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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 106   

November 13, 2000
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New Ask Us Theory About
Spotlight Words on our minds this week.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column.
curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner Gripes and grumbles from whining pedants Barb Dwyer and Malcolm Tent.
Sez You . . . Wherein we graciously permit challenges to  our profound erudition.
NEW! Laughing Stock Funny stuff we occasionally stumble across.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the days of the week: Sunday

In the past two issues of Spotlight we examined origin of the seven day week and of the day-names.  We will take a look at some words and phrases associated with the first day of the week, Sunday.

First of all, we should clear up the difference between Sunday and the sabbath.  Sabbath is the Jewish holy day and lasts from dusk Friday to dusk Saturday and the name is the English form of the Hebrew shabboth (from the Hebrew root shobath "to rest").  Most Christians recognize the distinction between Sunday and "the sabbath" and Catholics are specifically enjoined not to confuse the two.  Also, Muslims, whose holy day is Friday, call Saturday "the sabbath".  So, where did the confusion arise?  The very first Christians were a Jewish sect who attended the synagogue each sabbath to worship with other Jews.  Then, on the following day, they would meet with like-minded Jews for their Christian worship.  This is how Sunday became a holy day for Christians but, as Sunday is a day of rest in most Christian societies, some Christians assumed that it was identical with the Jewish "day of rest", the sabbath.

Latin had two words for Sunday, Mithraists called it dies solis but Christians called it dies domenica ("day of the lord"). Helios - the sun as god Unfamiliarity with the Irish name Dominic led an English scribe to record the name of the Abbey of Saint Dominic ( at Drogheda, Co. Cork) as St. Sunday's Abbey in an Elizabethan document.  St. Monday, is not a person, though.  Workers were said to keep St. Monday if they didn't show up on Monday morning because of a hangover.

Many Sundays have special significance in the Christian calendar such as Pentecost which is also called Whit Sunday or Whitsun because new white clothes were worn in church parades that day.  Rogation Sunday, also called Gang Sunday (from gang "going, journeying") because of its liturgical processions or Cantate Sunday after the first word of the introit to the mass said on that day.  There are several other Sundays named like this, including Quasimodo Sunday.  The introit to the mass which is celebrated on this day begins Quasimodo gentili infantes "as if we were new-born children".  The newborn child Quasimodo (Latin "as if"), the celebrated fictional hunchback, was supposed to have been abandoned at Notre Dame cathedral on this Sunday.

In addition to these religious Sundays, America has Mother's Day and Britain has Mothering Sunday.  Brits often assume that these two are one and the same but Mothering Sunday is far older than Mother's Day.  The Cultivated anemones British tradition is a relic of the days when farmers hired laborers and servants, many of them children, at annual "hiring fairs" held in the fall.  In the spring, as soon as the weather permitted, the children would be allowed to walk back home to visit their parents.  This could be a journey of just a few miles but without good roads it may have taken hours.  Along the way, the children would pick flowers for their mothers.  As anemones bloom  at that time of year they became the tradition floral offering for Mothering Sunday.  The anemone is also called "wind flower" and its name comes from the Greek anemos "wind" (as in anemometer "wind gauge").

Until very recently, Sunday was working people's only day of rest.  This resulted in the expressions Sunday driver and Sunday painter.  Most folks who go to church like to wear their Sunday best clothes (also known as Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes), a concept which inspired Sunday punch, a powerful punch which is saved for special occasions.

Here is an old recipe for Peach Sundae:

  • Ice cream, vanilla or peach... 5 ounces. 

  • Crushed or sliced peaches... 2 ounces. 

  • Serve with a spoon. 

  • Pear, orange, raspberry and other fruit sundaes are made by adding the syrup or fruit to the ice cream.

[from A Modern Guide for Soda Dispensers, 1897]

The story of how this ice-cream concoction got its name is probably the most popular and well-known of all etymologies.  As is well known, the city fathers of Evanston, Illinois passed a city ordinance forbidding the sale of ice-cream sodas on a Sunday.  The enterprising proprietor of the town's ice-cream parlor responded by serving his "ice-cream soda" without soda - just ice-cream and fruit.  Initially, he called this a Sunday but bowed to local pressure and called it a Sundae so that it would not seem  blasphemous.

