The Whole Gamut

There’s a nice article on at the moment about foreign words and musical notes, explaining why we use so many Italian words like piano, adagio, staccato and crescendo in our musical vocabulary. Another musical word that cropped up in my work recently was gamut, although it’s not a word you think of as having musical origins.

Nowadays, we use gamut particularly in the phrase the whole gamut, meaning ‘the complete range or scope of something’ but it is a very odd sounding little word.

It was first used in English in the 1520s to refer to the lowest note in the medieval musical scale. This medieval scale was made up of six notes: ut, re, mi, fa, sol and la. It was the predecessor of the tonic sol-fa system, Julie Andrews’ favourite, which consists of doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah and te.

It was a medieval monk called Guido de Arezzo (Italian, incidentally) who came up with the scale. He chose syllables to represent each note based on the Latin hymn to St John, ‘Ut queant laxis’.

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris

Mira gestorum famuli tuorum

Solve polluti labii reatum,

Sancte Iohannes

The lowest tone that was recognised in medieval musical theory at that time was bass G an octave and a half below middle C, which was also known as gamma. Put gamma and the first note in Guido’s system together and you get gamma ut.

Eventually, gamma ut merged into gamut and it came to refer to Guido’s whole system rather than just that one note. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump before it came to mean scale or scope more generally.

Murder mystery

Last weekend was ‘Agatha Christie Weekend’ here, the town where the much loved murder mystery writer spent most of her life and which is also the location of her grave. It seems only right to pay homage to the queen of crime by unravelling some of the word mysteries out there.

Firstly, mystery itself is quite mysterious. It originates from the Greek myein, which mean ‘to close, shut’ and comes from the same family as mute. It seems like a big step from this word to the current mystery, meaning ‘something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain’.

But the Greek term gave way to other Greek words: mystes, ‘one who has been initiated’, and mysterion, ‘secret rite or ceremony’. In a mysterion, a new priest would be initiated and become a mystes. He would have to keep his lips shut, that is, refrain from revealing the secrets of the initiation ceremony to others. From there, the word went through the usual journey of Latin and Old French before entering English in the 14th century. We also borrowed the word mystic from the same root.

Murder, on the other hand, is an open-and-shut case. It is of Germanic origin, with the original Old English term being morthor. It can be traced way back to an Indo-European root, whose descendents gave Sanskrit mará and Latin mors. Those who studied romance languages in school will recognise the cognates muerte in Spanish and mort in French. All of which mean ‘death’.

What’s more enigmatic is blue murder as in to cry blue murder, ‘to make an extravagant and noisy protest’. Why should murder have a colour? Does blue here refer to cold, as in murder in cold blood? Or is the crier screaming until they’re blue in the face?

There are a number of theories out there. One suggests that since another variant of the phrase is to cry bloody murder, blue here is a minced oath, a polite way of avoiding swearing by using another word that sounds quite similar.

Alternatively, in the 17th century, blue was used to describe someone who was terrified, so to cry blue murder would be to shout loudly with fear or make a terrified protest.

Another theory suggests that blue here refers to blue-blooded royals. Since to murder a royal would by an extremely grave – and difficult – crime, crying blue murder is to accuse someone of a very serious crime, leading to the idea of making a serious protest.

Then there’s the idea that blue can be used as an intensifier, as in blue blazes and blue funk. So the exclaimer is not only screaming about murder, but blue murder, hence the extravagance and noisiness of the protest.

But my favourite theory, whether it’s the right one or not, is that blue murder is a literal translation of the French minced oath: morbleu. When something terrible happened, the French could exclaim ‘mort Dieu!’, meaning ‘God’s death!’. (NB This might seem like a surprising form of blasphemy but it’s actually quite common – zounds, ‘sblood and gadzooks in English came from ‘God’s wounds’, ‘God’s blood’ and ‘God’s hooks’, ie nails on the cross, respectively.) The French avoided saying Dieu by using bleu as a minced oath, just as how sacré Dieu, ‘sacred God’, became sacré bleu. Thus mortbleu would be used as an exclamation of astonishment and English speakers thought it was a good enough phrase to adopt too.

