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.


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was written by Samuel Johnson in 1755 but it was subjective and fairly informal and, as language evolves, soon out of date.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.

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.


Every year, various budding new words battle it out to be celebrated as the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’. Only one lucky word will make the cut and this time the winner was announced to be the well-deserving selfie. Considering our tech-savvy lifestyles and passion for taking quick snaps and sharing them with ever more popular social media sites like Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, it comes as no surprise that selfie should be the champion neologism.

The definition penned by the OED describes selfie as:

“a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”

In order to qualify for nomination, the word need not have been conceived within the last year but it must have become prominent within that time and it also has to demonstrate the ‘inventiveness’ of English speakers in keeping up with social changes. Selfie certainly fits the bill: although the first example comes from 2002, according to the OED, usage increased by a phenomenal 17,000% in the last year.

Both selfy and selfie are found but the latter is generally more widespread. As Judy Pearsall, the OED‘s editorial director, explained to the Guardian, “[t]he use of the diminutive -ie suffix is notable, as it helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing”. It is also suspected that the linguistic craze originated in Australia, partly because the first documented example comes from an Australian online forum, partly because of this suffix variant which is more popular in Oz.

Despite selfie being the ‘it’ word of the moment, its root word self has been around far longer than the English language or even our Germanic ancestors. Linguists suspect that the term derives from Proto-Indo-European, a language that was around some 6,000 years ago, in the form *sel-bho. So even though the selfie might be a slightly narcissistic craze, we are essentially slightly narcissistic creatures since it seems that as much as we like taking photos of ourselves now, we’ve always quite enjoyed talking about ourselves too.

Other nominees that didn’t quite make it include: olinguito, binge-watch, twerk and schmeat. But it’s the past winners that are a really interesting look into how our language and society have changed over the recent years.

2012 – omnishambles

2011 – squeezed middle

2010 – big society

2009 – simples

2008 – credit crunch

2007 – carbon footprint

2006 – bovvered

2005 – sudoku

2004 – chav

One Tough Cookie

A cookie or a biscuit?

A cookie or a biscuit?

Looking in the shop window of a little bakery in Groningen, the Netherlands, I saw an interesting item for sale, a koekje. Koekjes are small cakes. Cookies are essentially small cakes. Could the two be related?

Although it might be convenient to think that cookie must just come from cook, the reality is that cookies do actually descend from the Dutch koekjes. So in the great debate between the British biscuit and the American cookie, it turns out that the cookie isn’t even American at all, but Dutch.

Cookie was first recorded in American English in 1703 and it came across the Atlantic with the many Dutch immigrants who arrived in the 17th century. It came from the diminutive form of cake, koek, which was derived from kaka in Old Norse in the early 13th century, which in turn originated from West Germanic *kokon-.

Biscuit, conversely, is not Germanic but Latinate. For a long time (between the 16th and the 18th century), biscuit was actually spelled bisket. The spelling was altered under the influence of the Old Italian cognate biscotto. Both words came from Latin (panis) bis coctus which literally means ‘bread twice cooked’. Like our modern-day Italian biscotti, the original biscuits were crisp and dry because they were cooked in a two-part process: they were first baked and then dried out in a slow oven.

On the other hand, the original cookies were not crisp or dry or twice-baked but soft and would rise slightly in the oven. Cookies used a rising agent; biscuits did not. On this occasion, as time progressed, it was not the language itself that changed but the confectionary items that the terms defined: cookies and biscuits converged.

So the next time the cookie/biscuit debate crops up in conversation, it might be useful to add that a cookie is actually a cake, a biscuit is more like biscotti, a cookie is really Dutch, and a biscuit is in fact Italian.


There are many ways that new words can appear in a language. Sometimes words are loaned from foreign languages. Sometimes words evolve and develop new meanings. Some words are stuck together to make new ones; others are shortened, lengthened or clipped. But rarely is a word simply plucked from thin air; most words have some sort of family tree. Blurb is perhaps one of the best made-up words there is.

Some say that Gelett Burgess, and American humorist, coined the term in 1907. At that time, it was the custom to give books a special dust jacket and on it would be printed testimonials to the novel as well as a picture of an eye-catching woman. Burgess’ novel, Are you a Bromide?, was selling well and it featured an especially buxom blonde on the jacket. He dubbed the character Miss Blinda Blurb and the name stuck, coming to mean not only the picture but also any flattering praise printed on the cover until eventually the pictures dropped out of use and blurb came to refer simply to the back cover summary intended to attract readers that we see on every book nowadays.

