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.

white shoe

The adjective white shoe is used in the United States to denote the establishment, the privileged, moneyed, and usually conservative, elites who traditionally run American businesses. But why white shoes?

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yodel

Yodeling is associated with Alps, so it’s no surprise that the English word is borrowed from German. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb to yodel as “to sing or call using a distinctive style of vocalization characterized by repeated rapid alternations of pitch between the low chest voice and the high falsetto or head voice.” The German verb jodeln dates to at least the eighteenth century, and the older Middle High German jolen meant to sing loudly and wildly.

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run it up the flagpole

The phrase run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes is credited to Madison Avenue admen of the 1950s. The phrase, and many others like it, is used in the context of brainstorming or “spitballing ideas” and refers to making a suggestion to see if people like it.

The earliest use of the phrase that I can find is in the April 1957 film 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Reginald Rose, where it is uttered by Juror #12, a feckless advertising executive played by Robert Webber:

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nimrod

The use of nimrod to mean an idiot or inept person is often said to come from young viewers misinterpreting a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Warner Brothers cartoon does play a role in the word’s history, but it’s not Bugs Bunny, but rather Daffy Duck, who utters the word. Nor did Daffy invent the insult, rather it comes from a slow change in the word’s meaning over the years.

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Major League Team Names

It’s called the “great American pastime,” and baseball has been an integral part of life in the United States for, give or take, the last 160 years. So here are the origins of the names of the Major League Baseball teams, past and present.

For those not familiar with the structure of American professional baseball, the Major League Baseball consists of, and has consisted of since the early days of the twentieth century, two leagues, the National League (founded 1876) and the American League (founded 1901). But at various times, particularly in the nineteenth century, other leagues existed, and I make reference to them below when needed. There are also a number of minor leagues, which now exist primarily as “farm” teams to develop player talent for the majors. And until the middle of the twentieth century, professional baseball in the U.S. was segregated, with African-Americans not permitted to play in the two major leagues. There were separate Negro leagues, with the best teams every bit the equal in player quality with the white, major league teams. Following the integration of baseball with Jackie Robinson playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the Negro leagues folded. Where I could find the information, I’ve included the origins of Negro league team names.

The dates listed after the team names are the dates the name came into baseball use, not the date the modern organization that currently uses the name was founded.

Oakland Athletics (1859). Athletics is probably the oldest sports team name still in use, dating to 1859 when an amateur Philadelphia team dubbed themselves the Athletics. The name was used, off and on, throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century for a number of professional, Philadelphia teams. The modern American League franchise played in Philadelphia (1901-54) and Kansas City (1954-67) before landing in Oakland in 1968. Since moving to the Bay Area, the name has alternated back and forth between Athletics and A’s, depending on the whim of the moment. 

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plead, pleaded, pled

The verb to plead, meaning to make an appeal or argument, especially in a legal setting, comes to us from the Anglo-Norman French plaider. It makes its English appearance in the thirteenth century. The verb would be just another unremarkable borrowing from French following the Norman Conquest, but the verb has two past-tense and past-participial forms, pleaded and pled, and there is often wrangling over which is correct.

Both past-tense forms are equally old, so neither has primacy of age. But the irregular form pled disappeared in standard British usage, being retained only in Scottish and other dialects, but not before it made its way across the Atlantic and becoming firmly planted in American English. So in North America, both pleaded and pled can be found in both spoken and written English. Neither one can be considered “incorrect,” although the regular pleaded is by far the more common form.


Sources:

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage, third edition. Oxford University Press, 2009, s. v. pleaded; *pled; *plead.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. 1994, s. v. plead.

Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2014, s. v., pleten (v.), pleien (v.(2))

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition. June 2006, s. v. plead. v.

[Discuss this post]

Is Two Better Than One?

My Facebook feed has filled with people posting about this Washington Post article about a study that purportedly shows that “science” has shown that typing two spaces after a period is superior to typing just one. The number of spaces that should follow a period is one of those eternal topics of debate, with peevers and pedants on both sides assuredly proclaiming that their position is the correct one, but almost never with any evidence to show that they are, in fact, correct. So the idea that a study has definitively settled the question would be a welcome relief. The trouble is, the study in question does no such thing.

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Butterick’s Practical Typography

This website is a wonderful resource for all things typographical, that is fonts, font sizes, spacing, and all those subjects relating to how a document looks.

https://practicaltypography.com/

April fool

No one knows the origin of April Fool’s Day or the expression April fool. The expression appears in the seventeenth century, and the association of the month April with fools, especially those foolish because of love or lust, appears to have arisen on the European continent and was imported to Britain in the seventeenth century. 

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