Happy as Larry

I normally don’t like to discuss personal topics on Word Stories, except of course when it’s a source of something linguistically interesting, but this news is momentous enough to warrant tweaking the rules just a bit: I’ve been invited to interview for the role of assistant editor with our fave dictionary.

Not that I’m counting chickens just yet – there’s every chance I won’t get the job – but it’s an honour to be offered an interview and I’m very excited to see the inner workings of the dictionary. (I hope it smells like old books and secrets.)

So onto the Word Stories. Given my excitement over receiving such good news, you could say I’m as happy as Larry. But who is this Larry bloke? And why is he so happy anyway?

Even though it’s a common British English phrase, it seems to have originated in Australia or New Zealand since the first examples in the OED come from Australia in 1905.

One possible contender for the infamous Larry is Larry Foley (1847 – 1917), an Aussie boxer who supposedly never lost a fight, retired at 32 and earned a very large sum of money for his last match, making him undoubtedly a happy chap.

Another explanation is that it comes from the slang term larrikin, meaning ‘lout, hoodlum, mischievous young person’, that is, someone who probably had a great time causing lots of trouble.

Whoever Larry is, Americans don’t know him and instead use the phrase happy as a clam. But why, then, is a clam so happy?

The phrase we know now has been shortened from an earlier version: as happy as a clam in high water. Here the meaning is a lot clearer, because a clam in high water can’t be dug up, is safe from being eaten and is a very happy clam indeed.


Ampersand, meaning ‘and’, is a contraction of the hybrid Latin/English phrase ‘and per se and’, which was first recorded in the 1830s. ‘And per se and’ sounds like gibberish but, according to the OED, it means ‘the character & by itself is and’; it’s a way of highlighting that the symbol stands for the word.

Another slight variant of this origin is that in 19th century schools, & was added to the end of the alphabet. When schoolchildren recited the alphabet, they preceded characters that could stand alone as words (including I and a) with per se, meaning ‘by itself’. As & came at the end of the alphabet, the recitation would finish with ‘x, y, z and per se and’.

The origin of the symbol itself is in a Roman system of shorthand symbols, which can be seen in graffiti in Pompeii. The Latin word for and is et. Blend the two letters together and you get something that looks like &. It’s clearer in some fonts than others; try typing & in Trebuchet MS and see what it looks like.

Interestingly, there was another system of Roman shorthand called Tironian notes, said to have been invented by Cicero’s scribe, Marcus Tullius Tiro. The Tironian symbol for ‘and’ looked more like the number 7 and it was maintained by some medieval scribes. One theory has it that when the first keyboards were laid out, it was decided that & should be the capital version of 7 so that if the typist failed to hit shift and type the &, at least he would get the closest match to the Tironian ‘and’.


A trip to the Oxford University Press museum a few weeks ago spurred on some thoughts about favourite words – surely a true lingthusiast has a good favourite word or two? The thing is there are just too many great words to choose from. When we’re pushed to choose, it does seem that the ones that make it to the top of the list are the ones that roll off the tongue the most, such as mellifluous or ubiquitous. But one great word suggestion that is not only fun to say but actually has an interesting word story too is quintessential.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything particularly remarkable about the origin of quintessential; looking at it, it looks quite French and you can see how it can break down into essential and then, presumably, essence. But what about the quint part?

Think quintet or quintuplets. Quintessence literally means the ‘fifth essence’. Going back (via Medieval French) to Latin, as quinta essentia, it was used in classical and medieval philosophy to refer to:

A fifth substance in addition to the four elements, thought to compose the heavenly bodies and to be latent in all things.


It was introduced to philosophical theory by Aristotle and entered Latin via a loan translation (ie the literal construction of ‘fifth element’ was borrowed) of the Greek pempte ousia. The basic idea was that there are five elements that made up all matter: fire, earth, air, water and quintessence. The first four we’re already familiar with but quintessence, also known as aether, was thought to make up the heavenly bodies and the rest of the universe. It was used to explain several natural phenomena, including gravity and the motion of light.

