Melanie & Mike say...

 Tow.jpg (63573 bytes)

      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine
Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About

Archive of Your Etymology Questions


A - D | E - G | H - J | K - M | N - P | Q - S | T - Z

K - M

Kendall | ketchup | kick the bucket | kill the messenger | Kilroy was here | knight | knowledge | lam | lazy Susan | leader | league | learning the ropes | lemon | leviathan | life of Reilly | light fingered | like | lime | loaf | love | Luddite | lunatic | macrobiotic | malarkey | man | marriage | marry | mascara | master | matter | May Day | mediationmeter | Mexican standoff | mile | miscellaneous | mocha |  mongoloid | monkey wrench | moonstone | more than one way to skin a cat | moron | mother | Ms. | Mulligan | muse  


From Jason Bryant:

Hi, I was wondering over breakfast this morning where the word ketchup, as in 'sausages and tomato ketchup,' came from. Can you help?

Ketchup is a Chinese word in origin. In the Amoy dialect of southeastern China, koechiap means 'brine of fish.' It was acquired by English, probably via Malay kichap, toward the end of the 17th century, when it was usually spelled catchup (the New Dictionary of the Canting Crew 1690 defines it as 'a high East-India Sauce'). Shortly afterward the spelling catsup came into vogue (Jonathan Swift is the first on record as using it, in 1730), and it remains the main form in American English. But in Britain ketchup has gradually established itself since the early 18th century.

From Jim Jones:

How about Love? Where does Love come from, or, from where does Love come? And, is it really as beautiful as it looks and sounds, or does it just seem that way because we love what it means?

This is a particularly timely question, given that the Word and Word Origin of the Week column addresses a word which is related to love. However, the origins of love aren't all that glamorous; love's history is, instead, solid and spans many languages. The word love goes back to an Indo-European *leubh-, which has spawned a huge lecixal progeny; not just words for `love' (love's Germanic relatives, such as German liebe and Dutch liefde, as well as the archaic English lief `dear' (Old English) and Latin libido `strong desire,' source of English `libidinous') but also words for `praise' (German lob and Dutch lof) and `belief' (German glauben, Dutch gelooven, English believe). The sense `find pleasing' is primary; it subsequently developed to `praise' and, probably via `be satisfied with,' to `trust, believe.'

The derivative lovely, Old English, originally meant `affectionate' and `lovable'; the modern sense `beautiful' did not develop until the late 13th century.

From Stephen J. Scherr :

Do you know where the expression learning the ropes comes from? Sailing? Boxing? Rodeo?

As for learning the ropes, I was unable to find any information on this phrase, but Gary Wade writes: " I have always understood learning the ropes to have come from old sailing days on square-rigged ships (clipper ships). Those ships had hundreds of ropes, several per sail, and a new apprentice seaman had to learn the ropes before he could be much help. When the boatswain called out to hoist the mizzen top sail, the seaman would need to know immediately which two or three ropes would be used for hoisting and which others would be used for trimming the sail once it was up."

From Gary Wade :

I was wondering about the word knight. The French equivalent is chevalier, similar to cavalier, caballero (Spanish), and cavalry, all referring to horsemen. The chevaliers and knights were mounted soldiers in battle. I am wondering if knight in any way came from a reference to horses.

The word knight has come up in the world over the centuries. In the Old English period it simply meant `boy' or `young man.' By the 10th century it had broadened out to `male servant,' and within a hundred years of that we find it being used for `military servant, soldier.' This is the general level or `rank' at which the word's continental relatives, German and Dutch knecht, have remained. But in England, in the course of the early Middle Ages, knight came to denote, in the feudal system, `one who bore arms in return for land,' and later `one raised to noble rank in return for military service.' The modern notion of knighthood as a rung in the nobility, without any necessary connotations of military prowess, dates from the 16th century. So, the idea of a knight on horseback is only one stop along the progressive track of the word's meaning.

From Johnna D. Tokarcik:

Explain the origins of the word moron. Thank you.

Moron comes from Greek moros `foolish, stupid.' It was coined as a scientific term by Dr. Henry H. Goddard and proposed to the American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded by him in 1910. It was accepted by the Association and described a person suffering from mental deficiency who was between eight and twelve years in mental age and who possessed an I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient) below 75. It was the highest rating of a mentally deficient person, the two lower ratings being imbecile and idiot. Moron was quickly adopted in common English to mean `fool' and it is no longer in scientific use.

