Know Your Words

Happy Thanksgiving, You Turkey

President Bush pardons the Thanksgiving turkey in the Rose Garden.
W. inspects the subject of his presidential pardon.

I love Thanksgiving. The relative non-commercialism, the gluttony, the several types of pie. In honor of this special day, I’m going to pass a serving of etymology your way and give you the stuffing on the word turkey.

Here’s the skinny on the bird that’ll be the word this coming Thursday. Turkey, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins:

… was originally applied to the guinea fowl, because the bird was purportedly imported into Europe from Africa by the Portuguese through Turkish territory. When the American bird we now know as the turkey was introduced to the British in the mid-16th century it seems to have reminded them of guinea fowl, for they transferred the guinea fowl’s name, turkey, to it.

This is the general story—that the American bird reminded people of the African bird, so they gave it the guinea fowl’s old name: turkey. Yet, the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories fattens this story up with a second helping of detail.

The large, ungainly bird that is known scientifically as the Meleagris gallopavo was first domesticated by the Aztecs, Mayas, and other civilized Indian tribes of Mexico and Central America. At the time of their conquest of the “New” World, the Spanish began exporting the domesticated fowl to the “Old” World. First introduced into the lands bordering the Mediterranean early in the 16th century, the fowl was gradually domesticated throughout northern Europe and England.

From the beginning, the New World fowl was confused with a bird of African origin that had been known to Mediterranean peoples since ancient times. The Old World bird was commonly known as the guinea fowl, guinea cock, or turkey-cock. The name guinea fowl derived from the fact that it was sometimes exported from Guinea on the west coast of Africa by the Portuguese. The name turkey-cock derived from the fact that the fowl had been originally imported to Europe from the territory that the Europeans thought of as Turkish.


Indeed, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines turkey as “a large domestic fowl brought from Turkey.” Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, on the other hand, dispenses with such history and offers a more contemporary take on the bird and its unfortunate destiny:

A large bird whose flesh when eaten on certain religious anniversaries has the peculiar property of attesting piety and gratitude. Incidentally, it is pretty good eating.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This is all well and good, Dear Papercut, but what does this have to do with insulting a person by calling him or her a turkey?”

I tried to find the answer to that question. The closest I came was the following entry for turkey in The Slang of Sin: “A gambler who is not familiar with the etiquette of the game or gambling.”

Since we tend to call someone a “turkey” when he or she is acting foolish or doing something stupid, my guess is that the use of the word as an insult hatched from this slangy use of the term.

Happy? Good. Now please pass the pie.

Know Your Words

Camus on the Death Penalty … and Euphemism

Les_Formes_acerbesFor many years, I’ve had Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion and Death on my bookshelf. I meant to read it some time ago, as I’ve read most of his other work, but somewhere along the line I got sidetracked, my mind commandeered by other books and ideas.

I finally opened it last week and, in addition to it being a remarkably (and somewhat shockingly) timely book, it also introduced me to Camus’s stellar essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which dismantles not only the arguments in favor of this horrid practice, but the euphemistic language that helps it continue in “civilized” countries like this one.

I won’t provide a recap of the essay here, but I encourage you to read it (which you can do here. Better yet, buy the book as there is tons of great stuff in it beyond this one essay). What I will do, though, is provide an excerpt of Camus’s thoughts on how proponents of state-sanctioned murder talk about it indirectly so as not to offend us with its reality.

Camus begins his essay on the death penalty by telling the story of his father reaction to witnessing a public execution.

“My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit.”

He then continues:

“Presumably that ritual act is horrible indeed if it manages to overcome the indignation of a simple straightforward man and if a punishment he considered richly deserved had no other effect in the end than to nauseate him. When the extreme penalty simply causes vomiting on the part of the respectable citizen it is supposed to protect, how can anyone maintain it is likely, as it ought to be, to bring more peace and order into the community? Rather, it is obviously no less repulsive than the crime, and this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one. Indeed, no one dares speak directly to the ceremony. Officials and journalists who have to talk about it, as if they were aware of both its provocative and its shameful aspects, have made up a sort of ritual language, reduced to stereotyped phrases. Hence we read at breakfast time in a corner of the newspaper that the condemned “has paid his debt to society” or that he has “atoned” or that “at five a.m. justice was done.” The officials call the condemned man the “interested party” or “the patient” or refer to him by a number. People write of capital punishment as if they were whispering. In our well-policed society we recognize that an illness is serious from the fact that we don’t dare speak of it directly. For a long time, in middle-class families people said no more than that their elder daughter had a “suspicious cough” or that the father had a “growth” because tuberculosis and cancer were looked upon as somewhat shameful maladies. This is probably even truer of capital punishment since everyone strives to refer to it only through euphemisms. It is to the body politic what cancer is to the individual body, with this difference: no one has ever spoken of the necessity of cancer. There is no hesitation, on the other hand, about presenting capital punishment as a regrettable necessity, and let’s not talk about it because it is regrettable.

