“Gossip”: a baptism by etymology?

Did you hear about Brad and Angelina? Of course you did. Their divorce is hardly gossip: It’s news, thanks to the stature the celebrities have in our culture. But, as we do gossip about why the power couple split up, we’d be wise to remember the impact #Brangelexit will have on their children, especially as public as it is. And it’s the children, ironically, that’s the etymological subject of so much gossip.

What all the gossip is about

Back in Old English, a gossip was a godsibb, a person who sponsored a child’s baptism. We call them godparents today, and in Christian tradition, this person professed faith on behalf of the child during baptism (infants can’t talk) and ensured its spiritual upbringing should the parents prove unwilling or unable.

Godsibb joins God, as we see with godfather and godmother, and sibb, an Old English word that meant “akin.” So, a godsibb is related to the baptized child not in blood, but in God. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) actually finds record of godsibb in 1014, a compound formation paralleled in other Scandinavian languages (cf. Old Norse guð-sefe).

The form and meaning of godsibb clearly changed over the centuries. By the late 1300s, a gossip was referring to any “familiar acquaintance” or “friend,” likely due to the sense of godsibb as a close but non-blood relation. By the mid 1500s, when the modern shape of the word begins to settle, gossip extended to a “person who engages in idle chatter.” The earliest form, accord to the OED, comes as gossip-like in 1566.

Now, such a chatterer usually referred to a woman, a stereotype that stays with us today – but this may be because, as evidence in the early 17th century shows, a gossip was a “woman’s friend invited to a birth.” Presumably, such friends enjoyed some small talk during the downtime.

To gossip, or “chat idly,” emerges by 1627, and gossip, the talk of such an idle chatter, by 1811. Over the 19th century, the reputation of gossip becomes less favorable, taking on its shades of “groundless rumors.” And gossip column far predates today’s tabloids, found all the way back in 1859.

“My brothers and sisters”

God is an old, old word of Germanic origin, though its deeper etymological roots are quite disputed. Some find God in the Proto-Indo-European *gheu-, “to call or invoke,” others in another root of the same form, *gheu-, “to pour,” as the ancients did their libations.

And the Old English sibb was also a noun meaning “kinship” and “peace,” a unity we can imagine being enjoyed by close relations. And a sibling is such a “kin” or “relative.” But this word died out after Old English, only resuscitated in the early 20th century as a technical term in cultural anthropology and genetics. Indo-European scholars take sibb back to a Germanic base, *sibja, “one’s own,” from *swe-, the Proto-Indo-European root that also gives English the word self.

After their divorce, let’s hope Brad and Angelina find some way to make sib, or “make peace” as the expression once went, for the sake of all their children. 

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From watchtowers to cellphone towers: the origins of “alert” and “alarm”

It wasn’t just alarm clocks that went off on New York City cellphones Monday morning. Another noise also pealed: emergency alerts. The message, which The New York Times reports may be the first of its kind, was “an electronic wanted poster” for the since-arrested suspect of recent bombings in the area.

Alerts and alarms haven’t just haven’t advanced in technology, though: these words have also come along way in etymology.

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On high alert? An old, Sardinian watchtower. Image by Patrizio Martorana, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Alert

Both alert and alarm originated as Italian military phrases. Alert is from all’ erta, literally “on the watch” or “to the lookout.” Erta, a “high point,” comes from erto, “steep,” via the Latin ērigere, “to raise.” This verb also yields, among many others, English’s erect, whose sense of “raised up” parallels erto. All’, a contraction of alla, means “to the” or “on the,” ultimately from the Latin preposition ad (“to) and ille (“that,” source of the definite articles in the Romance languages).

French took up the Italian term as à l’erte, later alerte, which meant “watchful” or “vigilant” by the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests alert in 1618, though some references in the 1590s use alert as an interjection, e.g., a Castilian soldier “crying Alerto,” suggesting how the term was used a warning cry issued when the enemy was sighted.