Burgess used the word to mock the excessive appraisal found in blurbs and in doing so vastly popularized the term.

“To ‘blurb’ is to make a sound like a publisher. The blurb was invented by Frank A. Munsey when he wrote on the front of his magazine in red ink ‘I consider this number of Munsey’s the hottest pie that ever came out of my bakery.’ … A blurb is a check drawn on Fame, and it is seldom honored.” [“Publishers’ Weekly,” May 18, 1907]


While in Asia, do as the Asians and over here that means one thing: karaoke. Even in the most rural village in Vietnam, it’s almost impossible to walk down the street without hearing the distant sound of a tone-deaf k-pop aficionado, no Dutch courage necessary. Maybe it’s one of the better-known word origin stories but I couldn’t stay here without giving the continent’s favourite pastime a mention.

Karaoke comes from the Japanese words kara from karappo which means ‘empty’ and oke, a clipped from of okesutura which literally means ‘orchestra’. So karaoke is an empty orchestra because the songs are recorded without the voice of the singer.

The fad allegedly started when a singer failed to turn up to their scheduled performance in a bar in Japan. To solve the lack of entertainment, the bar owner played the backing track and encouraged the customers to sing along.

Others say that karaoke started in the 1970s when Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese singer, recorded his songs and recorded it for people to sing along too.

On the other hand, karaoke may come from Asia but the world record for the greatest number of people singing karaoke at one time, 120,000 people in fact, belongs to Robbie Williams in the UK and the record for the longest karaoke marathon of 1,295 songs, lasting 101 hours, 59 minutes and 15 seconds, was set by Leonardo Polverelli, an Italian. So it seems it’s not just Asians but the everyone else too who have a soft spot for a bit of a sing-song.


What better symbol for summer is there than a good old 99? As any Brit knows, a 99 is a wafer cone filled with soft ice-cream and a chocolate flake but to outsiders giving an ice-cream a number might sound a bit bizarre. The 99 is one of etymolgy’s great unsolved mysteries with a real plethora of possible origins coming in left, right and centre and no ‘most likely explanation’ offered by the OED.

Probably the most common false etymology of recent years has been that the 99 gets its name from the price: 99p. Although the ice-creams were, not too long ago, just less than a pound, the term dates back from at least 1935 and the days of pounds, shillings and pence.

1935   Price List Cadbury Bros. Ltd. Aug.,   ‘99’ C.D.M. Flake (For Ice Cream Trade)..1 gro[ss]..singles..6/6 One price only.

This citation does give us another possibility: it might be that the name comes from the original price (6 shillings, 6 pence) written upside down.

The quote also blows another theory out of the water; some say that the flake chocolate, specially made for ice-creams at a shorter length, measures exactly 99mm. But again, the 99 has been around since long before the days of metric measurement.

Another unlikely idea is that the initials for ice-cream, IC, make the number 99 in Roman numerals, but the conventional way to write 99 would actually be ICIX.

The OED doesn’t give us any clues:

The reason for the name is unknown. The original ice cream contained Cadbury’s ‘99’ Flake (produced specially for the ice-cream trade) but the application to the chocolate may not precede its application to the ice cream. The suggestion that something really special or first class was known as ‘99’ in allusion to an elite guard of ninety-nine soldiers in the service of the King of Italy appears to be without foundation.

This theory that 99 refers to good quality was originally suggested by a Cadbury’s sales manager who worked with Italian soft ice-cream makers in 1928. Unfortunately, the myth actually refers to the Vatican’s Swiss Guard, not the King of Italy’s soldiers, and in reality, there were 105 members, not 99.

Another possible explanation is that 99 actually refers to the wafer cone produced by Askeys. In a similar way to how pasta shapes are graded by number, the wafer cones might have been stamped with a 99.

Finally, Edinburgh ice-cream maker Rudi Arcari claims that her grandfather Stephen invented the ice-cream shortly after opening his ice-cream shop in 1922. According to her, he cut the normal flakes in half, added them to the ice-creams and named it after the address of the shop: 99 Portobello Road.

