Etymology is the history of the origin of words and phrases.

learn more… | top users | synonyms (2)

17
votes
5answers
1k views

Tom, Jake and Jenny aren't looking forward to Thanksgiving. Why?

And "Hen" (their mother) isn't much looking forward to it either. Why? I can answer that question myself, it's because they're all turkeys. Tom is an adult male turkey (also often referred to as a ...
17
votes
5answers
2k views

Why is the action of removing a digital file named “Delete”?

After reading these questions: Difference between "delete" and "remove" How much use did the word 'delete' get before the technological boom? Delete or Remove (ell.SE) ...
17
votes
4answers
2k views

Is there anything wrong with the word “denigrate”?

A few years ago there was a controversy over the word niggardly — a perfectly innocent word that unfortunately sounds like a racial slur. Given that controversy, is it safe to use denigrate, which ...
17
votes
3answers
15k views

Origin of “continental breakfast”

What is the origin of the term continental breakfast? Was it originally from British English and meant to describe a sub-par breakfast eaten by mainland Europeans?
17
votes
3answers
9k views

What does “packing heat” mean?

I believe it means “to carry a weapon”, but I would also like the phrase origins, if possible. So the full question is: What is the meaning of the phrase “packing heat” and what are its origins?
17
votes
3answers
3k views

Why “ain't I” and “aren't I” instead of “amn't I”?

Why do we say "ain't I" or "aren't I" instead of "amn't I"? What's the history of this usage? Are there any other similar patterns in English? I'm guessing it has something to do with the ...
17
votes
2answers
2k views

Why 'Mrs.' isn't read as 'mistress'?

Wasn't Mrs. short for mistress? Why do we read Mrs. as missus(or sometimes missis) instead of mistress?
17
votes
3answers
566 views

Is the verb “to steer” derived from driving oxen?

While answering another question, I read through the Online Etymology Dictionary's entry on steer: steer (v.) "guide the course of a vehicle," Old English steran (Mercian), stieran (West ...
17
votes
3answers
617 views

The origins and usages of “waffle”

Scottish dogs used to waff American voters waffled in 2000 British politicians “waffle on” for hours And Swedish children eat them on March 25th Waffle nowadays has basically three meanings: ...
16
votes
2answers
2k views

Isn't the word “shotgun” a self-redundancy? [closed]

I was googling the reason for why it's called "shotgun" to ride beside the driver when it suddenly hit me - why on Earth is the firearm called "shotgun"?! Is there any other kind of a gun than one ...
16
votes
2answers
915 views

If I invent a word, what language is it?

I invented a word using medical terminology, Latin and maybe a bit of Greek. (I'm not honestly sure of the etymology of all the morphemes.) Considering that this word is primarily not of English ...
16
votes
11answers
718 views

Calque pairs like 'praeternatural/metaphysical'

There are words (not paired normally) which are, say, close relatives with (sometimes) totally different lives. For example, praeternatural = (Lat. praeter [beyond] + natura [nature]) and metaphysical ...
16
votes
3answers
964 views

Where does “patching through” come from?

Where does "patching through" come from? And what did it originally mean? Usage: "I'm patching through a call from Mr. X"
16
votes
2answers
3k views

What's the reason for calling cheap seats at the theatre nosebleed seats?

I've never heard of this idiom before today and thought it was an especially curious one. What's the origin of calling the cheap seats the nosebleed seats at the theater?
16
votes
4answers
2k views

Why does the name 'John' have an 'h' in it?

I have always wondered this since I was little, and nobody seems to have asked or answered this before anywhere on the internet. What is the origin of the 'h', and why is it still with us?
16
votes
5answers
101k views

“Hear hear” or “here here”

Which one is it really: hear hear or here here? Where does the saying really come from?
16
votes
5answers
11k views

“Bob's your uncle” … no he's not!

