Recently in the Etymology Category

Great Scott

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An article about the origin of the phrase “Great Scott!”. Short version: it's a minced oath, probably originally referring to US General Winfield Scott.

Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony

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Someone mentioned the Emmy Awards the other day, and I realized I wasn't sure why they were called that. I figured they must have been named after some famous person named Emmy.

Turns out not:

[Television Academy] founder Syd Cassyd suggested “Ike,” the nickname for the television iconoscope tube. But with a national war hero named Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, Academy members thought they needed a less well-known name. Harry Lubcke, a pioneer television engineer and the third Academy president, suggested “Immy,” a term commonly used for the early image orthicon camera. The name stuck and was later modified to Emmy, which members thought was more appropriate for a female symbol.

So the Emmy awards are named after the image orthicon camera. I'm tickled by that—to me, that sounds like a newspaper award being called the Linies, for a linotype machine (or possible the Typos?), or a book award being named the Offies, for offset printing. Or even the Movies, for movable type. I wonder if there was ever a fanzine award called the Mimmies. Or Mimsies. Or Mimis.

Anyway, so it seemed amusing and unlikely to me that a major American entertainment award would be named after a piece of technology that was once used in its production or consumption. Until I remembered that the Grammy Award is named after the gramophone.

One might think, given this trend, that the Tony awards were maybe named after the Microtone, a clip-on microphone (that I just made up) first used on Broadway in 1932 (in my imagination), or the ToneTest, a clever little device for doing sound checks (that I also just made up). But no; the Tonys are named after Antoinette Perry, co-founder of the American Theatre Wing, the organization that gives the award. So much for the named-after-technology trend.

The other major award in this category, of course, is the Oscar. I figured that would be straightforward too, named after some then-famous film guy named Oscar, but it turns out the name's origins are mired in obscurity. Some of the claims:

  • Bette Davis named it after Harmon Oscar Nelson, her first husband.
  • Margaret Herrick (librarian for, and later executive director of, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) named it after her cousin Oscar Pierce.
  • Columnist Sidney Skolsky named it after a vaudeville joke.

Wikipedia also currently says it might've been named after Oscar Wilde, but the link to the alleged source for that claim is broken, and I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else. I was going to add “and it seems unlikely to me anyway,” but then it occurred to me that all of the other award-name origins listed in this entry also seemed unlikely to me, so apparently I'm not a good judge of these things.

piggy bank


If you search the web to determine the etymology of the phrase piggy bank, you'll quickly conclude that there is little disagreement over its origin.

Many web pages give the following story: There was once a kind of clay called pygg. People made containers out of it, and they put money in some of those containers, which became known as pygg jars or pygg banks. Because pygg began to sound like pig, people started making those banks in the shape of pigs, so by the 18th century the term had become pig bank, which later turned into piggy bank.

That's a nicely satisfying story. Only trouble is, I don't believe it.

It sounded too pat to me; it has the feel of folkloric etymology. And as linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology. It didn't sound impossible to me, just implausible.

So I did some research. In particular, I checked two dictionaries that I find generally reliable for etymology: Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (MW3) and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Both implied that piggy bank derived straightforwardly from pig.

So I poked around online some more, and I gradually concluded that most of the web pages that provide the pygg story got their info from a Straight Dope column titled What's the origin of the piggy bank? Usually I find Straight Dope pretty reliable, but in this case I think Science Advisory Board member Mac may've been too trusting of the single source that they seem to have consulted, a 1989 book called Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati.

I used online resources to look at the Panati book. Sure enough, in the chapter titled “At Play,” it gives the pygg story. So I checked Panati's references section for that chapter to see where he got the info. Unfortunately, none of the listed references seems relevant to piggy banks, and the ones that are searchable through Google Books don't seem to mention piggy banks or pygg.