This, as we said, is well-known and, like many well-known "facts", it's probably untrue.  The city of Ithaca, New York and the state of Connecticut also claim the honor of inventing the Sundae.  It's not only the place of its origin which is in dispute, there are considerable variations in other aspects of the story.  One version has it that a sundae is so called because it was a dish served on Monday made of Sunday's left-over ice-cream.  Even the spelling isn't free from debate - one of the earliest references spells it Sundi.

Words for Sunday

Translated from Babylonian
Sanskrit ravivara "day of the sun"
Tamil ynayiru


From contact with Mithraism
Ancient Greek Helios  sun god
Apollo god known as "Lord of the sun"
Latin dies solis "day of the sun"
Welsh dydd sul


From Mithraism but indirectly, via Teutonic Sunnundag
German Sonntag "day of the sun"
English Sunday
Dutch Zontag
Swedish Soendag
Danish Soendag
Modern Icelandic Sunnudagur


From Christianity
Latin dies domenica "day of the Lord"
Ancient Greek  kuriakos
Modern Greek  kiriaki
Italian Domenica
French Dimanche
Spanish Domingo
Portuguese Domingo
Irish Gaelic di-Domnhnaich



Russian Voskriesienie "resurrection day"
Hungarian Vasarnap
Polish Niedziela "not working"
Czech Nedele
Bulgarian Nedelya
Chinese li pai tien "of the week, the day"
Arabic yomm el hadd "first day"

So much for Sunday.   [Phew!]  We will eventually address the other days of the week but next Spotlight will be devoted to another topic entirely.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Steven Kahn:

My wife just asked me what the letters in the word fob stand for (you know, the little key-chain thing that locks and unlocks your car doors). I told her I haven't the foggiest, although I have always wondered about it. She then made fun of me because she says I think I know all the answers. Help me out here!

So, Steven, your wife told you that the letters f, o and b stand for something and you believed it, eh?  Our advice is to humbly submit to your better half and beg her to divulge her answer.   There is good reason for this.  For one thing, you'll look good by deferring to her opinion (always a good idea.) but, more importantly, she's wrong, fob is not an acronym.  So, either she has an incorrect answer which you can prove wrong, or she is bluffing and has no answer at all.  Either way, you win.

OK, don't tell your wife that we told you this but fob originally meant a small pocket, especially a secretA fob-chain with "fob" pocket.  A watch carried in a small vest pocket (that's "waistcoat pocket" for Brits) was therefore called a fob watch and the chain attached to the fob watch was called a fob chain.  Frequently the fob chain would have an ornament of some kind on the furthest end from the watch.  Sometime in the late 19th century, the fob chain was assumed to be named after this ornament and the ornament became known as a fob (because it was on a fob chain).  If that's not entirely clear we suggest reading it again... but take notes this time. 

Most readers will have a set of keys which, most likely, reside on a key-ring.  Most people's key-ring has some object dangling from it often purely decorative.  It could be a simple leather tag with a car-dealer's name or a yellow plastic Tweety-pie or a miniature soccer ball.  We've all seen them, most of us have them, but what do you call these things?  Simple.  They are called fobs, by analogy with those decorative things on the end of fob chains.  These days, there are even fobs which open garage doors.

While f-o-b isn't an acronym it is an abbreviation.  F. O. B. (pronounced eff-oh-bee) means "free on board" and F. O. B. S. (pronounced eff-oh-bee-ess) means "fractional orbital bombardment system" but we can't imagine that your wife had either of those in mind.

From Jack Davis:

I have been asked by a friend of mine if I know the etymology of a word and I am stumped. Perhaps you would like to look at it?

It relates to a special equation which describes mirrors, cannonballs and other things in nature: the quadratic!  It sounds like there might be some fours in there because of the quad but alas the equation contains only second order terms. So why do we call something with only twos in it quadratic?  I am at my wits end with this one.  Perhaps you are too!?

Us our wit's end?  Never.  Not only does the wit flow freely here at TOWFI Towers but we also have the answer to your question.  A quadratic equation is so called because it contains a number which is squared (Latin quadratum "square").  When a number is multiplied by itself it is said to be "squared".

