regarding pass the buck and the buck stops here in the Archive of Etymology Questions]. Though some believe that the term buck for an American dollar originated from the use of silver dollars for bucks `markers used in poker,' others believe that the term buck `dollar' originated due to the fact that buckskins were used in trade, as a form of money, in early America. The term buck was then transferred to currency. If that is the case, then the buck used in poker got its name from the buck `dollar' used as a marker in the game. Unfortunately, no one knows the true answer with certainty.

The etymology of buck as in buckskin is this: the term bucke `male goat' (probably from before 1200), which came from Old English bucca `male goat' (before 830), was applied around 1300 to mean `male deer.' By that time it was spelled bocke, but then the spelling reverted to bucke (around 1375), and later the e was dropped. Old English bucca is derived from Indo-European *bukkan. There are cognates of buck in languages like Sanskrit, Armenian, Avestan, and Old Irish.

From M. Kalil:

I'm trying to locate the source of two euphemisms. The first is phrase that has dropped into common usage, six ways to Sunday. The second is boost `steal.'

Unfortunately, though I have heard the phrase six ways to Sunday on a few rare occasions, I can find no information on its source. If anyone has additional information in this regard, please send me e-mail. As for boost, an intransitive verb, I suspect that this word arose based upon the premise behind shoplift, that is, `moving' something up and out of the store (without paying for it!).

From Chuck Duquette:

What is the etymology of the word courage? Sounds like it has the French coeur.

Modern English uses heart as a metaphor for `innermost feelings or passions,' but this is nothing new. Vulgar Latin took the Latin word cor `heart' and derived from it coraticum, a noun with just this sense. Borrowed into English via Old French corage, it was used from earliest times for a wide range of such passions, including `anger' or `lust,' and it was not until the early 17th century that it became narrowed down in application to `bravery.'

From Ken Miller:

I'm looking for where the term blue moon came from. Is there any physical significance?

(PLEASE SEE ISSUE 35 for a correction of this discussion.) The earliest reference to a blue moon comes in the early 16th century, in Rede Me and Be Not Wrothe, by Roy and Barlow: "Yf they saye the mone is blewe, we must believe that it is true." Clearly, even then blue moon was understood to be something that appeared `never,' or `rarely.' The phrase once in a blue moon came about in the 19th century: "That indefinite period known as a `blue moon.'" (Edmund Yates, Wrecked in Port, 1869). There have been reports of the moon appearing blue, often from ships at sea; the coloration is likely due to particulate in the air.

Several readers have also pointed out to me something which I took for granted but should have included: a blue moon is the second full moon in a month. Two full moons in one month is a rare occurrence. However, it is unclear whether this astronomical term arose before or after blue moon had taken on its meaning of `rarely, almost never.'

From Jesse Adams:

Early in this century, the first edition of a newspaper to be released was known as the wwwwwwbulldog edition. Why is this? Who coined the phrase? When did it start being used?

The term may have "evolved when New York City's Herald, World and Journal introduced early editions and `fought like bulldogs for circulation.'" This from Encyclopedia of Advertising, Fairchild Publishing, 1952. The term first appears in print in 1926.

From Fred Rafael Rednor:

I'm trying to find out about the origin of the phrase Big Apple as an appelation (pun intended) for the city of New York.

Very punny!  Until recently, little was known of the origin of this nickname for New York City.  However, researcher (and New York City administrative law judge) Barry Popik has done extensive research and uncovered the origin of the term.  In essence, the phrase arose on the American horseracing circuit of the early part of the 20th century.   Apples are a favorite food of horses (Melanie knows this, having had a horse for much of her life), and, Popik says, apples had a reputation as the "king" of fruits.  The "big time" in horse racing of the time was New York , where the largest purses were won (and lost), and so the city came to be known as the "big apple" -- that which all on the racing circuit strove to reach.

John J. FitzGerald wrote about horseracing for the New York Morning Telegraph in the 1920s.  His use of the term Big Apple (1924) is the first recorded instance of the term to refer to the racetracks of New York City.  According to Popik, FitzGerald acquired the term when he was in New Orleans, probably in January of 1920.  It was used by African Americans who worked in the stables of of the New Orleans Fairgrounds racetrack.  See Barry Popik's full discussion of the term.

Strangely, the City of New York seems to be rather uninterested in Popik's groundbreaking research.

.

From Stacie:

We are interested in the origin of the phrase cold turkey. We guess it has something to do with dieting.

Here is another term whose origins are rather foggy. One source links the term, which means `abrupt withdrawal from any habitual activity,' to the term talk turkey, which also appears as talk cold turkey. That term means `speak in a clear manner about an unpleasant subject,' and I suspect that going cold turkey is unpleasant! If anyone has additional information on the origin of this term, please e-mail me.

From Herokhon:

Please tell me the origin of acre.

Acre's roots are ancient. It is likely derived from the Indo-European base *ag-, which gives us words such as agent and act. *Ag- meant, among other things, `do' and `drive,' the latter meaning likely related to the notion of driving animals onto pastureland. This Indo-European root is the source of Latin ager (from which English gets agriculture), Greek agros, Sanskrit ajras, and the hypothetical Germanic *akraz, all meaning `field.' This change in meaning from `drive' to `field' occurred because agricultural activities changed over time from herding animals in open country to plowing the ground in enclosed areas, or fields. From the Germanic *akraz, Old English aecer was developed, and by 1000 AD it had come to refer to the area of land that a pair of oxen could plough in one day.