And technically, to be on the alert, is etymologically redundant, meaning “on-the-on-the-watch.”

Alarm

Similarly, alarm is from the Italian all’ arme, an interjection and literal call to arms: “To the arms!” Arme derives from the Latin arma, source and meaning of the English arms, or “weapons.” The English name for the body part indeed shares an ancient root with Latin’s arma: the Indo-European root, *ar-, “to fit together.”

Alarm has been ringing out much longer than alert, documented by the OED around the 1400s. The word signaled a general “warning of danger” by the 1570s, specifically a “loud, hurried peal of a bell” by the 1590s. The clock-based alarm is by 1639.

The variant alarum, which may sound familiar to readers of Shakespeare, is thanks to the trilled r’s in some Romance pronunciations of the word, while larum, in a process called aphesis, silenced the initial a. Some speakers may have also confused alarum for a larum

Yesterday’s watchtowers are today’s cellphone towers, calls to arms now calls to law enforcement. The forms of alerts and alarms, as practices and words, have no doubt changed over the centuries, but vigilance – judicious, informed, responsible – seems as called for as ever. 

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Gaudí gaudy or gaudy Gaudí?

My wife and I are enjoying a long weekend in beautiful Barcelona, a city graced with the dreamy and daring architecture of Antoni Gaudí. Many like to claim that English gets its word gaudy thanks to the architect’s distinctive style. Gaudí looks and sounds like gaudy. Some may even characterize his works as gaudy. But this etymology is as fanciful as Gaudi’s buildings.

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The adjective “gaudy” likely comes from the noun “gaudy,” an old term for an ornamental bead on the Catholic rosary. Image by Maureen Shryock, courtesy of www.freeimages.com

Gaudy

Gaudí was born in 1852. English has been using the adjective gaudy since the early 1500s. That takes care of this bit of folk etymology. But just as Gaudí’s structures are exuberant in shape, texture, and color, so the origin of gaudy enjoys its own “exuberant” origins.

A gaudy once named a larger ornamental bead on Catholic rosaries. This word (1434) is a variant or mistaken plural of gaud (1390), which also named a “trinket” or “bauble.” Ornamental beads lead to ornamental gewgaws, which lead to the adjective gaudy for something “excessively ornate.” This usage is attested by the late 16th century. Earlier in the century, gaudy signified “luxurious” fare but also something “full of trickery” – and such merry-making indeed points us to the deeper roots of the word.

Gaud, the prayer bead, ultimately seems to come from the Latin gaudium, “joy.” In the saying of the Rosary, gaudies marked the so-called Joyful Mysteries, or gaudia in Latin, a set of prayers associated with the early life of Jesus Christ. At the root of gaudium is gaudēre, “to rejoice” or “be merry.” Filtered through French, the -joice in rejoice also comes from gaudēre, as does joy, enjoy, and perhaps even the word jewel. Indo-European philologists root Latin’s gaudēre in *gau-, “to rejoice,” although the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes it carried the special sense of “to have religious fear or awe” – an experience some have before Gaudí’s work.

Gaudy is also featured in the archaic word gaudy-green, a “yellowish green” that gets its color from dye made out of the weld plant. This gaudy appears to come from the Old French gaude, meaning “weld,” but perhaps its bright, flashy color influenced the ostentation we associate with gaudy.

And as for the name Gaudí? The origin of the family name is unclear, but some think that it comes from the French gaudir, “to enjoy” – which is from the very same Latin root gaudēre. So, it turns out that Gaudí didn’t lend his name to gaudy, but that gaudy, in an etymological manner of speaking, lent its name to Gaudí. Now that’s whimsical.

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Fascist baskets? The controversial origin of “basket”

At a recent fundraiser, Hillary Clinton turned heads when she remarked “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” As political analysts consider the gaffe’s political fallout, the internet churns out hashtags and memes, and linguists inspect the odd usage of deplorables, etymologists are weighing a different controversy: the origin of the word basket

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Trying to declutter etymology: “Basket.” Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com

Basket

Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial quipped:

Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis;
Sed me iam mavolt dicere Roma suam.

