— John Kelly (@mashedradish) July 20, 2017
A quick note
Earlier this year, I was posting short “etymologies of the day” on the blog, a practice that I’ve continued on Twitter. I figured there was no reason to deprive those who primarily follow me on here of these daily nuggets of word history. Click the hashtag, #EtymologyOfTheDay, to catch up on some older content, which I suspect I’ll post on the blog from time to time. Enjoy, and I hope I didn’t ruin your appetite.
m ∫ r ∫
“I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point,” Walter Shaub told the New York Times after he resigned as the head of the Office of Government Ethics earlier this month. Shaub felt the Trump administration’s conflicts of interest, inter alia, are severely undermining his office’s credibility and efficacy, and compelled him to seek toothier watchdog work elsewhere.
It’s powerful choice of words, but what, exactly, is the stock in laughingstock?
Today, the 14th of July, marks Bastille Day in France. The holiday commemorates the same date in 1789 when citizens stormed the Bastille—a state prison, armory, and symbol of royal authority in Paris—sparking the French Revolution. But what is a bastille, and where does this word come from?
Donald Trump Jr. stepped in some, er, dirt this week when the New York Times revealed he knowingly met with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of the Kremlin’s effort to help Trump.
Where does the word dirt come from, and when did it start referring to “compromising information”? As it turns out, we really don’t want to get our hands dirty with etymological dirt.
You don’t really have a choice over whether or not you like sports if you speak English. All bets are off, bad break, curveball, down to the wire, get the ball rolling, grandstanding, level playing field, take the bait, track record—expressions taken from sports are everywhere and everyday in English, so much so that we forget many of these clichés, idioms, and tropes even come from sports in the first place.
Take at the drop of a hat, or “without delay or good reason.” According to Colin McNairn in his new book, Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language (FriesenPress, 2017):
The hat in the expression is likely of the kind that was frequently used, back in the 19th century, to signal the start of a race, a fight or other competition. The person charged with getting the contest started would, typically, doff his hat, hold it at arms-length, and then suddenly lower the straightened arm, hat in hand, in a downward sweeping motion, which would signal the official start.
Or did you realize that down to the wire, or “until the last possible moment,” comes from horse-racing? McNairn explains that the wire here refers to ones “strung above the finish line of North American racecourses so that, in a close race, it was easier for the track judge to determine which horse finished first.”
In Sports Talk, McNairn covers, blow-by-blow, a whopping 650 expressions derived from over 35 sports sports ranging from football to frisbee, with some history, trivia, anecdotes, and quotes on the sidelines. The author—whose first book, In A Manner of Speaking, I also reviewed—kindly sent me a copy.
The same Greek root of ballistic gives us such words as ballet, devil, parliament, and symbol.
On July 4th, North Korea successfully tested its first ICBM, or intercontinental ballistic missile. As intercontinental leaders figure how what to do next, let’s go ballistic—etymologically, that is.
To count to ten when angry, doll-baby, Irish-American, leaf lettuce, Megalonyx, N.Y., Riesling, sanction? The man who gave us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has also left us an incredible record of words in the English language.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this one passage, this single sentence, of the Declaration of Independence—whose adoption on July 4, 1776 Americans commemorate today—Thomas Jefferson gives a new nation, a new democracy, its immortal, founding words.
But Jefferson’s words have left many other marks. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attributes to Jefferson over 100 quotations that provide the first evidence of a word in English and nearly 400 quotations that provide the earliest record of a particular meaning. His breadth is truly impressive, ranging from architecture (rooflet, 1825; remodeling, 1785) and botany (leaf lettuce, 1795; rubber tree, 1826) to wines (Médoc, 1793; Riesling, 1788) and extinct giant sloths (Megalonyx, 1796; megatherium, 1797).