Kowtow [v. KOU-tou]
To kowtow is to show great respect, even to the point of servile deference; to fawn obsequiously. "His kowtowing in front of the president embarrassed the rest of the committee." Another meaning that reflects the word's origin is to kneel and bend down, so that one's forehead actually touches the ground, showing deep reverence, worship, and submission. In Mandarin China the phrase for this act was k'o-t'ou, where k'o means to knock, and t'ou is the head. This gesture was the approved way of showing deference to the Emperor. An alternate pronunciation, koh-TOU, survives from the original phrase, which was imported into English in the early 19th century. Many variant spellings were tried, including koo-too, ka-tou, kotow, and others. The spelling finally settled at "kowtow" in the early 20th century. A similar expression is "bow and scrape."

Filibuster [n., v. FILL-uh-bus-ter]
In the halls of the US Senate, a filibuster is a long speech designed to delay action on some legislative issue. The name may seem to suggest some kind of busting up, as in "crime buster" or "blockbuster," but these words are unrelated. Originally, the word referred to people engaging in private military actions, especially against or within countries that were not at war with their home countries. Another word from the same source is freebooter (pirate, pillager, plunderer). Both words originated in the Dutch frijbuiter (freebooter), from vrij- (free) and -buit (booty). The Dutch word lead to French flibustier, and Spanish filibustero, and then to English filibuster, which was first used in the US in the 1850's to describe people running guns to Cuba. The link to politics came later, but eventually it became the only popular use of the word.

Husband [n., v. HUZ-bund]
Today a husband is a married man, and to husband is to manage wisely. We also have the noun form of the verb, husbandry, which is wise management. It may seem that a husband is one who is "house bound," and in fact that is not far from the original sense of the word, which was "one who has a house bonded to him (or her!)" -- in other words, a householder. The word comes from Old Norse hus- (house) and -bondi (one who dwells). Bondi was a variation of buandi (dwell), from bua (to live, dwell, have a household), originally from the Old Germanic bu (dwell). The bu root has lead to an astonishing variety of English words, including be, boor, booth, bound (intending to go), bower, build, burly, bylaw, byre, and -bour of neighbor. All of these words have some connection, however slight, to the idea of house and home.

Marmalade [n. MAR-muh-LADE]
This clear, fragrant jelly, made from the pulp and rinds of citrus fruit, is a 17th century innovation; the original marmalade was made from quince or apple, rather than citrus. There is a widespread myth that says the word marmalade came from the French "Marie malade" (illness of Marie), because it was one of the few things that Mary, Queen of Scots could eat when she was ill. But the idea that a French expression would be adopted by the Scots to describe their queen's preferred food seems a little far-fetched, doesn't it? The word's actual history traces back through French to the Portuguese marmelada (quince jam), from marmelo (quince). Marmelo came from the Latin melimelon (an apple grown from a tree that had been grafted onto quince roots), from meli- (honey) and -melon (apple). (So why is a melon not an apple in English? The English melon, the gourd-like fruit of a cucurbit vine, came from a contraction of the Latin melopepo, or apple-gourd.)

Orrery [n. OR-er-ree]
An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, in which the planets move around the sun as the model operates. The word looks like it might be related to orbit (to move around an attractor in a circular or elliptical path), or to horology (the study of time). After all, an orrery demonstrates the passing of time through the orbital movement of the planets. Actually, the word's origin is much simpler. It comes from the name of a place, through the title of a man, Charles Boyce, the 4th Earl of Orrery. Around 1700, he commissioned the construction of the first mechanical model of the Sun and planets. Orrery is in County Cork, Ireland.

Ignoramus [n. ig-no-RAY-mus]
Ignoramus is a derogatory word for someone who is ignorant. The word may look like it is derived from Latin, and it is, but not through the usual channels. In the seventeenth century, the word ignoramus was a legal expression. In Latin, it means "we do not know" or "we take no notice of." It was used to indicate that evidence in a case was lacking. The word was brought into popular expression by George Ruggle, an English dramatist who used it as the name of a lawyer in one of his plays. Ruggle said he wrote the play "to expose the ignorance and arrogance of common lawyers." The New Latin root is ignorare (to be ignorant), originally from the Greek gnosis (knowledge). The Latin root ignorare also led to the modern words ignore and ignorant. The older Greek root, gnosis, evolved into a wide variety of modern words, including knowledge, gnosis, agnostic, notice, notify, and recognize.

