This past week, TIME magazine’s talented Katy Steinmetz interviewed me for a fantastic piece on the challenges of using words that have offensive histories, such as bulldozer. (Steinmetz also interviewed me back in 2016, you may recall, about the fascinating Japanese linguistics behind words like Pokémon and karaoke.)
Catch up on my writing for the wonderful Emojipedia, too. This month, I wrote about 😏, or Smirking Face emoji, ever smug and suggestive in its many applications in our digital communication.
The verb smirk, for its part, dates back to the Old English smearcian, which was the go-to word for smile until the latter took over in Middle English. Smirk survived, but with a connotation of self-satisfaction. Cognates to smirk are not found in other Germanic languages, but smirk and smile do appear to be related in some way.
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.
You know those 12 Days of Christmas we’re always partridge-in-a-pear-treeing about? They end on January 5th, or Twelfth Night, when many celebrants end their yuletide festivities by taking down the decorations.
As its name suggests, Twelfth Night is the 12th night after Christmas and the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which many Christians traditionally observe on January 6th. The Shakespearean comedy takes its name from the Twelfth Night holiday, but what is this Epiphany?
Woebegone doesn’t mean “Woe, go away!” It means “beset with woe.” The begone comes from an old, obsolete verb, bego, “to go about, surround,” among other senses. So, in Middle English, you might have heard the expression: “Me is wo begon.”
Donald Trump Jr. stepped in some, er, dirt this week when the New York Timesrevealed 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.
Last week, fired FBI director James Comey testified that President Trump asked him to “lift the cloud”cast by the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. This cloud, though, isn’t blowing over—something also true of the surprising origin of the word cloud.
The word impeach begins—and can end up—in “shackles.”
The political nature of Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, coupled with Comey’s memo that Trump asked him to “let go” of the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, are prompting a lot of talk about the I-word—impeachment—over concerns that Trump may have obstructed justice. Time, along with FBI evidence and witnesses in congressional investigations, will tell whether impeachment is called for. In the meantime, let’s have a look at why it’s called impeach.
The survey collected a random sample. The clerk organized the random boxes in the storeroom. She got a weird text message from this random stranger. Can I ask you a random question? He’s so random, like, sometimes he’ll chew gum while drinking coffee. Random kinda seems like a random word, doesn’t it? Where does it come from?
First attested in the early 1300s, random originallyreferred to “great speed” or “force,” used especially in the phrases to run at random or with great random. Random’s velocity and violence conveyed a sense of impetuousness and rashness. And so by the 1540s, the expression at random rushed towards “without aim or purpose,”a short step from the modern adjective, which settled in by the 1650s.
Random didn’t come into English at random. It derives from the Old French randon, a similar noun denoting “speed, haste, violence, impetuousness,” probably formed from the verb randir, “to run fast, gallop.” The deeper origins of randir aren’t certain, but scholars conjecture the Frankish *rant, “a running.” (Frankish was a West Germanic language spoken by the Franks, a Germanic tribe in late antiquity whose name lives on in France and the adjective frank.) This *rant, and thus random,may be related to the same Germanic root that gives us run.
The statistical random emerges by the 1880s, but the word wasn’t done running. Computing, campus, and teen slang in the 1960–80s helped fashion a random,a “stranger” or “outsider,” sometimes shortened to rando, as well as the informal, often pejorative use of random for “odd, peculiar, unexpected, unfamiliar,” e.g., Don’t go home with that random guy. Definitely run–at the etymological random–from him.