From Don W. Hamerly:

I've a few. First, why do we pronouce the word solder as we do? Second, why do we say hanged when referring to an execution only? Third, where did the expression May Day originate? I'm holding my breath with sincerest thanks.

First, solder comes from Middle English soudur which itself came, via Old French soldure and soulder, from Latin solidare `to make solid.' The American pronunciation stems from the Middle English soudur, which first appears about 1320. The British pronunciation is more in line with a different spelling of the word, souldur which first appears in 1428.

The spelling hanged, referring to execution, came about because before the 16th century, hanged was the past participle of hang. In the 17th century hung became the standard past participle, but hanged was retained in law and as an extension of legal use, as in the pronouncement of punishment, including execution.

May Day, a term used in radio communications for `help us,' is simply the Anglicization of the French phrase (venez) m'aider `(come) help me.'

I hope this is enough so that you can breathe again!

From Greg Rolfs:

What is the etymology of the word lam? My dictionary has the definition as something like `hurried flight, especially to avoid prosecution.' It lists the origin as `Slang.' Do you know anything more complete than just `Slang'?

Lam, as in on the lam, first appears in 1897 and comes from the verb lam which means `run away.' It is of unknown origin, but sometimes attempts are made to connect it to lam `beat,' as in lambaste. This connection becomes clearer if one considers that beat it also means `run away,' and one source indicates that this meaning of beat it is Old English. I have seen nothing to substantiate that, however. 

From Joyce Matrazzo:

I was wondering where the phrases bit the dust and kicked the bucket came from.

Bite the dust, meaning `die,' was popularized in the 1930's thanks to American Western films. Cowboys and/or Indians were often depicted as being shot and falling off their mounts and landing on the dusty ground, where they lay dead. However, 19th-century English translations of Homer's Iliad and Vergil's Aeneid both contain bite the dust meaning `die.' It is likely that the phrase in ancient Greek also came about because warriors fell to the dusty ground when they were killed in battle.

Kick the bucket, another euphemism for `die,' first appears in late 18th-century England. There are two possible explanations for its origin. The first is that bucket is an East Anglian term for a beam on which a pig is hung for slaughtering and which it kicks in its death throes. The second explanation is that the bucket refers to that upon which a person committing suicide by hanging stands and then kicks out from under himself to finish the act.

From Tim :

With everyone talking about spirituality and love these days, including myself, I am curious as to what I am really talking about when I use the words spirit or love. Perhaps knowing how these words came to be can help me clarify things more. can you help me with the etymology of these two words?

Certainly, and love is easiest as we've addressed it in this column before. Follow this link to read about love. Spirit is one we have not addressed before, and it is an interesting word. Its Latin form was spiritus and it originally meant `breath.' It came from Latin spirare `breathe' (source of English aspire, conspire, expire, inspire, perspire, respire, transpire, etc.), and that probably came from the prehistoric Indo-European base *speis- or *peis, an imitation of the sound of blowing or breathing out. The Indo-European root is the source also of Old Church Slavonic piskati `whistle,' Serbo-Croation pistati `hiss,' and Old Norse fisa `fart.' However, while spiritus meant breath originally, it came to mean `soul' during the Augustan era, taking over from the word anima `soul' (from which English gets animal, animate, etc.), which, interestingly, also denoted `breath.' Spiritus became the accepted word in Christian Latin writings.

From Poohbear :

What is the etymology of leader?

Leader first appears in English in about 1300 as ledere, which is formed from Middle English leden `to lead' and -er, a suffix added to a verb to designate a person or thing who does the something described by the verb. Leden, first appearing in around 1125, comes from Old English laeden `cause to go with one,' which itself comes from Proto-Germanic *laidijanan. The Proto-Germanic is also the source of Old Frisian leda and Old Saxon ledian, as well as Middle and modern Dutch leiden, Old High and modern German leiten, and Old Icelandic leidha. The meaning `person in front' is first recorded in 1570.

From Stepanie and Juan Villaveces:

My husband and I tried this weekend to think of the logical etymological roots of the word marriage, or marry. Can you help?

