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eating crow | Eden | educate | egregious | eleemosynary | engineer | epic | euphemism | evanescence | excursive | facetious | fluent | fluke | fool | foot | fore | forgive | frankfurter | fun | gaia/ge- | galleongallon | gay |   George | gerrymander | gig | gild the lily | give | godseye | gook  


From Koji Aoki:

If one were to look at all the words in the English language and then count up the words contributed by different languages, which language would be the biggest contributor? Would it be German, Latin, Greek or Sanskrit? When I look in a dictionary the languages I see most are Latin and Greek, but I wonder if it wouldn't be French or German?

This is a good question. However, most linguists agree that Germanic languages (Old German and Frisian) have contributed most to English, with about half of all English words coming from Anglo-Saxon roots. After all, Old English was the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, who came to Britain from what are now the Low Countries and Germany in the middle of the 5th century A.D. Scandinavian influences entered the language with the influx of Vikings into Britain in the 9th century A.D. Thereafter Norman French had some influence, and the Anglo-Normans gave English about 10,000 words. Greek and Latin certainly entered the language as well, Latin from the time of the Roman Empire's presence in Britain and then again, to a much greater degree, through the Church, and Greek through various learned sources. But the language base to which English words can be traced most often is Germanic.

From Denis Caravella:

I have found very limited resources in my local library to research the words education, expository, and fluent. I will visit a local bookstore or two. But before my visit I thought I'd ask you to suggest a good (hopefully available) reference.

Educate literally means `lead out.' The word comes from the past participle of Latin educare `bring up, rear,' and `educate.' It was related to Latin educere `lead out' (source of English educe), a compound verb formed from the prefix ex- `out' and ducere `lead' (source of English duct, duke, and a whole host of derivatives such as deduce and seduce). Education, which first appears in the 16th century, was formed by the addition of the suffix -ion to educate, and -ion comes from Latin -ionem, a suffix forming nouns of condition and action.

Expository is the adjective form of exposition, which means, literally, `the act of expounding.' It came to English in the 14th century from Old French exposition, which itself came from Latin expositionem `narration or explanation,' from exposi-, a stem of exponere `set forth' (ex- `out' and ponere `put').

Fluent first appears in English in the 16th century. It was borrowed from Latin fluentem, the present participle of fluere `to flow.' Therefore, if someone is fluent in a language, that language `flows' from that person.

These etymologies can be found in several of the books listed in my select bibliography, most notably The Barnahrt Concise Dictionary of Etymology by Robert K. Barnhart.

From Manuel Ferreira Sanchez:

[What is the] origin of the name Erika?

Erika is the Scandinavian form of the female name Erica, the feminine form of Eric. Eric is Old Norse and is thought to mean `perpetual ruler' from ei `always' and rikr `ruler.'

From Magdalena A. Reznik:

I'm working with a pair of words: give and donate. Is there any possible way to know about their etymology?

Certainly. Give belongs to a far-reaching family of verbs, including German geben, Dutch geven, Swedish giva, and Danish give, also Gothic giban. These all have their source in a prehistoric German *geban, a verb whose ancestry is uncertain, though it is thought that *geban is related to Latin habere `have,' despite habere's meaning being opposite to that of give. The connection is thought to be in the notion of `extended hands,' whether to give or to have.

Donation entered English via the Scots around 1425, reaching Scotland from France, where it was also donation. The French form came from Latin donationem, from donare `gift,' itself from donum `gift.' Donate is the verb formed from the noun, and it first appeared in English in 1785.

From Frank Cabanski:

Two phrases were just given to me: John Doe and eating crow. Where did they come from?

Surprisingly, John Doe has been around since at least the 14th century, if not earlier. One source believes that the first use of the name may go back to the time of the Magna Carta (1215). The Magna Carta required that two witnesses be named in every legal action. When two witnesses could not be found, the name John Doe (as well as Ricard Roe) was used. The names were also used to protect the identities of witnesses. This has been the case ever since, and more recently John Doe came to describe 'everyman.'