Over time, our scientific knowledge evolved and the theory of the five elements was dismissed but quintessential stuck on in there by hanging on to that last part of its meaning – ‘latent in all things’ – so that it eventually came to mean ‘the intrinsic and central constituent of something’ or ‘the most perfect or typical example’.


An odd thing happened the other day. I was reading an article on a website about land-based engineering of all things (for work, mind, I don’t read that sort of thing for kicks) and in that article was the word bailiwick. The exact sentence was:

We consider our bailiwick to include:

  • Agriculture
  • Horticulture
  • Forestry
  • Amenity
  • Environment

I also checked my emails to read my word of the day (provided by and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the very bailiwick. It would seem there’s no other explanation than the gods of language or Titivillus or plain old destiny wanted that word examining for Word Stories.

So here it is: bailiwick two meanings. The first is ‘the district or jurisdiction of the bailie or bailiff’ (thanks, while the second is ‘one’s sphere of operations or area of interest.’

You can see how bailiwick and bailiff are related. The bail part comes from Latin bajulus, meaning ‘porter’, via Vulgar Latin *bajulivus, meaning ‘official in charge of a castle’, via the Old French baillie, meaning ‘bailiff’.

English borrowed the Old French baillie and added the Old Saxon suffix wic onto the end. Wic meant ‘house, dwelling place’ and then went on to mean ‘villiage, hamlet’ so that the bailiwick literally meaning the village or area of the bailiff. It’s easy to see that the specific bailiwick meaning became more general to mean the area of operations or interest for any person, thus giving the second meaning (and the one used by land-based engineers, evidently).

Wic meaning ‘villiage’ or ‘place’ is still around in lots of words, especially place names, such as Warwick and Hampton Wick. In certain dialects, it went on to take the meaning of ‘farm’. So Gatwick isn’t actually a large British airport, but a goat farm.

Printing and publishing

As Word Stories looked at Caxton and the effect that his printing press had on English last week, I continued in a similar vein this week, by visiting the Oxford University Press Museum. It’s word nerd nirvana, the printing and publishing mother ship. There is a 19th century printing press, an original plate from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and dictionary entry slips handwritten by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Aside from being a worldwidIMG_3295e publishing giant with an extensive history, the OUP is important to us language fans because of the
monumental Oxford English Dictionary. The first ever dictionary was written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 but it was subjective and fairly informal and, as language evolves, soon out of date. When the first volume of the OED was published in 1884, it set a new standard for lexicography: it included everything from Anglo-Saxon times onwards, a thorough, detailed, historical record of English.

Of course the going wasn’t always easy. Five years into the proposed ten-year project, the first instalment was published. It covered all the words from a to ant.

James Murray, the editor at the time, refused to cut any corners and was determined to make it an entire, exhaustive study. He spent some 35 years working on the project but, sadly, died before it was completed. He had reached t.IMG_3257

The complete first edition was published in 1928 in ten volumes instead of the predicted four with around 400,000 words altogether. But of course, by now it had been 44 years since the first volume was published, which had become dated and needed revising. Since language is constantly changing, the dictionary needs to be continually edited.

Aside fIMG_3263rom the OED, some great word stories have also come from the OUP and the publishing world. The terms upper case and lower case for capitals and small letters respectively come from printing. The type is organised by letter in a large set of compartments, a case. The capital letters sit in the upper case while the small letters sit in the lower case.

The phrase to get the wrong end of the stick, meaning ‘to misunderstand’, comes from printing too. Printers held a stick and put the type in it, working from right to left. They had to put the letters in backwards as when they were printed, they would come out in reverse. However, if they got the wrong end of the stick, that is if they started placing the words from the left to the right, the text would come out back to front and no one would be able to understand.

While the typesetter ran out of type, or sorts, he couldn’t finish his job and had to wait until the new batch was IMG_3266delivered. Until that time, he was out of sorts, which now means ‘to feel low or irritable’.

