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What's In a Word?: Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases

What's In a Word?: Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases

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What's In a Word?: Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases

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Mar 15, 2010


Once upon a time…

Tying the knot actually involved tying a knot-not saying vows.  Meanwhile, a thinking cap wasn’t just a cute idea for schoolchildren, but an actual hat worn by scholars in the Middle Ages.  Oh, and when you make no bones about something, you should consider yourself lucky you aren’t choking on a chicken foot. 

What’s in a Word?  Answers the question it poses, more than three hundred times over.  You’ll learn which side of the bed is the wrong side, and why the word “nickname” is simply the product of slurred speech.  Webb Garrison’s etymological journey through the origins of words and phrases, both common and obscure, is sure to fascinate wordsmiths of every stripe.


Mar 15, 2010

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What's In a Word? - Webb Garrison







Webb Garrison


Nashville, Tennessee

A Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 by Webb Garrison

All rights reserved. Written permission must be secured from the publisher to use or reproduce any part of this book, except for brief quotations in critical reviews and articles.

Published by Rutledge Hill Press, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc., P.O. Box 141000, Nashville, Tennessee 37214.

Illustrations by Jason Shulman

Design by Harriette Bateman

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Garrison, Webb B.

What’s in a word? / Webb Garrison.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 10: 1-55853-811-9

ISBN 13: 978-1-55853-811-5

1. English language—Etymology. I. Title.

PE1574 .G29 2000




Printed in the United States of America

06 07 08 09 10 — 21 20 19 18 17



1. High Technology and the Computer Age

2. Sports and Recreation

3. Legal Talk

4. Fine Arts and Religion

5. Discovery and Invention

6. Comparisons

7. Military

8. Household

9. Critters and Famous People

10. Transportation and Travel

11. Growing Things

12. Common Speech

13. Bodies and Minds

14. Education

15. Pioneers and Cowpokes

16. Males and Females

17. Ambitious and Entrepreneurial





COBWEBS sometimes appear overnight, even in the best-kept quarters. These nuisances are such a common occurrence their name may seem prosaic. However, that is far from the case. In chapter 10 you will discover that a long-abandoned name for the spider is seen to have played a major role in the development of the word that now seems so ordinary.

Practically every word and phrase that we use is an easy-to-swallow verbal capsule. They’re often potent and complex, being the end result of centuries of use. I have been fascinated by etymology (the study of word origins and developments) since my youth. I wrote brief word studies for the Ladies’ Home Journal, which published three or four of them every month for years. One of the Journal’s readers, who lived in what was then the Transvaal Africa, wrote to the editors of the magazine suggesting they publish the word studies together in a book. This led to a 1955 volume made up of reprinted material from Ladies’ Home Journal, Catholic Digest, Mechanix Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens, Golf Digest, Elementary Electronics, and other publications.

Like the previous book, this book is written in the form of short short stories—abbreviated forms of the American short story in which O. Henry excelled. The vignettes included here are brief enough for bathroom reading, and many of them include surprise endings almost, but not quite, in the fashion of Paul Harvey’s tales.

The words and phrases in this book are divided into chapters on a somewhat arbitrary basis. Since it is intended for fun reading, the categories are mainly a way to segment the book. The index will help with reference use.

The words and phrases in this book were selected on the basis of interest, not because one is more significant and useful than another. Scholars who devote their whole lives to etymology have thick volumes dealing with words and phrases that are so complex it’s difficult to follow their trails. Though they are an important aspect of our language, words and phrases of this sort are not included here. Everything here was selected for third millennial use. There are very new and very old words and phrases. Here’s wishing you lots of fun, plus maybe a bit of learning!

Webb Garrison

Lake Junaluska, North Carolina—

in the heart of the Great Smokies





























SOMEONE who connects with a target scores a hit. In baseball, players have distinguished between a hit in which the ball is fair, within bounds, or a foul ball, one that is out of bounds. A successful Broadway play, motion picture, television series, book, syndicated column, or comic strip character—along with many other things—is also dubbed a hit.

This ancient word soon came to designate a computer user’s visit to a Web site. Since each such visit can be counted by means of a relatively simple program, the popularity—and hence the importance—of a Web site is measured in terms of how often a hit is registered in the course of a day, a week, or a month.

The Tube / Boob Tube

BEFORE the advent of flat screens and high definition television, all TVs functioned by means of a cathode ray tube. This factor, plus the shapes of early sets, fostered the use of the term the tube to designate a television set of any kind or size. Derogatory remarks about the quality of material seen on the tube prompted many Americans to begin sneering at the television, calling it the boob tube. Although digital television is sure to take over in the third millennium, such a tubeless set is likely to continue to be called the tube.


