Aug 15

More French word nerdery

I’m back from Paris! Eventually I’ll go into detail about the stuff we did and saw, but right now here’s part two in Parisian word nerdery. (And here’s part one if you missed it.)

An orange museum? One day I visited the Musee de l’Orangerie, and when Yiannis said, “The Orange Museum?” I realized I had no idea why the museum was called that. Did it have to do with the Principality of Orange in the south of France? Was it once swathed in orange like some kind of Christo and Jean-Claude exhibit? Neither as it turns out.

The name comes from the orangeries that used to be on the grounds of the nearby Tuileries Palace and were once considered fashionable to have. The structure was built to shelter the orange trees, and was used for everything from lodging soldiers, to housing sporting and musical events, to displaying exhibitions of animals, plants, and yes, paintings.

The building officially became a museum in 1921, and is perhaps most famous for Monet’s Nymphéas, his large panels of water lilies.

Who’s Sully? It seemed that everywhere I went in Paris I saw the name Sully, which made me think of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger who, as you probably remember, was integral to the successful crash landing of a US Airways flight in the Hudson River.

Needless to say, the Parisian Sully isn’t that Sully. So who was he? The Duke of Sully, otherwise known as Maximilien de Bethune, Henry IV’s “faithful right-hand man” who had a role in “building a strong centralized administrative system in France using coercion and highly effective new administrative techniques.” He also has lots of streets and at least one hotel named after him.

What’s a grisette? Where we were staying wasn’t far from the Grisette statute, which we passed every day. But who — or what — is a Grisette?

According to this blog post at Invisible Paris, the Grisette, along with the Lonette, were two female myths that emerged due to an 1830 “influx of males to the city from rural areas attracted by work in the new industries.” Such an influx caused a drastic change in the female to male ratio — 90 women for every 100 men — and subsequently, a shift in power. Women now had the upper hand and “intended to make men pay.”

On the surface, the Grisette (the word originally referred to the “cheap gray dress fabric” worn by such women) was a working class girl or young woman, but she was also someone with “easy morals” who, as Invisible Paris puts it:

spent more than she earned, but who had an elder male ‘friend’, a shopkeeper or wholesaler who would pay her debts. Her other male friend, a much younger painter or student, was the weekend friend, her passion and the one who would take her to fashionable balls and restaurants.

A Lorette, on the other hand, was a woman “supported by her lovers,” and who devoted “herself to idleness, show, and pleasure.” (The name comes from the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, near where apparently many Lorettes lived.)

As for the Grisette statue, it was made by sculptor Jean Descomps in 1909, and features one bodacious woman bun.

An apple of love? The French seem to have the coolest words for junky carnival foods. First, there was barbe à papa for cotton candy. Then at Disneyland (yes, we went to Disneyland), I noticed caramel apples were called pommes d’amour, or apples of love.

It’s obvious where barbe à papa comes from — cotton candy kind of looks like a dad’s long (pink) facial hair — but what do caramel apples have to do with love? Short answer: I don’t know. I couldn’t find anything explaining the connection, although there are a couple of theories as to why pomme d’amour also refers to a tomato.

One theory is that it’s due to the former belief of the tomato’s aphrodisiac properties. Another says that pomme d’amour may be a corruption of the Italian pomo de’Mori or Spanish pome dei Moro, both of which mean literally “Moorish apple.”

Aug 15

Word nerdery, the Paris edition

A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

In case you didn’t know, I’m currently vacationing in Paris. My travel buddy, Yiannis, and I have been doing lots of Parisian stuff, including a visit to the Centre Pompidou; hitting a carnival where we rode the Ferris wheel and (dangerous) log flume (how dangerous? the only thing keeping us from flying out of the log were physics and hanging on for dear life); a boat tour of the Canal Saint-Martine; a visit to Parc de Bercy; and seeing American Ultra (at least the subtitles were Parisian).

But as two language buffs, we’ve also been noticing and wondering a lot about words.

Puce. When Yiannis went to use his credit card, the sales woman instructed him to put it into a different slot in the machine since his card had a puce, or microchip. That got him wondering about the word puce, which in French also means “flea.”

We guessed a chip was is so-called because it’s tiny like the blood-sucking insect, but then I wondered if the English color word was related too.