From E. Neal McNamara:

I'm most interested in finding out the actual origin of the phrase Mexican standoff. Any help would be appreciated. Also, the origin of aunt and uncle.

Mexican standoff's origins are not known, but one source supposes that the term, which means `a situation from which nothing at all can be expected,' comes from a derogatory origin. This source notes that adjectives of nationality are often used in derogatory manners. Several expressions were coined by the English in the 17th century to put down their Dutch rivals: Dutch treat `pay for yourself,' Dutch defense `surrender,' and do the Dutch `suicide.' The same is true regarding the Mexicans: Mexican athlete `an athlete who goes out for a team but does not make it,' Mexican promotion `a promotion in which the employee gets a new title but no raise in pay,' Mexican breakfast `a breakfast consisting of a cigarette and a glass of water,' and Mexican standoff .

An aunt is etymologically a mother. The word comes ultimately from *amma, which is a hypothetical non-Indo-European word for `mother.' It is similar to Indo-European *mamma- and originated, like *mamma-, from syllables perceived to be uttered by babies. *Amma was borrowed into Latin as amita `paternal aunt,' and it passed into English via Old French ante (modern French tante is an alteration of ante) and Anglo-Norman aunte.

Uncle comes via Anglo-Norman uncle and late Latin aunculus from Latin avunculus `mother's brother, maternal uncle' (source of English avuncular) This was a diminutive noun derived from the prehistoric base *aw- `grandparent,' and it has relatives in Latin avus `grandfather,' Welsh ewythr `uncle,' Polish wuj `uncle,' Armenian hav `uncle,' etc.

From Martin Tibbits:

I know there is a simple etymological explanation of the origin of the phrase baker's dozen, but I don't know what it is (and I can't find my dictionary of cliches...). Could you help me out?

Certainly! The explanation is simple. A baker's dozen is thirteen. The term arose becaues a law was passed in England in 1266 specifying exactly how much a loaf of bread should weigh, and it imposed a heavy penalty for underweight loaves. Bakers took to giving their customers an extra, or thirteenth, loaf so that they would be assured of meeting the weight minimum imposed by law. The term baker's dozen came about in the 16th century.

From Ron Conner :

I'm interested in discovering the etymology of the following words: crepuscular, tintinnabulation, cornucopia, and cartwheel.

Crepuscular, which means `pertaining to twilight,' first appears in English in the 17th century. It comes from Latin crepusculum `evening, twilight,' which itself comes from Latin creper `dark, obscure.'

Tintinnabulation `the ringing or sounding of bells,' comes from tintinnabulum `small tinkling bell.' The latter term is Latin and first entered English in the 16th century. It comes from Latin tintinnare, the reduplicated form of tinnire `ring, tinkle.' Tintinnabulation entered English about 1845. The term tinnitus `ringing in the ears' comes from the same source.

Cornucopia has an interesting source. It entered English in 1508 as a borrowing from Late Latin cornucopia, which itself comes from Latin cornu copiae `horn of plenty.' The horn of the goat Amalthea, who suckled Zeus, is supposed to be the first `horn of plenty.'

Cartwheel's origins aren't difficult to determine. A cartwheel is a kind of handspring in which one's arms and legs are spread like the spokes of a wheel, and as the move is performed consecutively, one looks like a turning cartwheel The term cartwheel came about around 1395, but when it came to be applied to the handspring is not known.

From Yehoshua Pinheiro :

I would like to know the origin of the word cable.

Cable comes ultimately from late Latin capulum `lasso.' Capulum is a derivative of the verb capere `take, seize,' possibly, one source notes, via Arabic habl. In Provencal, capulum became cable, from which came Old French cable. English acquired the word in the 13th century.

From Earle Warner:

I am a mediator specializing in family disputes. Do you have any information on the etymology of mediation, divorce, custody, and alimony? Do mediation and meditation share a common root? Thanks.

The etymologies of some of these words seem fairly logical, while others are a bit surprising! Mediation comes from the past participle stem of Latin mediare, from medius `middle.' It attained its current meaning in English in the 14th century. Interestingly, it originally applied to Christ (13th century)! The word meditate is not related -- it comes from an Indo-European root which means `measure.'

Divorce comes, along with several other English words, from Latin Divertire, via a variant divortire. Divertire was formed from dis- `aside' and vertere `turn aside or out of the way.' So, to divorce is `to turn one's husband or wife out of the way.' Other English words which descend from Latin divertire are diverse, divers and divert/diversion.

Custody's etymology is the easiest -- it comes from Latin custodia, which comes from custos, custod- `guardian, keeper.'

Alimony, on the other hand, has a more surprising, yet still logical, history: it comes from Latin alimonia, from Latin alere `nourish,' so alimony is "nourisment," as the suffix -mony is a form of the suffix -ment. So, alimony is support given for "nourishment!"

From Bruce :

I am looking for some information on references to God in the New and Old Testaments, particularly in the Book of Isaiah. God is referred to as I am and as Yahweh, as well as Jehovah. Please provide information on these words also as they may be related to my search/study. God refers to himself as Abba, also, in the New Testament. Can you provide the roots of that word? One word which I am not sure how to spell exactly but for which I serach ws based on hearing someon espeak of God referring to himeslf as Rahamein (sp?) in Isaiah, I believe. Can you help me with this?

I'll do my best. Interestingly, Jehovah and Yahweh apparently come from the same root. Both words are from an erroneous transliteration (the expressing of a word from one alphabet using a different alphabet) of the Hebrew JHVH (sometimes represented as YHWH), the `unspeakable' name of God. Jehovah was formed by adding the vowels from adonai `my lord' into JHVH, and Yahweh was formed by adding those vowels into YHWH.

