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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Erica Hruby:

Just the other day I admonished my boyfriend for getting the cat all riled up at bedtime, which got me to thinking about the phrase.  What are its origins?

Ah, yes, we are familiar with getting a cat all riled up at bedtime.  It results in your feet being pounced upon each time you move your feet as you try to get to sleep.  And if it's summer time, and you're using light bedclothes, those feline teeth and claws can do some damage through the fabric!  Well, first we must start by telling you that rile is a later form of roil, a verb meaning "render (water or any liquid) turbid or muddy by stirring up the sediment".  We're sure you can see where we're going with this.  The sense changed from a literal sense to a figurative one with the metaphorical meaning being "to perturb, disquiet, disorder" and, later, "to disturb in temper; to vex, irritate, make angry".  Rile has all of those meanings, being a later form of roil.  We first find rile used with up in 1857, where up acts a bit like an intensifier.  

So, etymologically, when your boyfriend is getting the cat riled up, he's "stirring up" the little feline.  The verb rile dates in writing from 1825, and roil is quite a bit older, appearing in the written record first in 1590.  Oh, and roil's etymology is not known, though a connection with obsolete French ruiler, "to mix up mortar", has been suggested.

From Sarabeth Flach:

First of all, I want to say that I have enjoyed reading each new issue of your site since I discovered it about 6 months ago, as well as catching up on all the back issues.  Your intelligence and insight are astounding, and the format of the site is one of the best I have seen in years.  Thank you for the time and effort you put into educating us amateur linguists.

In a sermon a couple of weeks ago, my pastor said that he word worry was derived from a word that meant "to choke or strangle:.  I am a little hesitant to believe this, as it worked into the sermon a little too perfectly and he did not cite a source.  So what do you say?  Is he right?  Thank you so much for taking the time to respond.

The NERVE of your pastor not citing his source!  Uh, wait a minute, what, eh?  Where do we cite our sources?  Why, in our bibliography, of course!   Despite his source oversight, your pastor is indeed correct.  The verb worry did mean "to strangle" in its earliest incarnations.  It was wyrgeth in Old English (from about 725), which had cognates in many of the Germanic languages, all of the cognates having similar meanings of "harm" or "kill".  The Indo-European root is *wergh- "to throttle".  The Old English form changed over the centuries, as did the meaning, so that "strangle" led to "harass", which led to "irritate an animal by repetition of feigned attacks" and then "cause distress of mind" in general.  

The notion of worrying about something did not arise until the 19th century.

From Kevin Cook:

What is the origin of hogwash?  We are trying to settle a dispute among co-workers.True hogwash!

Ah, here we are again, mediators in workplace disputes.  We should start a human resources business!  As for hogwash, it is simply wash for the pigs.  Wash in this sense is "swill", or "liquid or partly liquid food refuse from the kitchen".  It's basically a bucketful of kitchen scraps and leftovers, and when given to the pigs that many country families raised once upon a time, it came to be known as hogwash.  Eventually, hogwash came to apply to anything that was worthless, then worthless or bad writings, and now it seems to have taken on the meaning of "untruths". The word is first recorded with the literal sense in about 1440 (when it was spelled hoggyswasch - what a great word!), and the figurative meaning is first seen in the written record in 1712.

From Mike:

Curious phrase, stick in the mud.  Can't imagine where it came from.

If we tell you that the noun phrase stick in the mud comes from a verbal phrase to stick in the mud, would that help?  That is, in fact, the source of today's phrase.  Something that was stuck in the mud, especially a vehicle of some kind, went nowhere fast, just as a person who came to be known as a stick in the mud -- he or she was "helpless or unprogressive".  Of late the term tends more toward the "unprogressive" or "unwilling to try new things or consider new ideas" meaning. We have to wonder how many people envision a stick in the mud when they use the term! The earliest recorded instance of the figurative phrase comes from 1733.

From Frederique Ellis:

My question is about good-bye. What is the meaning of bye?

Sometimes we are so familiar with a word that we forget what we are saying. We might imagine that good-bye might be related to bye-ways and bye-laws but that is not the case. 

The good of good-bye is identical to the good of Good Friday. That it is, it is not "good" at all but "God". Good-bye is a shortened form of "God be with ye/you" which dates from Shakespeare's time. Godspeed, a 15th century way of saying "good-bye", comes from God speed, meaning "may God prosper one".

From Leslie:

If you can be a protagonist and an antagonist...can you be just a tagonist?

No. It's an agonist. And that's another word you don't hear nearly enough!

From "anon":

Is it true the that the word gentleman was originally meant to refer to men of "upper class" who beat their wives without leaving a mark.

No. Don't be silly.


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Last Updated 07/26/02 09:54 PM