Author Archives: Etyman

Just “man up” and drop the cliche

Just “man up” and drop the cliche.

Read this at the new “Etyman™ Language Blog.”


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Was it really a Trojan horse?

Was it really a Trojan horse?

Check this at the new “Etyman™Language Blog.”

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The Word Guy is now the Etyman™

Two years ago at the time of my 50th birthday, I created a blog with the full title of The Word Guy: Adventures in Etymology. At the time, I was unsure how long I could keep it going and what it would lead to – if anything.

Two years on, the blog is still running and I have added the Tweetionary, which is based on my daily tweets of word etymologies.

So it’s time for a regroup and, more significantly, a re-branding. Those of you in the business world will recognize that such a move is usually a result of one of two event; either because your product sucked and needs a make-over or (b) someone has slapped a trademark suit on you for infringing on their mark.

Surprisingly, in this case, it’s neither.

I have known for some time that I am not the only “Word Guy” on the block, and that there is another one in West Hartford, Connecticut, who is a teacher and writer, and has a column in words and language. His name is Rob Kyff and we have never corresponded, although I’m pretty sure he knows about this Word Guy if only because when you do a Google search for “The Word Guy,” I come out on top.

Now, Rob has been “The Word Guy” for longer than I but my using the name has never bothered him and he doesn’t appear to have registered “The Word Guy” as a trademark. Nevertheless, I do feel a twinge of guilt about using “The Word Guy” as a mark when he had it first.

So as I am planning the next few years of activity, one of the things on my list is to register a trademark to allow for some expansion of what I do and to protect against potential issues in the future. Much as I would like to hold “The Word Guy,” it wouldn’t stand up because Rob clearly has the common law mark simply through having used the phrase earlier than I did. Although I started using “The Word Guy” without knowing about Rob, now that I am looking toward branding, I don’t want to cause any trouble by using it. On that basis, I am happy to cede the “Word Guy” to Rob and move forward with some other trademark.

Enter the Etyman™.

The word is a coinage and so better as a brand name because it isn’t a common word. Clearly it plays on the word etymon, and if I’d been Scottish, I would have been tempted to go with “The Ety Mon” as mon is Scottish dialect for man. However, “The Ety Man” seems fine to me, and the simpler Etyman works. It also makes for a much shorter Twitter(TM) name of @etyman – and in the world of tweeting, characters matter!

The Grand Design

1. Seeing as there is no pending lawsuit, there’s no need for a “cease and desist” at the current Word Guy site so the transition will take a few months. All new post will appear here at The Etyman Language Blog and the old ones will stay at indefinitely.

2. My Twitter feed will change from to, a process that will take some time as it means people will have to actively switch. For about three months I will run them in parallel but the aim will be to phase out @thewordguy as soon as possible.

3. The logo will probably change. My current little owl is cute and royalty free but I’d like to create a more personalized identity with an new graphic. Again, there is no time scale other than “soon.”

4. The content of The Etyman Language Blog will start to include posts of a more generic linguistic, some of which may be much shorter than the current weekly post and more “observation” and “opinion” than the simple definitions and examples I currently provide.

So that’s about it for 2010. Bear with me through the changes and add this new site to your favorites. Join me over at;


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brandy /’brændɪ/

It’s the festive season and dear old Santa has dropped off a Christmas libation. In fact, a whole bottle of libation in the form of a Remy Martin 1738 cognac. Clearly all my childhood years of leaving a glass of brandy and a snack for Father Christmas have now paid off. Either that or my wife knows me all too well.

Bottle of Remy Martin 1738 cognac

Remy Martin 1738

Although it would be a good way of bolstering my ego to pretend that I am some type of cognac aficionado, that would be a lie. Equally, claiming to be a connoisseur would be nothing more than a fabrication. The best I can offer is that in truth, I do sometimes enjoy sitting in my study with a good book and an equally good snifter of cognac just to relax. And no, I wouldn’t be dressed in a smoking jacket and seated in a high-backed deep-red leather chair – it’s more likely to be a T-shirt and my chair is a beat-up un-named item that I rescued from a rummage sale (or jumble sale to my non-US readers.)