HUMANS were the earliest computers. These counting persons were professionals who worked with numbers and were credited with great accuracy. There is a nursery rhyme that talks about a king counting his money in his counting house. He was at the financial center of his kingdom where he almost certainly had computers doing the work. This early computing was manual and involved the use of such counting tools as the abacus and a variety of slide rules. When adding machines were developed, the man or woman who computed with one of these then-rapid devices often called the counting machine a computer. Used in this fashion, the hoary old term took on new life when it became attached to electronic data processing and storage devices.


A LATIN term for flowing or running gave rise to the word cursive to describe handwriting produced in flowing style. The flow of letters that is produced when a pen is guided by skilled fingers is an impressive art. The name for this efficient and effortless writing style, in this computer age, soon was adapted and bestowed upon the small marker that moves quickly and gracefully across a computer screen. The cursor blinks until stimulated into action.


A WEE rodent, usually brownish or grayish brown in color, abounds throughout the world. Its English name is derived from the same classical term that named the modern muscle—also small and often fast-moving. No known culture or civilization, ancient or modern, is known to have been without this creature.


Late last century engineers developed a little hand-held device used to control movements of a cursor. This device is small and rounded and has a cord that looks like a tail; hence, they called it a mouse. Although the shapes have changed some over the years, the catchy name is likely to remain.


WHEN scientists first isolated a minute parasitic structure that causes serious illness, they called it a virus, which is Latin for poison. Unable to live in isolation, a virus can reproduce with incredible speed when inside a suitable host organism such as a human body. When hackers and other computer enthusiasts who found out how to insert a small self-replicating program into a larger host program, the name was obvious: electronic virus. Such a set of data cannot travel or survive by itself but thrives as a parasite when it gets inside a computer. Like a submicroscopic particle of biochemistry, a computer virus can do great damage to any host in which it lodges, whether sent there deliberately or picked up accidentally.


THE Czech playwright Karel Capek was among the pioneers of twentieth-century science fiction. As part of his black utopias, works showing the dangers of technological progress, he wrote a play called R. U. R. It centers on a group of mechanical monsters that revolt against their makers. Abbreviating a Czech term for a serf or slave, Capek used the word robot to designate the imaginary machine-man of his story. At the end, robots, who had been created to serve humans, came to dominate them completely. The term robot has now entered numerous languages.

The Dow

LONG ago executives at Dow Jones and Company saw a need for a formula to indicate upward and downward movements of the New York Stock Exchange. They selected thirty securities from industry, transportation, and utilities to form a workable base.

By the last decade of the twentieth century, the Dow Jones average has become simply the Dow. Since the Dow is tightly controlled by the owners of the name, it has been comparatively easy to modify the makeup of its components when changing industrial and economic conditions seem to warrant. For example, Sears, Roebuck and Company, a long-time component of the Dow, has been dropped, and Home Depot, Inc. has been added to the base list.

Regardless of how carefully those who control the Dow monitor its performance and make modifications to its thirty-corporation list, it can never be a comprehensively accurate indicator because thousands of corporations are not included in the average. Early in this millennium, hi-tech stocks skyrocketed, but most of them are not included in the Dow. A more accurate indicator is to check the movements of all securities traded on the market.

Nevertheless, investors worldwide watch the Dow more closely than any other index. Minute-by-minute media reports on gains or losses in the Dow are now so commonplace that it’s hard to realize that these reports have become available only recently. They have strengthened the prestige of the venerable but less-than-exact barometer of action on the world’s most influential stock exchange.


FOR centuries, a bit of wood or stone or metal that has been broken or cut off of a larger mass has been called a chip. This old name became used to refer to thinly sliced wafers of potatoes, or potato chips. Other chips became popular around poker tables, roulette wheels, and many other games of chance.

During very recent decades silicon, which is the basic material of ordinary sand, was found to be a suitable material for making small wafers of semiconductor material. Once it became possible to manufacture this new kind of chip in quantity at low cost, the computer industry in California’s Silicon Valley became a major site of its manufacture.


THE transmission of messages by government-operated and private mail services helped to usher the Western world into the technological age. First letters and packages moved by surface mail, followed by telegrams, telephone messages, and airmail. Yet the old term for material sent through a postal system did not experience radical changes until hi-tech instruments became commonplace and inexpensive.

Development of recording devices that can be attached to telephones produced voice mail—now omnipresent, and a nuisance to some. Once it became possible for one computer to communicate with another computer, electronic mail surged into prominence. Strictly speaking, e-mail should be called something else since it doesn’t flow through a postal system. New as the terminology is, however, academicians aren’t likely to affect the increasingly important role of e-mail.