“But it is my intention to talk about it crudely. Not because I like scandal, nor, I believe, because of an unhealthy streak in my nature. As a writer, I have always loathed avoiding the issue; as a man, I believe that the repulsive aspects of our condition, if they are inevitable, must be merely faced in silence. But when silence or tricks of language contribute to maintaining an abuse that must be reformed or a suffering that can be relieved, then there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak…. The survival of such a primitive rite has been made possible among us only by the thoughtlessness or ignorance of the public, which reacts only with the ceremonial phrases that have been drilled into it. When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. But if people are shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and hear the sound of a head fallen, then public imagination, suddenly awakened, with repudiate both the vocabulary and the penalty.”


EuphemisI’ve been thinking of writing a post on the word euphemism for some time. After all, with the Trump administration (somewhat shakily) at the helm, the euphemisms have been flying like frisbees at an Ultimate tournament. Yet, when I came across these words by Camus, I thought I’d let him do the honors of discussing how the mechanism of euphemism works to dull our sensitivities to everyday horrors in the here and now.

Camus, of course, doesn’t get in to the word’s etymology. I’ll remedy that now.

The word euphemism, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, comes from the Greek word euphemizein, meaning “use auspicious words” (from eu “well” and pherein “to hear”). The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins agrees, but adds that the Greek term “originally denoted the avoidance of words of ill-omen at religious ceremonies.” It goes on to say the word, “was subsequently taken up by grammarians to signify the substitution of a less for a more offensive word.”

Put this way, euphemism sounds almost nice, like the user of euphemistic language is doing anyone who might be listening a favor. This is not the case, of course, as euphemisms are typically used to deceive rather than minimize offense. This is apparent not only in the except from Camus included above, but also by the very existence of euphemistic language dictionaries.

Here at the LRL, we have at least three dictionaries devoted to the subject of euphemism — Lambdin’s Doublespeak Dictionary, the Faber Dictionary of Euphemisms, and Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms and other Doubletalk — as well as a few others, such as Ambrose Bierce’s famous Devil’s Dictionary, which gets a lot of mileage out of indirect speech. I’ve quoted from most of these texts in earlier posts (especially the more political entries), and if the past is any guide, I’ll be doing it again. As noted in the Dictionary of Euphemisms and other Doubletalk, “Euphemisms are in a constant state of flux. New ones are created almost daily.”

Know Your Words

The Difference ‘Tween Fright and Horror


I forget where I saw it now, but I came across the word “preternatural” in something I was reading today and it got me thinking about what it meant and how it differed from similar words, such as supernatural. Then I though, “Hey, Halloween is almost here. Why not do a post on the ol’ wordy blog that shows folks the difference between Halloween-y words such as demonic, grotesque, and horror. And so, that’s just what I did. Enjoy.

By the way, the definitions of horror and grotesque are freakin’ awesome!

Possessed by a demon or evil spirit; of or pertaining to demons; Characteristic of or befitting a demon, devilish; Of the nature of a demon or in-dwelling spirit.

Full of dread, fear, or awe; Fearful, terrified, timid, or reverential; Inspiring dread or reverence, awe-inspiring; terrible, formidable; Awful, to be dreaded; In a weakened sense, applied to objects exciting fear or aversion.

Fear in general; Anything that causes terror, such as a person or thing of shocking, grotesque, or ridiculous appearance

A painful emotion compounded of loathing and fear; A shuddering with terror and repugnance; Strong aversion mingled with dread; The feeling excited by something shocking or frightful

Fun fact pertaining to the word horror: Horrescent, meaning “shuddering, expressive of horror,” is an actual word.

A kind of decorative painting or sculpture consisting of represenations of portions of human and animal forms fantastically combined and interwoven with foliage and flowers; In a wider sense, characterized by distortions or unnatural combinations; fantastically extravagant; bizarre; Ludicrous from incongruity, fantastically absurd.

Inspiring fear, awe, or horror, such as to cause one to shudder with fear

Something extraordinary or unnatural; An animal or plant deviating in one or more of its parts from the normal type, specifically an animal afflicted with some congenital malformation; An imaginary animal, such as a centaur, having a form either partially brute or partially human, or compound elements from two or more animal forms; A person of inhumane or horrible cruelty or wickedness

That which is out of the ordinary course of nature; beyond, surpassing or differing from what is natural; Non-natural. Formerly = abnormal, exceptional, unusual; sometimes = unnatural

Corrupt, evil, bad, base;  Of omens: portending or indicating misfortune or disaster, full of dark or gloomy suggestiveness; inauspicious, unfavorable.