As one translation renders the epigram: “I, a barbarian basket, came from the painted Britons; but now Rome claims me for her own.” The Romans, it would seem, greatly admired Celtic wickerwork – and Martial, apparently, even liked to anthropomorphize it.

Etymologists have long cited this passage for the origin of basket, which isn’t woven into the English written record until the 1200s. They claim bascauda is a Latinization of a Celtic word Romans borrowed following contact between the two ancient cultures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes issue with this theory, though. First, modern Celtic languages have basket words (e.g., Irish bascaed), but the record suggests they are actually loaned from English’s basket. Second, the dictionary is skeptical about the shift from Latin’s bascauda, a “bathing tub” or “brass vessel,” to English’s wicker basket.

But Ernest Weekley and Anatoly Liberman rebuff the OED’s skepticism. Weekley observes that canister, usually made of metal, is from the Latin for “wicker basket,” as it happens. Liberman explains that tunnel comes from a Germanic root for “cask.”

And how do make sense of the Old French baschoe, a “large wooden container”? This word, which yields the Anglo-French bascat, appears to evolve from Latin’s bascauda. Anyways, Liberman says bascauda probably meant a “large tub made of wood or wicker for washing goblets during or after a meal, rather than a bronze vessel.” 

So, it seems the Romans borrowed some woodworking technology from the Celts (consider the origin of car). They called this particular, tub-like container the bascauda. French fashioned this into baschoe, later morphing into bascat as the word made it way into English basket. And -et, a diminutive suffix we saw in the origin of target, helps explain how a “large wooden container” shrank down to something you’d take to a picnic.

As for bascauda? This could be related to fasces, a “bundle,” an important Roman symbol of authority and origin of the word fascism – the very sort of intolerant ideology Hillary Clinton tried, and failed, to call out with her “basket of deplorables” comment.

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Why do we call them headphone “jacks”?

Apple turned many heads this week when it announced it’s scrapping the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. The jack, that little socket you plug your headphones into and sometimes the word for the plug itself, has had a good run: It’s a durable bit of technology dating back to the 19th century. But why we call it a jack is much, much older.

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Jack and jack plug. Image by Pascal Thauvin, courtesy of freeimages.com.

jack of all trades

Since at least the late 1300s, jack has been naming all sorts of mechanical devices. One prominent contrivance is the Jack of the clock, simply called Jack at the end of 1400s. This was a little, mechanized man who strikes the bells on old clocks. Other early jacks include a turner of a roasting spit, a wooden frame for sawing, and various rollers and winches. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds all these uses in the 1580s.

Many such jack technologies proliferated in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, like the lifting-jack, which we still use, essentially, in changing a flat tire today. This is why we jack up, or “raise,” prices. Jack was first used of telephony, at least according to the OED’s account, in 1891, referring to that special electrical socket Apple is obsolescing. Plugging this socket is a jack plug, or now just jack, attested by 1931. Headphone actually predates both of these, appearing by 1882.

Early on, many of these jacks replaced the work of a man. Think of Jack of the clock, whose automatized timekeeping saved the services of some clocktower attendant in addition to providing an impressive, ornamental display of technological progress. During this period of history, Jack was a widespread nickname for any old regular guy. (We do this today with our Average Joe, Dear John, and even hip-hop’s New Jack.) And so the various tools and technologies took the name of the man they stood in for: Jack.

Jacks are truly an everyman in the English language. We see them in jackass, jack of all trades, jack-o’-lantern, lumberjack, Union Jack, you don’t know jack, and jackpot, whose jack, as I previously discussed, answers to the card suit.

