Sunday, 15 May 2022

Synonym Etymologies H

Continuing the look at synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist, this time it is the letter H and hot. As ever a simple mono-syllabic word is very old and often difficult to trace very far. We do know it is Germanic and has never changed its meaning in all that time. It does seem to have been used to refer to objects which have are overly warm, rather than air temperature or any comment on the weather. Perhaps of greater interest is the Middle English pronunciation with a long vowel, thus rhyming with such as 'boat' or 'wrote'.

Warm began as the adjective, another of Germanic origins, and also one where the early roots are unclear as use of the word has never changes.


Balmy is from 'balm' and did originally refer to something 'soothing, relaxing'. The term has the same root as the balsam tree, both referring to the therapeutic properties.


Boiling, from 'boil', is derived from the Proto-Indo-European roos beu 'to swell'. The reference to heat needs no explanation.

Searing is from 'sear', and originally began meaning 'dry'. Again the heat reference is self-explanatory.

Roasting, from 'roast', refers to meat cooked on a grill or grate, and not used as a term for food cooked in an oven (which should be 'bake') until around the start of the 14th century. As with other simplistic words, the meaning has never changed.

Scorching is from 'scorch', itself used in many early Germanic languages to mean 'shrink, dry up'. Note there is also an Old English word scorchen meaning 'strip the skin from', which has the same origins.

Spicy today is used to refer to something a little piquant, and yet the root is in Latin where it was used in the sense of 'kind, sort' and is related to the word 'species'.

Piquant is clearly of French derivation, and is from the Old French piquer 'to prick, sting, nettle', and has the same root as 'pike' (as in the weapon).


Strong only became used in the flavour sense in recent times, earlier 'strong' was used in the sense of 'severe, firm, bold, resolute' and is derived from Proto-Indo-European strenk meaning 'tigh, narrow'.

Pungent has the same origins as 'piquant' above, although it came across to English much earlier.

Aromatic, from 'aroma', is from the Latin aroma meaning 'sweet odour' and/or the Greek aroma meaning 'spice, herb'.

Ardent is the first of the hot synonyms where it describes someone as 'attractive'. It was once used to describe the effect of alcoholic spirits, and is derived from Proto-Indo-European as 'to burn, glow'.

Sexy is clearly from 'sex' which, in the gender sense, is only seen from 1520s. Earlier, 'sex' was used to mean 'to sever', thus the division between male and female genders was recognised by the Romans with the Latin sexus and sectio.

Desirable, from 'desire', comes from the Old French verb desirrer, itself from the Latin desiderare which meant 'long for, wish' as the modern 'desire' but could also seen as the phrase de sidere 'from the stars' and thus 'awaiting what the stars will bring'.

Sultry comes from an obsolete verb sulter which meant the same as 'swelter', the use of which is clear.

Alluring, from 'allure', began in English from the Old French alurer. This was not only used to mean 'attract, captivate' but also 'to train' when used in the context of hunting with falcons. If this sounds rather odd, then compare the lure used to train falcons.

Seductive is from 'seduce' which came to English from Latin seducere 'to lead astray' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European deuk 'to lead'.

Dishy, unknown until 1961, clearly describes someone as resembling a dish, but just why anyone would wish to be compared to a plate (for that is what a tisc was) is a complete mystery to me.


Current is the first of the synonyms meaning 'in vogue' or perhaps 'popular'. It is not used in the sense in English until the middle of the 15th century, it comes from Old French corant meaning 'lively, running, eager' and it is this positive sense which has endured.

Contemporary is one of those oddities which I never saw as representing Latin con 'together' and a form of 'temporal' until I began studying it. The modern sense is only two centuries old, and until around the same time, the word was 'cotemporary' and meant 'together in time'.

Recent is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ken meaning 'fresh, new, young'. Note the present meaning is only known since the 1620s, while for much of the following four centuries you were as likely to see 'recency' as 'recent'.

The word we began with, 'hot', reminded me of something I heard whilst waiting in the queue at the bank - that I was queuing in the bank dates it. The bank clerk/teller asked the customer, who was bringing back unused foreign currency, how did she find her time abroad. "Oh yer know", replies the customer. "'O'!" One word, one syllable. three letters, and she managed to get rid of two letters. This meant employing both an unaspiration and a glottal stop in a three-letter word. I still wince when I think of it.

