Friday, 9 July 2021

Etymology: Word and Phrase Origins

Many websites recycle these stories. In general, we're skeptical about Bigfoot and UFOs, but swallow these tales whole. The rest of the alphabet follows, and the whole list can be found in my book What You Know That Ain't So.

AMEN CORNER, between St Nicholas's Cathedral and Milburn House in Newcastle, is so named because those in the church walked around the building while saying their prayers, and they got to “Amen” at this corner. (There’s an Amen Corner in London, near Amen Court and Paternoster Square.)

AMERICA Called after map-maker Amerigo Vespucci – or a Bristolian called John Ameryck.

APPLE PIE BEDS From à plis: in folds or folded. “From the apple turnover, or a corruption of nappe pliée, a folded sheet,” says Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (I like apple turnover best.)

APPLE-PIE ORDER “Some suggest cap-à-pie” (head to foot), says Brewer. Or is it nappe pliée again: in this case “as neat as folded linen”? Brewer adds: “It has also been suggested that “Apple-pie order” may be a corruption of alpha, beta, meaning as orderly as the letters of the alphabet.” (All very unlikely.)

ARUNDEL The town in Sussex is called after the French for swallow: hirondelle. (There’s a River Arun nearby.)

AT SIXES AND SEVENS The Merchant Taylors’ Guild and the Skinners’ Guild in the City of London disagree about which body should take sixth place in processions, so they alternate. Or does it refer to the fact that six plus seven is unlucky 13?

AVOCADO PEARS Originally called Alligator Pears, a mis-hearing of aguacate (from Nahuatl “ahuakatl”: avocado or testicle).

BAGSY Just a lazy way of saying “Bags I!” to decide which part of the morning's shooting goes in which bag.

BAITED BREATH The cat eats cheese and then breathes down the mousehole – or else it’s really abated breath (as in “don’t hold your breath”). But hang on, isn’t that how horse whispering is done? Chew something sweet, then breathe up the horse’s nostrils?

BALONEY A slur on the University of Bologna. (More likely from Bologna sausage. Or perhaps the prudish Americans were avoiding ruder words beginning with B.)

BANK The first Lombards who set up as money changers in London had a bench built into their heavy money chests so that they could sit on their loot and guard it. “Banca” is the Italian for bench. (Couldn’t you just sit on a chest? Perhaps they were hybrid bench-chests – or tables. See next entry.)
BANKRUPT From the Italian “banca rotta”, or broken bench. In North Italy, money lenders operated in a large room, each with his own table. If one went “broke”, the table was literally broken, says And The Free Dictionary says a “banca” was a money-changer’s table, but a 15th century print shows bankers standing behind a counter, not at individual tables.

BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES Close the wooden hatch covers in the ship’s deck, and lock them with battens through the staples, so that they’re watertight. (Probably true.)

BATTY, BATS From “bats in the belfry” – or from William Battie, who published A Treatise on Madness in 1958?

BE MY GUEST Coined by hoteliers in the 50s.

BEST FOOT FORWARD Derived from the way green wood furniture adapts to uneven floors.

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE During a depression in mining in the US, a man had to choose between hacking at a rockface and unemployment. (“A rock” and “a hard place” are synonyms – it means “no choice”.)

BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA Between French generals Deville and Duplessis. The “devil” is a seam on a boat nearest the waterline. (Or “between Scylla and Charybdis” as the Ancient Greeks used to say, referring either to sea monsters or to rocky reefs and whirlpools in the Strait of Messina.)

BIKINI From Bikini Atoll, site of atom bomb tests in the 1940s. The swimsuits are as small as an atom. A bikini started off as a one-piece but the midriff was torn away by the blast. The joke at the time was that that the “bikini” split the “atom”, because it was introduced right after a tiny single-piece bathing suit called the Atome. ( Or was their impact like a nuclear explosion?

BLACKGUARD According to Merriam-Webster, the black guard were the lowest servants in a noble household, sooty from their kitchen jobs. When the household travelled, these domestics protected the pots and pans. The Free Dictionary says they were low menials or camp followers, and the Urban Dictionary suggests they were shoeshine boys. (Or perhaps it’s a word like laggard, haggard and sluggard – it’s pronounced blaggard. It’s more likely that it derived from the French word “blague”, a con or trick. The Free Dictionary also says that “ard” is a pejorative suffix.)

BLACKMAIL Rob Roy used to demand a tithe from every cattle herd that passed over Stirling bridge – the black bulls. Hence “black male”. (Surely the cows would be much more valuable?)

BLIMP A blimp is a barrage balloon, so-called from the sound they made when poked with a finger. Or were there two kinds: A-Rigid and B-Limp?

BLOODY From “By Our Lady”.

BLUE JOHN The name of this rare purplish fluorite from Derbyshire derives from the French bleu-jaune (blue-yellow). The semi-precious stone was used by French ormolu workers during the reign of Louis XVI.

BODGE, BOTCH From “job” backwards. (So why “bodge job”? Surely related to “bosh shot” and “boss shot”.)

BOG STANDARD Meccano originally came in two versions, Box-Standard and Box-Deluxe, which became bog standard.

BOLD AS BRASS From radical lawyer Brass Crosby. But brazen behaviour is bold and full of chutzpah – perhaps because brass is shiny.

BOW STREET Not from the place (Bow in London), but because the street is in the shape of a bow, says Richard Osman. (It’s very slightly bent.)

BOX OFFICE In Tudor times, theatre takings were collected in ceramic moneyboxes, which were then stored in boxes in a room that became known as the “box office”. Or were the ceramic moneyboxes the “boxes” meant? Anyway, you smashed them to get the money out.

BRAN NEW Porcelain used to be packed in unwanted bran, so a fresh bit of china was “bran-new”. Or is it “brand new”, like a young animal that’s just been branded?

BROWNIE POINTS A Pullman Car captain called Brown awarded merits and demerits to his crew. From “brown-nose”. From vouchers collected by paper boys, known as “greenies” and “brownies”. Surely the points were earned by trainee Girl Guides, called Brownies after the helpful elves of fairy stories? (Wikipedia gives all these explanations and more. NGram shows a sharp rise in popularity from 1960.)

BRUMMAGEM Fake, spurious, “from the counterfeit coins made in Birmingham in the 17th century”, says the Free Dictionary. (Birmingham produced quantities of jewellery which was sometimes cheap and flashy. The town is still known as “Brum”.)

BUMPH Unreadable paperwork. Short for “bum fodder” (toilet paper). (Convincing.)

BUTLER From “bottler”, or from the butts in the buttery. (Both have the same source in a word meaning a bottle or cask. Nothing to do with butter.)

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