Ancient Greek and Roman mathematicians thought in visual terms, if a square floor has ten tiles on each side then it has 100 (i.e. 10 x 10) tiles.  That is why we say that "10 squared" is 100.

Incidentally, if an equation is called quadratic when it contains something raised to the second power (x times x), what do you call an equation which contains something raised to the fourth power (x times x times x times x)?  Answer: quartic.

From Stephanie Cates:

This may be a ridiculous request, but I am submitting it anyway.  I have heard the slang phrase Gordon Bennett used by the English to express disbelief.  I would dearly love to know who Gordon Bennett was/is and how his name came to be used in the sense aforementioned.  I hope this query is one which you can answer.  Oddly enough, it is not listed in the American Heritage Dictionary!

You're right, Stephanie, it is a ridiculous request but we'll answer it anyway.  Seriously, we're not surprised that you couldn't find it in an American dictionary as it is peculiarly British.  Cockney, actually.

The expression Gordon Bennett is not so much "slang" as a "minced oath".  As we explained in a Spotlight, "minced oaths" are used to avoid saying a blasphemous or otherwise offensive phrase.  In this way Jeepers Creepers substitutes for Jesus Christ.  

As you are no doubt aware, Cockneys are non-rhotic.  That is, they don't pronounce an r when it's before a consonant.  Thus they pronounce Gordon as gawdon, the first syllable of which sounds, to a Cockney, just like GodGordon Bennett, then, is a way of saying "God!" without causing (too much) offense.

Who was he?  Gordon W. Bennett was a U.S. newspaper magnate with a flair for publicity.  He sponsored various international sporting events including a race to circumnavigate the globe which inspired the movie "The Great Race".

From Richard Rosser:

What is the meaning of mess as it pertains to the military? Where did it originate?

Well, the Indo-European root *(s)meit(e)- is as close as we come to the original form.  It meant "to throw" and was the origin of the Latin verb mittere "to release, to send, to throw".  This Latin word gave us quite a lot of words including mass, mess, mission, admit, missile, commit, dismiss, emit, omit, permit, promise, remit, submit, surmise and transmit.

Medieval servants "mess up" their masters' foodFrom the Latin sense of "to send" came the Italian messo meaning "food sent to the table".  The King James Bible uses mess in this sense in the tale of Esau, who sells his birthright for  a mess of pottage ("a dish of stew").  Mess also meant a group of companions who ate together and this is the essential meaning of the naval and military usage.  The phrase "companions who ate together" is actually redundant as the original meaning of companion was "mess-mate" (Latin cum "with" + panis "bread").

In the 18th century, mess was less in human contexts but was used to mean food given to animals and in the 19th century, the meaning of "a stew" was  lost altogether.  Instead its meaning degenerated to "a hodge-podge of ingredients, a muddled confusion".  From there it was all downhill.  In the 1830s it was understood to mean "an unwelcome situation" (as in to get into a mess) and by 1850 meant "a dirty or untidy condition".  Finally, in the 20th century it came to mean "feces, excrement", and by 1928 Kipling could say "It [a dog] made a mess in the corner".

From "food" to "feces" in 300 years.  Isn't English wonderful? 

From Jackie Carrell:

Teachers at Sarah Scott Middle School were discussing words that our grandmothers said that no longer seem to be used when the word davenport ("couch, sofa") came up. Why davenport? We were curious to what the connection may be. A town that made sofas named Davenport?

It's fortunate that you said "couch, sofa" because in the 19th century there was a style of writing desk called a davenport.  Both the writing desk and the couch are assumed to be named after the craftsmen who invented them.  Sorry, no definitive answer this time.

The earliest written reference we can find to a davenport couch is 1897 in the Washington Post.  Oddly, in the earliest record of the writing desk (1853) it is spelled Devonport, like the place.  (It's a port.  In Devon.)  Just to add to the glorious confusion, Davenport (with a capital D) is a kind of Staffordshire china which was made between 1793 and 1882 by the Davenport family of Longport.

In Britain, a davenport couch was called a Chesterfield.   This word was used for a kind of overcoat, too, both being named after a 19th century Earl of Chesterfield. 

