Issue 184, 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 Al Symmonds:

I know a cracket is a seat or part of a fireplace, maybe, and was used in the early 19th century in/around Newcastle [England].  I cannot picture it at all.

We do like to discuss unusual words now and again, and this certainly qualifies as unusual. These days cracket is probably to be found only in historical novels.

You are correct in supposing it is a seat; it is actually a small, low stool.  It is also known as a cricket, and in Scotland it is a crackie stoolCracket first turns up in the written record in 1635, and cricket about eight years later.  This cricket does not appear to be related to the other crickets (the insect or the game).  While its etymology is not known with certainty, it is suggested that it might be related to Low German kruk-stool "the moveable seats in churches for women of the lower ranks".

[So, how about the "men of the lower ranks"... did they stand or use immoveable seats?]

From Don Mills:

I am interested in the origin of the word bazooka.  Was it started by the inventor of the bazooka?

It appears so.  Bob Burns was a popular American radio personality of the 1930s and 40s.  He read comic monologues and peppered them with blasts from his bazooka, an instrument that was similar to a trombone and constructed from twoThe "Ikea" bazooka - some assembly required. gas pipes and a whiskey funnel.  The OED thinks that he got the name from bazoo, a form of kazoo that first turns up in writing in 1877.  By 1943 soldiers had taken to using Mr. Burns' word for their anti-tank rocket throwers.  Now most people don't remember the instrument but immediately think of the weapon.  The Encarta College Dictionary does not even list the instrument meaning and gives a "?" for the word's etymology.

Interestingly, William and Mary Morris, in their Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins printed a portion of a letter from a gentleman in Arkansas claiming that the original bazooka was an agricultural device used for hand-planting small seeds.  We have yet to see  evidence to support this seemingly fanciful story.

From Bill:

I heard that ornery was the invention of a screen writer for a cowboy movie.  I find it hard to believe that one reference made it into popular slang.  Is there more to this story?

Good for you to doubt that explanation, Bill.  Ornery has a much more ordinary etymology: it is a dialectical variant of ordinary!  The sense was "commonplace, of poor quality, coarse, unpleasant, low, mean, cantankerous", and the "cantankerous" meaning seems to have outlasted the others.  It first turned up in print in 1816.

From Marsha:

What is the origin of the word leeward?

It first turns up in the written record in 1618 with the meaning "in the direction that is away from the wind".  It is formed from lee + -wardLee is a very old word, dating back to 900 in Old English.  At that time it was hlo and was cognate with Old Frisian hli "shelter" and Old Norse hl "lee" (it is l in Swedish and l in Danish).  In Dutch it is a nautical term, lij, as it was in Middle Low German, l (German lee).  The Old Teutonic root of these words is *hlewo- "shelter, warmth".  There are no known cognates outside the Germanic languages.

The suffix -ward is also Old English in origin and was weard "having a specified direction".  It derives from the Indo-European root *wert- "to turn" (source of words like vortex in Latin).

From Shawn Lamb:

I looked all over the web and found no real origin for ticked off.  Just lots of people who have many guesses.  I appreciate any light you can shed on the origin.

It is a tricky one.  The OED lists the first recorded example of this phrase from 1959, but the late Eric Partridge (a great expert on English slang) suggested that it dates back to about 1916.  He also believes that it derives from "ticking off" something on a list (in the U.S. we'd say "check off" - a tick is the same as a check mark).  The sense that Partridge seems to be going for is one of a list of names of people who are to be reprimanded, and once you've been reprimanded you have been "ticked off" (in more ways than one!) and the term came to apply to the emotional state of the reprimandee.  Partridge also thinks that the original usage was military. 

Do you enjoy reading Take Our Word For It?  Give us a small token of your appreciation and help keep the site running by making a donation.  It's easy, and you can pay via credit card.  To donate, just click the  button!  You can donate as little as 50 cents or as much as William Bennett's casino bill.

From John Byrne:

In my younger days as a student in Dublin, digs was the word used for accommodation consisting of a house run by a landlady.  It was really a "bed and breakfast" in which the occupants were semi-permanent.  I have always wondered about the derivation of the word.

It is usually taken to mean "bachelor's accommodations", though the meaning has been broadening a bit of late.  Digs is short for diggings, which had the simpler meaning of "lodgings" though it is not quite clear how diggings came to be used in this sense.  One source connects it with mining, where the diggings were originally the area of excavation, but then the term came to be applied to the miner's place of abode, which was near the actual diggings.  Diggings in this sense dates from 1838; digs appears to be a more recent word.


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright 1995-
2003 TIERE
Last Updated 05/22/03 12:08 PM