How a “bubble” becomes a “bill”

A legislative bill ultimately comes from the Latin bulla, “bubble,” later likened to round “seals” authenticating important documents.  

After drafting it in secrecy, Republican senators released their healthcare bill to repeal Obamacare on Thursday, already being criticized for its steep cuts to Medicaidand tax cuts for the wealthy. As we debate the bill, let’s take a closer look at the origin of this most legislative of words.

Seal attached to the Royal Letters Patent of Henry VI, 1442 (King’s College, Cambridge). Wax impressions of seals were attached by cords or parchment to authenticate documents, sometimes literally sealing them like modern envelope glue, King’s College explains.

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Keeping the US Government open, etymology edition

After some last-minute budget negotiations on Thursday, it looks like the US Congress will avert a shutdown and fund the government—at least until they come up to the next brink. Let’s negotiate the origins of these words in a Friday etymological news roundup: 

That’ll stop Congress. (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Galoshes

If it’s raining outside, you might want to put on your “log-feet”—er, galoshes. Good thing we don’t look to etymology for fashion tips.

The patten, ancestor of the galosh? At least you wouldn’t get dog poo on your shoes. (My Learning)


English put on the word galosh—which we usually use as galoshes, because footwear comes in pairs—in the late 14th century. Back then, galoshes named a variety of boots and shoes, though especially a kind of wooden shoe strapped onto the foot with leather thongs or the like. By the mid-1800s, the word was slipping into its modern sense, a waterproof overshoe, usually made of rubber. Today in the US, galoshes tend to refer rubber to rain boots. 

How’d we go from wood to rubber? Let’s just we’ve come a long way in our shoe technology. Over the centuries, galoshes could refer to pattens. These were a kind of outdoor footwear, worn over one’s regular shoes, with a wooden platform (clog) or metal ring that elevated the stepper over mud—and dung. Also worn over shoes and protecting the shoe from the elements, galoshes provide a similar, though less ridiculous looking, function. 

The English galosh is from the French galoche, whose origin has two main theories. The first traces galosh to the Late Latin galliculua, short for gallicula solea, “Gallic shoe,” a type of footwear associated with the Gauls and perceived as rustic.

The other theory roots galosh in the Vulgar Latin *galopia, borrowed from the Greek kalopous (κᾱλόπους), literally “log-foot.” The word joins kalon (κᾶλον, a word used of logs or firewood) and pous (πούς, meaning and related to our word “foot”).

Etymologyever the trendsetter.

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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:

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

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Cleveland Cavaliers: a bunch of “hacks”?

On the court, the Cleveland Cavaliers are champions, bringing the first major sports title to the Ohio city in 52 years with their 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors in an exciting Game 7 of the NBA finals. But in the etymology books, the Cleveland Cavaliers are, well, “hacks.”


English first borrowed cavalier from the Spanish cavaliero, among other forms, which named a “horseman,” especially a “knight.” The word is first attested around 1470. Over the next few centuries, English rendered the word according to its French form, cavalier. The French and Spanish are a short trot away from the earlier Italian, cavaliere, from the Late Latin caballarius, a “horseman” or “rider.”

The Latin root is caballus, essentially a street word for “horse” that eventually supplanted the classical equus. This explains the words for “horse” in Latin’s daughter languages, e.g., the Spanish caballo. Early records describe a caballus as a “work horse” or “pack horse,” hence “nag,” “jade,” or “hack.” Growing out of figurative senses of “worn out,” jaded and hackneyed also derive from the latter two terms. Cavalry, cavalcade, chivalry, and chevalier are also in caballuss stable, so to speak.

Scholars agree that Latin’s caballus is a loan word. Pointing to an Old Slavic cognate, kobyla, some think it comes from a Balkan source for a “gelding.” Focusing on its many Celtic cognates, others posit a Gaulish root. Ultimately, caballus is one etymology that won’t break.

By the end of the 1500s, cavalier specifically referred to a “gentleman trained at arms,” as the Oxford English Dictionary documents. By the 1640s, Cavalier nicknamed the swaggering gallants who fought for Charles I in his war against their epithetical counterparts, the Parliamentary Roundheads. Their swash-buckling was associated with recklessness, hence cavaliers attributive use for “careless” by 1657, associated with a “haughty” and “disdainful” attitude a century later.

Now, the Cleveland Cavaliers took their name in 1970, when the city’s Plain Dealer held a contest to christen the new NBA expansion team. Jerry Tomko submitted the winning name, explaining that cavaliers “represent a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.” Tomko’s description is apt for the 2015-16 NBA champions, who’ve proven – to their fans and their city – that they are definitely not tired, old horses.

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Dismantling “mantle”

I’ve been thinking about the word mantle recently. During the latest Republican debate, Donald Trump trumpeted that he “will gladly accept the mantle of anger” about the problems, at least in his and his supporters’ view, that the US faces.