(Updated January 2006) The origin of to eat crow is not known with certainty, although it is clear that it originated in America in the 19th century. Its meaning is similar to the phrase to eat humble pie. It is widely acknowledged that crow tastes terrible, so this is one possible explanation for its origin! One source notes that Charles Funk cited a story in 1888 that the term came from an incident during the War of 1812. During a truce, an American soldier accidentally crossed into British territory while hunting. He shot a crow there, and was found by an unarmed British officer who, by complimenting him on his excellent shooting, managed to persuade the American to hand over his weapon. The officer then forced the unarmed American to take a bite out of the crow. The American did so, but when the British officer returned his gun to him and tried to send him on his way, the American forced the officer to eat the rest of the crow.  The problem with this story is that the phrase does not turn up in the written record until the 1870s.  We like the "crow just tastes awful" explanation best.

From Chris Pullen:

What is the origin of the phrase gilding the lilies (or variations of said)?

This term, which means `to add excess to excess,' is a condensed version of a line from Shakespeare's King John: "To gild refined gold, to paint the wasteful and ridiculous excess." It is unclear when the condensed form entered wide use. To gild is to `layer with gold'.

From Juanitta Baldwin:

Godseye is a term which describes a step in the weaving of a basket from vines, generally when one is attaching the handle. I encountered this term when interviewing a weaver for a book I just finished writing on uses of kudzu vine. She uses the technique and has tried to find its origin.

I hadn't heard this term in years! Some of my Latin American childhood friends would make godseyes from brightly colored yarn and hang them on the wall. It was my understanding that these godseyes were talismans, protecting the bearer from evil spirits. I had always assumed that the items were called godseyes as their presence was like having the `eye of God' or `eye of (a) god' watching over one, offering protection. My recollection is the only information I have on this term. It's not clear how this term relates to weaving.

From Genot:

I would be pleased to know the etymology and approximate date when the words moonstone and feldspath appeared in English. Thank you very much for your research.

You're welcome! Feldspath (1757) is the archaic form of feldspar (which entered English in 1785 and is the current form). Feldspath was borrowed from German Feldspath (now Feldspat), a compound of Feld 'field' and Spath 'spar.' The shift in the spelling from feldspath to feldspar occurred under the influence of English spar 'mineral.' So feldspar is literally a 'mineral found in the field.'

Moonstone is a form of feldspar, so named because of its pearly translucence, but I have no information on when this word first entered English.

From John Champagne:

I understand the word gaia is related to the Greek element or word ge 'earth,' from which we get geometry and geology. Is this so? Any other information you could add?

Yes, gaia and ge (source of the root geo-) are indeed related. Gaia is the Homeric form of ge and is also the name of the Greek goddess of the earth. It is thought that ge is of pre-Indo-European origin, but that is all that is known of it.

From Sebastien Chicoine:

I was wondering if there was an etymological link betwen the English word fierce and the French word feroce because, obviously, of their homonymity. I know there is a link in the meaning of these words, but do they have a common origin?

These words are somewhat related in their origins, but today ferocious is likely closer in meaning to French feroce. Fierce's source is ultimately Latin ferus 'wild, untamed,' but the Latin word later came to mean 'uncultivated, savage, cruel.' Interestingly, though, when the word was acquired by English via Norman fers and Old French fiers, it also meant 'brave, proud.' The 'proud' meaning in English died out in the 16th century, but it remains in French fiers.

Ferocious comes from Latin ferox (it is easy to see that word's similarity to the French feroce), a compound of ferus 'wild' and the suffix -oc or -ox 'eye' (which is also found in ocular), which meant 'wild-eyed.' So someone who was ferocious was literally 'wild-eyed.'

The story regarding the origin of gerrymander, which means 'to change electoral boundaries to unfairly benefit a certain party,' is that the governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Elbridge Gerry, did some such manipulation of boundaries. When another man, purportedly a painter named Stuart, saw the outline of the new boundary in the office of a newspaper editor, he commented that it looked like a salamander. The editor dubbed it a gerrymander, and the term came to apply to exactly what Elbridge Gerry did.

