etymology, Uncategorized

PPFF #169: Callipygian

Good morning,

“We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we shot ourselves in the head.”

– Conservative MP Nigel Evans on 2017 UK general election resulting in hung parliament.

I’m pretty sure this is all everyone’s going to talk about throughout today; so I’ll let you all just get on with it, but leave you with a word of the day, which may or may not take your mind off of yet another election fiasco.

Callipygian – having beautiful buttocks – from Ancient Greek κάλλος (kállos) meaning beauty, and πυγή (pugḗ) meaning buttocks, referring to the Roman statue of very naked Venus Callipyge (originally Aphrodite Kallipygos).

If you’re going to be lewd and vulgar when describing someone’s body part(s), I suggest that you at least be articulate.

Have a good Friday





etymology, Uncategorized

PPFF #166: names, again

Good morning,

I often hear people complain. Complaining about ‘other people’. And recently I heard someone quite subtly and passive-aggressively grumble about Chinese people and ‘their’ practice of adopting ‘English’ names. They sounded almost offended by what is basically a lazy attempt at ‘cultural assimilation’ through ‘nominal appropriation’ – such that it caught my attention. But it also made me wonder, ‘English names’? What are English names? John? Kimberly? Peter? Kevin? I had to google for hours to no avail; at least as far as the origins of these common ‘English’ names are concerned, I couldn’t find an English name. Not one. It turns out, a lot of the names we give to children in the UK are either Celtic or Hebrew in origin (I don’t know the respective percentage).

Take John for example, a very common English name, but really how English is it, when you consider that it is an anglicised Hebrew name originally transliterated into Greek and then Latin Ioannes, meaning “Yahweh is Gracious”. Peter? Peter It’s from the Greek word ‘petros’ meaning stone/rock, a direct translation of ‘cephas’ or ‘keppa’, an Aramaic word meaning the same. Kevin? That’s just a failed attempt to pronounce and spell a common Irish name ‘Caoimhín’, by the English.

Long story short, if a Jewish singer can change his German name (Zimmerman) to a distinctly Welsh-sounding name (Dylan), and get away with it, I’d say, leave them Chinese people alone.

Have an open-minded Friday.


PPFF #153: Morning

Good morning,

Here’s the thing. Have you ever wondered what the connection is between the word ‘morning’ and a similar-looking word ‘morn’ that means the same thing? Here’s what I found out.

‘Morn’ historically precedes ‘morning’ as ‘morn’ was derived from an Old English word yonks ago, whereas ‘morning’ dates back to the 13th century and it is a derivative gerund of ‘morn’. These two actually meant different times of the day but this time with ‘morning’ preceding ‘morn’ in daily chronological order. ‘Morn’ originally meant ‘sunrise’. ‘Morning’ hence used to mean the ‘time just before sunrise’ or ‘sunrising’ i.e. the period of time that is ‘becoming a morn’ but not quite there yet. one could argue, perhaps the time before morning should then be called ‘morninging’ but i think we already have the word ‘dawn’, so let’s stick to readily available existing words for now.

And at this point if you’re wondering if ‘evening’ would follow the same logic, you’re absolutely right. The word ‘even’ used to mean ‘sunset’; ergo, ‘evening’, ‘sunsetting’ or the period of time that is ‘becoming an even’ but not quite there yet.

Have a good Saturdaying (or Friday)


PPFF #145:puffin poo

Good morning,

I learnt something quite cool this week. This is how I came across it.

Someone from the office brought in ‘puffin poo’. Not the actual faecal substance from the birds (not least because that would be in violation of HSE regulations and/or social protocol) but ‘delicious white Belgian chocolate with toasted rice and mallow, hand rolled in coconut’ from Shetlands, whose appearance vaguely resembles animal droppings. To learn more about actual puffin guano, I googled ‘puffin’. One of Google’s suggestions was ‘puffin crossings’. Unwittingly I clicked on that link. Then I found out that ‘puffin’ in ‘puffin crossing’ is a loose acronym for Pedestrian User Friendly INtelligent’ or a ‘backronym’. What’s a ‘backronym’? It’s a specially constructed phrase claimed to be an acronym, which in many cases are contrived to spell an existing word; a ‘type of folk etymology’, Wikipedia said. Now what the heck is ‘folk etymology’? Basically it’s a false origin story of a word that language experts know so little about that laypersons like you and I come up with something that sounds plausible as the origin of a particular word or phrase. A well-known example would be ‘posh’, abbreviated from ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’, originating from the fact that the most expensive cabins on ship would be on the port side going out, and the starboard side when it’s homebound. This is absolute rubbish, of course but it sounds so logical that it ought to be true and if it weren’t true, you want it to be true. Anyhow, after a few more clicks later, my mini click quest came to a satisfying end when I eventually stopped on the page that explained the real origin of the word ‘female’.

Like a lot of words in English, the word ‘female’ came from the French word ‘femelle’, which was a diminutive form of ‘femme’(woman), meaning ‘young woman’ (like madame and mademoiselle). Some centuries later English speakers, unfamiliar with suffix –elle, altered its spelling to ‘female’, to be morphologically in line with the existing word ‘male’, to appear in contrast, sort of like how ‘aluminum’ changed to ‘aluminium’ to appear similar to other existing metallic element names such as potassium etc.

