A “nasty” little etymology

In the third and final presidential debate last night, Donald Trump – amid his yet more shocking refusal to say whether he’ll accept the election results – called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman.” Nasty can be such a nasty word. Where does it come from?


Nasty starts “fouling” up the English language in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in Carleton Brown’s 1390 Religious Lyrics of the 14th Century: “Whon we be nasti, nouȝt at neode, Neore wimmen help, hou schulde we fare?”

Back then, as it still does for some speakers of Black English, nasty meant “filthy” and “dirty.” The word has since made quite a semantic mess, so to speak: “offensive, annoying” (1470s); “unpleasant” (1540s); “repellent (to the senses)” and “lewd” (1600s); and “ill-tempered, spiteful” (1820s). Slang has also widely taken up nasty, from a term for “excellent” to sex-related usages.

For as much use as English has made of nasty, we aren’t certain about its origins. Here are three leading theories:

  1. Nasty comes from the Dutch nestig, “dirty” like a bird’s nest. The source of this word, alas , is also unclear.
  2. Nasty (and nestig) could be related to a Scandinavian source, such as the Swedish naskug, “dirty,” with nask meaning “dirt.” Walter Skeat maintains, though, this dialectical word lost an initial s- and comes from snaska, “to eat like a pig,” that is, greedily and noisily. Snaska, Skeat continues, imitates the sound of such consumption. Middle English has nasky, a variant of nasty, which suggests some Scandinavian word at least reinforced nasty if they’re not immediately related. 
  3. Nasty derives from the Old French nastre, “strange, lowly, bad,” shortened from villenastre, “infamous, ignoble.” Villenastre joins villein (source of villain, a “rustic” that became associated with more nefarious qualities, perhaps not unlike clown) and -aster, a pejorative suffix seen in the likes of poetaster, an “inferior” poet. 

Nasty, it seems, is a nasty little word with a nasty little etymology.

m ∫ r ∫

Behind the etymological mask of “clown”

The creepy crown craze – involving people dressed up as evil clowns frightening, threatening, and sometimes even attacking others – has spread from South Carolina all across the globe. But what about this word clown: Where did it spread from?


The word clown hasn’t been terrorizing the English language for as long as we might think but, creepily, we aren’t quite sure where it comes from. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the word in 1563, when a clown – or cloyne, as it’s first recorded – was a “rustic” or “peasant.” The lowly status of such a countryman, alas, was soon associated with ignorance and boorishness in the eyes of city folk.

On Shakespeare’s stage, clowns were “fools” and “jesters.” We see them as comical country bumpkins in such plays as The Merchant of Venice (Launcelot Gobbo), As You Like It (Touchstone), Twelfth Night (Feste), and even in Antony and Cleopatra, where it’s a clown who smuggles in the asp in a basket of figs for the titular queen’s suicide.

It’s not until the 1720s we see clowns as the circus performers that entertain – and horrify us – today.

While the origin of clown is obscure, two theories have prevailed. The first, usually attributed to Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, is that clown comes from Latin’s colōnus, a “farmer” or “settler.” You might see colony in this noun – and you’d be right. The base verb, colere, “to till,” was a productive crop, yielding words like culture and cultivate. Most etymologists have dismissed this theory.

The other, favored theory looks to Scandinavian sources like the Icelandic klunni, a “clumsy, boorish fellow,” and North Frisian klönne, for roughly the same. At base for these, and their other Germanic cognates, are words for “clots,” “clods,” and “lumps,” whose thick, rough, clumpy masses stuck as an epithet for foolish, bungling fellows.

But Anatoly Lieberman, in a recent post on his Oxford Etymologist blog, finds this prevailing Scandinavian theory to be, well, a bit clownish. Lieberman seriously doubts a word like clown would have been borrowed from a Scandinavian language in Early Modern English. Instead, he reconsiders the long-snubbed Latin explanation, citing, by way of a 1940s Dublin philologist, a Professor T. F. O’Rahilly, who notes Fingal husbandmen were nicknamed collounes. As Liberman concludes:

Colloun must have been the Anglo-French reflex of Latin colōnus ‘farmer.’ It is not unlikely that this word was imported to England from Ireland…If O’Rahilly was right, clown does go back to colōnus, but via Irish…But what about the Germanic words cited in connection with clown? Perhaps they need not be dismissed as irrelevant, but no evidence points to their currency in Elizabethan England, while the Irish route looks real.

