We’ve all come across, at one point or another, the use of ye in things like Ye Olde Shoppe or Ye Olde Café, whether it’s used ironically or sincerely to create a sense of Merry England. While it’s clear that ye is being used as the, it’s not clear why and it’s certainly not known that ye isn’t actually a separate word from the at all, just an age-old misspelling.

Firstly, ye as a pronoun is a bona fide word and distinct from the ye of ye olde. That’s the ye of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and, as you would expect, is just an older word for the second person pronoun; one person was thou or thee and a group of people were you or ye.

The ye used as a definite article is quite different and it dates back to the 16th century. Before that time, we used to write the ‘th’ sound not with two letters put together but with one singular letter: þ or ‘thorn’ as it was called. In fact, we had two symbols for ‘th’, þ was the soft sound like the ‘th’ in ‘thin’ and ð, or ‘eth’, was the harder sound like the ‘th’ in ‘this’. These old symbols came from Germanic runes whereas the modern ‘th’ comes from French.

Although the French ‘th’ version was being used alongside ‘þ’ from the 14th century, when the printing press was invented, the printers preferred to use ‘þ’ basically because it saved space on the page.

However, the metal type used in early printing presses actually came from Germany and Italy, where the letter ‘þ’ didn’t exist. Instead they had to substitute ‘y’ because they figured it looked similar enough. The became ye and also that became yt, both of which can be found in manuscripts until as late as the 18th century.

Ye was revived in the 19th century as an intentional antiquarianism and ye olde was already being mocked by 1896.

So all in all, even though Ye Olde Shoppe might look like it’s supposed to say ‘yee oldie shoppie’, it’s actually just a cutesy way of saying ‘the old shop’.



X Marks the Spot

No other single letter really does polysemy like x: it can stand for a kiss, found from 1765; it can represent the horizontal axis on a graph; it designates films which are only appropriate for adults, found from the 1950s; it can represent a cross; it can indicate a mistake; or it can denote any unknown or unspecified thing, like in algebra. It’s pretty versatile for one little letter.

Considering the last use, we find x in the classic phrase of pirate adventures and hidden treasures, x marks the spot, to indicate where something unknown might be found. Yet the expression has a fairly unexpected origin: Chicago gangsters.

Before the fixed expression came about, there is evidence of using the letter x to show the location of something on a map, at least from 1813, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

‘The three crosses X mark the three places where we were let in’

But it wasn’t until a century later and the height of Chicago gangsterism that the specific phrase x marks the spot came into its own.

When newspapers started to abstain from publishing pictures of actual corpses in the scenes of murders, the x was used on the bodiless photos to indicate where it had been positioned. As a result, spotted came to mean ‘murdered’, in the slang of that time, and to be put on the spot took on a specific implication.

For more on the letter x, here’s a great TED talk:


Weird’s history is a pretty odd one and it only came to have the meaning we recognise today, ‘strange’ or ‘bizarre’, relatively recently.

Going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, we find *wert-, meaning ‘to turn’ or ‘to bend’, which is related to Latin word versus. This then developed in Proto-Germanic as *wurthiz which has relatives in Old High German, wurt, and Old Norse, urðr. It then entered Old English as wyrd. However, by this time, the word no longer meant ‘to turn’ or ‘to bend’ but ‘fate’, ‘destiny’ or literally ‘that which comes’, in a similar way to how turn into can mean ‘become’ now.

This sense of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ is found as far back as Beowulf:

Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel.

(Fate goes ever as fate must.)

Hie wyrd forsweop on Grendles gryre.

(Fate sweeps them away into Grendel’s clutches.)

In the 1400s, weird meant having the power to control fate, or it was the personification of fate as in the three Fates of Greek and Roman mythology. In Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women from c.1385, weird is clearly being used as an animate noun:

The werdys that we clepyn destene Hath shapyn hire that she mot nedis be Pyetous sad.

(The weirds that we call destiny have determined that she must necessarily be piously solemn.)

By 1625, the use of weird to mean ‘witch’ was quite common and the first record of weird being used as an adjective stems from this sense. Perhaps the most famous use of weird to mean ‘witch’ is found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the characters of the weird sisters, who were, of course, witches and able to foresee the future.

