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Peeping Tom Cried “Mayday!” as he Ate an Avocado at Xmas

As I kept reading Charles Harrington Elster’s book “What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions About Language,” I found myself fascinated by the stories of how certain words or phrases began.

So, here are some more.

Avocado — From the Aztec word ahuacatl, which Spanish conquerors mispronounced as aguacate, which is what the fruit is called today. Other Spanish speakers translated ahuacatl as “avocado.”

Jiffy — It originates from the 1785 book “Baron Munchausen’s Travels” by Rudolph Raspe (other sources call it “Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia” by Rudolf Erich Raspe), who likely invented the word and used it as a measure of time (“six jiffies”).

Mayday — From the French m’aider, in the phrase venez m’aider, meaning “come help me.” In English m’aider is pronounced “mayday.”

Mind your p’s and q’s — Elster dismisses the notion it means “pints and quarts.” He says no one is really sure what it means, but the most likely answer comes from penmanship. P and Q follow each other in the alphabet, and the lower-case versions are often confused by youngsters just learning how to write them.

Peeping Tom — He was a tailor who bored a hole in his shutter and watched Lady Godiva ride by.

The whole story, from folklore and not literature, has Lady Godiva, wife of Leofric (sometimes spelled Leoffric), Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, riding through town naked (some sources says she wore form-fitting satin) because she cared about her subjects and wanted her husband to stop taxing them so highly, which he said he would do if she rode though the city. She issued a proclamation saying everybody stay inside with the windows and shutters closed while she did this. Tom was severely punished. Some sources say he was killed, others say he was blinded. None of them explain how he was discovered.

Xmas — X is the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, chi, and stands for Christ.

Until next time! Use the right words!


July 24, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cop Bought the Farm during the Dog Days

Many of my friends and associates know what I do with words, and so they often send me photos or passages demonstrating words being used correctly or, more often, incorrectly.

But one friend sent me a book. It’s a 2005 book by Charles Harrington Elster called “What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions about Language.” According to Wikipedia, Elster has written many books about language.

In the first part of the book, people ask questions about where phrases’ origins. Here are some.

Bought the farm — When a pilot crashed in a rural area, the owner often sued the government and got enough money to pay off the mortgage and own the farm outright.

Cop — Police are called this because in northern England, to cop meant “to capture, catch, lay hold of,” and that’s part of the job description.

Decked out — “Deck” is a verb meaning “to clothe” and “to adorn.” This is why we “deck the halls with boughs of holly.”

Dog days — In Roman times, the hottest days of summer were called caniculares dies because they believed the dog star (Sirius), when it rose with the sun, added heat.

German chocolate cake — “German” actually is Samuel German, who developed the recipe.

Green room — Elster says this term goes at least back to a 1701 play. It probably has to do with the rooms had walls painted green to give the eyes some welcome contrast to the bright lights they experienced on stage. “Probably” because no one is completely sure, Elster says.

Pinkie/Pinky finger — From the Dutch pinkje, the diminutive form of “pink.” But Elster can’t explain why the Dutch used that word to describe the little finger.

Pushing the envelope — “Envelope” refers to an aircraft’s performance limits, so when a pilot tries to do that (see: Tom Cruise’s character in “Top Gun”), he’s pushing the envelope.

Santa Ana wind — This hot wind is named for the large flow of gasses that comes out of the Santa Ana Mountains.

What the dickens/deuce — A euphemism for “what the devil.”

Thanks to Warren S. for the book.

Until next time! Use the right words!

July 19, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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