Tag Archive | etymology

30-Second Word Whoop: “Easel”

Picture 4Say “easel” aloud three times fast. EAS-el, EAS-el, EAS-el. Feel like an ass or a braying donkey?

Turns out the word does come from the Dutch ezel, originally “ass,” from the Middle Dutch esel, from the Latin asinus, or “ass.” The comparison, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is to “loading a burden on a donkey and propping up a painting or canvas on a wooden stand,” or a sawhorse.

Almost reduces fine art to the domain of peasants.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden pops to mind. It was published in 1899 in Life magazine alongside this political cartoon showing imperialist bourgeoisie riding “sullen peoples” in developing countries as if they were burros.

The_white_mans_burdenEasel-wise, somehow France is the country that most often comes to mind, civilized and sophisticated with accessories of paint palette and beret. An easel today can be made not only of wood but metal or Playskool plastic. You see them equally at home straddling early-education nooks and retirement retreats.

Picture 6

This model of easel is actually called a “donkey easel.”

Interesting too how this artist’s workbench is both a tool of creation and a pedestal to display all variety of showpiece and advertisement.

Consider a starving street artist, selling her labors to afford her next meal. Art is definitely that unique field where indigenous simple folk and wealthy snobs intersect. As the rich rack up trips abroad, they collect trophies, displayed like stuffed game around the house.

When an artist faces a blank canvas, does she feel the burden of creation? Is it a job like any other, performed by calloused hands and measured by output?

Some of the burden is no doubt lifted by the easel, making art work a little easier.

Picture 7

30-Second Word Whoop: “Orient”

IMG_1208First, let’s get oriented. I live in the Western Hemisphere, where fellow juveniles on the playground convinced me I could dig my way to China.

At the time, we imagined China was about as far away from home as we could get. That was before becoming fully educated (China is not directly opposite the U.S. on the globe; rather, you’d “dig” into the Indian Ocean floor). And these days metaphorically we can navigate beyond the stars.


Orienteering home or elsewhere is dependent on the stars, especially the sun, a compass and well-honed instincts. “Orient” literally means to “arise” over the mountains. And it’s because the sun rises in the east that “Orient” with a capital “O” became synonymous with the Far East. Funny, because even in the Far East it was referred to as the Orient.

ORI ShowroomIt’s still fine to refer to rugs as Oriental but not people from the biogeographic region of Southeast Asia south of the Himalayans, the Philippines, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, etc. They are strictly Asian.

An “old poetic” meaning for orient is also decorative: a pearl of high quality or luster — the quality that determines a pearl’s value. Oriental (which rhymes with ornamental) once meant “being corundum of gemstone quality but resembling another gem.”

Interesting how “(C)china” refers both to an Asian country and priceless, decorative dishes.

An “Oriental shorthair” is not one of those slick Asian-style haircuts but a breed of cat, closely related to the Siamese (head shape).CATS-PICTURES.ORG_-_1570-1000x840-oriental+shorthair-solo-miotic+pupil-grey+hair-standing-tailOriental_Shorthair_cat_BrandiBoth well-appointed with lustrous fur and, one might guess, well-adjusted, easily adaptable or acquainted to one’s situation. Probably arise at dawn, too.

30-Second Word Whoop: “Abandon”

downloadTo love someone with abandon means to give it your all. Yet “abandonment” can be grounds for legal action.

An abandoned puppy inspires pity and tenderness; an abandoned house, fear or disgust.

Let’s break this one down pictorially (because I know you can’t stop looking at the sad puppy picture):

abandonThe operative word here is “control.” You lose control when you give up.

Abandon an idea (it dies); abandon a property (other forces like decline and decomposition take over); abandon a fight (the bad guys win); abandon a family (you are dead to them, Bud).

To eat or do anything with wild abandon? Requires exercising no self-control.

