TIME, emoji, and the unusual “with-” in “withdraw”

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.

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Smirking Face emoji (John Kelly/Emojipedia)

Continue reading “TIME, emoji, and the unusual “with-” in “withdraw””

Catch up with Mashed Radish

This past week has been a kind of High Holidays of etymological trivia.

March 14th marked Pi Day:

Pi Day inevitably makes us hungry for actual pie, apparently named for the piebald magpie.

March 15th marks the Ides of March, which has all bewaring, quoting Shakespeare, and wondering, “Why isn’t the ‘Ide‘ of March anyways?”

Then, we have St. Patrick’s Day, which I’m celebrating way out in Ballina, a charming river town in County Mayo, with some Irish language contributions to English (trousers!) and, ah, sure, some whiskey.

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy working on some other projects I think you’ll enjoy—and find quite useful.

Continue reading “Catch up with Mashed Radish”

Some etymological musings on “milkshake duck”

The Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English announced this week that it chose milkshake duck as its 2017 Word of the Year. As it defines the term, a milkshake duck is

a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but it then discovered to have something questionable about them which causes a sharp decline in their popularity.

The selection committee explains their decision:

Even if you don’t know the word, you know the phenomenon. Milkshake duck stood out as being a much needed term to describe something we are seeing more and more of, not just on the internet but now across all types of media. It plays to the simultaneous desire to bring someone down and the hope that they won’t be brought down. In many ways it captures what 2017 has been about. There is a hint of tall poppy syndrome in there, which we always thought was a uniquely Australian trait, but has been amplified through the internet and become universalised.

Tall poppy syndrome, as Amanda Laugesen writes for Oxford Dictionaries, is an Australianism that refers to

a tendency in Australian society to try and cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent (cutting the tall poppies down to size). Australians generally don’t like others to do too well, or (to use another popular Australian term) to ‘big-note’ themselves.

Continue reading “Some etymological musings on “milkshake duck””

Spelacchio, Yankee Swap, and Boxing Day: Some holiday etymologies

Over on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I’ve written some pieces that will get you in the holiday spirit.

For my latest Weekly Word Watch, I featured the Italian word spelacchio:

The official Christmas tree of the city of Rome, imported from the Italian Alps at a cost of over £42,000, has been shedding its needles, so much so that locals have nicknamed the not-so-evergreen evergreen spelacchio, meaning ‘mangy’ or ‘threadbare’. The word appears to derive from roots meaning ‘out of hair’ (pelo, hair, cf. depilatory).

Spelacchio inspired a hashtag – even its own Twitter account.

 And just as quickly as it was a term of derision, spelacchio became a term of endearment, with Romans leaving Christmas cards for the ‘balding’ tree. How very 2017, spelacchio. How very 2017, indeed.

I also explored the origins of the names of popular gift exchanges, like Yankee Swap, which has a surprising connection to Walt Whitman:

In a standard Yankee Swap gift exchange, each merrymaker brings a wrapped gift (often thematic and price-capped) to a party and draws numbers to determine what order when they get to pick from the pool. The first to draw opens the gift for all to see, and subsequent players can then pick from the remaining items or steal an already opened gift, all vying to end the festivities with a gift they like.

Many myths surround the lexical beginnings of the Yankee Swap. One commonly claims the name is taken from a Civil War tradition of swapping Union Army prisoners of war, dubbed Yankees, for their Confederate counterparts over Christmas. Another puts forth the theory that immigrants in New York City were bemused by all the locals exchanging little gifts – Yankees, swapping – with one another throughout the Christmas season. (Yankee has its own fascinating and complicated history, but we’ll save that story for another time.)

Clever, but only true insofar as Yankee Swap hails from America, as its name would suggest.

Thankfully, word sleuth Peter Jensen Brown has done some deep digging and found that the phrase Yankee Swap was first used in reference to a stereotypic American appetite for trading. In a review of his own masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, the great poet Walt Whitman sings of ‘the Yankee swap’ as one of the ‘essences of American things’ alongside George Washington and the Constitution. Brown also finds a Scottish magazine describing the purported American love of the barter and bargain:

Every thing is a matter of serious calculation with your genuine Yankee.  He won’t give away even his words – if another should have occasion for them.  He will ‘swap’ any thing with you; ‚trade’ with you, for any thing; but is never the man to give anything away, so long as there is any prospect of doing better with it.

