A widely-circulated email called “Little History Lesson” gets the history of phrases like “big wig,” “to cost an arm and a leg” and “mind your own beeswax” all wrong. Here are the true stories from Mental Floss.
I didn’t see her slip in — the tall, wavy-haired figure silhouetted in front of me.
“Afternoon, Ms. Kahn,” she said.
“And to you, Ms. Khan.” It was Amira Khan, the anonymous Boss Lady’s go-fer. Things were looking up. “Mrs. Big” was loaded and generous. After a long drought, the spring was bubbling again. The novelist barista’s questions would have to wait.
“My employer decided to spring for a few etymology questions,” said Ms. Khan, sliding a bulging business-sized envelope toward me. I swear I could hear the crinkle of crisp bills over the hiss of the espresso maker.
“Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”
“It’s about spring.”
“The season, the water source, or the bouncy kind?”
“All of them. But those are just the nouns. She wants the verbs too.”
I peeked into the envelope and riffled through the green stuff with a thumbnail. “OK. She’s got it covered.
Lupine in Portuguese Bend. J.B. Herman
“The verb meaning ‘to bounce up, move forward with a sudden jerk or bound’ goes back at least to 888, a nice round bouncy year, when the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred translated a 6th century Latin work into English.
“In Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) the noun spring meant ‘the place of rising or issuing from the ground, the source of a well, stream or river.’ It was springing up from the earth, see? Figuratively it came to mean ‘the source or origin of something.’ That meaning broadened out to mean ‘the action or time of rising or springing into existence.’ From around 1380 to 1600 it was common to refer to the spring of day or the spring of dawn. In the 1500s we find writings about the spring of the year.”
“Wouldn’t that mean ‘the beginning of the year’?” Ms. Khan asked.
“Exactly. Until the calendar reform of 1751, the new year began on March 25 in England.”
“Spring does seem like the time of new beginnings. It makes sense that the year would begin then.”
While Lexie waits for the return of the novel novelist, check out these articles from Mental Floss debunking a popular email with fake origin stories for many expressions:
I was hunched in my windowless corner office nursing a double. I was dry as an unirrigated field in California’s 500-year drought. Maybe the last gully-washer knocked a few years off the rating, but I was in a dry state, no question. It wasn’t just my throat that was parched either. Business had dried up and blown away like the last tumbleweed of summer.
I was rubbing some nickels together in hopes of producing a quarter when the new barista slipped a tiny pumpkin loaf in front of me.
“On the house,” she said without moving her lips.
I smiled involuntarily. “That’s a novel get-up,” I said, indicating her leotard top, which was long-sleeved on one side, sleeveless on the other.
“You got that right.”
As her sleeve moved into a beam of light, my hand instinctively dove for the pearl-handled implement in the pocket of my trench coat. The “sleeve” was not made of cloth but tattoos – minuscule marks marching like ants around her arm. Raising the pearl-handled magnifier, I saw that the lines of ants were words – thousands of them.
I gazed downward, but her boot-cut jeans kept their secret.
“So, tell me, Lexie, why is something new and different called novel? Is it so unbelievably inventive that it must be fictitious?”
“Well, you gave me a freebie, so this one’s on me. It’s the other way around. The adjective novel, meaning ‘new,’ ‘of recent origin,’ ‘unusual’ or ‘fresh’ entered English around 1400 from Anglo-Norman and Middle French novel, ultimately from classical Latin novellus belonging to recent times, new, young, fresh, etc., from novus new + the diminutive suffix –ellus.
“The noun novel had several meanings in English before the one we use today.”
“Hold that thought. I’ve got customers at the counter.”
So I bade a temporary farewell to arms, tattooed and plain.
Got a question about a word or phrase? Ask Lexie in a comment.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, six of the following words and phrases first appeared in print in English in 1914. Can you spot the four that didn’t and tell whether they appeared earlier or later?
La gazette du bon ton, February 1914. Wikimedia Commons
The publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) generated a sharknado of publicity by proclaiming selfie their Word of the Year for 2013. Although the Australian term for a photographic self-portrait goes back 20 years, the confluence of camera phones, social media and, some would argue, narcissism shot the word to prominence in the past year.
Merriam-Webster, forgoing novelty in favor of a scientific test, gave the nod to the word with the biggest jump in look-ups on their site: science.
Although there are other contenders, the idea of naming a Word of the Year (WOTY) probably started with American Dialect Society (ADS) in 1990. At their annual meeting in January, members of the society vote for the word best representing the previous year. The word must be new or newly popular that year and reflective of popular discourse.
How well did the ADS do in reflecting the zeitgeist for past years? And how good is your memory? Can you guess the year for these Words of the Year?
1-A, 2-B, 3-B, 4-B, 5-A, 6-C
I was trembling like a Chihuahua after a thunderclap from too many Frappuccinos, but ravenous as I reached the Kenmore Arms. I jiggled the key in the lock until it yielded and kicked the door open. I yanked open the fridge but it was emptier than a politician’s promise. But wait. Lurking inside the deli compartment was a small plastic container from Suzy’s Sushi. I held my breath as I pried it open. California rolls of uncertain vintage.
Do I dare? No. I snapped the container shut and flung it into the trash. Do I dare to eat a peach? Yes.
I curled up in the armchair with a can of peaches, a shot of bourbon and a copy of Science. The subhead of the article that grabbed my attention read: “Two factors that controls [sic] synapse formation in the mammalian brain are associated with human language acquisition.” Language is like my thing, you know, so I read on: “[A] secreted protein called sushi repeat-containing protein X-linked 2…promotes mammalian vocalization.” Got that? Yeah, I said “sushi repeat-containing protein.” The article continues, “Expression of this protein is known to be repressed by the transcription factor foxhead box protein P2.”
OK. Who’s the wise guy? I thought I’d dodged the whole sushi-repeat fiasco. I know scientists have an oddball sense of humor but this was puzzling. I searched online for molecules with strange names. I found a few. All right, more than a few here: http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/sillymolecules/sillymols.htm, including moronic acid, vomitoxin, spamol and many more. But no sushi repeat or foxhead box. I need help. Any molecular biologists out there? Can you tell me who came up with the mystery terms and why?