From Wendy Hamilton:  UPDATED JANUARY 2006

I was introduced to your website today by a colleague and am feeling all the better for it. The introduction is timely as I have been wondering about a term I see in American furniture shops (I am Irish but come to the US a lot). The term is chaise lounge and I am wondering if it is a misspelling or if the original chaise longue has somehow been officially adapted over time, and water. 

Your site is really a pleasant place to pause awhile, good luck with it.. 

Thank you for the compliments and good wishes, WendyA chaise ("longue" or "lounge"?).

Yes, believe it or not, chaise lounge is now an accepted spelling and pronunciation.  The original French term, chaise longue meant a "long chair" but, for English speakers, longue was just a little too similar to lounge.

This process, whereby an unfamiliar foreign word is replaced by a similar, but more familiar word, is called folk etymology, because it is the folk, or regular speakers, who make the change (it is also sometimes called "Hobson-Jobson", after an authoritative Indian-English

 dictionary of the 19th century).  Some quite respectable words and phrases have entered the language in this way.  For instance, a Dutch military term, verloren hoop ("lost troop"), became the English expression forlorn hope.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Suzanne Carpenter is back...

Something else that mystifies me is the use of alls for all.  I frequently hear people begin sentences with "Alls I meant to say was..." or "Alls I wanted was...." Any clues where this one came from?  Is it regional?   Brian Degnan wrote the following: "Another instance at which I cringe but hear every so often is 'Alls I have to do is…'  I am not saying that anyways is 'in any way' the correct usage, but there are variants of other similar parts of speech that have fluctuating equality."  I suppose the "fluctuating equality" is present, but since "all" is already plural, why do people add an "s"?

It is our observation that it always substitutes for all that.  This rule certainly applies to your examples: "All that I meant...", "All that I wanted...".

Sez You...
From Bruce Yanoshek:

Suzanne Carpenter says that she is mystified by "youse." I don't understand why, except for the spelling, which I have always thought should be "yous."  It is obviously just the plural of "you."

The orthography of dialects is quite fluid.  The basic rule is to impart the appropriate sound to your reader.  Sometimes, though, the usual spelling doesn't do this (see discussion of you all, below).

We tend to side with you, though.  What if the reader expects youse to rhyme with mouse?

From Daniel Sherman:

To Suzanne Carpenter and friends,

I have never heard a Southerner pronounce the term, you all; it is more like y'all and hence just sounds lazy and ignorant. (I won't even go into the rest of Southern vernacular.) In addition to having been a "yankee" for 25 years, and am not from the city of New York (amazing isn't it) I have also never heard the term youse, maybe because of my "inability to understand".  Complaints about confusion in dialectic differences which involve geographic slurs are quite unnecessary and will only lead to an email like this one. Just explain your problem, the solution and try not to decorate it with smears on others.

Whoa, Nellie (er, Daniel)!  We're not sure that Ms. Carpenter was smearing anyone; we expect her tongue was in her cheek when she referred to "Yankees".  Her complaints about incorrect usage of dialectical words or phrases are valid, because most such transgressions occur in television and film, spoken by terribly clichéd Southern (U.S.) characters.  Real Southerners who use y'all never use that word to apply to fewer than two people.  The creators of those clichéd characters should do better research! 

From Endre Lunde:

Listen....what happened to Norse mythology? You may know your way around etymology, but if I'm not much mistaken, you better take another dive into your mythology.  You refer to the different gods in your spotlight review as Teutonic, which they are not.... they are Norse.  Odin, the leader of the gods in Valhall (all these names are written in the Norwegian manner) Tor, the god of thunder as you said, but he is also Norse.  And so is also Frøya, Frey, a Norse goddess, and Frigdaeg in Old English, in my opinion, is therefore derived from the old norse language.

We were not speculating about the origins of English day names.  The Teutonic names were adopted around 200 A.D. in continental Europe.  Some of the Teutonic tribes later invaded Britain and became the Anglo-Saxons.  Other Teutons migrated to Scandinavia, hence the similarity of the names.  I say similarity because the Old English names of their gods are not identical with their Norse counterparts.  For instance, the Anglo-Saxons worshipped Woden, not Odin and Thunor, not Tor.