Brown hasn’t pinned down when it was first called a Yankee Swap, but he finds evidence for a festive and ‘old fashioned swapping party’ in an 1899 New York Tribune article as well as an extensive description in 1901 of a ‘swap party’ in a magazine, Table Talk:

In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly. As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as ‘The Swap Party.’ Why not the word ‘exchange’ instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.

Read the rest of the article for the lexical history of the Secret Santa and White Elephant traditions. Here’s some extra content that didn’t make the original article:

Kris Kindle and Kris Kringle

Secret Santa appears to be an American phrase and custom adopted elsewhere in the world. You may also hear the exchange going by the equally alliterative but less culturally connotative Secret Snowflake.

And in Ireland, for example, you may hear colleagues conducting a Kris Kringle or Kris Kindle around the office. These alternative appellations for a secret santa originate in German words like Christkind’l, literally ‘Christ child’, who’s the seasonal gift-giver in many European and Latin American countries.

Some German-speaking immigrants to early Pennsylvania in the US spoke a dialect that became Pennsylvanian Dutch. They had Chris-krinkle, a Santa Claus figure whose name comes from Christkind’l and becomes Kris Kringle by1830.

Boxing Day

Finally, a little Christmas bonus — and this one to educate the Americans. Observed as a bank holiday the first weekday after Christmas Day, the UK-originating Boxing Day has nothing to do with fisticuffs. The OED first cites it in 1833 and roots the name in the tradition of the Christmas box, dated to 1611 in a gloss on a similar French custom, tirelire. This container, or box, historically collected tips for various servants and apprentices. It was often an earthenware vessel, broken open when full and its contents shared among workers.

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Mashed Radish on Grammar Girl

Mashed Radish is taking the week off for the US holiday of Thanksgiving, though I may sprinkle in a little etymology here and there as time permits.

In the meantime, enjoy the latest episode of the award-winning educational podcast, Grammar Girl. Its host and creator, the incredible Mignon Fogarty, reads an article I wrote for Oxford Dictionaries on the many side words in the English language. The episode opens with the fascinating roots of bailiwick, to boot. 

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Some etymological news and updates from Mashed Radish

In lieu of a feature word origin today, I wanted to point you to some of my other etymological goings-on around the web. I’m very pleased to announce that I have two new series on the Oxford Dictionaries blog debuting this week.

Continue reading “Some etymological news and updates from Mashed Radish”

More from Mashed Radish

Mashed Radish is off this week, enjoying some craic with family in town. I have been terribly remiss, though, in linking you to my other writing online.

Since the spring, I’ve been writing weekly on Slate about various language topics. Some recent pieces have included: How 80s Is the Slang in Stranger Things? and Branger. Debression. Oexit. Zumxit. Why Did Brexit Trigger a Brexplosion of Wordplay? Click here for much more.

I’ve also been writing for Mental Floss. You’ll get a big etymological fix on the likes of such pieces as The Origins of 19 ‘Skin’ Expressions. Click here for more.

If you’re new to the blog, you may not know that I’m also reading the complete works of William Shakespeare this year and writing about it. Check it out at Shakespeare Confidential.

And those who are familiar with this blog will know I contribute to Oxford Dictionaries and Strong Language, where I’ve had many pieces since I’ve last shared my writing there.

Mashed Radish will be back next week.

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Metymology? Mashed Radish turns three

Oh yeah: I missed a few important milestones recently.

Mashed Radish turned three earlier this month. Politics inspired quite a few posts – Donald Trump especially – this past year. While politics may divide us, a shared love of words certainly brings us together. Like animals, which also prompted quite a lot of writing. You know, I think this blog could definitely do with more animal posts.

I’ve also reached over 10,000 followers. Wow. Gosh. Thanks, everyone, for your continued – or new – interest, readership, comments, and support.

