Issue 164, page 2

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About
AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes)

Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Kevin Cook:

I use the word yikes a lot and have been asking everyone I know if they know its origin. No one does. Can you help?

We can help a bit.  Would you be surprised if we told you that yikes might derive from fox hunting?  There is an older word, yoicks, dating from the mid-18th century, which was used to encourage the hounds to go after the [poor old] fox.  By the mid-19th century, it was being used as an exclamation of general excitement.  It was hoicks and hoic as early as the 17th century.  Masters of hounds have been known for centuries for the bizarre words they use to communicate with their dogs. 

The earliest written example of yikes known to dictionaries is from the early 1970s. This seems surprisingly late. We wouldn't mind betting that it was used before then in comic books.

From Donald Cox:

I have been searching everywhere and have been unable to locate any origin  of the euphemism the birds and the bees for talking about sex with children. Any ideas?

Sex education of less enlightened days often consisted of a few oblique references to birds laying eggs and bees pollinating flowers.  The parent, satisfied that an unpleasant duty had been accomplished, then left the child to make his own dubious inferences regarding reproduction as it applied to the human species.

[And then the parents wondered why their child suddenly refused to eat either eggs or honey.]

From Leslie:

I'm curious about jack-o'lantern... NOT the carved-out pumpkin for Halloween, but some sort of a spectral or supernatural phenomenon, especially as in Huckleberry Finn.

Decaying vegetation, submerged in stagnant water produces methane, also known as "marsh gas". This gas is flammable and sometimes will spontaneously ignite to produce an eerie blue flame, dancing erratically on the surface of the water. This pale phenomenon, almost invisible by day, can be seen only by those who spend their evenings in putrid swamps.  It has been known by various names including ignis fatuus (Latin, "foolish fire"), will o' the wisp and jack o'lantern.  The latter dates from the early 17th century, following from an earlier meaning of "man with a lantern" or "night watchman".  The meaning "hollowed pumpkin with light inside" dates from the 19th century.

From Dan Croteau:

I have been reading Ernest Hemmingway's The Sun Also Rises where he uses the word aficionado to describe the true bullfighting enthusiast. How and when did this interesting word enter the English language and what was its original Spanish meaning?

The literal Spanish meaning of aficionado is "amateur" (from the verb aficionar, "to be fond of") though it is generally understood to mean "bullfighting enthusiast". It was used in an English handbook for travelers in Spain as early as 1845 but was not widely understood by readers of English until Hemmingway's book. In its English usage the meaning has been extended to include any avid and well-informed fan.

The Spanish aficionar derives from afición "affection".  And yes, the English and Spanish words affection and afición derive from Latin afficare, "to affect" (from ad- "toward" + facere "to do").

From Simon Vallance:

What is the origin of the phrase daylight robbery. I understand it could be related to a historical English "window tax".

Well, there was a "window tax" but it is unrelated. The phrase daylight robbery is first recorded in 1949, centuries after the "window tax". Such earlier versions as [sheer] robbery and highway robbery were current in the 1800s.  These terms refer to "an excessive financial demand or cost".  Persons subject to the window tax probably would have thought it as brazen as daylight robbery if the term had been current then!

From Linza Wells:

The Malaysian prime minister has recently decided to resign partly due to the apathetic attitude of the Malays. I have been wondering whether the word malaise has its origins in the term for the Malay race.

Not even remotely. A malaise is simply a "malady" or "illness" from the Old French mal-, "bad, ill" and aise, "ease".  It dates from the mid-18th century in English.

Malaysia was formed from the Tamil word malay, "mountain".  The -sia ending was patterned after Asia.


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-
2002 TIERE
Last Updated 08/08/02 08:30 PM