In a Word: Who Put the Cob in Cobweb?

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

All around the country, people have decorated their homes for Halloween with jack-o’-lanterns, white-sheet ghosts, and fake cobwebs. I, on the other hand, in order to add realism to my holiday decorations, have been cultivating actual cobwebs throughout the house for the past year.

At least that’s what I’m telling people who notice the dusty, gossamer strands in the corners of my closets, in the gaps on my bookshelves, and practically everywhere in my basement.

We all understand that spiders build webs, and that word web traces back to the Old English webb, meaning “woven fabric.” But where does the cob in cobweb come from?

As long as there have been people, there have been spiders spinning webs — and occasionally biting the unwary. So the people on the island of Britain had well-established names arachnids long before the Norman Conquest brought massive French (and by extension Latin) influence to their language. One of those names in Old English was spiðra, which became the Modern English spider.

Another name was atorcoppe, from ator- “poison, venom” plus copp “top, summit,” which by extension had come to mean “head.” Atorcoppe literally meant “poison head.” (Some spiders could be described, before the advent of zoology, as little more than a tiny head with eight legs and a venomous bite.)

If atorcoppe rings a bell in your memory, you might be a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien: In The Hobbit, when the dwarves are captured by a colony of spiders, an invisible Bilbo Baggins sings a song to anger them and thus draw them away from his friends. His song begins like this:

Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me?

It worked, too, because “no spider has ever liked being called Attercop.”

Back in the real world of English language history, atorcoppe was sometimes shortened to just coppe, like the way we get phone from telephone. So for some people, a spider’s web was called a coppewebbe. This word stuck around and underwent some spelling and pronunciation changes to turn it into cobweb in the 16th century.

So the cob in cobweb comes from the abbreviation of a word that meant “spider.” But from a stricter analysis of the roots, cobweb is more accurately “head-web,” or perhaps, for fans of Spider-Man, “web-head.”

Have a happy and safe Halloween!

Featured image: Corrado Baratta / Shutterstock

In a Word: So Many Cardinals

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The word cardinal covers a lot of ground in the English language. We’ve got the cardinal directions, cardinal numbers, the cardinals of the Catholic church, cardinal sins and cardinal virtues, and of course the state bird of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia — not to mention my alma mater’s mascot. Cardinal might be the only word to have found a comfortable home in the lexicon of navigation, mathematics, liturgy, and ornithology. But each of these types of cardinal stems etymologically from a common seed of a word.

Cardo was the Latin word for “hinge” — or more broadly, “a pivot or axis on which something turns.” As ancient discussions turned to the cosmological, cardo took on a broader meaning: “the axis points on which the universe rotates around the Earth,” namely, the Earth’s poles. North and south, then, become the first two cardinal directions (from the adjective cardinalis, “serving as a pivot or hinge”), and the other two, east and west, simply fall at right angles to them.

In the fourth century A.D., that hinge took a metaphorical bent, and we start finding mention in Catholic religious texts of the virtutes cardinales, the cardinal virtues (temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude). Not only do the four cardinal virtues serve as one’s compass for a moral life, but all other moral virtues hinge on these four. The late sixth century saw the emergence of their opposite, the cardinal sins — now more commonly known as the seven deadly sins.

If cardo means “pivot,” one translation of the adjective cardinalis is “pivotal” — first physically and then, as language evolved, metaphorically. Cardinalis came to mean “essential,” and you can’t get more essential to mathematics than the cardinal numbers (in Medieval Latin, cardinalis numeri), a concept that started appearing in texts in the sixth century. Cardinal numbers are the most basic numbers — one, two, three, and so on (there is some debate about whether zero should be included) — as opposed to ordinal numbers — first, second, third, etc. — which place things in order.

Cardinalis also shifted from “essential” to “chief, principal,” and it’s from this meaning that the Catholic church, using Medieval Latin, named certain “ecclesiastical princes” cardinals. These bishops (episcopi cardinales), priests (presbyteri cardinales), and deacons (diaconi cardinales) were senior church leaders and advisors to the Pope, and the election of a new Pope hinged on them. (Today, it’s very rare for someone to be named a cardinal who isn’t an ordained bishop.)

In French, cardinalis in this ecclesiastical sense became cardinal, and it’s from that source that the word was borrowed into English in the early 12th century — but the story of cardinal doesn’t end there.

When performing liturgical rites, Catholic cardinals commonly wear red, signifying the blood of Christ. The specific color of their frocks was so recognizable — and apparently so consistent — that that shade of red was often referred to as cardinal red. American colonists in the 18th century found a red, crested, North American songbird that seemed clothed in that color. The association was so strong that they named the bird the cardinal.

