Before we begin, I want to welcome all my new readers–or, dare I say, my fellow blog-mongers. But seriously, though. Wow; I’m flattered. Really. Thanks! Now, let’s get to the scoundrels.

Part of me thinks of monger as an historical artifact or romantic relic of a simpler time, a time when our work was our wares. Cheesemongers traded in cheese, fishmongers in fish, alemongers in beer, pearmongers in pears. All was simple, and what you saw is what you got.

Except not, as the history of monger admonishes us. Forget the whoremongers and warmongers, though: It’s the costermongers we really need to watch out for.


In Old English, a mangere was a “dealer or a trader.” It’s a very old word; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) positions it as early Old English (AD 650-900) with the first dated attestation coming around 1225. The word has been used in compound forms since the 12th century. Since the 16th century, though, as the New English Dictionary observes, monger has suggested “a contemptible or disreputable ‘trade’ or ‘traffic.'” Through Germanic wheelings and dealings, this mangere is indebted to the Latin mango (no relation to the fruit), meaning a “slave dealer” or “pushy salesman.” Eric Partridge elaborates that mango meant “a vendor that decks out and furbishes his wares (in order to deceive).”

We can track the Latin mango back to the Greek manganon, signifying a means of bewitching, deception, or enchantment. More specifically, the term was a military one, naming the pulley-axis, a kind of catapult used to launch stones. Somewhere and somehow along the way, this root gave Dutch (and later, English) the mangle, a “clothes-pressing machine.” Now here’s a truly beguiling contrivance:

Advert for the domestic mangle. Fortunately, the technology seems as archaic as the construct of the domestic woman the advert presents. Image courtesy of

Monger had many middlemen, though. At the source is the Proto-Indo-European *mang-, “to charm” or “deceive.” According to Partridge, its derivatives are indeed “charming” and “deceptive”: Sanskrit has mañjus (beautiful) and mangalam (good luck). Tocharian A–an extinct language associated with liturgical Buddhist texts in what is now Xinjiang in northwest China–has mank (sinner, guilt). Old Persian has manga (whore) and Middle Irish meng (deceit).

We humans have such a complicated relationship with beauty.


For word lovers, though, monger is a real bogo.

First, you get old-fashioned names for old-fashioned jobs. A fleshmonger was a butcher, an isemonger or iremonger was an ironworker, and a costermonger was “itinerant apple-seller,” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Yes, a costermonger, with coster from costard, a kind of high-ribbed apple. (In Latin costa means “rib.” Coast is cognate.)

Of these, only cheesemonger strikes me as maintaining any currency today: the American Cheese Society (yes, the honorable ACS) uses the term without irony. (There’s a cheese joke somewhere I’m missing here.) I’m surprised, though, that hipsters, in all their artisanal pursuits, haven’t taken up the -monger mantle wholesale.

But its in these selfsame  professions thst we witness the real career of monger–the sharp wit and punchy, purposeful wordplay of English-language nonce words.

A nonce word (a word “used for the (n)once”; this has its own story to tell) is, as David Crystal defines it, “a linguistic form which a speaker invents or accidentally uses on a single occasion.” However, if a speech community takes it up into its lexicon, then it become a neologism–a new coinage.

While earlier examples exist (the OED cites “peningmongere” or penny-monger), in the 1500s monger began booming as a term for a people engaged in a “petty” or “disreputable” trade (OED). Interestingly, the English monger was taken from a pejorative Latin origin but used in earnest until wordplay reverted it back to its shady Roman business. Perhaps its this underlying implication that drove monger out of mainstream usage for various sellers and tradesmen.

Some of these mongers still have inventory in stock (all dates are the OED’s attestations):

  • Whoremonger (1526, Tyndale’s Bible)
  • Warmonger (1590, Spenser’s Faerie Queene)
  • Scandalmonger (1721)
  • Peace-monger (1808)
  • Gossipmonger (1836)
  • Scaremonger (1888)

We also have wordmonger (attested in 1590). In spot-on self-deprecation, Earnest Weekley, in offering an example of monger‘s principal cynical, creative usages:

Professor Weekley is well known to our readers as the most entertaining of living word-mongers (“Daily News,” Nov. 8, 1916)

Aside from costermonger, fishmonger, fleshmonger, and whoremonger, Shakespeare alone used to sneering effect (and I can’t speak to his coinage of any of the following):

  • Ballad-monger
  • Barber-monger (a fop, dandy)
  • Fancy-monger
  • Fashion-monger
  • Love-monger
  • News-monger
  • Woodmonger

And here’s some other noncemongery I came across, in no particular order: ceremony-, merit-, pardon-, holy water-, Heymonger (surname; not a nonce word but I had nowhere else to shelve this), state-, insect-, shell-, punctilio- (thanks to Winston Churchill), humanity-, verbal inspiration-, superstition-, hero-, conference-, noise-, tax-, rumor-, hate-, miracle-, pupil-, cock-, guest-, and mutton-monger (a pimp).