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Synonym Etymologies G

Continuing the look at synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist, this time it is the letter G and gas. This I found a little more difficult as there are dozens of synonyms for 'gas' but this is because 'gas' has so many uses - but, as ever, I will give it a try. In the most basic sense it is a state of matter (along with solid and liquid). It is first used in English around the middle of the 17th century and taken from the Dutch. This, in turn, came from the Greek khaos which did not mean 'chaos' but 'empty space'.


Excellent or exciting (it's a gas) was first used in 1953, derived from the earlier hipster term 'gasser' and with the same meaning. But there is a rather earlier use of the term, albeit in the phrase 'everything is gas and goiters' by none other than Charles Dickens in 1839. Note, as I've said so many times, just because a word first appears in print with a certain meaning on a certain date, it does not mean it is the first use of same - indeed, it is safe to assume the vast majority of apparently 'new' words were already in use before they appeared in print, otherwise the reader would likely not have a clue what the writer was talking about. And, let's face it, that would be quite diabelisimilitudinal.


The American use of 'gas' as a shortened form of 'gasoline', first used in the USA in 1864 and itself first used as 'gasolene' in Britain the year earlier. It may come as a surprise to learn it began as a trade name, the fuel burning as a vapour, with the addition of -ol- to denote 'oil' and -ine as a chemical suffix.

Petrol, as the British would know it, is a shortened form of 'petroleum' which, once again, uses 'the -ol- or 'oil' with a perceived chemical suffix -eum. The first element shows it was extracted from rock, for it uses the Latin petra 'rock'.


Vapour, having already mentioned the word and it also once being used in the sense of 'gasses', comes from Old French where it was used to mean 'moisture' as much as 'vapour'. Note the idea of 'the vapours', used from the middle of the 17th century and a reference to anything from fainting to hysteria to fitting, was the then idea it came from exhalations from internal organs of the torso which would be affecting the brain.

Air and, having got away from the gasseous meaning, come back to the original sense. It came to English from Old French air and Latin aer, both with the same meaning, and Greek aer which more often spoke of 'mist, haze, clouds' and later 'atmosphere'. It seems the word originated in Proto-Indo-European aeirein which was used to mean 'raise' and also 'windpipe' and a third meaning of 'artery'. Indeed, this last meaning has also given us the name of the body's major artery the 'aorta'.

Atmosphere seems to be the next logical step, an obviously Greek origin where atmos spoke of 'steam, vapour' and sphaira or 'sphere' combine to describe what the Greeks saw as the contaminated part of the lower part of the air as opposed to the pure and untainted upper air where the gods resided.

Talk is another sense for 'gas', albeit in a negative and slang sense meaning 'empty talk'. It is first seen in print in 1847 and is likely the reason it became used to mean 'joke, funny' as it was by James Joyce in 1917.


Babble is, like many words which describe language difficult to comprehend, imitative of whatever they reference - in this case it is baby talk. Other words which similarly ridicule the speaker are: 'gobbledegook' or imitative of a turkey; 'cuckoo' another suggesting a person is bird-brained; 'jargon' is derived from a phrase meaning 'to twitter like birds'; 'barbarous' tells us they are 'non-Greek speakers' (how atrocious); and 'bafflegab', probably the best of the lot and one which should be brought back into general use.


Wind, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root we 'to blow', is listed here as it is also used as a slighter more polite term for 'gas' as used to refer to air trapped and/or released by the body. Most often, at least in Britain, it describes air trapped in the upper digestive tract - dyspepsia is another term - and thus rather badly named as the discomfort caused in down to trapped air and thus not moving (or windy) in the usual sense. Research revealed the word 'wind' had been used to rhyme with 'hind, rind, behind' until as recently as the 18th century. Even I, who is known for not appreciating poetry, sympathise with poets (the real poets, the rhyming ones) as it severely limits potential rhymes.


Heartburn and, having mentioned dyspepsia/indigestion, clearly confuses the associated pain/discomfort with a cardiac problem. Yet that has only been the case since the 15th century, prior to that the term was used to describe 'anger' or 'bitterness' (1400) and to refer to 'lust' (13th century).

Fart, and if I omit this four-letter offering I'll only be deluged by emails again (thankfully not from Mrs Trellis), has gone almost unchanged since language has been recorded and has never meant anything else. Interestingly, if farting could ever be classified as interesting, until at least the Middle Ages there was also the term 'clatterer' which described one known for their 'clatterfarts', which is an onomatopaeic word refers specifically to audible farts, tending to suggest that other farts around this time were silent farts.

