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Strictly Etymology

Reference/Dictionaries | Place Names | Proper Names/Eponyms | Stars/Celestial Bodies | Food WordsAmerican Words | Animal Words and Phrases | Nautical Terms | Military/War Terms | Foreign Language Etymology | Medical Terms | Clichés | Folk Etymology | Foreign Words in English | Slang | Phrases | General

The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology

Mr. Barnhart is very thorough and provides dates as well as excellent Proto-Germanic root information.  We refer to this book frequently.

Dictionary of Word Origins

We can't recommend this book enough.  It is a delight to either read through or simply browse as a reference.  Mr. Ayto is quite thorough and entertaining, as well.

An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English Vol I

An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English Vol II

Ernest Weekley's valuable reference volumes.

Merriam Webster's Dictionary of Allusions
by Elizabeth Webber, Mike Feinsilber

From "Abelard and Heloise" to "Zuzu's Petals", this book provides the history, meaning, and context for many of the creative and colorful allusions that enrich fine writing. For every entry I knew, I found at least a dozen that I either was misinterpreting or just glossed over in my reading.  A great book for the reference shelf [or] bedside...

Review from 

The Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories

This book contains a medium-sized selection of words, but each word is laboriously discussed and researched.

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins

This is a handy book which contains hard-to-find etymologies of words and, especially, phrases.  The Morrises relied quite a bit on input from the readers of their newspaper column for help with words and phrases of unknown origin.

2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions, from White Elephants to A Song and Dance

This fascinating reference includes four previously published best-selling titles--A Hog on Ice, Thereby Hangs a Tale, Heavens to Betsy! and Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words.

NTC's Dictionary of Word Origins
Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

This is a newly published version of the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, which was the full version of The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology.  The concise version is so informative that the full version must surely be even better.

Random House Dictionary of America's Popular Proverbs and Sayings
by Gregory Titelman

The dictionary is handily organized in alphabetical format, so you can look up "Pyrrhic victory" when you come across it in your reading and once again can't remember what it means. Likewise, when you're writing about caution and vaguely recall that there's some appropriate phrase about cats, you can flip open to the Cs and find "The cat in gloves catches no mice."  

Place Names:

Placenames of the World: Origins and Meanings of the Names for over 5000 Natural Features, Countries, Capitals, Territories, Cities and Historic Sites

What a wonderful book for all of you who have wondered endlessly about the origins of place names and did not know where to look!  This is a special order and it costs a bit more than most of the other books here, but we probably would have paid more for it had we known how delightful it would be.

California Place Names : The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names
California's Spanish Place-Names; What They Mean and How They Got There
English Place Names
Proper Names/Eponyms:
What's in a Name?  How Proper Names Became Everyday Words

Renowned linguist Eugene Ehrlich once again delves into the peculiar origins of the words we use every day. Mining the English language to turn up a colorful cast of characters, Ehrlich finds the historic and literary figures who have given their names to our language in the interest of keeping it vibrant and alive.  

From Achilles' heel to Bowie's knives, from Amelia Jenks Bloomer's bloomers to Reverend William Archibald Spooner's spoonerisms, Ehrlich pays his own unique and insightful tribute to those who have influenced our daily speech patterns in ways they could never have imagined. A humorous look at the sometimes haphazard development of the English language, What's in a Name? will appeal to both history and language buffs.

It is also available in paperback.

Trade Name Origins

This is a lovely little paperback by Adrian Room, who also put together one of our favorite books on place names of the world.  Did you ever wonder where the name of the photographic paper giant KODAK came from, especially when the name of the company's founder was Eastman?  Does NABISCO mean anything? Mr. Room provides the answers.  This book is also available in a hardcover edition.

The Name's Familiar: Mr. Leotard, Barbie, and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee

You have heard their names. In some cases, you may not even have known they were people's names. But did you ever stop to think about the people behind them? Who was Sara Lee? Was there really a Chef Boyardee? A Sweet Adeline? Jack Daniels? Peggy Sue? James Bond, Charlie Brown, Alice in Wonderland and Dennis the Menace all took their names from real people. There really were a Jack and Jill and Romeo and Juliette. You'll find Kilroy here. Yes, there was a Virginia. Was king Wenceslas really "good?" Guppy, leotard, silhouette, lynch, even booze were once proper names. This book will tell the stories of the scientists who have become diseases and parts of the body, (at least in name), the pioneers whose names have become cities and the musician's friends who found their way into songs. What they have in common is that they are or were real people and their names have become familiar. 

Guppies in Tuxedos: Funny Eponyms
Portmanteau Dictionary: Blend Words in the English Language, Including Trademarks and Brand Names
Star/Celestial Body Names:
Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning

We reviewed this book in the newsletter (View the Archive of newsletters) for the week of October 25, 1999.

Food Words:

Ladyfingers and Nuns' Tummies

This is the paperback version of Martha Barnette's wonderful book on the origins of food words and phrases.

Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities

This is really an old favorite which was (gasp!) overlooked for the bookstore, at least until now!  It was reviewed in our November 24, 1998 newsletter (see the newsletter Archive).  Since we wrote the review, Cupboard Love was nominated for a Julia Child award.

American Words:

America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America

We finally got around to adding this book to our library.  There are some fine etymologies here.  It's more thorough than Bill Bryson's Made In America, though it's written in a reference format instead of Bryson's enjoyable narrative style.  There is even a list of words coined in each year from 1555 to 1998.  Michael Quinion says of this book: "...a good read, well researched, and full of interesting sidelights on the country and its language".  This book should interest both logophiles and American history buffs.

