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.


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.

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

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.

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

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.

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


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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“Redeeming” etymological features

Towering over the city, arms outstretched, is Christ the Redeemer. Built in the 1920s, this 100-foot statute of Jesus Christ is an icon of Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics Games it’s hosting. But if we were speaking the English of the Middle Ages, we’d be calling this monument by another, less pious-sounding name: Christ the Ransomer.

Christ the Redeemer is not trying to accept your money. “Christ on Corcovado Mountain.” Image by Artyominc via Wikimedia Commons.

From money…

Latin had a verb, redimere, literally “to buy back.” The verb had a lot of purchasing power, so to speak, but one of its most basic meanings was “to buy the release of a slave from captivity.” As a verb, redimere joins red-, a combining form of re-, “back,” and emere, “to buy,” and takes a noun form of redemptio. This emere also yields many other English words, from assume, example, and exempt to premium, sample, and even vintage.

Now, redemptio underwent some changes in French, some obvious and some not-so-obvious. Through some serious smushing, redemptio became ransom. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites ransom as early as 1225, referring to “a sum of money paid for pardon from an offense.” By 1325, we see the modern sense of ransom (i.e., with respect to hostages). It’s right around this time when we also see redemption, then meaning, like its original Latin, “freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment.” Redemption, as you can tell, experienced a much less dramatic evolution in French, coming into English from the Anglo-Norman redempcioun.

By the late 1300s and early 1400s, we see ransom and ransomer emerge as Christian theological terms: “deliverance from sin and damnation by Jesus Christ.” Redeem and redemptor appear by 1438. Redeemer, which form now prevails, is attested by 1475. French may have anticipated the eventual distinction between ransom and redemption, as redempcioun was first used for Jesus Christ’s spiritual redemption.

…to metaphor

But why the monetary metaphor? In Christian belief, Jesus Christ sacrificed his life to save humanity from sin. We can understand this as a kind of transaction: He pays for humanity’s sins with his life, he releases mankind from the captivity of evil and damnation with the payment or concession of his life. They say money is the root of all evil. For Christians, money metaphors are apparently the root of all salvation, too.

Over the centuries, we stretched redeem out to its other familiar senses. By the late 1400s, redeem was signifying “to restore,” specifically “to a former, better state” by the late 1500s. The 17th century witnesses redeem “making amends.” It’s not until 1897, according to the OED, that redeem starts cashing in, say, coupons. The usage is American in origin.

Now, many economists question whether hosting the Olympic Games actually pays off. (Some might even say it’s a ransom payment for global attention.) But this summer, after political scandal, recession, and Zika, Brazil may not be looking for any monetary redemption per se. Instead, it may be looking up to its iconic Redeemer, and back to the history of the word, for a more metaphorical redemption – in the eyes of its people and in of the world. So far, it’s looking pretty auspicious for Rio 2016.

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“Medal”: worth more than its weight in etymology

We’ve witnessed some history-making medals at Rio 2016. Fiji won their first ever medal – the gold – in rugby. Simone Manuel became the first black woman to take gold in an individual swimming event. And Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has added to the distinction, now with 22 career golds.

But what is the history of this word for these top Olympic prizes, medal?

Split in half, win Olympic gold? A Roman denarius from the first century A.D. Image from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.


English has been winning medals since the late 1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites medal in 1578, used as a personal trinket. Soon after, we see medals cast in commemoration of important persons, for instance, and in honor of distinguished soldiers. The OED attests the meritorious medal in 1751: “Gold medals” awarded, as it will surely please word nerds, for studying Greek.

Medal comes to English from the French medaille, stamped from the Italian medaglia and the Latin medalia before it. The original meaning? “Half a denarius,” a common silver coin in ancient Rome. Etymologists trace medalia back to mediala, “little halves.” The root here is medium, the Latin for “middle,” which is from a common Indo-European base, *medhyo-, signifying the same. For the connecting sense, think of half as “split down the middle.”

The scrap value of an Olympic gold medal is $501. (The historic value of many medals, of course, can top $1 million.) But how much was medal’s etymological namesake, the denarius, worth? For the Romans, a denarius was a day’s wage for a skilled laborer. The exact amount is difficult to estimate, but guesses center on about $24’s worth of bread, making a medalia $12, of course. Today, this is roughly $88 for the average American.