The genius of coinages like gossipmonger, which have staying power, or punctilio-monger, which met the moment, lies not just in their wordplay, but in how they give name to a very real yet before-unnamed phenomenon. Our better blends today (e.g., staycation) do this, too. They meet a need.

Tell me, what do you think the mongers of today are?

In response to a tweet, editor, linguist, and blogger Stan Carey nonced “-mongermonger.” To me, this cleverly names our age’s hyper-self-aware meta-mindedness. To this end, I’ll offer hashtagmonger and mememongers, as well as datamongers (let’s just say I did a lot of work in public institutions) and remakemongers (Robocop, anyone?).

Make some mongery below.

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gold, silver, & bronze

Fast Mash

  • Gold is from the Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning, variously, “yellow,” “bright,” “shining,” “green,” “blue,” and “gray”; derivatives include chlorine, clean, and the family of gl- words like glass and glance
  • From the Old English siolforsilver’s ultimate origin is unknown, perhaps from the Akkadian sarapu (to smelt)
  • Bronze may be from the Persian birinj (copper) and may be connected to the Latin aes Brundusinium, referring to bronze mirrors made in Brindisi, Italy
  • The Indo-European *arg- (bright, shining) is the origin of Romance words for “silver” (e.g., argent) and *aus– for “gold” (e.g., aureate)

In Ancient Greece, victorious Olympians were crowned with olive wreathes. Upon the Olympics’ reinstitution in 1896, winners were still greeted with this symbolic prize, but also with silver medals. It wasn’t until the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, though, that the Games issued gold, silver, and bronze medals for its top-three competitors.

Let’s bite into goldsilver, and bronze to check out what they’re made of.


All that glitters may be gold, etymologically speaking. Unchanged in form from the Old English, gold is from the Proto-Germanic *gulth- and Proto-Indo-European *ghel-, meaning “yellow.” This root could also mean “bright” or “shining.” And, apparently, all that glitters can be “green,” “blue,” and “gray,” for *ghel– so named bright colors and objects.

This root *ghel– is definitely worth its weight in etymological gold, though, for it parented the Greek khloros, “pale green,” giving English everything from chlorine and chlorophyll to the name Chloe. It also parented the Germanic clean and clear. In fact, its Germanic kin are many, as Shipley cites: glare, glassglaze, gloss, gleaming, glow, glower, glad, and glee. To these we might add gleamglitterglint, glimpseglance, among yet others, all featuring the initial cluster gl-.

Does this gl– mean something? The topic is contentious.


Linguists call this gl- a “phonestheme,” an example of sound symbolism, the idea that certain sounds inherently have a meaning. Onomatopoeia might be familiar. The cow moos, the bee buzzesthe doorbell ding-dongs. These are all words that imitate or echo what they are naming. The sound symbolizes its meaning.

But gl- is a little more interesting. It has no meaning in and of itself. Gl- on its own cannot be said to mean anything in the way that “cat,” “throw,” or “rumor” do. Or in the way that “pre-” or “post-” or “-ly” or “-hood” do. But it does appear in a family of words whose meanings are all connected–here, through a common sense of “shiny,” “bright,” “light,” “dealing with vision,” or what have you. Further, if you clip off the gl-, you aren’t left with a meaningful unit of sound. Take glitter or glance. If I take of the gl-, I am left with -itter and -ance, which don’t mean anything. (More technically, they aren’t morphemes.) Unlike when I undo the “un-” in “undo” or lob off the “-er” in “faster”: do and fast have meaning.

Words beginning with fl– (flow, fly, flutter. flurry), sl- (slide, slippery, slick, slither), and sn– (snore, sniffle, sneeze, snout) also display this phonesthemic property.

So, does gl– suggest the shiny or visual properties that its word family shares? Does fl– imply flying, sn– various nasal business? Globe, flower, and snow also feature their respective consonant clusters but don’t really belong in their respective phonesthemic families. The phenomenon is not absolute. Nothing is language is. But, given the data, it’s hard to deny that there is some level of truth to this sound symbolism.

