Sticking with our Wimbledon theme, what can be a more obvious word to look into than tennis itself? It was known in various forms such as teˈnetz from around 1400 and it was first recorded as tenes in Italian in the Cronica di Firenze by Donato Velluti. The sport was supposedly introduced into Florence by French knights as early as 1325 but its given name, tenes, seems not to have been recorded anywhere else apart from Velluti’s Cronica.

The origin is puzzling: tenes is unnatural in Italian word formation and it doesn’t seem to have stuck around there for very long. Perhaps English borrowed the term from Italian but it’s more likely that both languages, in fact, took the term from a common source. This would seem to be French, since it was the French knights who introduced the sport in Florence, but this is again a source of puzzlement since the original French name for the sport was actually la paulme, meaning ‘the palm’, from 1350 or earlier.

The most popular explanation seems to be that the word comes from the French tenez, the imperative form of tenir, meaning ‘to take’ or ‘to hold’. So, when serving, one player would shout to his opponent tenez! which would be something like ‘take that!’. The only possible problem with this is that there’s no real record of tenez being used in this way as the only records are in Latin, so there is only evidence of Latin equivalents: accipe and excipe. Fortunately, instances of these terms are abundant enough for the theory to hold water.

The story doesn’t stop there. The version of tennis that we’re all familiar with now, i.e. lawn tennis, is actually quite different from the original game. When the version was introduced in 1873, it was originally called sphairistike from Greek meaning ‘skill in playing at ball’ from the same root as sphere. Invented and named by Major Walter C. Wingfield, it was inspired by badminton and first played at a garden party in Wales. However, sphairistike was generally considered long and difficult and was soon replaced by the easier word, tennis.


Since Wimbledon started, tennis jargon is on everybody’s lips, which of course got my linguistic clogs grinding. There are many tennis words that are unusual when you stop and think about them. Take love, for example. In tennis, it means ‘no points’ and it’s hard to picture how this can have anything to do with amorous affection; perhaps it comes from something different altogether.
In fact, the theories are numerous. The OED suggests it originally developed from the phrase for love, with the first example recorded in 1742.

e. for love: (a) without stakes being wagered, for nothing (applied to the practice of playing a competitive game for the pleasure of playing); (b) (in extended use) for pleasure rather than profit (colloq.).

This theory seems fairly plausible: a losing sportsman could be said to play for pleasure rather than profit as, with no points, his prospects of winning might seem slim.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, on the other hand, speculates that it comes from the expression neither love nor money. As love is, then, the direct opposite of wealth, then love in tennis means nothing too.
Cassell’s Dictionary offers another possibility too, that since the game itself developed out of the French real or Royal tennis, so were the scoring terms loaned from France. The theory makes sense since deuce, used when both sides have three points, probably, although oddly, came from the French deux meaning ‘two’. Love, then, allegedly came from the French term l’oeuf which was used to denote zero due to the shape. Still, it’s more likely that the French would actually say un oeuf and now they actually say zéro anyway.
While I like the l’oeuf theory, it seems the OED’s version is the most likely. Still, this is one of those classic word stories with lots of possible answers and we might never know the right one.


Now juggernaut is an odd little word. Firstly, just saying it aloud is fun. There’s something about the syllables that give it a nice bounce. But the meaning is a bit trickier. Correct me if I’m wrong but I had always understood a juggernaut to be a particularly large lorry or truck, something like this definition from

2. (Engineering / Automotive Engineering) Brit a very large lorry for transporting goods by road, esp one that travels throughout Europe

Yet when you start to dig around in juggernaut, it seems that this meaning isn’t that common after all and some dictionaries don’t even include it. Many definitions refer to a meaning more like this one:

3. Used as a title for the Hindu deity Krishna.

Juggernaut, then, came into English through Hindi with the word jagannath, meaning ‘lord of the world’. This in fact came from Sanskrit jagat, meaning ‘world’ – or more literally ‘moving’ which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *gwa- ‘to go, come’ – and nathas, meaning ‘lord master’ – also from a Proto-Indo-European root *na-, ‘to help’.
So in Hindi, the term refers to an annual Hindu festival when a crude idol of Krishna is paraded through the town on a giant chariots throughout Orissa and Bengal. According to legend, devotees supposedly threw themselves under the chariots, allowing themselves to be crushed in sacrifice. From this idea, we get other meanings, such as:

1. Something, such as a belief or institution, that elicits blind and destructive devotion or to which people are ruthlessly sacrificed.
2. An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path

And, presumably, the concept of a large, heavy chariot was extended to refer to large, heavy lorries. Although Partridge points out that devotees never did throw themselves to an untimely death, and that’s probably a good thing, the story did at least add a new word to our language.


Crap has to be one of the best four-letter words to etymologise. And trust me, I have looked up most of them. It’s really quite entertaining. While the origin of crap might be completely unknown to most people, there is a relatively popular folk etymology, one which I also used to believe to be true. So the story has it, the term comes from a certain plumber named Thomas Crapper (1837-1910) whose name was transferred to his invention: the toilet. From there, crapper, meaning ‘toilet’, was clipped to crap, meaning ‘faeces’.

Thomas Crapper (1837-1910)

Thomas Crapper (1837-1910)

Although this makes for a nice story, unfortunately, it seems to be incorrect. The OED find two examples of crap being used to refer to defecation in 1846: ‘”Fenced in a dunninken” … “What? Fenced in a crapping ken?”’ and ‘Which of us had hold of the crappy (sh-ten) end of the stick?’. In 1846, Crapper was only nine years old. What’s more, Crapper didn’t actually invent the toilet itself but a mechanism for flushing called the ballcock, and he generally increased the toilet’s popularity.

So where does crap come from? Well, in reality, it’s a very old word found in Middle English at the latest (the first known example coming from around 1425). It came from Medieval Latin through Old French and originally meant ‘chaff’ and then went on to meant ‘discarded waste’ or ‘residue’.

While I think this explanation is more plausible, some people still think Crapper’s claim to linguistic fame is valid and maybe he did help to popularise the term. Either way, it’s something to think about next time you come across a product by Thomas Crapper & Co.

Horsing About

Since today sees the first day of this year’s Royal Ascot, I thought some interesting little horse-related word stories were in order. Oddly enough, English boasts a real plethora of horsey idioms. Even the OED’s entry for horse seems to be about three feet long. Most of these idioms are fairly transparent:

  • A one horse town – a small town where very little happens
  • To beat/flog a dead horse – to insist on talking about something that no one is interested in, or that has already been thoroughly discussed
  • To close the stable door after the horse has bolted – trying to stop something bad happening when it has already happened
  • Don’t put the cart before the horse – do not do things in the wrong order
  • Hold your horses! – wait!
  • I could eat a horse (and chase its rider) – to be very hungry.

But two of the more interesting idioms I’ve stumbled across both deal specifically with horses’ mouths: straight from the horse’s mouth, found from 1928, and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, first recorded in 1546. Why is a horse’s mouth so important? While any horse riding fanatics will probably already know this, the rest of us are left in the dark. The answer is that the condition and length of a horse’s teeth – since they grow in a very specific rate – can tell those in the know about the health and age of a horse.

So, straight from the horse’s mouth, meaning ‘to hear something directly from the person concerned and not garbled by an intermediary’, doesn’t mean that the horse is doing any speaking but that if you want to buy a horse, you should look directly at the horses teeth and not consider whatever the seller is telling you. That way the knowledge you have of the horse is sure to be correct; it comes from a good source.

On the other hand, if you are being given a horse as a gift you should not look at the condition of its teeth as this would suggest you’re distrusting or ungrateful. For that reason, you should not look a gift horse in the mouth because that would mean ‘to find fault with a gift, to spoil an offer by inquiring too closely into it’.

As for this week’s races, hopefully I’ll be backing a stone-blinder (sure winner).