Featured image: Rizwan Mian / Shutterstock

In a Word: How We Got to the Polls

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

All across the country, people will head to the polls without even realizing the repetition (at least historically) in that phrase “head to the polls.”

Middle Low German pol referred to one’s head, but especially the top and back of the head, where the hair grows. This became the Middle English polle (still meaning “head”) around the beginning of the 14th century. So from a historical perspective, “head to the polls” is really “head to the heads.”

Fairly quickly though, synecdoche — the rhetorical device that uses the name of one part of something to refer to the whole thing, like calling your car your “wheels” — took over, and by the mid-14th century, poll was being used to refer to an individual person or animal.

This might bring to mind the idea of taking a headcount; that’s exactly what was happening when shepherds, cowherds, and community organizers took count “by polls”: They were counting heads, one by one.

But people didn’t show up to be counted for no reason. By the 1620s, we find the verb poll meaning not to count heads, but to count votes. And from there, it’s a clear shot to a wider poll-based election vocabulary — including polling place and poll tax — by the 19th century.

This amazing clip from The Saturday Evening Post of August 19, 1826, finds some men literally dying to vote. In it, we find polling used as a synonym for voting and poll as the place where votes are cast.

Editorial clipping
From the August 19, 1826, edition of The Saturday Evening Post.

The vocabulary that comes into play during elections stems from a wide variety of sometimes surprising etymological sources, some of which I’ve written about before. Check out “What Is a Caucus Anyway?,” “A Candidate as White as Snow,” and “Where Your Ballot Comes From” for a little language trivia you can share with other voters when you poll to the heads — er, head to the polls.

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In a Word: The Racist Origins of ‘Bulldozer’

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

When you see the word bulldozer, you might conjure an image of a large yellow machine with caterpillar treads flattening everything before it with its steel-toothed blade. Or maybe your mind goes back to a smaller Tonka version of this mechanical behemoth that you played with as a child. Taken on its own, with no context, bulldozer might even call to mind some serene bovine scene, perhaps Ferdinand the Bull dozing among the daisies.

How jarring, then, to discover bulldozer’s horrible, violent beginnings.

Bulldozer (originally spelled bulldoser) first appeared in the run-up to the election of 1876. That was the final year of President Ulysses S. Grant’s second term in office, and he had unexpectedly declined to run for a third term. In his place, the Republican party put its support behind Ohio Governor and former U.S. Representative Rutherford B. Hayes, while the Democratic candidate was New York Governor Samuel Tilden.

This was an important election. All the former Confederate states had returned to the Union, post-Civil War Reconstruction was ongoing, and this was the first presidential election in which African-American men could vote for someone who wasn’t Ulysses S. Grant. The outcome of the election of 1876 would shape the future of the South for years to come.

The former slave owners and secessionists in the South knew it, and they weren’t about to sit back and let the North and their former slaves usurp their power and privilege. Despite three new federal laws in 1870 and ’71 designed to protect Black Americans from violence and coercion at the polls, many were bulldosed into silence. Bulldose was a slang term derived from either “a dose fit for a bull” or “a dose of the bull” — the second being a reference to the bullwhip. Bulldosers used physical violence against Black voters either to keep them from the polls or to intimidate them into voting Democratic.

Going into the election, in five states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina — a majority of registered voters were African American. One would expect, in a fair election, that the Republican candidate would easily take these states. But after the votes were tallied, Tilden had won the popular vote in Alabama and Mississippi.

The results in the other three states were even more unexpected. After counting had finished, both parties claimed victory in those states. On election night, Tilden was the presumed winner with 184 electoral votes, 19 votes ahead of Hayes and 1 vote away from holding a majority.

The 20 electoral votes of these states (plus Oregon) remained undecided for months as first the two parties and then the two houses of Congress launched separate investigations. Democrats and the Democratic-controlled House committee accused the Republicans of ballot stuffing and coercion. Republicans and the Republican-controlled Senate committee accused the Democrats of the same.

In the end, the presidential election was decided behind closed doors. In what came to be called the Compromise of 1877, the Democrats conceded the remaining electoral votes to the Republicans, making Rutherford Hayes our 19th president, but in return, federal troops were to be removed from the South, essentially ending Reconstruction and returning power to the same men who had controlled the South during the Civil War.