In spite of their etymological – or actual – value, Olympic medals are anything but middling.

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Threading the origins of “floss”

The results of a recent Associated Press (AP) investigation met with a lot of teeth. Dental professionals snarled. The rest of us smiled. For the AP found little evidence to back up the long-touted benefits of flossing.

Let’s run some floss through the etymology of floss and see what we can dislodge from its pearly whites.

Can I get that in the mint flavor? “Silkworm cocoons,” by Wayne Dodge, courtesy of


The Oxford English Dictionary first cites floss-silk in a 1759 report by Samuel Pullein to the Royal Society of London, “A new improved Silk-Reel.” In it, Pullein describes “floss-silk,” or filaments of silk. The following year, Pullein uses floss as such in reference to the cocoon of the silkworm. (Mr. Pullein was quite taken by silk; he even translated a 15th-century field manual on the silkworm written in Latin verse.)

Now, Pullein’s “floss-silk” would appear to translate the French soie floche, again “floss-silk.” Earlier forms of floche point to “tuft of wool,” suggest a root in Latin’s floccus, meaning “tuft of wool” or “lock of hair.” An English word flock, unrelated to groups of birds or sheep, is also so derived. 

Walter Skeat, however, argues floss came directly from the Italian floscia seta, “sleave silk,” ultimately from the Latin flux, “flowing.” He considers soie floche the French borrowing of the same Italian phrase.

Floss may also have come from a native English dialect or Scandinavian word for floss spun from the same root as fleece. Fleece, the “wool coat of a sheep,” also denoted “fur” and “sealskin” in its earlier Old English forms. Its origin is Germanic, possibly cousin to Indo-European roots for “pluck” and “feather” and seen in words like plume.

Over a century after Pullein, floss names “fine, silk filaments” in general – and was applied to that most inelegant of threads, dental floss, often called dental silk early on. As a term, dental floss was threading English teeth in the final quarter of the 19th century, maybe as early 1872. Floss was common shorthand for this toothy cord by the 1930s.

James Joyce again elevated silky fibers to literary heights in his 1922 Ulysses, when Professor MacHugh attends to some oral hygiene in “Aeolus”:

He took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth.

–– Bingbang, bingbang.

As far as the AP is concerned, we should tell the professor to skip the flossing and get right to those resonant, unwashed teeth.

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The Japanese Emperor suggests he wants to “abdicate.” Where does this uncommon word come from?

While he didn’t directly use the word (or its Japanese equivalent), Japanese Emperor Akihito made his intent clear: In a rare public address, the Emperor suggested he wishes to abdicate, citing concerns about how his advanced age and declining health will hinder his performance. Just as rare, at least in the broader public conversation, is this word abdicate. Let’s have a quick look at its origins.


To abdicate is “to renounce or relinquish one’s office.” We often hear the word in a monarch abdicating the throne. With some  variation, the English language has been abdicating since the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s accounts. The modern abdicate, as news reports are so characterizing Akihito’s aims, is evidenced by the early 1600s. Its earliest meaning, though, refers to disowning a child, as the Oxford English Dictionary so attests it in 1532.

Abdicate derives directly from the Latin abdicāre, which could variously mean “to resign, renounce, reject, depose,” and “disinherit,” among other senses. The ancient Romans used abdicate in a manner similar to English’s current office-abdicating. The word joins the prefix ab-, “away from”, and dicāre, “to proclaim,” more basically “to say.” So, to abdicate has a literal sense of “stating away,” the notion being of a renunciation. 

Latin’s dicāre is seen throughout English in many other such derivations as dictionary and edict. Its Indo-European base, *deik-, means “to point out,” which also yields the English word teach. While abdication is unusual in act and word, Akihito’s honest, though humbling, self-assessment may just have a thing or two to teach us about leadership.

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The contested origin of “game”

Let the games begin! No, the quadrennial contest we call the US presidential election has long been underway. That other event occurring every four years, the summer Olympic Games, officially kicks off tonight in Rio de Janeiro.

As the games begin, where does “game” begin?


