Posts for Category Etymology

Colds, collops, and meldrops: Bill’s Head snivels

Bill catches a cold and discusses some cold-related words
Oct 032011
Photo by Jen Waller

Though I don’t read a lot of detective fiction, I seem to be drawn to Scandinavian and Icelandic detective fiction, and I’ve been working my way through the Swedish Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell.* Last week I started the seventh book in that series, One Step Behind, and within the first two paragraphs read this passage:

…the dampness had nonetheless seeped through his clothing. He felt a sudden flash of anger. He didn’t want to catch a cold. Not now, not in the middle of summer.

Come on: it’s the 21st century (well, it was still the late 20th when the book was written, but still). Don’t we all know that viruses cause colds, not damp weather? In typical Bill fashion I was getting all annoyed at Henning Mankell for propagating an old wives’ tale–I even highlighted the passage and added a cranky annotation (yay, Kindle!)–but then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he as the author knows better even if his character does not.
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Word of the day: billhead, plus a roundup of other -head words

Bill's Head explains the billhead, dunks itself in a bucket of water to calculate the volume of a billshead, and looks at some other words with -head at their tails, like futtock-head and firelihead.
Jul 132010

Recently Google sent me a few searchers who wanted to know how to “design my own billhead” or were interested in the “design of bill head.” With narcissistic delusions of my own grandeur still lingering in my head from my encounter with the paparazzi, I was flattered that someone should want their very own Bill’s Head (note, however, that Bill’s Head is the product of evolution, not of design).

It turns out, though, that a billhead is something altogether different:

Bill's Head
A Bill’s Head
A billhead
A billhead

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Eke! How is a nickname like a newt?

A nickname shouldn't be a nick-name but it is like a newt. Learn how.
Jun 242010

The other day I was on a Web page that accepted comments and I noticed that, in the form where you register to be a commenter, it asked you to select a “nick-name.” The hyphenation of back-up was defensible, but nickname is the long-established correct form and there just shouldn’t be a hyphen. Unfortunately I lost track of which Web site this was so I can’t send you there to see for yourself, or go back myself to see if maybe it was a site run by people who do not speak English natively.

But that encounter with nickname reminded me of this entry I wrote on nickname for the old Word Site back in 1997, explaining where nicknames came from.

A nickname was originally an ekename, from the Old and Middle English eke, meaning “additional.” By a process called metanalysis, the n from the an became “misplaced,” resulting by the early 15th century in forms such as neke name and nycke name. The modern, single-word form nickname appears for the first time in print in the early 1700s. Metanalysis—common in the development of the English language—also turned an ewte into a newt and, working in the other direction,  a nauger into an auger.

Eke, once a venerable and indispensable part of the language, was eventually replaced by words such as additional (which did not appear until the seventeenth century) and also. It survives in expressions such as “eke out a living,” where it refers to supplementing or augmenting something or to making something last longer.

Aug 272006

Last time I had dinner with my parents my mother was talking about the “scody” houses we stayed in during some of our family beach trips when I was young. The next day I was telling a friend I had known as soon as the conversation turned to the beach houses that they would be described as “scody,” because that’s the word Mom uses for grubby, grimy things. The friend had never heard the word before, and I realized I had never heard it used outside my family.

A check of the major dictionaries turned up absolutely nothing, but Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary (to which anyone can submit entries) had this definition for scody:

Disgusting, filthy, squalid, dilapidated or (of people) sleazy. Generally, extremely unappealing.
My friend lives in a really scody old house.

So Mom isn’t quite the only one using the word (despite the coincidence of the house example, I can assure you that my mother is not submitting words to the Open Dictionary).

When I started searching Google for other people using the word, I was surprised to find that most of the examples I came upon were from people in New Zealand, most of whom are also far younger than my mother.

From a discussion on socks to wear when raving, at an urban culture site in New Zealand:

woah ok. lets all rip into me for liking socks. and actually i do wear good shoes, ive tried my etnies and they were ok but i tend to go for my low cut chuks. i have also tried plasters on the “prone area” and every time i do that the “prone area” becomes somewhere new, i figure tho soon my feet will be so scody and calloused that theyll b unblistereable….oh the joys of feet. and i dont think thick socks woukld make u more prone to toe jams, athletes foot or any other fungal/bacterial infection as just socks would b more breathable than shoes and socks.

From a site cluing parents in on their kids’ lingo:

me and my homies(aka mates) like to use the word snazzy witch means cool.we also like to use the word scody witch means ehhhhhhhhh or gross .Unco means not cool.HIHO is a mix between hi and hello.when we talk about cute boys we call them hunks, tuds, muffins, babes.when we have a crush we call them our lover lover boys.—Sarah—Age: 11—From NEW ZEALAND

From a discussion at a New Zealand gaming site discussing whether it’s true that eight in 10 teenagers are bisexual:

a greater proportion of girls are clean and non-scody than guys, as this is the norm for our society. Makes it easier for girls to be attracted to girls, and guys not to guys

Now, my mother did live in several countries when she was young (England, Denmark, Panama) but never even visited New Zealand until a year ago, decades after she had added scody to her vocabulary. When I related all of this to her, she was as surprised as I to learn how uncommon the word is, and speculated that she and her siblings may have picked it up while they were living in England as children.

Other spellings also appeared in a few places: skody, scodie.

The word is reminiscent of grody, which appeared in the 1960s but is most strongly associated with the 1980s Valley Girl phrase “Grody to the max.” Grody was originally grotty, appearing in British slang as a shortened form of grotesque. From a discussion at the Scarleteen site (use the Google cache version if the original link doesn’t work):

what makes him “scody” anyway? what’s “scody”? i am too old to know what such things mean. it is like “grody”? that’s a word we used when i was in junior high.