Gold’s chemical symbol, Au, is taken from the Latin aurum, meaning “gold.” It’s from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ausprobably meaning “to shine.” From this root, Latin got aes and Old English ar, which could both mean, well, “copper,” “bronze,” and “brass.”


The name for this runner-up comes from the Old English siolfor or seolfor. (In Old English, letter sounded much like our v.) We can trace the Old English back to the Old Norse, silfr and reconstruct a Proto-Germanic *silubr-. From here, we don’t really know. Perhaps silver is all the more precious for it. Russian has serebo and Lithuanian has sidabras, so etymologists speculate a Balto-Slavic or Asian origin. Ernest Klein offered the Akkadian sarpu, refined “silver,” from sarapu, “to smelt.”

The Indo-European root for silver is reflected in silver’s chemical name, Ag, from Latin’s silver equivalent, argentum. Like *ghel– and *aus-, argentum has *arg-, “to shine,” though often with a especial reference to “white.” The Argonauts were the sailors of the ship, the Argos, lead by Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. In Greek, argos means “swift,” related to that root for “shining” and “bright.”


Nowadays, bronze may evoke being tan before being in third place. It turns out, though, that the alloy may have more in common with vanity–um, I mean skin cancer, er, social constructions of beauty, uh, tanning–than we might think.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and comes to English, via French and Italian, from the Medieval Latin bronzium and its variant brundium. From here, the etymology is itself something of an alloy. As Partridge maintains, bronze is ultimately mined from the Persian birindj (other variants include birinj or pirinj), meaning “copper,” “for the alloy came to Europe from the East.” Skeat cites the Roman historian Pliny, whose writes of aes Brundusinium, referring to the Italian town, Brindisi, whose Latin name was Brundisium, “where bronze mirrors were made.” Aes could mean “copper,” “brass,” “bronze” and the various objects made from them include money, armor, and trumpets. Perhaps you’ll look extra bronzed in one of those mirrors.

The chemical symbol for bronze is…Oh, you don’t remember it? Good. There isn’t one. Just making sure you’re awake.

Etruscan bronze mirror, 3rd-2nd c. BC; image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bright, Shiny Objects

*Ghel-, *aus-, *arg-: some of our most precious treasures–an Olympic medal, say, awarding a once-in-a-lifetime performance against the most elite competition following years of training and sacrifice–come down to “bright” and “shiny” objects. That’s a bit glib, of course, as metallurgy certainly had its hand in advancing civilization. But perhaps not too glib, for might not these roots begin in that most fundamentally human act–the act of curiosity, marveling at an object glittering in a riverbed or on the wall of a cave, brighter and shinier than the unremarkable dirt and rock, tinkering and tooling and experimenting with them until it is shaped into something new, an instrument of culture? It may not take much to get our attention, but we sure can do a whole lot with it.

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winter olympic sports (part ii)

Last week, we looked at the bones of skatethe splinters of ski, and the unknowns of luge. This week, the Games continue with sleighcurling, and hockey


There is no reason for sleigh‘s spelling, I supposed, other than imitation of words like neighbor and weigh, whose –gh once were pronounced, unlike sleigh‘s. Sleigh is a North American English adaptation of the Dutch slee, from slede. Sled and sledge are related, connected to slide and slither, from the very Harry Potter-sounding Old English slidor

What about “bob”? In bobsled or bobsleigh, the element “bob” conveys “cutting short” and, as the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, a “round, hanging mass,” from bobbe, meaning “cluster.” She sports a bob? Yep, this word for a short haircut is related and is attested as early as the late 1600s.


Weekley must have been a fan of the winter sports; he has been particularly illustrative for these selected games. On curling, he writes, “The game of curling is so called from the curving path of the stone, like that of a bowl.” The ODEE, among others, leaves open the possibility that curling indeed comes from curl. Curl itself is twisted from crulle, from the Middle Dutch krul, which the ODEE delivers back to the Germanic root, *krusl-.

This switching of sounds–here, the r and sounds–is known as metathesis, a fairly common phenomenon. We’ve seen it on the Mashed Radish before. A (needlessly contentious) example is the pronunciation of ask as ax (think aks and you might better understand the transposition). Geoffrey Chaucer did it, as you might have heard on this excellent NPR piece

According to the ODEE (and I’m talking here to you, Paul), this *krusl- root is related to the German kraus, meaning “curled” and thus figuratively “crabbed” or “sullen.” Some connect this to the surname Krause (which would explain a lot, my friend) whereas others trace the last name back to a German word for “jug” or “pitcher” (which would also explain a lot). Skeat proposes the root *krellan, meaning “to wind.”