Though violent intimidation at the polls certainly continued, Southern officials found new ways to suppress the Black vote, including Jim Crow laws and grandfather clauses. Bulldosing took on the wider meaning of “to coerce or restrain by use of force,” and it was ripe for a more literal use when large, seemingly unstoppable machines came on the scene.

A clipping from an 1899 Country Gentleman.
A generic use of bulldose to mean “to coerce with the threat of force,” from the January 12, 1899, issue of Country Gentleman.

The machine we think of as a bulldozer was invented in the early 1920s, and by the initial months of the Great Depression, we start to find the term bulldozer in writing, with that Z further obscuring the word’s origins. The violent, racist origin of bulldozer is one reason many people now use the term earth mover to describe these massive machines.

If you’d like to learn more about the election of 1876 — including commentary from the Post while the election results were in flux — read “The Worst Presidential Election in U.S. History.”

Featured image: Andrey Yurlov / Shutterstock

In a Word: Where Your Ballot Comes From

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Voting is heavily on the minds of Americans these days. The general message is the same from all sides: Get out and cast your ballot! But have you ever wondered why it’s called a ballot?

Centuries ago, when a secret vote needed to be taken, Italian organizations wouldn’t use what we think of today as paper ballots. Instead, using a system popularized in Venice, they would vote using small colored balls. Ball in Italian is palla, but as these voting-globes were particularly tiny, the diminutive form pallotte was employed to describe these balls.

By the 1540s, this form of vote-casting had entered English politics, and it brought the word ballot with it, still referring to a small ball used in voting. By 1776 — a particularly noteworthy year in the history of voting — we English speakers had largely set aside ballot’s spherical origins while keeping its link to vote-casting; the paper ballot had been born.

Seeing that ballot derives from an Italian word, you might surmise that it’s ultimately Latin in origin, but that’s not the case here. Palla was borrowed into Italian long ago from a Germanic source, tracing at least to the Old Norse bollr. Latin had other names for such spheres, like globus (the source of our globe), pila (whence pill), and the word from which we derive sphere itself — sphaera, which is an earlier borrowing of the Greek sphaira.

Speaking of ancient Greeks, they voted in a way similar to the Venetians, but they didn’t have any specially made balls for the purpose. Instead, they voted with pebbles. In Greek, the word for “pebbles” is psephos, which is why, today, the study of voting and elections is called psephology.

Plenty of amateur psephologists will be speaking out in the coming months, but you should always remember that their theories and opinions are just that. The only things that decide the outcome of an election are those ballots.


Featured image: maroke / Shutterstock

In a Word: The Apostrophe

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

September 24 is National Punctuation Day, a time when people across the country, young and old, come together with one voice to talk about how they never really figured out how to use a semicolon.

I exaggerate, of course — but not a lot. Besides, I’m not writing about the semicolon today, but about a much more common punctuation mark that can be just as difficult sometimes: the apostrophe.

We learned in elementary school that the apostrophe is used primarily for two things: to indicate that a letter or letters were omitted (as in don’t and she’ll) and to show possession. As it turns out, these might not be two separate cases at all historically.

For decades, a popular theory on how apostrophe-S came to indicate the possessive in English was that it was a shortening of his used in a way we don’t anymore. Long ago, if you were, for example, taken by some swindler on the street, you might (as the theory goes) tell the story of being fooled by “that slubberdegullion his trick.” “Slubberdegullion his” was then contracted in print, probably to mimic how it would have sounded in speech, so that we have “that slubberdegullion’s trick.”

But that theory isn’t so popular anymore. More recent scholarship focuses on how certain nouns in Old English (genitive masculine and neuter nouns, to be technical) were made possessive by adding –es to them. Merriam-Webster uses the example of cyning, the Old English word for king, which in the possessive was cyninges. So the king’s speech in Old English would have been the cyninges spæc. According to this theory, the E was dropped (because it was not to be pronounced) and the apostrophe inserted to show its absence.

All this removing of letters points to how the punctuation mark got its name as well: The Greek apo “off, away from” was combined with strephein “to turn” to create apostrephein “avert, turn away” — apostrophos prosoidia was a mark showing where a letter had been “turned away” from its usual position. This was borrowed (and shortened) into Latin apostrophus, and eventually came to English (through Middle French) as apostrophe, a punctuation mark showing where a vowel had been omitted because it was not to be pronounced.

Though vowels are the more common letters dropped in contractions, these days any letter or letters might be replaced by that curly little gremlin. (Y’know what I’m sayin’?)

