It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup

We had a lot of interesting words in the news this week (some more polite than others). Here’s a news review with—what else?—an etymological twist. 

Anthony Scaramucci spewed quite the obscenities this week…including the word sycophant? (Pixabay)


To the chagrin of many imbibers, Coca-Cola announced this week that it’s replacing Coke Zero with Coke Zero Sugar, featuring a new formula and brand.

Both mathematically and etymologically, zero has Indian roots. As a word, it’s first attested in 1604, passing into English, via French and Italian, from the Medieval Latin zephirum. The Latin zephirum, in turn, is from the Arabic sifr, “null” or “empty,” a transliteration of the Sanskrit sunya-s, “empty place, desert, naught, cipher.” The Arabic sifr also gives us the doublet cipher, evidenced by 1400.

While the ancient Babylonians, Mayans, and Chinese had developed a concept of zero as a placeholder, it was ancient Indians during the Gupta Empire (320–550 CE) who had the truly revolutionary insight that zero was also a number—that nothing was something.


Among many other choice—and extremely profane—words he unloaded this week, White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci sent people to the dictionaries when he said, speaking of President Trump: “I can’t afford to be a sycophant to you, sir. I have to talk to you straight, as a friend…”

A sycophant, or a servile flatterer, literally means “fig-shower.” In ancient Greek, a sykophantes was someone who made an obscene gesture called a “fig,” featuring the thumb placed between two fingers and thought to resemble a fig. The fig, or sykon in ancient Greek, was itself thought to look like the vulva when the fruit was cut open, and so became an offensive slang term.

In ancient Greek and English (mid-1500s), sycophant originally referred to “informer” or “slanderer.” Why informers were called “fig-showers” is unclear, but one theory is that ancient Greek politicians eschewed the fig gesture themselves but encouraged their followers to mock their opponents with it. The modern sense of sycophant is attested by 1575 in English.


The Senate failed to pass a “skinny repeal” (i.e., pared down) of Obamacare after a parliamentary circus last night. Mark Peters gives us the skinny on this skinny in the Boston Globe, with an assist from Ben Zimmer, who finds skinny used in congressional contexts in the 1980s.

As for the history of skinny itself, here’s what I had to say about it for Mental Floss last year:

The OED gives the first attestation of skinny—as we think of (or aspire to) this adjective today—to Shakespeare’s Banquo addressing the witches in Macbeth: “You seem to understand me,/By each at once her choppy finger laying/ Upon her skinny lips.” Earlier, skinny was more literal: “covered by skin,” as the dictionary glosses. The OED finds an older but rarer usage: “ioynge in skinnes” or “gloriouse skinny,” a way to comment on one’s attractiveness by their youthful integument.

But we all know beauty is only skin-deep. The OED cites this proverb in a poem by Sir Thomas Overbury written in the 1610s: “All the carnall Beautie of my wife, is but skinne-deepe.”

Think venti skinny pumpkin-spice lattes are trendy? A New York Times advertisement marketed skinny, or “low-calorie,” shakes, malteds, parfaits, and hot chocolates in 1969. Suppose your skinny jeans are hip? A heading in a 1915 edition of The Waterloo Times-Tribune read: “Skinny clothes in vogue this year.” The article continued: “The correctly dressed man for 1915 will display a ‘quick fit’. Fashion has decreed that the tight fitting clothes of the past year shall become more so.”


To many, John McCain proved his reputation for being a political “maverick” by breaking with Republicans to vote down the shambolic skinny healthcare repeal.

McCain’s nickname namesake is Samuel Maverick, a 19th-century Texas cattle owner who didn’t brand his calves. As the Oxford English Dictionary quotes the August 1869 Overland Monthly, a California-based magazine which boasted such contributors as Ambrose Bierce, Willa Cather, Jack London, and Mark Twain:

One Maverick formerly owned such immense herds that many of his animals unavoidably escaped his rouanne in the spring, were taken up by his neighbors, branded and called ‘mavericks’. The term eventually spread over the whole State, and is in use now, not only to denote a waif thus acquired, but any young animal. No great drove can sweep through this mighty unfenced State without drawing a wake of these ‘mavericks’.

Maverick first named an “unbranded cattle” before taking a cue from an “independent-minded individualist” like Samuel Maverick. His grandson, US Congressman Maury Maverick, as it happens, gives us the first known use of gobbledegook, which he used to characterize the “long” and “pompous” jargon of government of officials, as I explained for Oxford Dictionaries in 2015.


The Boy Scouts of America had their annual jamboree this week, the young men regaled by all crass egotism of President Trump.

The Boy Scouts have used it for their “large rallies” since 1919–20, but it’s found in American English for a “noisy party” since 1868—and a few years earlier in the game of euchre for a hand containing the highest cards.

