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Word Origins That Have Been Verified as True

I recently got an email from somebody touting the origins of words and phrases, such as “a shot of whiskey.” The article said it comes from the Old West, where  a .45 cartridge for a six-gun cost 12 cents, and so did a glass of whiskey. If a cowhand was low on cash he would often give the bartender a cartridge in exchange for a drink. This became known as a “shot” of whiskey.

But this is simply not true, and Snopes debunked it: here.

So, here are others from that same email that I verified and/or corrected where necessary.

Barrel of oil — I often wondered why we refer to gasoline by the gallon but oil by the barrel. It’s because in the early days of oil drilling, people used existing barrels used to store water, whiskey, fish, turpentine or molasses to store the oil. (The original email said it was just water barrels.)

Buying the farm — Some sources believe it traces back to WWI pilots getting life insurance policies worth about the value of an average farm. Other sources say it has to do with a plane crashing on a farm and the farmer suing and collecting from the damage. (The original email listed the farm value at $5,000, which I couldn’t verify.)

Cobweb — We all know these are spider webs. The Old English word for spider was coppe, pronounced “cob.” (The original email had the original word as “cob.”)

Curfew — It’s from the French couvre-feu meaning “cover fire.” It described the time to blow out all oil lamps and candles. Its original meaning refers to a law made by William The Conqueror that all lights and fires should be covered at the ringing of an eight o’clock bell to prevent fires from spreading within communities of timber buildings.

(The original email told a story about how “homes had no real fireplaces so a fire was built in the centre of the room. In order to make sure a fire did not get out of control during the night it was required that, by an agreed upon time, all fires would be covered with a clay pot called-a ‘curfew.’ ” I couldn’t find that story anywhere, nor could I find proof that a clay pot was called a curfew.)

Hot off the press — If you’ve ever picked up a newspaper right after it came off the printing press, you’d know how hot it is. I have. The memory scars me.

Over a barrel — Before CPR, a drowning victim would be placed face down over a barrel and the barrel would be rolled back and forth in an effort to empty the lungs of water. It was rarely effective.

Also, people were draped over a barrel and flogged.

Either way, it’s a sign you’re in deep trouble.

Stateroom — From the Latin status, meaning “condition or manner of being.” Rooms in a mansion were “rooms of state” and were very fancy and luxurious. So was the captain’s quarters on a ship. (The original email said steamship rooms were not numbered but named after states, which I couldn’t verify.)

I sent the email back to everyone whose address was listed. Many of these people I did not know, but I found it important enough to inform them they are getting bad info.

I ended my email with the following warning: Don’t believe everything you read, especially online.

Until next time! Use the right words!

December 31, 2019 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sorry, Ryan; Stick to Improv

I love improv comedy. I love “Whose Line is it Anyway?” It’s a show that became part of the courting of the woman who became my wife (she liked it, too). We’ve seen it taped twice — each time two and a half hours of laughing our asses off (figuratively speaking, of course), and I even got one of my suggestions put into the show (see Season 4: “George Washington and the Ventriloquist:” that’s me suggesting George Washington).

I can’t put into words how happy and grateful I am that, after ABC cancelled the show, the CW brought it back — and brought back Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady (I would have liked Drew Carey back, but Aisha Tyler is fine). But I get tired to seeing the same games played repeatedly, one of which is “Weird Newscasters,” in which one performer is “normal” and the other three performers act out strange behaviors as co-anchor, sportscaster and weather forecaster.

I also get tired of seeing the same performers playing the same roles, but in a recent episode, Stiles announced that the word “news” comes from “north, east, west and south.”

Of course, upon hearing that, I immediately stopped the episode and looked it up.

News is not an acronym. According to my dictionary, it traces back to the 15th century. The online etymology dictionary says it’s from the 14th century plural of new, meaning “new things.” Wikipedia says it developed in the 14th century as a special use of the plural form of new. In Middle English, the equivalent word was newes, like the French nouvelles and the German neues. Similar developments are found in the Slavic languages—the Czech and Slovak noviny (from nový, “new”), the cognate Polish nowiny and Russian novosti—and in the Celtic languages: the Welsh newyddion (from newydd) and the Cornish nowodhow (from nowydh).

So, here’s the news flash: Ryan was wrong.

Until next time! Use the right words!

August 26, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Please Respond Please

Invitations for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah will soon be mailed, and we have received/will receive invitations for other boys and girls crossing that rite of passage.

What no one will on see our invitation — and thankfully I haven’t seen it on any others —  are the printed words, “Please RSVP.”

That’s because “Please RSVP” is redundant. RSVP is French for répondez s’il vous plaît, literally meaning “respond if you please.”

Would you normally say, “Please respond if you please”? I didn’t think so.

Thanks to Robin K. for the idea.

Until next time! Use the right words!

November 21, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Original Use of “Decimate”

A reader recently commented on my post regarding myriad by telling me that it reminds her of decimate and its usage.

I know that when I see decimate used in a sentence, it usually means something like “total destruction,” as in The hurricane decimated the town. But this reader told me that the true definition is “to reduce by 1/10.”

So I looked up the word. Sure enough, decimate, from the Latin decimare and from the French decem meaning “ten,” means “to select by lot and kill every tenth man” or “to take a tenth from.” Only with the third definition, “to destroy a large part of,” did I see the common understanding of the definition.

Think about it: to destroy every tenth of something could be a large part, but it depends on your point of view. Destroying 10 percent of a population of one million might seem high to some, but others might say, “Yeah, but you still have a population of 900,000.”

Regardless, I learned about the word and am passing it on to you.

Thanks to Rabbi Avivah for the idea.

Until next time! Use the right words!

January 14, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Most Cases, Don’t “Use” “Utilize”

I hate the word utilize. The word is so pretentious and usually sticks out among the other words in the sentence or paragraph in which it’s used.

And it’s almost always misused. Perhaps that’s why my grammar check wanted me to substitute use for utilize. Plus, my blog isn’t called “utilizingtherightwords.”

For background, utilize is a French derivative that entered the English language around 1890. It’s definition: “to make use of.”

Given that definition, why not just use use? It’s simpler, it’s shorter, and it’s not at all pretentious and snooty.

People seem to think words can’t be used over and over, that they need to use synonyms each time. There are two words that cannot be overused: said, when quoting a person; and use.

However, I said utilize  is ALMOST always misused. According to Grammar Girlutilize has use in the scientific world. says to use utilize when you have found an untraditional manner in which to create a new job for the item. points out that the sentence “The teachers were unable to use the new computers” could mean they couldn’t operate them, whereas “The teachers couldn’t utilize the computers” could mean they couldn’t access them.

So, utilize utilize sparingly and use use more often.

Until next time! Use the right words!

April 9, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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