I also looked at a different research path: Panati says pygg was called that during “the Middle Ages,” and Straight Dope talks about the Great Vowel Shift, and various other sources claim that pygg was a Middle English word. (People who pick up this story do seem to like to elaborate on it.) So I checked the online Middle English Dictionary. I can't find any evidence there that pygg was a type of clay; all the cites of pygg in quotations are variant spellings of pig and clearly refer to the animal. Could Panati have meant it was an Old English word or an early Modern English word instead of Middle English? I suppose, but there's no listing for pygg in the online Old English dictionaries I checked, nor in MW3. The OED lists pygg(e) as an obsolete spelling of pig; it doesn't say anything about clay.

Meanwhile, I dropped a note to the Merriam-Webster etymology people asking about this. (I think it's totally awesome that you can ask them etymology questions.) I soon got back a response from Etymology Editor Jim Rader, who wrote, in part:

[...] the story about 18th-century "pygg banks" looks entirely fictional to me. [...] piggy banks [...] appear to have originated in the U.S. not much earlier than the 1890's. Google Books does not turn up any cites of pig bank in the relevant sense before 1902, or of piggy bank before 1909. A search of other data bases might produce something earlier, but these dates seem indicative enough.

(Quoted here with his permission.) I kicked myself for not having thought to check Google Books myself.

So although the pygg story is extremely widespread, I can't find any evidence for it from a reliable source. To recap:

  • I can't find evidence that there was ever a kind of clay called pygg.
  • I can't find evidence that there were things called pig banks before the late 19th century.
  • I can't find evidence that pig banks were named after anything other than their resemblance to pigs.

I'll try and find out more about Panati's source for the story, but at this point I'm inclined to chalk it up to folklore.

If any of you have any further insights or references, let me know.

eucalyptus and hell are cognates


The other day, Jim and I were looking at a eucalyptus tree, and I realized that although the eu- part was obvious, I had no idea what the -calyptus part meant.

So I looked it up. It is awfully nice to have a dictionary on my cell phone.

MW11 says:

New Latin, genus name, from eu- + Greek kalyptos covered, from kalyptein to conceal; from the conical covering of the buds

Which is kind of interesting, and good to know, but that wasn't the part that caught my eye. The surprising part was this:

—more at HELL

Say what?

So I checked the etymology for hell, and sure enough:

akin to Old English helan to conceal, [. . .] Greek kalyptein

So there you have it: eucalyptus and hell are distantly related, by way of a Greek word for concealment.

I'm pretty sure this wins the most surprising-to-me etymology of the year award.


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Mary Anne noted in passing recently that it was muggy in Chicago, and I realized that though I've known the word all my life, I didn't know where it came from.

Turns out (according to MW11) that it's from the dialect word mug, meaning “drizzle.” So I guess muggy originally meant drizzly rather than humid.

While I'm here, I like the phrasing of MW11's definition of muggy: “being warm, damp, and close.” There are relationships that could be described that way.

And it puts me in mind of other three-word sets, like “fast, cheap, and out of control,” but maybe that's a topic for another day.


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I've known the word boson for years, but I don't think I knew until recently that it's named after Indian physicist Satyendranath Bose (also written “Satyendra Nath Bose”), as in “Bose-Einstein condensate.”

History of the phrase "people of color"

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Just encountered the phrase “men of color” in an 1857 article about the Dred Scott case from the Albany, NY Evening Journal.

I could have sworn that there was a discussion about the history of the phrase “people of color” in my blog, and that Dominus (I think?) gave a very early cite, but now I can't find that. I did find an entry from 2002 in which I noted that I had just found a 1971 use of the phrase, but it turns out to go way further back.

Wikipedia now has info about the history of the phrase, but that info isn't necessarily accurate. But the article does cite a 1988 William Safire column that cites “a 1793 pamphlet about a yellow-fever epidemic” as an earliest known source.

(Safire also notes that Martin Luther King used the phrase “citizens of color” in his 1963 “I have a dream” speech.)

I also ran into the Wikipedia article on free people of color, a phrase that apparently derives from the French gens de couleur libre. The article is about the people rather than the phrase, and it's a little short on dates, but if I'm not reading too much into it, it implies that at least the French phrase was in wide use in New Orleans and the Caribbean well before 1810.


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I've known for a while that there's an anticoagulant named warfarin, but it never occurred to me to look up its etymology; I always just assumed it had something to do with warfare.

