the various meanings of ‘earthling’

Before being a science-fiction term used by aliens to refer to an inhabitant of the earth, ‘earthling’ denoted an inhabitant of the earth as opposed to heaven.

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How Horace Walpole coined ‘serendipity’.

    The noun serendipity denotes the faculty of making by accident discoveries that are both fortunate and unexpected. (It has been borrowed into Spanish as serendipia, into Italian as serendipità, and into French as sérendipité.) It was coined by the English writer and politician Horace Walpole (1717-97). In a letter that he wrote to his friend Horace Mann […]

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history of ‘Georgium Sidus’ (Uranus)

  Sir John Herschel The announcement last Friday of the death, at the age of 81, of the Rev. Sir John Herschel, Bart., which occurred at Observatory House, Slough, revives a host of memories of 18th century Bath. Sir John Herschel was the great-grandson of Sir William Herschel, the famous astronomer, who discovered from his scientific […]

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a linguistic investigation into ‘cheese and ‘fromage’

    “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux-cent quarante-six variétés de fromage ?” (“How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”) attributed to Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), French general and statesman, in Les mots du général de Gaulle (1962), by Ernest Mignon photograph: fémivin.com     […]

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the various uses of ‘human bean’ (human being)

  The term human bean is a humorous alteration or mispronunciation of human being, frequently used as part of an extended pun relating to beans. It is first recorded in Punch, or The London Charivari (1842): This little wretch is exciting the most intense interest, (Faugh!) and we have bribed the authorities in all directions to obtain information regarding him. […]

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origin of ‘myrmidon’ (unquestioning follower or subordinate)

  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 […]

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‘Rhesus’ was originally an arbitrary name given to a macaque.

  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 […]

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the surprising etymological connection between ‘galaxy’ and ‘lettuce’

  photographs: Milky Way: Wikimedia Commons / Forest Wander lettuce: Wikimedia Commons     The noun galaxy is from post-classical Latin galaxias, denoting the Milky Way, from Hellenistic Greek γαλαξίας (= galaxias), short for γαλαξίας κύκλος (= galaxias kuklos), milky circle, from ancient Greek γάλα/γαλακτ- (= gala/galakt-), milk. Originally therefore, galaxy, often with the and capital […]

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origin of ‘dandelion’ and of its French equivalent ‘pissenlit’

  the 1905 edition of Le Petit Larousse illustré, a French-language encyclopaedic dictionary published by the Éditions Larousse In 1890, Eugène Grasset (1845-1917) designed the image of la Semeuse (the Sower) blowing dandelion seeds, which accompanies the motto of the Éditions Larousse, Je sème à tout vent (I sow to the four winds).   The word […]

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