By the way, Friday is named after Frigg, wife of Woden, not Frøya (a.k.a. Frey).

From "a Reader":

I was a bit thrown-off by the fact that you published a reply to me on your website, without even sending me a reply by e-mail... is that your procedure? I had no idea that you had replied to me, as I do not go to your site that often.  I would have preferred for you to reply to me directly instead [of] publishing

In any case, I appreciate the work the both of you do on the net.

Just like print magazines, we get so many letters that it is simply not possible for us to reply to them personally.  That is why we have this column, Sez You..., so that letters of general interest can be shared with all readers, just as print magazines do.  We do try to e-mail readers whose queries we use in a given week, but so far we have not been able to alert readers whose letters we publish in this column.  Perhaps that will happen in the near future.

From Jim Stapleton:

A few years ago a friend and I were admiring a whaling canoe drawn up on the beach of the Makah Indian Nation in the northwest corner of Washington State. A young Native American man walked up and amiably inquired, "Ewe guises?". We were momentarily stumped, but I soon guessed that he was asking if we owned the canoe, using a possessive form of the 2nd person plural - "You guys's?" It is a logical development from "you guys", the most common 2nd person plural in these parts.  I foresee a great future for it.

Well spotted, Jim.

From Dennis Foley:

When I was a child in the 1940s, a local paper (the Pittsbugh Press) had a daily weather column featuring a zany cartoon bird named "Donny Dingbat." It seemed to be generally understood that dingbat's meaning was crazy, or at least ditzy.  I remember this vividly because my older cousins (who used the word yunz, the local form of you 'uns) liked to torment me by calling me "Denny Dingbat."

Perhaps the earliest use of dingbat as an insult!

From Marco di Benedetto:

I don't agree with the meaning of "a very good (female) opera singer", at least considering the Italian origin.  I don't know whether it was imported in the English language with only that role or not, but in Italian the use of "diva" is quite more widespread.  It is at least 50 years that in Italian "diva" is any female playing a key role in the entertainment industry. A diva might be a singer or an actress, without any more specification but FAMOUS (which doesn't really imply the singer/actress to be good...). Because of the fact that the word comes from the word "goddess", there is also sometimes a negative implication, as for a person which stands over everybody else and does consider itself superior. 

Anyway, I'd like to also thank you for the great interest of your web site. I find it very interesting to read all your pages!

The meaning we gave was the English one.  Words frequently change meanings as they cross borders.  In fact, this is one of the delights of etymology.

From Phyllis Gerben:

I thoroughly enjoy this site! I have been reading the discourse on you-uns with great interest. In Pittsburgh, where I grew up, we have a plural of you which sounds like yinz or yenz (It definitely is not the two-syllables implied by you-uns or the Southern you all.) It is not possessive (possessive would be the yinz's referred to in Issue 105).  It seems obvious this may be just a sloppy pronunciation of you-uns but my regional loyalty compelled me to mention it (native Pittsburgher transplanted to Arizona)!

A few more data-points like this and we can start drawing a map.

From Robert Gadient:

Living in mainland Europe, I am exposed to British English and more formal television English instead of colloquial speech of modern America. Thus, when I recently travelled back to America (New Jersey) after 12 years abroad to where I grew up, I was struck by the ingenuity of using yous as the second person plural personal pronoun by adding the plural noun morpheme s to the ambiguous you of Standard American English.  Of course I am sure this is nothing new (and that other forms such as y'all exist as well), but only then did I realize that deviant (from the standard) forms of speech show how alive a language is and that they can display intelligence. Perhaps one day the mainstream will accept and institutionalize this smidgeon of speech and bring English back to a distinction in number for all personal pronouns.

Americans seem to have the remarkable ability to restore lost features of the language.  At one time, English had thou (singular) and you (plural).  Standard English lost thee, thou and thine  in the 17th century but these words still survive in the dialects of northern England.

Laughing Stock

A few more examples of general absurdity...


"Go ask Bubba for the real big eraser."



"That nice Reverend Kevorkian helped us with the sign."





   "How much for the negatives?"





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