Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?

Thanks in large part to the impassioned activism of the #NeverAgain movement, the news hasn’t moved on from the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, as it has too often in recent massacres in the US. The pressure is staying on gun control, keeping the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in the hot seat.

The Second Amendment is also in this post’s etymological hot seat. I’m not debating its constitutional interpretation, though. I’m debating why we say second and not twoth.   

The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

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Taking “taxes” to the etymological task (repost)

With House Republicans unveiling sweeping tax cuts in a bill this week, I figured it was a good time to repost this piece on the etymology of tax from 2014. Over three years later, I still find it incredible that tax comes from the same Latin root that gives us task, taste, and taxi.

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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.

Etymologically, dog dirt is no euphemism. (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Omelette

Now that Easter’s passed, what to do with all of those eggs? If they’re not chocolate or hard-boiled, whip up an omelette. You can throw in some mushrooms, peppers, cheese, and perhaps finish it off, etymologically speaking, with just a skosh of…knife?

Mmm…knifey. (Pixabay)

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Masses, milk, and metathesis: Following the “crowd”

Crowds are just a bunch of crud, etymologically speaking. 

We’ve been comparing – or, if you’re a certain president, complaining about – crowd sizes of late. One conservative estimate tallies Trump’s inaugural crowd at 250,000, about 1.5 million short of Obama’s in 2009. The Women’s March on January 21, meanwhile, may have drawn over 4.8 million protesters across the globe. So, as we count up the final numbers, let’s look into the origin of the word crowd

Working the crowd

The original meaning of crowd, “to push on,” got lost in the crowd. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

As a noun, crowd hasn’t been crowding the English language for very long. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates crowd to 1567, adding that it replaced the usual earlier term, a press, which goes back to the 13th century.

The noun crowd comes from the verb crowd. But this verb originally meant “to press on, hasten, or drive” in Old English.  One would crowd a ship, say, by pushing her off land. The OED has actually dated this usage, incredibly, to 937, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Crowd’s modern sense, “to gather in large numbers closely together,” appears by the beginning of the 1400, and we can easily see how the action pushing and shoving transferred to a thronging multitude.

The Old English crowd – crúdan – is related to the German kroten, “to oppress,” and the Dutch kruien, “to push or drive (e.g., a wheel-barrow).” The OED notes that the verbal crowd is “not known in the early stages of the other [Germanic] languages,” and in English, “was comparatively rare down to 1600.”

The etymological center of crowd is unclear. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, though, traces it back to the Germanic *krudan, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *greut-, “to compress” or “push.” 

Crowds and whey

Did the word curd get separated from the crowd? Image courtesy of pixabay.com

One thing that does get compressed, in a manner of speaking, are curds. These little lumps are formed when milk coagulates – and, as a word, curds (and its derivative, curdle) may be formed from the same root as crowd. Some etymologists think speakers flipped around the sounds of the Old English crúdan to get curd, attested in 1362. This flipping process, called metathesis, is a common one in English, among other languages, and has produced words like curl, task, and even bird

For curd/crowd, etymologists point to the Irish gruth, “curds,” which they root in the PIE *greut-. For the meaning of curd as a “crowded” substance, they cite the very chemical action that yields curds, coagulation, as an analogy. This word is skimmed from the Latin cogere, “to curdle, compel, or collect,” literally meaning “to drive together” (com-, “together,” plus agere, “to set in motion,” source of act.)    

I, for one, think curds are delicious, but perhaps you find them to be a bunch of crud. Etymologically, you may not be wrong: Many think crud, by that same process of metathesis, indeed comes from curd. This would mean crud switched the –ur- sound of curd, which switched the –ru– of crowd/crúdan. And so crud ‘returns’ to its original form.

The wrong crowd

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds crud in Scottish English for “thickened or coagulated milk” and in US English for “curdled milk,” perhaps as back-formed from the adjective cruddy. Green also locates crud for “any filthy or disgusting matter” all the way back in the early 16th century. Crud, in some way or another, made it into US military slang for any “disease” or “worthless person” in the 1930s, expanding to “diarrhea,” “a slob,” and “venereal disease” in the 1940s and 1950s. A crud may be one to let slip a little crowd-poison, a euphemism for public flatulence. 

Trump may yet find validation, then. Crowds are crud, etymologically…and when you’re just not drawing the kind of numbers you hoped for.

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drubbing & shellacking

It’s an American pastime: The party of the president takes a big hit in the midterm elections and the electorate awaits how the president will describe it the next day. Most colorfully, in 2010 Obama described Democratic losses as a “shellacking,” while in 2006, Bush described his party’s as a “thumpin’.” And unlike Christmas, the word drubbing only comes once every two years, as pundits take to the bandwidth and column width for their analysis.