It’s not just the old words that have interesting stories to tell. New words, or neologisms, appear all the time and for a great deal of reasons, even political ones. One interesting word that has popped up in the last month or so is chapulling, a creation brought about by the recent Gezi Park protests in Turkey. In fact, we can put a pretty precise date on it: June 2nd 2013, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used the word çapulcu to refer to the protesters.

“We cannot just watch some çapulcu inciting our people. […] Yes, we will also build a mosque. I do not need permission for this; neither from the head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) nor from a few çapulcu. I took permission from the fifty percent of the citizens who elected us as the governing party.”

The term roughly means ‘looters, marauders, bums’, among other things, but was quickly re-appropriated by the protesters to mean: ‘to resist force, demand justice, seek one’s rights’, according to

Since then, it has been loaned to other languages, including English, with the spelling changed accordingly. The term has since been used in the press, such as the Turkish Zaman newspaper, to refer to ‘Turkey’s Chapulling Movement’. But, perhaps most significant is the use of the word by the chapullers themselves. They have constructed a Chapulling Peace Tree as well as a YouTube video singing ‘Every Day I’m Chapulling’ to the tune of LMAO’s hit ‘Party Rock Anthem’, a catchphrase which has since been seen in graffiti and is even available on t-shirts for a reasonable £2.50. They have even renamed their protest camp ‘Chapulistan’. The word that was initially used to insult the protesters has, in fact, been ironically embraced by those protesters as a slogan and a feature of identity.

There’s no doubt that chapulling has really taken off as a word, but where will it be in years to come when the protests will be a thing of the past? Will the word stick around to refer to other, similar protests in the future? Or will it survive only in reference to those Gezi Park protests? Well that’s the beauty of language: it is unpredictable. No words are better than others and no words are more or less likely to stay in use than others. Words which might be on everybody’s lips one year could be completely forgotten by the next or they might just manage to hold their ground and live long, healthy lives. As for chapulling, I guess we have to just wait and see.

For sources and further reading, see:


After much consideration, I finally decided that the first entry for Word Stories should discuss the word dictionary itself. After all, dictionaries are an infinitely useful resource without which many of us linguists would be stuck in the mud. Plus, I love them. So where does the word dictionary come from? And what story does it have to tell?

As you might expect, dictionary has Latin roots, or at least post-Classical Latin roots since it is a compound of dictiō (‘diction’, originally meaning ‘word’ or ‘expression’) and –ārius  (-ary, a suffix meaning ‘connected with’ or ‘pertaining to’). In fact, the term seems to have been a novel coinage in 1220 by an Englishman, John of Garland, who taught Latin in Paris. He used it to describe his elementary textbook in which Latin words were grouped by theme in 84 paragraphs. Indeed, the introduction to the book, probably written by the author himself, talks of the reasoning behind the new coinage.

The word didn’t crop up again after that until the 14th century when Pierre Bersuire created an encyclopedic guide to words in the Latin Bible, which was ordered alphabetically. Since then, it was used to refer to any alphabetized book of words, particularly those translating words of one language into another.

Of course, the use of the term dictionary with the meaning we know today – not only the bilingual books used for translation but also monolingual dictionaries providing explanations of words – didn’t really come into widespread use until much later, in the 17th century to be specific. These initial monolingual dictionaries were used to explain ‘hard words’, such as Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall in 1604 or Henry Cockeram’s English Language Dictionary in 1623. But it was Samuel Johnson’s A Dcitionary of the English Language in 1755 that was the first attempt at comprehensively recording the entirety of the English Language, and for this reason it is still known today as a great feat of human achievement.

It wasn’t until around 150 years later that the dictionary we all know and trust, the Oxford English Dictionary, would be compiled. Begun in 1884, it took over 50 years to complete when it was finally released in 1928. Since then, it has been revised and updated and other dictionaries have been written. As our language continues to evolve, so must our dictionaries. And with that comes more lexicographers, a combined form from Greek words lexicon (a collection of words) and –graphy (graphic representation). The lexicographer is the word-lover busy compiling those dictionaries, or, as Samuel Johnson famously stated in his own dictionary, ‘a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words’.