But even before apostrophe had made its mark as, well, a punctuation mark, it had found a life in literature — especially in theater. This type of apostrophe is more literal: It’s a literary device in which a character “turns away” from who they’re talking to in order to speak either to someone else (often someone who is not present) or to a personified inanimate object (O happy dagger!) or abstract concept (Be fickle, fortune!).

Which means that if you’re having a problem with a possessive and you try talking your punctuation into behaving, that’s technically an apostrophe to an apostrophe.

On usage: I mentioned in the beginning that apostrophes primarily served two purposes: to show an omission of letters and to indicate the possessive. You can read primarily as almost exclusively. The apostrophe is not used when you’re making a word plural except in two very specific cases:

  1. When you need to pluralize a lowercase letter referred to as a letter. A complex algebraic equation, for example, might contain three a’s and two i’s. The apostrophe keeps readers from confusing them with two-letter words. (Did you notice how the letters are italicized, too? That’s a convention from book publishing that you won’t find in newspaper writing, so the apostrophe is quite necessary for clarity there.)
  2. Many publications call for an apostrophe to pluralize do in the phrase do’s and don’ts — many, but not all; this is a matter of house style and not English grammar. That extra apostrophe aids in quick understanding and avoids the possibility of confusion with the Spanish word for two.

Happy punctuating!

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In a Word: Can an Aunt Be Avuncular?

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

At its driest, the word avuncular means “of or pertaining to an uncle.” Both the words avuncular and uncle come from the Latin avunculus (literally “little grandfather”), which in ancient Roman times was specifically one’s maternal uncle — one’s mother’s brother. (A paternal uncle was a patruus.)

But that’s just the technical meaning; when we call someone avuncular, we usually mean that they’re kindly and genial, perhaps a bit indulgent. An avuncular person always has a smile and a kind word, and maybe a bad joke that they’ll laugh at even if no one else does.

That sense of avuncular is based on a specific stereotype. There are plenty of uncles who aren’t the slightest bit avuncular in this metaphorical sense. To name a few: Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, Simba’s Uncle Scar (Claudius’s animated, anthropomorphic analogue), and Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon. Exactly where the stereotype of the jolly uncle comes from is unclear, but the metaphorical sense of avuncular has been well established in the language and isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Of course, any discussion of the word avuncular always leads to one question: Is there an equivalent adjective that refers to an aunt? The answer: Of course!

Like uncle, our word aunt traces back to Latin, to amita — but that word specifically designated a paternal aunt. When English was scrounging around for the female equivalent of avuncular, it stuck to the same maternal side of the family. In Latin, one’s mother’s sister was called a matertera, from which we derive the word materteral (or sometimes materterine). All those front-of-mouth consonants and those two sharp Ts don’t exactly roll off the tongue like the more melodious avuncular, so it’s easy to see why the word hasn’t become popular. It doesn’t even sound like a compliment.

So while there is an auntie equivalent to avuncular, the word is ugly and rarely used. It also doesn’t have a common metaphorical sense like avuncular does.

Does that mean — to answer the question posed in the headline — that it’s okay to call your kind, indulgent aunt (or any such woman) avuncular? Probably. Dictionary editors place no explicit gender limitation on the word’s use. And you wouldn’t be alone doing so; a Google search for “avuncular woman” does yield results, but not many.

But if the woman you’re calling avuncular knows where the word comes from, she might not be thrilled with your word choice. It’s probably best, then, if you choose a clearer, less troublesome adjective. It shouldn’t be too difficult; English is full of them.

Featured image: Anatoliy Karlyuk / Shutterstock; hat tip to Ammon Shea of Merriam-Webster for turning me on to marterteral.

In a Word: Bugs and the Computers They Infest

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

There’s a well-worn story about how the word bug came to denote an error or flaw in a computer’s software or hardware. It goes like this: In 1947, a woman named Grace Hopper was hunting down a problem with Harvard University’s Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator — essentially an early computer. While examining panel F, she discovered that a moth had worked its way into the system and perished at the number 70 relay, creating a short circuit. As the story goes, this moth — this “bug” — was the beginning of computer programmers referring to software and hardware problems as bugs.

It’s a perfect creation story for a new sense of a word. A little too perfect, actually. Could it really be that computer bugs got their name because an actual bug was discovered in an early computer by a woman whose name was practically grasshopper?

Whenever an etymologically story works out this perfectly, you should be dubious. In this case, though, a lot of the information is accurate. Some of it is misplaced, though, and above all, the incident’s long-term effect on English has been greatly exaggerated.

