Where does the word “ventriloquist” come from and What does ventriloquist mean?

The first record of a related word is found in a book, The discouerie of witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, printed in 1584, where the author speaks of a ventriloqua (feminine of ventriloquus, “a ventriloquist”), and of her “practising hir diabolicall witchcraft and ventriloquie.” It is not surprising that men of that time thought of witchcraft … Read more

Where does the word “Villain” come from and What does Villain mean in Latin?

Originally, apparently, one of the retinue attached to an estate, for the word “villain” stems from the Latin villanus, from villa, “a country house,” and this meaning was largely retained in an alternate spelling of the English word, villein. But, progressing from the general sense of “a peasant,” in which sense the word dates back … Read more

Where does the word “Talisman” come from and What does Talisman mean in Arabic?

Completely unrelated to talesman (which see), despite all similarities of spelling, the word “talisman” comes to us through the Romance languages from the Arabic tilsam, “a magic charm.” The earlier derivation is from the Greek telesma of the same meaning, but having had the former meaning of “a religious rite,” and coming from telein, to … Read more

Where does the word “talbotype” come from and What does talbotype mean?

One of the words describing a process or product that was named after the inventor (like daguerreotype and pasteurize), the talbotype is named after W. H. F. Talbot, an English inventor, who, in 1841, patented his discovery of making photographic images directly upon sensitized paper. Talbot himself called his process calotype (from the Greek kalos, … Read more

How did the Ladyfinger get its name and Where does the word Ladyfinger come from?

The poet Keats, who knew these delicate pastries back in 1820, called them lady’s-fingers. Both of these were fanciful names, however, merely indicative of size. As applied to the modern bakery-made American product the name is distinctly inappropriate. The name finger biscuit, also in early use, would be more fitting: the finger could be that … Read more

Where does the word “huggermugger” come from and What does huggermugger mean?

Perhaps the term “huggermugger” should be passed over in silence, for its source is certainly as concealed and secret as is meant by huggermugger itself. Undoubtedly the rhyming term in one or another of its several variations, hoker-moker, hocker-mocker, hucker-mucker, or even hudder-mudder, had long been in colloquial use before the sixteenth century, but it … Read more

Where does the word “Ambergris” come from and What does Ambergris mean in French?

As any Frenchman knows, “ambergris” is a misspelling of ambre gris, meaning “gray amber,” and is used to distinguish the soft, animal secretion of the sperm whale, gray in color, from the hard, fossilized resin, ambre jaune, “yellow amber.” But at one time, because both of these were found along coasts of the sea, the … Read more

Where does the expression “hand-in-glove” come from and What does hand in glove mean?

Originally, about three hundred years ago, those using the metaphor hand-in-glove worded it hand and glove, that is, being on terms of intimate relationship comparable to that of one’s hand and the glove for it. But whether through elision, hand ‘n’ glove, or through deliberate intent to indicate even closer intimacy, a snuggling intimacy as … Read more

Where does the word “Castanet” come from and What does Castanet mean in Spanish?

Identical in sound though it may be with the words “cast a net,” the word “castanet” comes through Spanish castaneta from Latin castanea, “a chestnut,” probably from resemblance in form, faint though it may be. The instrument, used as an accompaniment to dancing, was introduced to Spain by the Moors, but is actually a variation … Read more

Where does the word “eavesdropper” come from and What does eavesdropper mean?

The eighteenth-century jurist, Sir William Blackstone, really told the whole story: “Eaves-droppers, or such as listen under walls or windows or the eaves of a house to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales, are a common nuisance, and presentable,” he adds, “at the court leet.” Regrettably, however, the old “court … Read more

Where does the term “kangaroo court” come from and What does kangaroo court mean?

It was previously stated that, “The source of the name (kangaroo court) is mysterious, for it is American, not Australian.” In fact, the term may not have originated in Australia. Efforts were, at first, wholly fruitless, seeming to substantiate the belief expressed earlier. Ultimately, however, the query was published in the Melbourne Age (April 22, … Read more

Where does the phrase “annus mirabilis” come from and What does annus mirabilis mean?

“Annus mirabilis” literally means a wonderful year. It now means any year which the speaker regards as especially outstanding, notable. But, in England particularly, the term refers to the year 1666, the year that marked two notable events: a victory over the Dutch fleet and, in September, the great London fire in which a large … Read more

Where does the word “Handkerchief” come from and What does Handkerchief mean in French?

Handkerchief is an incongruous word, when you come to analyze it. The chief is an early misspelling of Old French chef, “head,” and ker is a corrupt contraction of Old French covrir, “cover.” Thus kerchief, back in Chaucer’s time, was a square of cloth used as a head covering, though, approaching the Norman French, he … Read more

Where does the expression fiddle-faddle come from and What does fiddle faddle mean?

There was no definite source; the word fiddle was in the language and, four hundred years ago, it had taken on the meaning “to act aimlessly,” so, just like such duplications as flip-flop, jimjams, helter-skelter, and the like, someone turned it into fiddlefaddle. Thus since the sixteenth century this nonsense word has implied aimless or … Read more

How did St. Swithin’s Day originate and Where does the expression St. Swithin’s Day come from?

Many of the saints’ names have become associated in folklore with vagaries of the weather, some with actual occurrences (cf. St. Martin’s summer) and some with respect to weather to be anticipated. Swithin (sometimes Swithun) was Bishop of Winchester in the ninth century A.D., and upon his death was buried in the churchyard. According to … Read more

Where does the term “fife rail” come from and What does fife rail mean?

A mariner’s term, “fife rail” now indicating a rail round the mainmast of a sailing vessel with holes into which belaying pins may be inserted. Originally, however, according to Admiral W. H. Smyth’s The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867), it formed “the upper fence of the bulwarks on each side of the quarter-deck and poop in men-of-war.” … Read more

Where does the word “saltpeter” come from and What does saltpeter mean in Latin?

An alternative spelling of “saltpeter”, preferred in England, is saltpetre. Chemically, saltpeter is potassium nitrate, a compound essential to the making of gunpowder and also of important value as a fertilizer. The name comes from the Latin sal petrae, “salt of the rock,” so-called because it is sometimes found in nature as an efflorescence on … Read more

Where does the phrase “John Bull” come from and What does John Bull mean?

The long-drawn-out War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-1714, in which the allied armies of England, Austria, the Netherlands, and Prussia were finally victorious over the combined forces of France and Spain, was not altogether popular in England. It cost many lives; it disrupted commerce, and the expense was enormous. All this was seen by the … Read more

Where does the term cat-o’-nine-tails come from and What does cat-o’-nine-tails mean?

In this day it seems amazing that the cat-o’-nine-tails instrument of punishment was actually authorized in the British Navy until as recently as 1881. It came into use in the late seventeenth century, and was probably greatly modified from time to time according to the nature of the person commanding the punishment and its duration, … Read more

Where does the word “Jayhawker” come from and What does Jayhawker mean?

Though natives and residents of Kansas now proudly proclaim themselves to be Jayhawkers, such publicity a hundred years ago was likely to be followed by a fight and bloodshed. Among the settlers of the territory they were abolitionists, men chiefly from non-slaveholding states who fought against pro-slavery settlers to keep Kansas free. Who coined the … Read more