Archive for the 'etymology' Category

Quickie: an irrepressible love for “maven”

February 1, 2008

I really really love the word maven. I don’t know why. It’s just something about the way it sounds, maybe, the drawn-out maaaaaaaaaay followed by the short ven. Maybe because there are few words that rhyme with it: haven, raven, shaven. Maybe I just like it. A maven, the dictionary tells us, is “A person who has special knowledge or experience; an expert.” It’s originally a Yiddish word, and we didn’t start using it in English until 1952. Heck, just read what has to say about the word:

What’s the word for a know-it-all who really knows it all? We didn’t have one until Yiddish gave us maven in the mid-twentieth century. A maven is more adept than a mere expert, more authoritative than a mere authority, sharper than a pundit, more up-to-date than a past master.

Since the word was introduced to English (with attestations going back to 1952), we have been blessed with a multitude of mavens…

Regrettably, this word was not in the English language when Edgar Allan Poe wrote his most famous poem. He would have found it useful: “Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou, I said, art sure no maven, Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore.”

English should be so lucky to get words from Yiddish! [source]

Ah, vocabulary…


Quickie: Etymology of “heretic”

January 28, 2008

One of my favorite etymologies (this is how you know I’m a nerd) is that of the word “heretic.” Merriam-Webster defines heretic as:

1: a dissenter from established religious dogma; especially: a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church who disavows a revealed truth

2: one who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine: see also NONCONFORMIST

There’s a negative connotation, though–as anyone who dissents from the established doctrine is therefore “rocking the boat” and otherwise causing trouble and contributing to the decline of the establishment.

So it’s wonderful that this word should come (in a long and complicated journey) from the Greek hairetikos–“able to choose.

“Let the Decadence Begin”

January 18, 2008


Godiva’ s new ad campaign, as seen on a poster in a Metro station:

A woman in a slinky dress kneels on the floor next to an enormous chocolate box. She’s tearing the ribbon off to get to the chocolates, which are at least the size of her head. Tagline: “Let the decadence begin.”

Now, BusinessWeek apparently has a problem with this slogan because Godiva isn’t decadent enough for them. But linguaphiles should point out another problem: the word itself.

“Decadence” comes from the same root word as “decay.” It means “a period of decline, downfall.” “Decadent,” a back-formation from decadence, is “marked by decline or decay.” The etymology is right there in your face.

In modern usage, the word “decadent” can be applied to self-indulgent pleasures (“this cake is so decadent”) but that definition is listed third on Merriam-Webster. I don’t hear the “decay” in most sentences using “decadence” or “decadent,” but this ad just seems to bring out the rot. There’s something sinister about the way the woman tears into the chocolate box (shades of Turkish Delight?), and of course, everyone knows that chocolate makes your teeth decay. It’s as if the ad is inviting the comparison between chocolate (not, on the whole, a bad food item) and this unwholesome rot. In this context, I get an extremely visceral reaction from this word and this ad.

Time to go buy some Cadbury…

My favorite words

November 5, 2007

flickr:Darwin Bell


“Twilight.” Actually a noun (nothing ever “gloams,” for example), the word comes from Scottish Middle English and is over 8000 years old.


“Interchangeable” (in that the two fungibles perform the same function). The odd one out in this list. I just love that it sounds like so many other common words (like fungus and fun) and that it’s practically impossible to guess the definition.


In the sense of “rhythmical beating, vibrating, or sounding” though that definition takes most (but not all) of the poetry out of it. From “pellere to drive, push, beat.” In British English mostly, “pulse” also refers to what we Americans call legumes. Mirriam Webster doesn’t note the UK/USA distinction, but google for “pulse recipe” and seven of the top 10 results will be from the UK or traditionally British-English-speaking places.


“Origin unknown.” Yeats liked this word:

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
[The Second Coming – more here]

I didn’t pick these words for any specific reason or theme. They’re just fun, solid words (with the exception of “fungible,” I suppose). One of my personal missions (vendettas?) is to use as many “solid” words as possible. A quick Google search indicates that I may be the only person on the planet who uses that distinction, which makes me either unique or crazy. I’ll write about solid words in the coming days, so stay tuned!

Quickie: The origin of “to 86” and other diner numbers

October 15, 2007

This classic Straight Dope has the skinny on the origins of the phrase “to 86.” It was, apparently, “diner code,” and Cecil Adams gives other examples. Some seem faintly ridiculous–“19 = ‘I yearn for a banana split'”–but it’s the best etymology I’ve seen for this phrase.