Plankton [n. PLANK-tun]
Plankton refers to small or microscopic plants and animals that swim or drift near the surface of fresh or salt water, including algae, protozoa, and other tiny life forms. Plankton serves as food for fish and other larger creatures. The word came into English from German, and before that from the Greek planktos (wandering). That word came from the Greek plazein (to strike, hit, or turn aside), through the association that repeatedly striking something might cause it to wander about. Several other modern English words came from related roots: plague: an outbreak of deadly disease, like a strike against the people complain: to protest, as if to strike one's breast fling: to hurl something away apoplexy: neurological failure associated with a cerebral stroke

Marzipan [n. MAR-zi-pan]
Marzipan is a sweet paste made from finely ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites. It is often molded into various shapes and coated with chocolate. This is a word with a long, convoluted history. According to several sources, it comes originally from an Arabic word, mawtaban (king on a throne, or king who sits still). This word was applied to a Venetian coin that had an engraving of Christ on it. Later, the word began to be used in Italy as a measure of the weight of such a coin. Evolving into matapan and then marzapane, the word was used to name a box of the same capacity. After more time, the word referred to a box of that capacity that contained confections, and then to the contents of the box. Further evolution led to the English word marchpane, which was the name of the almond confection from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The modern form, marzipan, was borrowed from German, where the word survived unchanged from earlier usage.

Aghast [adj. uh-GAST]
Someone who is aghast is dumfounded, astounded, struck by shock, terror, or amazement. "I froze, staring aghast at the sudden apparition." Someone who sees a ghastly sight may well be aghast, and the words are related. The same goes for ghost, and both words contributed to the modern spelling of aghast, by adding the silent h. There is no relation to the word gaze, although Shakespeare wrote a line "All the whole army stood agaz'd on him." In Middle English, agast (terror-struck) was the past participle of agasten, from Old English gaestan (to frighten, to torment). That word was itself derived from Old English gast (ghost, breath, spirit). Although it may seem like gast was the source for our modern word gust (sudden wind or draft), that word comes from the Old Norse gustr (cold blast of wind).

Check [n., v. CHEK]
A check can be a written money order or a square pattern. As a verb, to check can be to attack, arrest, stop, restrict, verify, or to threaten a king in chess. The earliest known origin is the Persian word shah (king). In the game of chess, which was played in Persia long before it passed into the west, one said "shah!" when the opponent's king was threatened. This sense passed through Arabic, Spanish, Old French, and Middle English. By this time it had evolved into chek, and accumulated quite a collection of different meanings. Along the way, there were several side-trips, leading to words such as chess (the game), and of course the English word shah (Persian ruler). The word checkmate also came from the same root, from the Persian shah mat (the King is dead), which also lead to the Russian name for the game of chess, shakhmaty. There is another lineage to the word check, leading to the meanings of "a square pattern" and "to verify." This path comes originally from the Old Latin scaccus (check) and scaccarium (chessboard).

Ballyhoo [n. BAL-ee-HOO]
To make a ballyhoo is to advertise something sensationally, to engage in noisy shouting or uproar, to raise a ruckus. No one seems to be sure exactly how the word evolved, but there are several interesting theories. Some say the word comes from the name of the Cork, Ireland village of Ballyhooley, maybe implying that its residents are especially unruly. There is a mythical creature called the ballyhoo bird, described in the July, 1880, issue of Harper's: it had four wings and two heads, and it could sing through one bill while whistling through the other. There is also the balao fish, also called the ballyhoo fish. The most likely history comes through the native Central American ballahou, a kind of wood from which primitive sailing boats were made. Sailors coined the phrase "ballyhoo of blazes" to describe clumsy ships, and that phrase was still in use at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Stirrup [n. STUR-up]
The stirrup is that flat-bottomed metal loop, where you put your foot when you get up onto a horse. When you get on a horse, you usually go up, but the word stirrup has nothing to do with the word up. The first stirrups were simple loops of rope, hanging off the side of the horse. In Old English, this was a stigrap (stepping rope). Stig- came from Old German steig (path) and steigen (to go up), and -rap came from ancient Germanic rapaiz (rope). The steigh- root also contributed to these words: stile: a series of steps stair: ascending or descending steps acrostic: a message encoded in certain letters of a poem or story stickle: to painstakingly settle or arrange

Ransack [v. RAN-sack]
To ransack is to search a building or room thoroughly, from top to bottom, usually while tearing everything apart. You can ransack a place as part of a robbery or plunder, or you might be looking for some specific item. To sack can also mean to plunder, but ransack is not related. It comes from an Old Norse word, rannsaka, from rann (house) and saka to seek). Rann was related to the Old English aern (house), which also gave us the word barn, and saka was also the root of the English word seek. The original rannsaka also led to the English word ramshackle (rickety, ready to fall apart), and a ramshackle building may well look as if it has been ransacked!

