Curious Word Origins

~ C ~


cab - a taxi; the driver's compartment in a vehicle
Short for the French cabriolet, a covered, horse-drawn carriage with two wheels. The French so called it from the Italian capriola, which, in turn, came from capri, a he-goat, after which the Isle of Capri is named. The lightness of the carriage compared to previous vehicles of transport was thus likened to the lightness of goats leaping along the rugged hills of Capri. The cabriolet was introduced into London in 1823, where it soon became popularly know as a cab. The term persisted into present-day motorised transport.
cabal - (conspiracy of) small group of secret intriguers, usually political and sinister
Although specially applied to the small Privy Council committee (1667-73) and predecessor of the modern Cabinet in Charles II's reign - the initials of its members' surnames happened to be C, A, B, A and L - this is in fact an older word from a Hebrew one related to a mystical system of interpreting Jewish scripture. The famous Cabal, which secretly signed the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1672, popularised and gave a political flavour to this word, which was rooted in theology, metaphysics and magic and meant a small, sinister group or the activity that brought it together.
Cabinet - committee of senior government ministers
Originally a diminutive of 'cabin', i.e. a small cabin. From that it came to mean a small private room, and this sense lies behind the modern Cabinet, a small number of people meeting privately in a room.
...In a separate development the same basic idea of privacy gave rise to the name for a piece of furniture in which things are stored away.
calendar - a list of the months, weeks and days of the year
Came to us from the Latin calendarium, which was an account book, or interest book, kept by money-lenders. It was so called because interest became due on the calends, the first day of the month. Calends itself came from the Latin calare, to call, because the beginning of each month was proclaimed publicly.
candidate - a person putting up for election to office
The Latin candidus means white, and candere, to shine. Romans who sought high office in the State vested themselves in white togas, emphasising, apparently, their purity of character and intentions. The word
candid, meaning open, above board, comes from the same derivation.
caucus - small like-minded inner group of members of a larger group, especially political party, formed to define policy or exert influence, usually secretly, sometimes improperly
Captain John Smith's Travels in Virginia (1606) refers to the Chickhamanians 'who are governed by the priests and their assistants or their elders, called cawcawwassoughes'; this is thought to be the origin of the modern word, a simplified version of the Algonquin.
...Indian names were often used by clubs and secret associations in New England, where the modern word arose. In 18th century American politics it came to mean a private gathering of party members belonging to a legislature and meeting to determine policy, select candidates and the like. When it reached England it was used as a pejorative term; it was first applied in 1878 to the organisation of Birmingham Liberals, which was thought to demonstrate the introduction of American-style politics into England and thus deserve the stigma of an equally outlandish American name. Its current sense implies a lack of democratic openness.
claptrap - nonsense
The original description was for something introduced into a theatrical performance or speech simply to prompt applause.
cliffhanger - situation, especially contest, of which the outcome is excitingly uncertain
A forerunner of the television serial and soap opera was the film serial, invented in the earliest days of the silent film. It was shown in weekly parts and was usually adventurous or melodramatic. Each instalment ended in a suspense designed to make the audience come back the following week to find out what happened next. To leave the heroine perilously dangling from the edge of a cliff was one such device, and it has given the language this useful word.
clue - something that leads towards the solution of a mystery
Originally 'clew', a ball of string or yarn. In Greek mythology Theseus set himself the task of killing the Minotaur, a Cretan monster kept in a labyrinth and fed with an annual tribute of seven virgins and seven young men from Athens. He unwound a clew as he made his way through the labyrinth and, after killing the monster, found his way back by following the thread. This explains the metaphorical meaning of clue (the normal spelling for several centuries), which has now supplanted the original literal one.
cockpit - place from which aircraft (etc.) is controlled; arena
Originally a pit or enclosed area for cock-fighting. Shakespeare used the word, perhaps jocularly, to mean auditorium: 'Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?' (Henry V, Prologue, lines 10-11). Part of a theatre is still called the pit, though 'stalls' is the preferred term. Later the word was applied to the (possibly cramped) quarters for junior officers on board ship; in action, it was used as a hospital - Nelson died in the cockpit of his ship. Later still it was the location of the steering-wheel of a yacht or small sailing vessel and this usage came to be extended to aircraft. Perhaps the idea of smallness underlies all these different usages.
coward - a person without courage
Comes from the Old French word coart, through the Latin cauda, a tail. The imagery is of an animal turning its back and running away with its tail between its legs - as in the expression 'to turn tail'.
curfew - rule that at a stated time, or for a stated period, people should be indoors
Now usually an act of repression to control the population during a time of unrest, this was originally a safety measure requiring that domestic fires be extinguished at bedtime - a wise precaution in the days when houses were highly combustible and a single spark might lead to the devastation of a whole community. Curfew was also the name given to the ringing of a bell to remind people that the regulation was in force. The word comes from two French ones, couvrir (cover) and feu (fire), a reminder that it was after the Norman invasion that William the Conqueror introduced the curfew to England in 1068.
cushy - easy, comfortable
From the Hindi khush (pleasant), adopted by the British army in India, transferred by them into First World War slang and thence into mainstream English, though it remains informal.
cynic - person who thinks the worst of people, events, etc.
The original Cynics, adherents of an ancient Greek school of philosophy made famous by Diogenes, held that virtue is to be cultivated by subjugating desires and were openly contemptuous of luxury, enjoyment and ease. Their name, which comes from the Greek word kuġn (dog), may have referred to their churlish habits or to the site of their school, which was called after an incident in which a dog ran off with part of a sacrifice being made to Hercules.

