Tag Archives: word origins

Table for six – the Hooligan party . . .

You may have seen the recent news story about a Russian punk rock band, Pussy Riot, that was charged with hooliganism for staging a performance critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hooliganism? You can be arrested for that?

While you have no doubt heard of young thugs being referred to as hooligans in this country, to be arrested for being one sounds a bit silly to us: “What’r you in for?” “I’m a hooligan.” Sounds like something you should be sent to bed for without supper, not incarcerated.  In Russia, however, hooliganism is basically what they call political dissent or some other disrespectful act that the authorities have no tolerance for. It’s the adult version of acting up.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word’s origin is uncertain. It first appeared in newspaper articles of the late 1890s in loose reference to a gang (Hooley’s Gang), and it was also mentioned in a popular song of the day that told of a rowdy Irish family – the Hooligans. There was also a popular comic strip in 1900 that featured a hapless hobo called Happy Hooligan, so the name has several connections to this time period.

It occurred to me that “Hooligan” would be a most unfortunate last name to have (not unlike “Hitler.”) So I did some research. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the last name “Hooligan” is held by less than one hundred people, and possibly not by anyone (a full list of names is not available, only aggregates).

I do know this – if my last name were Hooligan (I am Irish, after all), I’d be soooo tempted to name my firstborn “Happy.”

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Well, It Brought Me Good Luck

I was checking out the strange-looking London Olympics mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, today and got to wondering about the word “mascot.” I was surprised by what I found, especially as a fan of opera.

What do mascots have to do with opera, you ask? Well, it seems the word comes directly from an opera – an operetta, actually – entitled “La Mascotte” by the largely forgotten French composer Edmond Audran.  I had never heard of this one, as it’s a bit obscure and not even listed in my Grove Book of Operas, the standard reference.  I also had trouble tracking down a recording of it. The opera is about a farm girl who is believed to bring good luck to whoever she belongs to, as long as she remains a virgin (it’s a French comic opera, so you can imagine the scenarios . . .) It was quite popular in its day – which was the late 1800s – and led to the use of the Anglicized word “mascot” to mean something that brings good luck, which is what mascots were originally intended to do for sports teams.

The “mascotte” in the title is derived from a French slang term for witch, “masco.” The operetta is quite tuneful and lighthearted, not unlike the work of Offenbach– I’m listening to it now, a welcome discovery thanks to my curiosity about a word.

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He also invented the one-word name

Quick – what is the last name of the man who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper?

If you said “da Vinci,” you’re wrong. Actually, it’s a trick question. The man who painted these masterpieces had no last name. He simply went by “Leonardo.” He was the illegitimate child of a wealthy and respected gentleman, which helps explain why he was not honored with the family name. The moniker “da Vinci” means “from Vinci,” the area where he was born. This helped distinguish him from other Leonardos, and was a naming convention his father used as well. It is therefore improper to refer to him as “da Vinci,” which makes no grammatical sense (even though everyone will know who you’re talking about). The popular book and movie “The da Vinci Code” makes this error, basically translating as “The From Vinci Code.” A better, and correct, title would have been “The Leonardo Code,” which, to my mind, would have worked just as nicely. It is also acceptable to refer to Leonardo as “Leonardo da Vinci,” but that would have made for a long book title.

His contemporary, Michelangelo, also went by his first name. He did have a last one, which probably only art students know – Buonarroti. The famous Dutch painter Rembrandt may appear to be using his last name, but actually it is his first. His last name was van Rijn.

Ask your friends the opening question above and see if any of them get it right.

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By Any Other Name


Did you ever wonder where certain products got their name? Scotch tape. Kleenex. Q-tips. We use these products every day, but they are so familiar that we may seldom ponder why they are called what they are.

Why is a swab of cotton on the end of a stick a “Q” tip? Why not an “A” tip or a “B” tip? Turns out the “Q” stands for quality. The product was originally named “Baby Gays,” as they were mostly used on babies. No one seems quite sure where the “gays” part came from, including the manufacturer (Unilever), but hey, it was the 1920s. Just another case of words changing meaning over time.