The deeper origins of jamboree are obscure. The Barnhart Etymological Dictionary suggests a coinage based on jam (“mass of people”) and shivaree, a “mock serenade made by beating on pans,” an American English variant of charivari. Ernest Weekley points to boree, an obsolete term for a “rustic dance,” from the French bourrée. Other suggestions point to Hindu, Swahili, and Aboriginal roots.

m ∫ r ∫


3 thoughts on “It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup

  1. Athletics South Africa’s (ASA) team for the World Championships in Athletics next week has baffled many. Former SA 400m record holder and athletics commentator Arnaud Malherbe explains how the team selection was bungled and could have far-reaching consequences for the sport in SA…
    Image from IAAF Diamond League Twitter Page.
    On 4 August, the 2017 World Championships in Athletics will commence, showcasing the world’s best athletes. Well, most of them anyway.
    For some South African athletes, they will be watching the opening ceremony with despair, as they know that they too have qualified to be there, but instead they are sitting at home, watching the drama, instead of being in the thick of it.
    This is because, despite qualifying according to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) qualifying criteria, they did not reach the more stringent criteria set by Athletics South Africa (ASA). So, why did ASA set more stringent criteria in the first place? There can only be two reasons for this: financial and ‘quality’.
    Budgetary constraints make sense. After all, you cannot send an athlete halfway across the world if you cannot afford to do so. However, the IAAF team manual makes it clear that the IAAF is covering the cost of all selected athletes, so this is not a consideration. ASA can send the largest team possible and it would not impact their finances at all.
    Sending ‘quality’ teams is the reasoning ASA uses. They claim to not want to send any athlete that cannot at least reach a semi-final. I do not understand the reason for this. What difference does it make to anyone if an athlete does not make it through the first round? There is no downside to this and instead, you may reap significant benefit. In Moscow in 2013, neither Wayde van Niekerk nor Akani Simbine managed to advance through round 1, but would they have reached their current heights had they not had that initial experience?
    Also consider the effect that not selecting athletes has on team morale. Already some athletes who have been selected have come out in defence of their team mates who they feel have been ill-treated. Can Van Niekerk properly focus on achieving the 200m/400m double if he is distracted by knowing some of his friends have been left behind for no logical reason? The athletes have become a very close-knit group recently, which is great to see. Actions that affect one, affect all.
    “By not selecting athletes like her, our young generation are deprived from seeing their heroes compete and it may mean that some youngsters will not turn to athletics at all.”
    One of my deep seated beliefs is that we need to make our athletes household names and heroes to inspire the next generation. Dominique Scott-Efurd has qualified on the IAAF standard in both the 5000m and the 10000m, but she has not been included in the team. Firstly, the 10000m is a straight final, so ASA’s assertion that they do not want to select athletes that won’t make a semi-final doesn’t hold water. Just by selecting her, she is already in the final. Secondly, imagine a young girl at home watching Scott-Efurd compete and being inspired to emulate her. While Scott-Efurd may not win a medal, by simply competing she could inspire a potential future world champion to take up the sport. By not selecting athletes like her, our young generation are deprived from seeing their heroes compete and it may mean that some youngsters will not turn to athletics at all.
    The mere fact of ASA setting different standards is confusing.
    To add injury to insult, ASA did not apply their standards consistently. Every athlete who has achieved the IAAF standard should be in the team, so what follows is not meant to be a slight on any athlete. They all deserve to be there.
    Mapaseka Makhanya and Jenna Challenor were included in the team for the marathon, despite not reaching the ASA standard and are ranked 100th and 101st in the world. Consider this in the context of other countries, such as Kenya, who are limited to sending only three athletes per event. If it were not for that limit, their rankings would be much lower.
    Henricho Bruintjies, in the 100m men, was not selected, despite achieving the IAAF standard, (like Makhanya and Challenor), and being ranked 18th in the world. It is worth noting that ASA rank Bruintjies as 33rd, clearly not taking the three athlete limit per country into account. This ranking is used to justify why he should be excluded as he would not likely reach the top 16 required for a semi-final.
    There are two problems with this. Firstly, Bruintjies is ranked 18th when one accounts for entry limits. The website provides some very useful information on this. Secondly, to reach a semi-final, you must be in the top 24, not 16, as the IAAF have been utilising three semi-finals for well over a decade. Given this, as well as Challenor and Makhanya’s selections, how could you possibly leave Bruintjies out?
    Other than Scott-Efurd (ranked 33rd) and Bruintjies, 12 athletes are affected by this and unfortunately, space limitations prevent a detailed account of each individual case.
    Suffice it to say that there are selection inconsistencies in each case. The greatest confusion stems from the fact that ASA’s reasoning, as evidenced above, muddies the situation even more, rather than providing much needed clarity.
    This leaves 14 athletes sitting at home wondering why they were not selected and what they could’ve achieved if given the opportunity.


  2. After reading this one, I’m reminded why I stopped wanting to be American. A few weeks later I went to London, where my British friend lives, to see how difficult it’s going to be to fit into British daily life.
    After hearing words like ice lolly, flannel, courgette, braces, vest (which isn’t the same in England as it is in America), sleeping policeman, flyover and roundabout I found out the transition isn’t going to be easy at all, but I’m so sick of Trump’s garbage and everything every day being focused on Trump that I’m willing to go through how hard it’s going to be to move to London and fit into British daily life. I don’t think Trump will come to London. He’s infuriated the London Mayor three times now making stupid comments about the terrorist attacks in London. He keeps trying to blame it on the mayor of London being their first Muslim mayor and bringing it up as proof that Trump’s silly Muslim ban is working so well.
    I’m totally embarrassed to be American these days.
    I told my friend that and he said he was sorry to hear it. He sounds genuinely concerned about it. I’m not used to people sounding that way about me but it helped to hear it.
    I’m not the only one. On another web site I saw two Americans say it’s embarrassing to be American these days.


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