There really was a computer engineer named Grace Hopper. She would eventually achieve the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, but on September 9, 1947 — 73 years ago this week — she was a lieutenant in the Navy Reserves who really was overseeing Harvard’s Mark II calculator. She and her team were doing some maintenance and discovered, at the number 70 relay in panel F, a deceased moth that had been causing problems — there really was a bug in the system! However, Hopper wasn’t the one who extracted it; one of her colleagues did that.

We know all this detail because it was recorded in a log book that is now part of the Smithsonian Institute’s collection. In fact, the moth itself was taped onto the log book page, and what someone — possibly Grace Hopper — wrote beneath it gives us an even stronger refutation of this apocryphal word coinage story. This is what was written: “First actual case of bug being found.”

That phrase “first actual case” wouldn’t make any sense if computer engineers weren’t already calling computer problems bugs; the word must have been in regular use before this moth added its death to the historical record. A little research backs up the idea: Early computer engineers had, in fact, been referring to small problems as bugs long before the Mark II moth was found. But the concept goes back further still, before electronic computers: Thomas Edison was using bug in a similar way 70 years earlier.

In November 1878, in a letter to Theodore Puskas, Edison wrote this:

It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is intuition and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise — this thing gives out and [it is] then that “Bugs” — as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.

That Edison put quotation marks around bugs and felt the need to define it indicates that this sense of the word wasn’t widely recognized at the time; many believe Edison himself coined this sense of the word.

Of course, bug itself is much older. It probably goes back the Middle English bugge, which, in the 14th century, referred to a scarecrow. By the late 16th century, it indicated anything that caused fright, especially pointless fright. That sense didn’t last long for bugge, but it still exists in the words bugbear, bugaboo, and bogeyman.

We find the first written uses of bug to refer to an insect in the 17th century, specifically to refer to the bedbug. Some purists still insist that the only true bugs are those that belong to the same genus as bedbugs, Hemiptera, which a moth does not. In popular use, though, bug has a wider scope, so Grace Hopper and her team can be forgiven for mislabeling the “bug” in their system. After all, they were computer engineers, not entomologists.

Featured image: polygraphus / Shutterstock

In a Word: Fermenting or Fomenting?

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden sent many people rushing to the dictionary on Monday when he accused the president of fomenting violence. Foment isn’t a very common word; is it the right one to use here? What does it mean? And is it anything like ferment?

Foment has long been used to mean “incite” or “stir up,” but it began its life in English in a more mundane way. Though some usage mavens recommend restricting the word ferment to the culinary sphere, it has long been used metaphorically to mean “agitate, cause unrest,” making it as valid and useful as foment in some political discourse.

These two near-synonyms can confuse even the best writers, but there are some key differences in how they should be used.

But first, a little word history:

Like many English culinary terms, ferment was adopted from French, but it goes back to the Latin fermentum, “leavening agent (such as yeast).” When something ferments, it changes organically: bread dough rises, bubbles rise to the top of a brewing ale. Though the word entered English only in the “leavening” sense in the late 14th century, the active change of fermentation opened it up to metaphorical meanings — “agitate, cause unrest” and “to develop organically” — during the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. Today both the literal and metaphorical uses are well-attributed.

You might call foment a physical therapy term — if the phrase physical therapy had been in use half a millennium ago when foment appeared. It too traces back to Latin, to fomentum “warm application, poultice.” When foment found its place in English in the late 14th century (again via French), it referred to the therapeutic use of heat — especially through hot liquids. For example, after a long, hard day, a worker might be advised to foment his sore muscles. But muscles aren’t the only thing that can get heated up, and by the early 1600s, foment also referred to heating up a crowd, that is, inciting or instigating them. Today, its early therapeutic sense is more or less obsolete.

Fermentum and fomentum — I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that ancient Romans confused these words as often as we confuse their Modern English equivalents. But it’s more difficult these days because the metaphorical meanings of ferment and foment can, at times, seem to apply equally to the same situation, and one word may seem more or less appropriate depending only on which side of an argument you fall on.

But there are a few guidelines that can help you find the right word in your own writing:

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In a Word: The Luck of the Hapless

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

In 1967’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Albert King sang, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” We can all empathize with the sentiment today, but for speakers of Middle English, it was more literal: They really had no luck at all.

That is, they didn’t have the word luck, which comes from a Middle Dutch luc and wasn’t common until the late 15th century, the early days of Modern English. What they did have, though, since around the 13th century, was the word hap, adopted from the Old Norse word happ meaning “good luck, chance.” And although hap is rather uncommon on its own today, it’s the lexical link among a number of other common words. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of them.

See what I did there?