Great. There may be no snakes in Ireland, but, etymologically speaking, there are clowns. Well, those creepy clowns have been sighted here, too.

m ∫ r ∫


An etymology you’ll love or hate: “Marmite”

Disaster has been averted. This week, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever announced it was hiking its prices on British supermarkets in response to the plummeting pound. But Tesco, the biggest supermarket chain in the UK, refused to pay. Unilever stopped deliveries, leaving such staples like Marmite – Britain’s iconic, love-it-or-hate-it, savory, salty yeast paste – to dwindle to dangerously low levels. After both Unilever and Tesco saw their stock prices drop, though, the two companies came to a resolution – and #Marmitegate came to an end.

What does Marmite mean, anyways, and where does the name come from?


In the late 19th century, German chemist Justus Liebig found a way to render brewer’s yeast into a foodstuff. In 1902, Britain’s Marmite Food Company brought the extract to market, originally advertising the dark, sticky paste for use in stews and soups, which could be cooked in a marmite. A marmite is a large, usually earthenware stockpot with a cover, like the one Marmite has displayed on its packaging from the start:

The cooking pot on the jar of Marmite is called a “marmite.” Image from marmite.co.uk.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests marmite as marmet in 1581, noting the cookware was commonly hung over fires in the West Midlands. Marmite as such emerges by 1805, commonly employed by soldiers, who later used it slang for pot-like “bombs” during World War I.

The English marmite comes from the French marmite, a “cooking pot.” (English may have borrowed the word into the language on two occasions, as the OED’s different regional and military citations suggest.) But the origin of this French marmite, attested in the late 1300s, is obscure. Some, however, including France’s own National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources, have a theory: it comes from a different meaning of marmite, a “hypocrite.”

A hypocrite? Love it or hate it, the idea is that a marmite hides what’s cooking inside just as a hypocrite conceals their true character. Apparently, this marmite literally means “murmuring cat,” joining marmotter (an onomatopoeic word for “mumble, mutter, murmur”) and mite, a term for a “cat.”

The OED, for one, is not convinced by this etymology – though some may joke a mumbling cattiness is as iconically British as Marmite itself.

m ∫ r ∫

The Accidental Dictionary by Paul Anthony Jones

If you like Mashed Radish, then you’ll love Paul Anthony Jones’ latest book, The Accidental Dictionary: The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words (Elliott & Thompson, 2016, £12.99 hardback/ebook).

With intelligence and wit, Jones offers the surprising origins and developments of 100 everyday words, from affiliate to zombie. Each selection is pithy and engaging, making The Accidental Dictionary an ideal book to pick up whenever you need a funny yet informative break or burst of inspired word-nerdom. But I think you’ll find, like me, that the word histories Jones’ has curated – and his infectious enthusiasm for them – are hard to put down.

Once you finish The Accidental Dictionary, check out some of his other books like Words Drops (2015) and Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons (2013), keep up with his blog, and follow his delightful Twitter account, @HaggardHawks, for more lexical curiosities and delights.

Haven’t ordered it on Amazon yet? Here’s a sample, on the really astonishing etymology of alcohol (copyright © Paul Anthony Jones 2016, published with permission of Elliott & Thompson). Drink up:

ALCOHOL originally meant ‘eye shadow’

There aren’t many etymological stories that begin with the sublimation of a sulphite mineral, but there is at least one. It just happens also to be the story behind one of the most familiar words in the English language. So brace yourself—here comes the science bit.

When a substance changes directly from a solid into a gas with no intermediate liquid phase, that’s sublimation. It’s the same process that turns dry ice into a thick white fog without leaving pools of liquid carbon dioxide everywhere—but that’s not to suggest that sublimation is all about cheap special effects.