Abba means, simply, `father' or even `daddy.' It is Aramaic. The words abbot, abbess and abbey are all descendants of Aramaic abba.

While I have no information on the non-English word Rahamein, I am happy to ask any readers who do to contact Bruce.

From Otto Huizinga:

Can you let me know please the origins of the word betray/betrayal?

The word betray is actually related to the word treason. Betray is an Anglicized version of the Old French verb trair `betray,' which came from Latin tradere `hand over, deliver up' (it was formed as a compound verb from trans `across' and dare `give'). The noun form of tradere is traditio, source of English treason by way of Old French and Anglo-Norman. Betray entered English in the 13th century. The noun betrayal appeared in the late 19th century.

From Robin Andrews:

I am wondering about the word origins and history of two words, neighborhood and community.

Neighborhood dates from the 15th century, but it wasn't used in the sense of `district' until the late 17th century. It comes from Old English neah `nigh' and gebur `peasant, freeholder (dweller).' Hood- was added to neighbor to create the word, -hood adding the meaning `a condition or state.'

Community, by the 14th century, meant `a body of people associated by common status, pursuits, etc.' It comes from Middle English comunete, which comes from Old French comunete. The French word came from Latin communitas, which is from Latin communis `common.'

From Burma Diode:

Everywhere I have looked up the name Bruce,the only reference given is Robert the Bruce, which implies that bruce is either an adjective or a noun. In your history of Scotland, you first refer to Robert de Brus, then you call him The Bruce, and finally just Bruce. Is de Brus the original spelling which was corrupted to Bruce? If so, what is the meaning of de Brus (apparently Brus is a location)?

De Brus is Norman in origin and translates to `of Bruys,' Bruys being in France. Robert the Bruce's family came originally from Bruys. The name was corrupted by the Scots to Bruce and The Bruce. Interestingly, the Scots tended to call important men by their surname with the determiner the added. Therefore, one hears of "The Wallace," among others. One source also notes that Braose is a French place name which likely means `muddy' or `from the brush thicket.'

Spotlight on: Cockpit.  It did not originally refer to the navigation center of an airplane. That application of the word did not arise, understandably, until 1914. Prior to that the word referred to the quarters for junior officers on a warship. That meaning arose in 1706. Before that, Cockpit referred to the buildings housing the Trasury and Privy Council in London, which were situated on the site of a former theatre, The Cockpit. The theatre was named thus as it had been located on the site of a former cockpit (from 1587), where cockfights took place.

From Robin Andrews:

I'm wondering about the origin and history of the word celebrate. Can you help?

This word entered English in 1465, coming from Latin celebratus, the past participle of celebrare, which originally meant 'attend in great numbers,' from celeber, celebris, celebre 'thronged, frequented, well-known,' perhaps related to Latin celer 'swift.'

From Sara Riley:

We'd like some information on the etymology of the word cosmopolitan.

This word was modeled after metropolitan. Cosmopolitan was formed from the addition of -an to cosmopolite, a 'citizen of the world' (1618). Cosmopolite was borrowed from Greek kosmopolites, from kosmos 'world' and polites 'citizen,' from polis. Interestingly, the word fell from use in English in the 18th century but became popular again in the 19th century.

From Douglas West:

Currently, the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] has dragoon listed as originating in 1604. However, several historical books talk about dragoons or dragoon-like soldiers from about 1540 onward. I find it hard to believe that a new type of soldier could have been existent for 30 to 40 years before having a label applied to him. Can you shed some light on this?

This type of soldier was known as a dragoon because the carbine he carried looked as though it breathed smoke and fire like a dragon. Dragoon is, in fact, a form of the word dragon (it was borrowed from French dragon 'carbine or musket' which itself came from the Old French word for 'fire-breathing serpent'). I suspect that it simply took some time for this metaphorical sense to arise and be recorded in writing with regard to this kind of soldier, hence the 60+ years between appearance of such soldiers and the recording of the word.

From Darren Clark:

First, allow me to compliment you on your fantastic web page!  It has become part of my daily ritual to check out a word on your page.

Question: Although I know the origin of some of the days of the week, I'm fuzzy on others. Can you fill me in on the origin of the names for the days of the week (Monday, Tuesday, etc.)?

I'm also curious about the origin of the names of the months.

Thank you very much for your compliment about the page! I'm pleased that you're able to join us, and thank you for your query.

Prehistoric Germanic people had a practice of naming days of the week after heavenly bodies and/or gods. This practice they acquired from the Mediterraneans, notably the Romans, who themselves took it from the Greeks. The Greeks and Romans called the day hemera heliou and dies solis `day of the sun,' respectively. In Old English it was Sunnandaeg, literally `day of the sun,' and by 1250 it was sunedai. There are cognates in most of the Germanic languages even today, but the Romance languages interestingly switched to words that ultimately mean `the Lord's day.'

Monday means `day of the moon,' and it has cognates in the Germanic languages as Sunday does, plus the Romance languages also retained the lunar connection. The Old English form was monandaeg and by 1200 it was monedaei.

Tuesday is named for the Germanic god of war and the sky, Tiu. The Romans had named the day after Mars, their god of war, but the Germans preferred their own god, understandably. Today, the Romance languages still possess the Mars sense (e.g., French Mardi, Spanish Martes) while the Germanic languages retain the Tiu meaning. In Old English the word was Tiwesdaeg, then it was tywesdaei, and by 1200 it was tisdaei.