One last noteworthy thing that’s on display in the OUP museum is the notice board of favourite words contributed by visitors. I had a painful realisation that even though I love words, I don’t know what my favourite one is. I feel it’s akin to choosing a favourite child. All the same, I think I need one. I ended up contributing superfluous, mostly because mellifluous had already gone, but I’ve thought of hundreds of great words since (monotonous, sojourn, perturb, albeit, fuddy-duddy, zest). So I put it to you reader, what is your favourite word? Pick a good one and I might even write about it.

Printer’s Devil

I stumbled across a fantastic word at work that I have to share. It’s devilling.

We also know the noun devil meaning ‘demon’ and that came from the Old English deofol ‘evil spirit’, which originated in Late Latin diabolus, also the source of diabolical (c. 1500).

But the form devilling is altogether more interesting, because in the Scottish law system, devilling refers to the process trainees must go through to become barristers – the equivalent to the English pupillage system. And this makes it even better: the trainee barrister’s mentor is aptly named a devil master.

It seems that the idea came from an earlier phrase the printer’s devil, who was a young apprentice or errand-boy in a printing office and, through the ‘apprentice’ meaning, it came into a law context. So why was a printing office errand-boy a devil?

There are a number of theories out there. Firstly, it could be because the boy would often be covered in ink. Black being a colour associated with the dark arts, devil was deemed an appropriate nick-name.

Another theory suggests that William Caxton, the first English printer and publisher, had an assistant named ‘Deville’ which evolved into devil over time and came to refer to all printers’ assistants.

One potential explanation is that old or broken type was thrown into what was then termed a hellbox. The printer’s devil would be charged with the task of throwing the hellbox’s contents into the furnace for recasting.

A fourth and rather fanciful suggestion is that Johann Gutenberg’s business partner, Johann Fust, sold a number of Gutenberg’s bibles to the French King Louis XI under the pretence that they were hand-written manuscripts. When the king and his officials noticed that the manuscripts were identical, they arrested Fust for witchcraft – the red ink supposedly being blood. He was later freed when the truth came out but many continued to associate printing with devilry and regarded it with suspicion, hence a rather dubious step to the term printer’s devil.

However, my favourite theory by far is that there is a devil who haunts scribes and printing houses called Titivillus. This mischievous demon introduces errors into text and misspells words. He also, in church services, collects idle chat and mispronounced or mumbled words of service to take to Hell. Eventually, the apprentice became s suitable source of blame to replace Titivillus and he was referred to as the printer’s devil instead.

Incidentally, an article on Wikipedia also remarks that ‘Marc Drogin noted in his instructional manual Medieval Calligraphy: Its history and technique (1980) “for the past half-century every edition of The Oxford English Dictionary has listed an incorrect page reference for, of all things, a footnote on the earliest mention of Titivillus.”’

Well, as I now work in a publishing house, I can say with certainty that the printer’s devil is a reality and he’s been very busy with my articles. I think that’s the only possible explanation.


One famous tourist sight right in the centre of Oxford is the Radcliffe Camera. Of course, the Radcliffe Camera isn’t a photography machine but a large 18th century building that is part of the Oxford University library. The origin of camera in the sense of a structure is a lot clearer than why camera now mostly refers to a photo-taking device.

The old sense that we don’t hear very much literally means ‘vaulted building’. It comes, like the French chambre and the more common English chamber, from Latin camera meaning ‘vaulted room’ and ultimately from Ancient Greek kamara.

Meanwhile, various clever people were working on the precursor to photography, using a pinhole device and a darkened room. This clever device needed a clever word and Latin’s always good for that; they put together the two words camera and obscura to make camera obscura, literally a dark room. The term’s first use is attributed to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604.

When photography kicked off in the 1840s, camera obscura was clipped, to refer to the new picture-taking devices. So essentially, when you’re taking a few snapshots, you’re actually using a ‘room’.


If I’ve learnt anything in the last couple of weeks it’s that working a nine-to-five-thirty job doing writey typey things is not conducive to frequent blogging. That being said, I have had time to muse on a couple of interesting words here and there, including the word muse.