I think so. Marry entered English in about 1300 as marien `to give in marriage.' This came from Old French marier, from Latin maritare `wed, marry,' from maritus `married man or husband.' It is thought that maritus might have its source in a participle that meant `provided with a bride or young woman,' from Indo-European *mer- or *mor-.

Marriage also entered English about 1300 as mariage from Old French mariage. That was formed from the verb marier plus the suffix -age. That suffix is used to form a noun from a verb. It comes from Old French - age.

From Leif Lansner:

We would like to know whether there's any link between the words messiah, master/maitre and perhaps even metre/meter.

The word messiah comes directly from Hebrew mashiah (the Aramaic cognate is meshiha). It means, literally, `anointed.' Master comes from Latin magister, which is generally assumed to have been based on the root of Latin magis `more' and magnus `big,' source of English magnify, magnitude, etc. English originally acquired magister itself, but due to the influence of Old French maistre, magister developed to master. Metre/meter comes from Greek metron `measure,' which itself comes ultimately from the Indo-European base *me- `measure.' As you can see from these words sources, they are not etymologically related, though your thinking that they might be etymologically similar is not surprising based upon the similarities in the words' meanings and/or spelling.

From Ray Burnham:

I am writing on behalf of my boss. He thinks that he may have been the original user of the abbreviation for women, Ms. I would appreciate your expertise in the etymological area for your input on this matter. A date when the term was first used would be EXTREMELY helpful. Thanks for your help.

Ms. is first recorded in 1949. Was your boss around then? The term is a blend of Miss and Mrs. I have found no information so far as to who exactly coined the term. Interestingly, the title did not begin to enter wide use until the late 1960's.

From E. Neal McNamara:

I'm most interested in finding out the actual origin of the phrase Mexican standoff. Any help would be appreciated. Also, the origin of aunt and uncle.

Mexican standoff's origins are not known, but one source supposes that the term, which means `a situation from which nothing at all can be expected,' comes from a derogatory origin. This source notes that adjectives of nationality are often used in derogatory manners. Several expressions were coined by the English in the 17th century to put down their Dutch rivals: Dutch treat `pay for yourself,' Dutch defense `surrender,' and do the Dutch `suicide.' The same is true regarding the Mexicans: Mexican athlete `an athlete who goes out for a team but does not make it,' Mexican promotion `a promotion in which the employee gets a new title but no raise in pay,' Mexican breakfast `a breakfast consisting of a cigarette and a glass of water,' and Mexican standoff .

An aunt is etymologically a mother. The word comes ultimately from *amma, which is a hypothetical non-Indo-European word for `mother.' It is similar to Indo-European *mamma- and originated, like *mamma-, from syllables perceived to be uttered by babies. *Amma was borrowed into Latin as amita `paternal aunt,' and it passed into English via Old French ante (modern French tante is an alteration of ante) and Anglo-Norman aunte.

Uncle comes via Anglo-Norman uncle and late Latin aunculus from Latin avunculus `mother's brother, maternal uncle' (source of English avuncular) This was a diminutive noun derived from the prehistoric base *aw- `grandparent,' and it has relatives in Latin avus `grandfather,' Welsh ewythr `uncle,' Polish wuj `uncle,' Armenian hav `uncle,' etc.

From John in Dallas:

How did the word man come to describe both the male gender and the human species as a whole? Are words such as chairman really gender-linked in their origin?

It's nice to hear from Dallas, my home town! As for man, it originally, in Old English, meant `human being,' `person.' It did not come to refer to `an adult male' until about 1000 A.D. Interestingly, in all other Germanic languages but English, the word originally had a two-fold sense: `human being' and `adult male.' Later, again except for English, `human being' was referred to by a derivative of the word for man. The primary sense of Old English man was `human being.' The words wer `man' and wif `woman' distinguished the sexes. It was in the late 13th century that were/wer began to be replaced by man to mean `adult male.' As for words like chairman, yes, the form which refers to `one who presides (over a meeting),' etc., is gender-linked. Chairman with that meaning dates from 1921, when most, if not all chairmen were indeed men. The word chairperson dates from 1971.