Wednesday is named for the Germanic god Woden. As in the development of Tuesday, the Germans foresook the reference to the Latin god, in this case Mercury, and named the day after their own god. The Romance languages retained the reference to Mercury (modern French mercredi and modern Spanish miercoles). Interestingly, one source notes that the name Woden may mean `the inspired or mad one'! The Old English form was Wodnesdaeg `Woden's day,' and by 1200 it was Wednesdai.

The pattern we have seen in the development of Tuesday and Wednesday applies also to Thursday (`Thor's day') and Friday (`Frigga's Day'). Thor was the Germanic god of thunder.  The Old English form of Thursday was Thurresdaeg, thought to be a contraction of Thunresdaeg, Thunre being the genitive form of Thunor `Thor.' The Romance languages did not relinquish the connection with this day to the god Jupiter (in Latin Iovis, from which English gets Jovian). The modern Spanish word for Thursday, as an example, is Jueves. Frigga was the Germanic goddess of love. She replaced the Latin god Venus (today in Spanish it is Viernes), so that today we have Friday. The Old English version was frigedaeg, and by the mid-12th century, the word was Friedai.

Saturday is `Saturn's day,' taken directly by Old English from the Roman Saturni dies `Saturn's day.' In Old English it was Saeternesdaeg. In 1200 it was Saetterdai. By 1300 it had reached the form which we have today.

From Nick Klosterman:

How did we get the word boycott? It doesn't seem to me to have any logical root or basis in boys or cots.

Some words are not as easily dissected using logic as others, though once we look at boycott and realize that it seems to have nothing to do with boy or cot, another logical possibility is that it was named after someone, as is the case with boycott. The first person to be boycotted was a Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, a British estate manager in Ireland. He was boycotted in Ireland in 1880 by the Irish Land League, an organization which fought for farming reform, lower rent, etc. Those who did not do as the group wished were subjected to organized ostracism, as was Captain Boycott. The word has been used in this sense until the present day.

From John:   Updated January 2006

I would like to know the origin of the word cocktails when referring to alcoholic beverages.

This is a word whose etymology is not known. All that is known is that it entered American English in the early 19th century around the same time as cocktail `horse with a cocked tail,' or a horse whose tail is cut short so that it sticks up like a cock's tail. Whether and how these two versions of the same word are related is not known.  However, it does appear that, originally, a cocktail was a specific drink (like a screwdriver, etc.).

From Joe Papalia:

Which came first: the use of campaign in military circles, or the use of campaign in political circles? What words, for instance, did the Romans use for a military campaign? Of course, what I'm getting at is whether politicians intentionally seized the word precisely because of its bellicose connotation, or whether army-types borrowed the word in an attempt to make war-talk a little more palatable during conversation (and news segments!).

Actually, the military meaning came about first. The etymology of this word is interesting. It comes from French campagne `open country,' which came from Italian campagna. The Italian word came ultimately from Latin campus `plain, field.' It first entered English as campania, from the Latin, at the end of the 16th century, and it referred to `army operations peformed in a field or open country.' By 1770 it came to be applied also to `action to obtain an end,' and in 1809 it came to be applied to `activities to get someone elected.' So the notion that politicians chose the term for its warlike connotations is unlikely.

From Gonzaga High School Student:

What is the origin of Chevrolet?

The founder of General Motors, William Durant, hired Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss mechanic, in 1911, but Chevrolet was not long thereafter fired because he smoked, a habit which Durant could not bear. However, Durant kept Chevrolet as a name for some of his automobiles.

From Gary:

I have been asked by my friend to try to glean the origin of the word coon.

He seems to think that it has something to do with a region in India which was primarily a tea growing region. The locals were referred to by the British soldiers as coons (I'm not sure what the region was called). The town was called Coonoor, and it was in the Nilgiri hills. In the local dialect, oor means `town,' so Coonoor would mean `town of coons.'

He seems to think that this is the correct origin. Please, could you either confirm or shatter his illusion?

None of my sources refers to any sort of Indian origin for coon. Instead, they all agree that it is an aphetic form of racoon (aphetic refers to the loss of an initial, usually unstressed, vowel or syllable).

From Professor Dan Graur:

I can imagine the formation of country names like Spain and Sweden from the original Espana and Sverige, respectively, but how come country names like Hellas (or Elliniki), Deutschland, Masr, Suomi, and Magyar turned in English into Greece, Germany, Egypt, Finland and Hungary?

Greece comes from Latin Graecia, which is what the Romans called the Greeks, who referred to themselves as Hellenes. Interestingly, Graecia comes from a Greek word, Graikos, which was a tribal name. Germany has its source in Latin Germani, the name of a group of peoples or tribes inhabiting central and northern Europe at the beginning of the Christian era. The origin of the tribal name is not known. Finland comes from the Swedish word for the natives of Finland, Finne. Hungary comes from the Greek name for the Hungarians, Ouggroi. The only country name which I was unable to find history on (due to limited research time because of the holiday here in the U.S.) was Egypt. If anyone has this information, please e-mail me.

From Mike Crowley:

There is a phrase which has never made sense to me: the apple of one's eye. What have apples to do with eyes and why are such apples so esteemed?

Apple of one's eye comes from the ancient belief that the pupil of the eye was a solid, apple-shaped body which was essential to sight and, therefore, very precious.

From Peter Stojak:

Can you tell me the meaning of the name Casey?

Well, the most famous Casey, J.L. "Casey" Jones, the train engineer who gave his life for his passengers in a 1900 train wreck in Virginia, was actually nicknamed as he was because he was from Cayce, Kentucky. However, the name Casey comes from Irish Gaelic Cathasach `watchful.'

