Category Archives: Etymology

Whose language is it anyway?

Last week, BBC Radio 4 had a short feature on American words that have come into common usage on this side of the pond. Although it is not quite that simple! It would flagsseem that many of us Brits are using American words without being aware we are doing it. Or believing a term is American when in fact it has a long and noble record of usage in England.

Here are some of the points made in the programme (program?) along with a few of my own

  1. Words we know are American, but like anyway: Movie, cool, cookie. A lot of words came to England in the last century via films (movies), popular music and books: concrete overcoats, taken for a ride, bump off.  Somehow the American terms seemed more glamorous, especially to teenagers, who found them ‘cool.’

2. Words we know are American and tend to dislike, often because they are verbs that started out as nouns: to diarise, to reach out, to impact. Many of these terms were associated with business, so rather ‘uncool,’ as well as being less acceptable to an older, more conservative age-group.

3. Words that are in such common usage, we never think of as being American: hangover, commuter, double-decker. (So, if you commute into work on a double-decker bus suffering from a hangover – can you fool yourself that you are living the American dream?)

4. Words we are sure, wrongly, are American: gotten, trash, wow. In fact the first two appear in Shakespeare plays, and ‘wow’ is sixteenth century Scottish. The words probably travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers, got forgotten in the UK, and then travelled back to the old country in the twentieth century.

5. Words that appear both sides of the Atlantic, but mean something different: baby (UK – girlfriend/ darling), pants (UK – underpants), pavement (UK – where the pedestrians go, not the cars).

6. Words that mean the same, but are spelt differently: color, honor, program. It is commonly understood that Webster (of dictionary fame) pioneered this form of spelling as he wanted to standardise written American, and thought he’d simplify it whilst he was at it. True, but a lot of such words started out in English minus the ‘u’ etc. centuries ago, and just got embellished over time.

imagesThe Oxford English Dictionary lists 26.000 Americanisms in English. These, along with all the words we’ve adopted from the Greeks and Romans, India and beyond, just add to the richness of the language (and the confusion of foreigners and natives alike).

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to read more of my work, go to one of my Amazon author pages. Watch out for my collection of short, Shakespeare themed, stories due out shortly.

Where has your ‘taxi’ come from?

The word, taxi, is commonly regarded as an abbreviation of taxicab. Various dictionaries will explain that the word derives from the Latin word, taxa, meaning charge, Taxi germanassessment or tax; and taxare, meaning to assess or to tax.  Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when a German entrepreneur named Friedrich Bruhn and associates invented a device, originally referred to as a ‘taxameter,’ that could be put into cabs to monitor various aspects of any journey undertaken, including tracking cost.

It wasn’t long before ‘taximeters’ were being fitted into cabs used commercially. Originally these were horse drawn cabs, but the device was proving popular, and the idea was transferred to the new-fangled motorised taxicabs. These soon became known as taxis. Which all sounds very rational, and a good illustration of how useful words get adopted, adapted, and abbreviated.

But Robert Winston, in his book about how some of our creative ideas for improving lifeTaxi Italian don’t always work out as planned (Bad Ideas?), puts forward another suggestion and gives the credit to Italy. According to him, there was a Lombard family called Tassis. In around 1450, Ruggiero de Tassis, devised a courier system between Bergamo and Verona. This proved very successful and, throughout the rest of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century, his descendants expanded the system across large chunks of Europe. It was, in Winston’s version, a small step from ‘tassis’ to ‘taxi.’ And taxis, as you know, whilst we usually associate them with taking people from A to B, are still sometimes used to ferry goods about

TaxiSo, when you hail a taxi in Thailand, England, America, France, Spain, Italy, Germany wherever …, climb in and watch the meter ticking over as you speed (or crawl) towards your destination, should you be mindful of the German inventiveness that is monitoring what you will owe at the end of your journey? Or the Italian development of a convenient means of transport, tailored to the individual customer’s needs?


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Time to slay your shibboleths?