First of all, you might think that artistic inspiration would be linked to being absorbed in thought but actually the noun muse and the verb to muse are completely different, unrelated words, which just happen to be homonyms (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings).

Muse the noun came into English in the late 14th century from Latin via Old French. The original word was the Greek Mousa, which meant ‘the Muse’ as well as ‘music, song’. According to Greek legend, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and were each responsible for a different area of the arts and sciences.

The noun can be traced back even further to the PIE root *men- which meant ‘to think, remember’, which is similar in meaning to the modern verb to muse, although this is purely by coincidence. It is from this muse that we got the words museum, originally a ‘shrine for the Muses’; mosaic, which was ‘work of the Muses’; and music, ‘pertaining to the Muses’.

The verb to muse, on the other hand, means ‘to reflect, to be absorbed in thought’. It came into English at roughly the same time as the noun, in the 14th century, and through the same source language: French. The French word, muser, meant ‘to ponder, to dream’ and also ‘to loiter, to waste time’ but the medieval Latin word it came from, musum, meant ‘snout’ and relates to the modern English word muzzle. So what’s the connection? It could either be because a person who is musing is standing with their nose in the air or because they are sniffing about, like a dog that’s lost the scent. Since both words arrived in the language in the same period, it’s also possible that the noun had an influence on the meaning of the verb.

Now, there are two important words that come from to muse: amuse and bemuse. The a- prefix in amuse means ‘to cause’, which, in the late 15th century, lead to ‘to cause to muse, to divert’ and the primary meaning was ‘to deceive, to cheat’ well until the 18th century. From this, it became ‘to divert from serious business’ and then later ‘to entertain’. It is actually bemuse which has retained more of the original meaning of amuse: the be- prefix can equally mean ‘to cause’ as well as ‘thoroughly’, so someone who is bemused is utterly confused.

Break a Leg

Today’s phrase up for consideration is one from the back catalogue in honour of my friend, blogger and director, and the performance of her new show. So for the cast and crew and everyone involved in Frozen, break a leg!

It’s an odd superstition that before any sort of theatrical or arts performance we think it’s unlucky to utter a good luck. Especially when you consider that we would happily say those words before important exams, driving tests or a job interview. We all know that the correct thing to say is break a leg, but you would think that breaking a leg would actually be a pretty unlucky thing, so where does this phrase come from?

The truth is we’re not quite sure. There are a few false etymologies that seem quite unlikely. One suggests that the curtain pulls were once called legs which would eventually break after lots of wear and tear. So to break a leg would be a good thing, meaning that you had had lots of popular and successful performances.

Another false etymology comes from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Allegedly, John Wilkes Booth, actor-come-assassin, jumped onto the Ford’s Theatre stage after murdering Lincoln and broke his leg. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of the phrase before the 19th century and it’s difficult to see how Lincoln’s assassination would tie in with good luck.

The most likely explanation is that the phrase is simple superstition. The Italians have a comparable phrase, bocca al lupo, and the Germans have a particularly similar expression, Hals- und Beinbruch, which means ‘break your neck and leg’ or literally ‘neck and leg break’. It might be that we get the phrase from this since there is an example of the same structure from 1954 in the News of Fredrick, Maryland.

Among the many sayings for “good luck,” you can hear actors whisper “neck and leg break” to each other as the footlights dim and the curtain rises each opening night. Although “neck and leg break” sounds more like a call for a wrestling arena, theatrically it means, “good luck”.

Still, there is the possibility that the German and English expressions appeared simultaneously, without the former being the origin of the latter, since Japanese has a similar phrase as well. Some people claim the phrase has a British origin but the earliest recorded citations are all American. Supposedly it dates back to the 1930s but the first complete example comes from 1957 in the Associated Press in a story about an actress who literally broke her leg during the performance.

In the theater, they say “break a leg” to an actor just before he goes on stage, but it really means “good luck.”

All in all, it’s a bit of a mystery. Generally, it seems that the phrase is simply a way of stopping a jinx; if it is bad luck to wish for a good performance, you have to wish for a bad one instead.