From Ben:

I'm just wondeirng where my name Benjamin came from?

This name is, not surprisingly, of Hebrew origin. It means `son of the right hand.' The most famous Biblical Benjamin is the youngest son of Jacob. He was originally named Benoni `son of my sorrow' due to the fact that his mother died giving birth to him. Jacob renamed him Benjamin.

From Myra Bienvenu:

My colleagues and I are having an argument about the phrase bald-faced lie. Some insist it should logically be bold-faced lie. Which is correct and where does the phrase originate?

The examples you cite are actually variations/corruptions of the original barefaced lie. Bare here means `brazen, bold.' However, in the 16th century, one source notes, barefaced meant `beardless,' a condition at that time considered bold to the point of audaciousness in adult men. So the metaphorical sense of `bold' perhaps came to be applied in barefaced lie. Based upon these two explanations, the variations bald-faced lie and bold-faced lie both make perfect sense.

From Ethan Aaron Brosowsky:

I would like the word histories and interesting facts about these four words: archetype, eden, quest, and epic.

Archetype comes, via Old French, or possibly directly, from Latin archetypum, which came from Greek archetypon `pattern, model.' The neuter form was archetypos `original' from arche- `first' and typos `stamp, mold.'

From W.C. Mixon:

I'd like the common definition of three words during the 1700s: religion, false religion, and deism.

Religion has already been discussed in this column; you can read about it in the Archive of Etymologies. By the 16th century it meant `recognition of a divine being to whom worship is due.' As for false religion's meaning in the 18th century, I'm afraid that's more a historical question than an etymological one. However, I can tell you that deism entered English in the 18th century with the meaning `acknowledging the existence of God but rejecting revealed religion.' It comes from Latin deus `god.'

From James Alma Erekson:

My dictionary only takes the word answer as far back as to become Old Norse andsvar and doesn't give much information on connotation. I know in German, words starting with Ant- (as in die Antwort or die Antarktik) tend to get the same article. Is and- a prefix? If it is, what does andsvar mean?

*And- is indeed a prefix, and means `against.' *Swar or *svar means `swear.' So answer originally referred to a `solemn affirmation given in rebutting a charge,' or a `swearing against' what someone else has said.

From Robert:   Updated January 2006

I hear dead as a doornail and hoodwinked today but no one can tell me their origin. I have just gotten on the net and was lucky to have found your site so soon. From what I have seen so far, on a scale of 1 to 10 you are a number 11. Keep up the good work.

Well, Robert, I see you got that money I sent you (just kidding!). Thank you very much for your kind words! Dead as a doornail has survived in English from the 14th century, but its origin has been lost. A doornail was both a large nail used on outer doors, or a portion of a door-knocker.  A great deal of conjecture has arisen, the best explanation being that, when a nail is driven into a piece of wood and through the other side, and the protruding end is beaten so that it bends flat against the wood, that nail is said to be dead (because it can't be used again).  This may have been a common technique used in making doors way back when, and so may be the source of this expression.  Any carpentry historians out there who can substantiate this?

From Acer1270:

I was wondering about the origin of my name Angela.

Your name comes from Greek angelos `angel,' or, literally, `messenger.' The name has been popular in Italy and Spain since the dawn of Chrstianity, but it did not gain popularity in English until the 18th century. This delayed popularity was due, according to one source, to the fact that the Puritans thought the name too sacred to use. Angela Merici, who founded the Ursuline Order of nuns, was canonized in 1807 and it was after her canonization that the name became more popular among English-speakers.

From Matthew M. Gossin:  Updated January 2006

Copacetic -- we know it to mean `fine, alright, good.'

Hebrew: al co ba seta = `everything is fine.'

Webster's New World Dictionary says [<?] [slang].

What do you think?

Most etymologists agree that this word has its origin among blacks in the American South in the 1800's.  They discount the Hebrew origin (such as hakol b'seder `all in order' or kol b'sedek `all with justice') because of the Southern black connection. However, the suggestion has been made that black speakers picked the word up from Jewish immigrants in New York.  The word was popularized during the early 20th century by black entertainers.

From Meir Shani:

What is the etymology of the word apropos?

It entered English in the mid-17th century, coming from French a propos `to the purpose.' Propos comes from the Old French verb proposer, which comes ultimately from Latin proponer `put forward.'

From Eric Saur:

What is the origin of the word awesome?

Let's start with awe. The word developed from age (about 1250) and aghe (about 1200). It was borrowed from a Scandinavian source, from Proto-Germanic. Old English ege `fear, awe' produced eie and aye, both also meaning 'fear,' in early Middle English. Today's form awe appeared in the 15th century.

Awesome arose in 1598 from awe + -some, a suffix forming adjectives.

From Jacques Gauthier in Quebec, Canada :

I'm wondering where the name of the constellation of the Big Dipper or Great Bear comes from.

The answer to this question has its roots in astrology. The Greeks thought that the constellation had the shape of a large bear, and the rendering of its name in Latin is Ursa Major `big bear.' (The Little Dipper is Ursa Minor). The English name Big Dipper (which the constellation also resembles) is more recent, for the word dipper as applied to a scoop for water did not arise until the late 19th century in America. Interestingly, the Europeans called the constellation Charles' Wain, among other things, Charles' Wain meaning `Charlemagne's Wagon.'

