July 30, 2007


Tawdry - Gaudy and cheap in nature or appearance

The word now pretty uncommon has a charming story to go with its origin. In the 7th century, Etheldreda, the queen of Northumbria, decided to renounce her husband and her royal position for the veil of a nun. She died of a throat tumor in 679. She blamed this growth on her love of wearing necklaces in her youth and claimed that it was sent as a punishment. After Ethelreda's death, she became a patron saint and her name was simplified to St Audrey . She was paid tribute to every year on the 17th October when a fair would be held in her name. In honour of Saint Audrey - and her fatal fondness for necklaces - ribbon and lace were sold at this fair to adorn the ladies' necks. These were called 'St Audrey's lace' which by the 17th century had become altered to 'tawdry lace' . Eventually tawdry came to be applied to all the cheap knickknacks, jewelery, and toys sold at the fair.

Sources: The Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories
Pic: www.intimelyfashion.com

July 23, 2007


Eavesdrop- To listen secretly to the private conversation of others.

An eave is the edge of a roof which usually projects beyond the side of the building to offer weather protection. In Old English, eavesdrop (or eavesdrip) referred to the ground of the house on which water falls from the eaves. By the 15th century, the word eavesdropper came to mean someone who stood within the eavesdrop of a house to overhear what is going on inside. This lead to the verb eavesdrop and is first recorded in the seventeenth century.

Sources: The Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories, www.answers.com
Pic: Painting by William Powell Frith.

July 16, 2007


OK, here goes the explanation. (If you've just arrived, please refer to the previous post)

Clue1: One of the unlikely though interesting origins of OK is in the grading of woods used for furniture. The best oak goes as "Oak A" :)

Clue2: This is supposedly the most likely of the origins. Around 1830's Bostonian newspapers were full of these fashionable abbreviations (like R.T.B.S = Remains To Be Seen) that became increasingly popular with the readers. The abbreviation craze went so far as to produce abbreviations of intentional misspellings. No Go became K.G. (Know Go) and All Correct became O.K. (Oll Korrect), the joke being that neither the O nor the K was correct. Most of these abbrevaitions are believed to have gained currency in those times but only O.K. spread and survived.

Clue3: In 1840, OK was a slogan of the Democratic Party for President Martin Van Buren's reelection campaign. Named after his birthplace, Old Kinderhook, New York. "O.K. clubs" supporting him were established throughout the country. Old Kinderhook lost, but O.K. won a permanent place in American English.

Clue4: Haitian port called "Aux Cayes" (pronounced as aw-kay) . French fishermen might sometimes have used the phrase "au quai", literally "to the quay", to mean that a fishing trip was successful (or went okay)

Abhishek's comment led to further research and another theory that in World War II the term "zero killed" was used when a unit suffered no casualties in combat, and that this was then shortened to 0K. This proposed etymology is grossly anachronistic, since by this time the term had been widely used for a full century. The same theory has also been applied to the Civil War, but this is also anachronistic.

Hope I got it Waaw-kay!!! :)

Sources: The Merriam-Webster Book of Word Histories, www.answers.com
Pic : http://www.wpclipart.com/

July 13, 2007

Ek Sawal


1. The grading of woods used in furniture;
2. The abbreviations craze of the US in the 1830’s which eventually lead to some intentional misspellings;
3. Martin Van Buren’s failed re-election in 1940;
4. A Haitian port famous for its rum.

Background: This question was asked in Chakravyuh 2003 organized by yours truly and my illustrious pardner. One of the all time classics of etymology. (Didnt impress the hard core quiz studds around though, who cracked it by the time I had read the point 2!). Googling should throw up the answer. Drop in your search results, views on each of the four points above in the comments

Disclaimer: The author of this post claims intellectual property right to the above question. It has not been sourced from any quiz groups around.

July 11, 2007

Mad as a hatter

Mad as a hatter - Crazy, demented

Reminds you of Alice's companion in her wonderland? I used to think the expression was Lewis Carroll's gift to the language just as jabberwocky is. Turns out the phrase was popular well before Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" was published. "Mad hatter syndrome" was actually a medical affliction in Carroll's times.In the mid-1800s, hat makers used hot solutions of mercuric nitrate to shape wool felt hats and prolonged exposure to mercury vapors caused severe neurological damage ranging from uncontrollable muscular twitching (known as "hatter's shakes") to dementia. Hatters working in poorly ventilated workshops would breathe in (elemental) mercury vapor and in advanced cases, developed hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.

Source: http://www.word-detective.com
Pic : www.rjohnwright.com

July 05, 2007

Beyond the pale

Beyond the pale - Unacceptable, Outside the bounds of morality, good behavior or judgment

Ironic (perhaps not), but I’m still to see a society which is not segregated, subtly or emphatically so. When will equal be equal enough, is anyone’s guess. George Orwell had a reason when he wrote,"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". Brings me to the phrase that has its roots in the same grounds as Ghetto .

"Pale" here refers to the archaic sense of the word when it meant wooden strips that are set in series to form a fence. An area enclosed by them was also referred to as pale. So, to be 'beyond the pale' was to be outside the area that's marked as "territory" or "home". Catherine II created a 'Pale of Settlement' in Russia in 1791. This was a western border region of the country in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Russian Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, beyond the pale. More can be read here .

Pales were enforced in various other European countries for similar political reasons, notably in Ireland (the Pale of Dublin) : that part of the country over which England had direct jurisdiction.

The first printed reference comes from 1657 in John Harington's poem "The History of Polindor and Flostella"

Sources: http://www.phrases.org.uk/, www.answers.com

Pic: Map of "The Pale of Settlement" from http://www.friends-partners.org

July 02, 2007

(Don't) Make like a Tree

This one started off as an expression that pissed me off- which, if you do not exist solely on sheets of cellulose and/or silicon, is not a very wholesome thing to do. But I digress.

The expression really means 'to leave' and usually, pretty quickly. (I know! I felt cheated too. How can you make like a tree and do something that a tree never does: to wit, leave?) A bit of googling, done a long time ago (which is why I cannot remember my sources) revealed that the expression was the result of a (rather sorry, in my opinion) pun on the phenomenon of leaving in deciduous trees, whereby they shed their leaves in "fall" (which is called so because leaves fall off trees in that season).

Therefore, you can make like a tree and leave. Though I still think it is kind of insensitive, given that trees stay 'rooted' to one place all the time. Wait till Arundhati Roy figures that one out...

Sources: Google