Category Archives: Etymology

“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

*This post has been updated and revised to reflect the many comments suggesting my original post was misinformed.

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When I’m back in Blighty, I stay at my family home in Magdalen Road in South West London. Try asking a taxi driver to take you to “Maudlin” Road (as the name Magdalen(e) 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. The same is true for its sister college in Oxford — which is spelled nearly the same way but without the final “e”. Which pronunciation — if either — is correct: the “maudlin”-sounding Cambridge and Oxford colleges, or the more modern three-syllable “MAG-duh-lin” that you’ll hear nowadays in most other parts of England? 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

X v Y: The British “public school”: what does public really mean? Private?

etonschoolboys   British public schoolboys 

Glosso’s “X v Y” series tackles the complicated matter of British schools: when are they public, and when are they private? Can any actually be both? Continue reading

What’s funky?

 

Would you get away with this name for a juice stall in North America?

Passing through Fulham Broadway Shopping center (in London) recently, I was more than a little surprised to see this juice stall pictured above. “Funky Juice.” It was the American in me that was surprised. Smelly fluids? Rhythmic beverages reminiscent of James Brown and George Clinton? A trendy tasty health drink wasn’t exactly what Funky Juices promised in that moment to me. Continue reading