Do you have any shibboleths it might be wise to get rid of?

A shibboleth is a long-standing belief or principle that all your friends and family would regard as wrong, out-dated, or no longer important. Like BBC news readers having to read any news bulletin after 8pm wearing a dinner jacket – on the radio! This practice has long gone, and even wearing a tie on TV has started to look a bit old fashioned.

Shibboleths abound in English grammar, although many are falling by the wayside. Who now worries about the split infinitive in ‘to boldly go…’? And who writes letters to the newspapers (or bloggers) if they spot a sentence starting with an ‘and’ or a ‘but’?

Shibboleth can also mean a phrase or use of language that distinguishes one group of people from another. In fact it first came into use in the English language to mean a word that a foreigner finds difficult to pronounce, such as ‘naphthalene’ (the stuff that goes into mothballs), or the French word for you, ‘tu,’ which flummoxes most non-native French speakers

cornLike many words in the English language it is foreign in origin, being Hebrew for an ear of corn. According to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, when the Ephraimites were beaten in battle by the Gileadites, the Gileadites set up blockades by the river to stop their defeated enemies escaping. (Judges X11, 6)

Members of the two tribes looked similar and Israel tribethe only way to tell them apart was to get anyone crossing the river to say ‘shibboleth.’ Apparently no Ephraimite was able to make the ‘sh’ sound, so was promptly put to death.

To me, the link between the meaning for shibboleth in Hebrew, and its original meaning in English is obvious. But if anyone can tell me how it came to mean an out-dated belief, please get in touch!

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work*, please try the links below:

*April 23rd being Shakespeare’s birthday (and the anniversary of his death), you may like to try one of my Shakespeare themed short stories:  A Midsummer Day’s Dream, Journey to the Fair Mountain, Chains of Magic, The Ghost Queen. All published by, and available on Amazon Books for about £1/ $1.


Homophones and Homonyms

Do you know your homophones from your homonyms? Yesterday I was relocating a book on the history of English spelling that I had bought as a student. It had been written by my tutor, David Scragg, and I had hoped that buying it might improve my grades. It didn’t – though I suppose actually reading it would have helped!

Tucked in the book was an article from a newspaper. I’m not sure which one, or the date it was published. It was written by Charles Lewis, a barrister with an interest in language. His particular interest was the ambiguities in English and the problems this can cause ordinary folk, let alone lawyers.

His discussion of homophones and homonyms brought back memories of lecture halls in the ’70s that managed to be simultaneously  stuffy and drafty, and fellow students who managed to snooze peacefully through lectures on the more arcane areas of English grammar despite the uncomfortable wooden benches.

But the two ‘H’ words are quite fun. The examples given below may not work for all English speakers because we use different dialects, but you can probably think of your own word pairings that would.

Homophones are words that are pronounced in the same way, but are spelled differently, like Rome and roam, or horse and hoarse, or wade and weighed, see or sea. Teas / tease / tees. Rain /rein / reign. Homophones are words that sound the same, but come from different language roots (Anglo-Saxon / Latin / Greek etc.)

Homonyms, on the other hand, have the same spelling and pronunciation, but mean completely different things.  For example:  seal – the animal, and seal – the means of closing something; lock – hair or bolt; mine – colliery, or possessive; saw – tool, or past of the verb to see; see, the verb and see, a bishop’s area of responsibility. Again homonyms have come into common usage via different language roots.

There are also a whole pile of words that have the same spelling, but are pronounced differently: tear, wind, does. Lewis called these biphones.

A few words can fit all categories. One such is ‘row.’

  • Homophone – row (your boat) / roe (fish eggs)
  • Homonym – row (your boat) / row (of beans)
  • Biphone – row (your boat) / row (argument).

the-ghost-queen-001If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to find out more about my work, go to the Published
work page on this blog, or my Amazon Author pages.

My most recent work is a short story, The Ghost Queen. It is based  on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, and is part of my Shakespeare’s women project. It is published by Solstice.