After Shakespeare’s weird sisters, weird as an adjective expanded into other contexts but the modern sense of ‘strange’ didn’t develop until the 19th century. The last step probably came about through the idea of something weird being ‘unearthly’ and therefore ‘strange’ or the portrayal of weird sisters as frightening, odd-looking and disturbingly different.



Just like Henry VIII having six wives and Newton discovering gravity through a falling apple, the invention of the vaccination technique is one of those classic historical facts we Brits studied in countless school lessons, but the origin of the word itself is something not often considered.

It was smallpox that was the first disease we were immunised against using vaccination. Before the method was discovered, the contagious and deadly disease had caused the deaths of around 300-500 million people. Then, in 1796, the physician Edward Jenner came along. He had noticed that milkmaids who contracted a mild form of the cowpox disease never contracted smallpox. He carried out an experiment on the eight-year-old James Phipps, inserting a small amount of cowpox-infected pus into the boy’s arm. He then proved that Phipps was immune to smallpox and confirmed that vaccination was successful.

Vaccination as a word was taken from the name of the cowpox virus variolae vaccinae and the vaccinae part comes from the adjective vaccine which meant ‘pertaining to cows’ from the 18th century onwards. Vaccine is derived from the Latin vacca, ‘cow’, which is where the French vache and Spanish vaca originated.

Interestingly, vaccination the noun came before vaccinate the verb – the former being recorded in 1800, three years before the latter is found. This happened through a word formation process called back-formation, where speakers reanalyse a word, removing supposed affixes (like how self-destruct is found in science fiction from a back-formation of self-destruction even though the related verb of destruction is destroy).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was Louis Pasteur who was responsible for using the term for diseases other than smallpox, as he developed the technique to immunise against rabies and chicken cholera.

The Usual Suspects

It’s not very often you can pinpoint the origin of a word or phrase to one specific speaker at one specific moment in time. The usual suspects might sound like an ordinary phrase which could have been first put together by anyone at any time but that’s not the case; its origin lies, quite specifically, in the 1942 film Casablanca.

Of course, the film industry has presented English with reams of memorable quotes and catchphrases and none more so than Casablanca, the source of those famous lines ‘here’s looking at you kid’, ‘play it Sam’ and ‘we’ll always have Paris’. It’s not just a great classic film; it’s a veritable catchphrase treat.

The usual suspects features in the line ‘Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects’, delivered by Claude Rains as the character Captain Louis Renaud, the Vichy French police inspector of the Moroccan city. He gives this order to appear to act responsibly although he knows that the usual suspects, that is the customary lot, the crooks you would expect, cannot possibly be guilty of the shooting since he saw Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, pull the trigger right in front of him moments before.

The prevalence of the phrase may have become more widespread thanks to another film, Bryan Singer’s 1995 US movie The Usual Suspects.

Of all the quotes in all the scenes in all of Casablanca, the usual suspects is probably the one which is the least associated with the film and the most engrained into everyday language.


There are lots of words out there which were originally trademarks but have become generic, everyday terms. Some of those ex-trademarks are widely known, like Hoover and sellotape. Some of them are a surprise when you find out, like heroin, laundromat and aspirin. One such surprising genericized trademark I came across todaywas tabloid, which I was even more surprised to find out originally came from pharmaceuticals.

Burroughs, Wellcome and Co., a pharmaceutical company, registered tabloid as a trademark in 1884. They invented the word by blending tablet with the Greek suffix –oid­, which means ‘resembling’ or ‘similar to’, and used it to refer to compressed or concentrated drugs.

Only a short time later, in 1898, the word was being used figuratively for a small and compact dose of anything. By the turn of the century it was being used in journalism, to denote the type of newspaper which has short, condensed articles and is smaller in size. It was first used as an adjective, as in tabloid journalism, and was used as a standalone noun by 1918.

Like many companies which see their trademarks threatened, Burroughs, Wellcome and Co. filed an injunction against tabloid being used generically. However, the word had become so widespread that, four years later, they abandoned their case and accepted that tabloid had become common property.

Of course, in the early days of tabloid journalism the word didn’t have the same connotations as it has now; it was simply a way to describe that type of newspaper as compressed and convenient, like tabloid medicine was.

