pissants & culprits

When I tell people I blog about etymology, the study of word origins, they often confuse it with entomology, the study of insects. For my latest contribution to Strong Language, this confusion can for once be forgiven: I follow the trail of pissant back to its etymological anthill. It turns out to be a bit stinky there. A little too coarse for you? Well, I class it up with some Chaucer. Just be careful where you place your hands. Head on over to the blog to read the piece, “Piss off, Aesop?” Be sure to check the latest from the blog’s other, very un-pissant writers.

Also, maybe you missed my piece on culprit on the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Oxford University Press has re-published it over at their site. Catch up and stay a while on the site; you’ll find some truly excellent writing there as well.

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Language “for the birds”: New guest post at Oxford Dictionaries

I have a new guest post up on Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog. This one is called “Language ‘for the birds’: The origins of ‘jargon’, ‘cant’, and other forms of gobbledygook.” Here is a sample:

‘Infarction’? ‘Heretofore’? ‘Problematize’CathexisDisrupt? Doctors have their medicalese, lawyers their legalese, scholars their academese. Psychologists can gabble in psychobabble, coders in technobabble. For people outside these professions, all their jargon seems ‘for the birds’ — all too true, if we look to the origin of the word jargon and its common synonyms. Let’s cut through all the jargoncantpatoisargot, and gobbledygook with a look at the origins of these terms naming the specialized languages used by particular professions or social groups.


The downsizing or leveraging of corporate speak may be a modern phenomenon, but English has been prattling jargon for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites jargon as early as the mid-14thcentury, naming ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’. But a usage a few decades later — in Chaucer’s late 14th-century Merchants Tale – suggests the word’s etymology: “He was al coltish ful of ragerye / And ful of Iargon as a flekked pie”. Full of jargon as a flecked magpie: no, that’s not the fustian speech of a pretentious intellectual, but ‘the chattering or twittering of birds.’ By 1651, the OED records jargon’s contemptuous sense of ‘any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms’, citing Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

The English jargon derives from the Old French jargon, also describing the ‘warbling of birds’. The Old French jargon was recorded in other forms, such as gargon, which may look a little familiar if you’ve ever gargled any mouthwash. For many etymologists take jargon back to the same source as gargle (and, due to their mouthy spouts on their cathedral roosts, gargoyle): garg-, a root imitating or echoing the sound of noises made in the throat. I wouldn’t recommend any mouthwash for your boss’s jargon any time soon.

Head on over to the blog to read the full post and learn what cantpatois, argot, and gobbledygook also have to do with birds. Be sure to check out the other great content on the OxfordWords blog and the always incredible Oxford Dictionaries.

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two years

Today, the Mashed Radish turns two. I think the blog is really growing up.

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

My brother, Andrew, has given my words shape, line, texture, and color with his deft and delightful doodles. They’ve really added a lot personality, don’t you think? Thanks, brother! A number of my posts have become cross-posts, as I have been contributing to the OxfordWords blog at Oxford Dictionaries and Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. I hope that these posts have lead you to some new writers, blogs, and projects. The group at Strong Language is a tremendously talented bunch, no? It’s an honor to be writing alongside them. Speaking of honor: Oxford Dictionaries Online? Let’s just say about every post here begins with three letters: the OED.

While my writing has branched out through those two blogs, I think my writing here has matured, focusing on topical etymologies as my own small lens to think about current events–and using current events as a lens to think about words and language. Speaking of branching out, so have my readers here, reaching close to 5,000 followers. Each like, each comment, each compliment, each question–each is a shared act of curiosity, of word nerd-dom, of the little, electrifying huh‘s and ah-ha‘s and I’ll-be‘s that make me excited to continue into year three. There is a lot of choice out there today. There is a lot to read and enjoy. There is a lot of noise competing for our attention. So, whether you are scrolling through a new post while waiting in line at the post office or reading it over a cup of coffee at your computer before kicking work into gear, thank you.

