Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to etymology. the study of word and phrase origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) In and of itself, etymology isn’t a terribly important or necessary field—knowing the origins of words and phrases isn’t going to save lives improve anyone’s quality of life, it won’t even help you become a better writer—but it can reveal fascinating insights into history and the nature of humanity. Language not only grows and changes with the times, it also is central to our identities.

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. And in the cases where it’s not, the search can help sharpen our critical thinking skills.


“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So begins J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. A hobbit, as anyone who doesn’t live in a hole in the ground knows, is a small humanoid creature with hairy feet and a fondness for pipe-weed. The two most famous hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are the protagonists of that novel and of Tolkien’s later The Lord of the Rings. But contrary to what most people believe, Tolkien did not coin the term hobbit.

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Contact Us

Discussion Forums

If you have an issue with the content on this site, the best way to communicate this is by posting a notice in the discussion forums. For substantive comments and questions about the site content, you can post to or create a thread in the General Discussion group about the particular topic. For comments and questions about the site itself and its community, the Meta Discussion forum is the appropriate place.

To post to the discussion forums, you must be a member of the site. You can click the membership link to the right to join or login to the site.


You are also welcome to email me at daveATwordorigins.org with comments about the site. I appreciate and enjoy any comments you have, ranging from praise (always nice to get), to suggestions for new content, to corrections of typos, and anything in between. Unfortunately, due to the volume of email I receive I cannot guarantee a response to every message, but rest assured I do read them.

Questions about specific words and phrases are best directed to the discussion forums.

Media Inquiries

If you are a reporter and need information or comment for a story, the best way to contact me is via email at daveATwordorigins.org. We can then set up a time to talk on the phone. It is helpful if you tell me the topic and, if possible, specific questions you want to ask. That way I can do appropriate research in advance of the interview. If I can’t help, I often know of other experts who might be able to.

Mailing Address

If you wish to contact me other than electronically, you can send postal mail to:

Dave Wilton
15 Godel Lane
Princeton, NJ 08540

Privacy Policy

Wordorigins.org is committed to respecting your online privacy and we only collect and maintain information that is required to effectively deliver content to you and to manage membership privileges in order to control trolls and other abusive behavior.

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Registration Procedure

To deter robo-spammers, I manually approve each registration before you can post something to the discussion boards. After you fill in the registration info (username, password, etc.), please send me an email at that convinces me you are an actual human being, and I will activate your account. This “Turing test” should eliminate the robo-spammers. It’s cumbersome and inconvenient, but this procedure keeps the discussion forums remarkably clear of spam.

I usually clear out the queue of spammers each morning (usually numbering somewhere between 900–1500 fake registrations). So please send the email immediately after registering. I also delete accounts that have not posted anything after 30 days, so if you aren’t planning on commenting right away, it’s best to hold off on registering until you have something to say. The 30-day period is only for new accounts. Once you’ve commented on something, your registration is permanent and won’t be deleted.

Note that I also delete accounts that consist of nothing but links to commercial web sites. I don’t run this site as a free advertising or search-engine-ranking-boosting service. There is nothing wrong with participants on this site posting links to their web sites in their profiles, but just creating a profile so you can have a link to your site from this one is not cool.

You don’t need to be a registered member to read anything on this site. Everything here is open to the public. But to post comments on the forums you need to register.

Who We Are

Dave Wilton

Dave Wilton has a PhD in medieval English literature from the University of Toronto and has taught writing at Texas A&M University and the University of Toronto. Dave also has an M.A. from George Washington University in National Security Policy Studies and a B.A. from Lafayette College in Government and Law. He is also the author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford University Press, 2004).

In past lives, Dave has worked as a marketing writer/editor and as a product manager for 3D graphics and digital television technologies at NVIDIA and OpenTV, for Science Applications International Corporation as a manager of programs that dismantled the nuclear stockpiles of the former Soviet Union, and as an arms control negotiator for the Pentagon.


Lila is the senior staff assistant here at Wordorigins.org. Her duties include reception and greeting of visitors, multiple daily perambulations, self-defenestration, mastication of assorted objects, and olfactory investigations.

Bob, Charles, and Erik

We’ve been hiring. Bob, the black cat, is the office manager, keeping everyone in line. Charles and Erik keep the keyboard warm when it is in use.


Ghosts, magic crystals, faeries, homeopathy, Bigfoot, astrology, and the like are all examples of woo-woo or woo. But why are they called that? When and where does the term come from?

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Black Friday & Cyber Monday

In the U.S., the Friday after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday. The day is the traditional start of the holiday shopping season and is the busiest shopping day of the year, with many stores offering sales and discounts. But this is not the only meaning for the phrase Black Friday. Where does the term come from and when was it coined?

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OK Boomer

The meme is sweeping the internet, but where did it originate?

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quid pro quo

Quid pro quo literally means “this for that” in Latin, but when did it appear and what does it mean in English?

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