Made In America 

Bill Bryson is a wonderfully entertaining and simultaneously informative writer.  He delves deeply into the origins of many American words and expressions in a historical, narrative text.

Animal words and phrases:
Cool Cats, Top Dogs, and Other Beastly Expressions
by Christine Ammer

Reviewed in the newsletter for the week of December 20, 1999.

Military/War words:
Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers
by Christine Ammer
Nautical words:
Salty Dog Talk : The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions
Etymology in foreign languages:
Chinese Calligraphy : From Pictograph to Ideogram : The History of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters
Elsevier's Concise Spanish Etymological Dictionary
Etymological Dictionary of Scottish-Gaelic
Medical Words:
Dictionary of Medical Derivations: The basic roots of medical vocabulary
Cliches : Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained
Folk Etymology
Folk Etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form
Foreign Words in English

The World in So Many Words 
by Allan Metcalf

Professor Metcalf has done it again.  The man who gave us  America in So Many Words now gives us the world.  He has scoured the globe for interesting and, many times, unusual words that have been borrowed by English.  He covers Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas with such words as moniker (from Shelta), trek (from Afrikaans), and succotash (from Narragansett, an indigenous North American language). (There's a lengthier review in a past issue of our companion newsletter.)

NTC's Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins : A Comprehensive Guide to the Classical Origins of English Words
A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases: Hobson-Jobson

O Brave New Words: Native American Loan Words in Current English
by Charles L. Cutler

From Booklist , September 1, 1994:
The University of Oklahoma Press charts new ground with the publication of this excellent book that examines the numerous Native American words that have been loaned to American English. Many of these fascinating entries are further examined in the accompanying text, which attempts to simplify a very complex series of historical events. The fluctuation of heavy borrowing corresponded directly to crucial historical events surrounding the colonization of America by Europeans. Cutler succeeds in making this work accessible to both the interested layperson and the scholar. What is most interesting in Cutler's analysis is what words were loaned, and why. Many loanwords are, of course, place-names, river names, names of geographical formations, and the like, but others are more mysterious. Cutler concludes that "perhaps a greater awareness of the Indian influence on our vocabulary will heighten an awareness of the Indian's lasting cultural impact in other ways." Indeed, the Native American ceded many gifts to the newcomers, including precious words from many now extinct languages. Highly recommended for academic and public library collections. 


The Oxford Dictionary of Slang
edited by John Ayto

John Ayto is one of our favorite etymological writers.  His Dictionary of Word Origins was, and still is, a popular seller, and this book of slang deserves to be equally treasured.  This is the 1999 version, and it is  different from his Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang.  [The following is from's reference editor:] This comprehensive look at informal English from around the world and across the centuries is organized thesaurus-style into sections for easy browsing by category. Look up underground terminology for drugs and sex and you'll be browsing for a month of Sundays. Of course, if you need to get the skinny on a particular term but have no idea what it could mean, there's an alphabetical index that'll take you right where you need to go. Each word or phrase is thoroughly documented, as you'd expect from an Oxford dictionary; its first print sighting, place of use, meanings, and cross-contextual references are included, as well as illuminating usage quotes. The Dictionary is easy to use and the definitions are concise--you can get the information you need quickly with time left to linger over related terms.  More than 10,000 entries yield plenty of insight into commonly used but still-not-quite-kosher parts of our language. When your New Zealander buddy refers to someone as a "cow-spanker," you won't have to wonder for long just who you're dealing with (don't worry, she's a dairy farmer).


Cat Got Your Tongue?  The Meaning Behind Everyday Sayings
by Daniel J. Porter

This is a cute little book, printed in large type, and clearly written for a young audience. Mr. Porter does a good job of explaining the background behind phrases like happy as a clam and don't look a gift horse in the mouth. (Read the rest of our review from a recent newsletter.)

Common Phrases and Where They Come From
by John Mordock and Myron Korach

Messrs. Mordock and Korach (those names sound like races from H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine"!) don't do quite the job that Robert Claiborne did with Loose Cannons, Red Herrings, and Other Lost Metaphors, reviewed last week in this newsletter. They fall into the trap of popular etymology a bit too often, relying on stock stories for the derivation of phrases like mind your p's and q's and raining cats and dogs. (Read the rest of our review from a recent newsletter.)

Loose Cannons, Red Herrings, and Other Lost Metaphors
by Robert Claiborne

Mr. Claiborne clearly did quite a bit of research for this book. He's pretty good about rooting out spurious etymologies (like cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey), and he's quite good with word histories that are universally agreed upon by most etymologists.  He gets a few wrong (like cloud nine), but, then, everyone makes mistakes, and we don't begrudge Mr. Claiborne a few. (Read the rest of our review from a recent newsletter.) 

A Chartreuse Leotard and a Magenta Limousine
The Clan of the Flapdragon and Other Adventures in Etymology, by B.M.W. Schrapnel, Ph.D.
The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins

This is the hard cover version.  It is also available in paper back.  This book has been revised (February 2000).

A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases: Hobson-Jobson
Inventing English : The Imaginative Origins of Everyday Expressions
More Words Ancient and Modern
Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins

What's in a Word
by Webb Garrison

This one's finally available!  We still have no review information on it.  If you've read this book, send us your review!


Why You Say It
Who Put the Butter in Butterfly
Word Origins: The Romance of Language

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Last Updated 10/09/06 08:03 PM