Since then it has come to imply superficiality and oversimplified writing but tabloids did not initiate sensational journalism – that was common both in the UK and USA long before the introduction of tabloids – they just pursued it avidly. The tabloid newspaper, being smaller and therefore easier to read on public transport and quicker to get through, appealed to a different type of reader, one who was more interested in the style of stories tabloids are famous for today.

At Sixes and Sevens

When we’re in a state of confusion or things are in disarray, we can say we’re at sixes and sevens. It’s an old catchphrase that is first found in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in around 1374, albeit in a slightly different form: on six and seven.

 Lat nat this wrechched wo thyn herte gnawe, But manly set the world on sexe and seuene.

(Let not this wretched woe gnaw at your heart, But manly set the world on six and seven.)

Earlier variants also replace at with set on or swap and for or. Still, however it’s written, there’s something shambolic about sixes and sevens for some reason.

The widely accepted origin is that the phrase is actually a corruption of the French cinque and six. When gambling with dice, and later playing cards, the numbers used were based on the Old French numbers: ace (which we still use today), deuce, trey, quatre, cinque and sice. Originally, to set all on cinq and sice, being the highest numbers on the die, was to gamble recklessly. After a time, the meaning of the words as numbers was forgotten, encouraged by the fact that cinq was pronounced as ‘sink’, and cinq and sice were reanalysed at six and seven. The idea of ‘carelessly hazarding all one’s chances’ became ‘at odds, in confusion’ by 1785.

Red Herring

The expression a red herring can refer to both a dried, smoked herring which has turned red during curing and a false lead or something used to divert attention from the wider issue. So are red herrings inherently deceitful and misleading fish?

Not exactly. The use of red herring to refer to smoked herring – as opposed to white herring or fresh herring – appears in the 15th century. By the 1680s, the fish was used by poachers to throw off a hunting party. They would walk between the hunters and the prey, dragging a red herring across the trail so as to distract the hunting dogs from the scent they were following. The red herring worked especially well since, because of its strong smell, the hunters used the fish when training the dogs. When the dogs then picked up the herring scent, they would follow that trail, giving the poachers the chance to catch the prey for themselves.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that a red herring went from denoting the practise of throwing dogs off a hunting trail to throwing anyone off any trail. The expression to draw a herring across the track/trail was known by the 1880s. Now the phrase is most commonly associated with fictional murder hunts and whodunits where red herrings are used to keep the reader from solving the mystery.


There are some words which change their meaning over time but leave behind a footprint of their former senses in expressions and compound words. A great example of this is quick.

Nowadays, quick means ‘fast’ but this was not always the case. The word is of Germanic origin with the original form being cwic or cwicu and it meant ‘alive, animated’. In fact, it has an Indo-European root *gweie-, which also gave the Latin vivus and the Greek bios.

The original sense of the word does still exist now but only in set phrases like the quick and the dead and the fact that the quick and the dead is often misinterpreted with the ‘fast’ meaning shows how outdated the ‘living’ meaning is.

Other words which still contain the former meaning are quicksilver and quicklime: quicksilver, another term for mercury, is supposedly ‘alive’ because of the way the drops of liquid mercury move; quicklime is so called because of its vigorousness and is a direct translation from the Latin calx viva.

In around 1300, quick went from meaning ‘alive’ to ‘moving, shifting’ and it is this meaning which lead to quicksand. Much to Hollywood’s dismay, quicksand is not fast at all, but just moving. In reality, it is almost impossible to sink all the way into quicksand since it is rarely more than a few feet deep. What’s more, you’ll only sink quickly if you panic and struggle. Keep calm, move slowly and, since your body is less dense than quicksand, you’ll eventually get out, which goes to show etymology is not only interesting, but useful in survival situations too.


Thieves and swindlers are common sources for many novel words as they engineer language to keep their secretive deeds under the radar. One such word is phoney, meaning ‘fake, not genuine’.

There are some false etymologies out there, including the theory that it has evolved from funny or is related to telephone in some way. However, the most plausible origin by far comes from American slang in the late 19th century.