February – the month to get going?

February at last. Goodbye and good riddance to January. In my part of the world the weather has been particularly dreary all month – mostly monotonous grey skies, and only an occasional watery sun. Dull and depressing, day after day. No exciting or unusual natural events to enliven the jaded spirit. It seems that Mother Nature has left it to the humans (or at least the politicians) to throw up unsettling disruptions to the bland order of things.

January too is the month of made, and broken, New Year resolutions – it all seemed like too much effort.

But now it is February, named after Februa, the Roman festival of purification which usedroman lady to take place on February 15th. Hence February was known as Februarius mensis – the month of expiation and cleansing (februus).

Maybe February is a better month in which to get going. To cast off January dirt and sloth and have a good clear out – mentally and physically. Wash the curtains, get more exercise, open a fresh notebook and sketch out a new novel or play, finish the short story I gave up on before Christmas (or shred it), enter a writing competition …

Yes, yes – I’m going to do all those things. Soon. But seeing as the festival of februa isn’t till the middle of the month, there’s no rush. Maybe I’ll just crawl back under the duvet for another couple of weeks.

So the above reads like a series of excuses for not getting anything published so far this year? You may be right! Still, there are novels and short stories from previous years available on my Amazon author pages priced from £/$0.

Intelligence – fact or fable?


My dog was very pleased to point out to me at the weekend that an article in The Times listed the cairn terrier as the small breed with the most intelligence.

The big dog rated as most intelligent is the collie who, apparently, enjoys being mentally stimulated with such well know brain teasers as tug of war, or fetching a ball.

Really? If those are marks of intelligence, never mind the dog, I’m up there with the gods!


My dictionary defines intelligence as:

  • the ability to perceive and comprehend meaning
  • good mental capacity
  • military information about enemies
  • a group, or department, dealing with such information

The word has roots in the Latin ‘intellegere’ – to discern / comprehend. But, according to my etymology dictionary, the word also has its origins in the roots of the word legend.

A legend, as you know, is a popular story handed down from earlier times whose veracity is uncertain – a marvelous story in fact. It’s Latin origins are in ‘legenda’ – passages to be read, and ‘legere’ – to read. However, in a pre-reading era ‘legere’ originally meant to gather / collect.

As intelligence (certainly in the military context) has to be collected or gathered, the common root  for cauchythe two words is obvious. Or is that just a ‘marvelous story,’ like the cairn’s legendary cleverness?

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to read more of my work, check out my ‘Published work’ page or go to one of my Amazon author pages:

The meaning of trump

Not long now before the president-elect of America becomes president, and already a raft of plays on the word ‘trump’ and associated spin-offs is entering daily discourse.

But what about the existing meanings? playing-cards

There’s ‘trump’ – as in trump card, the strongest card in the pack, or any card in the pack chosen as trumps.

To trump someone or something (as in cards) is to take a decisive or advantageous action.

Trump can also mean to outdo or surpass.  (‘Her desire for them to visit her mother after lunch on Saturday, always trumped his desire for a quiet afternoon of TV sport.’)

To trump up is to concoct (a charge) so as to deceive or implicate someone.

Trumpery is foolish talk, or a worthless article.

A trump can also mean a fine or reliable person.

‘Trumps’ is any of the suit of cards that is selected as the lead suit for a game. To come up trumps (or turn up trumps) is to bring about a happy, and often unexpected, conclusion to events.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATrump’ is used sometimes to mean a trumpet, or the sound that comes from one. It can also mean to proclaim something with a flourish (with or without a trumpet fanfare).

The origins of the word ‘trump’ are probably from the word for trumpet, like Middle English – trumpe / trompe (Spanish ‘trompa’ and Italian ‘tromba’), and is linked to the Latin ‘tuba’ for pipe.

‘Trumpery’ however seems to come via a different route –from the French (via Latin) tromperie (nonsense / deceit).


So, quite a mixed bag of meanings!

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