Saturday, 7 May 2022

Synonym Etymologies F

Continuing the look at synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist, this time it is the letter F and fat. The word is a contraction, a shortened form of Old English faettian 'to stuff, cram with', itself from the Proto-Germanic verb faitjan 'to fatten'. Taking it back further we come to Proto-Indo-European poid 'to abound in water, milk, fat, etc.', and thus the earliest references to 'fat' were far from derogatory.


Stout, used in the sense of 'overweight', is unrecorded prior to 1804. It first came to England around 1300 when it was used to mean 'proud, valiant, strong' and is derived from Old French estout, earlier Middle Low German stolt 'stately proud', and back further to Proto-Indo-European stel 'to put, stand'. We still use the phrase 'he is a stout fellow', and this continues to use the original meaning of the word in English.

Plump is not seen in this sense until 1540, prior to that the word referred to someone who was 'blunt, dull' when it came to the individual's manners.

Chubby, daft as it may seem, describes someone as 'resembling a chub'. This freshwater fish is, compared to others in our rivers, rather rotund. While the origin of 'chub' is unclear, there is some thought that it comes from Old Norse kumba 'log' or kumben 'stumpy'.


Portly is not a 'fat' synonym until the end of the 16th century, prior to that it described someone with a 'port' appearance, ie of 'stately, dignified, or noble appearance and carriage'. While 'port' has fallen out of favour in English, both 'portly' and 'deportment' are still in use, albeit the former with a very different meaning.

Flabby is a variation of 'flappy', recorded in 1590 as referring to soft flesh and clearly derived from 'flap', where the etymology is unknown.

Dumpy has an unclear etymology, but must be related to 'dumpling' in coming from the noun 'dump'. It has only been used in this context since 1750.


Chunky is also unrecorded until the middle of the eighteenth century. Clearly derived from 'chunk', itself from 'chuck' as in a cut of meat which, in turn, comes from 'chock' which is still used to refer to a 'block' (used as a brake for aircraft, for example), and that comes from Gaulish tsukka 'a tree stump'.

Sunday, 24 April 2022

Synonym Etymologies E

Continuing the look at synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist, this time it is the letter E and edge. We will look at the noun twice, first as in 'rim' and then as in 'advantage'.

Edge as in 'rim' comes to English through the Germanic route and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European ak 'be sharp' or perhaps 'point'. Note that Germanic trail also sees forms such as the Old Frisian egg, Old Saxon eggia, and Old Norse egg. Remember these early forms when we look at the other use of 'edge' below.


Rim is derived from Old Norse rimi where it was used to refer to 'a raised strip of land or ridge'. That it came to be used in this sense is down to it being used in the Old English saerima or 'seashore'.

Border has only been used in this sense since the early fifteenth century, it came to English with Old French bordeure 'seam, edge of a shield'.

Boundary puts the suffix '-ary' on the word which should be seen as meaning 'limit'.

Fringe also came to English from French, there frenge was used to refer to 'thread, strand' as much as 'edge'.


Margin was first used in English to refer to the edge of a body of water (and still is today). It came from Old French margin and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European merg 'border'.

Lip has only been used in this sense for the last two centuries at most. Clearly from the body part it has hardly changed in millennia and has never had any other meaning, thus the etymology is difficult to see.

Brim, as with margin, started as a reference to where land met water, this time more often used to refer to the riverbank. It is derived from Proto-Indo-European bhrem 'point, spike, edge', where it is easy to see why it came to be used when referring to hats.


Brink has near identical historical usage and meanings, with the exception of Proto-Indo-European bhreng meaning 'to protect' as well as 'edge'.

Verge comes from the Old French verge meaning 'twig, branch' and also 'measuring rod' and 'rod of office' and also 'penis'.


Perimeter is a compound of peri- 'around, about' and -meter from metron 'measure'.

Circumference is another compound word, from circum- 'around' and ferre 'to carry' and also 'to bear children'.


Periphery is first seen in the fourteenth century, where periferie means 'atmosphere around the earth'. It is a compound of peri- (as in perimeter) and the same suffix found in cirumference.

Edge again, this time as in 'advantage'. is from the verb 'to egg on'. Now, if you've ever wondered why we 'egg' someone on, it's because 'egg' is the correct early form and only from the early 17th century did the word become 'edge'. There was no confusion between the two as these would be used in quite different contexts. Thus to 'egg' someone on is the same as edging forward or advancing slowly. (I won't bother with the etymology of 'egg' as in chicken here, or we'll be here all day.)