A couple of days ago, Word Stories looked at a word which is different in English from almost every other language: while we say pineapple, most other tongues use some variation of ananas. This got me to thinking if there were any other such cases. Brains racked, I dredged up something I’d noticed many years ago: mortgage.

Studying languages in school might bring up hypothèque in French and hipoteca in Spanish but it’s no surprise that French and Spanish should have related words while the English equivalent is different; French and Spanish are Romance languages, descended from Latin, while English is Germanic with many words from the Anglo-Saxons.

It is surprising, however, that other Germanic languages should also use the latter term, such as Dutch, hypotheek, Swedish, hypotek, and German, Hypothek.

It’s also interesting that the word mortgage actually originates in French, yet the French prefer to use hypothèque. So what happened?

Mortgage was first recorded at the end of the 1300s and was a compound of two French words: mort, ‘dead’, and gage, ‘pledge’. The idea was that either the pledge ‘dies’ when the debt is paid or the property ‘dies’ for the borrower when he or she fails to pay and it reclaimed by the lender.

Hypothèque, on the other hand, comes from Greek, hypotheke, meaning a ‘deposit, pledge or mortgage’. This was also a compound, from hypo-, ‘down’, and tithenai, ‘to put’.

Eventually, hypothèque replaced mortgage in Modern French and now many other languages take the Greek word, including: Russian, Indonesian, Basque, Polish, Italian, Punjabi, Turkish, Bulgarian, Estonian, and Yiddish.

Unfortunately, internet-trawling and book-thumbing haven’t yielded any answers to why everyone else, it seems, uses a derivation of hypotheke while we’re still using the old mortgage version, why mortgage didn’t catch on anywhere else or why the French felt the need to exchange mortgage for hypothèque anyway. Perhaps it’s because we like to use swanky French words when it comes to the law or maybe it’s just because once we have a decent enough word to fit the bill, we might as well stick with it. We’ll probably discover what happened on the same day I’m actually able to buy a house and get a mortgage. This one might be a story we’ll never really know.


It’s finally starting to feel like summer; time for sipping fruit smoothies in the sunshine, generous factor 30-ing and complaining that it’s too hot. I, for one, have indulged in a spot of light European gallivanting this month, to Italy, Germany, back to the Netherlands and I’ll be moving to Oxford at the weekend. If you pick up anything from spending unhealthy amounts of time on the road, it’s the little oddities and discrepancies between languages that, geographically-speaking, aren’t so far apart.

One such curiosity is that quintessential summer fruit and obligatory piña colada ingredient: the pineapple. Looking at the map, it would appear that English missed a memo somewhere.

Of course, the pineapple is an exotic fruit and is indigenous to South America, originating from somewhere between southern Brazil and Paraguay. It spread across the continent and was cultivated by the Mayans and the Aztecs. When Columbus travelled to Guadaloupe in 1493, he came across the fruit and called it the piña de Indes, meaning ‘pineapple of the Indians’.

However, although Columbus brought the pineapple we recognise today back with him, the word pineapple was actually first recorded in 1398, some 100 years earlier. So had the fruit actually been in Britain all along?

Unsurprisingly, that’s not the case. This is a great example of how language change eventually makes the origins of many words opaque.

The word pineapple originally denoted the reproductive organs of conifer tress, what we call today pine cones. Except pine cone didn’t come into the language until the 1690s to replace pineapple. So when European explorers brought the fruit to Britain, everyone figured it looked pretty much like a pine cone and went on to name it as such.

The rest of the world, on the other hand, says ananas. This word stems from nanas, an indigenous Tupi term meaning ‘excellent fruit’.

I’ll leave you with this little joke that’s been popping up on the web:

– Sir, we’ve found this and we need you to name it.

– Pineapple.

– But we figured we might as well just call it ‘ananas’ since the majority of the world refers to it as-

– Pineapple.

– But sir-

– Pine. Apple.


