Category Archives: Etymology

It’s Friday 13th: a day for paraskevidekatriaphobia, friggatriskaidekaphobia or triskaidekaphobia

 

frigga

Reposting this, on this auspicious day …

It’s Friday 13th, and for some people that’s a day when their triskaidekaphobia kicks in big time. Triskaidekaphobia? It means “fear of the number 13”. Also sometimes spelled triskaidecaphobia, it’s a slightly strange word deriving from two different languages: it combines the Greek treiskaideka (“thirteen”) with the Latin word for “fear of”, phobia. The first known written citation is in a book by Isador Coriat, Religion and Medicine: the Moral Control of Nervous Disorders, published in 1908, so this superstition linked to the number 13 is probably quite a recent phenomenon. But is there also a word for the fear of the date itself? Continue reading

You say aluminum, I say aluminium

Aluminum. Or aluminium. / Wikimedia Commons

There might be trade war brewing over steel and aluminum. But another trans-Atlantic war has already been raging for a couple of centuries over one of those heavy metals. Which came first: American aluminum or British aluminium? Continue reading

A glossary of colors

rainbow

“Dream when you’re feeling blue”, sang Ray Charles. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra talked famously of her salad days when she was “green in judgement”; the Everley Brothers sang of all their friends being “just about green with envy”. Depeche Mode wrote a whole song about a black day, and Cyndi Lauper saw someone’s “true colors shining through”. The poetic use of color in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense — to describe everything from moods to bank-balances, political affiliations to social classes — dates back centuries and permeates most modern languages. Colors themselves have metaphorical meanings that are universal across cultures and languages. Here’s a summary of their figurative meanings, which are often evoked as keenly and understood as universally as the hues they describe literally. Continue reading

“Bombogenesis”, “bomb cyclone”: new words for a new reality

A Nor’easter / Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just any old Nor’easter heading towards America’s east coast today. It’s a “bomb cyclone,” folks. That’s another name for a word that most of the world has learned in the last 48 hours. Mashable first coined the phrase “bomb cyclone” as a more punchy  synonym for the meteorological term bombogenesis. But what the nor’easter is a bombogenesis? Continue reading

A selfie precursor blossoming at the fair …

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, Illinois) / Wikimedia Commons

I’m reading Erik Larson’s fascinating book Devil in the White City, which is about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. A lot of things came out of that fair or were inspired by it, including the ubiquitous ‘Snake Charmer Song’, the Ferris wheel, a notorious serial killer (sic), and several other brand names that have effectively become generic through their popularity — such as Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, and Crackerjack — among other inventions and ideas. And then there was a word that had already been born a century earlier, but which had recently changed its meaning and then began to blossom in the very photogenic landscapes, buildings and attractions of the Columbian Exposition … Continue reading

The origins of Hallowe’en

halloweenpumpkins

The word Halloween (or Hallowe’en) dates back to about 1745, and although it describes a pagan holiday, its name has a Christian origin. It means “hallowed” or “holy” evening and derives from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Evethe evening before All Hallows’ Day: the Eve of All Saints, which fell on the last night of October. This, the last night of the year in the old Celtic calendar (dating back to the 1550s), was Old Year’s Night, a night for witches. The Scottish word for “eve” is even, and hence the contraction e’en or een. “All Hallows'” is found in Old English (ealra hālgena mæssedæg, referring to the mass day of all saints), but “All Hallows’ Eve” wasn’t recorded until 1556.

The Roman Catholic Church’s official name for All Saints Day (otherwise known as All Hallows’ Day) on November 1 is Solemnity of All Saints’ Day, but it is also called “Hallows” or “Hallowmas” (Hallowmas being shortened from Hallow’s mass). Happy Hallowmas Eve …

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Halloween
by Robert Burns Continue reading

How to pronounce “Magdalene” in Britain, and why

Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio, 1594-1596 / Wikipedia Commons

*Update: please see comments below for further discussion on this subject …

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When I’m back in Blighty, I stay at my family home in Magdalene Road. Try asking a taxi driver to take you to “Maudlin” Road (as the name Magdalene is historically pronounced in the UK), and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare — even by those London cabbies who’ve aced The Knowledge. You are actually more likely to hear that increasingly dated pronunciation when you visit Cambridge, whose Magdalene College sounds more like Maud than Magda. However, the plot thickens, because its sister college in Oxford — which is spelled nearly the same way but without the final “e” — sounds like the surname of the Biblical Mary Magdalene after which it was named. Which pronunciation — if either — is correct: “maudlin”-sounding Cambridge “Magdalene” or the three-syllable Oxford “Magdalen”? Continue reading

Kycke against the pricke

Harvey Weinstein / Wikimedia

There’s a scandal involving the disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and an ensuing discussion about predatory behavior by men in power. Glosso thought it would be interesting to look into “kick against the pricks,” a sadly appropriate expression that’s been cropping up on social media channels in recent days. Is this is a modern turn of phrase? Do people understand what it really means? And when did the word prick first take on its slangy connotations? Glosso investigates … Continue reading