Perhaps was coined by adding the Latinate prefix per- “by” to hap “chance.” This combination of Latin and Norse roots makes perhaps a hybrid word, which historically some language snoots have eschewed. Maybe that’s why Shakespeare chose instead to have Hamlet use a totally Latinate alternative in his famous soliloquy: “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Or maybe he just thought it sounded better.

We can call someone who is unlucky or unfortunate hapless — literally “without luck.” The opposite of hapless isn’t hapful but, at least originally, something more recognizable: happy. In most European languages, the modern word that means “happy” began as a word meaning “lucky,” and Modern English is no different.

(Tangent: Gesælig was the Old English word for “happy,” but it underwent rapid and varying development and wound up as our modern silly. This left a hole in the language that was filled by both happy and glad. A deep dive into the tortuous history of silly is a topic for a later column.)

The bad luck that follows the hapless can often lead to an unfortunate event — a mishap, which relies on the prefix mis-, meaning “bad.” And it’s no coincidence that a mishap happens. The verb happen was coined by adding the –en suffix. It originally indicated that something “occurred by chance,” but by the end of the 14th century it just meant “to occur.”

The evolution of English can, at times, seem rather haphazard — that is, characterized by randomness or disorganization, from hap + hazard “risk,” which stems from a French dice game. But sometimes the patterns and connections make perfect sense are right there in front of us. We just have to notice them.

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In a Word: When Potpourri Was Rotten

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Long ago, Spanish cooks developed a slow-cooked stew made of mixed meat and vegetables which they called olla podrida — that’s “rotten pot” in English. No one is entirely sure why that name was chosen; the leading theory is that the slow-cooking process mimicked decomposition.

At any rate, the stew must have been pretty scrumptious, because when the French got a taste of it, they started making it too, but they didn’t call it olla podrida. They translated the name of it literally, calling it pot pourri, French for “rotten pot.”

Both pourri and podrida trace back to the Latin putrescere “to grow rotten,” which is also the root of the English adjectives putrid and putrescent, which refer to decomposition.

The mixed-meat stew pot pourri — along with its name (later pot-pourri and potpourri) — found its way to England in the early 17th century. For English diners, the salient feature of the stew (which one assumes smelled pretty good) was that it was a medley of meats — its putrid past falling by the wayside. By 1750, people were creating new medleys of good-smelling items — primarily dried flowers and spices — and calling it potpourri as well.

The word continued its trek into the metaphorical, and in 1855 we find the first use of potpourri to mean “a miscellaneous collection,” in that case a collection of music. Today, it’s a regular category on Jeopardy! that almost never leads to a clue about decomposing meats, much less rotten pots.

Featured image: Mac Nishimura / Shutterstock

In a Word: The Wisdom and Stupidity of Sophomores

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

For better or worse, students are resuming their studies this month, whether at home on a computer or actually going back into the schools. Those beginning their second year of high school or college will be sophomores, a longstanding label with an odd history.

It begins with the Greek sophos, meaning “wise” — a root that appears in philosophy (“love of wisdom”) and Hagia Sophia (“holy wisdom”). In ancient Greece, Sophists were people who would teach students in exchange for payment. Though they taught a number of subjects, Sophists were most recognized for teaching young men the tricks of rhetoric — that is, they taught people how to argue.

Sophists were widely condemned by philosophers of the day (including Socrates and Aristotle), who proclaimed that Sophists and their students were more interest in arguing than in acquiring knowledge. It’s this view of sophistry that came through classical writings and colored our modern definition of sophist (not capitalized): a pedant or dissembler, someone who argues circuitously or deceitfully.

There was also an archaic variant of the word sophist that was a bit less harsh: sophumer basically meant “arguer.” Sometime during the mid-17th century, that word was chosen to describe a student in their second year at a university. It might have even been used in jest at first; the existence of the know-it-all teenager who constantly argues is so widespread that it’s a cliché. (The adjective sophomoric describes this sort of naive overconfidence in one’s knowledge.)

By the end of that century, whether intentionally or simply from a misunderstanding of the word’s history, sophumer drifted into sophomore under the influence of the Greek moros “stupid” — also the root of the word moron.

Sophomore, then, breaks down into the Greek roots sophos and moros, “wise” and “stupid,” making it an oxymoron — as well as etymologically related to the word oxymoron. Whether any individual sophomore partakes more of the former or the latter is entirely up to the student.

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In a Word: Let’s Clear the Heirloom

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

If you’re from a relatively close-knit family, it’s likely you have some memento from an ancestor stowed away in a box, a chest, or a bank vault. We cherish these heirlooms as solid pieces of family history that survive through generations.