“Maybe it’s the color after you smash a flea,” Yiannis joked.

He turned out to be pretty close. The English puce does indeed come from the French puce meaning “flea-colored; flea,” which comes from the Latin pucilem, “flea.” The Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to say, “That [puce] could be generally recognized as a color seems a testimony to our ancestors’ intimacy with vermin.”

Bateaux-Mouche. While we were sunning ourselves along the Seine, we saw several boats called Bateaux-Mouche. From my high school French – and context clues – I knew that bateaux meant “boats,” but I didn’t recognize mouche.

Yiannis looked it up and saw a meaning of mouche was “fly” so we thought maybe it meant that the boats were fast (although they’re not). I dug a little a deeper and found that mouche also means “patch, beauty spot”; “bull’s-eye” (faire mouch means to hit the bull’s eye); and that a bateau mouche is an excursion or pleasure boat.

However, that mouche has nothing to do with a fly, beauty mark, or bull’s eye. Bateau mouche was a registered trademark and referred to where the boats were once manufactured, namely “the Mouche area of Lyon.”

Barbe à papa. At the carnival, Yiannis noticed a sign for cotton candy that read barbe à papa. “What does that mean?” he wondered, and looked it up: papa’s beard.

That got us curious about how cotton candy is referred to in other languages. According to this BBC forum, in British English it’s “candy floss”; Australian English, “fairy floss”; and in Dutch, suikerspin which translates as “sugar spider.”

Then I started wondering if the Japanese cream puff chain, Beard Papa’s, has anything to do with the French phrase. I didn’t find anything definitive, only speculation that the name is probably a literal translation.

And to complicate things further, cotton candy in Japanese is watakashi, which translates as, well, “cotton (wata) candy (kasha).” In more watakashi trivia, Amaicho Watakashi is a “character” associated with Utau, a Japanese singing synthesizer application.

Jun 13

More Adventures in Etymology: ‘Boudoir’ and ‘Powder Room’

No business like itSome of you may think that adventure and etymology should never appear in the same sentence. If so, you’re reading the wrong blog.

I was doing some research for work when I came across the etymology for boudoir. The strict definition of boudoir is “a woman’s private sitting room, dressing room, or bedroom,” but refers to any room where one can retire in comfort and privacy and perhaps entertain close friends.

You probably guessed that boudoir is French origin, but do you know which French word it comes from? Bouder, to pout or sulk. So a boudoir is a room where a lady can go and pout in privacy.

It’s also apparently a kind of photography (which I knew but somehow forgot). So it’s also pictures of scantily clad women posing and pouting.

Then I wondered, Is that where we get powder room? I had always assumed it came from the idea of a woman powdering her nose, but then I thought maybe powder was a corruption of pouter.

Nope. Powder room indeed comes from the euphemistic idea of women delicately applying powder and makeup rather than pissing and shitting. It also used to refer to “the room in a ship in which gunpowder is kept.”

Scantily clad women, bathroom humor, and gunpowder. I told you it would be an adventure.

Nov 12

Word of the Year 2012: My ‘Super’ Pick

Now that the year is winding down, dictionaries and language societies are picking or narrowing down their choices for word of the year (WOTY).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s pick for the UK was omnishambles, “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations,” while their U.S. choice was GIF as a verb, “to create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event),” which some people found “huh?” but makes sense in terms of the popularity of the animated GIF.

Dictionary.com’s word of the year was bluster while Jen Doll, a great writer at The Atlantic, rounded up several favorites. The American Dialect Society‘s nominees include YOLO, fiscal cliff, Frankenstorm, double down, Gangam style, and mansplaining. (In case you’re wondering, phrases are fine as words of the year, as are words that aren’t “in the dictionary,” prefixes,  and letters).

At first I loved malarkey as word of the year, because of Joe Biden’s use of it in the Vice Presidential debate, and because it summed up the sometimes ridiculous state of politics this year. But then I saw someone tweet super-PAC as WOTY possibility, and I thought, What about super? Superstorm Sandy had just wreaked havoc on the east coast. I had just read something about a supermax security prison, and someone had just told me something about the supermajority. Super- seemed to be everywhere.

