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.


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’.

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.

Words from WWI

Today marks one century since the start of World War I. It was the first time the world had seen a truly global conflict, with soldiers from six different continents involved. So when these men from various countries and walks of life mixed, they added in various dialect, slang, foreign and altogether new words to their conversations. There are many words we still use today that were brought back from the trenches when the war was over.

One such word is binge. We tend to think of it as a fairly modern phenomenon, especially with regard to binge drinking. But in fact, binge was first used to mean a bout of heavy drinking in 1854. It was originally a Northern dialect word meaning ‘soak’ that became more widespread when Brits from all over the country mixed during WWI and then it began to refer to excessive eating as well as drinking.

As for a slang word that was popularised by the war, how about chum? It could have originally been a slang term for a thief’s accomplice or a colloquial university word for ‘roommate’, short for ‘chambermate’, but during the war it became a common word for ‘friend’.

One word I would never have considered to be a loan word is Blighty itself, meaning ‘Britain’. The original word was the Arabic wilayat, which meant ‘dominion, district’. From there, came the Urdu word bilayati, which was used to refer to any foreign European. British troops posted to India were often referred to in this way so they eventually adopted Blighty as their own.

Finally, a new word that was propagated by WWI and is a particular favourite of mine is bumf. It’s a contraction of bum fodder and initially meant ‘toilet paper’ but it was soon applied to any communication from headquarters.

What did Caxton do for us?

As promised in last week’s post, I’ve been following in the footsteps of the Crystals and have had a go at some English language tourism. I’ve been looking for William Caxton and his printing press, which brings us to the question: what did Caxton ever do for us?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACaxton was born in Kent in around 1422. At 16 years old, he moved to London to set himself up as a merchant and he later moved to Bruges and became a thriving businessman. He frequently travelled around continental Europe, including trips to Cologne where he was introduced to the printing press. Soon after, he set up his own printing presses, first in Bruges and later in London in 1476. He is thought to be the first person to establish a printing press in Britain and the first English printer and retailer of printed books. Caxton’s own translation of ‘The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye’ was also the first book ever to be printed in English.

Aside from being a big name in translation at that time, Caxton’s work had a huge impact on the English language. Before Caxton, people just wrote down words however they sounded to the writer. Given the range of accents and dialects around at the time, it made for a very messy language with lots of comprehension problems. Well Caxton put an end to that. He modernised the spelling system; he removed the Old English letters (like eth and thorn, which we saw in ye), he added punctuation and his spelling preferences became the ones we often still use today.

To give a few specific examples, ever wondered why ghost has a h? It’s because Caxton’s staff were mostly from abroad and didn’t know English well; the Flemish and Middle Dutch gheest has a h so they figured the English word should too. Similarly, the extra u in guess is often attributed to Caxton.Location of Caxton's printing press

The word affair, meaning ‘something one has to do’, first entered English in around 1300 from the French infinitive phrase à faire ‘to do’. But it was originally only a Northern word that was usually spelt afere. It was Caxton who brought it into general use and gave it a French spelling.

So back to English language tourism. The only statue of Caxton in London that we know of is outside the Victoria and Albert museum and David Crystal suspects that the very location of Caxton’s original printing press is a triangular patch of tarmac in front of Westminster Abbey. And here are my photos!


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’.


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.


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’.



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.


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.