Like: The adjective and verb forms of this word, though seemingly different in meaning, are etymologically related. Like the adjective comes ultimately from Old English gelic `like, similar,' which itself comes from a Proto-Germanic compound which means `having the same form with a corresponding body.' Like went through several changes beginning in about 1200 -- iliche to ilik to like (about 1225). There are several cognates with Old English gelic: Old Frisian gelik `like,' Old Saxon gilik `like,' Middle Dutch ghelijc `like' (modern Dutch gelijk, Old High German gilih (modern German gleich, and Old Icelandic glikr, likr `like.'

Like the verb comes from the same Germanic source as gelic `similar.' It started as lician `to please;' in 1150 the verb's form was liken `to please,' and by 1200 the meaning had changed to `be pleased, find agreeable.' Some cognates of the Old English form were Old Frisian likia `to please,' Old Saxon likon `to please,' Old High German lihhen `to please,' Old Icelandic lika `to please,' and Gothic leikan `to please.'

From Earle Warner:

I am a mediator specializing in family disputes. Do you have any information on the etymology of mediation, divorce, custody, and alimony? Do mediation and meditation share a common root? Thanks.

The etymologies of some of these words seem fairly logical, while others are a bit surprising! Mediation comes from the past participle stem of Latin mediare, from medius `middle.' It attained its current meaning in English in the 14th century. Interestingly, it originally applied to Christ (13th century)! The word meditate is not related -- it comes from an Indo-European root which means `measure.'

Divorce comes, along with several other English words, from Latin Divertire, via a variant divortire. Divertire was formed from dis- `aside' and vertere `turn aside or out of the way.' So, to divorce is `to turn one's husband or wife out of the way.' Other English words which descend from Latin divertire are diverse, divers and divert/diversion.

Custody's etymology is the easiest -- it comes from Latin custodia, which comes from custos, custod- `guardian, keeper.'

Alimony, on the other hand, has a more surprising, yet still logical, history: it comes from Latin alimonia, from Latin alere `nourish,' so alimony is "nourisment," as the suffix -mony is a form of the suffix -ment. So, alimony is support given for "nourishment!"

From Cynthia Meredith:

What is the origin of Luddite and/or Neo-Luddite?

The Luddites were early 19th century workmen who destroyed laborsaving machinery as a protest. It is thought that their name came from Ned Ludd, an 18th century Leicestershire workman who destroyed machinery. The term first appeared in English around 1811. Luddite is also used broadly to describe anyone opposed to technological change and advance. A Neo-Luddite is literally a `new Luddite,' that is, someone who has formally espoused the views of the original Luddites. Neo- comes from Greek neos `new.'

From Jane Hansen:

I'm trying to find the etymology of the phrase killing the messenger or shooting the messenger. Actually, I want some historical examples of large-scale killings of the messenger or messengers.  Thanks.

It's clear that the term arose when a messenger brought bad news, and, in his wrath over the tidings, the receiver of the message (likely someone in power) killed the messenger. Unfortunately, I cannot find any information on the origin of this phrase. As for historical examples of messengers being killed, I must stick to etymology as much as possible in this column or I'll have to quit my day job!

From Jon Green:

Is there a relationship between loaf the noun (`a unit of bread') and loaf the verb (`to be idle')? Thank you very much.  I enjoy your site very much!  Great idea.

Thank you! This is an interesting question! It is often amazing to see how different the etymologies of homonyms are. Loaf the verb comes from loafer the noun. A loafer was originally a `vagabond or tramp,' arising from landloafer, the Anglicization of German landlaufer, a compound formed from land `land' and laufer `runner, walker.' The transition in meaning from `one who walks' (i.e., a `vagabond') to `one who is idle' is not difficult to imagine. The verb originated in the U.S. in the 19th century.

Loaf `portion of bread' is a far older word, appearing in Old English as hlaf. It took its current form in the 14th century. It comes from a prehistoric Germanic root *khlaibaz. That same root produced German laib and Danish lev. Amazingly, the words lord and lady are related to loaf! A lord was originally a *khlaibward, literally a `loaf ward' or 'loaf guardian.' A lady was a hloefdige, a `loaf kneader.'

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 Eduardo Sanabria:

We are curious about the origin of the word lemon (limon in Spanish, with an accented o). The meaning of the words lemon and lime are transposed in these two languages; in Spanish, lime refers to the yellow fruit and lemon is the green fruit. Can you shed some light on this obscure matter?

