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.

m ∫ r ∫

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