From R.G. Taylor:

What is the etymology of the word commitment? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

To understand the etymology of commitment, we must start with commit. In 1390 this word was committen `give in charge, entrust.' It ws borrowed from Latin committere `put together, join' (from com- `with' + mittere `send, put'). The meaning `perpetrate' arose in 1449, and commitment appeared in 1611, formed from commit + -ment. The meaning `pledge, promise' arose in 1793.

Bride has many relatives throughout the Germanic languages (such as German braut, Dutch bruid, and Swedish brud, all meaning `bride'). The modern English form comes from Old English bryd, itself coming from Germanic *bruthiz. Today bridal is only an adjective, but it was originally a noun meaning, in Old English, `wedding feast' -- brydealu, literally, `bridal ale.'

From Dan Arnold:

[What are the] etymologies of doctor and barber? [I believe] that physicians should be called barbers due to the `barbarity' of their `surgeries.' Lawyers and others who teach should be called doctor [Latin, docere, to teach].

You've got an interesting proposal, Dan. You are correct in that doctor comes ultimately from Latin docere `teach.' It entered English around the turn of the 14th centry as doctour `early teacher or father of the Christian Church.' It was borrowed from Old French, which took it from Medieval Latin doctor `religious teacher, scholar,' from Latin doctor `teacher.' This comes from docere `to show, teach;' interestingly, docere originally meant `to make [something] appear right.' It came from decere `to be seemly, fitting.' The sense of someone who has received the highest degree from a university arose sometime prior to the late 14th century. The same is true for the meaning `doctor of medicine,' although this sense did not enter wide use until the 16th century.

It is interesting to note that docere/decere came from the Indo-European base *dok-/*dek-, which also gave us Greek dokein `seem, think,' the source of such English words as dogma, orthodox, and paradox.

Barber is not, as one might think, related to barbaric. Barber entered English in the late 13th century as barbour, which came from Anglo-French barbour. The Anglo-French form came from Old French barbeor and barbier, both forms from Latin barba `beard.' The connection to `beard' is of course due to the barber's job of shaving. Barbarian (and barbaric), on the other hand, comes ultimately from Greek barbaros `foreign, rude.' The Greek is thought to be imitative of the way that foreign speech sounds, like Sanskrit barbara-s `stammering.'

It is true that barbers did often perform crude surgery in Medieval times. However, they do so no longer, and they now instead deal only with `beards' and haircuts, while medical doctors are indeed very learned, often teaching students and patients, so doctor seems an appropriate term for someone learned in medicine.

From Dan:

Could you tell me the origin of the words dawn, physiognomy, and fart?

Dawn entered English in its current form at hte end of the 15th century. In Old English it was dagung, which literally meant `daying,' or the emergence of day from night. It came from the Old English term for `day,' daeg. In Middle English it became daiing or dawyng, and then it evolved to dawenyg, perhaps based upon a Scandinavian source (compare Danish dagning and Old Swedish daghning).

Physiognomy, which is the art of judging a person's nature by his or her facial features, entered English in the late 14th century as phisonomie, which was borrowed from Old French phisionomie and also directly from Late Latin physiognomia. The Latin came from Greek physiognomia, which was a variant of physiognomonia `the judging of a person's nature by his features (physio- `nature' + gnomon, genitive of gnomonos `judge, indicator.'

Fart is a word that we've already examined here. Hopefully it will be in the archives by the time this column is posted. If not, check later in the week. I apologize for the delay in getting previous columns archived!

Spotlight: The first use of the word domino in English was in the late 17th century as a name for a hooded cloak worn by canons or priests. It was also a mourning veil worn by women. The `game played with flat, oblong tiles of black marked with white dots,' dominoes, was apparently so named because the black color of the tiles was similar to that of the domino cloak. Domino `cloak' is thought to come from Latin domino, the dative form of dominus `master.'

From Matt Walton:

Afghan: were the blankets originally made in Afgahnistan? What about the dog? Does it have some meaning other than being the first part of the word Afghanistan?

William and Mary Morris believe that the afghan `coverlet or throw' was so named because it resembled afghan rugs, which featured geometric patterns and vivid colors. Afghan rugs came originally from Afghanistan. The dog afghan hound came originally from there, as well. The word has no other meaning aside from `native of Afghanistan.'

From Eric van Dijk:

I'm from the Netherlands and I wonder why we are called Dutch.

In the mid 14th century, the word was Duch and it referred to Germans. By the mid 16th century it had come to refer instead to natives of Holland and the Netherlands. It was actually borrowed from Middle Dutch duutsch (as you know, modern, Dutch Duits means `German'). Interestingly, duutsch is from the same source as Old English theodisc `the language belonging to the people' and Old High German diutisc `of the German people' (and in modern German it is, of course, deutsch). Old English theodisc comes from theod `people, race, nation' + isc `ish.'

In English we find the old meaning of Dutch, `German,' in the term Pennsylvania Dutch.

From Roel Idema:

Lovely and very interesting pages. Maybe you can help me out on the origin of the word blue in connection to, say, sadness. The phrase "lonely and blue" appears in many songs. Is the word blue/blues related to the color? I'm not aware that this particular color has a similar meaning in any other language. Could it be more American than [British] English?

There are some slightly different schools of thought regarding the origin of blue and the blues. One source notes that blue `low-spirited, depressed' was in use by 1385, and that the phrase to look blue arose in the early 17th century, with the original meaning of `to look livid or leaden-colored from anxiety, depression, etc.' Blues `low spirits' was being used by 1741. The term was adopted by American jazz circles by 1895. This history of the word would make it English (England) in origin.