Doing some more research (ie, Googling), I found that this year super- as a prefix seemed to play a large role in politics, the weather,  science, current events, and pop culture. Super- it would be.

Here’s a closer work at some super- words that figured prevalently in 2012.


“Monster waves hit two New York harbors Oct. 29 due to Hurricane Sandy, putting the superstorm in the record books yet again.”

Hurricane Sandy Smashes Ocean Wave Records,” Our Amazing Planet, November 14, 2012

Superstorm is “a subjective term for any storm that is extremely and unusually destructive,” and was used by the media to describe the hurricane that devastated much of the east coast last month. The last storm to be described as such was the 1993 Storm of the Century.


“Known as a super-PAC, such a group isn’t limited by campaign finance laws and donation limits, though federal law prohibits coordination between super-PACs and candidates.”

Christopher Palmeri and Beth Jinks, “Gingrich Gets Boost From Casino Billionaire’s $10 Million Bet,” Bloomberg Businessweek, January 30, 2012

A super-PAC “may not make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, but may engage in unlimited political spending independently of the campaigns,” and unlike traditional political action committees, “can raise funds from corporations, unions and other groups, and from individuals, without legal limits.”

Super-PACs came about in 2010, but played a major role in the this year’s Presidential election, “spending more than the candidates’ election campaigns in the Republican primaries.” Stephen Colbert started a super-PAC called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.


“With supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature, Democrats have a historic opportunity to push their agenda on issues such as tax reform, workers’ rights and changing the initiative process.”

Democrats’ new legislative supermajority holds promise, peril,” San Francisco Examiner, November 16, 2012

A supermajority is “a specified majority of votes, such as 60 percent, required to approve a motion or pass legislation,” as opposed to a simple majority of more than 50 percent. In October, Mitt Romney perpetuated the supermajority myth, saying “that President Obama should have gotten more done during his first two years in office because he had a supermajority in the Senate,” when in fact he didn’t have two years’ of supermajority, which, by the way, he would have needed to stop “the Republicans’ unprecedented use of the filibuster as an obstruction tactic,” which they’ve used “more than 400 times.”

In November, Democrats won supermajority in California and Illinois, leaving “all but three states—Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire—[with] one-party control of their legislatures, the highest mark since 1928.”


“Unlike Rockview, SCI-Greene is a Supermax facility designed to house some of Pennsylvania’s most dangerous criminals. One of the state’s two death rows is located there. Sandusky will be put in protective custody, which will keep him isolated from other prisoners.”

Dan Wetzel, “Jerry Sandusky’s Slim Chance for Appeal Hurt by Decision to Send Him to Supermax Prison,” Yahoo! News, November 2, 2012

Supermax refers to a super-maximum security prison, units within a prison which “provide long term, segregated housing for inmates classified as the highest security risks in the prison system — the ‘worst of the worst’ criminals.”

In June, NPR ran a story about ADX-Florence in Colorado, “what’s known as a supermax facility where many inmates are housed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day,” and a lawsuit which “alleges severe abuse of federal prisoners” there, charging the government with violations of “the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.”


“But on Saturday, at Ciudad de las Ideas, an annual conference about big ideas held in Puebla, Mexico, and sponsored by Grupo Salinas, astronomer Dimitar Sasselov gave us non-scientists permission to be excited about last week’s news that a new so-called ‘super Earth’ christened HD 40307g has been discovered 42 light-years away.”

Torie Bosch, “Dimitar Sasselov: Enjoy the Discoveries of Earth-Like Planets While They Last,” Slate, November 12, 2012

A super-Earth is “an extrasolar planet with a mass higher than Earth’s, but substantially below the mass of the Solar System’s smaller gas giants Uranus and Neptune.” The term “refers only to the mass of the planet, and does not imply anything about the surface conditions or habitability.”

The super-Earth discovered in November exists in what’s called the Goldilocks zone, an area “not too close to its sun, not too far [and] believed to be capable of supporting life.” Another super-Earth was discovered in February of this year.

In other super-planetary news, there was a recent discovery of a super-Jupiter, which has “a mass about 12.8 times greater than Jupiter’s,” and let’s not forget the supermoon back in May.


