From textiles to testimonies: the origin of “panel”

A panel of jurors was originally a piece of paper on which the names of jurors were listed. 

Last night, we learned Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury—which allows prosecutors to subpoena documents and ensures witnesses testify under oath—in his investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

In the wake of the news, legal and political experts have been fielding the questions: “What does this panel mean for Mueller’s investigation? What does it mean for Trump?” Word nerds like me, meanwhile, are addressing a different query: “What, exactly, is impanel, and where does the word panel come from?”   

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Panel: Before it was wood, it was cloth. (Pixabay)

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How we got “sacked”

Yes, getting sacked does originally involve bags. 

Just ten days into his new role as White House Communications Director, Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci was sacked, as a number of British headlines having been putting his firing while General John Kelly takes over as Trump’s Chief of Staff.

Where does this expression, getting sacked, come from?

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You’re fired! (Pixabay)

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Laughingstock, gaping-stocking, scoffing-stock, and other -stock compounds

“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?

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A cracking-stock? (Pixabay)

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Storming the etymological “bastille”

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?

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Threading together the roots of bastille. (Pixabay)

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Digging up “dirt”

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.

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Etymologically, dog dirt is no euphemism. (Pixabay)

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Review: Sports Talk by Colin McNairn

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.

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Going “ballistic”

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.

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A reconstructed ancient ballista, Latin source of the word ballistic. (Image from the Alexis Project, photo by Nick Watts).

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The origin of “meddle”: It’s all in the “mix”

Recent reports are revealing that Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was more extensive than initially understood. As investigators continue probing the interference, let’s meddle with the etymology of meddle.

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Meddling in elections is truly nuts. (Pixabay)

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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.

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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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What’s at “stake” in “attack”

A doublet of the word attach, attack ultimately comes from a Germanic root meaning “stake.” 

London has again faced another terrorist attack, this time from a Welsh man who plowed his van into a group of Muslim people near a mosque in Finsbury Park. As the word attack has become, alas, an all-too familiar one—excepting its application to white extremists—let’s see what me might learn from its etymology.

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The high and low “stakes” of “attack” (Pixabay).

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