widow’s cruse

  The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Sarepta (circa 1630-40), by Bernardo Strozzi (circa 1581-1644) – image: wikiart.org     The noun cruse denotes a small earthenware vessel for liquids. It is of Germanic origin and related to words such as Dutch kroes and Swedish krus, of same meaning. The expression widow’s cruse signifies an apparently small supply that proves inexhaustible. It is an allusion […]

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Our lunatic contributor

  Ernest Weekley circa 1935     In the chapter Our lunatic contributor of Words and names (1933), the British philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954) wrote: The correspondence columns of our middlebrow weeklies and of our two Sunday papers are the happy hunting-ground of the amateur etymologist. A few years ago he published the discovery that ‘nap,’ ‘a short sleep,’ […]

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starboard – port

  image: nageur-sauveteur   MEANINGS   The noun starboard denotes the side of a ship or aircraft that is on the right when one is facing forward, while port denotes the opposing side.   ORIGINS   From the Germanic bases of the nouns steer and board, starboard, which appeared in Old English as steorbord, denotes literally the steer board, the steer side. This side of the ship […]

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guy

  The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, by Heinrich Ulrich early 17th century – National Portrait Gallery Guy (“Guido”) Fawkes is third from the right     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/ […]

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trumpery

  Donald Trump Lookups for trumpery have been spiking periodically since the end of 2015, as a result of the burgeoning political fortunes of Donald Trump. Recently, people have begun posting trumpery definitions to various social media sites. This fairly obscure word has a decidedly negative set of meanings which have delighted the real estate […]

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short shrift

  The Murder of the Princes in the Tower – illustration from The National and Domestic History of England (1870?-80?), by William Hickman Smith Aubrey (1848?-1916)     The expression short shrift means brief and unsympathetic treatment, and to make short shrift of means to dispose of quickly and unsympathetically. A short shrift was originally […]

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Witham

  Witham (Essex) – town sign photograph: East Anglian Daily Times     Witham is the name of several villages in Lincolnshire and Essex. With a pun on wit, the expression little, or small, Witham was used proverbially for a place of which the inhabitants were remarkable for stupidity. For example, the following, from A fourth […]

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hail-fellow-well-met

  Well met, drawing by Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-93)     The obsolete adjective hail meant free from injury, infirmity or disease. It is from Old Norse heill, meaning whole, hale, sound. This Old Norse word is related to the English adjectives whole and hale, which are doublets, as they are both from Old English […]

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the forbidden fruit

  Eve offering the apple to Adam in the Garden of Eden, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (circa 1472-1553)     According to the post-biblical Christian tradition, the apple is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in defiance of God’s commandment. However, in the Book of […]

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window

  oeil-de-boeuf (literally eye-of-steer) window photograph: Lynne Furrer/Shutterstock.com     The noun window is from Middle English windoȝe, a borrowing from Old Norse vindauga, literally wind’s eye, from vindr, wind, and auga, eye. The Scandinavian word replaced and finally superseded Old English éagþyrel, i.e. eyethirl, composed of the nouns eye and thirl. The noun thirl denoted a hole, an aperture, and was derived from Old English þurh, thorough. It was long used […]

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