The top ten: Unexpected etymologies


John Rentoul
Sunday 12 January 2014 11:44

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

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