Language is always political, but my interests here are linguistic, not partisan. (And my interests here are little late for our today’s news cycles.) Twenty years ago, if a governor and party figurehead uttered in a press conference, “I’m not a bully,” those words may have spoken in jest. Now, in 2014, they are used earnestly. For good reason. Bullying names a concept that has taken on its due seriousness. (I’ll defer to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined for the rest of the cultural analysis.) And this repositions the word bully in its oh-so fascinating history.

Bully has not changed too much in form from its root in the Middle Dutch boele (cf. Middle High German buole), but its meaning has sure endured an atomic wedgie. In Dutch, boele, apparently a diminutive of broeder, could mean “brother,” “lover,” or “friend,” and could be used, the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) states, as a term of endearment or reproach.

In 16th-century English, bully meant “sweetheart” or “fine fellow.” The next century, the ODEE explains, it meant a “bravo” or a “swashbuckler,” then “tyrannical coward,” and, yet later, a “hired ruffian” and “protector of prostitutes.” Skeat defines its modern meaning as a “noisy rough fellow” while Partridge gives us the delightful “blusterous browbeater.”

Seems that bully got a taste of its own medicine over the years.

What might explain this semantic shifting? Weekley offers that bully might have been influenced either by its association with bull or with the Dutch bulderen, “to bluster,” although I’m not sure how English would have registered that. Whatever the case, this sense development is pretty incredible, although there is a logic in it. Silly and nice display similar (if not more astonishing) about-faces, and words like awesome and amazing have been brought down from their loftier heights to the mundane or the inane, as some would have it.

Not too long ago, I think we as a society wrongly excused bullying as a schoolyard fact of life, as Nelson Muntz’ Ha ha!.

Now, it’s a centerpiece of character education at schools, of political pressers in the Garden State. I’ll be curious to see how its increased use–and the increased importance of the concept it names–shapes its future evolution.

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Fast Mash

  • Old English had a word, dream, meaning “joy,” “jubilation,” “music,” or “minstrelsy,” via Old Norse draumr and which may be related to the Greek thrulos (“noise,” “shouting”) 
  • This Old English dream has no certain relationship to the Middle English drem, which gives us our current word for dream, via Old Norse draugr and possibly rooted in West Germanic *draugmas (“deception,” “apparition,” phantasm”) or Proto-Indo-European *dhreugh– (“deceive,” “lie”) 
  • Dream in the sense of “ideal” or “aspiration” is attested in 1931, the same year James Truslow Adams is credited with coining “the American dream” in Epic of America

When I say “Martin Luther King,” what comes to mind? Chances are, “I Have a Dream” does. It’s incredible. For me, and I would imagine so very many more, the word dream instantly vibrates with this champion of civil rights. Langston Hughes (“dream deferred”), Hamlet (“perchance to dream”), America (“American Dream”), or moniker of an R&B artist and producer (“The-Dream”), are also evoked, but dream and MLK have forged a most intimate association in my cultural and linguistic mind. And perhaps it is frustrating, too, to say the least, if the Doctor’s legacy is left so deeply associated with the vision and not its full materialization.

Whence this dream?  It turns out it needs a bit of interpretation.


In the 13th century, Middle English woke up with a dremreferring to a “vision during sleep,” as the ODEE so succinctly summarizes. However, Old English already had dream, meaning “joy, jubilation, music, or minstrelsy” (ODEE). Historical linguists have not established with any certainty a relationship between Middle English drem and Old English dream. The former may be related to German’s trügen (deceive) and the Old Norse draugr (apparition) via the West Germanic *draugmas, which the Online Etymology Dictionary glosses as “deception, illusion, phantasm.” The Sanskrit druh- (injure) and Avestan druz– (lie) are possible cognates. Skeat proposes a possible ultimate root in the Proto-Indo-European *dhreugh, “to deceive” or “lie,” and points us to the Sanskrit droghas, with the unusual meaning of “a crafty wounding,” as well as the Old Persian drauga, denoting “deceit” or “lie.”

The Old English dream develops out of Old Saxon drom (mirth, noise), related to the Old Norse draumr and possibly rooted in the Greek thrulos (noise, shouting). Partridge offers the Old Frisian cognate dram as a “(shout of) joy” to help us connect the sound and the merry.