Acorn [n. AY-corn]
An acorn is the nutlike fruit of an oak tree. It may seem like a kernel of corn, implying that the word came from some association of oak and corn. While that association contributed to the word's evolution, the real origin is different. The original Old English word was aecern, which was the name for the fruit of a tree that could be found in fields and meadows. The association was with the word aecer (open land), from the Latin ager (field). Here is an example of what is called folk etymology: the word aecern seemed similar enough to "oak corn" that it evolved in that direction, under the influence of popular usage. After all, there are peppercorns, so why not oak corns? Early spellings of the word, such as okecorn and akecorn, reflect this misunderstanding. Some other words from the ager root: agriculture: the art and science of growing crops and livestock agrarian: of agriculture, land, and rural matters acre: a measure of land area peregrine: foreign, alien; wandering, migratory pilgrim: one who travels agrostology: the study of grasses

Syllabus [n. SIL-uh-bus]
A syllabus is the outline of a text or course of study, or it's a summary of a legal document. The Greek word syllabe, a form of the verb syllambanein (to put together), would make a very logical root for this word, and some linguists have supposed it was. But according to several references, the actual source of the word syllabus was a misprint! The accident happened in a 1470's edition of Cicero's Epistolae Ad Atticum (Letters To Atticus), where the Latin word sittybas (label, table of contents) was misprinted as syllabos. Later, the misprinted word was incorrectly related to the Greek syllabe, and then latinized to syllabus. So, in a strange way, syllabus comes from both syllabe and sittybas! The Greek syllabe is also the source of the modern English syllable, a chunk of spoken pronunciation which is "put together" with other syllables to create words.

Arithmetic [n. uh-RITH-muh-tik]
Arithmetic is the mathematics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. The word is thought by some to come from the Latin ars metrica (measuring art). Although it may seem reasonable, this origin isn't the real one. The word actually came out of Greek, not Latin. The original word was arithmein (to count), which itself comes from arithmos (number). Another word from the same root is logarithm. One might think that the similar-sounding word algorithm (a step by step series of mathematical or logical operations) also comes from arithmos, but actually it is derived from the name of an Arab mathematician, Abu Ja'far Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose works eventually introduced Arabic numerals to the West. The last part of his name means "man from Khwarizm."

Alligator [n. AL-li-gay-ter]
The name of the large semi-aquatic reptile was not derived (as some have supposed) from the Latin alligare (to bind), even though one who is caught in an alligator's teeth is certainly bound up! The real origin is the Spanish el lagarto (the lizard), which itself came from the Latin lacertus (lizard). In the sixteenth century, only the noun was used, so the reptile was called lagarto, but a century later the article el had become part of the English word, forming ellagarto, and then alligator. The last transformation is an interesting example of what is called taboo deformation by linguists. Words that carry feared or forbidden meanings often undergo exchanges of some letters. Another example of taboo deformation is the word crocodile [n. KROK-uh-dile], the name for another kind of fearsome lizard, which was transformed from the Middle English cocodril.

Reindeer [n. RANE-deer]
While it's true that reindeer are domesticated in Lapland, where they pull sleds, the word does not come from the idea that a reindeer is a deer that can be trained with reins. "Rein-" comes from "hreinn," the Old Icelandic (Norse) word for reindeer. The "-deer" part is from the Middle English "der," or "animal," which is also the source of the Modern English word "deer." This origin is more visible in the German word for reindeer, which is "Renntier." In German, "tier" means "animal."

Leghorn [n., adj. LEG-horn]
A leghorn is a certain kind of small chicken, known for its hardiness and its high production of fine, white eggs. Does the name refer to some kind of distinctive body appendage? No, and here's a clue to its real origin: the same name also refers to the dried and bleached straw of an Italian variety of wheat. The name of both the chicken and the straw comes from the town of Leghorn in northwestern Italy, where both breeds originated. Leghorn, Italy is now known almost always by its Italian name of Livorno.