Phoney probably started out as fawny which in turn came from fáine, an Irish word meaning ‘ring’. A fawny ring was used in a common fraud, which was known as a fawny rig or going on the fawny, in which conmen would sell gilt rings pretending that they were real gold. In the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tonngue in 1796, Grose wrote:

FAWNEY RIG. A common fraud, thus practised: A fellow drops a brass ring, double gilt, which he picks up before the party meant to be cheated, and to whom he disposes of it for less than it is supposed, and ten times more than its real value.

With time, the word developed from meaning specifically a fake gold ring to denote anything that is not genuine.



What came first, orange the colour or orange the fruit?

The answer is: the fruit came before the colour.

The word came into English in around 1300 like a game of pass the parcel, through a number of other languages. Its closest ancestor is the Old French orenge. Before that, it came from Italian in several forms, including: naranza, arancio and narancia. The Italians borrowed the word from Arabic traders, who used the form naranj, and it is suggested that the Arabs first acquired the fruit from India, since Sanskrit and Tamil have similar words: naranga and naram respectively.

The original word wasn’t actually used to refer to the fruit but to the tree, which was introduced in Italy in the 11th century. The tree was cultivated widely across southern Europe but the fruit from this variety of orange tree, the Persian orange, was much bitterer than the oranges we eat today. Sweet oranges were brought to Europe from Indian by Portuguese traders in the 15th century and became known as Portuguese oranges. The sweeter Portuguese oranges quickly replaced bitter Persian oranges and now, in English and most other languages, we don’t distinguish between the two. In Greek, however, there is still a linguistic distinction, between the bitter nerantzi and the sweet portokali.

The colour orange didn’t appear until the 1540s, although another word was used: ġeolurēad, meaning yellow-red. The first known example comes from a will written in 1557:

‘Coloured cloth of any other colour or colours…hereafter mentioned, that is to say, scarlet, red, crimson, morrey, violet, pewke, brown, blue, black, green, yellow, blue, orange, [etc.].’

The initial n- was lost possibly out of confusion with the indefinite article (a norange becomes an orange) or out of analogy with the French or, meaning ‘gold’.

The fact that orange has become a symbolic colour of the Netherlands through the expression House of Orange for Dutch royal family is, in fact, originally etymologically unrelated to both the colour and the fruit.

The House of Orange comes from a town in France named Orange, which is technically unconnected to the colour and the fruit although its spelling and pronunciation may have been influenced through analogy. When the Dutch royal family obtained the principality in 1544, they also took the name, which they kept even after giving Orange back to France in 1713.

As for the unfamiliar colours listed in the will, pewke was much nicer than it sounds, being an inky blue colour and morrey or murrey was a deep purple-red.


A common mistake among learners of English as a foreign language is to use news in the singular form new as if it were a countable noun, as in ‘I have a good new’ when a singular good thing has happened. However, their mistake is logical really. What doesn’t make much sense is keeping the s in news even when we’re just talking about one thing. After all, we could be talking about just one event or development. So why do we do it?

One striking false etymology suggests that news comes from the points on a compass: north, east, west and south. Firstly, we normally list the cardinal directions in clockwise order: north, east, south, and west. This renders nesw not news. Secondly, the cardinal directions have nothing to do with new information or tidings, semantically. Also, there’s a much simpler and much more credible etymology: it comes from new.

Nowadays, we use new as an adjective but in Old English new was also a noun, referring to anything which was original or novel. The first instance of this comes in the singular, countable form in Alfred’s 888 translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae:

Wenst þu þæt hit hwæt niwes sie?

(Do you imagine that the new happens for you?)

By at least 1417 the word had come to mean specifically ‘account of an event’ rather than a general novel thing. Yet, although news was becoming the most common form, it was still regarded as a countable noun as late as the 19th century in some cases. For example, in an 1865 letter written in reaction to the assassination of President Lincoln, Queen Victoria wrote:

‘These American news are most dreadful and awful! One never heard of such a thing! I only hope it will not be catching elsewhere.’

Notice how she refers to the event as ‘a thing’ and ‘it’ in the singular but still uses news in the plural, writing ‘these … news’ rather than ‘this news’ as we would today.

Since then, the plural spelling has stuck but news has become an uncountable noun.