What I like about “abandon,” is it almost always gets to be on the first page of the dictionary. There’s a hidden definition for “abandoned” in mine — means “shamefully wicked” or “immoral.” So let’s check the other “good book” for some religious authority:

From Romans 1:27: “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.”

From 1 Timothy 4:1: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.”

abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here-e1285714292550Dante’s early-14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy  originated that not-so-tickly phrase: Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” the supposed warning at the gates of hell. From the 1814 translation into English by the Rev. H. F. Cary:

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.

Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.

Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here.

Such characters in colour dim I mark’d
Over a portal’s lofty arch inscrib’d:
Whereat I thus: Master, these words import.

I echo the sentiment. Words carry great import; use them wisely. Abandon not thy dictionary.

30-Second Word Whoop: “Drag”

A draggin' lady? No, Gael Garcia, in drag.

A draggin’ lady? No, Gael Garcia, in drag.

“Drag” sounds like no fun, unless you happen to be a smoker or cross-dresser.

Crosswinds can cause drag while sailing or racing.

Sometimes we must drag ourselves out of bed while dragging our favorite blankie and it’s all we can muster to drag a comb through our hair.

It’s no surprise, if you are a smoker, or even a judgmental non-smoker, that the roots of “drag” sound like a fire-breathing dragon, as in “Puff the Magic …”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the verb form comes from the mid-15th century:

… from Old Norse draga, or a dialectal variant of Old English dragan “to draw,” both ultimately from Proto-Germanic *dragan “to draw, pull,” from PIE root *dhragh- “to draw, drag on the ground” (cf. Sanskrit dhrajati “pulls, slides in,” Russian drogi “wagon;” but not considered to be directly the source of Latin trahere).

The smoking definition is more modern:

Meaning “to take a puff” (of a cigarette, etc.) is from 1914. Related: Dragged; dragging. Drag-out “violent fight” is from c.1859. To drag (one’s) feet (1946, in figurative sense) supposedly is from logging, from a lazy way to use a two-man saw.

The “can I get a light?” strumpet character Rizzo in “Grease” famously drags down the song “Summer Nights” with her line “… ’cause he sounds like a drag.”

rizzoLater, she rallies during a stealthy drag-racing challenge. She also drags the innocent Sandy into dressing more like a sexpot — which, generally, is how drag queens try to dress. You rarely see anyone in drag wearing a Betty Crocker ensemble — except maybe in “Tootsie.” Or Great Britain.

(By the way, there is such a term as “drag king” — applied typically to lesbians who wear ties and suits and such.)

Dredging up more derivatives:

c.1300, “dragnet,” perhaps from a Scandinavian source (cf. Swedish dragg “grapnel”) or from Old English dræge “dragnet,” related to dragan “to draw” (see drag (v.)).

Sense of “annoying, boring person or thing” is 1813, perhaps from the notion of something that must be dragged as an impediment. Sense of “women’s clothing worn by a man” is said to be 1870 theater slang, from the sensation of long skirts trailing on the floor (another guess is Yiddish trogn “to wear,” from German tragen); drag queen is from 1941.

Drag racing (1947), is said to be from thieves’ slang drag “automobile” (1935), perhaps ultimately from slang sense of “wagon, buggy” (1755), because a horse would drag it. By 1851 this was transferred to “street,” as in the phrase main drag (which some propose as the source of the racing sense).

In addition to the time trials there are a number of “drag races” between two or more cars. They are run, not for record, but to satisfy the desire of most Americans to see who can get from here to there in the fastest time. [“Popular Mechanics,” January 1947]

Another slang definition for drag is “a person’s story: what they would have you believe.” Usually a lie or fabrication, but not always. As in: Don’t believe her drag, Toots.

Trust me.


This drag-racing Chevy El Camino is also blowing smoke.

30-Second Word Whoop: “Sesquipedalian”

the-longest-word-in-europe-is-longest-word-europe-audio-letters-wordsThis site is no dictionary.com. We prefer to “riff” on words rather than act as an authority or stretch your vocabulary. Still, sometimes we run into a stretttttttttchy word like “sesquipedalian” that stops us short.

