Melanie & Mike say...
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Archive of Your Etymology Questions
N - P
narcissistic | Native
American words in English | neck of the woods | neighborhood | Nelly | nerd
| New York minute | nightmare | nincompoop | notions | nylon
| obedience | obfuscate | obscenities | obsess | off
the cuff | O.K. | okey dokey | Olga
| -orama | orange | ordeal
| other | paddy wagon | palooka
| pancake/hotcake | paradigm | pariah | pass the buck | passion
| peel | performance | persecution
| physical fitness | physiognomy |
picnic | pine tags | pink slip
| pinkie | pint | plaintiff | politically correct (pc) | posh | priority | proactive
| prodigious | propriety | psi-
| pulling your leg | pundit
Passion: Latin pati meant suffer' (it is the source of English patient). From its past participle stem pass- was coined in post-classical times the noun passio, denoting specifically `the suffering of Christ on the cross.' English acquired the word via Old French passion, but its familiar modern senses, in which `strength of feeling' has been trasferred from `pain' to `sexual attraction' and `anger,' did not emerge until the 16th century. Also from the Latin stem pass- comes passive, etymologically `capable of suffering.'
Prodigious: First recorded in English in 1552 as meaning 'ominous, portentous'; it was borrowed from Middle French prodigieux, which came directly from Latin prodigiousus, (pro(d)- means 'forth' and most sources say that -igiousus (from igium) is of uncertain origin/meaning, though I saw one source which connects digium with'speak, say'; hence prodigiousus would be 'speak forth,' literally, or something which is an omen, or "tells" us something; so that one source may be on the right track). The meaning of prodigious progressed from 'ominous' to 'marvelous, astounding' (first recorded in 1568), and then to 'something huge' in 1601.
English has many fabric names that reflect their places of origin, for example, denim from Nimes and muslin from Mosul; so it is not surprising that the rumor of nylon being a combination of ny- (for `New York') and -lon (for `London') is still with us. However, that rumor has no truth to it. The creators of nylon, Du Pont, chose -on as the suffix based upon its use in other fabric names (e.g., cotton and rayon), and the prefix nyl- is simply an arbitrary syllable that they made up. The word was coined in 1938.
As for hemp being characterized as bad so that nylon would become more popular, I'd never heard that before and I don't find it in any of my etymological sources. If any readers have information on this, please e-mail me. However, the etymology of hemp is very interesting, too:
Hemp is ultimately the same word as cannabis (as, bizarrely, is canvas, which was originally made from hemp). Both go back to a common ancestor which produced Persian kanab, Russian konoplya, Greek kanabis (source of English cannabis), and a prehistoric Germanic *khanipiz or *khanapiz. From the latter are descended German hanf, Dutch hennep, Swedish hampa, Danish hamp, and English hemp.
Nerd: A nerd is a person regarded as stupid, socially inept, or unattractive. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the word first appears in 1950 in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo: "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo a Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" (The nerd itself is a small humanoid creature looking comically angry). Nerd next appears, with a gloss, in the February 10, 1957, issue of the Glasgow, Scotland Sunday Mail in a column entitled "ABC for SQUARES": "Nerd -- a square, any explanation needed?" Authorities disagree whether Dr. Seuss's nerd and the Glaswegian nerd are the same word. Some claim there is no semantic connection and the identity of the words is fortuitous. Others maintain that Dr. Seuss is the true originator of nerd and that the word was picked up by five- and six-year-olds of 1950 and passed on to their older siblings, who by 1957, as teenagers, had applied nerd to the most comically obnoxious creature of their own class, a "square."
Picnic was borrowed from French piquenique, a word which seems to have originated around the end of the 17th century. It is not clear where it came from, but one theory is that it was based on the verb piquer `pick, peck' (source of English pick), with the rhyming nique perhaps added in half reminiscence of the obsolete nique `trifle.' Originally the word denoted a sort of party to which everyone brought along some food; the notion of an `outdoor meal' did not emerge until the 19th century.
O.K., also accepted as OK, is another of the several common English words whose etymologies have been hotly debated. The current accepted theory for the origin of O.K. is that the letters stand for orl korrect, a facetious early 19th-century phonetic spelling* of "all correct"; and that the use of O.K. was reinforced by the fact that O and K are the initial letters of Old Kinderhook, the nickname of U.S. president Martin Van Buren (who was born in Kinderhook, in New York state), and O.K. was used in the name of a group formed to promote his election in 1840 (a year after the first record of O.K. in print). That group was called The O.K. Club.