Speaking of support, I’ve a third milestone comping up which I’ll be sure not to miss: my second wedding anniversary. I really need to thank my wife for all the support she’s given and sacrifices (yes, etymologies have their costs) she’s made for this project.

Now, how’d the first two pass me by? Well, I moved to Dublin, for one. For another, my head’s been absolutely stuffed with Shakespeare, whose complete works I’ve been reading and writing about at Shakespeare Confidential. I’ve also been regularly contributing to Slate’s Lexicon ValleyStrong Language, and Oxford Dictionaries. Etymologies open doors to the past, as I like to say. And, if three years is any measure, to the future as well.

But I can’t sign off without a word origin, can I? So, how about a quick etymology of etymology?

Etymology

We actually have evidence of the word etymology in a Latin form in Old English, though we see it Anglicized around the late 1300s, early 1400s . English gets the word in part from French (ethimologie) and in part directly from Latin (etymologia). Latin, in turn, borrowed the word from the Greek ἐτυμολογία (etymologia). If you’ll allow me to jump over some intermediary derived forms, the Greek ultimately joins ἐτεός (eteos, “true”) and λόγος (logos, “word”). Some think the Greek eteos is related to the Old English soð (“truth”), which, if you’ve been reading your Shakespeare, you might recognize in soothsayer or the mild oath For sooth! 

Historically then, we can understand etymology as the analysis of a word on the basis of its literal, or true, meaning. We should be careful not to commit the etymological fallacy, however, which posits that only the original meaning of a word is its right sense. Wrong. Words change. That’s in part why I love etymology. But we don’t want to be too, too careful, because I think we can glean insights in those ancient meanings still relevant to us today – and because I wouldn’t have a blog with a third anniversary to mark!

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Flying, flap-eared pigs?

I wanted to point you to some other pieces I have around the web. You’re forewarned: Some strong language lies ahead.

A few weeks back, I had a post on the OxfordWords blog: Pigdoghog, and other etymologies from the farm.” As I note:

We’ve left the farm and have wandered into the woods to discover where some very basic and common animal words came from – fundamental words like dog and pig, which number among some of the first children learn to read, even say.

We just don’t really know where this group of everyday words comes from, which is nothing short of fascinating.

I also have two pieces up on Strong Language. The first is “When fucks fly.” In this post, I ask the big questions: “What exactly is a flying fuck? And why does this fuck fly?”

Today, I published a piece that grew out of my new project, Shakespeare Confidential. This piece, “Great Moments in Swearing: The Taming of the Shrew,” gives you, you flap-eared knave, some sweary tips:

So, if you’re looking for some choice words, take a page from Petruccio’s playbook: Add some color, er, choler. Just avoid this whole “taming” and “shrew” business.

Stay tuned for more etymology and, if you’re following Shakespeare Confidential, my post on The Taming of the Shrew.

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Letters, bones, & sides: etymology around the web

Waiting in long lines this Black Friday? Stuck in holiday traffic? Still recovering from a food coma? Need a little break from your family? Well, I’ve got you covered with some etymological entertainment in a few of my posts published around the web. Be advised: some strong language ahead.

Ever wonder what the A in fucking A stands for? Awesome? Asshole? As some Canadians joke, eh? Learn your sweary alphabet over at Strong Language with my piece, “What the fuck is the ‘A’ in ‘fucking A’?” Slate’s Lexicon Valley also published this piece.

The US Thanksgiving dinner offers so many delicious side dishes. So, too, the English language, with its many side words. For example, did you know that sideburns are named after an American Civil War general? Over at Oxford Dictionaries’ blog, go inside side with my post, “The many ‘sides’ of Thanksgiving…and the English language.”

Did you break a wishbone this US Thanksgiving holiday? This custom seems innocent enough, but the term may just have a naughtier past, if we look to merrythought, an earlier British term for this bone. Read more over at Strong Language (and Slate’s Lexicon Valley) in my “Merry thoughts, naughty bits: Putting the ‘bone’ in wishbones.”

Finally, if you’re new to my blog, you may enjoy my piece last year on the globe-gobbling origin of the word turkey.

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