Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

Internet Quotes: Langland on the Decline of English

I’ve come across the following quotation in a number of places, such as this article from The Economist:

There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.

The quotation is attributed to William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, who died in 1386. The problem is that I could only find the quotation in modern translation and it sounds distinctly un-Middle Englishy, so I doubted that it was authentic. Because I could only find it in translation, tracking it down was difficult—it’s hard to search for a Middle English quotation if you don’t have the Middle English diction. It turns out that the quote is genuine, but it is a rather free translation.

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blaster

Sometimes you find an antedating that is much earlier than you expected. Such is the case with blaster, the science fiction word for a ray gun.

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banjax

A friend of mine, who is renovating a bathroom in her house, posted the following to Facebook yesterday:

The real skylight is one floor above in the bathroom we’re renovating. A water leak during demolition banjaxed my entire kitchen ceiling.

To which another friend replied:

Outstanding use of “banjaxed.”

I’d never noticed the word before, although I should have as it appears in several rather famous books that I have read. It’s Irish slang meaning to batter or ruin.

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planet, dwarf planet

Our word planet ultimately comes from the Greek πλάνητ-, πλάνης (planet-, planes) meaning wanderer, a reference to the motion of the planets relative to the stars. The word came into English via Old French planete and the Latin planeta. While the etymology of the word has never been in doubt, exactly what constitutes a planet has constantly changed over the centuries and is still hotly debated today.

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dwarf planet, planet

See planet.

Publishing By the Numbers

Fivethirtyeight.com, Nate Silver’s website on polling, data, and statistics, has a podcast called What’s the Point? that recently delved into the use of data by book publishers. It’s a neat discussion about the industry and how publishers make decisions about whether or not to publish a book and how to market it if they do.

livelong

Livelong is not a common adjective. Its use, for the most part, is restricted to one expression, all the livelong day, although as late as the nineteenth century the livelong night was also common. In these expressions the word is simply an intensified version of the adjective long. But why live-? We don’t use that word to intensify anything else.

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Finding Movie Quotations

Ever get a line from a movie stuck in your head but you can’t remember the film it’s from? Or you’ve got a twenty riding on a bar-bet about the accuracy of a TV quote?

Despair no more. The site QuoDB.com has the answers.

The site is a huge database of movie and television scripts, and it will pinpoint down to the second where in the film the quote appears. For instance, I looked up the word multi-pass:

01:09:24 Multi-pass.
The Fifth Element (1997)
01:09:18 - And this is?
01:09:21 - Leeloo Dallas. Multi-pass.
01:09:24 - Multi-pass.
01:09:25 - She knows it’s a multi-pass.
01:09:27 - My wife. We’re newlyweds. Just met.

The site tells me the word appears five other times in the film, and details on those are only a mouse-click away.

Definitely a site worth bookmarking.

[Tip o’ the hat to Languagehat]

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Kryptonite in the OED

The latest additions to the OED Online includes an entry for kryptonite. Definition:

In the fictional world of the comic book hero Superman: a substance that renders Superman weak and powerless. Hence in figurative or allusive use: something that can weaken or damage a particular person or thing; an Achilles heel.

And the dictionary includes the following note:

Kryptonite is most commonly depicted as a green mineral that came to earth from Krypton, Superman’s home planet, following its destruction. Other types have appeared in various comic books, films, etc., each having different properties.

Kryptonite first appears on the Superman radio program in 1943. It’s comic book appearance dates from 1949. The earliest figurative use cited by the OED is from 1965.

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