From Jasr:

This question is concerning the phrase to sow wild oats, which appears both in Spanish and in English, and must be fairly old. Also, what about those words like for-give (in Spanish per-don, in French par-don) which are composed of two separate words that have been translated literally. Thanks for the help.

To sow wild oats means 'to behave foolishly' or 'indulge in excess while one is young.' This has been an English idiom since the 16th century, and it refers to the sowing of inferior wild grain instead of superior cultivated grain, alluding to sexual promiscuity. It suggests that such is something that one will grow out of. The phrase likely arose in one language (English or Spanish) and was translated into the other.

Forgive was, in Old English, forgiefan 'give, grant, forgive' (from for- 'completely' and -giefan 'give'). Interestingly, this word is a calque (a word translated into one language from another language), having come from Latin perdonare 'forgive, pardon' (clearly the source of the Spanish and French forms). The Latin word was a compound formed from per- `thoroughly' and donare 'give.' The translation from Latin occurred in prehistoric Germanic times, the Proto-Germanic form being *fergeban.

From James S. Taylor:

Please offer any etymological information you have on the word flag. Thank you.

This word first appears in English around 1481. It is found in various forms in all modern Germanic languages, but it appears to have entered English first, so it is possible that the other Germanic occurrences of the word have their source in the English. If so, then it is likely that the word flag `banner' is related to an older meaning of the word flag which is `flap loosely or hang.' That word flag may be a variant of flakken `to flap,' from the 14th century and perhaps flakeren `to flutter or wave,' both certainly from a Scandinavian root. The meaning of flag `grow weak or tired' comes from the flakken source, as well.

From Gene Anderson:

In describing a fruit fool (dessert), a cookbook I have indicates that the word fool was used as a term of endearment long ago. My dictionary doesn't indicate this usage, only fool as in `jester or imbecile,' or as in a fruit fool.  Where did the word come from, and was it ever a term of endearment?

I have no source which indicates a formal usage of fool as a term of endearment. Perhaps the cookbook refers to the cliched line we hear in old movies, "I love you, you old fool," or the like. As for fool's etymology, it entered English in the 13th century via Old French fol, from Latin follis `bellows.' This Latin term is thought to come from the Indo-European *bhel-, which gave English bellows. Follis came later to take on a metaphorical meaning like `windbag,' which then shifted to `fatuous person' and finally `idiot.'

The fruit fool is fool applied to a light, insubantial dessert, just as trifle is used in a culinary fashion. This usage arose in the 16th century.

From Francisco Acosta Reyes:

I would like to know the origins of the following names: Mary/Maria and Fernando/Ferdinand.

You can find the etymology of Mary in the Archive of Etymologies. As for Ferdinand, whose Spanish form is Fernando, the name is of Gothic origin, comprised of the elements fard `journey' and nand `ready,' which translates into `ready for the journey,' or, in a more romantic translation, `daring adventurer.' Interestingly, kings of Aragon, Austria, Leon, Castile, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, Naples, Portugal, and Sicily bore the name Ferdinand.

From Jane Elliott:

What is the meaning and origin of the phrase of the first water as in "He was a gentleman of the first water?"

This phrase, which means `best, of the highest quality,' refers to a system used to grade diamonds for their color or luster, luster being similar to the shine of water. Diamonds of the best quality were of the first water. That system of grading is no longer employed, but the phrase's use to describe other things arose in the early 19th century.

From Robert Haynes:

I am very curious about the origin of the word eleemoosanary, which is a synonym of charity. I've seen it in print only once in the campaign book of the first Libertarian candidate for president, John Hospers. It's a great word for Probe and other word games!

The word which you intended was eleemosynary, not eleemoosanary.

Your claim to have used the word in "Probe and other word games" implies either that you and your friends play word games without a dictionary or that even if they look up a word and fail to find it they'll still use it. This raises two very serious questions: (a) do they play for money? and (b) how do I get in on a game?

