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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Alexander T. Shulgin:

The word charleyhorse came up in conversation recently and we were at a loss for an explanation.  I know that it is spelled as one word, no hyphen, no capital first letter.

Mike (the Brit) says this word has always puzzled him.  It is unknown in Britain and he first encountered it reading American novels.  The Oxford English Dictionary lists it as two, hyphenated words and allows a capital C.  But, hey, they eat pizza with a knife and fork so what can they know?  

Most dictionaries describe its origin as "uncertain".  However, Charles Earle Funk retells a story of the White Sox ball park in Chicago. According to this tale, in the 1890s, a horse with a conspicuous limp named Charley drew a roller at this park and, consequently, the fans called any lameness a charleyhorse.  

This lame horse called Charley may well have existed but, if he was the original charleyhorse his career must have begun a little earlier than the 1890s.  A Cincinnati newspaper used the word charleyhorse in a report of a baseball game in January 1889.

From Rachel S:

What is the Greek origin of the word cloth?

Oops... one word too many in the question there, Rachel!  Cloth, naturally, has an origin but it's not Greek. Like most of our common words, cloth comes from a Germanic root. In this case it is directly descended from the Old English clath.  Its plural form, clathas, gave us cloths and clothesClothed was sometimes shortened to clad in Middle English.

From Jessica:

I'm wondering when/where/with whom the phrase coined the phrase was first put into use.  In other words, who coined the phrase, coined the phrase?

Coined the phrase itself dates only from the 20th century and its author seems anonymous.  The expression to coin a phrase began turning up in writing around 1940 so it had to have been in use before then.

The notion of coining words (as if they were money) is older, though, and seems to have started with an Elizabethan writer by the name of Puttenham.  In 1589 his hot new title, "English Poesie" hit the streets and in volume 3, on page 259 (yawn) he moans about "Young schollers not halfe well studied..." who "seeme to coigne fine wordes out of the Latin".

Coin of the Roman emperor Septimius SeverusThe word coin comes from the wedge-shaped dies used to make them - Latin cuneus means a "corner" or "wedge".  Cuneus  also occurs in cuneiform.  This word was devised by William Taylor in 1818 to describe an ancient script made up of "wedge-shaped" indentations in clay.  A word for "wedge-shaped" already existed, though: coin-formed.

In its earliest English usage coin meant a "corner-stone" and although it is now spelled quoin, architects and masons still pronounce this as "coin".  Coign, a variant spelling but essentially the same word as coin and quoin, is also a geological term for "an angular elevation of land" and a coign of vantage was a Shakespearian term for "a projecting corner of a castle's fortifications".

The verb to coin meaning "to make money by stamping metal" first occurs around 1330 and a coin as "a piece of metal currency" began to appear later in the same century.

From David Menashe:

I was reading a story by P. G. Wodehouse in which Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, disagree on the subject of spats.  I know what spatsa horse wearing spats... with bells on are but where did the word come from?

First, we'd better describe a pair of spats for the benefit of any readers under 80 years of age.   They were short gaiters worn over the instep and reaching only a little way above the ankle, usually fastened under the foot by means of a strap.  They protected shoes and socks from splashes of mud and were popular in the 1920s.

Their name is a shortened form of an earlier version of the garment.  Spatterdashe[r]s were long leggings which kept the trousers or stockings from being spattered when riding.

From John McCoy:

I was asked where the word dashboard, on a car, comes from and I thought you guys could  help.

It comes from the days of horse-drawn carriages.  In those days, a dashboard was a board in the front of a carriage which prevented mud from the horses' heels being splashed into the vehicle.  The name was transferred to the instrument panel of an automobile simply because of its location in the vehicle.


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2002 TIERE Last Updated 04/17/02 10:53 PM