Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lead and Lead

Lead (verb: to go before or show the way) is spelled the same way as Lead (noun: a heavy metal) but it is pronounced differently.

Led (past tense of the first version of lead) is spelled differently but pronounced the same as the metal.

Lead (the verb) comes through the Middle English leden (to travel) and the German word leiten.

Lead (the metal) is Old English (also spelled lede, a spelling maintained in typesetting jargon) and related to the German word Lot (meaning weight).

The chemical symbol (Pb) comes from the Latin word for the element lead, plumbum, which lead (the verb) to the word plum-bob.

Pencil lead is actually carbon (graphite), a different element altogether unrelated to lead (the metal).

The phrase Get the Lead Out probably comes from horse racing. Horses are handicapped by placing lead (the metal) strips in their saddle, thus adding weight and slowing the horse down leading (the verb) to a fairer contest. Getting the lead out will allow you to run as fast as possible.

Words like Lead reveal why English is such a damn confusing language.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Tit, meaning breast, comes from Old English for teat.
Tit, meaning small,
like Titmouse
has a Viking origin and apparently has nothing to do with the theory that 12th century Scandinavian women has tiny breasts.

Tit for Tat
May have come from the phrase "tap for tat" meaning blow for blow. Better than the alternative - the only dictionary definition for tat is "the act of making lace" and the phrase "breasts for lace" implies that frilly bras were imagined long before they were invented.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


A buffoon is a stupid person, a clown. It entered English in the 16th century from the Italian word, buffone, by way of the French, bouffon. Both words meaning a jester.

From one perspective being a buffoon is a profession, like a carpenter or smith. Think of that the next time you hear Donald Trump sound like an idiot running for President. Perhaps he is just playing the clown to hype his TV show.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Quagmire (n) - Swampy ground or being stuck in a situation that is nearly impossible to extract yourself from. As in, the United States like the Soviet Union before it is stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan.

Quag is a Middle English word meaning bog or marshy spot. Mire is from an old Norse word, myrr, meaning a bog or swamp. Together, they can be loosely defined as meaning swampy swamp.
Desert quagmires are very possible.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
~ Pete Seeger

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I was perusing the Urban Dictionary today and found an underground eruption of faux outrage over its supposed meaning and origin.

Cracker (n) - Southern white trash. A redneck. Especially from Georgia or Florida.

White Southerners insist the word is racist, the equal of the word nigger. That is silly. For 65 years, the minor league baseball team in Atlanta was nicknames the Crackers (see logo). The Negro League baseball team was called the Atlanta Black Crackers.

The Origin of Cracker
What is certainly not true is the common claim of revisionist Southerners that it comes as a derogatory word for overseers who "cracked the whip" at their slaves. This interpretation assumes the word was coined by black slaves and somehow was adopted by white Southerners. That just did not happen in the segregated societies of the Old South in the 19th century.

The word meaning "poor white trash" has been traced as far back as 1766 in a letter written by the Earl of Dartmouth.
I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode. ~ source
And from an article written by W. J. Cash in 1935.
In dancing and fiddling when his ministers will let him, in fantastic religion, in hard drinking and hard fighting and hard loving, but above all in violence--above all, in violence toward the Negro. And perforce, too, the ennui, the bitterness, the viciousness, bred in him by the always-narrowing conditions of his life, pour over to the elaboration of this pattern, to making him at his worst a dangerous neurotic, a hair-trigger killer, a man-burner, a pig quite capable of incest--in brief, everything that William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell have made him out to be, and perhaps something more. ~ Genesis of the Southern Cracker

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cock and Bull

A cock is a male chicken and a bull is a male cow. (art is available from the Greenwich Workshop) How did that come to mean an absurdly false story?

The most common explanation is the phrase comes from a pair of coaching inns in Stony Stratford where travelers were known for telling tall tales.

That is likely a cock and bull story made up for tourists. More likely it comes from folk tales with talking animals (think Alice in Wonderland). I mean, really, would you believe anything told you by a cow or chicken?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Yellow Peril

Yellow Peril originated in the late 19th century as a fear that Oriental immigration would overwhelm Western Civilization.

This fear was reinforced by the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) where Chinese youths rose against European and American colonial presence and attacked Western embassies and Christian missionaries.

Strangely, this is echoed in current fears that Muslim immigrants to Europe and the United States will supplant Christianity.

Friday, October 1, 2010


From the Greek drapetes (runaway) and mania (frenzy). 

A recognized disease of the 19th century. Its symptoms were lethargy, sullenness, and a general dissatisfaction with life as a black slave on Southern plantations. In its acute phase, the slave would runaway to freedom in the North. Today it would be called Harriet Tubman Disease.