Jack today, gone tomorrow

Now, in English, Jack has long been a pet form of the name John, historically one of the most common first names for men. We have evidence for it in the 1300s. Some think this Jack was a homegrown nickname, but most etymologists think Jack actually comes from the French name Jacques, also used as a familiar, often contemptuous name for a common man or peasant.

Jacques is ultimately a French form of name Jacob: Latin’s Iacōbus yields Jacques (and James), the Greek Ἰάκωβος (Iakobos) yields Iacōbus, and the Hebrew יַעֲקֹב (Ya’akōbh, among other renderings) supplies all of the above.

Scholars have given a few interpretations to the meaning of Jacob. One is that it comes from the Hebrew word for “heel” (ʿaqeb, approximately) also carrying a sense of “to follow.” For this, they point to the biblical Jacob, younger twin to Esau. The Book of Genesis describes his birth: “And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob.” 

But in a later passage, Jacob takes on a more metaphorical meaning. When Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, Esau cries: “Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.” Here, Jacob means “supplant.”

Jacob supplanted Esau. Jack supplanted Jacob. The mechanical jack supplanted Jack the workman. And Apple’s AirPods are supplanting the headphone jack. It’s as if the technology was etymologically bound to be replaced.      

From shoreline to sainthood: the origin of “canonize”

This Sunday, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa as a saint, joining her with 10,000 other such holy figures in the Catholic Church. That’s a lot of saints, but canonize is still a relatively rare word. So, why is this process called canonization?

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“Reed.” Image by Viktors Kozers, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Canonize

To canonize is to place a deceased person in the Church’s canon of saints. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites this canonize around 1380. We can think of this canon, sometimes known as a calendar, as a kind of list; a saint’s placement on this register only takes place by official decree and according to the rules of the church. Indeed, canon means “rule” or “law,” originally of the church. This usage of canon, again as the OED dates it, is found in Old English by 890. 

While influenced by French in Middle English, the Old English canon comes from the Latin canon, a “rule” or “standard,” taken from the Greek κανών (kanon, meaning the same). (Medieval Latin had canonizāre, the immediate source of canonize.) If we dig deeper, we find that both the Latin canon and Greek kanon are metaphorical in origin: Latin canna and Greek κάννα (kanna) literally mean “reed.” A reed, as we might understand it, is like a proto-measuring rod. It sets a regular length, which can be used as a model, a standard, a rule for something, hence, its application to law.

The words canecannon, and canyon – reeds are tubular – are all related to canon. Generic canon, that is, secular rules or standards, is evidenced by the late 1500s and early 1600s. The canon of literature, at least according to the OED’s account, is found by the 1920s, anticipated by earlier such usages of canon in the mid-1800s. The secular canon, we should note, takes a page from the religious: Since the 1380s canon has also been referring to an authoritative list of books of the Christian Bible.

Excepting its secular extensions, canon connotes Christianity. But the more ancient story of its Latin and Greek roots are anything but. Most etymologists agree that the Latin canna and Greek kanna sprouted up on Semitic shores. As the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology explains it, canon ultimately grew out of the Babylonian-Assyrian qanū, “reed.” This, in turn, is from the Sumerian – yes, Sumerian – gin, likewise meaning “reed.” Cognates include the Hebrew qāneh and the Arabic qanāh. 

As Catholics observe Mother Teresa’s new place in the canon of saints, her canonization adds to the long life of a very well-traveled metaphor indeed.

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More from Mashed Radish

Mashed Radish is off this week, enjoying some craic with family in town. I have been terribly remiss, though, in linking you to my other writing online.

Since the spring, I’ve been writing weekly on Slate about various language topics. Some recent pieces have included: How 80s Is the Slang in Stranger Things? and Branger. Debression. Oexit. Zumxit. Why Did Brexit Trigger a Brexplosion of Wordplay? Click here for much more.

I’ve also been writing for Mental Floss. You’ll get a big etymological fix on the likes of such pieces as The Origins of 19 ‘Skin’ Expressions. Click here for more.