What is the origin of the phrase "Bob's your uncle"? Is it used internationally or is this just a term used in the UK? I have often heard an extension of this phrase: "Bob's your uncle and Fanny's ...
16
votes
3answers
2k views

Wer, wie, was, wieso, weshalb, warum, all start with W in German. In English they don't, why?

Wer, wie, was, wieso, weshalb, warum. Wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm. This is the theme song to the German Sesame Street, IIRC It roughly translates to: Who, how, what, why, why ,why. If you ...
16
votes
6answers
23k views

Etymology of 'teaching grandma to suck eggs'?

This is such a strange idiom, all I could find with a Google search was the meaning of it, but not where it came from. When you're telling somebody something they already know well, it's sometimes ...
16
votes
2answers
2k views

Why did Old Testament scholars choose to employ “to know” in a sexual sense?

For those of us not familiar, the verb to know once had an archaic sexual sense, often found in the Old Testament, and as illustrated in the following story found in Genesis 19: 4 But before they ...
16
votes
3answers
3k views

Why “soft” drink?

Why are soft drinks, such as lemonade etc., called soft drinks?
16
votes
3answers
3k views

Origin of “he's 6 feet tall if he's an inch”

I have heard this pattern used before in American English: She's 6 feet tall if she's an inch. It was a gallon of blood if it was a drop. The baby was 10 pounds if it was an ounce. I ...
16
votes
4answers
13k views

Why is the term “depressed” often used to describe a button which is pressed?

In several books that mention GUI, keyboard, or mouse buttons (e.g. the book Programming Windows by Charles Petzold), the authors refer to the state of a pressed button as depressed. Why is this term ...
16
votes
4answers
1k views

How did English get the “What is your name?” construction?

As a dabbling polyglot, I've found myself learning the basics of several languages over the course of my lifetime. One of the first things that is taught in any language is personal introductions. I ...
16
votes
3answers
4k views

Origin/reason for the expression “on the bus” instead of “in the bus”

This is sort of a follow up to my question here. I was told a while ago that the reason why we use "on the bus" instead of "in the bus" is because back in the day buses were open, that is, they ...
16
votes
2answers
4k views

“I'm on the brew”

A conversation between two Scots: — What do you do for a living? — I'm on the brew. Assuming that I have the phrase right, what exactly does "on the brew" mean here? Based on the context, I ...
16
votes
3answers
3k views

Where's 'in-law' in mother-in-law from?

I've read that it's somehow connected with the Canon Law, but I'm not sure. I'm really interested in finding the answer.
16
votes
8answers
4k views

Where “summat” came from

In Scottish English, I know that the word summat is used in place of standard something. But what's the etymology of this pronoun? It seems unlikely to me that summat could be merely a variant ...
16
votes
5answers
16k views

Is “curiouser” in fact a word (like in the famous phrase “curiouser and curiouser”)?

Is curiouser, in fact, a word?                                 (Yes, this question is very short, but that’s really all I need to ask.)
16
votes
7answers
25k views

Why is a woman's purse called a “pocketbook”?

It's not a book, and it doesn't fit in anyone's pocket. Why does my brother-in-law insist on calling his wife's purse a pocketbook? I'm interested in the etymology, and in the chronological and ...
16
votes
1answer
9k views

Why “unequal” but “inequality”?

The opposite of "equal" is "unequal", yet there is no word "unequality". Why do we use "inequality" instead?
16
votes
4answers
7k views

Why does “fishwife” mean “mean woman”?

I have looked at the meaning of fishwife at Collins Language (I can't link directly to the definition) and it tells me: fishwife n (pl -wives) a coarse or bad-tempered woman with a loud voice ...
16
votes
4answers
5k views

How long has the f-word been in use as an abusive term?

When was the f-word 'invented'? Who invented it? Has it always had the derogatory meaning that it does today. Is it a recent invention?
16
votes
2answers
16k views

“Awesome” vs. “Awful”

How did the English language come to this? The play was awful. Is the complete opposite of The play was awesome. But if you break it down to awe followed by ful or some, it doesn't ...
16
votes
4answers
1k views

19th century English texts occasionally use Germanic-style number words, such as “four-and-twenty”. When did this fall out of use?

