Etymology of the Day: Litmus

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?

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Litmus is about lichen, not Latin. (Pixabay)

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10 words with surprising Irish roots

From bother and trousers to slogan and slew, the English language has Irish etymology galore

We’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, as we like to say, but so too are many of our words – and not just the more obvious ones like leprechaun or shamrock. There are many other everyday words whose Irish origins may just surprise you. You might even say there’s a whole slew of them:

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The gob- in gobstopper comes from an Irish word for “mouth.” (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Heyday

Back in my heyday, we’ve heard our fathers so often begin some boast of long-lost glory. The heyday of the train, the heyday of radio, the heyday of the flip-phone – each of these remembers some technological golden age of yore. Perhaps you’ve wondered: What is the hey– in heyday? As it turns out, we’re questioning the wrong part of the word.

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Ah, the things we could do in our heyday. (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Skosh

“Some more coffee?”
“Just a skosh more, please.”

“These brownies are so delicious!”
“I add a skosh of cayenne pepper to the batter.”

Skosh is a fun and informal term for a small amount or a little, but its origins are mighty surprising.

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Just a skosh. Image from pixabay.com
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Who knew the word “insurance” was so complicated?

Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.” 

Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.

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Health insurance is about as far from carefree as it gets – unless we look to its etymology. Image from pixabay.com.

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Etymology of the Day: Eavesdrop

You’re on a train or at a cafe. A juicy bit of conversation catches your ear. You pretend to mind your book or your phone. Secretly,  though, you go on eavesdropping. Does our auditory snooping actually have anything to do with the eaves of our houses? In fact, it has everything to do with them, etymologically speaking.

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I’m just…listening to the rain. Image from pixabay.com.

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A country, a hat, a palindrome – “Panama”!

What do rum and capybaras have in common? Why, the origin of Panama.

A huge thanks to the many people who filled out the Mashed Radish reader survey. I received some incredibly instructive feedback. And as you may have noticed, I’ve already been acting on some of it with my short “Etymologies of the Day” I’m posting during the workweek in addition to my feature posts. Let me know what you think of these at my email, on Twitter, or in the comments section below.

I’ve also randomly selected a survey respondent, who got to choose the etymology for today’s post. Her name’s Maïra – who runs a lovely blog featuring art, Arabic song and poetry, and other cultural reflections. She was curious about the origin of Panama.

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A panama hat, which actually comes from Ecuador. Image from pixabay.com.

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From telegraphs to Twitter: a short history of “wiretapping”

One of the earliest recorded instances of wiretapping involves an anecdote about how Confederate general John Hunt Morgan bet a Union soldier two cigars if he could spell the word Lebanon.

In a series of shocking tweets this weekend, President Trump, providing absolutely zero evidence, said President Obama wiretapped his phones during the 2016 campaign. The word wiretapping evokes Watergate and Cold War espionage, but its roots goes back a century earlier. For before we tapped telephones, we tapped telegraphs.

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Etymology of the Day: Pal

We can use it when we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a friendly way. Hey, pal, though you’d want to know you left your lights on. We can also use when it we’re trying to get a stranger’s attention in a not so friendly way. Excuse me, pal, but I was in line before you. Whether chummy or charged, what’s the origin of pal?

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Gumby and his pal, Pokey. Image from pixabay.com.

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Etymology of the Day: Dibs

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Sheep knucklebones. Image courtesy of Museums Victoria.

I call dibs on the last slice of pizza! I get dibs on top bunk! When Steve moves on to his new job, I call first dibs on his cubicle! When someone calls or gets dibs on something, they are claiming a right to it before anyone else. But where does this playful expression come from?

Dibs may have originated from a children’s game called dibs, played much like jacks but using sheep knucklebones or pebbles, themselves known dibstones, shortened to dibs. (The pronged shape of modern jacks may even imitate the knobs of the bones.) The Oxford English Dictionary attest this dibs in the early 19th-century, though the game itself is ancient.

As for the dib in dibstones? It may come from a verb dib, “to tap lightly,” related to dab. The “first claim” sense of dibs emerges by the 1920-30s. The term may have been pushed along by another use of dibs, 19th-century slang for “money,” a corruption of division or divide.

m ∫ r ∫