davy crockett in a hot-air balloon

This past week, a few words “blew up” in New England: blizzard, concerning the storm that pounded some parts of the region while only glancing at others, and deflate, due to the allegedly deflated footballs used by the Patriots in their win over the Colts en route to the Super Bowl.  Let’s see what their etymologies have to say.

“Blizzard.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Weather forecasts and etymology have much in common: uncertainty. Perhaps no better word illustrates this commonality than blizzard. Many sources play it safe and note the word’s origin as unknown or obscure. Others have taken more risks, like Eric Partridge, who’ve connected the word to blaze, thinned to blizz, a kind of rainstorm, with “the hiss of rain being likened to that of a blazing fire.” While blaze seems dubious, Eric Partridge is right to highlight the importance of sound to this word, as we will see.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the word is in 1829, where it referred to a “violent blow,” much like a punch. Davy Crockett gets a citation in 1834; I recommend you avoid toasting him at dinner. Especially in the American West, the word was also used of gunshots and arguments. The year 1859 marks evidence for blizzard‘s application to snowstorms, while the legendary winter in 1880-1881 in the American Upper Midwest appears to have generalized the word’s usage.

Sonically, blizzard is a very effective word. The initial, phonesthemic bl– evokes the force of blast, blow or bluster, while its z‘s suggest speed. Anatoly Liberman is never one to underestimate such sound symbolism, so he puts up for such an imitative effect of blizz in British rural speech before landing in America. Blizz was then coupled with the productive suffix –ard, as we see in words like drunkard and in my post on bastard.


A blizzard may evoke the force of a blow, but deflation, another word much on the New England mind, is etymologically related to it. There’s record of inflation as far back as 1340, but its opposite doesn’t hit the scene until 1891. The word appears not in reference to footballs, but to a Mr. Percival Spencer’s thrilling hot-air ballon at the Naval Exhibition in London.

Hot air indeed: Both inflation and deflation have gas. Inflation originally referred to as much, naming the condition of being distended with air. At root is the Latin flāre (participial form, flātus),to blow.” This root really ballooned in the English language. You don’t want to conflate the soufflé with flatulence. A blast of flavor can cure the blasé. While these sentences don’t really hold together well meaning-wise, the italicized word’s connection to the Proto-Indo-European root *bhle– does. For, via flāre, they are ultimately reconstructed from *bhle, “to blow.”

Now, this Deflategate business may also be a bunch of hot air, but football teams might heed the etymological advice of *bhle-. This root may be a variant of *bhel-, which swelled Indo-European languages with its cognates, including some words important to the sport, making deflated balls are one path to the Super Bowl.

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As part of his State of the Union Address last Tuesday, President Obama pitched middle-class tax breaks offset, in part, by closing certain tax loopholes that can benefit America’s wealthiest. I’m not fit to weigh in on tax policy (though you may want to learn the curious origin of the word tax), but I do want to weigh in on this word loophole.

If you’re like me, this metaphorical loophole brings to mind a literal hole formed out of a loop of string or some such material. You would indeed think the word is exactly that: a simple compound of loop and hole. It might be, but its etymology still proves to be pretty knotted.

"Loophole." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Loophole.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


It’s the loop in loophole that throws us for a loop. For this loop, we actually need to consider two loops

The first loop is the one we are most familiar with, the one formed in needlework or a noose. Some thread this loop back to a Germanic root that gives English the word leap. Others–famously, Walter Skeat–have proposed a Celtic borrowing, citing the Gaelic lub, a “bend,” “loop,” and “winding,” as well as “to meander.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates this meaning of loop back to at least 1475. Given Celtic languages’ surprisingly limited impact on the English language, this would be an interesting borrowing indeed.

But English has a second and older loop, an “opening in a wall to look through, or to allow the passage of a missile.” This is attested in 1393, and by 1591, the OED cites loophole as such and naming the kind of narrow arrow slits we see in castles. Some suggest that this loop is from same word as we see in a loop of string. Others, however, go Dutch, aiming at the Middle Dutch lupen, variously glossed as “to lurk,” “to lie in wait,” “peer,” “watch,” or “look slyly.” Oxonian scholars also mention an Anglo-Latin loupa in the late 14th century, referring to a medieval loophole and of unknown origin.

By 1664, according to the OEDloophole takes on the figurative sense that ultimately yields today’s tax loophole:

An outlet or means of escape. Often applied to an ambiguity or omission in a statue, etc., which affords opportunity for evading its intention.