But etymology by spelling, as they say, is not spell etymology (or something like that). It turns out that the name derives from the initials of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (which Wikipedia says funded the key research to develop it), plus the ending of “coumarin” (a related chemical compound).

fifth column

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I always wondered vaguely about the origin of the term "fifth column," but never got around to looking it up 'til now.

Turns out (according to the abovelinked Wikipedia article) that it comes from the Spanish Civil War, when a general of an army outside Madrid said that his four military columns of soldiers would be supported by a fifth "column" of people inside the city.

Three pirate lasses

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It occurred to me recently to wonder about the derivation of the word "cutlass."

Turns out it's from Middle French "coutel," meaning knife, which ultimately derives from Latin "culter," meaning knife or plowshare. (! Had no idea that one word meant both things.)

And the "lass" part appears to be a Middle French augmentative suffix. So I gather that the Middle French "coutelas" basically meant "big knife."

Which made me wonder about another piratical term: "windlass." Which turns out to derive from Norse "vindāss," in which the "āss" part means "pole." So it's a winding-pole.

Kind of neat that the two lasses are etymologically distinct from each other as well as from the word "lass."

As well as, of course, from that third pirate-related lass, the spyglass.


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Recently was reading some discussion or other of creationism and came across the word "baramin."

Creationists use the word to refer to the "created kinds" of animals referred to in a couple places in the Bible.

Wikipedia says:

The word "baramin", which is a compound of the Hebrew words for created and kind, is unintelligible in Hebrew.



My name is Shmuel, and I'll be your guest blogger. I'd like to thank Jed for inviting me to come and play. I'm flattered, and excited, and terribly uncertain of what I'll be writing about. But let's start with "salutations."

It occurred to me, as I was casting around for ideas, that the use of "salutations" as a salutation is a bit strange. "Hello" is a salutation. "Dear Sir or Madam" is a salutation. "Salutations" itself seems more like a placeholder, as if one were saying "[insert salutation here]." The same would seem to go for "greetings," for that matter.

(You may be thinking of E.B. White right now. In my experience, "Salutations!" is practically code for "I loved Charlotte's Web as a kid and I still love both language and whimsy." That's likely a skewed sample, however; the kind of people I hang out with tend to be those who love Charlotte's Web, language, and whimsy, no matter what greetings they choose.)

My first thought was that "salutations" might be functioning as a clipped form of a longer phrase, perhaps "I offer you salutations!" An initial check in the unabridged dictionaries I had onhand (notably Merriam-Webster's 2nd and 3rd ed., American Heritage 4th ed., Random House 2nd ed.) found no trace of "salutations" itself being used as a salutation. Furthermore, Random House was the only one to include "greetings" in anything like the sense at hand: "3. greetings, an expression of friendly or respectful regard: send my greetings to your family." This strikes me as not quite the same sense as "Greetings!" but it's in the right ballpark.

Ultimately, I pulled out the big guns: the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED confirmed my original thought, and showed that this construction goes back a long way. Definition 2 for "salutation" is "Elliptically for 'I offer salutation'," though this is flagged as being archaic. The earliest citation is from 1535: "Vnto Eszdras..peace and salutacion." The year 1600 brings a familiar form, almost: "Salutation and greeting to you all." In the singular form, found in these examples, the usage is indeed archaic. The plural form is not, but the OED doesn't mention that at all.

Two things strike me as interesting in all of this. The first is the elliptical form of "salutations" itself, which strikes me as unusual. After all, one doesn't say "Valedictions!" when leaving. Can you think of other examples of such a usage?

The second is that a usage as common as "Greetings!" or "Salutations!" can apparently be taken for granted to the extent that major dictionaries don't bother to note it at all. For that matter, even though the usage has changed from singular to plural—nobody these days would say "Greeting!" or "Salutation!"—only Random House includes the specifically plural form, and that only for "greetings." It's rare that I find a blind spot like this. And kind of cool.

I'm not sure all of this adds up to anything, but there you have it. Salutations!

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Etymology category.

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