halcyon

  kingfisher – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/JJ Harrison     The Latin noun halcyon, more properly alcyon, was derived from Greek ἀλκυών (= alkuon), incorrectly spelt ἁλκυών (= halkuon), meaning kingfisher. The ancients fabled that the halcyon bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and that it charmed […]

Read More

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 […]

Read More

myrmidon

  statue of Ovid in Constanţa (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled), Romania – 1887, by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Kurt Wichmann     The noun myrmidon denotes a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly. This word first […]

Read More

rhesus

  Le Rhesus (Simia Rhesus) – illustration by Jean-Baptiste Audebert for his treatise, Histoire naturelle des singes et des makis (1799) – image: Bibliothèque nationale de France / gallica.bnf.fr     This word is from French rhésus, formerly rhesus, and from its etymon, the scientific Latin (Simia) Rhesus. In Histoire naturelle des singes et des makis (Natural […]

Read More

beyond the pale

  MEANING   outside the limits of social convention   ORIGIN   The primary meanings of the noun pale are a wooden stake or post used with others to form a fence and a wooden fence made of stakes driven into the ground. This word appeared in the late 14th century and is from Anglo-Norman and Middle French pal, meaning a stake, a palisade, a […]

Read More

curfew

  Nowadays, a curfew is a regulation requiring people to remain indoors between specified hours, typically at night – for example: a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The word is from Old French and Anglo-Norman forms such as cuevre-feu and covrefeu, hence the Modern French word couvre-feu (plural couvre-feux), composed of: – couvre, imperative of the verb couvrir, to cover, – feu, meaning fire. The corresponding medieval Latin names were ignitegium […]

Read More

from pillar to post

  Christ before Pilate (1881), by Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900)     This phrase means from one place to another in an unceremonious or fruitless manner. Its earliest recorded form is from post to pillar in The Assembly of Gods, an anonymous dream-vision allegory most likely written in the early fourth quarter of the 15th century (it […]

Read More

to rain cats and dogs (1)

giving the true origin of the phrase “it is raining cats and dogs” and debunking its false etymologies

Read More