“Ever seen a ‘supercut’? It’s an obsessive montage created by aggregating a series of phrases, actions or cliches from a film or TV show into a massive video montage.”

Jenna Wortham, “Meme Alert: Supercuts, Obsessive Fan Montages,” Wired, April 14, 2008

While animated GIFs were all the rage this year, supercuts (not the hairchopping place) were a close second. They’ve been around for a while, but this year they seemed to be everywhere, from Fandor’s Spielberg face compilation at the end of 2011; to these Sorkinisms; to Nic Cage losing his shit; to Harry Potter, just the spells please; to Claire Dane’s epic cryface.

What would you pick for word of the year?

Oct 12

Writing update: Asian Cha, The Frisky, Book Soup

The latest in my writerly shenanigans.

Cha: Asian Journal

I first heard about Cha through a Twitter friend who had a lovely essay in an issue that had just come out. I read another beautiful and moving piece, and was hooked.

My essay, Home Sick, is in the September issue. It’s about a terrible New Year’s Eve I had in China, the strange experience of being considered a foreigner in a place where everyone looks like you, and just missing home.

The Frisky

It wasn’t enough for my to ranttwice – on my blog about a couple of inane articles about interracial dating. I had to rant on The Frisky too.


As always lots of blogging for work!

Punctuation Soup, September 24, 2012
Atomic Bombs, Time Machines, and Lurve: Words from H.G. Wells, September 21, 2012
O. Henry: The Gift of Words, September 11, 2012
Breaking Bad Words: Thieves, Drugs, and Special Sauce, August 29, 2012
True Blood: Some Fangtastic Words, August 22, 2012
Favorite Food Words: Celebrating Julia Child’s 100th Birthday, August 15, 2012
Shark Week: Sharkings and Loan, August 9, 2012

It’s always interesting to see which posts will be popular. For instance, I thought more people would be into the True Blood one, but it was only moderately popular. On the other hand, I didn’t expect the Julia Child post to be as popular as it was but then it got some heavy-duty retweets.

My personal favorite was the Breaking Bad post. When I first started collecting words from the show, I was kinda meh. But as it all came together, I found the lingo to be quite noir-ish with a dash of fast food.

For TV shows, we usually post the Wednesday before the season finale. Then I noticed an interesting phrase – queen for a day – in the Breaking Bad season finale, and added it as an update. Well, I guess a lot of people were wondering what that meant because the post ended up on Reddit.

It only got 14 upvotes (last I checked) and a lot of obnoxious comments. I guess Reddit commenters are known to be sort of dickish. But I didn’t really care because that post had over 1,000 hits that day, which is a lot for us.

Book Soup Reading

Lastly, I’ll be participating in a reading with other Beautiful Anthology authors in Los Angeles on October 17, 7 PM. Here’s more info from the Book Soup site:

A group event featuring readings from Angela Tung, Rich Ferguson, Rachel Pollon and Brad Listi

What is beauty? Why do women usually think they are not beautiful, and what do women (and men) find truly beautiful in life? These important questions are answered in “THE BEAUTIFUL ANTHOLOGY: Essays, Poems & Art,” the new book from the acclaimed literary site The Nervous Breakdown (TNB Books). The answers will surprise you, shock you, amuse you, and make you think. Contributors to “THE BEAUTIFUL ANTHOLOGY” include best-selling authors Jessica Anya Blau, Melissa Febos, Robin Antalek, Greg Olear, and many more, for an eclectic, international combination of established and emerging writers and artists all riffing entertainingly on the theme of beauty. Declared a stunning, unforgettable collection by author Diana Spechler (“Who By Fire” and “Skinny”), this groundbreaking anthology is not to be missed. (Tnb Books)

I haven’t done a reading in many years and I’m a bit nervous. Then again, just reading is better than having to give a memorized talk.

If you’re in Los Angeles, you should come by!

Sep 12

Anachronism Watch: ‘Copper’

When I watch TV, I like to keep my ears peeled for interesting words. What do I listen for? Idioms, lingo, slang, technical words and jargon. Hell on Wheels does an excellent job, as far as I can tell, of having accurate language for its time. For instance, last night Bohannon called Reverand Cole “mad as a hatter,” and I wondered if the term would have been used at that time. The answer is yes: the show takes place in 1865 and the term originated around 1829. (I had always assumed mad as a hatter came from Alice in Wonderland, which by the way came out the same year that Hell on Wheels takes place, but there’s not even a character called the Mad Hatter. He’s just the Hatter and it’s a “mad tea party.”)