But have you ever wondered about that word heirloom?

It looks like a straightforward compound word — heir + loom — and, as it turns out, it is. The heir- part makes sense, because heirlooms are (generally) passed on to heirs, but what about the -loom? Were the original heirlooms actual looms passed down through generations?

Yes, they were, but it’s not what you think.

The heir- part of heirloom was, like most English words that begin with a silent H, adopted from French — specifically from what’s called Anglo-French, the dialect of Old French used in England during the Middle Ages, when French was the primary language of diplomacy. And because it comes from French, it can be traced back to Latin: Its root is heres “heir/heiress,” which is also the root of heredity.

The -loom in heirloom (or ayre lome in Middle English) comes from a shortening of Old English geloma, which was a generic word for a tool or utensil of any kind. Loom didn’t shift specifically to the cloth-weaving apparatus until around the early 15th century, about the same time that heirloom was solidifying its place in the language.

This loom, by the way, is not at all etymologically related to the verb to loom, whose origin is uncertain. In early uses, it described the up-and-down movement of ships on water, and it may have evolved from the same root as the word lame.

An heirloom, then, is historically any tool or utensil that is passed on to an heir. “Any tool or utensil” is a pretty broad category, so it’s easy to see how the word came to mean “any family keepsake.”

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In a Word: Beauty and Strength in Calisthenics

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.


When I was in grade school, back in the 1980s, nothing elicited a groan in our daily physical education classes like the word calisthenics. Historically, calisthenics is a collection of exercises that use the body’s own weight as resistance — think push-ups, sit-ups, and burpees — so little is needed in the way of equipment, maybe a bar for balance or some chin-ups. To my younger self, though, calisthenics were practically a punishment: straightforward exercise for the sake of exercise instead of one of the many more fun and interesting forms of physical exertion we could have been enjoying, like dodge ball, an obstacle course, or even square dancing.

What I didn’t know then (though it would scarcely have altered my opinion) was that many of those calisthenics exercises were ancient, that I was doing the same moves Greek and Roman soldiers had done millennia before to prepare their bodies for battle.

Though the exercises themselves are well aged, that word calisthenics is today not even 200 years old. The first part of the word is from a Latinized version of the Greek kallos, “beauty,” making it etymologically related to the “beautiful writing” we call calligraphy. Add to this the Greek sthenos, meaning “strength,” and you have a description not of what calisthenics is but what it was meant to do.

Though the type of exercises we think of as calisthenics have been around since ancient times, the concept called calisthenics — exercises of “beauty and strength” — was developed during the 1820s. They were targeted specifically toward women, for whom other types of exercise were considered too strenuous. As the name implies, calisthenics were employed not only to help women build strength but to help maintain the beauty standards of the day: a nice figure, proper poise, and graceful movement.

Like any other exercise fad (jazzercise, anyone?), calisthenics found its way into the public eye in all manner of ways. We even published calisthenics exercises in the Post. The following clip comes from our April 14, 1832, issue. Notice how the gender of the “pupil” is assumed:

Instructions on calisthenic exercises published in the Saturday Evening Post
Calisthenics exercises published in the Post on April 14, 1832. (Click to Enlarge)

Of course, in our more enlightened times, calisthenics are for everyone, much to the disdain of gymnasiums full of groaning P.E. students.

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In a Word: Gladiators with Gladioluses

This week’s In a Word comes from Zoe Hanquier, the Post’s editorial intern for the summer of 2020. As always, remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The word gladiator doesn’t tend to spark comforting images — bloodied bodies, the crumbling Colosseum, a brooding Russell Crowe. To most, the July-blooming flower gladiolus doesn’t come to mind, despite the etymological and historical connection between the two.

Both words share the Latin root gladius, which means “sword.”

We first find the word gladiator in English — taken directly from Latin — in the mid-15th century, meaning “Roman swordsman” or “fighter in public games,” but the practice of gladiatorial fighting started centuries earlier. Historians believe the first gladiator battle happened in the 3rd century B.C. as part of a funeral ceremony to honor a distinguished aristocrat. But soon, gladiators, who were often slaves or prisoners, were fighting to the death in the Roman Empire for the entertainment of thousands.

The word gladiolus arrived in the 1st century. Coined by Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and author of Naturalis Historia, gladiolus literally means “small sword,” referring to the sword-like leaves of the gladiolus species Pliny knew. The flower is part of the iris family and is associated with 40th wedding anniversaries, honor, and infatuation.