Foolscap [n., adj. FOOLZ-cap]
Foolscap is paper of a certain size, from 12 by 15 inches up to 13.5 by 17 inches. Most commonly, it is 13 by 16 inches, often folded to make pages of 8 by 13 inches. One incorrect derivation of the word has it coming from the Italian foglio capo (chief sheet), implying that it is the main size of large paper. Another false origin is the Latin folio (a leaf of paper). Actually, the word's origin is much more direct than that. The makers of the original foolscap paper used to add a watermark of a traditional fool's cap, with three points and little bells, and today the name applies to any paper in a similar size. (By the way, the word fool comes from the Latin follis (bellows). So, etymologically, a fool is an airhead and a windbag!)

OK / Okay [adj., OH-KAY]
If something is OK, then it's good, fine, and acceptable. Is OK a word or an abbreviation? This common expression has been the subject of much debate, and many explanations of its origins have been offered. Woodrow Wilson said that it came from a Choctaw Indian word, and it should be spelled okeh. A respected Columbia professor said it got started as an abbreviation for the Old Kinderhook club, a political organization that supported James Van Buren in 1840. But in the mid-1960's, another professor proved that a Boston newspaper had OK in print in 1839, before the OK club existed. The linguist Charles Berlitz thought it might have come from Aux Cayes, a Haitian port famous for its superior rum. Did sailors start saying "Aux Cayes" when things were going well? Today, the most commonly accepted story is that OK is an abbreviation for "orl korrect," a playful misspelling of "all correct" that may have been generated during the 1830's, when such wordplay was in fashion.

Pogonotomy [n. poh-guh-NOT-uh-me]
If you practice pogonotomy, then you are shaving off your beard. The word comes from two Greek words, pogon (beard) and tomos (cutting). Here are more words about beards: pogonotomist: someone who practices pogonotomy. pogonology: writing about beards. pogonotrophy: letting your beard grow long. Pogonia: a genus of orchids whose flowers have a tuft of hairs. pogonophoran: a marine worm with many tentacles. Here are more words about cutting: tomography: a way to create cross-section pictures of solid objects. microtome: a device to cut very thin slices, for microscope slides. dermatome: a section of skin served by a single nerve. tome: a single book (section) of a multi-volume set.

Maroon [n., v., adj. muh-ROON]
If you are marooned, then you are lost without hope of immediate rescue, maybe cast ashore on a remote island. If you are marooned, you might also use a maroon (a signal flare gun) to call for help. Are the two meanings of the word related? The meaning of being lost got its start when West Indian slaves ran away and lived in the mountains and forests of Caribbean islands. These people became known in Spanish as cimarron (wild people, literally peak dwellers). A marooned person must live in the wild, just like the escaped slaves. The other path, which gives us the flare distress signal, also led to the color maroon, which is deep reddish brown, like a roasted chestnut. Both came (through Italian and French) from the medieval Greek maraon (sweet chestnut). How is a flare gun like a chestnut? When fired, it pops, like a chestnut in the fire!

Roundelay [n. ROUN-duh-lay]
A roundelay is a song or poem with regularly repeating lines. Although the word's evolution was influenced by the Old English lay (song or poem), its origins lie further south. In Old French, a rondel is a certain kind of repeating structure in a poem or song. Old French rondelet, which is the diminutive of rondel, became English rondel-lay, and then roundelay. We also have the English word roundel for the same repeating form, and a kind of song called a round, where different voices repeat the same phrases at offset intervals. All of these words were rooted in the Old French rond (circle), which ultimately came from Latin rota (wheel).

Pupil [n. PYOO-pul]
The pupil of your eye is the black part that changes size according to the amount of light falling upon it, and a pupil is also a person who is being taught by a teacher. The two words come from the same roots, with interesting twists. Originally, Latin had pupus (boy) and pupa (girl), plus the diminutives pupillus and pupilla (little children). Both words passed through the same languages, but became identical at different times. Pupillus passed into Old French, and eventually entered Old English as pupille (orphan). The meaning of "student" did not emerge until the sixteenth century. Pupilla came to mean a little doll, and also the central part of the eye, from the reflected (doll-like) image of oneself seen there (look into someone's eyes and you will see it). The word passed into Old French as pupille, then into English. The English word pupa (chrysalis) also came from the same roots, coined by the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus to name the resting stage in insect metamorphosis, when the adult insect is still undeveloped.

Werewolf [n. WARE-woolf]
A werewolf is a creature that can assume the shape of a man or a wolf. In many stories, the wolf form appears at night, or only when the moon is full. Where does the were- in werewolf come from? Is a werewolf something to beware of? Is it someone who is furry and dangerous at night, as if he "were a wolf?" Actually, were- comes from the Old English wer (man), from the Latin vir (man). The same root gave us world, from the Germanic werald (life or age of man), as well as virtue, virile, and virago. The -wolf part of the word is from Old English wulf (wolf), from the Germanic wulfaz. By taboo variation (superstitious alteration of a word that represents something fearsome), the same root was converted to the Latin lupus (wolf). That word gave us several modern words, including lupine (wolflike) and another word for werewolf, lycanthrope (wolf-man).