Another source traces blues back to the term blue devils, which were hallucinations believed to accompany delirium tremens (d.t.'s). The connection betwen d.t.'s and depression is fairly obvious. However, this same source also notes that blue `melancholy' has been a black slang term for `melancholy, depressed' since 1870, which it was used to denote work songs. This may point to an American origin.

From Center Folks:

Some friends and I were talking about the Car Guys (Public Radio show) and their campaign to rid English (by which I assume they meant American colloquial speech) of "Frenchisms." Their example is the word croissant, which they advocate being pronounced as "CROY-sints." We discussed the futility of the effort to remove all foreign words from English. The resulting list of currently used words based on Celtic roots, would be small indeed.  I opined that there might be one thousand words of Celtic origin out of the 150,000+ words in the lexicon of American English. The several words we suggested to one another were all Anglo-Saxon, which almost gets us there, but not quite. My question is, can you estimate how many words in current American usage have Celtic or other early Britain roots?

First we should understand that "pure" English does not consist of Celtic/Gaelic words. Instead, if one wanted pure English, one would likely seek Old English prior to the Norman French influence of England. For those not familiar with English history, Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxons. That said, there are not very many Celtic/Gaelic words which survive today in English. Some examples are: crag (from Gaelic craig); penguin (from Welsh pen gwyn `white head,' referring originally to the great auk); slogan (from Gaelic sluaghghairm `war-cry'); smithereens (from Irish smidirin, diminutive of smiodar `fragment'); and possibly hubbub (thought to come from a Celtic interjection of aversion, similar to Gaelic ub! ub! ubub!).

From Bryan D. Bourn:

I am trying to trace the origins of the phrase duck soup with the meaning of something `easy' or `straightforward.' I am doing this as a research assignment for a law professor at Hamline University School of Law, whre I am a student. Duck soup in legal terms refers to an analysis that is self-evident, or a problem whre reaching the proper conclusion is forgone. There are many references to duck soup in the popular literature from the early 1900s on, all referring to something being `easy.'

I would appreciate any help you can give me. This is driving me nuts!

Unfortunately, duck soup's origins are not known. It dates from about 1910, though it gained popularity after the Marx Brothers titled one of their films Duck Soup. It has meant `easily done or accomplished' since it appeared in the early 20th century.

From Brad Ben-Hain:

I'm not sure if the word coffee has an English background to it, but I was wondering if you would explain the origin of the word.

Interestingly, coffee likely means, etymologically, `wine'! The word was chaoua in the late 16th century, and by the early 17th century it was already coffe, and by the mid-17th century it was coffa. It was borrowed from Turkish kahveh and also directly from Arabic qahweh `coffee,' which some believe originally referred to some sort of wine. However, it is also thought that the word might be based upon Kaffa, the name of an area in southern Abyssinia where the coffee tree supposedly originated.

From Jennifer Holden:

I notice you have origins of bride and bridal, but would you happen to know the origin of the term bride price? I know it has something to do with kidnapping virgins...

A bride price is payment made in money, property, or other valuables by a man to his prospective wife's family. I have it from an excellent source that this custom was still being practiced in, among other places, Wales as late as the 18th century. I suppose that kidnaping a virgin (or any other unmarried woman, for that matter) was a money-saving venture, for a man who had kidnaped a woman would not have to pay the bride price for her!

From Jon Glassman:

I was wondering if you could tell me about the origin and etymology of the word sophomore and the phrase break a leg.

Break a leg is a theatre term which was used instead of good luck, as it is bad luck to wish one good luck in the theater! Theatrespeak is rampant with other such superstitions, one being that it is bad luck to utter the name of the play Macbeth. I recently heard that Michael York was on the set of an American television series where someone unfamiliar with theatre practices mentioned Macbeth, and Mr. York, a veteran of the stage, was mortified and had to go through several steps to counteract the effects of hearing someone utter the name of that Shakespearean play. Ah, but I digress! As for break a leg, theory has it that the term entered American theatrespeak from the German method of wishing good luck -- Hals-und-Beinbruch -- "May you break your neck and your leg." It is thought that the German phrase arrived in America via Yiddish.

From Tom Van Voorhis:

Where does the word butterfly originate?

One common yet erroneous explanation for this word's origin is that it comes from flutterby. What we do know, instead, is that this word is very old (pre-8th century). It was originally buturfliogæ, a compound of butere "butter" and fleoge "fly".  Why butter? Some suggest that it was due to many butterflies being yellow in color, like butter. Others believe it is based upon the yellow excrement of butterflies. Still others hold to the notion that butterflies were thought to land in kitchens and drink milk or butter left uncovered (this, interestingly, is supported by a German word for butterfly, milchdieb "milk-thief"). 

From Jim:

At what point in history did the word dumb shift or attain a dual meaning? Which came first, the meaning of `speechless' or of `stupid'? Thanks.

Both meanings are intermingled in the word's history. In Old English it was dumb (around 1000), and there were cognates in Old Frisian and Old Saxon (dumb `mute'); Middle Dutch (dom, domp); Old High German (tumb, tump `mute, stupid, deaf'); Old Icelandic (dumbr `mute') and Gothic (dumbs `mute, speechless'). One source notes that the sense of `stupid, foolish, senseless' is first recorded in English before 1200. Today the word means `stupid' in German and in Swedish (dumm and dum, respectively) while in other languages, including British English, it means `mute.' The American meaning of `stupid' (it also means `mute' in American English) likely came from German influence in the 19th century (the German word for `mute' is related to English stammer). Interestingly, dumb comes from the Indo-European root *dheubh- `confusion, stupefaction, dizziness,' which was the ultimate source of English deaf, as well.