Scotch tape, made by the 3M company, got its name partly because the company’s founders were Scottish. There is also a legend that their new 1930s invention, cellophane tape, was accused of shoddy construction since it only had adhesive on the edges and not the entire surface. It was therefore “scotch,” or made on the cheap. The M’s in “3M,” incidentally, stand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, as the company started out in the mining industry.

As for Kleenex, the name is meant to denote “clean.” The “K” prefix and “-ex” suffix are borrowed from the Kimberly-Clark company’s first consumer brand, Kotex feminine products. Curiously, Kleenex were not originally intended as disposable handkerchiefs, but for the removal of cold cream. The nasal use significantly increased their popularity and sales.

All of these products had their birth in the 1920s and ‘30s, and all have become household words for their particular type of product, regardless of the trademark of the manufacturer.

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One fell swoop

There is an in-house commercial that plays over the P.A. system at work that uses the phrase “one fell swoop.” Since I hear this commercial dozens of times a day, the phrase has been sticking in my mind. What the heck is a “fell swoop?”

Turns out this phrase, like so many others in our language, originated with my favorite writer, William Shakespeare. He apparently was the first to use it, in the tragedy Macbeth. In this play, based on a real Scottish king, there are many tragic events, but perhaps the most heinous is the brutal murder of Macduff’s wife and children. When he learns of this crime, Macduff asks, “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?” (IV.iii.218).

Here, “fell” means savage or deadly. The word is rarely used as an adjective today, which is why it may sound a bit odd in this expression. However, the next time you hear it, you’ll know where it came from. Macbeth is also the source of the saying “what’s done is done,” as well as the movie/book title “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” And for all you Star Trek fans out there, it was the source of the original series episode title “Dagger of the Mind,” one of many Trek titles taken from the bard.

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May Day


May Day. Maypoles. Cinco de Mayo. What’s up with all these references to May? Today we’re going to look at that first one, May Day. You may know this as some sort of vague holiday, and also as a radio distress signal. But where did these originate?

Like many holidays, May Day is pagan in origin. It is basically a celebration of Spring (or summer, depending on where you live). In many places it is quite a lively celebration, and yes, there is often dancing around a “maypole.” The reason this all may be unfamiliar is because we don’t really celebrate May Day in this country, though we do celebrate Cinco de Mayo (“fifth of May”), a holiday to recognize Mexican heritage. It marks the date of a Mexican victory over France in 1862.

To further complicate matters, “May Day” is also celebrated, especially by organized labor, as a worker’s holiday. It marks the day in 1886 when the workday was to be shortened to eight hours.

But my larger concern here is how “May Day” came to be an international distress call, which actually is one of my favorite word-origin stories. What connection is there between a celebration of Spring and a pilot in distress? Absolutely none. What we have here is a case of homophones – words that sound alike but mean different things. The “mayday” call was originated in 1923 by a British radio officer, and it has nothing to do with the month of May. People who use the distress call probably don’t realize that they’re essentially speaking French. The call comes from the French phrase “m’aider.” And what does that mean?

“Help me.”

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It’s Not Just an Abbreviation for Oklahoma


We’re going to look at O.K. today, okay?

This “word” (or, depending on the form used, these initials) came on the scene around 1840. There was something of a fad at the time of using initials to represent words, much like we do today with Internet slang (brb, lol, lmao, etc.). “O.K.” was initialized shorthand for “orl korrect,” which itself was a slang alteration of “all correct.” Aiding the popularity of this shorthanded notation was its use by telegraphers, not unlike those who take shortcuts with the language today when texting – r u going to b there?”

There was also another development around this time that popularized the initials “O.K.” and that was the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was from Kinderhook, New York, and had the nickname of “Old Kinderhook.” A group of Democrats formed the “O.K. Club” to promote Van Buren’s reelection, and the use of the slogan/chant “OK!” was instrumental in popularizing these initials to mean what they do currently: all right. Van Buren ultimately lost reelection to William Henry Harrison, who only served in office for one month before his death from pneumonia.

