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In the beginning there was the word…


Every word has a story…  some of them are funny, some sad; some are perfunctory, some just downright odd.  Wordorigins.org is devoted to telling those tales.

Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

Among their nifty features are regular tours of the words introduced in the Oxford English Dictionary in a particular year, for example in 1911, when 483 words made their first appearances.  Among them, some pretty straightforward…

brassiere, n. Borrowed from French in this year. The clipped bra doesn’t make its appearance until 1936.

floozy, n. This word for a disreputable woman first appears in the 1911 edition of Charles Byron Chrysler’s book White Slavery.

Waldorf salad, n. After the Waldorf Hotel in New York where it was first served, it consists of apples, walnuts, celery or lettuce, and mayonaisse.

Zapatista, n. A supporter of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. The Mexican Revolution had begun in 1910.

… And some, not so obvious:

photocopier, n. This one surprised me. I thought the technology came along decades later. Although the actual process nowadays is much different than the one used in 1911.

reefer, n. No not that. This name for refrigerated railcars, trucks, and ships first appears in 1911.

underinsure, v. To take out an inadequate insurance policy, although the adjectival form dates to the 1890s.

More wondrous words at Wordorigins.org.

As we remember that “etymology” is the study of word origins, while “entomology” is the study of insects, we might raise a birthday toast to Pete Hamill, who was born on this date in 1935.  A journalist, novelist, essayist, editor, and educator, he is probably best known for the columns he wrote– for almost three decades– for the New York Post, columns that captured (to quote his admiring competitor, the New York Times, “the particular flavors of New York City’s politics and sports and the particular pathos of its crime.”


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