Copper is another period drama I thought might be good source for period idiom and slang. But five episodes into the series, I haven’t heard anything interesting yet. True, I’ve been watching sort of lazily (ie, playing Words with Friends at the same time) so last night I watched and listened actively. Still nothing – except for two anachronisms.


Eva: “You’re looking steamy, Corky.”

“La Tempete,” September 16, 2012

I think this is what she says. I’ll have to watch it again. But if Eva did say steamy meaning “erotic,” she has apparently traveled back in time from 1952.


Corcoran: “My leg’s been bugging me.”

“La Tempete,” September 16, 2012

Another time travel moment! Bug as a verb meaning “to annoy, irritate” didn’t come about until about 1949.

Of course I’ve got nothing on Ben Schmidt, anachronism king, but I’ll keep watching Copper, and if I happen to notice words that are out of place, I’ll be posting them here.

Jul 12

The Origin of “Hussy”

Mad Men housewife Betty Draper Francis and those hussies Don fooled around with have more in common than you might think.

We all know what hussy means: “a woman considered brazen or immoral.” But did you know it actually comes from housewife? The word housewife is an old one, originating in the 13th century as a combination of, you guessed it, house and wife, which are both Old English words. While house has always meant “dwelling, shelter,” wife once meant simply woman, the sense of which, says the Online Etymology Dictionary (OnED), “is preserved in midwife [and] old wives’ tale.”

While today housewife implies a woman who doesn’t hold a traditional job but manages a household (see house husband), it also meant “the mistress of a family; the wife of a householder; a female manager of domestic affairs.” Hussy, which originated in the 1520s, began as a shortening of housewife (the Old English word for house is hus) and, says the OnED:

gradually broadened to mean “any woman or girl,” and by 1650 was being applied to “a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior,” and a general derogatory sense had overtaken the word by late 18c. “It is common to use housewife in a good, and huswife or hussy in a bad sense” [Johnson].

Other hussy-like words also began with other meanings. Slut, attested to the 14th century, originally meant “a careless, lazy woman; a woman who is uncleanly as regards her person or her house; a slattern.” According to the OnED, Chaucer used sluttish “in reference to the appearance of an untidy man.” In the mid-15th century, slut also referred to “a kitchen maid, a drudge” (slut’s pennies were the “hard pieces in a bread loaf from imperfect kneading”); “woman of loose character, bold hussy”; and in the 1660s was used playfully, “without implication of loose morals.”

Minx, “a girl or young woman who is considered pert, flirtatious, or impudent,” first meant “pet dog,” and is of uncertain origin. It may be, says OnED, an abbreviation of minnikin, “girl, woman,” which ultimately comes from the Middle Dutch minne, “love.” Mink, in case you were wondering, may come from the Swedish menk, “a stinking animal in Finland.”

Tit, meaning “breast,” is a variant of teat, but tit meaning “any small animal or object” (like a titmouse) may have a Scandinavian origin (the Norwegian tita means “a little bird”), and in the 1590s referred to “‘a girl or young woman,’ usually in deprecatory sense of ‘a hussy, minx.’”

A quean (not queen) is “a woman; a female person, considered without regard to qualities or position,” and came to refer to “effeminate homosexual” in the 1930s or earlier, “especially in Australian slang.” While quean and queen are related, says Word Origins, quean comes from the Old English cwene, “woman,” while queen comes from cwen, “queen, female ruler of a state, woman, wife.” According to the OnED, “the original sense [of queen] seems to have been ‘wife,’” and was “specialized by Old English to ‘wife of a king.’”

A cukquean, says Word Origins, is the female version of cuckold, while a cotquean, which originally meant “housewife of a cot” or cottage, is an obsolete term for “a man who busies himself with the affairs which properly belong to women,” and “a coarse, masculine woman; a bold hussy.”

Now try telling all of that to Betty.