~ D ~


daft - weak-minded, imbecile; silly, thoughtless
Derives from the Old English gedaefte, meaning ''mild, gentle or meek'. A daft person, when the word first appeared in Middle English as daffte around 1200, was simply quiet and humble. Unfortunately, being humble does not always engender respect, and by 1325 daft was being used to mean 'stupid', first in reference to animals, but soon in regard to people. Worse yet, by the early 16th century the word had mutated into a synonym for 'insane'. Fortunately for anyone unlucky enough to be considered daft today, the word is rather gentler.
...A more surprising relative of the word, meaning nearly the opposite, is deft. Derived from the same Old English gedaefte, deft separated from daft in the 15th century, and developed the 'gentle' sense into its modern meaning of 'skilful' or 'subtle'.
dashboard - instrument panel of a car
Originally a wooden board or leather screen at the front of a horse-drawn vehicle to protect the driver and those sitting alongside from the mud splashed up (i.e. dashed) by the horse's hooves. The name was retained for the partition between the front seat and the engine that replaced the horse when cars were invented.
deadline - time limit
During the American Civil War, prisoners were kept inside wooden stockades. A railing placed about twenty feet inside the stockade marked the limit beyond which prisoners were told that they were not allowed to pass. This was the 'dead-line', so called because men crossing it could be assumed to making a bid to escape, and so were liable to be shot dead on sight.
...First recorded in official congressional papers in 1864, the term was later applied figuratively to a limit imposed by a different constraint, that of time.
denim - coarse, twilled cotton fabric used for jeans, overalls, etc.
Originally serge de Nimes, the French city where the cloth was made.
digit - any numeral under 10
So called because of the habit in all countries of counting as far as ten on the fingers of the hand. The Latin for finger is digitus.
dogsbody - someone made use of by others to perform menial tasks
British sailors at the time of Nelson were very poorly fed, as well as a monotonous diet of boiled salt beef and rock-hard ship's biscuits, one of their staple foods was dried peas boiled in a bag. The official name for this concoction was pease pudding, but to the sailors it was better know as 'dog's body', probably from the shape of the bag after it had been boiled.
...In the early part of the 20th century, the term began to be applied to lowly midshipmen, who were given all the nasty jobs that more senior officers wanted to dodge. By the 1930s the term, now all one word, became a more general one in the civilian world to refer to anyone who got stuck with all the rough jobs.
dollar - unit of currency
Abbreviation, and variant of the final two syllables, of Joachimstaler, literally 'of or from Joachimstal [Joachim's valley]'This was the place in Bohemia, now Czechoslovakia, where silver was mined and coined in the 15th century and became a standard currency.

~ E ~


earmark - designate; set aside for a particular purpose
For centuries, farmers have marked their livestock as their property by cutting distinctive notches in the animal's ears. Earmark in this literal sense first appeared in English around 1591, but the use of earmark in the figurative sense 'to designate' arose only in the late 19th century.
eavesdrop - listen secretly so as to overhear confidences
This word comes from Old Norse and originally referred to the area around a building that was liable to become by rainwater dripping off the projecting eaves of the roof above. There was an ancient custom that stopped a landowner from building within two feet of his boundary, for fear that the water cascading off the eaves might cause problems for his neighbour.
...By the end of the medieval period, the word eavesdropper had been invented to describe someone who stood within this strip of ground, under the projecting eaves and close to the walls of a building, in order to listen surreptitiously to the conversations within. The verb eavesdrop in the same sense came along about a century later.
etiquette - a code of rules governing behaviour and decorum
From the French étiquette, a ticket. On ceremonial and other important occasions a ticket of instructions was issued to visitors detailing what they should do. The ticket was their etiquette.
explode - to cause to burst with a loud noise
This word was originally a theatrical term. Back in the 17th century, if a performer on stage was doing a poor job, the audience would drive him or her from the stage with hisses, boos, assorted projectiles (usually rotten vegetables) and, oddly enough, sustained, raucous clapping. This 'ejection by applause' had been practised since Roman times, and was known in Latin as explodere, from ex, meaning 'out' plus plaudere, meaning 'to applaud or clap'. (Plaudere is also the root of the modern 'applause'.
...In English, the word explode first appeared in a more general sense of 'reject with scorn' around 1538 while the theatrical 'clap off the stage' meaning of the word became popular around 1621. The general 'reject' sense of the word also expanded during this period to include the sense of 'debunk, discredit', and we still speak of a flawed scientific theory being 'exploded'.
...So far, all the senses of explode had centred on the process of driving something out, but toward the end of the 17th century the word expanded to mean 'to drive out with violence and sudden noise', most notably in reference to gunpowder. Even then, the modern sense of 'blast apart' did not develop until the late 18th century.
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