A few weeks ago, Word Stories looked at the interesting case of the usual suspects and how the origin of the phrase can be pinpointed to a very precise origin: the film Casablanca. Although being able to identify such an exact source is rare – the best we can do usually is to suppose that a word, say, derived from a certain foreign language in a certain century – it’s not exceptional. One film which gave English not just a catchphrase or an expression but a singular word is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and that word is paparazzi.

Just by looking at the word you can guess it is of Italian origin and if you know anything about Italian plural marking you’ll also see that paparazzi is the plural of the singular paparazzo.

In La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the name of a character, a photographer who goes to great lengths to take snaps of American stars.

Paparazzo as a surname is common in Italy, particularly Calabria, but there are a couple of theories about why Fellini chose it.

It could have been borrowed from a travel book titled By the Ionian Sea, by George Gissing, in which appears an Italian hotel owner called Coriolano Paparazzo.  On the other hand, paparazzo, in the Abruzzi dialect, means ‘clam’ which perhaps alludes to the opening and closing of a camera lens. What’s more, the –azzo suffix has negative connotations in Italian.

Whatever the reasoning behind naming the character, something about the word stuck so there was obviously a need for it in our lexicon. Fellini himself said it suggests ‘a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. In fact, the film was released in 1960 and just one year later it was being used in the sense we recognise today:

Kroscenko…is a paparazzo, one of a ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at point-blank range.


By reading Word Stories, you might be lead to believe that every single word has a complex and fascinating history. Unfortunately that’s not always true; there are plenty of the words out there that have pretty run-of-the-mill origins and can be summed up in just a few words. It’s exciting that you can look at some words and notice immediately that they come from, say, Latin. It’s not so exciting that that’s as far as the story goes.

Take companion for example. On first inspection it looks like just another Latinate word, which possibly came into English via French.

This time, however, what first appeared to be another boring Latin-derived word turned out to be much more interesting.

Yes, it came into English via Old French compagnon in the 14th century, meaning ‘fellow, friend, partner’, but the Latin root companionem actually meant ‘bread fellow, messmate’ and was a compound of com and panis. What do com and panis mean? ‘With’ and ‘bread’. The idea being that someone you break bread with is your companion, your friend.

In a similar vein, lord looks like a pretty standard Old English word but the original form was hlaford, coming from the mid-13th century. Hlaford was actually a compound of hlaf and weard, which later evolved into loaf and ward. So a lord is actually a bread-guardian.

In fact, before companion became the dominant term, Old English had a synonym which comes from the same root as lord: gahlaiba. Gahlaiba also meant ‘friend, messmate’, the hlaib part being a variation of half, ‘loaf’.

So this leads us to two conclusions. Firstly, don’t judge a word by its dull Latinate appearance. Secondly, as much as we like talking to each other, its always the second best; food comes first.


Looking at this classic cartoon, the zzzzs say it all; Jerry’s not just relaxing or lying down, he’s asleep. We all recognise it but really, why should a line of the letter z suggest that someone is sleeping? Personally, if I were trying to represent a snoring figure, I’d use something throatier, like ghhuh or schhuuh. After all, the French use rrroo or roon and the Germans use chrr, all of which seem much closer to the actual sound.  Say zzz aloud and it just doesn’t quite sound lethargic enough.

In reality, using zzz to represent sleeping is a pretty recent invention. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded onomatopoeic use of zzz comes from 1852 in reference to the buzzing of locusts but it wasn’t until 1924 that it was a recognised symbol of snoring.

Unsurprisingly, the comic strip was the main architect of zzz. Yet before the sleeping sound was standardised, practically the whole alphabet could be used, such as grrrkk, zcrrkk and urrawk. This raises the question of why it was zzz that won out.

One theory sounds like it might be bizarre enough to be true: before a way of depicting sleeping with letters was established, cartoons would use the image of someone sawing wood since it sounds like the noise made when snoring. The motion made when sawing wood, particularly with a hand saw, was across, down and across, just like the shape of z. Eventually, the letter representing the movement replaced the little picture of a saw altogether and zzz was born.

And on that note, Word Stories and its author are off to catch some well-deserved, post-A-to-Z-Challenge zees.



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.