The native Old English words for “dreaming” were mæting and swefn. The latter meant “sleep,” joining many other Indo-European languages in using the same word for sleep as for those midnight screenings.  So, what happened? We have two words similar in form and sound but quite different in meaning. I think the Online Etymology Dictionary summarizes the possibilities well:

Either the meaning of the word changed dramatically or “vision” was an unrecorded secondary Old English meaning of dream, or there are two separate words here. OED offers this theory: “It seems as if the presence of dream ‘joy, mirth, music,’ had caused dream ‘dream’ to be avoided, at least in literature, and swefn, lit. ‘sleep,’ to be substituted ….”

So, sleeping dream is avoided, I suppose, until festive dream falls out of use, making room anew for dream dream.  

American Dreamers

Martin Luther King’s dream, however, seems to come about comparatively late. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary: “Dream in the sense of ‘ideal or aspiration’ is from 1931, from earlier sense of ‘something of dream-like beauty or charm’ (1888).” (How did we express this concept before?) This year corresponds with the publication of James Truslow Adam’s Epic of America, in which,  apparently, Adams coins “the American dream”:

But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position

I still have a dream, indeed.

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Fast Mash

  • Champion, through French, derives from Late Latin campio, “warrior” or “fighter,” in turn from campus, meaning “field”
  • In Ancient Rome, such a campus staged military exercises as well as political and athletic events
  • From this campus English also gets such words as campaign, Champagne, a university campuscampscamp, and possibly even gambol and jamb
  • Its ultimate origin is unknown, but campus may go back to Proto-Indo-European *kamp-, “to bend,” and *kampos, “corner”

Broncos and Seahawks, you have joined that most prestigious company of champions who’ve contended for greatness: the college quad, s’mores and sing-alongs, American flag lapel pins, bubbly, highway robbers, frolicking, shrimp scampi, and bran.

Contend with that, you gridiron gladiators. Contend with etymology, the great emasculator.


At the root of champion is a word and a metonym–Latin’s campus, “field.” Perhaps the most famous field in ancient Rome was the Campus Martius, or Field of Mars. On this Tiber flood-plain Roman armies would muster, conduct exercises, and proceed in military triumph. Later, temples, theaters, and other imperial edifices populated the field, home to electoral events and athletic entertainment.

The Late Latin campio (declined along campion-) named a “warrior” or “fighter,” giving French champion. Perhaps the word comes straight from the Latin campus, but, as Partridge’s research shows, German mercenaries adopted campus and adapted it to *kamp. Indeed, German has Kampf, “fight,” “battle,” and “struggle,” as in Mein Kampf and Kulturkampf.

Champion moved into the athletic field, apparently, in the 1730s, with its sense of “first-place performer,” (Online Etymology Dictionary) probably with respect to boxing, horse-racing, golf, cricket, chess, or the Welsh, field and ice hockey-like game, bando.

Don’t mess with the bando stick. Courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

Old French has champagne, “open country,” from an adjectival form of campus. The sense of military campaigns, or an “army’s operations in the field,” “arose in those conditions of warfare according to which an army remained in quarters during the winter and on the approach of summer went into the country…to conduct operations” (ODEE). Unsurprisingly, politics not only appropriated many military metaphors, but, as continues in large part today, marched in step with military matters.

Let’s pop open some Champagne, the province (literally, “open country”) in northeast France, “whence…the scintillant wine made there,” as Partridge glosses it.

Don’t get too tipsy if you have an exam on campus, the “college or university grounds,” which ODEE first cites in the 18th century in reference to Princeton in New Jersey. We’ve all done battle with  finals, but academics, too, has its share of military metaphors, including class, originally referring to “the people of Rome under arms” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

And don’t be a scamp, you mischievous, idling, rascally…highway robber? To scamp indeed meant to commit so in the 18th century, stealing a sense of “slipping away”–or scampering–that probably comes from the Latin excampare, literally, “out of the field,” as in fleeing the battlefield. Scamp may also explain scam.

Camping, decamp, encamp, the field mushroom champignon–these are other cognates of campus. But wherefore this campus?

Partridge speculates a relationship with a “remotely possible cognate” in the Hittite kanza, or “grass” or “cereal.” He also cites Bloch and von Wartburg’s hypothesis that it survives from “an ancient Italic language.” Shipley has it from the Proto-Indo-European *kam, meaning “bend,” “curve,” or “vault,” thus linking it to everything from cummerbund, gams (as in “legs,” from gambol), and camera. This same kink likely explains the Italian scampi (scampo is Italian for “prawn”).