Whatever the characterization, its a now a tradition as American as apple pie, but two of those words, drubbing and shellacking, have travelled far–etymologically, that is–from grains of sand to the amber waves of grain.

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


Today, a drubbing is primarily a metaphorical “beating,” but historically it referred to real blows dealt in punishment with a cudgel, especially on the soles of the feet, which is a form of corporal punishment known as the bastinado. I know midterms are referenda on incumbents, but jeez, thank goodness etymology isn’t a literal business. Except for poor old Senator Charles Sumner.

To my ears, drub sounds like Germanic stock, so, as we recently saw in the word candy, it’s a nice surprise that our best evidence points to an Arabic origin. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in Thomas Herbert’s 1634 travel writings, A Relation of Some Yeares Trauaile, Begunne Anno 1626. into Afrique and the Greater Asia.

Behind drub, according to this etymological route, is the Arabic ḑaraba, meaning much the same, “to beat,” especially “to bastinado,” yielding a verbal noun ḑarb, a “beating” or a “blow.” Turkish or North African variations, perhaps including a simple metathesis, may have utlimately yielded the English iteration.

Wiktionary, however, puts forth an alternative etymology. It suggests drub is from a Kentish dialectical form going back to the Old English drepan, “to strike,” from the Proto-Indo-European *dhrebh-, “to crush” or “grind to pieces.”


Shellacking, too, takes us to the Middle East, but it doesn’t just stop there.

Shellac is a compound of shell and lac, entering English as a 1713 translation of the French laque en écailles, “lac in thin plates.” Lac, related to lacquer and a variant, lake, is a dark-red resin secreted and encrusted on trees in India, among other locations, by a female bug, Kerria laccia.The resin was scraped from the tree bark and processed as a dye in the East. Later, it was dissolved in alcohol particularly for use in gramophone records and as a varnish in the West.

It is probably as a varnish that we get the sense of shellacking as a “beating.” Shellac was used as a finish for furniture and other woodcrafts, so to be shellacked was “to be finished” (and in a period of US slang, “wasted” or “plastered”). And so we can see its figurative leap.

Lac probably entered the West from the Persian lak or Arabic lakk, passed down from the Hindi lākh. The Hindi, in turn, is from the Sanskrit lākshā, ultimately meaning “red dye.” It could also name the insect or plant wherefrom the dye was obtained. So greatly do the insects number on the trees, apparently, that their swarm may have yielded a term for “100,000,” as in a Hindi lākh of rupees–a great number of rupees.  The connection between this term and lākshā is not certain, however.

The Sanskrit lākshā may have had an earlier form, rākshāwhich could point to a Proto-Indo-European *reg, “dye” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). In Sanskrit, the root also plucked out raga, a kind of melodic basis for improvisation in Indian classical music. Rather synesthestically, the sense of color connected with “dye” was transferred to a notion of color and mood associated with sound.

In Greek, *reg- became associated with rugs or blankets, eventually giving English the rather useful term regolith: that loose layer of rock, soil, and dust covering on the surfaces of bodies. I’m sure the scientists who landed the Philae space probe on Comet 67P were very mindful of the regolith.

Rolling with the Punches

Shellacking is colorful term with a colorful root, but perhaps raga reminds us of the importance of sound here. The real power of shellacking and drubbing does not lie in their origins or histories. It’s in their sound: Drubbing and shellacking sound imitative and suggestive of the hits they deliver, yet they pack a punch without thrashing too hard. They are forceful without being final, giving the drubbed and shellacked a way to acknowledge they lost without losing face, as if getting up from the ground and dusting themselves off.

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It’s Tax Day in the United States. In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and witty quotes about taxes. While attributed in this form to Benjamin Franklin, the earliest iteration goes to a Christopher Bullock in his 1716 The Cobler of Preston(This is not to be confused with Charles Johnson’s rival work of the same year and same name; read Bullock’s preface if you want to jump down a rabbit hole). As Bullock quipped:

‘Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.

Well, are we at all sure about the origin of the word tax?


Tax first imposed itself upon English in the early 1300s, coming from the French verb taxer and, in turn, the Latin taxare. In Latin, taxare mostly functioned on a figurative level, meaning “to censure” and “reproach” someone with a fault as well as “to rate” or “appraise” the value of something. Here, we can already anticipate its modern meanings dealing with finance and fatigue.

However, taxare literally meant “to touch sharply” or “handle.” It’s a form of the verb tangere, “to touch.” Tangenttangible, tactilecontact, and contagious are all related.

And let’s not forget the tango, perhaps the most sensuous of tangere‘s derivatives.

More specifically, this taxare is a form of tangere known as a frequentative or iterative, an aspect some verbs can take that expresses repeated, intensive, or habitual action. It’s no longer what we call “productive” in English, meaning we’re not really using it to form new words, but a good number of frequentative forms have shown staying power.