Brandy is a drink made from the distillation of wine, which means boiling the wine until the alcohol turns to steam, then collecting this steam and cooling it to become liquid alcohol again. I’m sure there’ much more to it but as a US resident, I am not legally allowed to do this in my backyard shed, so I can’t speak from experience. And considering that some brandies can sell for hundreds of dollars per glass, there are some nuances needed to make a quality drink.

The word brandy is defined by the OED as;

…an ardent spirit distilled from wine or grapes; but the name is also applied to spirits of similar flavour and appearance, obtained from other materials.

which is actually a shortened form of the drink’s original name, brandy-wine. It first appears in English as brandwine, brandewine, and brandy-wine in the 17th century. In 1640, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher wrote in there Comedies and tragedies, “Buy any brand wine, buy any brand wine?” Ten years later in The Roxburghe Ballads, we see, “It is more fine than Brandewine, The Butterboxes’ Poison.”

Ultimately, it comes from the Dutch brandewijn, which in turn comes from branden meaning “to burn” (and in this case, the burning is the distillation process) and wijn, which means, unsurprisingly, wine. So brandy is literally burned wine. It’s also why it is referred to in the OED definition as ardent because this derives from the Latin ardere meaning “to burn.”

Cognac is the name of a specific type of brandy; namely brandy made from grapes found in the Cognac region of France. There are very strict rules that have to be followed before a brandy can be called a “Cognac,” which not only specifies the types of grapes that must be used but which types of oak wood barrel are needed for the aging process (Limousin or Tronçais-type oak), itself a minimum period of two years.

As you can see in the first picture, I use a “balloon” or “snifter” glass, which is designed to help funnel the scent up from the wide base to the narrower opening. The other option, is to use the “tulip,” a glass named after the flower because of its shape, which is also designed to funnel the scent but because it is much narrower, it is felt by many enthusiasts to be a better way to enjoy ones drink.

brandy glasses

Tulip and Balloon

What’s somewhat comforting is that I turn out to be in good company as far as my love of cognac is concerned. The noted lexicographer Samuel Johnson – also referred to as Dr. Johnson – appears to have been a fan. In James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) he is quoted as saying;

Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy

And in his play Man and Superman, the heroic George Bernard Shaw writes;

Hell is full of musical amateurs: music is the brandy of the damned

George Bernard Shaw

I guess when I die and go to Hell, I’ll at least be able to sit around drinking cognac with Johnson and Shaw. Sure beats sitting on a cloud playing a harp for eternity.

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apodyopsis /ˌæpəʊdaɪˈɒpsɪs/

“But that’s not a real word because it’s not in the dictionary!”

As we hurtle headlong towards Christmas, and I personally crawl toward my two weeks of vacation time, there are opportunities to play games with friends. My personal preference is to mix games with alcohol – and not because I’m an alcoholic-in-training or a lush[1] but some activities just happen to seem more fun when your sense are mildly impaired.

So after two beers, the first game to play is called “What’s your favorite new word this year?” which is not just the sort of game a bunch of tweed-jacketed, corduroy-trousered, pipe-smoking university types play. No sirree, it’s  for anyone who spends any amount of time watching TV and reading The Urban Dictionary.

The folks at the Global Language Monitor group based in Texas publish their top words of the year based on a sampling methodology that includes trawling through millions of words over a 12-month period. This year’s top ten is as follows:

1. spillcam
2. vuvuzela
3. the narrative
4. refudiate
5. guido and guidette
6. deficit
7. snowmagedden (and ‘snowpocalypse’)
8. 3-D
9. shellacking
10. simplexity

You can check out the meanings at the Global Monitor website.