H-E-double-hockey-sticks: that’s about the best we have for the origin for this king of ice sports. The word has an isolated reference in the Galway Statutes in 1527: “The horlinge of the litill ball with hockie stickes or staves.” The ODEE speculates that hockie may be used for “hooky,” or hooked.

Then, on November 5, 1785, William Cowper, English poet who sang of the everyday countryside in every language, grudgingly yet lovingly wrote of hockey:

The boys at Olney have likewise a very entertaining sport. They call it Hockey; and it consists in dashing each other with mud, and the windows also, so that I am forced to rise now and then, and to threaten them with a horsewhip to preserve our own. We know that Roman boys whipped tops, trundled the hoop, and played at tennis; but I believe we nowhere read that they delighted in these filthy aspersions: I am inclined, therefore, to give to the slovenly but ingenious youths of Olney full credit for the invention. (p. 184)

Cowper was writing to John Newton, the famed clergyman and converted abolitionist who wrote “Amazing Grace,” in the small town of Olney in Buckinhamshire in southeasterly England.

Attempts have been made to connect “hockey” to the French hoqueta shepherd’s staff or crook, diminutive of hoc, or “hook,” but the the ODEE body-checks this. Skeat passes the puck to hockey, first attested as hawkey, as descring the L-shaped “hooked stick” used in the game. Partridge directs us to compare this sense development to that of cricket, originating in crook and croc, the hooked instrument used for the game.

As far these etymological Olympics are concerned, I think William Cowper wins the gold, with the Dutch language securing the silver. Bronze? Let’s put bob on the platform.

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winter olympic sports (part i)

This weekend marks the opening of the XXII Winter Olympic (and, lest we forget, Paralympic) Games in Sochi, Russia. Athletes will produce a blizzard of speed, spins, and sticks as they compete in 15 major events far removed from many of our everyday experiences–except for that “polar coaster” most of the country seems to be riding of late. The origin of skis, skates, and sleds certainly had their practical purposes in more historic, northerly life, from hunting and transport to much needed recreation and release from months of cold, dark, and cramped quarters.

But what about the origin of skis, skates, and the words for other winter sports? In this post, we will look at skateski, and luge.


Make no bones about it, skate originates in a mistaken plural. The Dutch for these frames, fixed to the soles of shoes for gliding across ice, is schaats in the singular and schaatsen in the plural. The English understood this singular schaats as a plural, lopping off the final s to generate skate, as it eventually came to be spelled. It’s very possible that the Dutch developed the word from Old North French, escace or escache, meaning “stilt.” This, in turn, could be from the Frankish *skakkja, related to English’s shake. Or it could be related to English’s shank, as in the part of the leg. Shank may be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *skeng-, “crooked,” like a bent leg. Make bones about that, for “the earliest skates were made of shank-bones” from animals, as Weekley notes. Webster makes a point to specify quadripeds. Apparently skating “was popularized at the Restoration…, Charles II’s followers having learnt the art in Holland” (Weekley). On this, Weekley cites the Diary of John Evelyn from December 1, 1660:

The strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders on the new canal in St. James’s Park, performed before their Maties by divers gentlemen and others with skeets, after the manner of the Hollanders.

Before their Maties, indeed. Anthropologically, this would ultimately be in the manner of Ancient Finland, as the earliest skates are found in Scandinavia and Russia.

That is not original leather. Replica of ca. 5000-year-old technology believed to be invented by Ancient FInns and made out of animal bone. Image courtesy of National Geographic.


Ski rides an etymological bunny slope down from the Norwegian ski, in turn from the Old Norse skið, “snowshoe,” and yet older, as the ODEE puts it, a “billet of cleft wood.” Related are Old English’s scid and shide, which point to the Proto-Germanic *skid– and yet further back to the Proto-Indo-European *skei-, “to cut” or “split.” The English verb shed, as in to “cast off,” still carries this old sense of cutting or splitting in watershed, with its metaphorical and geographical dividing points. (If you’re like, you always thought of watershed in terms of a building. TIL…)


Most of my dictionaries leave luge’s origin as unknown. French, Swiss, and Gaulish origins are offered. The Online Etymology Dictionary presents Medieval Latin’s sludia (“sled”) as a possibility. Improbable, but hey, so was everything about Cool Runnings.

