Questions tagged [etymology]

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

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Losing bottles and bottling out

ODO's definition for bottle includes the following: 2 [mass noun] British informal the courage or confidence needed to do something difficult or dangerous: I lost my bottle completely and ran ...
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Where does the term “Grand Slam” come from?

The four majors in tennis are known as Grand Slams. The "Grand" part clearly defines the prestige/size of the event but where do we get the word "Slam" from in this context? Basic research shows ...
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Does milk toast, milk-toast, or milktoast mean the same as milquetoast?

So of late I've been hearing a lot of people call other people (or their actions) milk toast. I thought it was weird because those two words should conjure up breakfast food and not "spineless". So I ...
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Why “USSR” but not “UCSR”?

USSR stands for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The adjective "Soviet" is formed from the noun "Soviet" which in Russian means "Council". (That was roughly the idea behind the revolution and USSR ...
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What is the origin of the idiom “Hong Kong dog”?

Does anybody know the origin of the idiom "Hong Kong dog"? EDIT: I'm more interested in how the idiom came into being rather than when it first appeared in mainstream media. Something like the guess ...
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Origin of idiom “wearing the < role > hat?”

What is the origin of the idiom "wearing the < role > hat"? Here is an example from the post Getting things done when you wear multiple hats in PookieMD's Blog: I wear many hats, and I suppose ...
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Origin of “as all get out” meaning “to the utmost degree”

At reference.com, all get out is glossed as “in the extreme; to the utmost degree”, and at thefreedictionary.com as an unimaginably large amount; “British say ‘it rained like billyo’ where ...
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Are “money” and “mind” cognates?

Wiktionary gives me these pieces of information: [money] [1] From Middle English moneie, moneye, from Old French moneie (“money”), from Latin monēta, from the name of the temple of Juno Moneta in ...
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Why (and for whom) does “unbeknown” become “unbeknownst”

I know there's been an earlier question What is the meaning and usage of the word “beknownst”?. But nothing there satisfies my curiosity about that extra -st at the end. I might have supposed the "...
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Etymology of “duck”

Etymonline and wiktionary don't seem to agree on that one. Many European languages have cognates (Ente, anatra, eend), but duck seems isolated. Where does English take duck from? Edit As Henry ...
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Origin of “deez nuts”

I really hate to ask this one, but... When I was a child, some thirty plus years ago, there was a popular juvenile game where you would try to trick a friend into asking a question that could be ...
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Why do we call it “gum arabic” and not “arabic gum”?

Not in use so much these days, "gum arabic" can still be found for sale in small bottles. Is there a reason why it is called "gum arabic" and not "arabic gum"? Gum Arabic - Gum arabic, also known ...
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What is the origin of using the word “our” preceding a first name when speaking directly to the person so named

In the BBC's Keeping Up Appearences, and Lark Rise to Candleford, "our Rose" and "our Laura" are used in both the third person and second person. The usage seems understandable as a third person ...
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Etymology of “humbug”

We were discussing humbugs in the office the other day (principally arguing over whether the ones with brown stripes were real humbugs), so I looked up the etymology and found plenty of information ...
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Just as there are a few nicknames for the U.S. (“Uncle Sam”, “Columbia”, “Yankee Land”), are there nicknames for England, or the U.K. for that matter?

This may look like General Reference, but I've googled "list of nicknames for England", "list of nicknames for the United Kingdom", and all I got was "list of city nicknames in the United Kingdom" or "...
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First use of the slang term “Scrub”?

The slang term "scrub", when referred to a person, can mean several things. It seems like the original usage as an adjective is someone who is not good at something - video games, sports, etc. I am ...
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Why do you survive 'by the skin of your teeth'?

If someone does something 'by the skin of their teeth', it means they just barely managed to do it. What is this idiom supposed to be referring to exactly, and how did it originate?
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Where did “sorry” get its vowel sound?

Sorry has two pronunciations in my dictionary: ˈsärē and ˈsôrē. The first is the one I am interested in because, as someone pointed out to me, the or pattern in English is nearly always pronounced as "...
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How did the “-ish” suffix come to denote the approximate meaning of the word it is attached to?

I only know the suffix is currently informalish. What is its provenience? What was the original meaning?
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What is actually being doubled when someone has to “double back”?

I have frequently heard this phrase and used it myself when I've gone in a wrong direction either physically or at work metaphorically. However, I wonder why the phrase is double back, since once you ...
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“Practise the piano” vs. “practise medicine”

Someone who practises medicine is a professional. Someone who practises the piano is still learning. How have these two apparently opposite senses of the word practise arisen?
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Origin of fag (meaning a cigarette in British English)

Aside from the offensive meaning, colloquial British English uses the term fag to indicate a cigarette. James has gone outside for a fag In my googling, I thought perhaps this originates from one ...
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How did the “dog days of summer” enter the English language?

The expression "dog days of summer" appears to derive from ancient Greek and Roman mythology according to which the star Sirius was indicative and probably responsible for the hottest days in summer:...
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Origin of “to be into [someone] for [a sum of money]”

"He's into me for fifty quid" means "He owes me fifty pounds". It's common enough in the UK, but I'm fairly sure I've heard it in American movies too (bucks or grand there, not quid, obviously), so I ...
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How much use did the word 'delete' get before the technological boom?

