Category Archives: Etymology

Not my pigeon …

My English friend Fleur recently told me in an email that she wasn’t going to an event because “it really isn’t my pigeon.” I’ve never heard this little avian saying before, and since Glosso has recently posted a piece about expressions using animal (ahem) parts, I was immediately intrigued … Continue reading

Dog’s bollocks

You learn something new every day. Today I learned something about one of my favorite phrases. Do you know what “dog’s bollocks” meant originally? (I bet you don’t.) Here’s a clue: it represented what the dog is apparently doing in the picture above. And, perhaps more importantly, do you know what the phrase means today? Continue reading

Bathos, pathos — and passion

Just in case, like me, you can’t remember the difference between bathos and pathos, here’s a refresher. And no, they don’t mean the same thing. There’s also a surprising connection between pathos and passionContinue reading

When Irish words are smiling (in English)

What do galore, slew, hooligan and boycott have in common? Glossophilia celebrates 13* colorful words in common English usage that we got from the Irish.

Banshee: in Irish folklore, a type of female fairy believed to foretell deaths by singing in a mournful, unearthly voice, 1771, from the phonetic spelling of the Irish bean sidhe (“female of the Elves”) from bean “woman” + Irish sidhe (Gaelic sith) meaning “fairy” or sid meaning “fairy mound”.

Boycott: From Irish Land League ostracism of Capt. Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897), land agent of Lough-Mask in County Mayo, who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. Quickly adopted by newspapers in languages as far afield as Japanese (boikotto). The family name is from a place in England.

Brogue: A type of Celtic accent, 1705, perhaps from the meaning “rough, stout shoe” (made of rawhide and tied with thongs), of the type worn by rural Irish and Scottish highlanders (1580s), via Gaelic or Irish, from Old Irish broce “shoe.” The footwear was “characteristic of the wilder Irish” [Century Dictionary], thus the noun might mean something like “speech of those who call a shoe a brogue.” Or perhaps it is from the Old Irish barrog, meaning “a hold” (on the tongue).

Galore: 1670s, from the Irish go leór, and equivalent Scottish Gaelic gu leóir, meaning “sufficiently, enough,” from the Old Irish roar, “enough”. The particle go/gu usually means “to,” but it is also affixed to adjectives to form adverbs, as it is here.

Gobslang for “mouth” 1540s, from the Irish gob, meaning “mouth”.

Hooligan: 1890s, of unknown origin, according to OED, first found in British newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898, almost certainly from the variant form of the Irish surname Houlihan, which figured as a characteristic comic Irish name in music hall songs and newspapers of the 1880s and ’90s.

Leprechaun: c. 1600, from Irish lupracan, a metathesis of the Old Irish luchorpan meaning literally “a very small body,” from lu (“little, small”). The variant leithbragan is probably Irish folk etymology, from leith (“half”) + brog (“brogue”), because the spirit was “supposed to be always employed in making or mending a single shoe.”

Sheila: The Australian slang for “woman” comes from the Irish name “Síle”, the Irish equivalent of Celia, a shortened form of Cecilia, the feminine form of Cecil. A standard Irish women’s name since 1828; slang for “girlfriend, young woman” dates from 1839.

Slew: meaning “large number” 1839, from the Irish sluagh meaning “a host, crowd, multitude”.

Slogan: 1670s, earlier slogorne (1510s), “battle cry,” from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm meaning “battle cry” used by Scottish Highland or Irish clans,” from sluagh (“army, host, slew” — see slew above), from the Celtic and Balto-Slavic slough (“help, service”). Second element is gairm meaning “a cry”.

Tory: Colloquial name for a member of the British Conservative Party: 1566, “an outlaw,” specifically “one of a class of Irish robbers noted for outrages and savage cruelty,” from the Irish toruighe, “plunderer,” originally “pursuer, searcher,” from the Old Irish toirighim (“I pursue”) from toir (“pursuit”) from Celtic to-wo-ret (“a running up to”). In about 1646, it emerged as a derogatory term for Irish Catholics dispossessed of their land (some of whom subsequently turned to outlawry); in c.1680 it was applied by Exclusioners to supporters of the Catholic Duke of York (later James II) in his succession to the throne of England. After 1689, Tory was the name of a British political party at first composed of Yorkist Tories of 1680. It was superseded in c.1830 by Conservative, although it continues to be used colloquially. As an adjective from 1680s.

Shamrock: 1570s, from Irish seamrog, the diminutive of seamar meaning “clover.”

Whiskey: 1715, from Gaelic uisge beatha “whisky,” literally “water of life,” from the Old Irish uisce, meaning “water”. Note that the spelling distinction between Scotch whisky and Irish and American whiskey is a 19th-century innovation.

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And here are two words that are commonly thought to be of Irish origin but probably aren’t:

Dig? Some people think the slang word dig — meaning to understand or “get it” — comes from the Irish tuig. However, read Frank McNally’s dig into the word dig in the Irish Times a decade ago: it’s a complicated subject, and probably not of Irish heritage after all.

Hillbilly? It’s commonly thought that the pejorative term for people living in rural areas of the U.S., especially around the Ozark Mountains (Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas) and Appalachia, initially came from 18th-century Ulster Protestant settlers in the Appalachian Mountains. However, as Michael Montgomery argues in his From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English: “In Ulster in recent years it has sometimes been supposed that it was coined to refer to followers of King William III and brought to America by early Ulster emigrants, but this derivation is almost certainly incorrect. … In America hillbilly was first attested only in 1898, which suggests a later, independent development.”

* Don’t worry: we’ve got the luck of the Irish on our side.

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Beware the ides of March

 

The Death of Caesar (1798) by Vincenzo Camuccini / Wikimedia Commons

Ides: The “middle day of a Roman month,” early 14th century, from Old French ides (12c.), from Latin idus (plural) “the ides,” a word perhaps of Etruscan origin. In the Roman calendar the eighth day after the nones, corresponding to the 15th of March, May, July, and October; the 13th of other months. “Debts and interest were often payable on the ides” [Lewis]. (from Online Etymology Dictionary)

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Caesar:
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer:
Beware the ides of March.

Caesar:
What man is that

Brutus:
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

— from Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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Marmite and its unconvincing etymology

 

Beyond the Joke, when reviewing last year’s comedy offerings, wrote that “[Ricky] Gervais might be a Marmite comedian but the success of Humanity shows that a hell of a lot of people love Marmite. Politically challenging, controversial but also laugh out loud funny.” Brits will confirm that many plays and musical theater productions (in the UK, not anywhere else) get tagged these days as “Marmite shows”. What does that mean? And is there a connection with the Marmite name’s origin? [Update, March 8: Thanks to a hat-tip from John Leake on Glosso’s Facebook page, we’ve also got the origin of Bovril — Marmite’s cousin: scroll to the bottom to see its etymology.] Continue reading

Gossip

“One winds on the distaff what the other spins” (Both spread gossip) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder / Wikimedia Commons

According to Ben Healy writing recently in The Atlantic, there might be evidence to suggest that gossip is healthy and good for us. Really? To my mind there’s a slightly onomatopoeic quality to the word itself, with the hiss of a whisper at its center and the heavy thud of its first syllable both implying that surely nothing good can come of it. Have you ever stopped to wonder where the slightly strange word comes from? Continue reading