“Sesquipedalian” may sound like a six-footed monster or belabored joke, but surprise! The definition:

1. given to using long words.

2. (of a word) containing many syllables.

3. a sesquipedalian word.

Literally, it means “a foot and a half long.” Let’s break it down: sesqui- comes directly from the Latin sesqui (“one and a half”); + pedal, from Latin pedis, form of pes (“foot”), + adjective suffix –alis or in this case -ian.

In order for “sesquipedalian” to be truly a foot and a half long, it would have to be written in 74-point type. I know, because I tested it.

Sesquipedalian is not a great Twitter word. At 14 characters, it would take up a tenth of your tweet. You’d think I could get away with tweeting out 10 sesquipedalians at once but, because of spaces, Twitter restricts me to eight. It works without spaces, but it’s a little hard to read that way. I know, because I tested it.

(UPDATE: That tweet, by the way, has become my most favorited tweet by dozens of strangers worldwide. Who knew there were so many on Twitter thirsty for long words?)


2013 photo by Terry Byrne

In Scrabble, sesquipedalian technically would be worth 26 points at face value — who knows how many more taking bonus spaces into account. But it would have to be built on successive turns. Don’t think you could start with “quip”; you’d have to start with “pedal.” Then the next person could play “ian” in back, which is a stand-alone word, so you could clean up with “qui” in front and “ses” in back.

Of course, you are what words you use. Meaning: using the word “sesquipedalian” could make you it. Nyah-nyah.

30-Second Word Whoop: “Orbit”

Love those Orbit gum ads. Kinda loopy, right?

Quite possible those creatives were smoking falafel to come up with their “Falafel” ad concept. Definitely an international flavor to this gum. Or shall we say “universal”? (See “Taco”  or “Kabob” or any number of globular comfort foods served up from this marketing buffet.)

Although “orbit” is a far-out term, referring to “the path of a celestial body or an artificial satellite as it revolves around another body” or even “one full revolution of that body,” it is a perfect example of how the cosmos mirrors a body’s microcosm.

Star_Trek_wallpaper_USS_Enterprise_in_Earth_orbit_computerdestkop_s“Orbit” also refers to each bony socket of the skull that holds our eyeballs. (Or in reference to other animals, it is the skin surrounding the eye of a bird … or the hollow in which lies the eye or eyestalk of an insect or other arthropod.)

It’s from the Latin  orbita, or “course,” and orbis meaning “circle” or “orb.” That alone sounds spacey.

On an atomic level, it is the path of an electron in its motion around the nucleus of an atom. Beyond the physical, “orbit” can define any observable range of activity, experience, or knowledge. It’s also apparently a video game.


Orbitz (Photo credit: Fujoshi)

Add a “z” to get Orbitz, the online travel company that invites you to circumvent the globe and add to your range of activity, experience and knowledge. Just be sure to pack a pack of Orbit gum to take care of any foreign food particles lingering behind.

What goes around comes around.

30-Second Word Whoop: “Trap”

Remember the board game “Booby-Trap” from the Sixties-Seventies? If you do, you may have a mind like a steel trap. (Photo courtesy of Phil Romans, Flickr)

“It looks like a trap!”

“Shut your trap.”

“He bears the trappings of a fool.”

None of these machinations of “trap” is an open-shut case. First off, identifying a trap would defuse its power. In case two, your free will defies such a command. In the third usage, the meaning is “disguised”: Trappings might say one thing and reveal another.

lintTrapCollageMainSometimes a trap is a good thing. A lint trap protects your dryer. A sink trap protects your plumbing. A U-shaped or S-shaped pipe can protect you by trapping harmful gases. In Scotland, a trap, or stepladder, can help you reach the attic to set critter traps. A death trap for mice, and such. Yet a better mousetrap refers to a springboard for creativity, a snappy brain.