For as long as I can remember, I've only used the word 'delete' in a technological context. I'm fairly certain, most kids--or the generation before them--know exactly what the word means. Did this ...
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Why a stream full of trout but not a stream full of newt?

While there are many fish words that are pluralized by adding an -s (sharks, minnows, guppies, etc.), there are also many which do not inflect in the plural (trout, cod, bass, salmon, etc.) This ...
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How, or where, did “Ye God” become “egad”?

Looking up the etymology of 'egad' I saw that it is an archaic, euphemistic form of 'O God' or 'Ye God.' I assume this was a one off evolution, and the 'how' was some idiosyncratic shift in the ...
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What is the origin of “wake up and smell the roses”

Where did this saying come from, and what is its true meaning?
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Was “God be with ye” grammatically correct at the time?

Several dictionaries I have consulted, as well as another question here on English.SE, state that the origin of the word goodbye is “God be with ye”. Shouldn’t it be “God be with you” or perhaps “God ...
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What is the real history of the word “scenario”?

In a moment of revery, I pondered from what language the word "scenario" originated. Unsurprisingly, it's Italian in origin, according to etymonline, but the etymonline etymology surprised me - the ...
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Can one be “convicted” if one has a strong opinion?

Can "convicted" be used to qualify somebody who has a conviction (in the sense of strong opinion)? In that context it would be a close synonym of convinced or opinionated for example. It possibly ...
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To trust someone as far as you can throw them

Does anybody know the source of this idiom or have an explanation of how it originated? I know it means that the speaker does not trust the person in question, but I want to know the etymology of the ...
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How did 'countenance' evolve to mean 'support or approval'?

[OED:] The extension of sense from ‘mien, aspect’ to ‘face’ appears to be English: compare French use of mine. [ Etymonline for 'countenance (v.)' ] late 15c., "to behave or act," from ...
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If ______ gets outlawed, only outlaws will ______

What is the common origin of these and similar phrases, and how are they used? I've seen them in both silly and serious contexts. If guns get outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. If ...
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Why is a vehicle's empty weight called its “curb weight”?

Merriam Webster defines curb weight as: the weight of an automobile with standard equipment and fuel, oil, and coolant Why is this weight called a vehicle's curb weight?
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Is there a synonym for “defenestrate”?

Thesaurus.com lists no synonyms for defenestrate, and I can't think of any (aside from its definition). However, according to etymonline, it has been in use since 1620 (although Wikipedia refers to ...
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Origin of “Brexit” and “Grexit”

Everybody knows Grexit is an amalgamation of Greece and exit, which was later adapted into Brexit, but what are the earliest recorded instances of these words? A generation or two down the line people ...
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What is the origin of “have a gander”? (When meaning “look”.)

The phrase "have a gander" meaning "have a look" is common in the UK. (Also can be "have a goosey gander" or just "have a goosey".) What is the origin/meaning of this phrase? I always assumed that it ...
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Why does master mean 'man' and 'boy'?

Why does master mean both 'one having authority' and 'a young boy'? Merriam Webster definition of 'master': One having authority over another A youth or boy too young to be called mister ...
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Is there a word for the phrase “I don't know what I don't know”?

In my current job, I'm constantly trying to figure out when the next thing I don't know that I don't know is going to bite me in the butt and cause me to have to rework my code. I've been working on ...
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Origins of the current meaning of stick-in-the-mud

A quick web search shows several pertinent results for the etymology of the phrase stick in the mud, for example http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/stick-in-the-mud.html, which indicates early usages ...
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What does “Clyst” mean?

I live in the south west of England and there are many villages and roads that feature the word "Clyst". For example, Broadclyst, Clyst St Mary, Clyst Honiton and so on. What does clyst mean, and ...
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Why is “bloody hell” offensive or shocking?

It seems to me that if one describes hell as 'bloody', that is simply describing one of the properties you'd expect of it. So, why is 'bloody hell' used as an offensive or shocking phrase?
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Is “scurryfunge” a new word?

Recently I found the following definition for the word "scurryfunge": (Verb) Old English; to rush around cleaning when company is on their way over. Usage: I scurryfunge when I see my ...
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When did the term 'leverage' gain its verb/debt-related meaning?

I was discussing the much-abused business term leverage with a colleague and thought it would be interesting to know when the term as a verb entered popular use as opposed to the physics-related noun. ...
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Where does the phrase “hold down the fort” come from?

When someone speaks of "holding down the fort," it basically means keeping an eye on things temporarily while the person in charge is away. The expression seems rather nonsensical, though; a fort is ...
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What line do they refer to in the idiomatic expression “on the line”?

The idiomatic expression on the line has two main meanings according to the American Heritage Dictionary: Ready or available for immediate payment. (A related expression is Cash on the line) ...
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What is the origin of the phrase “from your lips to God’s ears?”

I used this phrase in a conversation with my wife yesterday and was surprised to learn that she had never heard of it. This led me to wonder where it came from.
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What is the etymology of the word “snooker”

I have heard that the word "snooker" originally meant "beginner" and was coined at the time when the game was first invented. Is there any truth in this theory?
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Origin of “Plumb” to mean “absolutely”

"plumb" as far as I know is a predominantly American usage, as in "That was just plumb crazy!" I thought plumb meant some kind of weight in bricklaying or such like, so how did it come to mean "...

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