*This habit of misspelling words in the first half of the 19th century arose as it was thought of as funny and entertaining. We see it occasionally even today.
Ordeal: [OE] The `meting out of judgment' is the etymological notion immediately underlying ordeal, but at a more primitive level still than that it denotes simply `distribution, giving out shares.' It comes ultimately from prehistoric Germanic *uzdailjan `share out,' a compound verb formed from *uz- `out' and *dailjan, ancestor of English deal. The noun derived from this was *uzdailjam, and it came to be used over the centuries for the `handing out of judgments' (modern German urteil, for instance, means, among other things, `judicial verdict or sentence'). Its Old English descendant, ordal, denoted specifically a 'trial in which a person's guilt or innocence were determined by a hazardous physical test, such as holding on to a red-hot iron,' but the metaphorical extension to any `trying experience' did not take place until as recently as the mid- 17th century. It is interesting to note that in Middle English the word is recorded only in the form ordal. It was not until the 17th century that the current form ordeal came into use, presumably from the word's etymological connection with deal. Once source indicates that the word was revived by 16th-century scholars from Anglo-Saxon ordal. This same source notes that this word contains the only surviving form in English of the prefix or- `out.'
You're on the right track with the Irish connection, but it's not the great numbers of Irish policemen in America who gave the paddy wagon its name. Instead, as one source indicates, it came about because in the late 19th century, when the term was coined, the Irish were often the "low men on the social totem pole," and it was they who were rounded up and placed in the police patrol wagon when a show of power was needed by the police for publicity purposes. Paddy is the diminutive form of Padraig, Irish-Gaelic for `Patrick' and a common first name among the Irish.
Notions as you have defined it comes from notion `a belief or opinion; an idea or conception.' The term as applied to small sewing supplies came about in the 1790s in the U.S. It was used to refer to small trade items, such as buttons, pins, ribbons, combs, and clothing items. Notions even had their own section in large stores (and still do in some stores). The origin of this application of the term is thought to be that the items to which it referred could give one the notion to purchase them. Some sources also indicate that notions got their name because of the word notion's connection to `mind' and, therefore, `imagination,' and so, perhaps, `creativity' or `inventiveness.'
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.'
As with many other English words, the origin of this word is uncertain. We do know that it first appears in English in 1706. Prior to that it was nicompoop (missing the second n), which dates from sometime before 1676. One sources goes so far as to indicate tha the word's first syllable may be related to Nicodemus, which in France was a term used for `fool.' This same source notes that poep in Dutch means `fool,' so a nincompoop would be literally a `double fool.'
One reader noted that the term may be connected to the phrase non compos mentis `not of sound mind.' This idea was not mentioned in any of my sources, but the link seems reasonable, if unproven.
Even though today is not exactly May 23, I'm posting your letter for two reasons: 1) to address the etymology of physical fitness, and 2) to stress again, as I do above in the informational paragraphs preceding "This week's letters," that I am simply unable to provide personal, e-mail responses to etymological requests, due to the volume of requests I receive as well as my limited time. I wish that I could help in cases like yours, Amy, but I regret that I cannot. The best that I can do is encourage you to read this column after you submit a request. I answer in this column all requests that I receive for pure etymologies. Too, allow me to take this opportunity to mention that if your query does not appear in this column within two weeks of your sending it to me, it means that I did not receive it (for whatever reason), so please do resend it to me.
Now for the etymology of physical fitness. Unfortunately, I can find no information on this term's origins. I suspect that it is a rather modern term. I can provide the etymologies of the two parts of this term: fitness first appears in 1580 as the noun form of the adjective fit. This word entered English around 1375 as fytt, likely from Old English fitte, past participle of the verb fitten, `to be suitable.' That meaning developed over the years to `qualified, prepared,' so that one who is physically fit is one who is `physically prepared.'
Physical entered English before 1425 as phisicale `medical,' as distinguished from `surgical.' It was borrowed from Medieval Latin physicalis `of nature, natural,' from Latin physica `study of nature.' This came ultimately from Greek physis `nature.' The meaning `pertaining to the body' dates from about 1780.