The OED adds that the usage may be influenced by the Dutch loopgat, joining loopen (“to run”) and gat (“way”). This loopen, however much it resembles the Middle Dutch lupen, doubles us back to that Germanic base giving us leap–and, possibly, loop. Now that’s an etymological loop-the-loop.


The origin of loophole may well live up to its name. Loop figures into a number of useful expressions. Loopy, as in crazy or drunk, is probably from loopy’s original sense of “full of loops.” Thrown for a loop, and its earlier variant, knock for a loop, may originate in the boxing ring near the turn of the 20th century, thanks to some sleuthing from Ben Zimmer and Jonathon Green. In the loop and out of the loop appears some 70 years later in aviation circles.  Aviators maneuver loop-the-loopsConey Island thrilled with its famous Loop-the-Loop. In late 1950s and early 60s, Hanna-Barbera produced the onetime, pun-loving “do-good wolf”:

Maybe we should put the well-meaning but much maligned canine in charge of the US tax policy–and, hell, gun control.

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The stock market may not like recent declines in crude oil prices, but the grocery market just might. For the everyday consumer, these declines are spelling savings at the pump, which, for many people, like me, means a little extra cash for checkout lane. We just need to be sure that the food we buy is properly cooked, if we are considering crude‘s etymology.

"Crude." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Crude.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Crude comes into English in the late 1300s, when it referred to a material in its natural or raw state. Chaucer again gets the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first attestation. It comes from the Latin crudus, whose meanings were manifold, much like the word’s uses in English today. Its sense of “rough” was applied to wounds (“bloody” and “bleeding”), food (“unripened,” “uncooked,” and “undigested”), and behavior (“rude” and “fierce”). Crude oil, also known as petroleum and dating back to 1865, makes sense if we think of it as “unprocessed” or “unrefined.”

Related to crudus it is crudēlis, meaning “cruel” and source of the same, after its medial d deteriorated in French. The original force of cruel, however, was much more violent. Crudus also lives on in some far from crude-sounding derivatives. A recrudescence is a renewal or relapse, from a verbal form meaning to “get rough,” as in a battle or disease. The color ecru, from French écru, is considered “raw” or “unbleached,” in reference to fabric. Impress your friends by telling them you will bring crudité, or raw vegetables, to the Super Bowl party.

These French words may seem quite refined, but their core sense of “raw” points us right to crude‘s more ancient roots. For crude, historical linguists have reconstructed a Proto-Indo-European etymon of *kreuə-, “raw flesh,” a word we can imagine figured prominently in Proto-Indo-European foods and fights.

This *kreuə– not only means “raw,” but it also related to that very word raw. For *kreuə-, following some significant sound changes, yielded the Old English hrēaw. The initial /h/ in cluster /hr/ was reduced, vowels were shifted, and raw remains. A rude person might be crude, but the words are unrelated.

The root *kreuə– still flexes its muscle in words we get from Ancient Greek, whose tenderized *kreuə into κρέας (kreas)“flesh.” The pancreas, as an organ, is “all flesh.” Creatine helps build muscle and the extinct creodont was quite the carnivore. Creosote helps impart meat its smoky flavor when grilled, which is about the only way I think I can find crude oil the slightest bit appetizing.

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language (for your ears)

“Headphones.” Doodle by me.

Language and linguistics used up some great bandwidth this past week. Check out these podcasts for some excellent listens for your weekend:

  • What do Huckleberry Hound, decals, and Yiddish have in common? Ben Zimmer makes the cockamamie connection on the latest episode of Slate’s Lexicon Valley:
  • Linguist Arika Okrent, whose work you may have read in Mental Floss, answers questions about questions on the newest Freakonomics podcast

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Last week’s deadly attacks in Paris gruesomely reminded us of the true power of cartoons. Charlie Hedbo‘s cartoonists were tragic targets of terrorism, yet their work will endure as irrepressible, if complicated, expressions of freedom. Raised in rallies and inked on media covers, the pencil has come to symbolize that freedom but when we look to the etymology of cartoon, we put that pencil to paper.

"Cartoon." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Cartoon.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Despite any associations with Saturday morning, the first cartoon in the English language was high art. In 1684, we have reference to a “large Cartoone,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a drawing on stout paper, made as a design for a painting of the same size.” Over the next centuries, these drawings became transferred to other ones: By 1843, London’s Punch magazine applied the word to its full-page, humorous illustrations on current events. A cartoon in the animated sense is first attested in 1916.