Chat a lot? Then you might be chattering. Hear that snap, crackle, and pop of your Rice Krispies? That’s a lot of little cracks. Squirrels climb and clamber, leaks drip and dribble. Wrestlers are engaged in wresting. And your dog is so excited to see you when you get home he piddles on the floor, forming a puddle of piss. All those tweets makes for a lot of twitter.

You can see that the suffixes -le, -er, and/or ablaut (vowel change) were primary mechanisms for the frequentative in English.

So, in tax, how do we go from a touch to a levy? Visit an antiques shop, a clothing store, or, better yet, a guitar seller, and watch buyers inspect and value their wares with fondling fingers. And perhaps the gloss of “touch sharply” gives us a hint of tax as penalty–from appraisals to judgments to being charged with fines.

The original code of tax, if you will permit the overwrought metaphor, is believed to be the Proto-Indo-European *tag-, meaning touch.” (A variant, *tong-, would explain the nasalization we see in Latin’s tangere).

But this *tag– might also have been more aggressive with “grip” and “seize,” which would explain the Greek tassein, which means “seize” but also to “fix,” “arrange,” and “order.” Hence, taxonomy, tactics, and taxidermy:

Here, Hitchock discusses Norman Bates’ macabre “hobby” (and foreshadowing) in Psycho (courtesy of clipsandfootage.com).

Taskmasters, Tastemakers, and Taxi Drivers

Some curious derivates of Latin’s taxare include: tasktaste, and taxi. From the French tasque, task–originally a payment paid to a feudal superior or work exacted from a person, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) observes of its use in the late Middle Ages–may have undergone metathesis. Metathesis, recall, is the switching of sounds, as in the pronunciation of ask as ax, which we know Chaucer did. It’s a very common phenomenon in English–and in language and speech as such. This common root also makes tax and task what we call “doublets.”

Taste originated as “the act of touch” (OED) but referred to what we now think of as the sense of taste by the mid-1300s. Rooted in Latin’s taxare, it was also likely influenced by gustare (taste). Taste-buds, I thought I’d share, were once known as taste-goblets.

A taxi is short for a taxicab, itself short for a taximeter cab. The earliest attestation of taximeter (from the French for, essentially, “tariff meter”) is the German taxamon from around 1875 (OED).

So, after you have filed your taxes (or have extended that task for a later date), have a taste of wine–er, gulp–but be sure to hail a taxi if you need to get home.


winter olympic sports (part ii)

Last week, we looked at the bones of skatethe splinters of ski, and the unknowns of luge. This week, the Games continue with sleighcurling, and hockey


There is no reason for sleigh‘s spelling, I supposed, other than imitation of words like neighbor and weigh, whose –gh once were pronounced, unlike sleigh‘s. Sleigh is a North American English adaptation of the Dutch slee, from slede. Sled and sledge are related, connected to slide and slither, from the very Harry Potter-sounding Old English slidor

What about “bob”? In bobsled or bobsleigh, the element “bob” conveys “cutting short” and, as the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, a “round, hanging mass,” from bobbe, meaning “cluster.” She sports a bob? Yep, this word for a short haircut is related and is attested as early as the late 1600s.


Weekley must have been a fan of the winter sports; he has been particularly illustrative for these selected games. On curling, he writes, “The game of curling is so called from the curving path of the stone, like that of a bowl.” The ODEE, among others, leaves open the possibility that curling indeed comes from curl. Curl itself is twisted from crulle, from the Middle Dutch krul, which the ODEE delivers back to the Germanic root, *krusl-.

This switching of sounds–here, the r and sounds–is known as metathesis, a fairly common phenomenon. We’ve seen it on the Mashed Radish before. A (needlessly contentious) example is the pronunciation of ask as ax (think aks and you might better understand the transposition). Geoffrey Chaucer did it, as you might have heard on this excellent NPR piece

According to the ODEE (and I’m talking here to you, Paul), this *krusl- root is related to the German kraus, meaning “curled” and thus figuratively “crabbed” or “sullen.” Some connect this to the surname Krause (which would explain a lot, my friend) whereas others trace the last name back to a German word for “jug” or “pitcher” (which would also explain a lot). Skeat proposes the root *krellan, meaning “to wind.”


H-E-double-hockey-sticks: that’s about the best we have for the origin for this king of ice sports. The word has an isolated reference in the Galway Statutes in 1527: “The horlinge of the litill ball with hockie stickes or staves.” The ODEE speculates that hockie may be used for “hooky,” or hooked.