Back in Ancient Egypt, the mineral stibnite was heated to produce, via sublimation, a fine smoky vapour that left a layer of sooty powder on any surface with which it came into contact. The Egyptians then collected this powder (antimony trisulphide, should you really want to know) and mixed it with animal grease to produce a thick black paste that could be then used as a kind of eye shadow. Different coloured eye shadows could be made by crushing, grinding or sublimating different chemicals—galena, a lead ore, produced a rich grey colour, malachite produced a dark green—but no matter the raw ingredients, the name of this cosmetic paste was always the same: kohl, a term derived from an ancient Arabic word meaning ‘stain’ or ‘paint’.

Now, here comes the language bit. In Arabic, the definite article, ‘the’, is a prefix, al–. That’s the same al– found in names like Algeria (‘the islands’), Allah (‘the god’), and Alhambra (‘the red castle’), as well as words like alkali (‘the ashes’), almanac (‘the calendar’) and algebra (more on that in another chapter), and it gave the Ancient Egyptians’ eye shadow the name al-kohl. The chemists and alchemists of the Middle Ages then stumbled across this term in their ancient textbooks, and began applying it to any fine powder produced likewise by sublimation—and it is in this sense that the word alcohol first appeared in English in the mid 1500s.

But to all those chemists and alchemists, sublimation was more than just a way of accentuating your eyes. Instead, it was a way of extracting the purest, most absolute essence of something, and it wasn’t long before they began applying the same techniques and ideas—not to mention the same word—to liquids.

The concentrated, intensified liquors that could be produced by refining and distilling fluids ultimately came to be known as alcohol as well, and because one of the fluids these early experiments were carried out on happened to be wine, by the mid nineteenth century the term had become particularly associated with so-called ‘alcohol of wine’—namely the alcoholic content of intoxicating liquor. Eventually, this meaning, and its associations with alcoholic spirits and beverages, established itself as the way in which the word was most widely used, while its ancient associations with sublimation and Egyptian cosmetics dropped into relative obscurity.

m ∫ r ∫

Why do we call a tie a “draw”?

In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “If he lost the main battle, he returned upon you, and regained so much of it as to make it a drawn one.” Here, Jefferson is describing a legislative fight over land tenure, but some pundits might think it well characterizes Donald Trump’s performance in the second presidential debate. This quote isn’t just timely, though: It also points to the origin of why we call “ties” draws.


By the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) reckoning, the earliest record of draw, as in a contest that ends with no winner, comes in reference to an 1856 US chess match. Over the next few decades, writers marked off draw with quotes or italics, which shows the word was novel. The word was familiar by the 1870s.

This draw is short for draw-game, which the OED finds for a “tie” by 1825. A draw-game, in turn, is a variation on a drawn battle or drawn match. The OED dates drawn match to a 1610 letter from English diplomat Sir Dudley Carleton: “It concluded, as it is many times in a cock pit, with a drawn match; for nothing was in the end put to the question.” (Before pilots occupied them, game-cocks fought in cockpits.)

Why such a battle or match is characterized as “drawn” is unclear: Indeed, etymology often ends in draws. Drawn may be clipped from withdrawn, as in fighters who have withdrawn from the battlefield. Withdraw, “to take back or away,” features an old and original sense of the preposition with, “against,” even though it now, ironically enough, means “together.” Draw, meanwhile, is related to drag. And withdraw itself might be a calque, or loan translation, of Latin’s retrahere, “to retract.”

With some seeing the debate – set up as a town hall with drawn voters, so to speak – as a draw, we’ll see whether or not many GOP politicians continue withdrawing their support from Trump following the leak of his lewd comments. Either way, it certainly feels like none of us are winners when a presidential debate has to be dragged down so low.

m ∫ r ∫

A “lewd” awakening

The Washington Post broke the bombshell story with this headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The candidate’s remarks, as many have rightly noted, aren’t just lewd, for in the video Trump boasts about sexual assault. But it’s this word lewd that has been littering the headlines since – and a word whose origins are quite surprising.


