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More Shaky Etymology

We received another e-mail of etymologies.  We have so much fun debunking these that we simply can't resist yet another (even though this one does get it right a few times)!

Strange Words and Their Origins

The term moron entered our vocabulary when Molière, in his play La Princesse d’Elide, gave a dim-witted character the name Moron.

Uh, nope.  The term arose in psychological circles and derives from Latin morus, which the Romans took from Greek moros "stupid".  It dates in English from around 1900.  Moliere did have a character of that name in his play, written in 1664, but the word did not enter English from there.

The phrase often a bridesmaid but never a bride actually comes from an advertisement for Listerine mouthwash. The text was written by Milton Feasley and first appeared in 1925. The advertisement was so successful that it ran for more than 10 years.

If it was ever used in a commercial, it was taken from an earlier music hall song called Why Am I Always a Bridesmaid.  Here are the lyrics:

Why am I always a bridesmaid,
Never the blushing bride?
Ding! Dong! Wedding bells
Always ring for other gals.
But one fine day -
Please let it be soon -
I shall wake up in the morning
On my own honeymoon.

The song was made famous by Victorian singer Vesta Victoria, 1864-1952.  It was written by Fred W. Leigh, who also wrote Don't Dilly Dally and Waiting at the Church.

Listerine ads were written by Feasley, along with Gordon Seagrove and Gerard B. Lambert, the president of the company that sold Listerine.  However, these ads were about a handsome man who was spurned by a beautiful woman because he had halitosis, or bad breath.  It was an amazingly successful ad campaign, one that is still studied by marketers today.

Limousines originally got their name because they were first built in the Limousin region of France.

John Ayto, a trusted etymologist, suggests that there was a type of cloak peculiar to the Limousin region in France.  When, in the first years of the 20th century, a special motor car with an enclosed passenger area and a roofed (but open) driver's seat came onto the scene, it was felt to resemble a Limousin cloak, so the term limousine was applied to the car.

Caterpillar means "hairy cat" in Old French.

No connection between caterpillar and the Old French term has been established. How's that for a hairy cat? This is all conjecture. The actual Old French was chatepelose.  The -pillar portion of the English form may have evolved due to association with a word that is obsolete, now: piller meaning "plunderer", as many caterpillars are considered agricultural pests. Not all caterpillars are hairy, of course! However, words for the "caterpillar" that do refer to cats arose across several Indo-European languages.  The Caterpillar (proprietary name) tractor was so named because of its method of travel.

Pez (as in the candy) comes from the German Pfefferminz meaning "peppermint".

The Simpsons!Yep, but it's a little more complicated than that.  Edward Haas invented the candy in 1927 in Austria, intending it as an adult alternative to smoking.  It was sold in tins originally, but in 1948 the "easy, hygienic" dispenser was introduced.  Pez collectors call that first dispenser a "German regular".  In 1952 the candy was first sold in America.  Heads were placed on the dispensers and children were the target.  The dispensers became a hit, and they are still popular today.


Squash comes from a Native American word, isquoutersquash, which means "green thing eaten green."

Well, calling it "Native American" is sort of like calling it "European".  It's actually Narragansett, an Algonquian language, and the transliteration we prefer is asquutasquash, formed from asq "raw".  Narragansett, by the way, means "people of the small point of land".

Spain literally means "the land of rabbits."

Not so fast there, Bugs.  It doesn't "literally" mean that.  It might etymologically mean "rabbit", a reference to the large number of rabbits there at one time, but it might etymologically mean several other things, as well.  No one is quite sure.  Some other possibilities are that it derives from Basque ezpain "lip" or "edge" (perhaps referring to it being on a peninsula), or that its origin is in Hesperus "land of the setting sun".

The word vanilla comes from the Latin word for "vagina", because of the vanilla pod's resemblance to the female genitalia.

Actually, vagina means, etymologically, "sheath", and so does vanilla, coming from Spanish vainilla "little sheath", referring to the pod's sheath-like shape, not to its resemblance to the female genitals.

The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word gymnazein which means "to exercise naked."

It's not quite that simple.  Gumnazein (a slightly different transliteration from the Greek) came to mean "train, practice" after gumnos "naked", because it was common in ancient Greece for athletes to train with no clothes on.  The noun that derived from the verb was gumasion, taken by the Romans to mean "school" in Latin (in a slightly different form: gymnasium).  In English the word retained its connection to athletes.

The word mafia was created as an acronym for Morte alla francia italia adela, meaning literally "Death to the French is Italy's cry."

We are shaking our fingers at our long-time readers: "Few English words that date before 1900 derive from acronyms!"  See our previous discussion of mafia.

The word avocado comes from the Spanish word aguacate, which in turn is derived from the Aztec word ahuacatl which meant "testicle".

This one they got right!

The ZIP in ZIP code stands for "Zoning Improvement Plan."

This one, too!  It dates in print from 1963 (in the U.S.; it's a Postal Code in the U.K.).

According to an old Egyptian text, a delicate nerve runs from the fourth finger of a person's left hand to their heart, thus explaining the origin why that finger is the wedding finger.

We've never heard of a wedding finger, but we have heard of a ring finger, and that designation goes all the way back to Old English, and the term is found in German, Danish, Dutch and Swedish, too!  The text that first refers to the ring finger is Greek, not Egyptian, and it was believed that a vein, not a nerve, ran from that finger to the heart.  However, one source maintains that it was the third, or middle finger, to which the Greeks referred.  When the Romans adopted Greek texts, they assumed that the third finger was the third not including the thumb, making it the second to last finger.  Other Europeans followed the Roman practice of placing a wedding ring on that finger, and that practice has lasted to this day.

If you knock on wood, the spirit in the tree will protect you.

Well, something like that.  It's touch wood in Britain.  It's thought that the superstitious practice of knocking on or touching wood to avert misfortune might date all the way back to Druidic times, when trees were revered, but there's no proof of such.

The sh*tty end of the stick? Well, you got that when you grabbed the wrong end of the pole used to lift the bucket in the outhouse. Bummer!

It was originally short end of the stick and has only been modified as suggested above in recent times.  Christine Ammer, in Have a Nice Day - No Problem, thinks that the stick referred to was originally one used in fighting, so that the person who had the shorter portion was at a disadvantage.  Imagine someone waving a staff at you; if you grabbed it not far from the end that was pointed at you, you wouldn't be able to do much, but the person at the other end very likely would.

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