Monday, July 14, 2014

On The Origin Of Words & Phrases

As a writer I love words. I find them fascinating although, I confess, I am not crazy about Scrabble. It stems not only from my being a writer, but being a not so great speller, my interest in dinosaurs and my love of history. I have 14 dictionaries and thesauruses in my library. This includes a recently acquired The Barnhart Concise Dictionary Of Etymology: The Origins Of American English Words.

A favorite word of mine as it has a nice sound is “hooligan”. It origins seem somewhat unclear. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary Of Etymology reports that it may have come from a fictional Irish family named Hooligan in a music-hall song of the 1890s. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary claims it comes from Patrick Hooligan a thief living in London in the 1890s. It may also have originated with the name of a London street gang of the 1890s.
Whatever its origins it has come to mean, according to Wikipedia “...a person, usually young, who belongs to an informal group and commits acts of vandalism or criminal damage, starts fights, and who causes disturbances but is not a thief.” It also refers to violence in sports.
Here’s one word I was surprised to learn how old it was – humankind. I thought it was a fairly recent invention, but apparently it dates from 1594, according to the online version the Merriam -Webster’s Dictionary Other sources give a later date of 1635-1645 from the phrase human kind.
A phrase I’m interested in since it involves my name is peter out or petered out. According to The Phrase Finder (  the phrase originated as a mining term in the mid 19th century in the United States. It’s earliest known use is in an article in the Milwaukee Daily Gazette, December, 1845 about an old prospector whom was comparing his dwindling life circumstances with his diminishing finds of lead sulphide. The site says there were other records of the use of peter to refer to dwindling mineral reserves in the 1840s in the United States.
The site discusses several possible reasons why peter was used in mining of which a reference to saltpeter (potassium nitrate) they believe is the most likely.
Some words have stayed the same, but the meaning has changed. One of the most notable is “gay”. Gay originally referred to joyous or merry, but has since, at least in North America, become primarily associated with homosexual.
The word man has undergone a similar change. Originally it meant all of humanity, but has since come to mean just male. Originally too man had prefix in front of it to denote a male, but only woman has retained its prefix. An article on IO9 ( mentions how quickly the use of man has changed. In the original Star Trek series in 1960s said, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Twenty years later in the revised Star Trek the phrase had been changed “to boldly go where no one has gone before”. This was not a reflection of political correctness, but rather of changing meaning. There are still some people today who insist on using the term “man” to mean all of humanity, but for the most part that meaning of the word is now archaic.
It is this changing and introduction of new words and phrases and meanings that continue to attract me to the language.