Monthly Archives: March 2009

kerfuffle /kə’fʌfl/

“I bet it ended up in a good old kafuffle,” wrote Frank Sargeson, a New Zealand writer, in his 1946 book That Summer, and Other Stories. This is the first recorded mention of the word kerfuffle in the Oxford English Dictionary, which also appears as kufuffle.

Kerfuffle in Wooster

Kerfuffle in Wooster

The word means “disorder, flurry, or agitation,” and derives from the Scottish cufuffle. This in turn appears to have come from the verb, fuffle, with the prefix cur- possibly being related to the Gaelic car, which means “bend” or “twist.”

In its meaning as a noun  is in a poem by Scottish Poet, George Bruce, in 1813;

“An’ Jeanie’s kirtle, aye sae neat,
Gat there a sad curfuffle.”

Prior to that, it appears as a verb in 1583 in The Legend of the Bishop St. Androis, a story in Sempill Ballates, printed in 1872;

“Ane hamelie hat, a cott of kelt,
Weill beltit in ane lethrone belt;
A bair clock and a bachlane naig,
His ruffe curfufled about his craig.”

His craig is his neck.

The variety of spellings comes from its phonetic form being open to interpretation in terms of how best to write it. When you have the initial syllable sounded as /kə/ (“kuh”), you can use either a “k” or a “c,” and the schwah sound /ə/ can be written in many ways. Hence all the options, which also include cafuffle, gefuffle, and cafoufle, to name just a few.

Sheesh. All this kerfuffle over a single word.


1 Comment

Filed under Etymology

octumom /’ɒktəmɒm/

The world of celebrities is something of a parallel universe: “we” don’t live in it but “they” do, and via TV, movies, magazines, and the internet, we get to peer in like visitors to the zoo.

This is, of course, unless you become a reality celebrity. These are folks who, willingly or unwillingly, get to cross the boundary and become part of that alternative world.

One such new resident is Nadya Sulaiman/Suleman (the spelling varies), a California mother who recently gave birth to octuplets after In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Unless you live under a rock, there’s little need for me to talk about the controversy that lead to her becoming famous, but what fascinates me is her new nickname: octumom.

I’m opting for octumom rather than the more popular octomom because I believe it’s more accurate. As a portmanteau of octuplets and mom, octumom makes sense. Using octo- as a prefix suggest “eight-somethings” and she certainly is not eight moms. Using octu- is much more indicative of its origin in octuplets.

It’s made harder because the pronunciation of that second vowel is unstressed and becomes a scwah – an unstressed, neutral vowel that sounds like “uh.” So both octomom and octumom end up being pronounced as “octuhmom.”

Phonetic symbol for Schwa

Phonetic symbol for Schwa

I may be on a hiding to nothing here. Although CNN agrees with me on using octumom, a quick google reveals that octomom gets 1,600,000 hits whereas octumom gets a paltry 105,000 hits. So, the vox populi is against me. On the other hand, the majority are not always right.

Still, I’ll go with my choice until someone convince me otherwise. As if it really matters anyway!


Filed under Etymology

cerastes /sɪ’ræstiz/

One of my favorite books is an illustrated copy of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, which I picked up on sale at a Barnes &Noble store, but you can find online at the Barnes & Noble web site.

The illustrations are by Gustav Doré, who has to be one of my favorite illustrators. The pictures are in black and white and are for me depict just what I think things should be like in the Afterlife.

In Canto IX, Dante and Virgil come across the Erinyes or Furies.
Because mine eye had altogether drawn me
Tow’rds the high tower with the red flaming summit,
Where in a moment saw I swift uprisen
The three infernal Furies stained with blood,
Who had the limbs of women and their mien,
And with the greenest hydras were begirt;
Small serpents and cerastes were their tresses,
Wherein their horrid temples were entwined.

"This is Meghera on the left-hand side..."

"This is Meghera on the left-hand side..."

The word cerastes is new to me, although I had clearly read it in the past and simply skipped over it.

A cerast(e) is a horned serpent typically found in Africa and parts of Asia. In the poem, Dante is trying to evoke the image of Medusa, so using “serpents and cerastes” does the job.



The word derives originally from the Greek, κεράστης, which means horned (κεράσ = horn). Note the initial letter is a hard /k/ sound in Greek. However, that softened when the word became the Latin, cerastes, and took on the initial /s/sound instead.

The word ceratinous is an adjective that means horny or of a horny structure or nature and a cerastium is a horn-shaped plant.

Leave a comment

Filed under Etymology

cahoots /kæˈhuts/

I was a little concerned about whether to offer the word cahoots on its own or the phrase in cahoots because that’s typically how it’s used. You would hear something like, “I think Bob and Tom are in cahoots” but rarely, I suspect “Bob and Tom are cahoots.”  The other variation is to add the word with to create the phrase in cahoots with.