Then again, let’s not forget that there’s always the possibility that Cadbury’s simply dreamt up the number as a marketing campaign.

Whatever the truth is, we might never know and the 99 might have to remain the nation’s most popular yet most linguistically elusive ice-cream forever.

Indian Giver

A phrase cropped up in conversation a couple of days ago and caused a big debate. It was Indian giver. Most of us had never heard of it and doubted it really existed but its user quickly did some Googling and proved us wrong.

Apparently, an Indian giver is someone who takes back a gift shortly after giving it. The phrase comes from North American settlers in the 18th century who were confused by the Native Americans’ system of giving and trading.  Native Americans had no currency and exchanged goods through a barter system; when a Native American gave someone something, that person would give something in return. Since the settlers found this method uncivilised (to them, a gift was given with nothing expected in return), the term quickly became a playground insult from at least 1765.

George Alexander Louis

After a bit of a wait, it’s a big congratulations for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge this week for the birth of their baby boy and I was as anxious as anybody to find out the name of our future King. The bookmakers’ favourite was George with the odds on at 2/1, proving that the old saying that the bookies always win was once again correct. It was officially announced yesterday that the new prince was to be named George Alexander Louis, but what’s in the name?george

Firstly, George clearly resonates kingliness for most of us since there have already been six King Georges here to date. In fact, King George VI was known as Prince Albert and Bertie to friends and family, until he chose to take the name George upon his coronation in order to sound more regal. The reigning Georges we’ve had so far have been a bit of a mixed bunch: George III suffered mental illness; George IV was known as a drinker and womaniser; George V declared war on Germany in WWI, against his first cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, and changed the family name to Windsor. But there’s no doubt that it’s a popular name in the Royal Family.

In terms of etymology, the name originates from Greek Georgos meaning ‘farmer’ which in turn comes from ge, ‘earth’, and ergon, ‘work’. It was introduced to England by the Crusaders although it wasn’t particularly common until the 18th century when the German George I became king.

Of course, St. George is also the patron saint of England and St. George’s Day has been a holiday since 1222. St. George is most famous for his legendary battle with a dragon in order to save the King’s daughter, a story first attested in the ‘Legenda Aurea’ in the 13th century.

Alexander, on the other hand, is more of an unusual choice; no king of England or the United Kingdom has ever had the name. Still, there have been three Scottish King Alexanders and, without a doubt, most of us hear Alexander and add the Great on the end. Well known as a great leader, Alexander the Great conquered a large part of the known world and is often attested as the best general in history. Unsurprising when you consider that the original Greek name Alexandros means ‘defender of men’, from alexein, ‘to protect’ and aner, ‘man’.

Finally, Louis seems like a really odd pick since the first King Louis we think of are the 17 (or 18 or more depending on how you count) King Louis of France. On the contrary, while George respects the Windsor side of the family, Louis respects the Mountbatten side. One of Prince William’s names is Louis and his great-great-grandfather was Prince Louis of Battenberg. His son, Louis Mountbatten and Prince Phillip’s uncle, was the last viceroy of India. His was killed on his yacht by an IRA bomb attack.

The name comes from Old French Loois, probably through Medieval Latin Ludovicus, which was a Latinised version of Hliuodowig in Old High German. It literally means ‘famous in war’ from hlūd, ‘fame’, and wīg, ‘warrior’.

So, in theory, the royal baby will be a farmer who is famous in war and a protector of men. I guess we’ll have to wait and see about that.


It’s the word which starts the majority of our conversations. It’s known the world over and it’s probably the first word any English language learner will learn. But hello isn’t quite the fundamental, time-honored greeting you might expect it to be. In fact, it’s been popular for less than 150 years.

Hello was originally a variant of hallo which itself had numerous variants such as holloa, hillo and halloo, all of which were used as a call to attract attention and this seems to trace back to around 1400. The OED suggests that the original root was Old High German holon, meaning ‘to fetch’, which was used to hail a ferryman in particular.

It was the invention of the telephone which really did the trick for hello. Initially, the word used on the experimental switchboard in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878 was ahoy. Then are you there? stood its ground for a while. But it was Thomas Edison’s hello that finally won out, despite the preference of his rival, Alexander Graham Bell, for ahoy. By 1889, central telephone exchange operators were referred to as hello-girls and before long it was loaned into other languages, including allo in French, hallo in Afrikaans and haló in Hindi.