It would be another fifty years before the word would take the form of “okay” in print, and thirty more still before we would see “okey-dokey” in the early 1930s. “A-okay” came on the scene with the space program of the early 1960s, used by astronauts (and picked up by newsmen) to mean “all okay.”

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Suffering Together

Why is it when someone dies, we offer our condolences, in plural? Can’t we just offer our condolence and have that be sufficient? Are we trying to unconsciously make it sound better by making it plural? If so, then why do we offer our sympathy, and not our sympathies? We don’t say, “You have my sympathies!”

I’m not trying to make anyone paranoid about what to say at such a difficult time. It’s hard enough as it is to say anything that adequately expresses our sentiments – mere words seem to fall flat in these situations.

“Condolence” comes from the Latin condole which means to suffer together. As such, it certainly is an appropriate word for expressing grief over a death. As for its employment mostly in the plural form, this seems to simply be a matter of historical usage. Prior to the nineteenth century it was mostly used in the singular. If you’d like to be a trendsetter (or a traditionalist?), it is perfectly legitimate to offer either condolence (in the singular) or even sympathies (in the plural). If nothing else, your sentiment will stand out from the many others the bereaved will receive.

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Fun with(out) prefixes

Do you ever hear a word like “suburbs” and wonder if there are “urbs?” Or “uncanny,” and wonder if something can be “canny?” Can you “iterate,” and not just reiterate?

In most cases, the answer is yes. While the form without the prefix may not be as popular as the one with it, it is often still a valid word. In fact, it is a bit strange – uncanny, if you will – that the prefixed form is sometimes more popular.

“Urbs” is indeed a valid word to refer to the urban areas of a region. You won’t find it in a standard dictionary, and it’s rather obscure, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s legit. Same goes for canny, which is a little more common. However, in this case, its current meaning is not the opposite of “uncanny.” “Canny” means shrewd, whereas “uncanny” means strange and unfamiliar. As is the case with so many words, meanings change over the years, and “canny” used to mean safe or fortunate, among other things.

And “iterate” is one of those strange words that means the exact same* thing as its prefixed cousin, “reiterate:” to reassert something. It’s not unlike “regardless” and “irregardless.” No difference.  It’s all a matter of preference and desired degree of emphasis.

So, to reiterate (sorry, “iterate” just doesn’t sound right), the next time you encounter a prefixed word, drop the prefix and see if you end up with a word you’re familiar with. If you don’t, look it up to see if it’s valid – and be sure to share your findings here!

*Oops . . . I made a boo-boo. This is an ungradable word, meaning it shouldn’t be modified. Things are either the same, or they’re not –  they can’t be the “exact same.”  We’ll talk about this next time! 


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A Monk/ey’s Favorite Beverage?

In the interest of being somewhat topical, I thought I’d discuss the name of a warm winter beverage that clearly is of Italian origin (and as such may present a spelling challenge as well).

Cappuccino – with double p’s and double c’s – is a frothy coffee beverage made with steamed milk. The milk gives it a light brown color (unlike regular coffee), which, like a “Black and Tan,” is actually where its name comes from.

Let me explain.

In Italian, a cappuccio (no ‘n’) is a hood or hooded robe. These robes are worn by many friars, particularly those of the Franciscan order and by an offshoot of the Franciscans, the aptly-named Capuchin monks. Because the light brown color of these robes resembles the color of the frothy coffee beverage, it came to be called cappuccino or “little hood.”

Capuchin monkeys get their name from the same word, but for a reason other than color. They have a patch of dark fur on top of their heads that resembles a hood or cap. Which got me wondering: does our English word “cap” derive from the same Italian word? In a roundabout way, yes. It actually goes back farther, to Latin (cappa), which of course is also where the Italian language got “cappuccio.”

Now if only I could find a picture of a Capuchin monkey drinking a cappuccino . . .


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