The disorder was first described in medical journals by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851. His prescribed cure was liberal application of the whip.

Another disease identified by Dr. Cartwright was Dysaethesia Aethiopica (meaning: altered sensitivity in the negroid). This was a disease commonly known to slave owners as Rascality. Dr. Cartwright declared that this disease resulted in lazy slaves with insensitive skin and back lesions. Again, his approved treatment was to stimulate the slave with frequent and vigorous whippings.
An unfortunate victim of Dysaethesia Aethiopica.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Afghanistanism (n) - The act of diverting attention from meaningful local issues to something far distant and utterly meaningless. 
 An old, derisive newsroom term. It was first used in the 19th century to describe the habit of timid newspaper editorialists who, not wanting to address anything important like unemployment, health care, or corrupt politicians, would rail in their editorials about affairs in Afghanistan.

There is no modern usage as everybody now agrees that whatever happens in Afghanistan is far more important to America than unemployment, health care, or corrupt politicians in the United States.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


As in, "My sister-in-law, Debbie, is a wonderful person."

-ful - Old English, meaning full.
wonder - Also Old English meaning the object of astonishment. The word can be traced back further to proto-Germanic word wundran.

The original Old English word that means exactly the same as today was wunderfull. This is a word that dates back, unchanged, to the pre-dawn of the English Language.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


A land where big things are little, like the Mississippi River.
And other things are bigger than you can possibly imagine, such as the tales of Paul Bunyan, about whom it is said that Minnesota's 10,000 lakes are just his footprints filled up with water.

Minnesota is a Lakota word meaning "sky-tinted waters." From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water is a song written in 1909 in Nebraska but the phrase was taken by the St. Paul brewery Hamm's as their slogan and thence became Minnesotan.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mother Goose

Yesterday I went out to buy vegetables and almost got caught up in the nightmare of Mother Goose Parade traffic. So, who was Mother Goose?

Americans claim that Elizabeth Foster Goose, wife to 17th century Bostonian Issac Goose, is the feathered matron. After her husband dies, so the story goes, she moved in with family including publisher Thomas Fleet who allegedly published "Mother Goose's Melodies For Children" in 1719. The problem is a Frenchman published "The Tales of Mother Goose" 20 years previously and there is a reference to Mother Goose 50 years before that.

The French claim that Bertha (or Bertrada), briefly wife of King Robert II (972-1031) or the only wife of Pepin the Short (714-768) and mother of Charlemagne, was Berthe pied d'oie and Mère l'Oye - translation, Goose-footed Bertha and Mother Goose - was the original Mother Goose. The only problem is that the second title, Mère l'Oye, was attached in the 19th century.

My theory is the real Mother Goose is a bloke named Charles Perrault. Perrault was the author of a plethora of folk tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Puss-in-Boots. In 1696 he published a book titled Tales of Mother Goose. From one point of view, this makes the true Mother Goose a guy.

Friday, November 20, 2009


A fun word because, while old, nobody has a clue where it comes from.

Roam (v) - to wander about without purpose. Dates back to at least the 14th century. Many etymologists believes it is comes from the city of Rome, that English pilgrims had to take a circuitous route around France getting to the holy city. There is no actual evidence for this theory, though. There is a similar word in Old English (ramian) which may have come from a Saxon or Dutch word. The experts are puzzled by this little word.
Roam is also something that Buffalo used to do in the old West. Art is by Tate Hamilton.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fun With Babel Fish

Not wanting to think about words this past week. So, today I decided to have fun with Yahoo's Babel Fish. Babel Fish (name from the creature in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) is a handy place to do some simple, if barely literate, translations.
  • Movie - Casablanca - Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. Translate it English to Spanish to French to German back to English and you get - "From all of Geneva it articulated everywhere in all cities in the world, it goes into meinss." Meinss is a word that Babel Fish made up.
  • Movie - Forrest Gump - My Mama always said, "Life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get." Translate it English to Spanish to French to German back to English and you get - My mam3a always said, " ; The life was as a crate chocolates; They never know, which you' ; the RH too get." to go; ; Mam3a is Babel Fish's strange try a translating Mama. Also, as you can see, punctuation can be very confusing so You're gets translated into You' R E.
  • Politics - Nikita Khrushchev - Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river. Translate from Russian to English (my source) to Spanish to French to German back to English and you get - The politicians are by all parts entsprech. They promise to build a bridge inclusively, where they are not ninguÌ � n river. So much here. First it translates "no river" to ningún río where the accented-u becomes a random character. An accurate translation is "no hay río." Entsprech is German for Correspond, a word that Babel Fish can't seem to translate into English.
The lesson here? Babel Fish has a fun name but is abysmally stupid at translating. Far better is FreeTranslation.com.