These two words are related, so this may explain the confusion. Lemon comes ultimately from Arabic limun `citrus fruit.' Lemon made its way to English through Old French limon. Its first incarnation in English was as lymon in the 15th century. (Lemon in Spanish is limon). Lime first entered English in the 17th century, and the word was borrowed from Spanish lima `lime,' the Spanish word coming from Arabic lima `citrus fruit,' probably a back formation from Arabic limun.

From Arch EOMHD:

I seek the etymological study of the words knowledge, wisdom and understanding. I possess information through "lexogramming' that knowledge is `know the ledge/know the edge,' wisdom is `wise - dom (dumb),' and understanding is `under stand.' Not a very informative method of origin, but interesting to say the least.

First, I apologize for not having your e-mail address -- blame it on operator error (and I'm the operator!). Second, you've chosen some interesting words!

Knowledge was formed from the Middle English equivalent of know plus the ending -lych/-leche/-lege `-ness' (as in goodness). Know comes from Old English cnawan, whose past tense was cneow, which came from Prot-Germanic *knaeanan. The Middle English form of know was cnowen, and then knowen. Knowledge comes from knowen plus -lych. It was knowlych in the early 13th century, knowelech in the mid-13th century, and knowlege by 1400.

Wisdom has already been addressed herein and you can find that etymology in the Archive of Etymologies.

Understand, whose gerund form is understanding, comes from Old English understandan `comprehend, grasp the idea of.' The Old English term means literally `stand in the midst of, stand between' and is a compound formed from Old English under- `between, among' and standan `stand.' Understand is the only current surviving word which employs this Old English meaning of under-.

Lexogramming happens to work with understand if you know the Old English meaning of under-. It works partially with wisdom, which you'll see if you refer to the archived etymology of wisdom. And it works partially with knowledge, as well, for knowledge is something one knows. However, because lexogramming does often work only partially, if at all, it is certainly not a reliable source of information on a word's etymology on its own. But it's a good place to start!

From Angel:

I would like the meaning of my name, Kendall.

This name, which one usually encounters as a surname but which appears to be growing in popularity as a first name, is comprised of two parts: kent, which is Celtic in origin and is thought to mean `coastal district' but possibly `land of the hosts or armies;' and dalr, which is Old Scandinavian for `valley, dale.' So Kendall means, in Old English, `valley of the River Kent,' a river in England.

From Mike Crowley:

Could you tell me the ultimate source of the word mascara? I have been told that it (along with its cognates mask, masque, and masquerade) derives from the name of an ancient Persian sect, the name of which (mascara) meant `reveller.' Please could you confirm/rebut/elucidate?

There is a phrase which has never made sense to me: the apple of one's eye. What have apples to do with eyes and why are such apples so esteemed?

Actually, mascara `eyelash darkener,' which entered English in around 1890 in the form mascaro, comes from Spanish mascara `soot, stain, mask,' from the same source as Italian maschera `mask.' English mask comes from maschera, as well. The source of the Italian form is, ultimately, Arabic maskhara `buffoon,' from sakhira `to ridicule.'

Apple of one's eye comes from the ancient belief that the pupil of the eye was a solid, apple-shaped body which was essential to sight and, therefore, very precious.

Leviathan originally referred to a huge sea animal mentioned in the Bible. It also apparently referred to the Devil (both prior to the 15th century). It was borrowed from Late Latin leviathan, which itself came from Hebrew livyathan `dragon, serpent, huge sea animal.' The meaning `great or powerful person or thing' arose in the early 17th century.

From Polly Jan:

A few friends of mine were trying to figure out why the word mongoloid refers to a person of mongol physical features and a person with Down's syndrome.

Actually, the term Mongoloid is no longer used to refer to the Mongols, who are natives of what was formerly the ancient kingdom of Mongolia in Asia. Too, the term is considered offensive when used to describe one afflicted with Down's syndrome. However, the two uses of the word are related. Originally, people suffering from Down's syndrome were noted to have flattened features and slanted eyes, looking somewhat like Mongols. Hence the name. Mongol supposedly is a native name which comes from mong `brave.'

From D. Clark:

I was wondering about the etymology for skin a cat, as in there's more than one way to skin a cat.

This phrase is of American origin. Mark Twain used it in A Connecticut Yankee in 1889. Prior to that, in England there had been the phrase "There are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream" which appeared in Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! in 1855. Beyond that, the etymology of the phrase is unclear.