Meanwhile, the New Oxford American Dictionary published its own list of top words for 2010:

nom nom
tea party
top kill

The definitions can be seen at the OUP blog.

When Oxford announced refudiate as word of the year, a common response was one of shock and horror that a word coined in error by the celebrity politician Sarah Palin (celebritition or politebrity anyone?) should be added to the dictionary. And besides, the egregious nature of the error was being rammed home by spell checkers across the world as Microsoft Word and WordPress underlined the word every time it was typed!


The truth is that although refudiate became the OUP’s word-of-the-year, it may not make it into the actual Oxford dictionary. That’s because getting into the Oxford is not as simple as inventing a word and e-mailing it to the editors. No, there is a process to becoming a “real word” that you can look up in a book or, as things are now going, online. The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) that came out in September (and yes, I was one of those who had it on order) included a slew of “new” words, such as bromance, Interweb, staycation, and truthiness – all of which still show up as errors in WordPress.

The notion that a word isn’t a “real” word until it appears in “the dictionary” is common enough. Of course, which dictionary is THE dictionary is always up for grabs. For me, a word is solid if it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is either the 20-volume version I have stacked up in my library or the latest online version, released just a couple of weeks ago. I’ll also use the NOAD because that can offer some words of American origin that don’t appear in the OED, and The Merriam-Webster dictionary, again both hard copy and online.

But what happens if a word is not in any of these dictionaries but appears to be in circulation across the Interweb? Well, I always recommend The Urban Dictionary for two reasons: The first is that it is a consumer-driven project that can respond very quickly to new coinages – even if 95% of them disappear in a few years; and the second is that it a damn good laugh!

You can also fall back on good old-fashioned language detection work – a sort of “linguistic CSI” for language geeks. As an example, how about the word apodyopsis, defined by the Urban Dictionary as;

The act of mentally undressing someone

Over at another online dictionary, the fascinating Sex-Lexis sexual dictionary, we can find a similar definition, although a little more is added;

The erotic fantasizing of women undressing; imagining women naked; undressing women mentally

When you’re faced with a word with which you’re unfamiliar, it’s worth trying to think of a similar word – one that either looks the same, sound the same, or both. In this case, I first thought of the words apocalyse and apocryphal, both of which have the apo- part.

The former means “an uncovering” or “revealing” and comes from the Greek ἀπο, which means “from,” followed by καλύπτειν meaning “to cover.” In the case of apocryphal, it refers to “being of questionable authority,” and the sense of ἀπο here is “away” along with κρυπτός meaning “hidden.”

Going back to the OED and the Merriam-Webster, scanning through the apo- words turns up apodyterium, which is defined as;

The apartment in which clothes were deposited by those who were preparing for the bath or palæstra; hence gen. a dressing-room, a robing-room.

Ah, so now we’re closing in. The first part of the word, ἀποδύειν, apparently means “to put off or undress,” and note that our ἀπο is still there – the “off” piece. And if the apody- bit means “take off,” what’s the -opsis part all about?

An Apodyterium - Alam-Tadema, 1886

Well, thinking again of similar looking and/or sounding words, surely the words optic and optician spring to mind, and we know that optical means “in reference to the eyes and seeing.” With this piece of the puzzle now in place, we can now understand that the word derives from the Greek and means, in a literal sense, to take of or undress using the eyes or vision.

This little bit of detective work helps us to understand the derivation and ultimate roots of the word, but still doesn’t tell us when it first appeared. To do this, surfing the Internet can be extremely useful. With apodyopsis, there are references to it in terms of the definition, but none specifically to its origin. Even the wonderful corpora of Mark Davies at the Brigham Young University failed to turn up any occurrences of the word.

The furthest back I could trace it was to something called The Grandiloquent Dictionary, which is the creation of physicist Christopher Bird, who says he wrote it as an online collection of rare and obscure words in 1998. Sadly, Bird simply defines the word but gives no origin date or source.