Eleemosynary, which sounds a bit like a word that someone made up, is actually of Greek origin by way of Latin. Interestingly, it comes from the same source as alms. English obtained the word in around 1616 from medieval Latin eleemosynarius, from Late Latin eleemosyna `alms.' The Late Latin comes from Greek eleemosyne `pity, alms,' from eleemon `merciful,' from eleos `pity.' Eleemosynary means, today, `of, relating to, or supported by charity.'

From Valentin:

I'd like to know the true meaning and etymology of the word egregious. Seems to me that in the olden days it meant something different than it does today.

Well, you are somewhat correct, because the word's origins give it a meaning of `standing out from the flock.' This was the meaning of the word in Latin -- e- `out of' + grege, the ablative of grex `herd, flock.' In 1534, when the word entered English, that is also what it meant -- `distinguished, eminent.' The ironical use of the word to mean `outrageous' first occurred in the late 16th century.

From Glen Cyrille:

Being a qualified engineer, I am interested in the origin of the word engineer. Could you help?

I'll give it my best shot. In the early 1300s the word was engynour `builder of military engines' (machines used in warfare). It was borrowed from Old French engigneor, from enginier `to contrive, build,' from engin `skill, cleverness.' Engin came from Latin ingenium `inborn qualities, talent,' which was formed from in- `in' and gen-, root of gignere `to beget, produce.'

From A Reader:

Just curious about the origins of the word facetious, and perhaps why it is pronounced so.

This word entered English in around 1592; it originally meant `polished, urbane,' but by 1599 it meant `given to joking.' It came from French facetieux, from facetie, which came from Latin facetia, from facetus. However, in English there is also a word facetiae `witty or humorous writings or sayings,' which is the plural of Latin facetia.  It's possible that the current pronunciation of facetious was influenced by the pronunciation of the Latin facetiae which is fuh-see-shee-ee.

From Ethan Aaron Brosowsky:

I would like the word histories and interesting facts about these four words: archetype, eden, quest, and epic.

Eden comes from Vulgar Latin Eden, from Greek Eden, which came from Hebrew edhen `delight.'

From Ethan Aaron Brosowsky:

I would like the word histories and interesting facts about these four words: archetype, eden, quest, and epic.

You probably suspected that epic has Greek roots, and if you did, you were correct. It comes by way of Latin from Greek epikos, which comes from epos `word, story, poem.'

When someone has a flair for something, they're very good at it. However, etymologically flair is related to fragrant!

Flair, which first entered Engilsh in the late 14th century as flayre and meant `fragrance or odor,' was borrowed from Old French flair `odor or scent,' which developed from flairer `to smell.' The Old French came from Late Latin flagrare. am alteration of Latin fragrare `to emit a sweet odor.'

The meaning of `keen perception' or, literally, `power or sense of smell' was first recorded in the late 19th century. The extended meaning `special ability, natural aptitude' first entered English in America in the 1920s.


I've looked in several referencs (even in a university bookstore) but beyond a reference to missing a shot in a pool game, I can't get the origin of fluke. Can you help?

Most sources relate the word to a dialectic word fluke `a guess.' The meaning `a lucky chance' arose in the mid 19th century, but fluke with the slang sense of `flat' (i.e., `one easily taken in') was in use in about 1800. Since fluke is also a `flat fish,' it is not difficult to see how fluke came to refer to the slang flat. However, the jump to `a guess' is not as easy to see, but perhaps one who was `easily taken in' tended to do a lot of guessing! A lucky `guess' therefore was a fluke. Then a `lucky shot in pool' came to be known as a fluke, and finally, `a lucky chance' in general came to be known by that term.

It's a bit of a stretch but it's the best we can do!

From Oliver duCille, Sr.:

I would like to know the etymologies of ruddy, macrobiotic, propriety, excursive, and zymoscope. Thank you.

My, you've got quite a variety of words there! Ruddy is related to red. In Late Old English (pre-1100), it was rudi, likely from rudu `redness.' Red comes from the Proto-Germanic word *raudaz.

Macrobiotic is a word formed from macro- 'long' and biotic `life.' Simply put, it is a diet (and a lifestyle) which prolongs life.

Propriety comes, via Old French propriete, from Latin proprietatem `appropriateness, propriety, ownership.' Propriety is related to proper and property.

