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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Sallie:

I wish to know the meaning and origin of the word pshaw. I heard this word used by my grandmother when I was a child.

Pshaw, pronounced "p'shaw" or "puhshaw" or even "shaw", is an exclamation of impatience or disgust.  It is said to be imitative of the sound one makes when impatient or disgusted - a sharp exhalation and sigh combined into one.  It dates all the way back - in writing - to 1673.  We came across an exchange attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde that refers to this word in its silent p form.  Wilde asked Shaw what he would entitle a magazine that he wanted to produce.

Shaw: "I'd want to impress my own personality on the public.  I'd call it Shaw's Magazine: Shaw-Shaw-Shaw". 

Wilde: "Yes, and how would you spell it?"

We suspect that the sole reason Wilde asked was to set up this riposte.

From a Reader:

What is the origin of the word tattoo?

That's one hardcore Mac fan!Tattoo "to form permanent designs on the skin by inserting pigment" is of Polynesian origin.  Captain Cook encountered it among Polynesians during his Pacific voyages, and it is in his writings of 1769 that we first find the word in English in the form tattow.  The Polynesian word is usually rendered as 'tatau and it is a noun.  Cook formed the verb to tattow, as well.  The Polynesian term for the act of tattooing is ta 'tatau "to strike or stamp a tattoo".

There is another word tattoo.  It is a military term andThe Edinburgh Military Tattoo refers to a signal on bugle or drum for soldiers to retire to their quarters for the evening.  It dates from 1644 and derives from Dutch taptoe which had the same meaning.  The Dutch term derived from tap (spigot) and toe, which was short for doe toe "shut".  The meaning was literally "shut the tap" but was figurative for "shut up" or "shut your mouth", and came to be used to send soldiers to bed.  The term was applied to the signal to send them to bed, and then to elaborations on such bugle or drum signals for purposes of entertaining the soldiers.  Today the latter sense is the one encountered most often with this version of the word tattoo.  

From Marcia Hoffman:

Origin of the phrase taking pot shots?

A pot shot is, etymologically, a shot taken at game merely for the purpose of having something to go in the dinner pot versus a skillful, by-the-rules shot taken for sport.  The implication is one of the shot being very easy, with the game being near at hand or in an advantageous position for the hunter, so that the animal has no chance of escape or self-defense.  This sense was later applied figuratively to  any blow, physical or verbal, that was not easy to fend or avoid.  Therefore, if someone is taking pot shots at you today (especially in the U.S.), he or she is engaging in a random or opportunistic verbal attack.  The term dates in writing from 1858.  The "random or opportunistic verbal attack" sense is first recorded in 1926. 

From Jaime Witt:

I was in the office and we were talking about something and the question popped up: Where does the word garage come from? I wondered as well and decided to volunteer to find it. I have searched TONS of places and yet cannot find it. 

A garage is a shelter for a vehicle, and that is what its parent word, Old French garer, means: "to shelter".  Garage seems to have been adopted specifically to refer to buildings that house cars or other vehicles.  It is first recorded in 1902, so we can assume that it was in use for some years prior to that.  The meaning "vehicle repair shop" arose around the same time. In Modern French, la gare is "the [railway] station".

The Indo-European root here is *wer- "to cover", ancestor of such other words as warn, guaranty, and garrison.  Although it seems as though it should be, guard is not related and derives from a different Indo-European root *wer- (there are five different *wer- roots!).

From Cheryl Pizzolatto:

Kudos on the excellent site. I look forward to learning from your erudition each week! 

Surely you can help me with a word which has always puzzled me. Being from Louisiana, I hear the word lagniappe a lot.  You often see it on menus at restaurants or in connection with food. It means "a little something extra," and it's obviously from French, but what's its origin? 

Well, before any French readers write to say that they've never heard of the word, we should explain that lagniappe is Louisiana French. After the British took Canada many French settlers migrated South to the United States.  Some of them simply hopped across the border into Maine and the rest traveled all the way to the deep south and made their home near the Mississippi delta.  Both groups referred to themselves as Acadian, a word which, over time, came to be pronounced as Cajun

A certain Mississippi river-boat pilot had this to say about lagniappe:

We picked up one excellent word – a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word – lagniappe. They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish – so they said.

- Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883

Spanish? Were "they" pulling Mr. Twain's leg?  Well, no, they were not. Lagniappe is the French spelling of la ñapa, Spanish for "the bonus" or "the extra".


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