Above all, however, I want to thank my wife (and blog widow), Amanda, whom I never give enough credit for supporting me and my writing.

Year two 

Below, you can read through the list of words, roots, or topics I covered in year two. You get something of a buzzword, catchword, or keyword “news reel” for May 2014-15. I’ve linked each word to its post:

*gno- (part i)
*gno- (part ii)
*sekw- (part i)
*sekw- (part ii)
amnesty & coyote
rockets & missiles

comedy & tragedy

Bongo, Bongo
punctuation (part i)
Lexicon Valley
strategy & target
drubbing & shellacking
everyday Quechua: Coke, jerky, & DNA
ciao, slave!
Strong Language
twelve words of Christmas
“big goddamn car”
language (for your ears)
Davy Crockett in a hot-air balloon
hawk vs. patriot
Mardi Gras
swear jars & springtime
Background checks: everyday words with legal origins
Buddha, eBay, & ombudsmen
I have eaten ‘crap now’
errand & racy


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For my latest on the OxfordWords blog, I brave the etymological lair of “dragon,” where I discover everything from herbs, guns, and sores:

23 April marks St. George’s Day. While St. George is widely venerated throughout Christian communities, England especially honors him, its patron saint, on this day. Indeed, his cross, red on a white field, flies as England’s flag.

St. George, of course, is legendary for the dragon he slew, yet St. George bested the beast in legend alone. From Beowulf to The Game of Thrones, this creature continues to breathe life (and fire) into our stories, art, and language – even the very word dragon is hoarding its own gold. Let’s brave our way into its etymological lair to see what treasures we might find.

Read my piece, “Guns, herbs, and sores: inside the dragon’s etymological lair,” in full here.

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Background checks: everyday words with legal origins

I have a new post up on the OxfordWords blog, “Background checks: everyday words with legal origins.” From nude to innuendo, a great number of common words have a surprisingly legal record. Here’s my bit on mayhem:

Dating back to the 15th century, mayhem historically denoted a criminal offense. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, mayhem was ‘the infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair that person’s capacity for self-defence.’ In the late 1800s, American English expanded mayhem to ‘violent behaviour’ more generally, but it’s not until 1976 that the OED cites its modern usage for ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder.’ Mayhem emerged as a variant of maim, rooted in an Old French word for ‘to injure’ or ‘to cripple’ and which perhaps also supplied mangle. The ultimate origins of both mayhem and maim are unknown, but scholars have suggested roots in Indo-European verbs for ‘to cut’ and ‘to change’.

You may recall that I touched on the etymological mayhem of mayhem in my post on mad. For more of my verbal chicanery on the OxfordWords blog, click this hyperlink.

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OxfordWords guest post: culprit

Be sure to visit the OxfordWords blog, where I’ve guest-authored another post. This time, it’s on origin of culprit:

Amnesiadisguises, and mistaken identities? No, these are not the plot twists of a blockbuster thriller or bestselling page-turner. They are the story of the word culprit  At first glance, the origin of culprit looks simple enough. Mea culpaculpableexculpateand the more obscure inculpate: these words come from the Latin culpa, “fault” or “blame.” One would suspect that culprit is the same, yet we should never be so presumptuous when it comes to English etymologyCulprit is indeed connected to Latin’s culpa, but it just can’t quite keep its story straight.

Read “The curious case of culprit” in full.

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spices: guest post at Oxford Dictionaries

Today, for my 100th post, I am honored to share a guest post I did for the OxfordWords blog on the website for Oxford Dictionaries,  run, of course, by Oxford University Press (OUP).

Focusing on the origin of spice names, my piece is titled “Salaries, dragons, and musk: rooting around in the spice rack.” You might know the OUP operation for—oh, I don’t know—a little something called the Oxford English Dictionary, without which the Mashed Radish really wouldn’t be possible.

Check it out, and be sure to check out their blog in general. It always has edifying and engaging content, not mention excellent writing. I recently rocked out to a piece, “How the saxophone got its name: an A-Z of instruments.”

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