Curious Word Origins

~ H ~


haggard - anxious, careworn or gaunt from fatigue, trouble, etc.
When this word first came into the language in the 16th century, a 'haggard' was a hawk that had been caught for training after it had taken on its adult plumage (this meaning is still extant in falconry). Adult hawks are hard to tame, so it came to mean anything wild or feral. It was only about 1580 that it came to be applied to people, at first to wild-looking or intractable individuals.
handicap - disability, disadvantage
A contraction of 'hand in cap', the name of a very old betting game in which players put forfeit-money in a cap or bag and then drew from it. A version of this process was later applied to arrangements for a race between two horses, the superior of which carried an extra weight. Racing authorities took over the term when formulating modern rules to give a weight advantage to some horses in order to equalise chances in a race. Handicap is now more generally used of anything that hampers or hinders.
hazard - to risk or expose to danger
This word evolved from the Arabic al zahr, which means 'the die', the singular of dice. In Western Europe the term came to be associated with a number of games using dice, which were learned during the Crusades whilst in the Holy Land. The word eventually took on the connotation of danger because, from very early on, dice games were associated with the risky business of gambling.
hearse - a vehicle in which the dead are taken to the place or burial or cremation
In its beginning, a hearse was a herse, a French word meaning a harrow. Shaped like a harrow, the herse was a framework, holding candles, which was placed over the bier or coffin. Later such a frame, fitted for candles, was used to carry a corpse from the house to the church.
henchman - faithful attendant or assistant
Now slightly derogatory or even menacing; originally it meant no more than a groom or servant, the first syllable deriving from an Old English word for horse.
hidebound - narrow-minded, bigoted, obstinate
Literally, in the condition of an underfed animal, especially a cow, with skin (hide) closely attached (bound) to bones, i.e. without fat. Applied to people it suggests the idea that their skin is so tight that they cannot move (act, think) freely.
hobnob - associate familiarly
From an earlier form 'to hob and nob' (literally, to give and take), meaning to drink to each other in turn. This was from an even earlier form ('hab (or) nab', a phrase related to Old English forms of the verb 'have' and meaning 'have or have not' - obviously related to the later 'give and take'. The modern phrase, which is slightly derogatory in tone, derives its meaning from the drinking associations of 'hob and nob' and from the implications of friendliness in 'give and take'.
hoodlum - a street rowdy, a hooligan
A newspaper reporter in San Francisco, in attempting to coin a name for a gang of young ruffians who were terrorising the streets of the town, hit upon the idea of taking the leader's name and reversing it. The leader was one Muldoon. The reporter, accordingly, wrote Noodlums. Like many reporters, his writing was not particularly decipherable, and the compositor in setting it up in type, made it Hoodlums. And hoodlum has been the name for a street rough ever since.
hunch - intuitive feeling about something
This is an American gamester's term from the turn of the 20th century. According to a gambling superstition, touching a hunchback's hump brought good luck. But recognition of the hunchback's powers did not originate then. Belief that such people were inspired by the devil to see into the future had been circulating for hundreds of years earlier.

~ I ~


iconoclast - person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions, or breaks venerated conventions
The historical iconoclasts (from the Greek, literally 'image-breakers') were members of a movement in the 8th and 9th centuries which aimed to stop the use of icons in the Eastern or Orthodox Christian church; icons were pictures, low-relief sculptures and mosaics of Jesus, the Virgin and the Saints, used as objects of veneration. The movement was begun by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 726 and ended in 843 after opposition by various religious bodies and successive popes.
ignoramus - fool; ignorant person
A term of abuse originating, oddly, in a legal formula of quite different significance. It is Latin for 'we do not know' and was used in early English legal proceedings by Grand Juries as an official endorsement (signifying 'we take no notice of this') on a bill or indictment when they considered the evidence insufficient to justify prosecution. The shift of the word into the public domain was brought about - or, if not, much assisted - by its being used as the title of a famous university farce by George Ruggle (1575-1622) produced before James I in 1615. The title part was a burlesque of the then recorder of Cambridge, who suffers various humiliations in the play and is depicted as an ignoramus in the now familiar sense.

~ J ~


jeans - close-fitting casual trousers usually made of denim or other cotton cloth
The thick cotton cloth called fustian was known as jean in Britain and jeans in America centuries before its name was given to the distinctive trousers made from it. Jean was short for the earlier jene fustian, in which jene was an adjectival version of the old name for Genoa, where the cloth was made. It is still discernible in the modern French name of the Italian city, Gênes.
junk - rubbish, valueless odds and ends
This word really belongs to the sea. Junk is the old sailor's name for rope-ends. It is derived from the Latin juncus, a bulrush, from the fibre of which in ancient days ropes were made.

~ K ~


kamikaze - potentially self-destructive
From the Japanese for 'divine wind', the name given in Japanese lore to the wind that destroyed the Mongols' invading navy in 1281. The term became known during the second World War when some Japanese airmen saw themselves as having a similar role, to the extent of deliberately crashing their planes, sometimes loaded with explosives, into such targets as ships. The adjective is now used figuratively of any reckless behaviour, not necessarily military.
kidnap - carry off (a person) by force or illegally; abduct
Simply kid (slang for 'child') + nap (obsolete slang for 'snatch' or 'seize'). Nap was a variant of 'nab', which still exists as a colloquial word with that sense. Kidnap was therefore originally a slang term, though it no longer is, and was coined in the 17th century to denote the stealing and carrying off of children (and others) to work on the American plantations.
king - the male sovereign of a nation
In the Anglo-Saxon tongue cyn meant a people, or a nation. The suffix ing meant 'of', in the sense of 'son of'. Thus, put together, there emerged cyning, son of the nation, or of the people. From this there came the modern word king. The Anglo-Saxon cyn also became our word
kin, one's blood relations or collective family connections..

~ L ~


lackadaisical - listless; lazy, especially in a casual or dreamy way
Alack is an old exclamation of regret and alack-a-day an obsolete one meaning 'what a sad day it is'. From the implied sense of helplessness, or of self-pity as a substitute for self-help, comes the meaning of the familiar modern adjective, itself derived from alack-a-day.
loophole - anything providing a means of taking advantage
A vertical slit or opening in the wall of a fortification such as a castle, allowing a defender to look our or shoot while remaining protected, was called a loophole from the Dutch word liupen, meaning 'to watch, to peer'. Metaphorically, therefore, the word means a gap (e.g. omission, error, ambiguity) that one can exploit.
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