the long history of ‘valentine’ (sweetheart)

  There are two Valentines, both Italian, one a priest and the other a bishop, who were martyred and used to be commemorated in the Roman Catholic calendar on 14th February. However, they have no romantic associations and the modern customs linked with St Valentine’s Day arise from a tradition according to which it is the day when the […]

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French pig idioms

Pig meat has traditionally been a staple food; this is illustrated by this French saying: Dans le cochon tout est bon, De la queue jusqu’au menton.      translation: In the pig all is good, From the tail to the chin. However, in French as in English, many pig idioms are derogatory; for example: – avoir […]

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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘How goes the enemy?’

  “Tell me, man, how goes the enemy?” cartoon published in the Sunday Pictorial (London) of 23rd August 1942     The colloquial phrase How goes the enemy? means What is the time?. Its origin was explained in the text where it is first recorded, published in the Brighton Gazette, and Lewes Observer (Sussex) of 26th October 1826: THE VAMPIRE. N° LVIII. My dear […]

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meaning and origin of the phrase ‘rift in the lute’

  L’astucieuse Viviane était étendue aux pieds de Merlin, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883) from Les Idylles du roi (Paris – 1868), translation of Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson     The phrase rift in the lute means sign of disharmony between persons, especially the first evidence of a quarrel that may become worse. A rift is a crack in an object, […]

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origin of ‘philtrum’ (the indentation above the upper lip)

photograph: Google+ Communities     The noun philtrum denotes the vertical groove between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip. The literal and obsolete signification of this word, which appeared in the early 17th century, is love potion, from classical Latin philtrum, of same meaning. In post-classical Latin, philtrum came to also denote the dimple in the upper lip. It […]

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history of ‘Xmas’, abbreviated form of ‘Christmas’

  Chi-Rho – catacombs of San Callisto, Rome photograph: Dnalor 01/Wikimedia Commons     It is often said that the abbreviated form Xmas “takes the Christ out of Christmas”, but this is not the case. For example, a certain Reverend Thomas Eyre wrote to a Doctor Poynter on 25th January 1807: My Lord,—Your much esteemed favour of the 5th of December I […]

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origin of ‘the ring finger’ and of French ‘l’annulaire’

      In the Etymologies (Etymologiarum sive Originum libri viginti), compiled between around 615 and the early 630s in the form of an encyclopaedia arranged by subject matter, St Isidore (circa 560–636), bishop of Seville and Doctor of the Church, wrote the following about the names of the fingers (the original Latin words are […]

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origin of ‘gianduja’ (chocolate and ground hazelnuts)

The Italian noun gianduia (improperly gianduja) appeared in the 19th century to denote a soft confection made with chocolate and ground hazelnuts, first produced in Turin, the capital of Piedmont, a region in north-western Italy, in the foothills of the Alps. (The Italian name is Piemonte, from piede, foot, and monte, mount.) This confection was […]

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Why ‘lupus’ has come to denote skin diseases.

The Latin noun lupus/-pi meant wolf. It is kindred with ancient Greek λύκος (lukos). —Cf. lycanthrope, which originally designated a person who believes that he or she is a wolf, and which, via the modern Latin noun lycanthrōpus, is from Greek λυκάνθρωπος (lukanthropos), literally wolf-man, from λύκος and ἄνθρωπος (anthropos), man. The Latin lupus has sometimes been used in English in the sense of wolf; for instance, a Scottish […]

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origin of the noun ‘guy’: an effigy of Guy Fawkes

The proper name Guy is derived, via French, from the Old German Wido, either from wit, meaning wide, or from witu, wood. Wido has become Guy in French because in words of Germanic origin, when initial, the labio-velar approximant /w/ has regularly become the velar /g/. For instance, in the French noun loup-garou, the element garou corresponds to English werewolf—in fact, loup was added when the […]

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