Advantage is another first sen in the fourteenth century, and comes from the Latin abante 'from before' and Proto-Indo-European ant 'front, forehead'.

Lead is a Germanic word, all forms suggesting 'to travel' and all can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European leit 'to go forth'.

Superiority is from 'superior' and from 'super', 'above, upper' and from Proto-Indo-European uper 'over'.

Dominance is a derivative of dominant, coming to English from Old French dominant, from Latin dominari 'to rule', and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European dem 'home, household'.

Supremacy is derived from supreme, from Latin supremus 'highest' and from that same Proto-Indo-European root uper seen in 'superior'. (Well who else did you think I was going to suggest fitted this description?)

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Synonym Etymologies D

Continuing the look at synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist, this time it is the letter D and dull, as in 'dreary'.

Dull, as used in reference to colour or brightness, is unknown prior to the end of the 14th century. This comes from its use in referring to a tool or weapon being blunt - and that also the reason 'dull' has been used to mean 'slow in understanding' - and can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European dhul from the root dheu 'dust, vapour, smoke'.


Dreary is first used in Old English dreorig and meaning 'cruel, bloody, blood-stained', and came to English through the Germanic line with similar meanings. Ultimately this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European dhreu meaning, depending on the context. 'to fall, flow, drip, droop'. Hence the original 'dripping with blood' has changed to become 'dismal, gloomy' - and one would think blood loss to that extent would hardly make anyone pleased.

Dismal also began with a rather different meaning, for in the early 15th century the sense was 'unlucky, inauspicious'. This came to English from Old French and Medieval Latin, the latter dies mali 'evil or unlucky days', and tracing back further from Proto-Indo-European dyeu 'to shine' and mel 'bad, wrong'.


Drab had been used in the 16th century as a term for a 'dirty or untidy woman' (and worse), but this is connected to an Old French word drap. Here the meaning is 'yellowish-grey' or other similarly lifeless colour by the 18th century and earlier still simply described the thick woollen cloth of unremarkable colour.

Banal, as in 'hackneyed' or 'lacking distinction', has the same origin as 'ban' and is not difficult to see. The Germanic root of both words saw Old Norse banna 'to curse, prohibit', German bannen 'expel, banish', and back to Proto-Indo-European bha 'to speak'. The same cluster of words has also given us 'bandit' and 'contraband'.


Tedious came to English from Old French tedieus and Late Latin taediosus with the same meaning. While of uncertain etymology, it seems likely to be related to words such as Old Church Slavonic tezo and Lithuanian tingiu which both mean 'dull'.

Boring is another where the etymology is uncertain, but probably came to English from French and likely used in the sense of 'boring a hole' where progress might be made but a very slow and laborious pace.

Lifeless is the opposite of life, and the only word we need to examine. All Germanic roots refer to 'body, person' and the like, which earlier forms use as 'continuance, perseverance', this showing the links to earlier still Proto-Indo-European leip 'to stick, adhere'. Hence the longtime sense of 'life' is actually 'not to die'.


Insipid came to English from the French around the early 17th century, and is derived from Latin sapere to 'have a taste' and used more to refer to flavours as it is related to sapidus 'tasty' and also to the modern word 'sapient'.

Wearisome is clearly from 'weary' and both words from the Germanic group which have never had any other meaning than 'to exhaust, make tired'.

Bland is from the Latin blandus 'smooth-talking, flattering, alluring', and thus has virtually changed to the opposite meaning. Tracing this back further takes us to Proto-Indo-European mel 'soft' which, it could be argued, could be lead to the word in both the positive and negative sense of 'bland'.

Flat is not used in the 'dull, tedious, boring' sense until around 1870, when it went even further to mean 'total failure'.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Synonym Etymologies C

Continuing the look at synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist, this time it is the letter C for Cry as in weep.

Cry was originally used to mean 'to utter loudly' and the use of 'cry' as in 'weep' is derived from that. Hence the etymology is the same, but aside from the Spanish cridar, Portuguese gritar and Latin quiritare, all have the same meaning of 'wail, shriek', the source is unknown. What is known, and quite astonishing, is to find that nobody 'cried' before 1852, other synonyms were used, some of which follow.


Weep is a Germanic word and has always meant the same as it does today, it is derived from Proto-Indo-European wab with exactly the same meaning.