Apr 12

Lying about lettuce

Last week for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I wrote about, what else, icebergs and iceberg words.

As often is the case, I’m finding, it’s the most common expressions that have the most obscure or complex origins. Take iceberg lettuce. We’ve all heard of it; we’ve all had it. But where does the expression come from? The etymology on Wordnik says “From its pale color,” but to me that seemed like just the tip of the iceberg (haha). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase attests to 1893. The OnED is very reliable, but I wanted another source to back this up.

To the internet! The first hit of “iceberg lettuce origin” gives me the Wikipedia article about lettuce which has a lot of info on the types and cultivation of lettuce but nothing about where the expression iceberg lettuce comes from, except to say that it’s also known as crisphead. The second hit is The Kitchen Project’s The History of Iceberg Lettuce. The page says that iceberg lettuce “until the 1930’s was known as Crisphead lettuce,” and that the founder of Fresh Express, Bruce Church, “was responsible for popularizing the idea of shipping lettuce across the US continent from Salinas, California to the spots on the East coast.” The page goes on:

Using ice they carefully covered the heads of lettuce and shipped them. Year around and all the way as far as Maine, as the train pulled into each stop, folks would call out excitedly, “The icebergs are coming, the icebergs are coming!” The name would stick. Before that people had to depend on what you could grow locally and preserve from the gardens.

The Kitchen Project seems to have gotten this story directly from the Fresh Express site itself, while this site from UC Davis repeats the story and adds the date of 1926.

Both of these sites are in direct contrast to the OnED’s date of origin of 1893. Who’s wrong?

I first looked in Google News Archives. My not very scientific method involves setting an end date and seeing if a particular word or phrase occurs before that date. Plugging in an end date of December 31, 1893 yielded no results. So I inched my way up, year by year.

The earliest citation I could find (that wasn’t behind a paywall) was from September 26, 1923, three years before Bruce Church is said to have developed his iced lettuce shipping method: “Pacific Coast Iceberg lettuce brought from $3.00 to $4.50 per crate of three to four dozen heads.”

Not satisfied, I went into Google Books and searched for “iceberg lettuce” in books published before December 31, 1893, and found five examples of “iceberg lettuce” appearing well before 1926. Here are three of them:

  • From American Garden, published in January 1893: “New Iceberg lettuce, a new dwarf pea, an extra-early cucumber, a new cauliflower and a distinct squash all are novelties of the year, free for trial to Burpee’s customers.”
  • In Station Bulletin of Oregon State College, iceberg lettuce is listed among donations in 1894.
  • The Ladies’ Home Journal, published Christmas 1893, includes an advertisement for “new iceberg lettuce.”

So the Online Etymology Dictionary was right, and Bruce Church and Fresh Express are, well, lying.

I’m sure this isn’t the only use of false etymology to sell something, but for the life of me, I can’t think of another one. Wikipedia does have a list of common false etymologies but none are from are from retailers.


Jan 12

The Thug Life

I was listening to an old episode of This American Life today called Thugs. I didn’t listen to the whole thing, but it got me wondering about the word itself and where it comes from. Then I was reading this article about Timothy Olyphant and Justified, and the word popped up again (“‘Not much call for cowboys these days,’ the thug says in a syrupy, menacing drawl”) and I knew I had to write about it.

A thug is commonly known today as “a cutthroat or ruffian; a hoodlum,” but originally the word referred specifically to “a member of a confraternity of professional assassins and robbers formerly infesting India, chiefly in the central and northern provinces.” Here’s more from Century Dictionary:

The thugs roamed about the country in bands of from 10 to 100, usually in the disguise of peddlers or pilgrims, gaining the confidence of other travelers, whom they strangled, when a favorable opportunity presented itself, with a handkerchief, an unwound turban, or a noosed cord. The shedding of blood was seldom resorted to. The motive of the thugs was not so much lust of plunder as a certain religious fanaticism. The bodies of their victims were hidden in graves dug with a consecrated pickax, and of their spoil one third was devoted to the goddess Kali, whom they worshiped. About 1830–35 the British government took vigorous measures for their suppression, and thuggery, as an organized system, is now extinct.