Where would you guess tulip came from? A reasonable guess might be Dutch; after all, the flower is a general symbol for the Netherlands. Or maybe it comes from France, since it sounds almost like a French word. Well, that would be half right but in fact the word ultimately comes from Persian via Turkish from the word dulband, meaning ‘turban’, supposedly because of the resemblance of the flower to a turban.

The tulip was introduced to Europe from Turkey in the 1550s with the first known instances of its cultivation in the garden of Johann Heinrich Herwart in Ausburg. The full Turkish form survives in Spanish tulipan and Italian tulipano but the –an­ ending was generally dropped in Germanic languages, supposedly because it was mistaken for a suffix.

The word also gave us derivatives such as tulipomaniac, one who is obsessed with the flower.

1842  “The prices of these roots..are enough..to delight the cupidity of a Dutch tulipo-maniac.” (OED)

Going Dutch

Admittedly, entries in Word Stories have been sparse in the last week or so for various reasons: a hiking trip to Scotland; a particularly aggressive cold; and a little jaunt over to the Netherlands, visiting universities. Now, the Netherlands have always been a source of linguistic bafflement for me. Mostly, I’ve wondered, why does the country have two names: Holland and the Netherlands? Why do we call Dutch Dutch while the Dutch call their language Nederlands? Why do Americans call German Dutch while we call it German and the Germans call it Deutsch? It all seems unreasonably complicated.

The first question is fairly easy to answer: in English, we use both titles but the Netherlands is the most politically accurate. The Dutch use Nederland and this is the correct term for the whole country. Holland, technically speaking, refers to two regions to the West of the Netherlands: Noord Holland and Zuid Holland, the most populated areas which incorporate the major tourist attractions like Amsterdam. Holland was used as far back as the 14th century and came from Old Dutch holt land meaning ‘wood land’. Problem number one: solved.

Regions of The Netherlands

On a side note, New Zealand, discovered by Dutchman Abel Tasman and once part of the Dutch empire, is named after the province of Zeeland which is just below Zuid Holland and quite transparently means ‘new sea land’.

Problem number two is a little more knotty. Dutch was first recorded in English around the end of the 14th century and comes from Old High German. It originally meant ‘vulgar’ or ‘popular’ – possibly from Proto Indo-European *teuta- meaning ‘people’. In Germany, from the 9th century onwards, it was used in adjectival form to refer to the Latin vulgar tongue, distinguishing it from the Latin of academic and ecclesiastical domains. From then on it came to mean the language of the vernacular generally and Germanic languages as a whole. Like English, it spread from denoting the language alone to the culture and its people to the extent that, by the 12th or 13th century, it appeared in the nation’s title: Diutisklant, now Deutschland, the area of modern Germany. So in England by the 15th century, it was used in a way not unlike how we might say Germanic now, to represent both the area of ‘Low Dutch’ (the Netherlands) and ‘High Dutch’ (Germany). When the Dutch Republic was established as an independent state, there was a linguistic divergence: English kept Dutch to refer to the people and language that were ‘Low Dutch’ whereas the Dutch themselves, along with the Germans, kept the term in reference to the people and language of ‘High Dutch’.

What’s more, using Dutch to refer to German did stick around in American English which is why the Pennsylvania Dutch aren’t of Dutch origin at all but in fact emigrated from the Rhineland and Switzerland.

From the 17th century, Dutch has been used with pejorative connotations due to the strong military and commercial rivalry between the British and the Dutch at that time. These connotations then continued in America in particular because of the high levels of immigration from Germany. This has given our language phrases which draw especially on the Dutch’s supposed traits of heavy drinking and miserliness such as: a Dutch treat (1887), where everyone contributes their fair share; a Dutch uncle (1838), meaning ‘a strict disciplinarian’; and a Dutch feast (1785), apparently where the host gets drunk before the guests.

Fortunately, the Netherlands is actually a great place to visit and we no longer think of the Dutch as stingy drunkards.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thomas Crapper (1837-1910)

Thomas Crapper (1837-1910)

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

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

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

Horsing About

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

For sources and further reading, see:


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

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

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

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

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