Blog Profile / Wordmall

Filed Under:Academics / Linguistics
Posts on Regator:699
Posts / Week:1.9
Archived Since:February 24, 2008

Blog Post Archive

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Evelyn wrote to say that she had come across a strange and unfamiliar word last week while browsing through the offerings in her local library’s semi-annual book sale. The word was quassation. The word is strange and unfamiliar to most of us because it is obsolete. Show More Summary

Wearing a Mackinaw Coat in a Dearborn Carriage

Jeff from Gulliver asked about the Mackinaw coat and the Dearborn carriage and whether they had a Michigan connection. The answer is yes and no. The Mackinaw coat was born when a post trader named John Askin commissioned some local women to sew 40 woolen coats for a British Army post near the Straits of Mackinac. Show More Summary

Election Vocabulary

Dan from Traverse City asked about the origin of a couple of election words. Specifically, he asked about ballot and precinct, but I’ll expand the question a bit. Ballot came from French and Italian words that meant a small ball. The election sense of the word owes its origin to the Venetian Republic. Show More Summary

Consort & Concert

Having heard music by the Quadriga Consort, Francine asked about the possibility of a connection between the words concert and consort. It turns out that in a limited sense, there is. But first let’s distinguish between two nouns with identical spellings and some overlapping meanings. Show More Summary


Mac asked what a meme is, commenting that the term is showing up everywhere. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. Show More Summary


Conrad from Traverse City brought up the word commission as yet another example of a word with multiple meanings. It came from a Latin verb, committere, to entrust. Here’s a rundown of the meanings that evolved over the years. · order,...Show More Summary

Bated Breath

Margaret from Traverse City came across the phrase with bated breath and wondered what it meant and where it came from. It is considered a cliché. The first thing to observe is that the spelling is b-a-t-e-d, not b-a-i-t-e-d. A person with baited breath would have been eating worms or minnows. Show More Summary


Terri asked about the word token, especially as it appears in a token of my esteem. The word originated in a wide cluster of related languages (Old Germanic, Old Scandinavian, Old English), and in each case it carried the meaning of teaching, demonstrating, or showing. Show More Summary


Rita asked about the word element –sist–. It appears in a number of words that alter the basic meaning by adding different prefixes. The core comes from the Latin sistere, to cause to stand. Let’s list some of the words that rely on this root, giving a rough and ready definition that shows how the standmeaning runs through all of them. Show More Summary

Apprise me of the Appraisal

Recently, I’ve been pigging out on reruns of The Artful Detective, a detective series set in 19 th century Toronto. In one episode, Detective Murdoch is sternly admonished by the Superintendent to “keep me appraised of developments." Unfortunately, bad word choice. Show More Summary


Vic asked about the word fend, as in, “to fend off evil.” It is a shortened version of defend, which came from the Latin defendere, to ward off or protect. The de - element means “away from oneself.” Fend also shows up in the phrase,...Show More Summary


A listener named Adele called to say that her son had snickered when she told him that her uncle, a naval engineer, had worked in the bowels of a ship during World War II. I guess her son would have preferred engine room, on the basis that bowels is too graphic an image. Show More Summary


Ben from Traverse City and someone else whose name I failed to record asked about the proper use of commas. Like it or not, some technical terms must be reckoned with in order to place commas correctly, so let’s start with a quick review. Show More Summary

Positioning the Lake

Jim Sofonia from Traverse City, Michigan, asked, “Can you explain why some lakes are Name Lake, and others are Lake Name ? Examples include Lime Lake and Lake Ann.” Generally, larger lakes tend to have the word lake first: Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Ontario, etc. Show More Summary


Carol from Old Mission asked about the word speakeasy. A speakeasy was the name given to a club or establishment that sold liquor illegally during Prohibition (1920 – 1933). The import of the word is harder to pin down. One theory is...Show More Summary

Hot to Trot

Frank from Elk Rapids asked about the phrase hot to trot. There are many meanings derived from the original meaning of hot – characterized by a high temperature or sensation of heat. The hot in hot to trotsignifies burning with desire, eager, keen to get started. Show More Summary

Jolly Roger

A listener asked why the flag flown on a pirate ship was called a Jolly Roger. The Oxford English Dictionary brands this popular story as folk etymology: Their red flag was called Joli Rouge (pretty red) by the French, and may have been corrupted into English as Jolly Roger. Show More Summary


Doug asked about the word crotchety. It is frequently—and unfairly—applied to an old person, and it means cranky and bristly. Synonyms include bad-tempered, cantankerous, choleric, crabby, cross, crusty, curmudgeonly, fractious, grumpy,...Show More Summary


Kim from Old Mission called to say that a word caught his attention while he was watching The Hobbit. At one point, the character Gandalf says something like, “At least he had the nous to get out of this situation.” In context, Kim reported, nous seemed to mean intelligence or knowledge. Show More Summary


Penny from Benzonia, Michigan, called to confirm a word origin that she had heard about. The word was terrific, and she was told that it originally meant terrifying or frightening. Her information was correct. The word entered English as the equivalent of a Latin verb that meant to terrify. Show More Summary

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