Today, lewd means “offensive in a sexual way,” a sense which has come a far way from its roots. Lewd derives from the Old English lǽwede, when it meant “lay,” or a person who is not a member of the clergy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds lewd in a late 9th-century translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Clerics, unlike many historic laypersons, could read and write, which is why lewd went on to mean “uneducated” or “unlearned” in Middle English. The medieval mind associated this “ignorant” lewdness with “base,” “coarse,” and “vile” behavior, including “licentious” actions. (It had class associations as well.) These meanings emerge by the late 1300s, with Chaucer using lewd for “lascivious” in his Miller’s Prologue around 1386: “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.”

The deeper roots of lewd are unclear. Some, like Walter Skeat, think the Old English lǽwede is formed from the verb lǽwan, “to betray” or “weaken.” Is one lewd because their lack of education is betrayed, that is, exposed? Is one lewd because enfeeblement is a form of baseness? The sense development here is tricky.

Others, such as the OED, suppose the Old English lǽwede might have been borrowed from a late form of lāicus, a “lay” person, source of English’s own nonclerical lay as well as liturgy. Latin’s lāicus comes from Greek’s λᾱϊκός (laikos), referring to something “of the people” as opposed to the clergy. At root is λᾱός (laos), “the people,” which is featured in the name Nicholas: “victory-people,” which joins laos to nike (νίκη), the word for and goddess of “victory” as well as source of the athletic brand name.

Since the video’s release, politicians, pundits, and public figures have been decrying Trump’s comments. But, ironically enough for the etymology of lewd, many in the evangelical community continue to defend the Republican candidate – including some “un-lewd” clergy themselves.

m ∫ r ∫

Potato, batata

You say potato, etymologists say batata. It’s National Potato Day in Ireland, so let’s dig up the roots of the beloved spud.


English cultivates its potato from the Spanish patata, a variant form of batata. But the batata is actually the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), completely unrelated to what we commonly refer to as the potato.

That’s a lot of potatoes.

Christopher Columbus is credited with bringing batata to Spain – and into the Spanish language – at the end of the 15th century. The crop and word thereafter spread throughout Europe and, thanks to Portuguese traders, to many parts of Africa and Asia.

Batatas, or sweet potatoes. Image by Troy Stoi courtesy of www.freeimages.com.

The word batata comes from an indigenous Central American language, perhaps from Haitian Taíno, the language of the self-same people who inhabited much of the pre-Columbian Caribbean and Florida. Taíno also gives English the word hurricane, a word much on the minds of many along the Southeast coast today.

In English, the earliest record of potato comes from English naval commander and notorious slave-trader John Hawkins in his 1565 travel writings: “These potatoes be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets.” Batata, meanwhile, is attested in translation by the 1570s, noted as a “victaill of muche substaunce.”

Then, in the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors brought back what we now familiarly refer to as the potato (Solanum tuberosum) from the Peruvian Andes, where it was known as papa. Papa is a word for “potato” in Quechuan, a language also ultimately responsible for the words jerky, guanine, and Coke.

Potatoes share an etymological root with batatas, but not a botanical one. Unlike batatas, potatoes are technically stem, not root, vegetables. Image by Nadia Arai courtesy of www.freeimages.com

This plant especially proliferated in England, Ireland, and the US. In 1597, English botanist John Gerard discussed “Virginia potatoes,” thanks to the vegetable’s erroneous associations with Sir Walter Raleigh, who, according to tradition, first planted the tuber in Ireland. Sir Francis Drake and that same John Hawkins also compete for this title; the actual, direct source is unclear .

In the early record, it can be hard to tell whether writers are referring to the batata or the potato. But potato took over as the generic term for such tubers by the early 1700s, with the distinguishing sweet potato emerging by the mid-1700s.

Potato or batata, the English language definitely didn’t call the whole thing off.

m ∫ r ∫

“Hoax”: just a little etymological hocus-pocus

Hillary Clinton keeps hitting Donald Trump over his claim that climate change is a hoax. While hoax is Clinton’s word, Trump did tweet that the Chinese created climate change to hurt US manufacturing. That’s a bit of magical thinking, shall we say, especially if we consider the roots of the word hoax (not to mention science).

