Tag Archives: folk etymology
myrmidon

myrmidon

  statue of Ovid in Constanţa (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled), Romania – 1887, by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Kurt Wichmann     The noun myrmidon denotes a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly. This word first appeared in the […]

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tell that to the marines

tell that to the marines

  “HUNS KILL WOMEN AND CHILDREN!” “TELL THAT TO THE MARINES!” First-World-War US recruiting poster by James Montgomery Flagg image: Disappearing Idioms This poster, which attracted a great deal of attention, portrays an angry-looking young man in the act of pulling off his coat as though he were anxious to get into a fight. The headline […]

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Rotten Row

Rotten Row

  the Rotten-row in Glasgow, circa 1570 image: The Glasgow Story     The street name Rotten Row occurs in many different towns. For example, The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh) of 10th December 1728 published the following advertisement: There is just come to Leith, a Parcel of fine Figs both in Casks and Frails [= baskets], which will be sold there at […]

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to grin like a Cheshire cat

to grin like a Cheshire cat

  Alice speaks to Cheshire Cat – illustration by John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)     The Cheshire cat is now largely identified with the character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), by the English writer Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – 1832-98): “Please would you tell me,” said Alice, a […]

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corduroy

corduroy

  photograph: javi.velazquez       MEANING   a heavy cotton pile fabric with lengthways ribs     ORIGIN: UNKNOWN   The original form of this noun, in the late 18th century, was corderoy. The earliest use of the word that I could find is in The Manchester Mercury (Lancashire) of Tuesday 7th April 1772: Manchester, March 23, 1772. STOLEN. From […]

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milliner

milliner

  A Morning Ramble, or The Milliners Shop (1782) image: The British Museum     A milliner is a person (generally a woman) who makes or sells women’s hats. But a Milliner was originally a native or inhabitant of Milan, a city in northern Italy. The word is first recorded in this sense in an Act of Parliament in 1449: That every Venician, Italian, Januey, […]

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pregnant – enceinte

pregnant – enceinte

  manuscript page from Isidorus Hispalensis: Etymologiae (Codex Karolinus) Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel       The English adjective pregnant has several meanings: carrying a fetus or fetuses within the womb, full of meaning or significance, inventive or imaginative, prolific or fruitful. It is from the Latin adjective praegnans/praegnant-, with child, pregnant, variant of praegnas/praegnat-, probably […]

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‘Ajax’

‘Ajax’

  This word means a toilet, especially an outdoor one. The following is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), by Randle Cotgrave: Retraict [modern French retrait]: masculine. An Aiax, Priuie, house of Office [= outdoor toilet]. It is a humorous respelling of a jakes, of same meaning, after Ajax, the name of a hero in Greek mythology. […]

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Hobson’s choice

Hobson’s choice

  Thomas Hobson (1629), by an unknown artist – image: National Portrait Gallery     MEANING   the option of taking the one thing offered or nothing    ORIGIN   The earliest use of the phrase (in its present form, if the original spelling was preserved) that I could find dates back to 1649. That year, […]

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gas and gaiters

gas and gaiters

  Mysterious appearance of the gentleman in the small-clothes illustration by “PHIZ” for the first edition of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby     “It’s all right, Bertie.” “She loves you still?” “Yes.” “Good.” “She wept on my chest.” “Fine.” “And said she was sorry she had been cross. I said ‘There, there!’ […]

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