If you’re new to the blog, you may not know that I’m also reading the complete works of William Shakespeare this year and writing about it. Check it out at Shakespeare Confidential.

And those who are familiar with this blog will know I contribute to Oxford Dictionaries and Strong Language, where I’ve had many pieces since I’ve last shared my writing there.

Mashed Radish will be back next week.

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The controversial origin of “gawker”

Gawker, the news and media gossip site, has shut down after 13 years. Gawker has had an influential, if controversial, voice in the online journalism and blogging landscape. And Gawker has had a distinctive name, suggesting a can’t-look-away amazement it experienced (or wanted its readers to) over the many stories it covered.

Gawker

A gawker is “one who gawks,” or stares at something, often openly, stupidly, or stunned. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records it in 1951. It cites its base, to gawk, in 1785.  (Gawk also referred to “an awkward person” in the early 1800s. The history of this word is likely enmeshed with our word at hand.) The ultimate origin of gawker is obscure, but there are many theories.

1. Gaw

One explanation is that gawk comes from an obsolete verb, gaw, “to stare.” This derives from the Middle English gaw. Etymologists point us to a Scandinavian source, like the Old Norse , “to heed.” But what about the k? Perhaps it has a frequentative force, behaving like the k in talk, which is rooted in tale.

2. Gawk hand

A gawk hand is a “left hand.” The OED finds this adjective in 1703. This gawk is contracted from an older form, gallock. Variants include gaulick and gaulish. Some have supposed this gallock to come from gauche, the French for “left.” Others, that the gaulish form points back to an old insult against French, left-handedness long carrying negative, even evil, associations. Gawk-handed has connoted a clumsiness, which, if this theory is correct, was apparently likened to the stupid gape of a gawk.

3. Gowk

A third origin could be gowk, an old term for a “cuckoo.” The word has Scandinavian, and perhaps even Latin, cognates. Old English had géac, Old Norse had gaukr, for this onomatopoeic bird name, which has mocked many a “fool” or “simpleton” in its history. Gowk ribbed the “half-wit” in English by the 1600s, which would explain its possible connection to the slack-jawed gape of gawking.

Scholar Anatoly Liberman favors this explanation, thinking it’s rooted in the structure gk, whose sound supposedly conveys a sense of stupefaction. This structure might also be behind the work geek. And gaw and gallock may well have had their influence on gawk as we know it.

Some may think the etymology of gawk fitting for the late website. They were “clumsy,” no “cuckoo,” to post the privacy-violating content they did. Others will deem think it sad and stupid, given the positive effects Gawker has had on media, journalism, and online writing, that they site shut down. Etymology, alas, doesn’t always create agreement.

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Looms, lilies, and lifespans: The metaphorical stamina of “stamina”

In recent campaigning, Donald Trump has been claiming Hillary Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to do the work of the presidency. His attacks in no way stand up to the facts, but one thing that does “stand up” is stamina, at least etymologically speaking.

A well-planted metaphor

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests stamina (in Latin form) in 1542, when it referred to the “natural constitution” of an organism, a kind of inborn vitality determining how long it would live and its capacity for resisting disease and hardship. Around 1676, stamina, now as an English word, was naming the “rudiments” or “essential qualities” of an organism, later extended figuratively, say, to an institution or movement. By 1726, as found in the letters of Jonathan Swift, stamina jumped to physical “vigor,” especially in the sense of withstanding the likes of illness and fatigue. Come the 1800s, it reached “moral and intellectual robustness and endurance.”

Originally, stamina was a plural noun both in English and Latin, its source. The singular is stamen. (English has been using stamina in the singular since the 18th century.) We are familiar with stamen in botanical contexts: it’s the part of the plant that makes the pollen. Flemish anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel is credited for first employing it in this modern, scientific sense in 1633. And thanks to English Bishop John Wilkins, stamen pollinated the English tongue as such by 1668.