Camera is dubious. And, as Shipley observes, cummerbund (Hindi: kamarband) is verily from Persian’s kamar, “girdle” or “waist,” along with a form of the root of bind and bend, but I see no compelling evidence to link kamar with campus.

Gambol presents an interesting case, however. “To frolick,” “to leap” or “spring,” “a horse’s hock”–such is the lineage, rooted in Greek’s kampe and Latin’s gamba, meaning “joint” and birthing everything from a door jamb to  smoked gammon. Perhaps these are grounded in the Proto-Indo-European *kamp-, “to bend,” as in a leg, yielding *kampos, a “corner.”

Breakfast of Champions

If indeed the Hittite kanza–again, “grass” or “cereal”gave rise to Latin’s campus, then General Mills’ Wheaties may be “The Breakfast of Champions” in ways more than one.

Lou Gehrig, 1934. Courtesy of pophistorydig.com. I’d like to see Lou Gehrig take on a Hittite. There’s an easy “Bazooka Joke” somewhere in there.

A good origin story, the “Breakfast of Champions” slogan is, and all-American–it features baseball, radio, and individual genius. Check it out here. But the origin of words, as champion itself can attest, isn’t always so straightforward. They bend, they curve. They are so often quirky, charming, unpredictable, unusual–perhaps more like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.   

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the stand-up etymologist

Jerry Seinfeld: comedian, actor, writer, classic car collector and connoisseur, and…etymologist?

Sure, he’s a master of language, as comedians are. From “This, that, and the other” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” to “mimbo” and “mulva,” his punchlines have proven their staying power.

But word origins? Yep. And I encountered two from him. In one week. Jolly and doozy. Both came up in the context of classic cars, so, let’s fact-check his etymological engine check.


In an episode of his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Louis C.K., Jerry features the 1959 Fiat Jolly:

The word jolly means “joker” in Italian and it also means something “light,” “fun,” “funny,” and “pretty” in several other languages.

Indeed, jolly in Italian indeed means “joker” or “wild card,” as in the playing card. It can also mean “handyman,” “factotum,” “jack of all trades,” or a sports “utility player.” Watch the episode. It’s jolly good. And, relative to the car, I think you’ll agree with the first Italian definition and raise your eyebrows at the second.

But is it all related to the English jolly?

This jolly, which Oxford glosses as “of a gay disposition, lively, festive, jovial,” came into English in the 1300s from the Old French jolif, later joli, variously meaning “merry,” “pleasant,” and “pretty.” (Words from the French like tardy and hasty also the final –f.) Italian has giulivo, meaning much the same, and probably due to northeastern Spanish and southern French influences.

Is it from Latin gaudere, “to rejoice,” related to English joy and from Proto-Indo-European *gau, meaning the same as the Latin verb? Or is it loaned from the Old Norse jol, cognate to yulewhich Skeat defines as “a great feast in the heathen time”? (Oxford is a bit more PC with jol as “midwinter festival,” “feast.”)

The origin is ultimately unknown. Oxford adds that jolly could mean “gallant,” “brave,” “confident,” and “amorous” in Middle English. “Gallant” and “brave” may explain the jolly in Jolly Roger, the pirate flag, whose origin may ultimately be lost at sea.

Could the Italian jolly have been influenced by gallant knaves–those jacks in the rather arcane history of playing cards? Or jokers, those merry, jolly jesters for a feasting king?

Or perhaps the English jolly and the Italian jolly are simply false friends.

As for the British adverbial jolly, as in a jolly good, Weekley notes that jolly’s Old French and Middle English “meanings are very wide,” likely contributing to its use as an intensifier. Quite the wide meanings indeed, as Weekley cites Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary:

Joli: jollie; gay, trim, fine, gallant, neat, handsome, feat, well-fashioned, minion, compt, polite; also, lively, merry, buxom, jocund.

Seems like jolly‘s has had its semantic jollies.


As for doozy, Seinfeld, participating in an AMA–an “Ask Me Anything” session–on Reddit, answered the following (click to enlarge):

Doozy? Screenshot from Reddit. H/t Slate.

True? I’d say Seinfeld did pretty well. A few contributors got a bit pedantic:

Pedantic? Screenshot from Reddit.