THE development of a way to store data and to retrieve it from a small plastic disk with a magnetically coated surface revolutionized the personal computer. Early disks were thin, comparatively large, and pliable. As a result, it was natural to describe them as being floppy.


Soon floppy disks were supplanted by a smaller and thicker magnetic disk whose width was only 3.25 inches, with its length a trifle longer. This type of disk is now more familiar than the Latin discus that named many kinds of round, flat objects. Although computer disks are now encased in rigid plastic, they retain the name of their predecessors and are called floppies.


OUR earliest ancestors probably spent hundreds of generations learning to count as many objects as there were fingers on their hands. Even then, mastery of the abstract concept ten lay far in the future. Gradually moving upward in mathematical ability, humans learned to deal with hundreds and then with thousands. The ability to think or calculate in terms of millions came a great deal later.

Now, in the third millennium, the capacity to store, retrieve, and transmit electronic information has required another giant mathematical step, since it’s commonplace to think and to act in terms of billions of data units. The abbreviation of the classical Greek term for gigantic made it customary to use giga to indicate a binary billion, or ten to the ninth power. With the final letter dropped, it became a gig.

The development of gigabyte-capacity storage disks—actually equivalent to 1,024 megabytes—is now taken for granted. This usage represents a radical departure from that of labeling an engagement by a musician or group of musicians a gig, since such a one-time booking might be anything but large in terms of audience or pay.


FOR centuries the verb hack has meant the action of cutting or chopping anything from stove wood to enemy soldiers by means of a series of short blows delivered by an ax, a sword, or some other blade.

Only a fraction of present-day Americans regularly go out to hack wood into pieces small enough to be burned in a stove. Hi-tech weapons have made battle-axes, swords, sabers, and all other sharp-edged hand-wielded weapons obsolete. Yet the number of persons who spend time delivering repeated blows to electronic systems in order to understand or infiltrate them appears to be growing.

Today’s hacker may spend days or weeks repeatedly striking a computer system for purposes of harm, mischief, or simple curiosity.

Dedicated perseverance and use of the brain make a hacker a force to be reckoned with in the modern world.

To Boot

THE phrase pulled himself up by his bootstraps is used admiringly to describe a self-made success. Drawing only on his or her own inner resources, without help from any outside source, this person has made a mark in life.

Early computer programmers faced an obstacle: the memories of their computers were wiped clean each time the machines were turned off. To address this problem, the programmers needed to enter a short program called a bootstrap loader each time the machine was turned on. Once this program was read, the computer could then perform more complex functions. The short program gave the machine a bootstrap it could then use to perform tasks; without it, the computer was useless.

Over time, programmers figured out ways to design software so computers could perform this function automatically, and bootstrap loaders are now part of the basic makeup of any operating system. Pulling oneself up by the bootstrap is a means of restarting one’s situation. The expression lives on in the phrase to boot, which today simply means to turn on, but reflects decades of efforts of computer programmers to make computers easier to use.


A WEASEL-LIKE, usually albino, mammal related to the polecat has long been trained to hunt rabbits and other small game. Called a ferret, from the Latin word for little thief, the rodent is persistent in its efforts to steal its quarry.

Relatively small Internet search engines that operate extremely fast became popular late last millennium. Today, a ferret may scurry through masses of electronic data and nearly always succeeds in stealing a desired tidbit of information.


EXECUTIVES at the Hormel Foods Corporation, one of the world’s foremost meat packers, had a brainstorm in the middle of the twentieth century. Seeking a catchy trade name that could be registered, Hormel offered a one hundred dollar prize to the person who could come up with the best name for its canned minced pork product. The winner came up with the name Spam.

Spam, still stocked on supermarket shelves everywhere, played a major but little-known role in world events. Nikita Khrushchev paid a special visit to company headquarters in Minnesota to express his personal thanks for the role Spam played in feeding Russian soldiers during World War II, and American GIs will never forget this staple of their undesirable C rations.

Although it may have sustained many soldiers during World War II, after the war Spam got a reputation for being junk meat. In the early days of the Internet vendors began experimenting with advertising through brief messages sent to multitudes of computer users. The popular name for the famous meat packers’ junk meat soon came to refer to this unwanted, or junk, e-mail.


AS an abbreviation, this cluster of letters has come to function as a word naming a compact disc crammed with an immense amount of data, graphic material, music, or other sounds. The disc can be read or viewed and printed out but can’t be altered, making deletion of selected portions impossible. Once the basic nature of this disc is understood, it makes

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