Sporting types are aces when it comes to traps. A trap can refer to a device that hurls clay pigeons into the air to be shot at by trap shooters. The stalls that racing greyhounds are released from are called traps. In golf (or putt-putt), you can try to avoid the traps, or bunkers, but they tend to sneak up on you (OK, me). There is no trapdoor.


A golf instructor teaches students the art of escaping.

Other pleasurable applications of trap include a light, two-wheeled carriage, and percussive instruments used in jazz.

Computers are not only time sucks, they are laced with internal traps: built-in interruptions in software triggered by some exceptional action allows the operating system to take over for a moment, then return control to the user when the coast is clear. But I don’t really understand this definition, so moving on …

To have a mind like a steel trap usually means you’re sharp — you process ideas quickly and have quick recall, not unlike  a computer.

On the other hand, the Cockney idiom pony and trap — often shortened to “pony” — is defined as rubbish, nonsense or something of poor quality. Like most Cockney nonsensical idioms, the word “trap” is inserted only because it rhymes with “crap.”

The origins of booby trap — hazard a guess? — are much contested.


A blue-footed booby sets a bunny trap for her intended?

Could be nautical:

“In need of a bit of dietary variety, sailors would set up a simple rope noose on the decks of their ships baited with bread or stale biscuits. Passing seabirds, like boobies, would land on deck seeking rest or shelter and be lured and caught in the rope.”

Could be simply slang, referencing nincompoop:

Coined by our Colonial cousins, meaning dope/simpleton, a booby trap is any sort of trap, e.g. an object balanced over a door, that would catch a simple person by surprise.

“Booby” meaning “a dunce, a nincompoop,” is recorded in English as far back as 1599, probably deriving from the Spanish “boho” (a fool), which may come from the Latin balbus or “stammering.” A “booby hatch,” referring to an insane asylum, may have its origins as the term for a police wagon used to take outlaws to jail, which is traced to 1776. (Source: Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson. Facts on File, New York, 1997)


“Love” traps work both ways.

Of course, the Mafia and modern wars cast quite a grim shade of meaning to “booby trap.”

In the so-called good ol’ days, a girl would set a bunny trap for someone she’s sweet on, providing unlimited sex and ceasing to use birth control. (You recall? The old pregnancy test involved sacrificing a bunny.) Now who’s the nincompoop?

I imagine the word “trap” is just one more pitfall that non-native English speakers must learn to avoid.

30-Second Word Whoop: “Content”


A healthy media diet?

It finally happened. My reading skills failed me.

As digital journalism scooches into the spot old-fashioned journalism used to live in my brain — you know, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) supplanting the 5 W’s (Who, What, Where, When and hoW) and all that — I mistook the word “content” here: “(So-and-so) upped the ante in the technology race aimed at proving it’s not content simply to be …”

Oh! You mean “content,” accent on the “tent,” as an adjective … a la “satisfied” or “smug” or, far be it for me to assume, “happy.”

I first read it as evidence it didn’t qualify as “content,” accent on the “con,” as in the noun describing “substantive information,” “news product” or even “filler” — the stuff we’re filling websites and news holes with these days.

Wowie zowie. As we race to provide content for various digital delivery systems, have we left out one key ingredient? Our happiness?

Journalists were never a very happy bunch, anyway, true that. And most news sites these days are content merely to have fresh if not original content, doesn’t much matter what it is.

English: This is a Venn diagram showing the re...“Content” is an example of a homograph: a word that has the same spelling as another word but has a different sound and a different meaning, like lead, wind, bass. Not to be confused with a homophone (pray/prey) or a homonym (heir/air). Forsaking for the moment the argument that some homophones are homonyms or a homonym must be both a homograph and a homophone to qualify as a homonym, back to the content at hand.

As a plural noun, “contents” can mean something that is contained or topics covered in a book … or perhaps on a table, as in “table of contents,” jk. “Content” alone can refer to significance or profundity — a jukebox musical that lacks content.