Horama is Greek for `sight', coming from horan which means `to see.' The suffix -orama as in panorama, diorama and cyclorama comes from the Greek. Bill Bryson, in Made in America, explains that Norman Bel Geddes's Futurama exhibit at the New York World's Fair of 1939 is what inspired later compounds using the variation -o-rama. This exhibit was immensely popular and showed what the world was supposed to be like in 25 years (1964). Futurama is merely the application of English -orama to future -- literally `vision of the future.'
Skoash? Could you mean skosh? This word is pronounced with a long o, which would account for your spelling. This word, which means `a small amount' and which is used adverbially with a (i.e., a skosh bit), comes from Japanese sukoshi `small amount.' It is first recorded in English in 1952.
Unfortunately, I don't have sufficient background in botany to even make much of a conjecture about pine tags. Nor have I ever heard the term, and I can find no information on it. I suspect that it is a regional term. It is difficult to tell from the context of your note, but if pine tags are pine needles which have fallen from their mother tree onto something else, then this might explain the term, as the clinging needles might look like `tags' on the cedar.
Paradigm comes from Latin paradigma `pattern, example,' from Greek paradeigma, which itself comes from Greek paradeiknynai `show side by side, compare' (from para- `beside' + deiknynai `to show'). The word first entered English in 1483.
From Joe Papalia:
I'm glad you enjoy the site! Unfortunately, I'm about to let you down. I've been unable to find any information on this term, though it certainly is likely that your guess as to the term's origin is correct.
The word priority first entered English in the 14th century from Old French priorite, which itself came from Medieval Latin prioritatem or prioritas, from Latin prior `first.' Though I have been unable to find reference to the initial usage of the plural form, priorities, it is not unlikely that priority remained unpluralized until the 20th century. After all, one can reason that there can be only one `first;' hence, there was no need to pluralize priority. In the busy world of the 20th century, however, we all have many `firsts' or priorities.
This is a delicate area of etymology, especially as the words are so offensive. However, many of us have likely wondered where such words, and their offensive nature, originated. I will not print the etymologies on this page, out of consideration for sensitive readers, but you may read them here if you are interested.
This word comes from Hindi pandit `learned man,' which comes from Sanskrit panditah `learned, scholar.' It is thought that the Sanskrit term may be of Dravidian origin. Pundit first entered English in the 17th century, and the meaning `any learned person or authority' is first recorded in English in 1816.
Pancakes are also known as hotcakes, as well as griddle cakes, in American English. I expect that they are called hotcakes because typical cakes are served after they have cooled, while pancakes/hotcakes are served hot off the griddle. I am guessing that the term in Spanish is torta caliente or something similar. If so, it is likely that the Mexicans either directly translated hotcake from English to Spanish, or else they latched onto the same principle of the food that Americans did -- it's a `hot cake.'
I do indeed. This term dates from the late 19th century. It is thought that it alludes to tricking a person by tripping them, either with one's foot or with a cane or the like, literally holding back one of their legs so that they fall. It appears to have originated in England. The original belief that the phrase was related to pulling the legs of a person who was being hanged in order to shorten their suffering has been discounted.
Hello, Succinct Correspondent! I can indeed. Narcissus was a handsome young man in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond. He pined away and was turned into a narcissus, which is a flowering plant. The word narcissus comes from a Greek root that means `numbness,' alluding to the narcotic effects of the plant. However, in English narcissistic has nothing to do with `numbness' and all to do with `self-love,' drawing upon the myth rather than the word's ultimate Greek roots.
A plaintiff is literally one who `complains.' It comes from Old French plaintif (the feminine form is plaintive!), which comes from Old French plainte `lamentation, complaint,' which itself comes from Latin planctus, from plangere `lament.'
In the the 16th century, this word meant `beset, as a beseiging force.' It appeared rarely in the 18th century, and then it was revived in the 19th century. It comes from obsess-, the past participle stem of Latin obsidere `sit down before,' from ob- `before' and sedere `sit.' Today's meaning is derived from the 17th century meaning of obsession `being assailed by an evil spirit or a fixed idea.'
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.'
This term is first recorded in the early 20th century. However, I have been unable to find references to its origin. I suspect that those employees being terminated were handed a pink form indicating such, but that is just a guess on my part. If anyone has additional information on this term, please e-mail me.
