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.

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!


Linguistics and English Language Celebrations

It’s been a while since Word Stories’ last post but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been linguisticking. In fact, last week I returned to my old university haunts to celebrate the linguistics and English language department’s 40th birthday. Alumni and current staff were invited to a two day event full of talks (very interesting), academics performing in a rock band (bizarre) and two buffets with free wine (whoop!).

Part of the event was a guest lecture by David and Hilary Crystal about ‘How to be an English language tourist’. The idea behind it was that history buffs can visit museums and castles, geography fans can go to volcanoes or glaciers but where do us English language nerds go? The location of the first printing press, that’s where. And the first known example of an English word, written on a deer bone. And the fifty or so other places the Crystals visited during their bout of language tourism.

Anyway, I bought the book and got a photo and in the future, I’ll be taking Word Stories on a few more language adventures by visiting some of the places David and Hilary recommend and, of course, providing a dash of etymology to go with 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.


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.


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.


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:

The Usual Suspects

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

At Sixes and Sevens

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

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

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

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

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

Red Herring

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

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

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