English has long been playing games. The word is found in several Old English texts, where it takes the form gamen and variously refers to “amusement,” “pleasure,” “enjoyment,” “sport,” and yes, even “lovemaking.” 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Sir Philip Sidney mentioned Olympian games in the 1580s. But over a decade later, a translation of the French Ieux Olympiques yielded “th’ Olympick games,” which has since prevailed. Earlier, Latin had Olympicum certāmen, and Greek, the language of those original contests in 776 BC, had Ὀλυμπικός ἀγών (Olympikos agon). Latin’s certāmen and Greek’s ἀγών both carry a sense of “struggle” or “contest.”

Over time, the Old English gamen shed its final -en, as it was likely confused as a suffix. Game is clearly Germanic in origin, with cognates in Old High German, Old Icelandic, Old Danish, and other old tongues. All these games share a sense of “something that causes delight and joy.” 

But the deeper roots of game are, appropriately enough, contested. One theory is that game is related to the German gumpen, “to jump” or “hop,” whose ultimate source may denote some kind of vigorous, irregular movement (OED). The German gumpen might be the source of English’s own jump – another everyday word, first documented only in the 1500s, whose origin is also disputed.

Another theory looks to an extinct East Germanic language, Gothic, which had gaman. This gaman meant “partner” or “fellowship.” Some explain gaman as a compound: ga, a prefix indicating collective nouns, plus man, “man,” rendering gaman as “together people.”

While this etymology may not win a gold medal, it certainly captures the spirit of the Olympics. The games bring world-class athletes together and promote worldwide unity –people, together, a welcome event in this otherwise overly-eventful summer.

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What is the “buke” in “rebuke”?

In his latest controversy, Donald Trump has been criticizing Khazr and Gazala Khan, whose son died fighting in Iraq. Khazr rebuked Trump in a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, but Trump’s unseemly response has drawn, yet again, his own sharp rebukes from the likes of John McCain and President Obama.

In these rebukative times (and yes, that’s a word, though rare), it’s hard not to wonder: What does the –buke in rebuke mean, anyways? If some etymologists are right, its origin is quite literally very sharp.

Enough rebukes to build a log cabin? “Axed,” by Asheley Grifin, courtesy of


Rebuke has been stinging English since the early 14th century. Back then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to rebuke was “to reprimand” and “chide.” Over the centuries, the severity of this reprimanding  and chiding intensified, today denoting “condemn” and often paired with sharp.

Rebuke is French in origin. English borrowed it from the Anglo-French rebuker, derived from the Old French rebuchier. The original meaning of rebuker and rebuchier was “to beat back,” as one might an advancing fighter. Many etymological dictionaries maintain that the French rebuchier joins re-, “back,” with buchier, “to strike” or “chop wood.” And so rebuke jumped from a physical counterblow to a verbal one. 

In the woods

Now, according to this “wood” theory, the root of all this French “chopping” is busche or bûche:  “woods” or “wood,” especially “firewood.” English’s own bush is related. Bush itself is a thicket of Scandinavian (Old Norse buskr), Germanic (Old High German busc), and Romanic (Medieval Latin busca) influences and cognates. All these bush’s appear to be borrowed, ultimately, from West Germanic or Frankish.

The French busche (now bois) also appears in ambush. In Old French, the word was embuscher, “in the woods,” where one might lay an ambush.  But not all bush cognates are so violent. Via French-Canadian, Boise, Idaho is named for its “wooded” lands. Bouquet means “little wood.” And an oboe is an English rendition of the French hautbois, the sound of “high wood.” (For haut, think haughty.)

Not out of the woods yet

As noted, there are other theories for the origins of rebuke. Earnest Weekley and Walter Skeat connect rebuke not with the blow of an ax on wood but with a blowing of the cheeks. They cite the French bouche, “mouth.” Skeat goes on to explain rebuke as “to puff back,” hence “to reject,” making rebuke much the same as rebuff, from the Italian word ribuffo, “a blow back.” 

On rebuke, the OED concludes that the French buchier (“to beat”) is uncertain in origin. Trump, as many politicians are admonishing, could learn a thing or two from the OED: Staying quiet is definitely one way to avoid rebuke.

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