Monday, March 23, 2015

Engaging etymology

I've always been fascinated by how words and sayings originated.  A few examples:

An old English word for spider was cob.

Sleep tight
Mattress foundations were once just laced ropes, which would not sag if kept tight.

The whole nine yards
Length of an ammo belt in WW II war planes.  If you fired off the entire belt, you shot the whole nine yards.

Buying the farm
In WW I, a soldier’s life insurance was enough to buy a modest farm.

Iron clad contract
After the strong iron clad ships of the time.

Over a barrel
A half-drowned, helpless person of old was placed face-down over a barrel to expel lung water.
Passing the Buck
In the early West, a common Buck jackknife was often passed to designate the dealer in a card game.

A shot of booze
In the old West a cowboy could buy a small glass of whiskey for a .45 cartridge, a single shot.

Barge in
River barges have always been hard to control.  Sometimes they still get loose and intrude on somebody’s day.

From the old French phrase couvre-feuor “cover the fire,” done at evening’s end.  Later in the colonies, folks covered the hearth fire for the night with a clay pot called a curfew, to prevent stray sparks.

From excessively-gaudy old Mississippi riverboats that were floating theaters.

From the French auteur, which somehow sounds classier.

From the Germanic bokiz, or beech, used for wooden tablets on which scribes carved runes.  Writing has always been hard work.

From the Latin suspensus, meaning a state of mental uncertainty with anxiety, which pretty much describes me when I’m attempting to write the genre.

For thousands more etymological examples, see  You can search the site for almost any word’s origin.

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