From K. Smith:

I am curious about the origin of the term lazy Susan.

Well, this term first arose in the early 20th century; according to one source, it originated in New England. The lazy Susan took the place of its predecessor, the dumb waiter, which was like a three-tiered lazy Susan. How the name went from dumb waiter to lazy Susan is not known.

From Amir Bakhtiar:

I'm interested in the origins of the phrase the life of Riley. I'm not certain that this is the corret spelling of Riley as it pertains to this phrase.

William and Mary Morris, in Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, conclude that this phrase arose when the vaudevillian Pat Rooney sang a song called "Are You the O'Reilly" during the late 19th century. The audience would sing along with this song, which dealt with what it would be like to be wealthy. The lyrics included such lines as `A hundred a day will be small pay' and `on the railroads you'll pay no fare.' However, H. L. Mencken attributes the origin of the phrase to "The Best in the House is None Too Good for Reilly," popular at the turn of the century.

From Marhainie:

I'm really curious to know the whole plethora of the meanings of the word muse. Could you amuse me?

Well, it could be a bit bemusing. The verb muse `to be absorbed in one's thoughts' comes not from the Muses, but instead from Old French muser `to ponder or loiter,' or, literally, `to stay with one's nose in the air,' from muse `muzzle.' The French came from Gallo-Romance *musa `snout,' which is of uncertain origin.

Muse `any of nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each of whom presided over a different art or science,' entered English in about 1380 from Old French Muse, which itself came from Greek Mousa via Latin Musa. Some English words which come from Muse are music, museum, and mosaic.

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' (from Greek makros) and Greek bio- `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 Keith Adams:

The subject of "buying a Mulligan" came up during a golf benefit. So far, my research findings have been limited to learning that Mulligan stew is made from anything available.' Just who is this Mulligan anyway?

From Brad M.:

Saw your web page, nice job. The reason that I'm posting to you now is to find out if you know of a source of the word Mulligan used in a golfing context.

It must be golfing weather! Interestingly, I've had little luck finding out very much about Mulligan. William and Mary Morris (see the bibliography) cite an amusing theory from Milton Gross' Eighteen Holes in My Head which notes that saloons used to keep on their bars a bottle that was universally known as Mulligan. The ingredients in the Mulligan bottle were seeds from hot peppers and water. Those who were foolish enough to use the contents of the bottle would eventually have their innards eaten away by it. Apparently, that is how a golfer feels when he accepts a Mulligan on the golf course.

The Mulligan in Mulligan stew is likely named after a person who first threw together such a stew, and perhaps that is where the name of the saloon concoction comes from.

From Jennie Robinson:

Just discovered your site.  It's terrific.  I'd embarked on a search for a dictionary of word origins (haven't foudn same as yet) to learn the etymology of light fingered. Thanks for the entertaining and informative site.

I have found no etymological information on this term as a whole, though we can dissect it and come to a reasonable conclusion about its origins. Light `not heavy' developed from Old English leoht and was later liht. It was a cognate with Old Frisian licht `not heavy,' Old Saxon liht, Middle and Modern Dutch licht, Old High German lihti (modern German is leicht), Old Icelandic lettr (Danish now has let, Norwegian lett, and Swedish latt), and Gothic leihts, all coming from Proto-Germanic *linHtaz.

Light-fingered is `having quick and nimble fingers,' or fingers which are not heavy, and `not heavy' is the etymological meaning behind light.

From Jim Ruberto:

Hi. Nice site. A conversation the other night found us discussing the full moon and its effects on humankind. The word lunatic came to focus, and we decided that it must be somehow related to the moon. Any clues?

There certainly is a connection. In 1300 the word was lunatyke, and it was borrowed from Old French `insane.' It came from Latin lunaticus `moon-struck,' from luna `moon.' This term arose becaues it was thought that recurring attacks of madness were caused by phases of the moon. That idea was later discounted, but it is gaining some credence again today.

From Mike Crowley:

In Europe mocha is a variety of coffee bean. It is actually the oldest variety. Originally shipped through the Yemeni port of Mocha, they are wild beans collected on Ethiopian mountainsides (which accounts for their distinctive variation in color). Well, that may be what it means in Europe, but in the U.S. mocha means `coffee with chocolate in it.' At least it does now. I have consulted some U.S. dictionaries published in the 1950's and they have the European meaning, no mention being made of chocolate.

