Around April Fool’s Day in 1708, Jonathan Swift, ever mischievous, set out to humiliate one, John Partridge, a noted English astrologer and almanac-maker.
Under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., Swift published “Predictions for the Year 1708,” which foretold Partridge would die of a “raging fever” on March 29 that year. To deepen the prank, Swift then fabricated a letter from a purported acquaintance confirming Partridge had died as predicted.
Swift’s prank was wildly successful. People in the community even began undertaking funeral preparations when they heard the alleged news. But Swift’s hoax is fascinating for another reason—at least for word lovers.
Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered—as so many media outlets reported it—Article 50, which begins a two-year process of negotiations culminating in the UK’s exit, or Brexit, from the European Union. Let’s pull the etymological trigger on this truly historic word.
The survey collected a random sample. The clerk organized the random boxes in the storeroom. She got a weird text message from this random stranger. Can I ask you a random question? He’s so random, like, sometimes he’ll chew gum while drinking coffee. Random kinda seems like a random word, doesn’t it? Where does it come from?
First attested in the early 1300s, random originallyreferred to “great speed” or “force,” used especially in the phrases to run at random or with great random. Random’s velocity and violence conveyed a sense of impetuousness and rashness. And so by the 1540s, the expression at random rushed towards “without aim or purpose,”a short step from the modern adjective, which settled in by the 1650s.
Random didn’t come into English at random. It derives from the Old French randon, a similar noun denoting “speed, haste, violence, impetuousness,” probably formed from the verb randir, “to run fast, gallop.” The deeper origins of randir aren’t certain, but scholars conjecture the Frankish *rant, “a running.” (Frankish was a West Germanic language spoken by the Franks, a Germanic tribe in late antiquity whose name lives on in France and the adjective frank.) This *rant, and thus random,may be related to the same Germanic root that gives us run.
The statistical random emerges by the 1880s, but the word wasn’t done running. Computing, campus, and teen slang in the 1960–80s helped fashion a random,a “stranger” or “outsider,” sometimes shortened to rando, as well as the informal, often pejorative use of random for “odd, peculiar, unexpected, unfamiliar,” e.g., Don’t go home with that random guy. Definitely run–at the etymological random–from him.
In Ancient Rome, theatergoers would drive actors they didn’t like off stage by clapping very loudly. The custom ultimately gives us the word explode.
Last Friday, after seven years decrying Obamacare, House Republicans pulled their bill to replace it. It was an explosive event, and, from President Trump, it met with an ‘explosive’ response: “I’ve been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do politically speaking is let Obamacare explode. It is exploding now.”
Trump went on to use forms of explode five more times in his official remarks, and took the word to Twitter the following morning.
With its vivid imagery of a loud and fiery combustion, explode is, policy aside, an effective word choice. We might even call explode “dramatic”—which would be quite fitting for the etymology of the word.
After a long winter, the short days and dark nights, our cold houses and heavy coats, begin to feel like a prison. They make us go stir-crazy, as we say. But why stir? Is it because the confinement make us stir with restlessness? Confinement, it turns out, is behind the stir in stir-crazy, just much more literally than you may have guessed.
Confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominees—like Neil Gorsuch’s this week in the Senate—give obscure judicial terms a rare moment in the public spotlight. Consider super precedent, who fights baddies with the power of past decisions. Or stare decisis, which sounds like a long-lost sister to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” And then there’s Chevron deference. Clearly, that means refueling your tank at a Chevron gas station over any of itscompetitors, right?
Litmus, as in litmus test, is just one of those words that looks like it’s from Latin. For one, it ends in -us, a signature case ending in the language. For another, many of us first encounter the word in chemistry class, and science, we know, brims with Latin derivatives. So, why don’t we put the word litmus to the etymological litmus test?
The earliest record of sleazy likens the human brain to beer left out in the sun.
On Capitol Hill yesterday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that his agency is probing Russian interference in the 2016 US election. During his hearing, Denny Heck, a Democratic representative for Washington, commented on the state of the investigation: “We’re not indicting anyone, merely laying out some of the evidence and the facts, dirty though they be, sleazy though they be.”
Heck isn’t alone in using sleazy for political effect, though: It’s been a favorite modifier of politicians and political journalists since at least the 1980s. But where does this word sleazy come from?
My cable bills are a bit high, but switching providers? That’s too much of a hassle. Quit hassling me to get on Snapchat!I’m barely keeping up with Instagram. Hassle,as it turns out, is a perfectly modern word for all the “fuss” of our modern lives.