We should note, though, that centuries earlier, Pliny, the Roman scholar, lent Latin’s stamen to the lily’s prominent pollen producer; Hesychius of Alexandria, a Greek lexicographer, used its Greek counterpart (στῆμα, stoma) of plants early on as well.

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The lily’s stamens, or “stamina.” Image by Mira Pavlakovic, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Common “threads”

So, what’s the common thread? Well, it’s just that. Latin’s stamen means “thread,” specifically the “thread of the warp in the upright loom.” The warp acts as a kind of foundation for the weave, which points us to stamen’s literal, base meaning: “that which stands.” Stand is the keyword here, as stamen and stand are ultimately cousins, sharing an ancient ancestor in *sta-, “stand.” This root is a mind-bogglingly prolific root, seen in Afghanistan, establish, obstacle, steed, and system, to name a paltry few derivatives.

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The vertical threads are the warp, which the Romans called the “stamen.” Image by Tom Pickering, courtesy of freeimages.com.

Pliny, apparently, saw the lily’s stamen as a “thread,” as did van den Spiegel again many years later. But the ancient Romans also saw their mythology in stamen. They used stamen for the “thread of life spun by the Fates,” imagined as three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the threads that controlled the lives and destinies of humanity. In the 18th century, English writers enjoyed using stamen in this very sense, also broadening it to one’s “inborn vitality” much like we saw in the history of stamina.

And the common thread for all of English’s stamina and stamen is metaphor. A plant stamen can resemble a thread. The rudiments of an entity, that early stamina, are its foundation: the warp of a weave. And stamina was once understood as one’s inherent makeup, measuring out how long one would live, like those threads of the Fates.

In the 2016 election, nothing has seem fated – except for the stamina we’ve all shown in making it this far in what continues to be an unprecedented presidential campaign.

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Hauling out the origin of “overhaul”

“Trump overhauls campaign again,” ran many headlines after news this week that Donald Trump took on Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon as his campaign’s chief executive. Let’s haul out the etymology of this overhaul, abuzz as it is in the political ether.

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Loosening the ropes to run a tighter ship? “Schooner rigging.” Image by Scott Schopieray courtesy of freeimages.com.

Overhaul

As we see in many metaphorical extensions of words, overhaul originated as a nautical term. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds record of the verb in 1626, when Captain John Smith uses it in a kind of “sea grammar” for young sailors. Back then, to overhaul entailed slackening ropes. This required pulling, or hauling, them opposite to its hoisting, hence over. In this way, sailors could take apart the rigging, inspect it, and make any changes if necessary. (Trump likes to claim voting is “rigged,” but overhauling doesn’t address that kind of rigging.)

By the 1700s, such an examination, or overhaul, was being done to a variety of equipment and apparatus. By the 1900s, the overhaul metaphor had settled into its modern form: a “significant repair” or “revision,” said of engines, education systems, campaigns.  

And if we overhaul overhaul? Well, it’s functioning pretty well as it is, I’d say, but we can at least take it apart and give it a look-over. Over is Germanic in origin, related to words like uber and super, which share a common Indo-European root meaning the same, essentially (“over”). Its form in Old English was ofer, found in the oldest records of the tongue. 

Haul, attested by the late 1500s, is a variant of hale, hauled into English from the French and Germanic roots before it. No relation to “strong and healthy” hale, the meaning of this hale is “to fetch” or “draw.” Indo-European philologists suppose an even more basic sense of “to shout.” Not unlike the Swahili rallying cry we saw rooted in Harambe, we can imagine some ancient foreman shouting to his muscly crew when to heave, ho, and haul. 

Thanks to its “pulling,” haul has roped its way into many other usages, from hauling someone over the coals to a long haul on the road to bringing back a good haul of candy on Halloween. Overhauled or not, it’s now only 80 days to election day, so both campaigns will be hauling ass until then. Haul ass – another term born on the seas, this one as US Navy slang,  originally “get out,” during World War I.

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