Next post, we’ll pick up with sleighcurling, and hockey

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super bowl

Whoever wins, I think the real champion of the Super Bowl is “Super Bowl.” Generation after generation, the roots of super and bowl have been moving their linguistic chains down the field. But before we look at their etymological playbook, why did the Super Bowl even take that name?

“Bowl” Games

In the late 1950s, there was a National Football League and an American Football League, and, by the late 1960s, the winners of each league came to play a championship game. (Eventually, they merged into a single league, now known as the NFL.) And that championship game needed a zingy game.

Legend goes that Lamar Hunt, then owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, witnessed his kids playing with Wham-O’s bouncy ball toy, the Super Ball. When officials were looking for an appropriate name for the final championship, Hunt is said to have suggested, jokingly, the “Super Bowl,” based on this toy. Though it met with some resistance, the name stuck by the third Super Bowl in 1969.

Now with more Zectron! Image courtesy of

This is a super story, but college football championships were being called “bowls” long before the Super Bowl. In 1914, a football stadium for the Yale Bulldogs went up in New Haven, Connecticut. It looked a big bowl, and so it came to be called the “Yale Bowl.” This stadium inspired the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, CA, whose famous game came, too, to be called the “Rose Bowl” in 1923, thereby cementing the tradition of calling postseason college football games as “bowls.” Hunt may have pulled “Super Bowl” out of his bowler, but it’d be hard to deny any influence of these bowls on his associations.

A very bowl-y Yale Bowl. Image courtesy of Yale University Library.

It turns on bowl and ball just don’t sound a like. They have an etymon in common.


Super really is a super word. It’s a very functional adverb: “That exam was super hard.” It’s perfect fodder for compounds: superman, supercharged, superpower. It’s a swell adjective, to boot: Super Committee, Super Bowl.  (It’s easy to see how this adjective becomes a prefix). These uses, variously meaning “excellent” via “above” or “beyond,” are dated back to the first part of the 19th century. But super is super old. English picked up super from the Latin, supera multipurpose adverb and preposition meaning “on top,” “above,” and “over,” to name a few.

Speaking of “over,” it’s essentially the same as super. Both are traced back to the Proto-Indo-European comparative root of *uper-, meaning, well, “over.” Among its many cognates is Greek’s familiar and equally functional word-former, hyper. Historical linguists have posited *uper– as the comparative form of *upomeaning–wait for it–”under.” (By comparative, think of constructions such as faster or more expensive.)

“Under.” That seems a strange as a Super Bowl halftime show. The sense of *upo– is “from below,” “upward,” or “up to,” and a variant, *ex-upo-, may have yielded sup-, giving Latin sub (“under,” “below”) and thereafter English another super, word-forming prefix. It’s hard not to root for the underdog. (A strained transition, I admit.)


Bowl is handed down from the Middle English bolle, in turn from Old English’s bolla. Etymologists from Skeat to Weekley broadly suggest an ultimate origin in the Proto-Indo-European *bhel– (and its family of variations), meaning to “swell.” Proto-Germanic’s *bul– (“round vessel,” the Online Etymology Dictionary offers) helps provide the connection.

This root *bhel– has a lot of fans. In Greek, it took on forms to give English such words as: phallus and chlorophyll (the element –phyll, is from the Greek for “leaf”). In Latin, it produced flos (yielding everything from “flower” and “flour”), follis (source of “follicle”), and folium (origin of “folio” and “foliage”).

Indeed, English is swollen with cognates *bhel-: bale (of hay), ballocks, balloon, ballot, bellows, bill, billet, billow, bilge, bloat, blood, bloom, blossom, bull (as in papal), bullock, bullet, bulletin, ebullient, boil, bole, bold, boulevard, budget, bulk, and bulwark. Bowling and bowls (as in cricket) are related, through Latin’s bulla, “bubble,” “knob.”

Balls, Budgets, & Bellies

There would be no Super Bowl, though, without *bhel-‘s cousin ball–and many would say balls, yes, those “balls,” attested in the anatomical sense in the 14th century and figuratively in the early 20th century. Nor would there be one without the bloated price tags of Super Bowl commercials–budget comes to us from the cognate bulga, Latin for “leather bag,” which came to be transferred to the fiscal plans held therein.  And we can’t forget the nachos, the salsas, the wings, and the beers that may be the real reason you accepted that Super Bowl party invitation from your awkward coworker–a full belly, from a Germanic cognate for “bag.” 

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