How many meanings can you think of for the word mug? It’s not a word we think about often but when you do, you realise it’s a pretty versatile little thing. The Oxford Dictionaries website gives six definitions, four for nouns and two for verbs:

  1. A large cup, typically cylindrical with a handle and used without a saucer
  2. A person’s face
  3. A stupid or gullible person
  4. A hoodlum or thug
  5. Attack and rob (someone) in a public place
  6. Make faces, especially silly or exaggerated ones, before an audience or a camera

What makes the word even more interesting is that all these meanings, seemingly disparate, are actually all related.

The original sense of mug dates back to the 1400s but is now obsolete. It was used to refer to a dry measure, particularly of salt, much in the way cup is used in the US. Unfortunately, we can’t trace the origin any further back than that although there is some speculation that is could have a Scandinavian origin as there are similar words in Swedish, mugg, and Norwegian, mugge, or it could be related to Low German through  mukke.

By the 1560s, mug took on the first meaning we are familiar with, that of a drinking vessel. It’s a logical step from a measurement to a pot or jug but after that, the semantic shifts get more complex.

By the 1700s, mug had become a slang word for a person’s face, possibly because of the grotesque, cartoon-like faces that featured as decoration on mugs at that time.

Then, the word went on to become a slang word for ‘strike someone in the face’ in the boxing community, in the early 1800s.

From there, it was a simple widening of meaning to shift from ‘strike someone in the face’ to ‘attack’ more generally, in the 1840s, and instances of ‘attack to rob’ are found less than 20 years later. This later meaning was also possibly influenced by the use of mug in thieves slang to mean ‘dupe’ or ‘fool’ which had developed at about the same time.

The phrase mug shot, as in ‘photograph of a person for police records’, actually stems from the ‘face’ meaning of mug rather than the crime-related meaning.



The word up for consideration today is one we all use regularly to mean ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ without ever really considering what it originally meant. But stop and think about it and it seems obvious. The word is lousy. Break it down and it clearly comes from louse.

Louse itself existed in Old English as lus which goes back further to Proto-Indo-European *lus-. It’s hardly surprising that louse should date back this far; in our modern, hyper-hygienic time, lice are rarely a problem but through most of our history the insects were a familiar pest.

The extension of the meaning of lousy from ‘infested with lice’ to ‘poor’ is pretty transparent and it happened in an impressively short period: between the middle and the end of the 14th century.

So in 1377, the former meaning was used and understood in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman:

 With an hode on his hed a lousi hatte aboue.

(With a hood on his head, a lousy hat above.)

But Chaucer was able to use the latter meaning in Friar’s Tale, sometime after 1387:

 A lowsy jogelour kan deceyve thee.

(A lousy juggler can deceive you.)

Lousy developed another meaning in American English in the mid-19th century, that of ‘swarming with’ or ‘full of’. Oxford Dictionaries gives the example:

 ‘The town is lousy with tourists.’

Fortunately for us, we don’t have much use for the original sense of the word any more. The nice thing about it, though, is that the spelling and pronunciation have barely changed so the etymology is apparent and doesn’t involve lots of research and guesswork.


It’s National Kiss Day, which is especially convenient as Word Stories is onto the letter K for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

 Kiss comes from the Old English word coss and the verb to kiss was cyssan. Before that, Proto-Germanic had the word *kussjan which then became küssen in German, kysse in Norwegian and Danish, and kyssa in Swedish. The word probably came about because it is imitative of the sound made when kissing.

Kiss doesn’t seem to trace back any further than that; there is no common Indo-European root word. However, some linguists do suggest that *ku- could be a root, in line with the Greek kynein, the Hittite kuwash-anzi and the Sanskrit cumbati.

Perhaps the reason why there is no decisive common linguistic ancestor is because the symbol of affection is actually unknown in many cultures. In fact, kissing is a late developer with sniffing, licking and rubbing of noses being much older and more common customs.

Anthropologists as divided as to whether kissing is natural and instinctive or if it is something that has developed and been learned. Still, the Ancient Egyptians kissed and references are found to it in Sumerian texts which date back to around 5,000 years ago.

French kissing, on the other hand, is first attested in 1923. Kissing using tongues is said to be French because, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Gallic culture was known for being more passionate and romantically adventurous.