That which is above nature; Belonging to a higher realm or system than that of nature; Transcending the powers or the ordinary course of nature

The state of being terrified or greatly frightened; Intense fear, fright, or dread

Not in accordance or conformity with the physical nature of persons or animals; Not in accordance or agreement with the usual course or nature; At variance with natural feeling or moral standards, excessively cruel or wicked.

Of persons not fearing or reverencing God; Irreligious, impious, wicked; Of actions not in accordance with the will or law of God; (colloquially) Outrageous, dreadful.

Oxford English Dictionary (compact version)


Know Your Words · LRL Achive

The Dictionary: An Agreeable Companion

Dictionary Digger
A reference enthusiast of yore celebrates Dictionary Day way back when. (image in public domain.)

In honor of Dictionary Day, I looked at how the word dictionary was defined in in eight references published over a span of 79 years. Much to my surprise, the definition of the term  has remained remarkably steady over the years, although they do seem to grow larger as time progresses.


Webster’s School and Office Dictionary (1914)

Dictionary. A book containing the words of a language arranged alphabetically, with their meanings; a work explaining the terms of any subject under heads alphabetically arranged.

National Dictionary (1940)

Dictionary. A book containing all, or the principal, words in a language, with phonetics indicative of the sound of each, followed by definitions and other explanatory matter. See lexicon. [Late Latin]

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966)

Dictionary. [Middle Latin dictionaries < Latin dictio] 1. A book of alphabetically listed words in a language, with definitions, etymologies, pronunciation, and other information; lexicon: a dictionary is a record of generally accepted meanings, acquired up to the time o its publication. 2. A book of alphabetically listed words in a language with their equivalents in another language: as a Spanish-English dictionary. 3. Any alphabetically arranged list of words or articles relating to a special subject: as, a medical dictionary.

Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966)

Dictionary. 1. A book containing a selection of the words of a language, usually arranged alphabetically, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, etc., expressed in either the same or another language; lexicon; glossary: a dictionary of English; a french-English dictionary. 2. a book giving information on particular subjects or on a particular class of words, names, or facts usually arranged alphabetically: a biographical dictionary; a dictionary of mathematics [< ML dictionarium, lit., a wordbook < LL, dictio – word (see diction) + arium -ary]

American Heritage Dictionary (1969)

Dictionary. 1. A reference book containing an explanatory alphabetical list of words, as: a. a book listing a comprehensive or restricted selection of the words of a language, identifying usually the phonetic, grammatical, and semantic value of each word, often with etymology , citations, and usage guidance, and other information. b. Such a book listing the words of a particular category within a language. 2. A book listing the words of a language with transitions into another language. 3. A book listing words or other linguistic items, with specialized information about them: a medical dictionary [Medieval Latin dictionaries, from latin dicta, Diction]

Webster’s Dictionary (1971)

Dictionary [Latin: dicere, to say] A book containing, alphabetically arranged, the words of a language, their meanings, and etymology; a lexicon

World Book Dictionary (1989)

Dictionary. 1. A book that explains the words of a language, or some special kinds of words. it is usually arranged alphabetically. One can use a dictionary to find out the meaning, pronunciation, or spelling of a word. A medical dictionary explains words used in medicine. A German-English dictionary translates German words into English. A dictionary of biography has accounts of people’s lives arranged in alphabetical order of their names. From the time of [Samuel] Johnson on, the dictionary has been a conservative and standardizing agency from the spelling of the language as well as for its other aspects. Syn: lexicon. 2. a book of information or reference n any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged in some stated order, often alphabetical: a dictionary of folklore, a Dictionary of the Bible. 3. Figurative. any repository of knowledge or information: Life is our dictionary (Emerson). Abbr: dict. [Medieval Latin dictionaries < Latin dictio]

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1993)

Dictionary [Middle Latin dictionaries, Late Latin dictiondicta word + latin -arium – ary] 1: a reference book containing words usu. alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses < a general ~ of the English language> <a monolingual ~>–compare vocabulary entry 2a: a reference book listing terms of names important to a particular subject or activity along with discussion of their meanings and applications <a law~> <a~of sports>; broadly: an encyclopedic listing <a~of dates> c: a reference book listing terms as commonly spelled together with their equivalents in some specialized system (as of orthography or symbols) <a~of shorthand> <a pronouncing ~> 3a: a general comprehensive list, collection, or repository <a ~ of biography> <a usage ~> b. vocabulary in use (as in a special field): terminology <the ~ of literary criticism> c: a vocabulary of accepted terms <in the ~ of the French Academy> d: a vocabulary of the written words used by one author <systematic dictionaries of individual authors> e: lexicon