Two owls hooting

Inca Hoots

Its American origin is noted by the OED with their first reference coming from John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms. “Pete Hopkins ain’t no better than he should be, and I wouldn’t swar he wasn’t in cahoot with the devil.” (Chronicles of Pineville, p. 74).

What’s interesting is that Oxford say that it “probably” derives from the French cahute, which means a cabin or a poor hut, but Bartlett suggests it is a corruption of the word cohort, which exists in both French and Spanish.  I’m swayed by the latter considering that the word was also apparently first noted in the South and West of the US – both areas influenced by the French and Spanish languages.

Cohort /’kəʊhɔ:t/ originally referred to  a company of soldiers, more specifically a tenth of a legion. By the 1500s it was used for a band of warriors in general and in the 1700s took on the meaning of a company of persons in defence of a common cause. This certainly fits with the notion of being in cahoots.

And thanks to Lisa Fannin for the suggestion.

1 Comment

Filed under Etymology

sexting /’sɛkstɪŋ/

One of the challenges of being a self-appointed chronicler of words is that language is dynamic. Every day, new words are added to the global lexicon, some of which fizzle out and become obsolete before ever really becoming “solete,” whereas others end up as standards, eventually making the hallowed pages of the OED.

Top of my current list of neologisms is sexting. It refers to the act of sending sexually explicit material via a phone. This can be simple text of a graphic nature or a picture of a much more explicit nature. Sexting is high profile at the moment because it involves three elements that are irresistible in the media:  sex, death, and teenagers.



In July 2008, Cincinnatti high schooler Jessie Logan was found dead in her bedroom after hanging herself following the sexting of nude pictures of her that she’d sent to her ex-boyfriend. The ease with which images can be shared via phones and the Internet makes this sort of tragedy likely to re-occur.

The word itself clearly derives from the phonetically similar, texting, the act of sending text messages. Texting itsef is also a new word, or at least a new use of an old one. The noun, text, switched to becoming a verb – to text – fairly quickly after the ability to send text messages appeared. This metamorphosis is a regular way of creating verbs – painful as it may sometimes sound. And adding the -ing ending creates what used to be called a gerund or verbal noun.

What also happened with texting is that it expanded its meaning to include non-text items. A request to “text me that picture” may sound odd but makes perfect sense if “to text” means “to send data via a cellphone. So, to send sexy pictures or sexy messages almost begged to be described as sexting.

Being curious about whether sexting was expanding its coverage of the lexisphere (yes, I have made that one up) I googled (another noun-to-verb example) sexted (-ed participle), sexts (both s-form of the verb and maybe plural), sext (noun/verb?). Google results show you how many hits a word gets so its a rough guide to a word’s frequency.

Sexted = 10,500

Sexts = 10,200

Sext = 1,120,000

Whoa Nelly! Over a million for sext? Ah, problem is that sext is the Sixth Hour of prayer in a cycle – midday prayer following terce and before vespers! The first reference to the word to describe a sex message by phone turns up as a link to the Urban Dictionary – a wonderful source for all things slang and profane.

These scores in Google are quite low. For comparison, verisimilitude scores 629,000, much higher. So sexting is still pretty new and pretty fluid.

And remember, boys and girls; linguistics is fun, but sexting nude pics of yourself to a significant other is a dangerous thing to do. Maybe even stupid.

1 Comment

Filed under Etymology, Morphology, Uncategorized

gigging /’gɪgɪŋ/ the frog

Do you like frogs’ legs? Have you ever thought of doing it yourself? If so, then you’ll most likely have been out frog gigging. You gig a frog by stabbing it with a stick that ends in a set of prongs – something like a long fork. In reality, you don’t need a professional gigging stick as any object that can pierce and hold a frog will do.

Gig that frog

Gig that frog

So where did the word gig acquire its meaning in relation to gigging a frog?

The word is thought to have originated from the Spanish word, fisga, meaning a type of harpoon. It became corrupted (or Anglicized) as fizgig or fisgig, and its earliest mention is by the writer, Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt published his Divers Voyages Touching the Discoveries of America in 1582. The Voyages (as it is typically referred to) is a collection of stories from adventurers and explorers, one of whom was John Sparke, a shipmate of Sir John Hawkins. In his tale, he remarks that “Those bonitos…being galled by a fisgig did follow our shippe… 500 leagues.”

Richard Hakluyt - Bristol Cathedral, UK

Richard Hakluyt - Bristol Cathedral, UK

The word was also used as fishgig, another phonetically motivated deviation from the original fisga. In 1642, Sir William Monson, in his Naval Tracts, wrote that “These Fishes are taken with… Fishgigs.” It then appears as a shortened form in such works as the Journals of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806); when referring to porpoises, they wrote that “…the indians sometimes gig them (356).” [1]

Here the word has taken on the role of a verb; to gig. It was only a matter of time before gigging was used to describe the act of frog gigging.

The word gig has a number of other meanings – but that’s a new story.

Notes: [1] Bergon, F. (1997). The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Penguin Book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Etymology