The top ten: Unexpected etymologies
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 12 January 2014
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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