My question is this: when did mocha come to mean `coffee with chocolate added' and why?

You've done a good bit of my work for me! Mocha was first used in about 1773 to refer to the coffee that came from that port city. Chocolate was added to mocha coffee as a flavoring, and so the term came to refer to the chocolate-coffee mixture in the U.S. by 1849. Interestingly, in today's U.S. dictionaries, `choclate-coffee mixture' is not the primary definition of mocha (the primary definition is `a pungent, rich, Arabian coffee'). It appears that the term has come into wide use with the `chocolate' association only in the last few decades.

From A Reader:

[What is] the origin of the phrase Kilroy was here?

This phrase's source is acknowledged as unknown by most etymologists, but that does not mean that there are not theories regarding it. The phrase first popped up at the end of Word War II among American soldiers. The most popular explanation for the origin of this phrase, which Billy Bryson discusses in Made in American (see the bibliography), is that James J, Kilroy, a gentleman who inspected military equipment in Massachuesetts, supposedly chalked Kilroy was here on every crate he examined. Those crates were sent, then, all over the world. There are other similar theories with different men of the surname Kilroy as the subject. Again, though, these are theories only.

From John Eddy:

Yes, I want to know the history of the word malarky (or is it malarkey?). I've heard the word used too many times in the current Massachusetts Senatorial Race, and a few friends of mine were trying to decide what it could mean.

If you ever find the etymology of malarkey anywhere, it will likely be a bunch of malarkey, because the origins of this word are not known. All that is known is that it originated in America in the late 1920s and has meant approximately the same thing since then: `pretentious language that means nothing.' Both spellings are acceptable.

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.

Mile has its roots in Latin mille `a thousand.' The Roman mile was equal to one thousand double paces, that is, one step with each foot or 4,860 feet. This is about 400 feet short of a statute mile.

The word has been mile since the 12th century in English. Prior to that it was mil. Many languages, Germanic and Romance, borrowed from the Latin source. Some examples are Middle Dutch mile, Old High German mila, Old French mille, Italian miglio, and Spanish milla, to name a few.

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.

League was lege in the late 14th century. It was borrowed from Old French legue, and also from Late Latin leuga, which came from Gaulish. It is thought that it was equal to about an hour's march (approximately three miles).

From A Reader:

Can you please explain why the word matter has the same root (mater) as the word mother? What is its history?

Also, can you give me the history of the word etymology?

Matter was materie `substance' before 1200, and by the early 14th century it was mater. It was borrowed from Old French matere and also directly from Latin materia `substance from which something is made, timber' from mater `origin, source, mother.'

Mother comes from Proto-Germanic *modær. In about 725 it was modor, and in 1125 it was moder; by the early 15th century it was mother. There are many cognates in other Germanic languages, such as Old Frisian moder, Old Saxon modar, and Old High German muoter. The Indo-European source for mother is ultimately *mater-, which is strikingly similar to Latin mater, wouldn't you say?

From K. Brown:

Looking for history of the expression monkey wrench as in `throwing a monkey wrench in the works.' Thanks.

One theory has it that monkey wrench was originally Moncke wrench after its supposed inventor, Charles Moncke of London, England. However, it seems that the British call the monkey wrench an adjustable spanner wrench, so many etymologists discount the Moncke theory. Another theory notes that the wrench was invented by an American by the name of Monk in about 1856. As that date does coincide with the appearance of the word, some etymologists believe this theory has some merit.

I've been unable to turn up any information on throw a monkey wrench into something in the sense of `disrupt the progress of.'

From Deanna M. Priest:

What exactly is the difference between miscellaneous and other?

You must have been filling out a number of forms lately. Miscellaneous entered English around 1640 from Latin miscellaneus, from miscellus `mixed,' from miscere `to mix.'

Other, on the other hand, comes from Old English other `the second, other.' It is cognate with Old Frisian other `the second, other,' Old Saxon athar, othar, Middle Dutch and modern Dutch ander, Old High German andar, Old Icelandic annarr, and Gothic anthar, from Proto-Germanic *antheraz. The `second' sense of other was lost and taken over by second in English and zweiter in German, to name two.

Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright © 1995-2000 TIERE
Last Updated 10/09/06 07:46 PM