English draws cartoon from the French carton, from the Italian cartone, a kind of heavy paper, or cardboard. This cartone is a form of carta, “paper.” Specifically, cartone is an augmentative form (in contrast to diminutive), with -one here conveying greater size than that of an ordinary leaf of paper. This -one is from a Latin morpheme and is mirrored in French’s -on and Spanish’s –ón, whose descendants populate the English tongue in everything from balloon to spittoon. Such augmentation makes sense when we consider the sense of strong, heavy paper preserved in cartoon’s earlier applications.

Now, the Italian carta is from Latin’s charta, a “sheet of papyrus” or “thin sheet of metal.” This is directly copied from Greek’s khartes (χάρτης), “leaf of paper” and “made from the separated layers of the papyrus,” Liddell and Scott tell us. Some etymologists suspect the Greek is from Egyptian, incredibly. Eric Partridge points us in particular to tche-t, “papyrus,” and tchamaa, “roll of papyrus” or “document.” (Paper is from papyrus, itself believed to be Egyptian in origin). Others see a connection to a Proto-Indo-European *g(e)r-, “to scratch,” which is what one would have done to mark on papyrus.

Cartoon keeps good etymological company. The Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter,” is the 1215 foundation for the constitutional protection of liberties. A legacy of the French Revolution, France’s Charter of 1814 functioned as a sort of Bill of Rights. Both carta and charter are from Latin’s charta–as are cartography, cardà la carte, and cartels, adding globes, games, greetings, get-well’s, gastronomy, and gangs to our governmental derivatives. Carton, cartridge, and chart are also cognates.

The origin of cartoon is nothing to laugh at. Nor is it anything like cardboard in spite of being like the word cardboard. Its possible roots in Ancient Egypt is astonishing, too, if we take a long and wide historical perspective. In its own small, etymological way, cartoon embodies pluralism. Pluralism, which Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoonists championed–and died for.

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Atkins, Paleo, Flexitarian? If you want to find a diet that works, try etymology.

"Diet." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Diet.” Doodle by @andrescaloDiet Rite is considered the first diet soft-drink, appearing in 1958 and hitting the shelves in 1962, along with competitors Patio Diet Cola (Pepsi) and Tab (Coke). Diet Coke does not emerge as such until 1982.


The word diet* is no trend. The Oxford English Dictionary attests the word as early as 1230 in a monastic manual. Even then, the term referred to food, particularly those victuals “in daily use” and “in relation to their quality and effects” (OED). But in 1460, the word did enlarge its meaning to include “course of life,” yielding expressions such as of the same diet, of a different diet, and both of a diet, the OED tells us. And this “course of life” points us right to its etymology.

English, as we know, maintains a hearty Mediterranean diet while also eating generously of French cuisine. Diet comes from the Old French diète, “food” and “fare,” in turn from the Latin diæta, a “daily allowance,” “ration of food,” or “mode of life.” The latter sense shows that Latin put Greek feta on everything: diæta is directly from the Greek δίαιτα (diaita), which Liddell and Scott gloss as a “way of living” or (here it is again) “mode of life.” The noun could also signify “dwelling,” “abode,” and “room,” as well as “arbitration.”

Liddell and Scott connect δίαιτα to verbs meaning “to lead a certain course of life.” Others narrow it down to core verbs like “maintain” or “separate.” At core may be ζάω (zao, ultimately connected to zoo, I believe), which means “to live.” Eric Partridge and Ernest Klein, though, break δίαιτα apart into δία– (“through,” “apart”) and αἰσα“dispensation of a god,” hence “one’s appointed lot” or “destiny.” Now, that’s a heavy diet. The first element of etiology is believed to be related, via the Greek αἰτία (“charge,” “guilt”).

For some Proto-Indo-Europeanists, the ultimate root is *ai, “to give” or “allot” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). So, if you are dieting, don’t just pass over those holiday chocolates still lingering around the office. Also pass over all the clickbait advertising top diet tricks and trends. For, the etymology of diet may well give you the best advice: It’s all what you allot yourself, what course you follow, what lifestyle you live. Now, if I could only do something about that media diet of mine…

Diet, as in an “assembly” like the Diet of Worms, could be from the same root as our focal word here but influenced by the Latin dies, “day.”

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“big goddamn” cross-post edition

"Big goddamn car." Doodle by me.
“Big goddamn car.” Doodle by me.

Be sure to keep up with Strong Language, the sweary blog about swearing. There have some incredible new posts lately on all things profane, vulgar–and linguistic. In “So many mother _uckers,” Nancy Friedman looked into sweary soundalikes in name branding while Steve Chrisomalis investigated the rise of the phrase four-letter wordto name a few.