It’s strange but it seems to me that some people have an innate desire to make sense of things that they come across, even if they’re not true, preferring  coherence over facts. Food for thought. 

Have a thoughtful Friday


etymology, origin

PPFF #137: Theater Centre

Good morning,

If you have a keen eye for detail, you may have noticed the inconsistency in spelling in the title; ‘theater’ being (North) American and ‘centre’ being British. This morning’s topic has nothing to do with the space for thespian endeavours nor the equidistant point of regular geometries, but all to do with the reason why we spell these in different ways. I say ‘the’, emphatically because unlike many origin stories of sayings, idioms and colloquialisms or etymologies of words we come across, (often inconclusive and ambiguous), the reason for the “two countries separated by a common language” almost points to one unequivocally distinct juncture; Noah Webster of Webster’s Dictionary.

In 1806 by compiling and publishing “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language”, (somewhat politically motivated) Noah Webster brought about a significant spelling reform which included the most distinguishable features of the common American English spelling patterns (e.g. theatre/theater, sceptical/skeptical neighbor/neighbour etc.). It’s not that he came up with any of these spellings himself but that it was an attempt, successful one at that, to break away from the traditions of America’s old colonial ‘master’, i.e. the British. I was surprised to learn but it’s probably also worth mentioning that the spelling patterns we know in Britain aren’t as ‘authentic’ as we think. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Loves Labours Lost’ was actually first printed as ‘Loves Labors Lost’, not ‘Loves Labours Lost’ (1598) but through superficial gallicising (not to be confused with gaelicising) efforts borne of ostentatious affectation to appear more French, by 1623 ‘Loves Labors Lost’ would be printed as ‘Loves Labours Lost’.  (Perhaps it’s worth mentioning although such words had made into the English vocabulary from French in the first place, by 16th century spellings of many words had already been economised and phoneticised from their original forms). I guess all things French were fashionable even then.

A slightly digressing but nonetheless interesting example of these differences in spelling is ‘aluminium’ or ‘aluminum’, those of you who read dictionaries for fun would already know, the word was coined by an Englishman as alumium (1808), then changed it to aluminum (the American spelling), but the British editors didn’t like it because it didn’t fit in well with existing element names such as sodium and potassium, so at their whim, they changed it in to aluminium (1812).

So there you have it. We sometimes spell things the way we do because although we hate to admit it, we’re secretly harbouring/harboring a little bit of love for all things French (cheese, wine and now spelling). And Americans decided to walk away from that love because they meant to express their newly gained independence and nationhood etc by all means available to them, which included the way they wrote – the debatable opinion that their spelling patterns are more logical, less superfluous and more phonetic is besides the point, I think.

Anyhow, have a good Fridé.

(did that work?)

etymology, Pseudo-etymology

PPFF #121

Good morning all,

I am responding this morning to a request from Dom (not his real name) for some sort of a back story behind a politically incorrect, albeit moderate, pejorative Briticism, “window-licker”. For those unfamiliar with the term, well first you should read more British books/watch more British TV etc. Anyway it means ‘mentally handicapped person’. With the term itself being quite descriptive, straightforward and somewhat evocative, there are a number of stories out there in the unregulated wild West that is internet, which all purport to explain the origin of the term; invariably most of them involve a person of a questionable level of intelligence physically licking a window, be it of a bus/ whisky condensation at a distillery or a generic shop-window, wanting something that’s on the other side of the window.

Then I remembered (from a podcast) that the French expression for ‘to window-shop’ is ‘faire du lèche-vitrine’, literally meaning ‘to do window-licking’. After having googled for more than an hour over a few days, I decided not to verify this but instead to throw in another conjecture to the existing body of inconclusive mess of dubious online etymologies.

Picture the following; 19th century London; outside a rather fashionable patisserie, say, Ladurée somewhere really fancy, say Mayfair, manned by a real French proprietor selling all things decadent and delectable in full view of passers-by through freshly cleaned pristine panes of window, beckoning all those who can afford to pay for sumptuous baked goods. Then there’s you, standing there penniless, desperately yearning for one nibble at the thing or a whiff of the stuff. Totally mesmerised, with your face pressed against the window, you start drooling on the window. Now if the shop owner saw you, to them at least, you most certainly would look like a complete ‘window-licker’, would you not? Now since the owner of the shop is French who speaks something that barely passes off as English, he calls you window-licker, merely meaning to describe you and the activity with which you’re engaged; you a ‘window-shopper’. But being self-conscious of your poor, pathetic form, you take it as an insult, thinking “did he just call me a retard”? You manage to remember the sound of the phrase a few days later and repeat it to a learned person who understands basic (but not colloquial) French, who then tells you “I think that patisseur called you literally a ‘window-licker’.”. In turn you (wrongly) confirm to yourself that it was indeed an insult, with your interpretation of it being ‘retard’.

There we have it; probably the most unfounded and unsubstantiated etymological speculation you will find anywhere on the internet. But i hope it was entertaining at least and at best I hope it highlighted the importance of citation and references when claiming something factual.

Don’t go licking any windows and have a good Friday.