Catadromous [adj. kuh-TAD-drum-us]
If you are a fish, and you live in fresh water, but you swim to the ocean to breed, then you are catadromous. This is the reverse of the most well known salt- and freshwater fish, the salmon, who swims into fresh water to breed. European eels are catadromous. The word incorporates the idea of reversal: the first part, cata- is a prefix meaning down, or in reverse. It comes from the Greek kata (down, in reverse). The suffix -dromous is also Greek, from dromos (the act of running). So a catadromous fish runs in reverse. The opposite of catadromous is anadromous, using the ana- prefix, from Greek ana (up). Anadromous fishes swim from the ocean into rivers or streams to breed. Other up and down word pairs: anion: negatively charged atom cation: positively charged atom anabolism: formation of complex molecules in life processes catabolism: breakdown of complex molecules in life processes

Vigesimal [adj. vi-JES-uh-mul]
Vigesimal means twentieth, and vigesimal also describes any numbering system that uses a base of twenty, like the mathematics used by the ancient Maya civilization. Here are some other numbering systems: binary: base 2 trinary: base 3 decimal: base 10 hexadecimal: base 16 The word vigesimal comes from the Latin vigesimus (twentieth), based on viginti (twenty), which itself descended from a Sanskrit word, vimsatih (twenty).

Copacetic [adj. coh-puh-SET-ik]
If something is copacetic, then it's better than okay, it's positively excellent or first rate. The word is also sometimes spelled copasetic. Like the word okay, this slang word's origins are mysterious. Even the word's "mother tongue" is in dispute. Was it Italian, French Creole, Hebrew, or did it emerge from the southern Black subculture? Whatever its true origin, copacetic was in use by black musicians during the first decade of the twentieth century. Some say the word was invented by the great black tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who certainly had a lot to do with its spread into popular language. Did the word come from the Creole French word coupersetique (able to be coped with / able to cope with anything / having a healthy passion for life and love)? Or did it emerge from the responses of Jewish shopkeepers, who said "kol besedeq" (all with justice) when asked how things were going?

Hagiography [n. HAG-ee-OG-ruh-fee]
A hagiography is the biography of a saint or other holy figure, or it is a biography written in a worshipful or idealizing manner. The word comes from the Greek hagios (holy) plus graphein, (to write). Other words from the hagios root: hagiographer: one who writes hagiographies hagioscope: a small hole in the interior of a church, through which people in the transept can view the main altar hagiocracy or hagiarchy: government by holy men, such as priests or saints hagiolatry: worship or idolization of saints or holy men

Salmagundi / Salmagundy [n. SAL-muh-GUN-dee]
Salmagundi is an artfully arranged salad that usually contains anchovies or salt herring, eggs, onions, and chopped meats. Sometimes it's called Solomon Gundy, but usually the latter is a sauce, pate or spread, rather than a salad. The word also has been used many times as the name of something with lots of assorted ingredients, such as an anthological literary journal, or a restaurant with a widely varied menu. Did the word emerge from the name of a French noblewoman who invented the salad and served it to Henry VI? (If so, what was her name?) Did it come from the Italian phrase salami conditi (pickled meat)? Did it come from the Old French salemine (salted food) and condir (to season)? Whatever the origin, the word also lives on in a children's jump-rope chant: Salmagundy, born on Monday, christened on Tuesday, married on Wednesday, sick on Thursday, worse on Friday, died on Saturday, buried on Sunday, and that was the end of Salmagundy!

Xmas [n. KRIS-mus / EKS-mus]
This abbreviation for the word Christmas is often viewed as a modern commercial shorthand, but has actually been in use for hundreds of years in religious writing. Xmas makes use of an old abbreviation for Christ. His name in Greek begins with the letter chi, which looks like an X, and his name has long been abbreviated as X. Using the same shorthand, the word Xmas was recorded in print as early as 1555. What is the correct way to say the word? The similar abbreviation Xtian (for Christian) is pronounced [KRIS-chun], so Xmas should correctly be pronounced [KRIS-mus]. But today, X is more readily seen as a detached letter, or as a mathematical term, so most people pronounce Xmas [EKS-mus].

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Updated Jan 1st 2002



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