Meanwhile, the Iran deal went into effect after “the country followed through with its promises to dismantle large sections of its nuclear program,” the New York Times reported.

What’s going on with this word mantle?

Anger? Nuclear power? This mantel, related to mantle, is much cozier. Doodle by me.


Like clothes strewn across a teenager’s bedroom, mantle is all over the place in English. It’s a symbol of authority. It’s a mostly solid layer of super-hot rock constituting over 80% of Earth’s volume. It’s a poetic way to describe blushing. If you switch around some letters, it’s even that piece of wood over your fireplace where you display various knickknacks, objets d’art, and pictures of your family, if you remember to put them back up whenever they come over.

But at its root and in its earliest meanings, a mantle is a cloak. English donned mantle twice in its history. Very early on, English – like a younger brother wanting to look cool in his older sibling’s clothes, and probably without asking first – borrowed the word from Latin. In Old English, mantle was mentel, among other forms, and referred to a “loose, sleeveless cloak,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses it.

Later, after the Normans conquered England, English added the word once again to its wardrobe from the French mantel. As we know well on this blog, the French also derives from the Latin.

And the Latin etymon? Mantellum. It also means “cloak.”

Mantle pieces 

Some have argued mantellum is connected to some similar Latin words: mantēlium and mantēle, with various meanings of “napkin,” “hand-towel,” and “table-cloth.” Others have argued that the word is actually a diminutive form of some mantus or mantum. Eric Partridge proposes a Basque source, such as mantar, a “chemise” or “plaster.” (We saw Basque once before in an old post on bay, as in the body of water.) Wiktionary, meanwhile, posits a Gaulish root meaning “trodden road.” I’m not quite sure about the connecting sense with that one.

So, our knowledge of mantle‘s origin isn’t quite snug. But most dictionaries do suggest a possible Celtic origin. Unifying all the various words we’ve seen is some sense of a covering. Originally, a cloth-y fabrication, apparently.

Metaphor fashioned quite a bit out of this “cloak.” The geological mantle cloaks the Earth’s core, a usage dated to the 1930s. A blush mantles one’s cheek. Walter Skeat helps us out for a fireplace’s mantel, a variant of mantle: “In old fire-places, the mantel slopes forward like a hood, to catch the smoke.” The earlier form was mantiltre in Middle English, a manteltree, the covering piece made from timber. So, a mantel once cloaked the fireplace, the feature a mere ornamental vestige today.

As for Trump’s mantle of anger? (I would think that that would be more like a tight-fitting Kevlar vest.)  The OED dates this metaphor for an important duty or position, particularly as assumed from a predecessor, to the 1650s: It was “originally used with allusion to the passing of Elijah’s mantle to Elisha, understood allegorically.” Trump: real estate mogul, Republican frontrunner, prophet? Oh my.

And dismantle? This word derives from the French desmanteller, “to take the cloak off [of somebody].” (We saw similar sartorial assaults with the etymology of robe.) It was used, however, as a military metaphor, “to raze” or “tear down [fortress walls],” just as it did when it first appeared in English in the late 1500s. This desmanteller joins des- (“away”) and manteler (“to cloak”).

The Romance languages, we think, shortened mantellum into some words you might know well. French hemmed it to manteau, a “cloak,” which appears in portmanteau, a kind of “traveling bag with two compartments.”  To manteau French adds porte, a command “to carry,” originally issued to a court official to transport a prince’s mantle. Now, thanks to Lewis Carroll, a portmanteau word names a blend, like brunch, fusing “breakfast” and “lunch.” Spanish, meanwhile, tailored it to manta, a kind of “blanket,” which might well describe a manta ray.

Like the cloak it originally names, mantle is quite the versatile piece in the closet, lexically speaking.

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The word job has a big job in our language.

Primary school teachers reinforce their pupils with “Good job!” stickers on homework assignments. When we meet somebody new, jobs are among our first questions. And monthly jobs reports have the power to shift political landscapes.

We land first jobs, which are often summer jobs. Told not quit our day jobs, we work odd jobs as we strive for dream jobs. We fill out job applications, read job descriptions, try to improve job satisfaction, and hope for job security. We fall prey to inside jobs or want our money back for hack jobs. We envy those with cushy jobs. We run from nut jobs and whack jobs who’ve just carried out bank jobs. We get nose jobs. Behind the bedroom door–well, I didn’t expect this introduction to be, um, a dirty job.

Our jobs put food in our mouths–and, etymologically, it turns out job may be even closer to our mouths than we might suspect.

"Job." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Job.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


In spite of its big role in our lexicon and lives, job has a humble history.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) dates job back to 1557, when it referred to a “piece of work”: a iobb of werk, the dictionary cites. Ernest Weekley is helpful here, as he notes that such a job of work would have stood in contrast to work that is “continuous.”

The deeper origin is ultimately unknown, but the word may well be related to gob, which you probably best recognize in the plural, e.g., gobs of money.