This term originated in America in the 1930s. It supposedly comes from the practice of after-dinner speakers to write their speech notes on the cuff of their sleeves at the last moment as opposed to preparing the speech in advance.
Etymologically, yes, perform (and, hence, performance) does mean `to accomplish.' Old French parfornir `to accomplish' is a compound verb, its components being par- `completely' and fornir 'to furnish.' However, the meanings of words do evolve with time, as evidenced in this very column. Today a performance is not simply `an accomplishment;' it is also `the act of performing;' `the act of performing a work or role before an audience;' and `the way in which someone or something functions,' the latter diverging most from the original `accomplishment' meaning.
This word likely entered English before 1200, coming from Old French obedience, a scholarly borrowing from Latin oboedientia (nominative oboediens), present participle of Latin oboedire 'to listen.'
Interestingly, the mare in nightmare has nothing to do with a female horse. Instead, it comes from Old English maere 'goblin, incubus.' The word was nigt-mare in 1300, and it referred to an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation. By 1350, it was nytmare and in 1440 it was nyghte mare. Mare 'goblin' is a cognate with Middle Dutch mare, maer 'incubus,' Old High German mara, Middle High German mar, mare (dialectical modern German Mahr 'nightmlare'), and Old Icelandic mara 'incubus.' Mare comes from the Proto-Germanic word *maron.
Nightmare was used to describe 'a bad dream caused by an incubus' in the 16th century, and by 1829 it was used to describe 'a bad dream' in general.
Words which begin with ps- are of Greek origin, all of them beginning, in Greek, with the Greek letter psi. When translated into English, the ps- was kept.
Obfuscate, which entered English in the 16th century, comes from Latin obfuscatus, the past participle of obfuscare, which was formed from the affixes ob- `over' and fuscare `darken.' From this Latin meaning came the sense `to render indistinct or dim; darken' and then `to make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand.'
Thank you for your kind words about this site! As for proactive, it entered English in about 1933. Even though you're familiar with the word's elements, I'll discuss them herein for readers who may not know of the word's origins. the prefix pro- in this word comes from Greek pro- `before, in front of.' One who is proactive is one who acts before an expected difficulty occurs. Active comes from Latin activus, which itself comes from Latin actus `act,' from agere `to do.'
Olga is the Russian form of Helga, which was brought to the Ukraine by Scandinavian settlers in the 9th century. Helga comes from Old Norse heilagr `blessed.'
The verb peel, in different forms, has been in English since before 1200. Its earliest English form was pilien `to remove the rind or shell,' then it was pilen, and next it was pelen, around the early 14th century. It comes from Latin pilare `to strip of hair' which itself came from pilus `hair.' The noun peel entered English in around 1583, when it meant `rind, outer covering.' It came from pill `rind, husk, skin,' which came ultimately from pilen.
Your name is a variation or diminutive form of Helen, which comes from Greek Helene, which according to one source means `bright, sunbeam' (helios means `sun' in Greek) but which may come, instead, from Greek Hellen, `a Greek.'
Thank you very much! Since you enjoy the page, I'll assume you don't think I'm a palooka. (Just kidding.) Actually, a palooka was originally `an inferior or average boxer' and the word is credited to an American journalist by the name of Jack Conway. The word with this meaning entered English around 1925. The later sense of the word `big and stupid or awkward person' comes from the comic strip you mention, Joe Palooka, the title character of the strip being a big but stupid boxing champion. Did you know that there's a Palookaville in California?
My, you've got quite a variety of words there! Ruddy is related to red. In Late Old English (pre-1100), it was rudi, likely from rudu `redness.' Red comes from the Proto-Germanic word *raudaz.
Macrobiotic is a word formed from macro- 'long' and biotic `life.' Simply put, it is a diet (and a lifestyle) which prolongs life.
Propriety comes, via Old French propriete, from Latin proprietatem `appropriateness, propriety, ownership.' Propriety is related to proper and property.
Excursive `pertaining to digression' comes from Old French excursion `digression,' which comes ultimately from Latin excurrere `run out' (from ex- `out' + currere `to run').
Finally, zymoscope comes from Greek zyme `leaven (yeast)' and, ultimately, skopein `look at.'