“By the virtue of hocus pocus…” A frontispiece from an early magic book, the 1635 Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomy of Legerdemain, or the Art of Juggling. Image from the Library of Congress.


English has been pulling off hoaxes since the very end of the 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites the word as a verb in 1796, entered into Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “Hoaxing, bantering, ridiculing. Hoaxing a quiz; joking an odd fellow. University wit.” The noun form emerges in the following decade, and has since connoted a fraud involving an elaborate or mischievous fabrication or fiction.

Most etymologists suppose that hoax develops out of hocus, which was a 17th-century noun and verb for “trick” – and later a criminal term for “drugging” someone, especially by means of liquor. Hocus is shortened from hocus pocus, used as a nickname for a “juggler” since the 1620s. Today, we admire jugglers for their deft hands and ball skills, but historically, jugglers were jesters and magicians, hence their – and ultimately the word hoax’s – association with various tricks. 

An Anglican bishop, John Tillotson, attempted some lexical legerdemain in his 1694 etymology for hocus pocus: “In all probability those common juggling words of hocus pocus are nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus, by way of ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church of Rome in their trick of Transubstantiation.” In the Latin liturgy, a priest blesses the Eucharistic host qua sacrificial body of Jesus Christ by saying Hoc est corpus, or Hoc est corpus meum: “This is my body.” Devout Catholics believe the host actually becomes the body of Christ, which may help you appreciate Tillotson’s dig on his Christian counterparts. 

Hocus pocus, more likely, was just sham or dog Latin, words invented by these 17th-century performers to sound like Latin, perhaps playing with this prestige language of learning to lend an air of antique mystique to their act. Hocus-pocus was used of “jugglers” by 1624, as the magical formula by 1632. Hiccius doccius was another fakus Latinus magical formula the early conjurors used.

Hocus pocus may have pulled some other words out of its hat, too, like hokey-pokey, a slang variation for “hocus pocus” in the mid-1800s and a name for a cheap ice cream some decades after. (The origin of the dance is a bit more turned around.) And hokum – originally theater slang for “melodramatic speech,” now “nonsense,” which describes so much of what we’ve heard this election – apparently blends hocus-pocus and bunkum.

m ∫ r ∫

Race, sex, and underwear: the debated origins of “shimmy”

The first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave us plenty to talk about, including a number of words themselves: stamina, cyber, temperament, braggadocious, and, thanks to some since-viral shoulder shaking from Clinton, shimmy.

After a Trumpian word salad late in the debate, Clinton issued a “Whoo! OK!” accompanied by a wide grin and a shoulder shimmy. Her shimmy served as a playful, though pointed, dismissal of Trump’s charges. But the etymological – and cultural – past of the word shimmy is much more complicated.

Some Americans may have called this chemise, made from cotton ca. 1856, a “shimmy.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

A not so shimmering history?

The shimmy originated as a jazz dance involving a spirited shaking of the body, often while doing a foxtrot. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds record of it in 1917 as the shimme-sha-wabble. It next records it in a 1918 edition of the British Dancing Times, which described it as a “very, very crude” dance, a “n–r dance, of course, and it appears to be a slow walk with a frequent twitching of the shoulders” (censoring mine). And as a 1922 reference in the London Weekly Dispatch reminds us, the shimmy  was often prohibited, deemed obscene for its sexual suggestiveness: “‘Shimmy’ banned in New York…The Chicago camel-walk, scandal, balconnades, and shimmy dances must cease.” We should remember, too, the dance’s racial associations when it come these bans.

By 1925, shimmy was extended to vibrations in general, though especially to the “wheel wobble” of cars and airplanes.

The origin of shimmy as a word is less clear. It’s often considered to be a US dialectical variant of chemise, mistaken as a plural. (This error, innocent enough, has precedent. Pea was thought to be the singular of pease, cherry of cherise, though both pease and cherise were originally the singular forms of the words.) The shimmy variant dates to the 1830s.

Way back in Old English, a chemise (then, cemes) was a shirt, particularly a kind of undergarment like a smock, used for warmth and sweat absorption. Chemise has also been long associated with lingerie, which adds to the historic raciness of the shimmy dance.