Then, on November 5, 1785, William Cowper, English poet who sang of the everyday countryside in every language, grudgingly yet lovingly wrote of hockey:

The boys at Olney have likewise a very entertaining sport. They call it Hockey; and it consists in dashing each other with mud, and the windows also, so that I am forced to rise now and then, and to threaten them with a horsewhip to preserve our own. We know that Roman boys whipped tops, trundled the hoop, and played at tennis; but I believe we nowhere read that they delighted in these filthy aspersions: I am inclined, therefore, to give to the slovenly but ingenious youths of Olney full credit for the invention. (p. 184)

Cowper was writing to John Newton, the famed clergyman and converted abolitionist who wrote “Amazing Grace,” in the small town of Olney in Buckinhamshire in southeasterly England.

Attempts have been made to connect “hockey” to the French hoqueta shepherd’s staff or crook, diminutive of hoc, or “hook,” but the the ODEE body-checks this. Skeat passes the puck to hockey, first attested as hawkey, as descring the L-shaped “hooked stick” used in the game. Partridge directs us to compare this sense development to that of cricket, originating in crook and croc, the hooked instrument used for the game.

As far these etymological Olympics are concerned, I think William Cowper wins the gold, with the Dutch language securing the silver. Bronze? Let’s put bob on the platform.

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Fast Mash

  • Tornado is first attested as ternado in the late 16th-c. 
  • First referred to tropical Atlantic thunderstorms; sense of rotating funnel clouds came about in 1700-1800s 
  • Probably a bad borrowing by navigators/seamen/travelers from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, related to English thunder)
  • Later forms flipped the and the r, probably under the influence of Spanish tornar (turn, related to English turn)

One thing is certain: A tornado wreaked destruction on Moore, OK just over a week ago. As I have been following the news of such tremendous loss and damage, of such profound recovery and resilience, I couldn’t help but wonder about the origin of tornado, trivial and petty as my musings seem in the face of the disaster. It turns out, no pun intended, that its origin isn’t quite  so certain.


In 1589, as documented by the OED, Richard Hakluyt—an English geographer, writer, and ardent champion of English colonial expansion, particularly in North America—wrote in his Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation*:

The 4.day we had terrible thunder and lightning, with exceeding great gusts of raine called Ternados.

The word took a number of different forms over the next centuries, including tornathoturnado, and tournatho, settling into its current spelling by the 1800s. And, the OED notes, navigators used the word to refer to torrential, gusty tropical thunderstorms in the Atlantic. In the 17th-c., these navigators used the term to name the entire season in which such storms were common, although this usage is now obsolete,  though we do say “tornado season” in the States.

Overtime, the rain and thunder elements receded while that of rotation and wind ascended. The turn, so to speak, seems to take place in the early 1600s. The OED documents the following from Samuel Purchas, an English cleric and complier of travel accounts, in his Pilgrimes (1625):

We met with winds which the Mariners call The Turnadoes, so variable and vncertaine, that sometime within the space of one houre, all the two and thirtie seuerall winds will blow. These winds were accompanied with much thunder and lightning, and with extreme rayne.

The OED observes that the rise of spellings using u and -or– seems to correspond with usages that emphasize the storm’s windy whirling. Indeed, in the early 1700s, the word was naming rotatory storms in West Africa and, in the late 1800s, the narrow-pathed funnel-clouds we know all too well in the Midwest and South today.

It fascinates me to end how new experiences, new concepts, new contact—with different lands and different people—necessitates new language. But seldom do we invent new terms out of thin air. We steal, we borrow, we appropriate, we adapt. And English has proven itself particularly adept at this.

So, where was tornado ultimately taken from?

While -ado certainly betokens Spanish or Portuguese (where it functions as the past participle ending of certain verbs, from the Latin -atus; cf. French -ade, as in paradecrusade, and many others), neither tornado nor any its previous forms shows up in those languages. So, etymologists posit a few things:

  1. The word was a “mangled borrowing” from Spanish tronada (thunderstorm, from the verb tronar and Latin tonare, to thunder. English thunder is related.).
  2. The o‘s and r‘s got flipped, a little thing called metathesis (pretty and *purty, ask and *aks)
  3. This flipping was influenced by Spanish tornar, which means to turn, return. This verb is from Latin, tornare, to turn on a lathe, from tornus, a lathe. English turn is related.

Yes, I totally had to look up what, exactly, a lathe is. And this completes a full turn: tornadoes destroy, lathes  help rebuild.

*Speaking of whirlwinds, the full title of  Hakluyt’s afore-quoted book is:

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth

And you thought all those subtitles so in vogue today were bad. In all fairness, though, I’d venture that  writers of those early texts didn’t conceive of such cumbersome titles as titles, but previews or outlines. Perhaps proto-blurbs or proto-tables of contents. Interesting plural #ftw. Self-reference #ftw.

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