In need of a tonic after Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall StreetI recently wrote on Robert Creeley’s artful swearing in his iconic poem, “I Know a Man.” This post, I’m excited and humbled to announce, is the inaugural cross-post of Strong Language at Slate’s excellent language blog, Lexicon Valley. Read it here at Slate.

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treadmill: a cruel & unusual history

It’s no wonder our perennial New Year’s resolutions to lose weight fail. Working out it can be so punishing–and if you are on a treadmill, that’s historically all too true.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

In 1822, the London-baed Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and for the Reformation of Juvenile Offenders published the Description of the Tread Mill invented by Mr. William Cubitt of Ipswich, for the Employment of Prisoners and Recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, &c. This short text, which you can read here, is considered by the Oxford English Dictionary to be the earliest attestation for the word treadmill. In the text, the Society discusses the “Tread-wheels of the Discipline Mill” (3).

The prison treadmill. Image from Early American Crime via Readex.com

Like a waterwheel, this human treadmill was made of boards on which over 20 prisoners would tread for up to 8 hours a day. Their efforts would ground corn for flour, though in reality often nothing. Around 1818, famed engineer and millwright Mr. William Cubitt (later, Sir) did not initially invent this human treadmill expressly for punishment, though he apparently later applied it so. The Society liked its “simplicity,” as it required no instruction, little management, and easy oversight, as well as allowed for what it considered the equitable exaction of prison labor according to criminals’ offenses (5).

The Description records that a prisoner would step 2,193 ft/hr with a 12-minute break over the same time period (5). That’s hard labor indeed, which explains why in 1824, a Reverend Sydney Smith was decrying the treadmill’s cruelty: “The labour of the tread-mill is irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting to the last degree” (The Edinburgh Review 304). A treadmill as a metaphor for laborious monotony was already afoot later that same decade.

In spite of these initial protestations against its cruelty, Oscar Wilde did not escape its rotational ruthlessness when jailed in 1895. As he writes in his 1896 Ballad of Reading Gaol By C.3.3., a work condemning prison practices and capital punishment, in particular:

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.*

This form of punishment eventually lost its punitive and practical efficacy. A combination of factors seemed to have spelled its demise in the UK: weak output of ground corn compared to horses or water; the fact that treadmills could employ non-incarcerated men in need of work; and, as with the cause of Sydney and Wilde, its cruelty as a punishment. Some US prisons did adopt the treadmill, but it was never widely adopted, especially in the face of other forms of prison punishment such as cotton-picking or chain gangs.

But the treadmill endured, though in radically different form and though exercisers might disagree with respect to function. Filled in 1911 and approved in 1913, Claude Lauraine Hagen patented a Training Machine featuring a “treadmill belt.”

Hagen’s Training Machine. Image from Google Patents.

In 1949, Dr. Robert A. Bruce lead-authored “Normal Respiratory and Circulatory Pathways of Adaptation in Exercise” in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, where he describes “walking on a motor-driven treadmill,” which technology enabled doctors to regulate patients’ activity for their clinical purposes (1423).

Bruce’s treadmill. Image from J Clin Invest. Nov 1949; 28(6 Pt 2): 1424.

After reading Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s 1968 pioneering book Aerobics, which championed the 8-minute mile for general health, William Staub then pioneered the treadmill for home use, the PaceMaster 600, giving us all the gift of extra closet space for decades to come. Treadmills later joined the home office with the treadmill desk by the 2000s.

A New Model of Treadmill

Now, treadmills are thriving not only because of January gym memberships but also because of their broader metaphorical power. In the 1952 presidential campaign, General and Republican party candidate Eisenhower likened Illinois Governor and Democatric Stevenson’s economic policies to “prosperity” on “a treadmill,” later referred to as “treadmill prosperity.” (The real headline, though, was Eisenhower’s characterization of his opponent as “completely untutored.”)

Today, we speak of hedonic treadmills (the psychological theory dates back to the 1970s; the actual term is evidence in the 1980s and 1990s). We talk of pesticide treadmillsmediocrity treadmillsand even euphemism treadmills. Treadmill is an effective metaphor and useful one, distinguishing itself as a term and conceptual model from feedback loops. (The positive feedback loop in particular can be confounding and is often confounded.)

As a word, treadmill simply joins tread and mill. These will get their own etymological treatment soon. In the meantime, I suggest you avoid the treadmills at CardioTech in North Ipswich in Queensland, Australia. It sounds suspicious on so many levels.

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* Wilde, Oscar. “The Balland of Reading Gaol By C.3.3.” The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry & Poetics. Ed. Valentine Cunningham. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 953. Print.