Looks like a shirt, sounds like a shimmer

Now, the history of chemise in English is long and complex, in part coming directly from Latin and in part from French (where the word was also used of book coverings). The ultimate origin is the Latin camisa, a kind of sleeping garment. The ancient Romans may have borrowed the word – and apparently, the garb – from a Germanic word that also shows up in hame, an archaic word for a “covering” or a “skin,” especially a snake’s slough. 

We shouldn’t overlook, though, the role sound symbolism might have played in the origin of shimmy. The dance’s fast, quivering motion no doubt evokes shimmer; shiver, shake, shudder, shatter and other sh– words, in all their speedy trembling, also come to mind. (Linguists refer to these sound-meaning clusters as phonesthemes.) Shimmer itself comes from the same root as shine, from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning the same.

For Clinton supporters and meme-makers at least , Clinton’s shimmy made for a lighter and looser – perhaps even shimmering – moment in otherwise tense, heated, and heavy-hitting debate.

m ∫ r ∫

7 eye-opening “coffee” etymologies

Today is National Coffee Day. Tomorrow is International Coffee Day. But for java junkies like myself, every day is coffee day. Here’s a fresh cup of some tasty coffee-related etymologies.

How do you take your coffee? Why, with a little etymology. “Goblet of coffee” by Carlos Sillero, courtesy of freeimages.com.


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests coffee in 1598. Some etymologists have linked coffee to Kaffa, the Ethiopian region where coffee was first grown. But the word actually appears to derive from the Arabic qahwah, which may have originally meant “wine.” Some basic meaning of “brew” might explain the sense development. The OED notes that the root of this qahwah is a verb, qahiya, “to have no appetite,” which coffee and wine lovers will agree is absolutely preposterous. The Turkish kahveh , borrowed from the Arabic, influenced the spelling and pronunciation of coffee in its many European cognates (e.g., café).


In Italian, espresso literally means “pressed out,” alluding to how the strong, dark drink is produced under stream pressure. English has been sipping espresso since 1945. And don’t feel too bad if you’ve been called out for pronouncing espresso with an x: the English express is essentially the same word as espresso, from the Latin exprimere, “to push out.”  


US speakers shortened latte from caffè latte (1840s) in the late 1980s. It’s Italian for “milk coffee.” Café au lait and café con leche are the respective French and Spanish equivalents. Lait, leche, and latte are all poured from Latin’s lac, which also gives English the words lactate and even lettuce. The Greek cousin of lac is seen in galaxias, literally “milky circle,” hence Milky Way and galaxy. Coffee is truly of cosmic proportions. 


A caffè macchiatto is a “stained coffee,” as it’s espresso served with just a spot of hot or foamed milk. In Italian, macchia means “spot” or “blemish,” from the Latin macula for the same. Something that’s immaculate, then, is the etymological opposite of a macchiato. But like latte, both caffè macchiatto and the abbreviated macchiatto have been tasting immaculate on English-speaking lips since the 1980s.


The color of a cappuccino, apparently, resembles the brown hoods of the Capuchin monks. These friars indeed take their name from the distinctive “hooded cloaks,” or capuccio or capuche in Italian, they wear. These words come from the Latin Latin cappa, source of cap, cape, escape, chapel, and even a capella. The word was served up in English, according to the OED, by 1948, when author Robert O’Brien described the beverage as “gray, like the robe of a capuchin monk.” Brown? Gray? Whatever the case, cappuccino makes for a truly beautiful color.


The word coffee may or may not hail from Kaffa, but mocha indeed comes from Mokha,  the Red Sea coastal city in Yemen and historically important marketplace for coffee. Mocha coffee, now associated with the addition of chocolate to a latte, has been delighting English speakers since 1773. 


A café Americano is espresso with added hot water – a term that wasn’t intended as a compliment when Central American Spanish started using the term in the 1950s. The description stereotypes an American taste for a milder cup of joe. Perhaps a coffee snob will agree that the americano makes for an inferior cup, but any proper coffee addict will never turn down a good americano – or coffee-inspired word origin.

m ∫ r ∫