On one hand, the similarity among the definitions seems strange, as it’s hard to believe that there haven’t been new ideas about the dictionary in nearly 80 years. On the other, the constancy of the definitions mirrors the history of dictionary making itself. As E.L. McAdam and George Milne write in their introduction to Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection, “All lexicographers use earlier dictionaries, if only to avoid the danger of omitting some words by inadvertence.” Could that be the reason for the similarity?

I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know, however, is that dictionaries are so much more than just their definitions. The are friends … or at least “agreeable companions.”

To many people a dictionary is a forbidding volume, a useful but bleak compendium to be referred to hastily for needed information, such as spelling and pronunciation. Yet what a dictionary ought to be is a treasury of information about every aspect of words, our most essential tools of communication. It should be an agreeable companion. By knowledgeable use of the dictionary we should learn where a word has come from, precisely what its various shades of meaning are today, and its social status. — American Heritage Dictionary 

I concur! And with that, I wish you a Happy Dictionary Day!

To see more examples of all the awesome information available in dictionaries of all types, poke around this site! Don’t know where to start? Look at the list of previous posts or the tag cloud on the right side of the page.


Know Your Words

The “Trouble” in Enigma

Nelson Muntz was once described as “an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a vest.” An article in today’s Washington Post refers to the Trump White House as a “troubling enigma.” These are entertaining and memorable statements (and in the case of the second one, somewhat sad), but what exactly does the word enigma mean?


An enigma, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is:

  1. A short composition in prose or verse, in which something is described by intentionally obscure metaphors, to afford an exercise for the ingenuity of the reader or hearer to guessing what it meant; a riddle. In a wider sense, an obscure or allusive speech; a parable.
  2. Something as puzzling; an unsolved problem.

As for the word’s origin, enigma, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, “comes via Latin from Greek ainigma ‘riddle,’ from ainissesthai, ‘speak allusively or obscurely,’ from ainos, ‘fable.'”

The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) says the same thing, as does Origins, but the latter offers an interesting addition that makes the term and its use a little clearer. After providing an etymology similar to the above, it notes:

… to speak darkly, hence in riddles, from ainos, a fable or an allegory; perhaps comes from the Gothic inilo,  a plea, or a reason, to be excused.

The addition of a word like “darkly,” is helpful given that, while enigma is equated with something puzzling or undecipherable, the word has always had a sinister tinge to it. (The use of the word “intentional” in the OED definition starts down this path, but doesn’t go far enough.) In fact, the sense of evil in the word is precisely why it’s so applicable to a character like Nelson Muntz, and why it is indeed so “troubling” to apply it to the current U.S. administration.

Dictionary of Word Origins
Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Oxford English Dictionary (compact edition)
Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories

For more info on the LRL’s collection, go here.

Know Your Words

The Origin of “Hurricane”

With all the recent news about the struggles of Puerto Rico’s citizens following Hurricane Maria, you may find yourself wondering a few things. Would I be able to survive in such conditions? Are the people of Puerto Rico resilient and tough or what? And, of course, why was the federal government’s response to this disaster so slow? You may also find yourself wondering, as I was, about the history of the word hurricane. To find out, I let the winds of curiosity drive me into the Lonely Reference Library. Here’s what I learned.

Winslow Homer – Hurricane, Bahamas (1897 – image in public domain)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term hurricane

“… is the name given primarily to the violent windstorms of the West Indies, which are cyclones [with diameters] of 50 to 100 miles, wherein the air moves with a velocity of from 80 to 130 miles per hour around a central calm space, which with the whole system advances in a straight or curved track; hence any storm or tempest in which the wind blows with terrific violence.”

This isn’t too far off from the definition of hurricane used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, home to the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center), which states: “A tropical cyclone in the Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, or eastern Pacific, which the maximum 1-minute sustained surface wind is 64 knots (74 mph) or greater.”

(In case you’re wondering, NOAA defines a tropical cyclone as “A warm-core, non-frontal synoptic-scale cyclone, originating over tropical or subtropical waters with organized deep convection and a closed surface wind circulation about a well-defined center.”)

Annnnyway …

The OED says the word first appeared in a 1555 work titled Decades of the New World by Italian historian Peter Martyr. In it he writes, “the tempests of the ayer, they caule furacanes … violent and furious.”