The practise of kissing can carry many different meanings in different cultures, whether it is an expression of love, friendship, passion or respect. Whatever the social message behind it, kissing can reduce stress and even lower cholesterol and burn calories by releasing adrenalin and increasing the heart rate. So happy National Kiss Day and pucker up, it’s good for you!


I first came across the term jaywalking in Bangkok and, being British, was quite thrown by it. Although any readers from the US will know that it refers to pedestrians crossing the road without using the pedestrian crossing, which is illegal in most cases across the pond, it’s a concept which we’re generally unfamiliar with in the rest of the world. Oxford Dictionaries define the word as:

‘Cross or walk in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic’

For example, it may be illegal to cross the road without using a nearby pedestrian crossing or even to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing when the lights are still red.

To those of us who are not used to such a regulation, it might seem a bit severe. After all, any pedestrian crossing the road in this way is surely going to stop, look and listen first and not just step out into oncoming traffic.

However, there is a reason behind it, which comes from its history.

Firstly, let’s dispel the false etymology. Some think that the origin of the word comes from the letter J which alludes to the shape of the route jaywalkers take when crossing the road. This isn’t the case; after all, the letters S or Z would give a more appropriate shape.

Jaywalking actually came about in the 1910s when cars and other vehicles had become a significant presence on the roads and there were many traffic accidents as a consequence. To encourage pedestrians to cross safely at the designated crossing the term jaywalking was created and strongly promoted.

The jay part came from a term common with city-dwellers used for people from the country, meaning ‘country bumpkin’, ‘hick’ or, generally, ‘idiot’. The idea was that city people knew how to cross the road in the right way, where as anyone who was crossing the road incorrectly must have been a simpleton from the countryside who didn’t know any better.

The word was not accepted easily and met with some criticism, such as in the following except from an article published in The Times in 1912:

‘More than a little sympathy will be felt for the correspondent who expressed resentment yesterday at the official application of the word “jaywalkers”—a truly shocking name and highly opprobrious—to people who cross the city streets in the middle of the blocks instead of at their ends.’

This was mostly because it was used in a derogatory way, almost as a racial slur, by those who were rich enough to afford a car against those who were too poor and had to walk.

Still, automobile companies at that time were under pressure to act on the number of traffic accidents involving pedestrians. So they shifted the blame from the drivers to the pedestrians and reinforced the idea of jaywalking in various anti-pedestrian campaigns. They emphasized the notion of the city being a place for cars and savvy city-dwellers, saying that pedestrians must accept the responsibility of their safety themselves.

Interestingly, any bans on jaywalking don’t have much effect in reality. In fact, pedestrians are 28% less likely to be hurt when jaywalking than when crossing at a pedestrian crossing which doesn’t have any additional signals such as traffic lights. Presumably, this is because jaywalkers are a lot more sensible than their name suggests as they are more careful when crossing the road than people who cross at crossings without paying attention. So in reality, a jaywalker is not a traffic simpleton but a much safer and wiser pedestrian than non-jaywalkers.

Indian Summer

It might still be spring at the moment but knowing our British weather, it won’t be long before we’ll all be hoping for an Indian summer, but why should a period of hot weather late after summer be Indian?

The first recorded instance comes from 1778 and it originates in American English but no one is exactly sure how it came about.

One suggestion is that the spell of warm weather was first noted in regions where the Native Americans lived. Another possibility is that it was the Native Americans who first described the phenomenon to the Europeans.

Another explanation is that it has derogatory roots, like Indian giver, referring to something that is false or a poor imitation. This matches up with the European equivalent St. Martin’s summer, which is a warm spell occurring around St. Martin’s Day, the 11th November. Since the ruined church of St. Martin-de-Grand in London was the hotspot for cheap jewellery dealer, St. Martin is also associated with deception and falsehood. Since both explanations give the idea of a false summer, this is probably the most likely origin.


Doing the Blogging from A to Z Challenge is definitely forcing my etymological endeavours into new territories and the results are not always sweet, especially when I find that an origin I had always held to be true turns out to be wrong. This is exactly the case with today’s entry: honeymoon.