Tear can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European dakru, which was not only used to refer to teardrops, but any liquid drops.


Howl, again, likens tears to crying out loud, and has exactly the same origin as 'owl', both of which are imitative of the whatever they are describing - effectively the phonetic spelling of the sound has become the word.

Bawl comes from the Old Norse baula meaning 'to low like a cow'. A reasonable description I would think.

Snivel is from the Old English snyflan and describes 'the running of the nose', this also linked to tears.

Whimper is another Germanic word of imitative origins.

Sob, held to be crying with short breaths, is first used in Old English to mean 'lament', and is derived from a Germanic root meaning 'to suck'.


Wail is derived from the same source as 'woe' and from Old Norse vaela 'lament'.


Skrike is a word I have only ever heard two people use - my mother and my grandmother. I assumed it was another of my grandmother's odd Black Country expressions - she inspired both my Old Wives Tales and Odd Words and Sayings both of which feature her image on the cover - and yet I find it is known as a regional expression which are usually used to refer to the cry of the crow, thus another imitative word.

Sunday, 3 April 2022

Synonym Etymologies B

As with the last post, a look at a number of synonyms through the eyes of the etymologist. This time B for Bag, which is from the Old Norse baggi 'pack, bundle'. Some sources give the origin as Old French bague, which could explain its longevitry in having been introduced to English twice, but as this would also have come from the Old Norse, too, it is hardly relevant.

Sack is known as such because of the material it is made from. Usually known as 'sacking' in English, many European languages have borrowed the early Greek sakkos 'bag made of goat hair', itself related to Hebrew and Phoenician saq 'cloth of hair'.


Carrier is clearly from the verb 'to carry'. Coming to English from old French, it can be traced to Latin carricare and derived from Latin carrum, their name for the 'Celtic two-wheeled war chariot'. We can even trace this further back to that source of many languages, the root language which spread across India, Middle East, and Europe with the retreating of the ice sheets, the Proto-Indo-European root kers meaning 'to run' - this is also the origin of the word 'horse'.


Receptacle, from Old French in the 14th century, has the same origin as its parent word 'receive', which is traceable back through Latin to Proto-Indo-European kap 'grasp'.

Container, clearly from 'contain', is another which came to English from Old French and further back Latin. The Latin coninere was used in the sense of 'to hold together, enclose', and comes from Proto-Indo-European ten 'to stretch'. Not until the 14th century did the idea of 'hold together' become seen as also conveying the sense of 'containing'.

Bag again, this time as a verb, not the noun as above. In the sense of killing or capturing prey (or even criminals), its use is unrecorded until 1818. Clearly this refers to the game, a bird or rabbit, to be placed in the bag. Now, that the bag would swell is more the reason for the use of 'bag' here, rather than the bag itself. We know this as the word 'bag' had been used to refer to loose fitting clothing and, usually to animals, particularly livestock, to the swelling of a belly when pregnant and had been since the late 14th century.


Catch has exactly the same origins as 'receptacle' and 'receive', traceable to Proto-Indo-European kap 'to grasp'. The difference is largely how the word came through the later Latin and Old French routes.

Capture is also from Proto-Indo-European kap, and much easier to see.

Snare, as a verb, comes from the noun, This noose for trapping animals is from the Old Norse soenri or 'twisted rope'. Neither verb nor noun used in English until around 1300.


Kill, be it a noun or a verb, must surely be an old word, and indeed it does go back to Proto-Indo-European through the Germanic route to English. Working back in history, usage has meant not only 'kill, put to death', but also 'die', 'torment', 'tease', 'suffer pain', and ultimately Proto-Indo-European gwele 'to throw' and also used in the extended sense of 'to pierce'.

Shoot can be traced back through the German line and originaly used in the sense 'to push, shove, impel', which is effectively what the bow does to the arrow and the gun to the bullet.

Sag used to refer to body parts and/or clothes in the mid-16th century, it is from an Old Norse root sokkva 'to sink'.

Swell has been used to mean 'to grow bigger' for so long and virtually unchanged and in so many Germanic tongues it is impossible to know where the word originated.

Balloon, as a verb, comes from the noun, itself a derivative of 'ball' and the Latin palla. The idea of the balloon and the ball in these old tongues, come from the original Proto-Indo-European bhel which meant 'to swell, and thus the word has returned to its original use after several thousand years.


Bulge is not difficult to see as related to 'balloon' and it does also go back to the Proto-Indo-European bhel.