Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

5 Ways to a Faster PhD

This article has absolutely nothing to do with etymology or language (except in the tangential way that it is about professional studies in the humanities), but it’s something I wrote about the problem of how long it takes to complete a PhD in the humanities.

It’s probably not of much interest to those outside academia.

And sorry about the click-baity headline; that was the editor’s idea, not mine.

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star-spangled, spangle

We all know that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner in 1814 after watching the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

But most of us don’t know what a spangle is, or that Key wasn’t the first to refer to the U. S. flag as star-spangled.

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spangle

See star-spangled.

laneway

Sometimes you don’t notice dialectal terms until you move away from the region. After having lived in Toronto for six years and then having moved on to Texas, I have just noticed the term laneway. In current use it refers to a back alley running behind urban homes and is found chiefly in Ireland, Canada, and Australia.

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Emojis and the Law

Currently, my favorite podcast is Opening Arguments, in which interlocutors Andrew Torrez, a real-life lawyer, and Thomas Smith, not a lawyer, discuss topical legal questions.

While they typically stick to the law, in a recent episode they delved into the intersection of linguistics and the law. In the episode, the two hosts are joined by another lawyer, Denise Howell, to discuss how US law is treating the phenomenon of emojis. The discussion is quite good and free of the usual misconceptions about language that erupt when non-linguists take on the topic of language.

You can listen to it here.

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armadillo

The armadillo is an American mammal of the order Cingulata. There are a number of species of armadillo, of which the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is perhaps the most familiar to English speakers. That species is found in South and Central America and in the southeastern United States, as far west as Texas and as far north as Nebraska, and is the only species of armadillo common to the United States.

Armadillo has a straightforward etymology. Its name comes from its keratinous skin that forms a leathery, armored carapace about its head, upper body, and tail.  The word is a borrowing from Spanish, armado (“armored,” past participle of armar) + -illo (diminutive suffix). So an armadillo is literally a “little armored one.”

The word first appears in Spanish in Nicolas Monardes 1574 Historia Medicinal de las Cosas Que se Traen de Nuestras Indias Occidentales (Medical study of the products imported from our West Indian possessions). That work was translated into English three years later by John Frampton, which is the first known use of the word in English:

He is called the Armadillo, that is to saie a beaste armed.


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2016, s. v. armadillo, n.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, 2011.

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satellite

In his prepared statement to Congress of 8 June 2017 (released 7 June), former FBI Director James Comey wrote about a 30 March phone call he had with President Trump:

The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out.

Now that’s an unusual use of the word satellite, a fact that Comey was apparently aware of because of his use of quotation marks. The word is most commonly used in the astronomical sense of a body, either natural or artificial, that orbits around another. It’s also used in a political sense of a client-state of a larger power and in a few other senses where one thing is subservient to a larger entity. The word, however, is not typically used to refer to people. But this was not always the case.

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arch

I used the word arch the other day—not in the usual sense of a curve, but in the sense of jocular, waggishly clever—and immediately got to wondering where that word came from.

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akimbo

To stand akimbo is to have one’s hands on one’s hips with the elbows turned outward. The word dates to the fifteenth century, but its origin is unknown. There are, however, a number of competing hypotheses.

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