From J. Rene Barrios:

What is the origin of ain't?

It is a contracted form of `are not.' It is also used for `am not' and `is not.' It was characteristic of working class London speech (and now of rural American speech) and was also used at one time in upper class (posh) British speech. It is recorded from 1778. It has also been used, since 1845, to mean `have not' and `has not.'

From Matt Thomas:

I am looking for the origin of a word for my college English paper. I have the great opportunity of writing about the word contagion. Your help would be most appreciated.

It seems that turning to this column for help with research papers is contagious! Contagion took its current form in about 1380 when it meant `corrupting influence, contamination.' Twenty years later it had gained the meaning `a communicable disease.' It came from Old French contagion, which itself came from Latin contagionem `contact, contagion.' It is related to contingere `touch closely' from con- (intensive) + tangere `to touch,' which is the source of English contact.

From Jocelyn Wilson:

I have a question regarding the etymology of the word bodacious. I thought it was a colloquialism unique to America. A friend of mine said it came from the Iceni queen Boadicea (Boudicca) who was definitely bodacious. Is there any truth to her statement?

While that is a tantalizing explanation for the origin of bodacious, it is completely in error. The word is simply a portmanteau of bold and audacious. It is most often heard in the U.S. South. In the New York area, it takes the form bardacious. The British English dialectal form boldacious is likely the source of the American forms.

As we've mentioned before, it is quite easy to make logical guesses about the origin of words and phrases, but one must also have some sort of evidence to back up those guesses.

From Virpi Pyykkö:

Could you tell me about the etymology of the terms hope and despair?

Do not despair, for we hope we can help you. Hope is an Old English word. Before 1200 it was hopen, and it arose from Old English hopian `wish, expect, look forward to.' It was cognate with Old Frisian hopia `to hope' as well as Middle Low German, Middle Dutch, and modern Dutch hopen, not to mention Middle High and modern German hoffen. Unfortunately, that is all we know about hope. There has been a suggestion that it is related to hop and that it originally denoted `jumping to safety.' Reaching a place of safety gives one hope, the theory goes on to say.

Despair was dyspayr in about 1300. It was likely borrwed from Old French despeir, which was an early form of despoir, which came from desperer `lose hope, despair,' from Latin desperare (de- `without' + sperare `to hope'). Desperate comes from the same source, as does desperado, which, though it sounds Spanish, is possibly an English invention.

From Jennifer Holden:

I am comparing different etymologies for the word beer for a paper in my History of the English Language class. Do you have an etymology for beer that I can use?

English beer is thought to come, simply, from Latin biber `drink.' Beer is believed to have referred originally to any `drink.' In Old English it was beor, though it did not enter common usage before the 15th century. Until then, the word for `beer' was ale(a distinction between beer and ale was made in the mid-18th century). Interestingly, the native Scandinavian word for `beer,' e.g., Icelandic ol and Swedish öl, is a cognate with English ale, though Icelandic also has bjor. The Romance languages tended to stay with Latin cerevisia, though Italian has birra! Thanks to Stephen Day for contributing to this analysis.

From J. Laska:

If you can put up some information on the etymology of the word binge, it would be appreciated.

Binge entered English formally in about 1854 and referred to `heavy drinking.' It is thought that it came from a dialectal word binge `to soak (a wooden vessel).' The sense is that once soaks up alcohol when one drinks heavily.  This notion is also found in contemporary phrases such as an old soak meaning `a drunk.' The development of the `period of self indulgence' sense is more recent.

From Andrew Taylor:

I was interested in learning the origin of the word bootleg in reference to smuggling or in reference to illegally obtained recordings made at rock concerts. Thanks for your help.

You are welcome. Bootleg arose in the mid 19th century, and it was likely coined as a metaphor. It refers to the notion of smuggling liquor in one's boot, and one source believes that traders in the American West hid slim bottles in their boots in order to sell the liquor to Indians.  One could not likely smuggle very much liquor in this fashion, however, hence the belief that the term was created as a metaphor. The term regained popularity in the era of prohibition in America, and once prohibition ended, the word was used to refer to other commodities which were created and sold illegally, most especially musical recordings.

From Lionel Martineau:

Several co-workers and I were discussing word origins and one word whose origin has us baffled is barbecue or BBQ. Can you please help?

I'll certainly try! This word entered English in about 1657, which might be surprising, but it came from Spanish barbacoa `framework for roasting meat or fish.' The Spanish came from Arawak (Haitian Indian) barbakoa `tree-house,' likely referring to the image conveyed by the roasting framework which was made of sticks or poles. By 1733 the word referred to `an outdoor meal of roasted fish or meat.' BBQ is merely an abbreviation of the word. (By the way, barbeque is a rampant spelling, but it looks like it should be pronounced "barbeck".  If you want to spell it with a q, try barbequeue.)

From Aaron:

A friend's seven-year-old cousin asked her, "Why do they call it a dashboard?" Suffice it to say that this friend was stumped, and so has been every person she's asked since then, including me. Help!

Interestingly, this word did not arise during the automobile era. Instead, it originated around 1846. Unfortunately, that's all I've been able to find, so far, on this word. I can guess that, when riding in a carriage or buggy on a badly rutted road, one was "dashed" (`hurled, knocked, or thrust with sudden violence') into the dashboard fairly frequently.

Since this column was originally posted, a reader has indicated that the dashboard prevented rocks and mud from "dashing" riders in buggies and buckboards, and this sounds like a credible explanation for the word's origin.

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