Furacanes? It would seem so.

According to the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins:

“European voyagers first encountered the swirling winds of the hurricane in Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and they borrowed a local word to name it–(Carib.) huracan. This found its way to into English via Spanish. An early alternative form was furacano, which came from a Caribbean variant furacan.

Origins, the “short etymological dictionary of modern English,”  offers a similar story, with an intriguing twist:

Hurricane: Spanish huracán: Taino (a language native to the region, now said to be extinct) huracan, hurricán, an evil spirit of the sea, hence hurricane. (Websters; Spanish authorities prefer Caribbean huracán.)

I looked throughout the LRL’s holdings for more on this “hurricán – evil spirit” connection, but could find nothing. I did, however, learn that dreaming of a hurricane could mean that “your dreaming mind is warning you that someone’s (maybe yours) pent-up emotion is about to burst out of control.” Dreams of hurricanes could also mean that you:
1. “Feel powerless against violent or chaotic emotions,”
2. Are unable to face “your own insecurities,” or,
3. Fret over the “frailty of the material world.”


Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto)
Dream Dictionary from A to Z
Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Oxford English Dictionary (compact edition)

Know Your Words · Loner's Dictionary

It’s about Time!

Engraving by John Byddell of Truth, “the daughter of time” being led out of the darkness by Time, which “revealeth all things. A vomiting demon labeled hypocrisy threatens her. (Image in public domain)

It’s been more than a month since my last post in this virtual space. What have I been doing? Well, first and foremost, I moved. That took a lot of time (so many trips back and forth from the old place to the new! Ugh). As for the rest of it, I … I … don’t have any idea. I did, however get an idea: hence this post about the word time.

The word time, as I’m sure you’re well aware, can refer to many things. To make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m using the word to mean, “the period between events or during which something exists, happens, or acts; a measured or measurable interval.” (Thank you, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.)

Okay, so that’s how I’m using it, but where does this word come from? The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories offers the following explanation:

Old English tima, of Germanic origin, is related to tide, which it superseded in temporal senses, leaving tide to refer to the movements of the sea. The earliest of the current verb senses (dating from the late Middle English) is ‘do (something) at a particular moment.’

As usual, the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins offers another opinion.

Time originally denoted ‘delimited section of existence, period.’ Its ultimate source is the Indo-European base *di- ‘cut up, divide.’ This passed in prehistoric German as *ti- (source of English tide), and addition of the suffix *-mon- produced *timon – whence English time and Swedish timme ‘hour.’ The application of the word to the more generalized, abstract notion of ‘continuous duration’ dates from the 14th century.

And as usual, both of these explanations pale in comparison to the expert information one finds in Eric Partridge’s Origins, which begins by explaining the link between tide and time.

1. The tides of the sea were so names from their occurrence at regular times: the basic sense of tide (Middle English tide, earlier tid) was ‘time,’ hence a definite time, an opportune time, as in ‘Time and tide wait for no man.’

“Time smoking a picture” (William Hogarth). Image in public domain

2. Time … is akin to Old Norse timi. It is therefore clear that, already in Old Norse and Old English, time and tide were doublets: they have the same root, but different suffixes: the Old Germanic root is *ti-, corresponding to an Indo-European root *di-, comes from Armenian ti, time, and the Sanskrit goddess Aditis (a-, ‘not’ + ditis), ‘the timeless, hence eternal, one’: perhaps also comes from Sanskrit dayate, he divides, he apportions, and Greek daiomai, I divide or apportion ….

So there you have it: from the time on the clock that divides up your day, to the tides of the ocean giveth and taketh away, to the Gods and Goddesses of divide and apportion everything, ourselves included. And to think I was just trying to come up with a clever way of apologizing for not having posted in a while. Mind blown.


Fascinating as it is, I find it interesting that none of these origin stories mentions Latin tempus, source of the English temporal and extemporaneous. Latin does rear its head, however, in the saying, “time flies,” which the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (FFEW&FO) describes as:

An old workhorse of a phrase that goes back at least to the Latin tempus fugit, meaning the same, which in turn was suggested by a phrase in the Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics that translates: “Irretrievable time is flying!”

The FFEW&FO also lists a few other time-related phrases worth adding to your conversational repertoire:

Time, gentlemen, please! – A British barman’s reminder that the pub will be closing.
Time heals all wounds – uttered by Hippocrates
Time wounds all heels – uttered by Frank Case (owner of the Algonquin Hotel in NYC)
Time to whistle up the dogs and piss on the fire – Cowboy slang for it’s time to go.



Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto)
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins
Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language