The word thug comes from the Hindi thag, meaning “cheat, swindler,” which comes from the Sanskrit, sthagaḥ, “a cheat.” Sthagah may come from sthagayati, “(he) covers, conceals,” which has the Proto-Indo-European base of (s)teg, “cover”  (Greek stegos). (S)teg gives us stegosaurus, so in a roundabout way, you could say that stegosauruses are the thugs of dinosaurs.

Thuggee is “the system of mysterious assassination carried on by the thugs,” meaning the thugs of old India, and is also known as thuggery. A thugocracy (a combination of thug and the Greek root cracy, meaning “rule or government by”) is “government by a group of thugs,” of which the Word Spy cites the earliest citation as being from 1982. The term thug life seems to have originated with the music group Tupac Shakar formed in 1993, and now commonly refers to, according to the Urban Dictionary, “when you have nothing, and succeed, when you have overcome all obstacles to reach your aim.”

An offensive synonym for thug is Apache. Apparently it was used to refer to a “Parisian gangster or thug” in the early 20th century. Another one is goon, “a thug hired to intimidate or harm opponents.” The word also refers to “a stupid or oafish person” as well as a “cheap or inferior cask wine.” Goon comes from gooney, English dialect for a simpleton, and, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, was “applied by sailors to the albatross and similar big, clumsy birds” around 1839. In the movie The Goonies, the title refers to the birds in the seaside town, as well as the goofy, gooney-like kids. But where gooney originally came from is unknown, at least as far as I could find.

Goon in the sense of “hired thug” was first recorded 1938, “probably from Alice the Goon, slow-witted and muscular (but gentle-natured) character in ‘Thimble Theater’ comic strip (starring Popeye).”

I remember Alice the Goon from the Popeye cartoons. She always creeped me out.

Aug 11

100 ATRO #78: British slang

If you didn’t already know, ATRO stands for Awesome Things Rip-Off because I totally ripped off the idea from this guy.

Man it’s been ages since I last did one of these! I’m an Awesome Things Rip-Off slacker.

Anyway, now that a lot of our favorite shows are on summer hiatus (except for Breaking Bad, True Blood, and Louie of course) MB and I have been watching a few British shows off Hulu, Netflix, and, ahem, by other means.  I love these shows not just because of shots of London, the cursing, nudity, and, the sometimes better acting.  I love picking up on British slang and differences in casual conversation.

For instance, on Law & Order UK and Luther, they say copper for police officer.  Copper seems to be said in old American movies, but nowadays U.S. crime dramas use cop or officer, or like on The Wire, PO-lice, as in “He’s good PO-lice.” The British copper seems to have the same sentiment – someone who’s a police officer not just in occupation but to the very bone (by the way, Idris Elba who plays bad guy Stringer Bell in The Wire plays copper John Luther in Luther).

For the longest time, MB and I couldn’t figure out what DS was, till finally he figured it out: “Detective Sergeant!”  (In the U.S. it’s just detective.)  “All right?” people say instead of “How are you?” or “What’s up?” which I first heard in the Harry Potter movies.  Same with mental, crazy, or ment-ul.  There’s ending sentences in yeah? which seems like our equivalent of ending sentences in right?  “You were at your mum’s all night, yeah?”

Then there’s the name calling, which the misfits in Misfits are fond of.  Wanker.  Tosser.  Twat.  Prick (which Americans use too).  There’s fanny, which on the this side of the pond is a prim way of referring to the ass, but over there actually means vagina (note to self: do not refer to my fanny when in London).   When the misfits talked a about fancy dress party, I automatically thought formal or black tie.  Wrong!  Fancy dress is what we’d call costume or masquerade.

There’s “It’s not down to you,” like American English’s “It’s not up to you.”  “Are you finished with me?” instead of “Are you breaking up with me?”  “Are you taking a piss?” seems to be the same as “Are you joking around?”  “Are you dicking around with me?” seems to be a more hostile version of “Are you taking a piss?”

It’s also interesting to see the differing degrees of slang between the shows.  Sherlock and Torchwood seem to have less while Misfits has a lot, which I love, as well as a couple of accents I can barely understand (Kelly, I’m looking at you).

I know there’s tons more slang and colloquialisms I’m not aware of, and you bet your fanny, uh I mean ass, I’ll be writing them down.