So what we are left with is a word constructed from Greek but with no date of origin and no extensive use. If people were to begin using the word with some frequency, and also over a long period of time, it might find its way into a dictionary. However, for now it’s one of those limbo words that has enough usage to make it visible but not enough to warrant an entry in a dictionary.

And as long as someone, somewhere thinks it’s a word, then it is!

Wordle: apodyopsis - etymology

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cunning /’kʌnɪŋ/

One of the rituals of international air travel is that of being asked a number of standard questions by a security official before you can check your luggage. One of the more interesting questions is “Are you carrying anything that could be used as a weapon?” My response is always “No” but my mental response is always “Yes, if I use a little imagination and cunning.”

I say that because with only a minimal amount of thinking I reckon I could turn many of the items in my carry-on bag into weapons of death. The simplest would be to remove the shoulder strap on my bag and use it to strangle someone. That’s almost a no-brainer option and something that anyone could do.

Like most folks, I carry a few pens and pencils that have been collected from the hundreds of hotels I’ve stayed in over the years. With a small amount of force, a pen can be jammed into someone’s jugular, resulting in a crimson cascade of blood and the eventual death of your victim.

Furthermore, if I were to break the glass on a smart phone screen, I suspect I could find a piece of glass long and sharp enough to slit someone’s throat. And don’t get me started on what I could do with a paper clip that’s been unfolded to become a thin,  sharp, pointed spear of metal. Doubtless a professional assassin would be trained to use his or her entire body as a weapon.

So given the assumption that I believe I have cunning, the Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of the word as;

Showing skill or expertness; skilfully contrived or executed; skillful, ingenious.

I say “this sense” because its meaning has shuffled around a little since its first appearance in the grippingly titled English Metrical Homilies from Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century of 1325;

For he wil that they stither rise
And be cunnand in his seruise.

Note the Middle English variation of cunnand, which is one of many spellings that include connand, conand, kunnyng, konnyng, connyng, cuning, cunnyng, conning, and conninge. I mention all these because its worth remembering that prior to the mass production of books after the printing press, spellings were more flexible that a politician’s promise.

The original meaning was simply that of possessing knowledge and learning, or being versed in a subject. And in this sense, it can be traced back to the verb can, which originally meant “to know” long before it took on its current day function as a modal verb meaning “to be able” or “permission.”

The Old English cunnan was the same as the Old Saxon cunnan, Old High German kunnen, Old Norse kunna, and the Gothic kunnan. So describing it as Germanic in origin is hardly likely to raise any eyebrows or disagreement.

By the end of the 14th century, the word has also taken on a specific meaning as referring to people with magical powers;

Possessing magical knowledge or skill: in cunning man, cunning woman, a fortune-teller, conjurer, “wise man,” “wise woman,” wizard or witch. (OED)

In Britain, fifteenth century practitioners of folks magic were known as “the cunning folk,” who were apparently sometimes used in the same way that modern “psychics” are allegedly used by law enforcement – to locate criminals, stolen property, and missing persons. A distinction was, in fact, drawn between the cunning folk and witches, where the latter were deemed malevolent but the former as valuable members of society. It was not unusual for someone to employ one of the cunning folks to remove a witches curse, or at least provide protection from witches’ spells. It seems that we had “Psychic Hotlines” long before telephones were even thought about!

The word took on a more negative connotation by the 17th century when it was used to describe the process of being, “(s)kilful in compassing one’s ends by covert means; clever in circumventing; crafty, artful, guileful, sly.” Shakespeare used it in Henry V when Henry himself said;

And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence.

This is typically the common meaning today.

In the USA, the word is used colloquially to refer to something that is, “quaintly interesting, pretty, or attractive.” For example, in a copy of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine dated November 1887, you can find the following quotation;

As a child, she had been called ‘cunning’ in the popular American use of the word when applied to children; that is to say, piquantly interesting.