19th century English texts occasionally use Germanic-style number words, such as "four-and-twenty", but the same text would also have the modern "twenty-four" in places (see e.g. Conan-Doyle for ...
16
votes
4answers
3k views

Etymology of “div”

Acting like a div yesterday:- a stupid or foolish person I started to wonder how this term of abuse came about. Urban Dictionary has a quaint tale:- Actually originates from prison slang in ...
16
votes
5answers
10k views

Why do we “paint the town red”?

Why is the phrase "paint the town red" used to mean go on a colossal drinking spree? Does anyone know where it came from? Green's Slang Dictionary tentatively suggests a famous toot by the Marquis of ...
16
votes
1answer
976 views

What is the etymology of the term “private eye”?

The term private eye has widespread use to mean private detective or investigator. See, e.g., Oxford Dcitionary Online Several websites, such as this one, suggest that the term was based on a logo ...
16
votes
1answer
13k views

I'm British, so should I take a rain cheque?

I want to write the phrase "take a rain cheque" and am British. Should I therefore use the British spelling of the word cheque, or respect the baseball origin of the phrase "rain check" and use the ...
16
votes
4answers
16k views

Why “shrink” (of a psychiatrist)?

I know it originates from "head shrinking", but it doesn't help me a lot to understand the etymology. Why are psychiatrists called that? Is it like "my head is swollen [from anguish, misery, stress, ...
16
votes
3answers
525 views

What is the origin of “in a jiffy”?

What is the origin of "in a jiffy"? Etymology online Dictionary says origin unknown but speculates that it was slang (cant) for lightning and dates it as 1785. Wikipedia agrees but adds that the ...
16
votes
2answers
20k views

People's names as names for genitalia?

How did Peter, the surname, Johnson, and the nicknames for William(Willy) and Richard(Dick), come to mean penis? Was the first instance of these usages, related to a specific person? Are there more ...
16
votes
3answers
7k views

How did “pumpkin” come to be a term of endearment?

The logic of some terms of endearment is fairly clear. Sweetie, honey, cupcake all refer to food treats. However, the use of the term pumpkin as a tenderness seems somewhat counterintuitive. While ...
16
votes
2answers
591 views

/ð/ → /d/ shift in English

As a result of a /d/ → /ð/ shift, fæder became father, hider became hither and togædere became together, giving us our modern English forms. However, I know that murder and burden have archaic forms- ...
16
votes
1answer
2k views

Where did the names of English letters come from, and why are they all monosyllabic (except for “w”)? [duplicate]

I don't know too many languages, but the ones I know have more elaborate names for their letters than the monosyllabicity of names for English letters. (E.g. - I'll pick on Greek here - ay instead of ...
15
votes
10answers
3k views

Idiom: in my neck of the woods, AmE

Idiom: in my neck of the woods (AmE) The meaning of this expression is: in the region where I live. I once tried to find out how a word that referred to a part of the body could later develop into ...
15
votes
4answers
6k views

Origin of “Put up your dukes”

This link claims that one cannot be sure of origin of this phrase. Three explanations are given here, but they are not very convincing (I am not a native speaker). In one of our newspapers, ...
15
votes
3answers
18k views

What is the origin of “call a spade a spade” and does it have racial connotations?

Now that we know how to punctuate the phrase “call a spade a spade” I am curious where it originated and what the original meaning was. Also, the term “spade” can have negative racial connotations ...
15
votes
4answers
1k views

Are there resources or tools for “reverse etymology”?

EtymOnline is an excellent resource for online etymology searches. If, however, I am looking for lists of words sharing a given Latin, Greek or other root (which I call "reverse etymology"), I do not ...
15
votes
4answers
17k views

Why does Germany's English name differ from its German name?

Germany in German is Deutschland and the language is Deutsch. I'm used to words being anglicized, but why is there a complete replacement in this case?