You're welcome! There are more Native American (or American Indian, depending upon your preference) words that have been adopted by English than one might expect. There are, of course, the obvious words like moccasin and tepee. Then there are the not so obvious, like the state names Minnesota, Texas, Ohio, Massachusetts and [North and South] Dakota, to name only a few. Many U.S. place names are of Native American origin, as well, like Chicago and Seattle. Skunk comes from Algonquian (likely Abnaki). Canoe comes from the language of the Arankawa, a Caribbean people. Shack is thought to come ultimately from Nahuatl (a Uto-Aztecan language) xacalli. Tobacco is thought to be Arankawan, and opossum comes from Algonquian (Powhatan, to be exact).
This is an American phrase which originally referred to a forest settlement. It appears in print as early as 1850. Exactly why a forest settlement was thought of as a neck is not clear, although it may be that such a settlement was considered an extension of another settlement. It is not difficult to see how the change from 'forest settlement' to 'particular region or neighborhood' occurred over time.
Bill Bryson, in Made in America (see my bibliography), says that this term, short, of course, for politically correct, was coined by Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women (is this surprising?), in 1975. It did not spread into wide use ad nauseum until around 1990. Hopefully, the phrase's popularity is waning!
The word first entered English in around 1613 and referred to a member of a low caste in southern India. It was borrowed from Portuguese paria or directly from Tamil paraiyan `drummer' (the caste's traditional duty at festivals), from parai `large drum.' The meaning `social outcast' is first recorded in the early 19th century.
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!
Actually, pinkie `little finger' comes from an early Dutch word which meant `small;' that word was pinck. The Dutch word is also the source of English pink `pale red,' because pinck was what the Dutch called a flower of the species Dianthus, which has small, often pink flowers with pinked edges.
Thank you for your query. For those readers not familair with the Open Society Institute, visit their web site.
Refugee entered English in the late 17th century, coming from French refugier `take refuge.' The French comes ultimately from Latin refugium `a place to flee back to,' from re- `back' and fugere `flee' (source of English fugitive). The term refugee was first used in English to describe the French Huguenots who migrated after Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
Persecution also has Latin roots, and, like refugee, it entered English via French. In 1340 it was persecucioun `pursue in order to harm,' and it was borrowed from Old French persecucion `follow close after, chase.' The Latin source was persecutionem, from persequi `pursue' (per- through + sequi `follow').
Okey-dokey and the variant okey-doke indeed mean O.K. and are simply playful versions of it. They did not, however, appear in print until the 1930's, and while O.K. is now considered colloquial (i.e., fine for use in conversation and informal writing), these two variations of it are still slang.
From A Reader:
I'm glad to hear that you are enjoying the site! You're an orange to say so. Oh, I mean you're a peach! As for orange, in 1380 it was orenge and referred to the fruit. It was borrowed from Old French pome dorenge (apple of orange) orenge being an alteration of Arabic naranj, from Persian narang, and ultimately from Sanskrit naranga-s `orange tree.'
French dropped the initial n- likely due to it being absorbed by the indefinite article une; interestingly, Spanish, for example, still retains the n-: naranja. It is also thought that the change of the a- to an o-, once the leading n- had been absorbed, was influence by French or `gold,' alluding to the color of the fruit, and also by the name of the chief orange importing city in France, Orange.
The adjective form of the word, used to describe the color, first occurred in about 1542. So the fruit came first!
Pint is related to the word paint! In the mid 14th century it was pynte `a vessel containing a pint of liquid,' coming from French pinte, which itself likely came from Vulgar Latin pincta, a variant of Latin picta `painted,' the feminine past participle of pingere `to paint.' This `paint' sense arose likely from a painted mark on a vessel indicating a pint in measure.
You must have been filling out a number of forms lately. Miscellaneous entered English around 1640 from Latin miscellaneus, from miscellus `mixed,' from miscere `to mix.'
Other, on the other hand, comes from Old English other `the second, other.' It is cognate with Old Frisian other `the second, other,' Old Saxon athar, othar, Middle Dutch and modern Dutch ander, Old High German andar, Old Icelandic annarr, and Gothic anthar, from Proto-Germanic *antheraz. The `second' sense of other was lost and taken over by second in English and zweiter in German, to name two.
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