I had always believed the false etymology, that many years ago it was customary for news bride to drink mead for a month after the wedding. This would increase her chances of getting pregnant and having a boy. Mead comes from honey and month comes from moon, hence honeymoon.

Unfortunately, this makes for a nice story but it is not true.

The term actually originates in the 16th century. Honeymoon still refers to the first month of marriage but specifically to the idea that this period is when the new marriage is still sweet and tender. So the honey part comes from the sweetness of the new love and the moon part from either the length of the period, a month, or it is an allusion to the quickly changing aspect of the relationship: as soon as it is full, it begins to wane.

Now we refer to a honeymoon as specifically the holiday taken after the wedding and this practice came about in the 1800s. We use the term honeymoon period to refer to the sweetness after a new partnership but considering what honeymoon originally meant, we are basically saying ‘new partnership sweetness period period’.

French and Spanish have the literal cognates lune de miel and luna de miel respectively but the Germans say flitterwochen which comes from flitter, ‘tinsel’, and wochen, ‘weeks’. Still, all three refer to the same notion: the quickly fading period of sweetness after the marriage. It seems like a fairly cynical idea to me and personally, I’d still rather the false etymology be true.


One of the best things about the English language has to be its flexibility; the way we can be creative with words to find new meanings. A great example of this comes from something we all probably use every day without even thinking about it: Google.

We all know that Google is a trademark name for a popular internet search engine, which means it’s a proper noun. But that doesn’t stop us from using it as a verb:

‘He googled the woman he had met at the party.’

Google co-founder, Larry Page, even used the word as a verb as early as 1998:

‘Have fun and keep googling!’

The transitive verb to google was chosen as the most useful word of 2002 according to the American Dialect Society and it was added to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2006.

I’ve also come across the variants googleable, ungoogleable and ungoogleability, referring to things which can or cannot be found using the Google search engine.

However, Google the company is not exactly thrilled by people using google the verb so often, since it is sometimes applied to search engines other than Google itself and using it so generically then threatens the trademark. Because of this, Google has been discouraging the use of the trademark as a generic verb. It has sent cease and desist letters to various people and a request to the general public stating that ‘you should please only use ‘Google’ when you’re actually referring to Google Inc. and our services’.

Google’s concern about to google might sound inconsequential but considering how language change has already wiped out the trademarks of Aspirin, Escalator, Heroin, Linoleum, Bubble Wrap, Dictaphone and Thermos among many more, Google has a right to be worried.

Still, trademark disputes are always complicated. Language is constantly in motion and new words, or neologisms, are always being coined. Sometimes these neologisms can come from existing words, like to google. Sometimes they can be created from thin air, like the source of the search engine’s name, that is, the googol.

The original word googol is a mathematical term for the number 10100. It was invented by a Milton Sirotta, nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner, in 1938 when Sirotta was at the ripe old age of nine. When asked to think of a name for a very large number, one followed by 100 zeroes, Sirotta replied with ‘googol’ and also suggested the word ‘googolplex’ for an even bigger number: 10 to the googol power.

So new words are always being made up and then being adapted and tweaked until they mean something different. Even if the folks at Google aren’t so happy with the way we use the term to google, it’s unavoidable: neologisers gonna neologisticate.

Fit as a Fiddle

It’s week two of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge and it’s time for an interesting f phrase. After a successful Paris Marathon yesterday, the expression fit as a fiddle has unsurprisingly cropped up in conversation more than once, but what exactly is fit about a fiddle?

It seems like a bit of a mystery. The first thing to consider is the fact that fit only developed the sense of ‘in good condition’ in the 1800s. Before that it meant ‘convenient, becoming, proper’ and since fit as a fiddle dates back to at least the 1610s the expression must have originally referred to convenience rather than good condition. Which makes sense because right as a fiddle was an alternative used in 1595.

Perhaps a fiddle was considered fit because it was a popular instrument or because it required a skilled musician to play one or a skilled craftsman to make one.

Another phrase common at that time was used to talk about someone who was well-liked and they would be said to have a face made of a fiddle. This was an allusion to the curves in a fiddle which supposedly look like smiles. So perhaps fit as a fiddle is also associated with this phrase and, as is often the case, it has been helped along by the pleasant-sounding alliteration.