My sources did not have a whole lot to say on doozy, or something impressive, unique,  or outstandingThe Online Etymology Dictionary synthesizes the the best:

also doozie, 1903 (adj.), 1916 (n.), perhaps an alteration of daisy, or from popular Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1859-1924). In either case, reinforced by Duesenberg, the expensive, classy make of automobile from the 1920s-30s.

Eleonora Duse. Image from Nostra Italia.

Grains of Truth

Don’t give me that look, Eleonora. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen that part bemused, part suspicious, part bored look of incredulity when I’ve offered many a friend a word origin. Just as they say there’s a grain of truth in every joke, so I like to be there’s a grain of truth in every etymology. And in this–and perhaps only this–Jerry Seinfeld and I have something in common.

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young & old

Fast Mash

  • Old, through Old English’s alda and the Proto-Germanic *althas, derives from the Proto-Indo-European *al-, “to nourish” or “grow”
  • Some cognates include: alderman, alimentary, altitude, elder, haughty, oboe, proletarian, and prolific
  • Young, through Old English’s geong, derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ieu-, which may mean “vital force” or “youthful vigor”
  • Cognates span the Indo-European language family. from Sanskrit’s yava to the Cornish yowynk 

It’s a week into 2014. Which means I’ve morphed a couple of 3’s into 4’s, haven’t completely bailed on my resolutions, and still have Auld Lang Syne stuck in my head. The Scots’ phrase auld lang syne, that New Year’s anthem from Robert Burns’ titular poem, literally means “old long since”–or “the good old times,” as Merriam-Webster puts it best. It turns out old has had some good times, indeed, etymologically speaking–and is still around to tell them.


Old is Old English’s ald, just with some wrinkles on its vowel. It comes from the West Germanic *althas or *alða, descendant of the Proto-Indo-European *al-, a verb that makes being old, well, possible: “to grow” or “nourish.” Elder and alderman are some Germanic variations of *althas that have aged well.

In Latin, the root grew up to become alere: “to feed,” “nourish,” “raise, “support,” “nurse,” and “breast-feed,” among others.

The inchoative or inceptive form of alere, or the form showing that something is beginning or becoming, was alescere, “to be nourished” and thus “to grow up.” Affixed with that prolific prefix ad– (“to,” “toward”), Latin got adolescere, giving English both adolescsent and adult (the verb’s past participle is adultus).

You might also recognize alimentary (“dealing with nourishment,” as in the canal), exalt (read: in high esteem), and altitude, from altus, or (grown) tall. Through French evolutions, altus has given English a few less conspicuous heirs: haughty (think haute couture), enhance (from a verb originally denoting “to elevate”), and oboe.

Yes, oboe. Oboe is the Italian way of spelling the French hautbois, a compound literally meaning “high wood.” Bush and box are cognates to boisApparently, the oboe has the highest register of all the woodwinds (Online Etymology Dictionary). 

You might also be surprised by abolish. From the Latin abolere, abolish fuses ab– (another prolific prefix, “away”) and alescere to portray destruction as “away from nourishment.” Or Althea officialis, the scientific name for the marshmallow plant historically used for its healing (that is, nourishing) properties, especially in gummy, sweetened food applications that inspired today’s nutritionally empty treat.

And speaking of prolific, there is…prolific. Quite literally, the adjective is from the Latin for “making offspring.” Proliferate, proletarian (the humblest citizens in Ancient Rome, who “served the state simply by having children” to populate the Republic, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us), Marxism’s proletariat–all from Latin’s proles, in turn from the Proto-Indo-European *pro-al, with pro– indicating “forth.” Hence, offspring as something “nourished forth.”  


Our offspring. Our children. Our youth. Our young. The ultimate fountain of young‘s youth is the Proto-Indo-European *ieu- or *yeu-, meaning “young.” The Online Etymology Dictionary sexes the root up, though, glossing it as “vital force” or “youthful vigor.” Vigorous, to be sure, if its own lexical proliferation is any measure. All the following cognates, which i take from Partridge, have stayed “young”:

  • Sanskrit, yuva
  • Avestan, yava
  • Latin, juvenis
  • Old Church Slavonic, junu
  • Lithuanian, jaunas
  • Welsh, ieuanc; Old Welsh, iouenc
  • Old Irish, oac and oc (which lives on in the obscure gallowglass)
  • Gaelic, og
  • Cornish, iouenc, iunc, yowynk, and yonk
  • Gothic, juggs
  • Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old High German, jung (see also the Dutch-rooted younker, joining jonc, “young,” and here, “master”)
  • Middle High German, junc
  • German, jung
  • Old Norse, ungr
  • Old English, geong and gung

The Latin juvenis has given English junior, juvenile, rejuvenate, juvenal, June (from the goddess Juno, perhaps due to her divine jurisdiction over new moons) and more recently, juvie, a colloquial term for juvenile detention centers.

