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This Britain

The top ten: Unexpected etymologies


A discussion on the ‘Independent on Sunday’ Comment desk about whether certain words (feisty, blowsy, bubbly) were sexist because they were almost always applied  to women degenerated into  a trawl through the Oxford Dictionary for the surprising origins of some words.

Gerrymander: A new voting district in Massachusetts  in the shape of a salamander favoured Governor Elbridge Gerry’s party.

Blowsy:  Early 17th century: from obsolete blowze, “beggar’s female companion”.

Bumf:  Late 19th century: abbreviation of slang bum-fodder. From Rich Greenhill.

Humble pie:  A pun on “umbles”, offal, considered  to be inferior food. Thanks to Chris Bryant MP.

Raspberry: to blow a  Raspberry tart, rhyming slang  for “fart”. Rich Greenhill again.

Tawdry:  Early 17th century: short for tawdry lace, contraction of St Audrey’s lace, after patron saint of Ely, where cheap finery was sold at a fair.  Via Rafael Behr.

Shibboleth:  From Hebrew for “ear of corn”, used (in the Bible) as a test of nationality by its difficult pronunciation.

Prurient:  Late 16th century: mental itching,  from Latin for “itching, longing”.

Feisty:  Late 19th century: from earlier feist,  fist, “small dog”, from fisting or hound, a derogatory term for a lapdog, from Middle English fist, “break wind”.

Shambles: Originally a butcher’s slaughterhouse.


Next week: Tautologies – safe haven, pre-planned. 

Coming soon: Spoonerisms (well- boiled icicle, and so on).  Send your suggestions,  and ideas for future  Top 10s, to top10@independent.co.uk