What came first? The filler (content) or the fulfillment one gets from it (content)?

It seems the filler did, dating to 1375–1425 late Middle English, derived from the Medieval Latin contentum, the noun form of a neutered Latin contentus, the past participle of continēre, to contain. Fulfillment came as an afterthought in 1400–50 late Middle English, deriving from Latin contentus satisfied, special use of past participle of continēre.

Still, closely aligned. Like a pie filling and the feeling you get having fully digested it. Another thing we journalists know only too well.


30-Second Word Whoop: “Fritter”


“Fritter” as a verb means to waste time, money or energy on trifling matters. Don’t suppose it would be a waste of my time to attempt this cauliflower-feta cheese-pomegranate fritter recipe someone just floated my way …

Focus. Language is no trifling matter.

The verb “fritter” dates to 1720–30, from the word “fitter,” a derivative of “fit” (Old English fitt), roughly meaning “to shred.” The noun, describing a small cake of batter sometimes containing corn, fruit, clams or other morsels then deep-fried or sautéed, derives from something else entirely. Yes, from bits of food! But its linguistic ingredients date to the late Middle Ages, 1350-1400, mixing the Middle English “friture, frytour,” the Old French “friture” and the Late Latin “frīctūra,” meaning “a frying,” equivalent to Latin “frict,” the past participle of “frīgere” to fry + -ūra -ure.

What the friggin’? How did all those word fragments come together into epicurean bite-size delights covering anything from appetizers to desserts that are by no means a waste of time, in my book?


Something filling for the pie hole, or to fill a void, like time. Kinda hippy trippy, and no fritter mashes up the concept better than “dandelion fritters.” Cue a bunch of trippin’ hippies gazing off in a field of weeds, frying their brains out:

Beware a flip side to fritters, because language, like cooking, can get messy. Spam fritters, banana fritters and mule fritters all have something to do with, without mincing words, poo or buttholes. You’ll have to consult the Urban Dictionary on those. Not worthy of my time.

Fritters of yam and sweet potato in Malaysia.
Fritters of yam and sweet potato in Malaysia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Whitebait Fritter
Whitebait Fritter (Photo credit: Fraser Lewry)

30-Second Word Whoop(s): “Lottery” and “Lot”

You may feel you’re stuck with your lot in life, unless fortunes change and you win the lottery.

“Lottery,” defined as a game of chance, stems from the Italian lotteria. It’s rooted in the Old English “lot” — hlot, with a silent “H” — which means an “object (anything from dice to straw, but often a chip of wood with a name inscribed on it) used to determine someone’s share,” also “what falls to a person by lot.” In other words, a portion or share that is not necessarily meant for sharing.

There’s a lot about Lot in the Bible. In Genesis, he travels with his uncle Abram, has incestuous relations with his daughters — hey, this is the guy Jesus descended from? Indeed, “through David’s great-grandmother Ruth, who is descended from Lot’s son Moab,” according to Wikipedia. And, just guessing, the Bible as a second source.

I suppose we all take chances when we procreate.

Drawing lots can sometimes mean the “winner” is a loser, as some dreaded task befalls the one holding the short lot.

Parking lots allow us to fit a lot of cars in one place, saving lots of time getting in and out because of their orderly arrangement. One place you don’t want a ticket is a parking lot.

From order, we know, comes chaos.

An empty or abandoned lot offers either lots of potential or dread. It’s also a good place to find sticks and chips of wood in order to draw lots.

The game of lotto — which the dictionary defines as “bingo” — relies on a whole lotta luck and random forces being aligned in your favor. Chances are, you won’t win.

To increase your chances, though, dive in with a pool of people and divvy up shares — “lots” to be parceled out — which may prod you to trade in your current house and lot for something more stately, perhaps with pillars.

Just beware the fate of Lot’s wife who, when fleeing Sodom, looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.

Dumb luck.