It’s also interesting that although this meaning is an American colloquialism, it was used by Charles Dickens in his 1943 novel Martin Chuzzlewit;

Tea and coffee arrived (with sweet preserves, and cunning teacakes in its train).

Thanks to the comic genius of British comedian, Rowan Atkinson, and the team of the classic Blackadder series, the word cunning became part of a catch phrase used frequently by Baldrick, the character played by Tony Robinson. For example;

Private Baldrick: I have a plan, sir.
Captain Blackadder: Really Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.
Captain Blackadder: As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?
Private Baldrick: Yes, sir.

For those who have either missed the slightly surreal but linguistically delicious humor of Blackadder, here’s a link to a clip of Baldrick and a “cunning plan.”

And for those who demand more, sit back and watch a short documentary about the series, replete with examples of some of television’s finest verbal humor.

Wordle: cunning etymology

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armistice /’ɑ:mɪsˌtɪs/

Weekly readers of The Word Guy have probably assumed that I’ve taken an extended break from posting. Well, not quite. The temporary cessation of posts has happened at about the same time as I spent just over a week in the UK on business and visiting my parents. I flew back on Sunday 11th November, which happened to be both Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. The latter is defined by the OED as;

…the day, 11 Nov. 1918, on which the armistice was concluded which brought the war of 1914-18 to an end; also, any anniversary of that day. Combined, since the war of 1939-45, with Remembrance Day.

I would have forgotten if it weren’t for the fact that the airport held a two-minute silence at 11:00 am as I was waiting for the 11:35 am Manchester to Newark flight, my carry-on bag newly stuffed with large blocks of Cadbury chocolate and brand new Times cryptic crossword book – a terrible but addictive time waster that marks the true cruciverbalist.

armistice posterThe original 1918 armistice came into effect “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” – hence the 11:00 am silence on 11/11.

Just a couple of weeks later, the North Korean government took it upon itself to launch an attack on the tiny South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, a three-square mile plot of land that is home to about 1600 civilians and 1000 troops. After the evacuation of the population to the mainland of South Korea and a whole lot of saber-rattling, various commentators warned of the potential escalation into a full-scale war.

Technically, though, the two Korea’s are still at war and have been since 1950. The current situation is one of armistice, a temporary cessation of hostilities brokered in 1953. Although some would effectively consider this the end of the war, no peace treaty was ever signed and, as we know, North and South Korean “peace” is more a state of permanent tension.

North Korea bombs South Korean island

The word first appears in Francis Gouldman’s 1664 A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts where is is defined simply as “a cessation from arms for a time, a short truce,” which is almost identical to how the OED currently defines it.

It derives from the Modern Latin armistitium, itself coming from the Latin arma meaning “arms,” and the suffix –stitium, which means “stopping.” The verb sistere translates as “to stop.” This is also a root for the word “solstice,” which means “stopping (or standing still) of the sun,” and so do “resist” (to cause to stop) and “insist.”

By the 19th century, the word was being used figuratively to describe temporary truces between individuals and not just states. Laetitia Hawkins, an English novelist, wrote a three-volume gossipy work in 1814 called Memoirs, Anecdotes, Facts, and Opinions, in which she talked about the town of Twickenham and its residents, and in it she includes the phrase, “There was an armistice between father and daughter.”

The original British Armistice Day was first mentioned in The Times of London in November 1919;

The Armistice-day service at St. Paul’s Cathedral will be the office of Holy Communion.

This was followed a year later in the same newspaper with the comment;

The first anniversary of Armistice Day was celebrated throughout the Empire yesterday.

From 1919 until 1945, Armistice Day observances were moved to Remembrance Sunday – the first Sunday after 11th November –  but since the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 1995, it has become usual to hold ceremonies on both Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.

Meanwhile, the armistice between the two Korea’s seems to be heading toward yet another period of harsh words and even harder bombs. It seems that History is a poor teacher.

Wordle: armistice - etymology

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