And In youth, I think it is worth noting, we see at work the suffix -th, “denoting action or process” or “quality and condition” (Oxford) and hailing from a Proto-Germanic suffix *-itho and Proto-Indo-European *-ito. Bath, birth, death, growth, flith, health, length, mirth, strength, truth–youth, with yet more childhood friends.

The Young and the Restless

English etymology must be reading Macbeth. In words, what means “foul” can somehow mean “fair.” The ending is the beginning. The old are a youth culture. Words have that paradoxical way about them, don’t they? They can be so stubborn yet so flexible. Forms change. Meanings change. Words are restless. But as etymology reminds us, a word can have a core personality, if you will, that stays about it, young or old.

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The New Year–so full of possibility, fresh starts, new…endings?


End may seem like such a simple word, but it turns out to be a bit more complex, etymologically speaking.

The form of the word has changed little from the Old English ende, where it once also meant, according to Oxford, “termination,” “completion,” “death,” “event,” issue,” “intended result,” and “purpose.” Some of these have stuck around: He met his end. The ends justify the means. Odds and ends retains its sense of “remnant,” while in ends of the earth or the West End survives a meaning of “region.” The Online Etymology Dictionary also glosses “boundary,” “species,” and “class,” which will make more sense with our further inspection of this useful monosyllable.

End derives from the Proto-Germanic *andja- and the Proto-Indo-European *antjo, which in turn comes from *ant-, as in “opposite,” “in front of,” “front,” “before,” or “against.” In its earliest form, *ant– may very well have originally meant “forehead.”

You may well recognize this ever productive root in the prefixes anti- (against) and ante- (before). As Shipley delightfully puts it, “Both forms are still live; thus we may say anti-Nixon as well as ante-Nixon.”

Unanswerable Antics

There seems to be no, um, end to this word family. Related are big words, academic words, fancy words, unusual words: antediluvian, antemeridian, antipathy, anticipate, antichrist, antipasto, antidisestablishmentarianism.  Related are humble, little, everyday, I-could-barely-go-a-sentence-without-them words: and, until, and (yep) even along, originally andlang. And then we have my favorite here at Mashed Radish: the surprising words, like answer and antic.

Answer originally meant “to swear against,” taking the form andswaru in Old English and blending a related form of end, *and-, and *swar– (Oxford: “solemn affirmation in rebutting a charge”)which gives us “swear.” The gravity of words often lessen overtime (cf. awesome), but the erstwhile seriousness of answer may well have stuck around in answerable.

Antics, as in foolish behavior, is from antic, characterizing something as “grotesque” or “fantastic.” It comes from the Italian antico (ancient), from Latin’s antiquus (old), which, as with Italian’s own grottesco (grotesque), was in the 16th-century “applied to the fantastic figures found in ancient Roman remains, and subsequently to anything grotesque” (Oxford). The Online Etymology Dictionary more specifically notes that antico referred “to the strange and fantastic representations on ancient murals unearthed around Rome (especially originally the Baths of Titus, rediscovered 16c.)” I’m going to guess the unanswerable antics of (very well-endowed) satyrs and centaurs. 

And if you didn’t already guess it, yes, antique and ancient are also related to end.

Every Ending’s a Beginning

When I think of end, the anatomical feature that comes to mind is certainly not “forehead.” (Nor is it when I think of Nixon.) But, at the risk of being hackneyed, every ending is a beginning.

Endings and beginnings, like any new year, are about boundaries, about thresholds–mutually defined, interdependent, ouroboric. And, as subjective organisms, as embodied consciousnesses in the world, adapted to a specific world, are our bodies not the ultimate markers of those boundaries? My front, my forehead, is where I end, and, in my experience of you, in my experience of another, it is your front, your forehead, where you begin. Our bodies, at their most basic level, orienting us in space, in time, in relationships, in language.   

The end. Or, the beginning.

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