Some believe that gladiolus blooms were thrown onto victorious gladiators as celebration, much like the bouquets gifted at the end of performances today. The Dutch continued this tradition into the 1950s and ’60s with successful athletes, but the practice petered out. However, Dutch road bicycle racer and 1978 world champion Gerrie Knetemann is rumored to have invented the phrase de dood of de gladiolen — “death or the gladiolus” — in the ’70s, referring to Roman history and Dutch practice. Louis van Gaal, Dutch trainer of the Manchester United football team, famously said “it is death or the gladiolus,” meaning “all or nothing,” in reference to a difficult match his team later won in 2015. Gaal is credited with bringing the phrase to English.

Gladiolus has changed some since its original naming. Old English shortened it to gladdon, although that word now refers more specifically to a different plant — the “stinking iris” or “roast beef plant,” named for its odor. But we find it returning to its Latin root as gladiol in the mid-15th century — around the same time gladiator was cementing its place in English.

Today, the flower is mostly known as a gladiolus, but there are variations. A few plant-lovers refer to a single flower as a gladiola. Some call a bouquet of them gladiolas, others gladioluses or gladioli. Smart florists skip the linguistic debate in favor of glads.

Regardless of what you call them, you can enjoy their colorful bloom this month and perhaps imagine victorious gladiators being showered with them.

(Andy Hollandbeck; Shutterstock)

In a Word: The 100th Column

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Today we reach a milestone: the 100th addition to In a Word. Yes, it’s my 100th dive into the weird, unexpected, and exciting history of common English words. And as my 100th article, there’s really only one suitable subject:

One Hundred

Most of the words I’ve focused on in this column were adopted from other languages, especially Greek and Latin (you can thank the expansion of the Roman Empire for that). In some cases, foreign words were borrowed and adapted because they described things or concepts that simply didn’t exist for the earliest speakers of English, so they didn’t already have their own names for them.

But counting is a foundational concept, one of the first areas that languages must find some way to communicate about. Consequently, number words — even if they only mark “one” and “many” — are some of the earliest words to appear in a language. And that’s true for English, too: Modern English names for numbers trace back to the very beginning of the language, having evolved from a language that even predates Greek and Latin.

Historical linguists believe that the word for “one” in nearly all languages in Europe and western Asia derived from a single, theoretical mother tongue called Proto-Indo-European. That’s why we see the similarities in, say, Latin (unus), Welsh (un), and Russian (odin). Over centuries, languages differentiated; one of those branches is Proto-Germanic, which itself branched into more languages. We can still see the similarities today in the word for one in those languages that grew from early Germanic tongues, for example, German (ein), Dutch (een), and Swedish and Danish (en).

In Old English, the word for “one” was an. If that reminds you of an indefinite article, you’re on the right track. In many European languages the word for “one” also became the singular indefinite article. For example, the French word for “one” is une, but une souris is also how you would say “a mouse.” English did the same thing, sort of. An developed into modern a and an, but during the 12th century, the word one diverged and was used only for the numerical value.

And it wasn’t until the 14th century that people began pronouncing it “wun” as we do today. Before then, it was closer to “own,” a pronunciation still used in the related words only, atone and alone and only a vowel shift away from the pronunciation of the original an.

The word hundred has a similarly long history. In its Old English form, though, the -red ending was a suffix that meant “reckoning,” basically marking the word as a number. Some Old English texts even use the shortened hund, without the suffix, to refer to the number 100.

Other Hundreds

The Greek word for 100 is hekaton. Because much of the Greek-derived language we have in English was filtered through Latin, and Latin already had well-established language for numbers, we don’t have many English words, outside of scientific jargon, that hearken back to ancient Greek number names. But you can pop open a dictionary and discover that a hecatomb is a sacrifice of 100 oxen or cattle, a hecatontarchy is rule by 100 people, and a hectogon or hecatonagon is a 100-sided figure.

As I said, Latin had its own word for 100, centum, the root for quite a number of common English words:

A Look Back

It’s hard to believe I’ve reached 100 of these little lexical explorations. We use words to tell stories, but so many words are stories in themselves — weird stories, exciting stories, unexpected stories. Even, on occasion, naughty stories. But they aren’t just stories of words; the history of a word is bound up with the history of humankind itself, and by examining where our language comes from and how it has changed we can see where we come from and how we have changed.

The history of language is the history of humanity. Sure, it can be dark sometimes, but it can also be uplifting, enlightening, and funny. Here are some of my favorite word stories; if you’re looking for sparks to ignite an excitement for etymology, these can be great places to start:

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