Excursive `pertaining to digression' comes from Old French excursion `digression,' which comes ultimately from Latin excurrere `run out' (from ex- `out' + currere `to run').

Finally, zymoscope comes from Greek zyme `leaven (yeast)' and, ultimately, skopein `look at.'

From Pat Likes:

My mother always claimed Irish descent,but recently while reading one of Sir Walter Scott's books, I came across the word flibberdigibbet. My mother always called me that when as a child I didn't want to stand still, for example, when she wanted to comb my hair. What is its origin and is it a point of beginning for the study of my ancestry?

Unfortunately, this word does not have any clear Irish roots, so I don't think it will help you in any genealogical research. Today it is used to refer to any silly and scatterbrained person. It comes from Shakespeare's King Lear and was the name of one of the fiends in the play. As you mention, it was also the name of one of Scott's characters in his Kenilworth.

From Betty Boop:

I am writing a paper on the "power of language" and I would really like to trace the change in common use, over the last 50 years, of the word gay. It is quite a contrast between Maria in West Side Story singing sweetly, "I feel pretty, witty and gay!" to "gay bashing."  Do you have any ideas or reference points as to when this word changed connotations? or why, how or who?

Bill Bryson, again in Made in America, notes that prostitutes were known as gay women or gays in the 19th century. It is not known how gay later came to refer to homosexuals; this usage appeared in the late 1960's. Another source attributes the homosexual sense of the word to gay's older meaning, `excellent, gallant, fair,' and it gives the date of origin of the homosexual meaning as 1971. Gay `merry' likely came from Frankish via Old French gai `merry.' The original meaning in English, in around 1300, was `spelndid or beautiful.'

One reader notes that Cary Grant, in the film Bringing Up Baby, has an interesting scene in which, while wearing a woman's frilly robe, he says, "I'm feeling gay today."

From Meir Shani:

How do hamburger and frankfurter relate to the places in Germany they seem to be called after?

Hamburger itself did not come from Hamburg. Instead, the term comes from Hamburg steak, which was a dish on American restaurant menus by the 1880s. It consisted of cut-up beef eaten cold, and it was apparently so named because it was associated with immigrants who came from Hamburg. By 1889 the dish was called hamburger steak, and by 1901, it was shortened to hamburger and was ground meat fried or grilled in a patty.

Frankfurters were named because they resembled a sausage made in Germany and associated with the city of Frankfurt am Main. The term entered English in 1894.

From Jim Savage:

A pub discussion on etymology ended on the meaning of the phrase a different kettle of fish, and although I believe that the word kettle was originally `a big pot,' it still does not help. Any ideas?

I can't be certain, but I suspect that a different kettle of fish is a combinatin of two other phrases: a horse of a different color and a pretty/fine kettle of fish. The former has been discussed herein (see the archives). The latter has got an interesting etymology of its own, which is especially close to home for you in the U.K. A kettle of fish was the term used to describe the fish-boil picnics held in Scotland at the beginning of salmon season. During these picnics, the freshly caught fish were thrown into huge kettles, or cauldrons, of boiling water, and they were eaten with one's fingers. This was likely a messy, even noisome affair, and so the term came to mean, by the early 18th century, anything which was `confusing' or `a mess.'

From John and Mike:

I wish to know the origin and approximate date the word euphemism was used. I'd also like to know some synonyms for the word.

This dates from the mid 17th century. It was borrowed from Greek euphemismos `use of a favorale word in place of a less auspicious one,' which came from euphemizein `speak with fair or good words' -- eu- `good' + pheme `speaking,' from phanai `to speak.' Affectation and preciosity are considrered synonyms for euphemism, though they do not necessarily reflect accurately its meaning today.

From Darren Clark:

I've asked before about related groups of words (day names, month names, etc.), so in keeping with that theme I find myself wondering how we got our names for common measurements of length, area, and volume: inch, foot, yard, mile, league, acre, pint, quart, gallon, etc.

Darren, do I look like an etymological dictionary? Actually, I'll address inch, foot, yard, and mile this week, and we'll look into the rest in the following weeks.