This gob has been working since the 14th century, meaning a “piece,” “lump,” or “mass.” And it was also put to work as a “cartload” in the 1600s. Perhaps you can imagine a worker hauling some mound of material–perhaps stone or straw or whatever it is piled up in that preceding doodle–one load at a time until the job is done. Indeed, Walter Skeat cites the expression “to work by the gob.” Perhaps our equivalent today would be a task or a project.

By the 17th century, job was moving up the ladder, starting to signify work one has to do as part of his or her occupation. By the 19th century, job was referring to one’s actual position of employment.


Gob comes from the French gobe or goube, referring to a “mouthful.” The word, in turn, is from the verb gober, “to swallow” or “gulp.” Some dictionaries even gloss gober as “gobble,” which is most likely related as a frequentative form of gob with imitative influence, like a turkey’s gobble.

Gobbet (also a “lump,” though more specifically “a piece of raw flesh”) is related, too; it’s considered a diminutive of gobe. We saw this diminutive, which takes the form -et, in target. Other French borrowings like budget, bullet, and pocket feature it. A goblet, which we brought to our more medieval mouths for gulping, is so descended as well.

From gobe, etymologists propose a Gaulish root, *gobbo, meaning “beak” or “mouth” (Baumgartner & Menard). Cognates include the Gaelic gob, a “beak” or “bill,” and the Irish gob, a “bill” or a “mouth.”

Scottish and Northern English speakers gobbled up this Celtic-based root with a sense of humor, taking up gob as jocular term for “mouth,” as in a gobstopper. Do all these connections leave you a bit gobsmacked? Yep, the British expression means “smacked in the gob,” or “mouth.” Or perhaps you’ve shown the patience of Job in getting to the end? OK, that Job is completely unrelated.

In either case, I think I’ve done my job here.

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Etymologists are wary of March Madness.

No, it’s not the term bracketology, describing the art, science, and ritual of filling out one’s tournament bracket, which word induces many a cringe. (I, for one, find it to be a perfectly fine coinage.) It’s the inevitable utterance, “There goes my bracket,” issued in resignation when an upset fells one’s lovingly, inevitably wrought bracket.

See, we avert our eyes, for a bracket is, etymologically speaking, a “codpiece.”


Bracket (16th century) took the form bragget in Old English, referring to a “support in architecture” (Weekley). Skeat specifies it as a “corbel”–not the champagne (that’s with a k), nor Microsoft’s typeface, but one of these:

A Venetian corbel, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This bragget comes from the French braguette, meaning “codpiece” or “codpiece armor.” (How important you are, little r: Je voudrais un café et une braguette). As Skeat explains, bracket was “[s]o named from the resemblance to the front part of a pair of breeches, as formerly made.” In the 15th century, men wore separate hose, one for each leg, along with drawers. The crotch, though, needed a bit more protection and concealment. Enter the codpiece. Protection and concealment gave way to fashion statements, and the codpiece served to, emphasize, shall we say. Imagine, if you will, the above corbel in profile.

Forget Warren Buffet’s billion-dollar bracket contest.  Tied with its little bow, I think Henry VIII’s beats out anything even David Bowie could offer within this “winning bracket”:

Henry VIII keeping a straight face. Image courtesy of The Daily Mail online.

The French braguette is a diminutive of brague (14th century), or “pants” or “breeches,” believed to be Gaulish in origin, perhaps in the form of *braca. Speaking of Gaulish, learn a little bit more about Gaulish and other Celtic languages on my latest guest post at Lexicolatry.

Even in the Romance languages, though, the codpiece was used as an architectural metaphor. Brague also referred to a “mortise.” And Spanish, for example, has bragueta, naming both “codpiece” and “bracket.”

Borrowing from the proposed Celtic origin, Latin has bracae for “pants” and Germanic forms (such as Old English’s brec, whence “breeches”) are traced back to a Proto-Germanic *brokiz, maybe from a Proto-Indo-European root for “break” (*bhreg-). Partridge attempts a Proto-Indo-European *brac-, “to encircle” or “gird on.” Perhaps there is an argument for this, given that early codpiece technology featured a kind of belt the wearer strapped on.

How about those typographical brackets: [ ], { }, ( ), and < >, among others? These are “from resemblance to some double supports in carpentry,” as Weekley tells us. The ODEE dates the usage back to the 18th century, noting that, in the 17th century, they were called braces. Believed to have influenced senses of bracket, brace we can trace back to the Latin brachhium, for “arm,” from Greek brakhion, for the same.

As for the origins of the kinds of tournament bracket we see in the NCAA, Slate magazine points us to an 1851 London Chess tournament. Below is a diagram of from the competition, as Howard Staunton provides in his 1873 account, The Chess Tournament. I think the image gives us an effective visual etymology, if you will:


Linguist and language commentator Ben Zimmer gives us more on “brackets.”

I suppose the real winner in all this is the human imagination–and its ability to add little spice or color to something as mundane into as, you know, that thing-y that holds up that bookshelf on your wall. 

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