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Keeping up with the Joneses

Q: I read an article by John Updike in an old New Yorker that says the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” is believed to come from the lavish lifestyle of the family of Edith Wharton (née Jones). Is that true? A: No, Edith Wharton’s family is not responsible for the expression. In fact, that... ? Read More: Keeping up with the Joneses

Breaking the ice

Q: How did “break the ice” come to mean get a conversation going? Does it have something to do with the ice cubes in a drink at a cocktail party? A: No, this figurative use of the expression “break the ice” doesn’t have anything to do with scotch on the rocks or any other drink... ? Read More: Breaking the ice

Drones, bees and otherwise

Q: I would have thought that the word “drone” in reference to a remote-controlled plane was a recent neologism. However, I found “droneplane” in a New York Times crossword puzzle from 1953 as an answer to the clue “Remote-controlled aircraft.” How long has “drone” actually been used for an unmanned aircraft? A: The word “drone”... Show More Summary

Does a doorway need a door?

Q: I have always used the word “doorway” to describe the opening where a door might be located, whether or not there is a door. For example, a door-less passageway between rooms. Is this correct or should another term be used? A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and most of them define “doorway” as an... ? Read More: Does a doorway need a door?

How French is “Des Moines”?

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the city of Des Moines got its name from a Native American word for a path. I always thought the French named it for the monks, or moines, in the area. A: No, the monk story is a popular myth, or as historians call it,... ? Read More: How French is “Des Moines”?

When “old chestnut” was new

Q: You’ve used the expression “old chestnut” on your blog, but you’ve never explained its origin. Where does it come from? A: There’s no definite answer here, but all the evidence points to an origin in 19th-century show business. Before going on, we should mention that the word “chestnut” was spelled “chesnut” for much of... ? Read More: When “old chestnut” was new

Is red beautiful?

Q: I’m curious about the history of “red” in various languages. In Russia, Red Square was so named because “red” used to mean beautiful. In Spain, Alhambra means “the red one.” Is it also “the beautiful one”? And did “red” ever mean beautiful in English? A: When the square near the Kremlin in Moscow was... ? Read More: Is red beautiful?

Getting to the bottom of pants

Q: I was watching the BBC show Blandings when the Earl was discomforted by an American’s use of “pants,” until it was explained that the reference was to trousers, not underpants. Is the meaning of “pants” still different in the US and the UK? If so, when did it diverge? A: Yes, “pants” is one... ? Read More: Getting to the bottom of pants

Munch on, crunch on, nuncheon!

Q: I came across “nuncheon” in my paperback of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It apparently refers to a meal of some sort, and I wonder if it’s a misprint for “luncheon.” A: No, “nuncheon” is an actual word—an archaic term that’s heard now only in regional dialects in England. It refers to a between-meals... ? Read More: Munch on, crunch on, nuncheon!

Pay her a call? Or call her up?

Q: How did “call” evolve from a visit in person (“call on her”) to a visit by telephone (“call her up”)? A: The use of “call” in telephone terminology developed from the age-old sense of a shout or a loud cry, not from the sense of a social visit. In the 1870s, when first used... ? Read More: Pay her a call? Or call her up?

Does your sweetheart stink?

Q: I remember reading a book by Wilfred Funk that says the verb “stink” was once a compliment. That has got me into some trouble of late. Could you please clear this up for me? A: In Six Weeks to Words of Power (1955), the lexicographer and publisher Wilfred J. Funk writes: “In the days... ? Read More: Does your sweetheart stink?

Toothsome dishes

Q: The other day I heard “toothsome” used to describe an attractive woman. What is the origin of this usage? Is there some connection to calling someone “a real dish”? A: “Toothsome” has meant tasty—in the literal sense of good to eat—since the 16th century. But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the sexier... ? Read More: Toothsome dishes

Isn’t that a coinkydink?

Q: A delightful teenager in my life just texted the word “coinkydink.” I used this term for a coincidence at her age (circa 1975). Any idea when it was coined? I have a vague memory of hearing it in some old black and white movie. A: The earliest example we’ve found for “coinkydink” (often spelled... ? Read More: Isn’t that a coinkydink?

How hip is a hippie

Q: I’m working on a story about a “hippie” from the 1960s, and need some insight on the origin the term. I’ve searched your blog and your book Origins of the Specious, without finding it. Elsewhere, there’s a plethora of guesses. I need something more certain. A: “Hippie” has led two lives, which may account... ? Read More: How hip is a hippie

The whole nine yards, again

Q: When a World War II.50-cal. gunner was asked during training if he shot the whole belt of cartridges, he answered: “Yes, the whole 9 yards.” The ammo belt was 27 feet. Now you know. A: “The whole nine yards” is a whole lot older than World War II, which clearly rules out that... ? Read More: The whole nine yards, again

The circularity of dials

Q: In a recent post, you say the noun “dial” evolved from the Latin word for “day.” So how did it become a circular item for measuring or adjusting? My guess is that the round clock face had something to do with it. Am I close? A: Not all dials are circular, of course. The... ? Read More: The circularity of dials

December nine: A cardinal sin?

Q: I’m noticing that TV and radio hosts are getting away from using ordinal numbers for dates. For example, “It’s Thursday, October twenty” instead of “It’s Thursday, October twentieth.” Would you have any thoughts as to why? A: In speech, people normally use an ordinal number for a date, “October twentieth” or “October the twentieth,”... Show More Summary

How the C-section got its name

Q: If Julius Caesar wasn’t delivered by cesarean section, as I’ve read, how did the medical procedure get its name? A: Let’s begin with the old story that Julius Caesar was born by cesarean section, an urban legend that we discuss in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. (The usual spelling is... ? Read More: How the C-section got its name

Off-putting and down-putting

Q: People who are put off by a remark say it’s “off-putting.” Can a put-down be described as “down-putting”? A: Would you believe that the word “off-putting” is more than 600 years old? Honest. In the 1300s, “off-putting” was a noun meaning “the action of reproving,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It wasn’t until... ? Read More: Off-putting and down-putting

You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

Q: A post about the word “rat” as it relates to despicable, disloyal, or deceitful people would be interesting, don’t you think? A: When “rat” showed up in Old English (as “ræt”) it meant the rodent that we’re all familiar with. It didn’t refer to human rats until hundreds of years later. Here’s the story.... ? Read More: You dirty, yellow-bellied rat

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