The origin of the use of foot to refer to a unit of measurement is not easily discerned. I have heard one story which indicates that King John of England was the source of foot `unit of measure,' but he reigned from 1199-1216, and the word with that meaning can be traced back to before 1000. It is entirely possible that the word was chosen to apply to a certain length as that length was close to the length of a man's foot.

The word foot `lower extremity of the leg' comes ultimately from Proto-Germanic *fot. It is found in Old English in 725 (in Beowulf) as fot, and it was foot by 1325. There are cognates in Old Frisian (fot), Dutch (voet), Old High German (fuoz), Old Icelandic (fotr), and Gothic (fotus).

From Darren Clark:

I've asked before about related groups of words (day names, month names, etc.), so in keeping with that theme I find myself wondering how we got our names for common measurements of length, area, and volume: inch, foot, yard, mile, league, acre, pint, quart, gallon, etc.

Gallon was galun in the early 13th century; it took on its current form in the late 15th century. It was borrowed from Old North French galon, which corresponds to Old French jalon `liquid measure' and is related to jale `bowl' and jaloie `measure of capacity.' These come from Medieval Latin galleta `bucket.' It is thought that the Latin comes from Gaulish galla `vessel.'

A bit of trivia: the ten gallon hat does not have a capacity of ten gallons! The gallon in ten gallon hat comes from Spanish sombrero galon, `braided hat.'

From Kathy Brousseau:

I am interested in the origin of the slang word gook. I believe it has been used to refer to various Asian groups, but I am wondering where and how it originated.

This is one of those words whose origins are "unknown." It dates from around 1935 and does indeed refer to natives of east or southeast Asia. 

From Sackbutt:

Great site! I am looking for the etymological connection between the various definitions of the same word: gig. It is used to describe at the same time a musical engagement, a small boat, a three-tined fishing spear, and at least one other meaning which escapes me at the moment.

Gig does indeed have several meanings. The `two-wheeled carriage' and the `small boat' meanings come from gig `spinning top,' from Middle English gyg, which is thought to come from a Scandinavian source. The original meaning of gyg in this sense survives in whirligig `a spinning toy.'

Gig `a spear for fishing' (and also `a collection of barbless hooks used for fishing') comes from fishgig. Fishgig, `a pronged instrument used to spear fish,' is an alteration of fisgig, which came from Spanish fisga, itself coming ultimately from Latin fixus `fixed.'

A gig is also `a demerit given in the military,' but its origin in that sense is not known.

Finally, gig `a musical performance' likely comes from French gigue `a ball or dance,' from Middle French giguer `to dance.' Jig (the verb) likely comes from the same source (with influence from earlier jig `move up and down').

Of course, gig is also short for gigabyte, which is simply Greek gigas `giant' + byte `8 or 16 bits.'

From Eric Lohela:

I have been looking online trying to find the origins of this word: evanescence. I am looking up sources for my college English project. I would be thankful if you could assist me.

This is a lovely word. One might think it comes from someone named Evan, but that is not the case. Instead, it comes from Latin evanescere `to vanish,' from e-/ex- `outside, away from' + vanescere `to disappear.' Vanescere comes from Latin vanus `empty' (from which English gets such words as vanish) which is related to the Indo-European root *eu- `lacking, empty.'

From Meir Shani:

Last week you indicated that Gaulish galla means `vessel.' Does galleon, the Roman ship, come from the same root? And does this reflect the connection between vessel `ship' and vessel `container'? What is the etymology of vessel, anyhow?

This is an excellent question! Actually, galleon comes from Spanish galeón `an armed merchant ship.' It was formed from galea `galley,' which came from Medieval Greek galéa `galley,' of uncertain origin. It does not appear that galla and galleon are related, then.

Vessel entered English in its current form in about 1300 from Old French vessel. The French came from Latin vascellum `small vase or urn,' and it was a diminutive form of vasculum, which was itself a diminutive form of vas `vessel.' The ship sense in English arose not long after the word entered English, at least by 1325. Therefore, it is likely that the application of the word to a ship was metaphorical in origin.

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