Scrody also turns up, defined at the Urban Dictionary as “like grody, but sounds better.” Based on my unscientific sampling of Google results, scrody appears to be more common in the U.S. than scody is. Presumably scrody and scody are related, but I haven’t found any evidence for a link, or for the origins of scrody.

But none of this brings me much closer to explaining where scody came from, or why my mother is one of the few Americans who uses the word. So, readers (especially adults outside of New Zealand), help me out here: have you run into the word before? Has anyone seen an explanation of its origin?

Aug 182006

Ever think a little about the phrase “head over heels”? When we say that Troilus is head over heels in love with Criseyde, we mean that, metaphorically at least, Troilus is positively tumbling on the ground because of his love for Criseyde; that his emotions are all in disarray or confusion. Taken by itself, though, “head over heels” conveys no such meaning: head over heels (i.e., standing with one’s head above one’s heels) is the normal state of affairs for most of us. In fact, this expression (which first appears in the late 1700s) is a corruption of “heels over head,” used since at least the 1300s to mean upside down and in the phrase “turn heels over head” to refer to a somersault. Though the original “heels over head” would seem to convey the meaning of the expression much better, it is the corrupt form which has survived, managing, despite its apparent meaninglessness, to do quite well in getting the point across.

The similar expression “over head and ears” (i.e., completely immersed) is used in many of the same contexts (e.g., “over head and ears in love”). It, too, has been corrupted into a nonsensical form: “head over ears.”

Aug 162006

Buttload is used to express a vague but large quantity; it is often assumed to be a meaningless word (stemming from butt in the sense of buttocks) of the sort we’re so fond of coining based on vulgar words (cf. shitload, or the myriad words and phrases based on em>fuck). A buttload is, as it turns out, a more or less quantifiable measure, in no way related to the buttocks or their capacity.

The butt referred to here is a heavy, two-wheeled cart, drawn by oxen or horses (for example, a dung-butt is a cart used to haul manure). A butt-load is the quantity that your average butt can hold. In the earliest written description of a butt-load (1796), this is said to be “about six seams.” A seam is “a pack-horse load,” the exact quantity originally depending on both the locale and the item being measured. A seam of glass, for example, was 120 pounds; a seam of apples was 9 pecks. Later, a seam was more or less standardized at 3 hundredweight of hay or manure, or 2 hundredweight of straw. So a buttload of manure would be roughly 2,016 pounds (a hundredweight is about 112 pounds; 3 hundredweight makes a seam; 6 seams is a buttload).

Butt, by the way, is not a shortened form of buttock. Rather, as near as anyone can tell, buttock is formed from em>butt by addition of the suffix -ock, which is used to form diminutives. This is the same -ock found in words such as hillock (a small hill), tussock (originally a tuft of hair), haddock, and bullock (originally a young bull, later a castrated bull; bullock comes from the Old English bulluc—the -uc suffix is a variant form of -ock).

Aug 142006

Automagicwasher Those of you who work in the computer world are probably familiar with automagic, which is often used to explain how things work when we really don’t know how they work, or don’t want to explain them to non-techies: “just click the RSS button up there and new columns will arrive in your inbox each day automagically.”

Think it’s a recent word, made up late one night by a computer geek? Nope: automagic appeared in 1945, as the model name of a combination clothes/dish washer:

The Thor Automagic Washer is a streamlined cabinet with two separate tubs… Each tub is complete in itself—compact, sanitary, operated automagically.

See more ads for the Thor Automagic Washer here.

Aug 132006

The word nostril derives from the Old English nosþryl, which was a combination of the words nosu (nose) and þyrel (hole). This form of the word was, however, relatively uncommon until the late 1500s. Instead, many writers in the Middle English period used various forms of nose-thirl, a new compound based on the Middle English forms of the same two Old English words that yielded nosþryl.

Þyrel derives ultimately from the Old English þurh, meaning “from side to side or end to end.” Þurh eventually became through, which retains the original meaning. The stressed form of þurh evolved, in parallel with the development of through, into thorough, which originally was synonymous with through in all its many uses. For example, while we would walk “through the bushes,” Shakespeare writes of going “over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier.” This usage survives in the word thoroughfare, but other than that we tend these days to use thorough only in its adjective form. This form, which didn’t come about until about the fifteenth century, is an attributive use of the adverb: thorough knowledge of a subject is knowledge that goes “all the way through,” or “from end to end.”

The word thirl survives in some English dialects: a hole, aperture, or opening; also as a verb: to pierce, drill, or cut through (common in the language of coal miners). Sadly, though, nostril is about the only place you’ll find thirls these days; we can only wonder what life would have been like had window (derived from the Scandinavian vindauga, literally “wind eye”) not ultimately beat out the native eyethurl (eye-thirl, “eye hole”), which was the predominant word for a window until the 1200s.

Aug 112006

Quilling refers to the American art of making music using the steam whistles of factories and train locomotives. Although quill is commonly associated with the shaft of a bird feather, it originally referred to any hollow stem, reed, &c. By extension quill was used to describe musical pipes made from such tubes, and eventually was applied to the whistle on steam locomotives, whence quilling.

Aug 102006

In nineteenth century London, many among London’s indigent population scoured the city’s extensive sewer system searching for coins and other valuables that had been dropped or washed through drains and into the sewers. Those who sought to supplement their incomes in this fashion were called toshers, the practice itself called toshing, and the valuables they sought called tosh. The word was also used to describe thieves who stole copper plating from the bottoms of boats docked along the river Thames.

Toshers appear in Charles Palliser’s excellent novel The Quincunx.