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.

love bug

I moved to Texas last August, and this spring I’ve been subject to two assaults. The first is by allergies, which I’ve experienced in more temperate climes, but which are especially bad in the Texas spring when everything is in bloom. The other is by swarms of Plecia nearctica, commonly known as the love bug.

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four-twenty, 420

There are many origin stories for 420, a slang term referring to marijuana, but unlike most slang terms, researchers have been able to pin down its actual origin with specificity. 420 was first used by a group of students at San Rafael High School in 1971, and it refers to the time of day, 4:20 pm, when they would meet to search for a mythical crop of marijuana plants.

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fiscal, procurator-fiscal

I have been watching Shetland lately, a police procedural set, obviously, on the Shetland Islands. One of the words that keeps popping up is fiscal. The detectives talk of referring matters to the fiscal or someone has to fly to Aberdeen to meet with the fiscal office. At first I thought it was just a reference to monetary matters—after all investigations cost money and a high-profile murder case is going to need a lot of that—but it soon became clear that the context the word was used had to do with the prosecution of crimes and matters relating to what in the United States would be handled by a coroner’s office. I had stumbled on a common word that means something quite different in the jargon of the Scottish legal system; fiscal is shorthand for procurator-fiscal, the title given to a prosecutor in Scotland.

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procurator-fiscal, fiscal

See fiscal

kick the bucket / bucket list

This evocative phrase meaning to die is of uncertain etymology. The most likely explanation is that it does not refer to a washing tub or pail, the sense of bucket that most of us are familiar with. Instead, it comes from another sense of bucket meaning a yoke or beam from which something can be hung. The imagery evoked by the phrase is that of an animal being hung up for slaughter, kicking the beam from which it is suspended in its death throes.

This sense of bucket probably comes from the Old French buquet, meaning a trébuchet or balance. The more familiar sense of pail is likely from the Old French buket, meaning a tub or pail.

Shakespeare uses this sense of the word in Henry IV, Part 2 (III.ii.261):

Swifter then hee that gibbets on the Brewers Bucket.

The imagery here is of someone hanging pails or casks of beer or ale on a yoke on another man’s or men’s shoulders. Shakespeare’s use of the verb to gibbet implies a gallows, as this verb was not a simple synonym for hang, but rather only used in reference to the gallows or to stringing someone up for moral opprobrium. The line is in the context of Falstaff describing Thomas Wart, a recruit to the army, saying his thin and death-like appearance is ideal for the army because in the speed and heat of battle, he is too thin for a musketeer to actually hit.

The earliest known use of the phrase to kick the bucket is from Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where it is glossed as:

To kick the bucket. to die. He kicked the bucket one day; he died one day.

It is often suggested that the term refers to a hanging, where the hanged stands on a pail which is then kicked out from under him. There is no evidence to support this and it probably got its start as speculation attempting to make sense of the phrase long after the sense of bucket meaning beam was forgotten.

The term bucket list, a list of things one wants to do before one dies, derives from kick the bucket, but it’s of much more recent origin. It comes from Rob Reiner’s 2007 film The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The term bucket list appears in 2006, before the movie’s release, but the early citations are all in reference to the film.


Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989 (with September 2013 additions), s. v. bucket, n.2; gibbet, v.

The Riverside Shakespeare, second edition, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, 1997, 948.

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bucket list

See kick the bucket.

nuclear option

In U. S. politics in recent years, the term nuclear option has been employed to refer to the elimination of the filibuster rule in the Senate. The Senate requires a supermajority, currently three-fifths or sixty votes, to invoke cloture and end debate on a subject and proceed to a vote. This rule gives the minority power considerable power to block presidential appointments and legislation. But where does nuclear option come from and why nuclear?

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Cloture is the act of ending debate on a subject in a legislative assembly, and most often today it’s used in reference to the United States Senate. The word is a modern borrowing from the French clôture, which was used by the French Assembly in the nineteenth century.

Its use in English dates to at least 1845, when it appears in Luther Stearns Cushing’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which refers to cloture votes taken in the British House of Commons.

Given that our current use of cloture is so closely associated with the US Senate, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that body’s adoption of the term is a twentieth century innovation. It wasn’t until 1917 that the Senate adopted a cloture rule requiring a two-thirds majority (65 votes, later 67) approval for ending debate. Prior to that, ending debate on a matter required unanimous approval and a single senator could filibuster a bill so long as his vocal cords held out. In 1975 the number of votes required for cloture was reduced to a three-fifths majority (60 votes). In 2013 the Senate reduced the number to a simple majority (51 votes) for approval of executive and judicial nominations, other than US Supreme Court nominees. In 2017 the Senate applied the simple majority rule to Supreme Court nominees as well.


Corpus of Historical American English, Brigham Young University, May 2016.

Filibuster and Cloture,” United States Senate, accessed 8 April 2017.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. cloture, n.

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CMOS and the Singular They

The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the major academic style guides in the US, is inching their way toward acceptance of the singular they, that is the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent when the gender of the antecedent is unknown, generic, or non-binary. The University of Chicago Press is publishing the seventeenth edition of their widely used manual in September, and they’ve begun announcing what some of the changes will be, among them a shift toward using they for singular antecedents, but it is less han a full-throated acceptance.

CMOS 17 lays out two uses of the singular they. The first is using they to replace the generic he, that is the use of the masculine pronouns when the gender is unknown or generic. Use of he in this context is considered sexist by many and has fallen out of favor by most publishers and style guides, but agreement on what to replace it with has not been achieved until quite recently, when they started to gain rapid acceptance. CMOS 17 “accepts” the singular they in informal writing and “does not prohibit” its use in formal writing, although it recommends other strategies to avoid using it if possible.

This is a change from CMOS 16 (2010), which reads in section 5.222:

On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers.

CMOS 17 also advises editors to be flexible and take the book’s or article’s context into account when deciding what pronoun to use. It also says that the author’s wishes should be “always receive consideration.” In other words, unless there is a very good reason not to use it, editors using CMOS 17 shouldn’t dictate to their authors on whether or not to use the singular they in generic contexts.

The second use is a topic that went unaddressed in earlier editions of the manual, the use of they to refer to a specific person who does not identify as either male or female, someone who does not conform to the the traditional gender binary. For all contexts, formal and informal, CMOS 17 says that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”

CMOS 17 says the singular they should take a plural verb, much like you does. (You was also originally a plural form, which took over from the singular thou.)

While its wording may not indicate it, this move toward accepting the singular they is a big shift. In practice, it means that most publishers who use CMOS will accept the singular they. By the time CMOS 18 hits the streets in another seven or so years, I predict that it will be a non-issue.

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