Curious Word Origins

~ Q ~


quack - a jocular term for a doctor
But not jocular when used to mean a charlatan, medical or otherwise. It is an abbreviation of the obsolete 'quacksalver', in which 'quack' was the sound of a duck and 'salver' had to do with salve (healing ointment). A quacksalver made false claims to medical knowledge and skill and was often an itinerant seller of 'cures' at fairs and markets. The 'quack' in the name is a mocking comparison between what the quacksalver said and the harsh, meaningless noise made by a duck.
quarantine - enforced isolation, especially of people and animals coming from places infected with contagious disease
From the French quarante ('forty'). Adding the suffix -aine to French numbers fives a degree of roughness to the figure (like -ish in English), so quarantaine means 'about forty'. Originally when a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected with a malignant, contagious disease, its cargo and crew were obliged to forego all contact with the shore for a period of around forty days. This term came to be known as a period of quarantine.
quintessence - the essential principle or pure embodiment of something
Ancient and medieval philosophers considered all matter to be made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. These were the four "essences", from the Latin esse, meaning 'to be'. An essence is the ultimate nature of a thing, without which it cannot exist, and the Ancient Greeks thought that everything in the universe was made up of combinations of these elements. Later on, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras theorised that there was actually a fifth element, from which the heavenly bodies were made. More importantly, Pythagoras and his disciples thought that this "fifth essence" permeated all of creation and thus was even purer and more "essential" than the other four essences. Finding this quintessence - from Latin quinta (fifth) and essentia (essential) - became one of the chief aims of the medieval alchemists. Today we know that there are more than 100 elements, not just four, but the alchemists' search for quintessence is echoed by modern physicists' search for a Grand Unified Theory, or "theory of everything", to explain the universe.
quiz - a set of questions designed to test knowledge
The manager of a Dublin theatre, a Mr Daly, laid a wager in 1780 that he would introduce a new word into the language within twenty-four hours. The bet was taken; and a mystery word appeared chalked on every wall and bare space in the city. Within a few hours all Dublin was speculating on what the mysterious letters meant. The word was quiz. The bet was won, and the word was absorbed into the English language.

~ R ~


rigmarole - long, complicated procedure
This meaning is a fairly recent development from an earlier one which still exists: a rambling, confused or pointless statement, account, explanation, etc. Both stem from the idea of a list or catalogue derived from the obsolete 'ragman roll' of which rigmarole is a colloquial adaptation.
...Ragman was an old game played with a written roll. Strings were attached to various items contained in the roll and the players drew a string at random. In one version (1290) the game seems to have been a simple amusement, the items in the roll being verses describing personal character; perhaps it was a children's rhyme consisting of a list (i.e. a roll, as in roll-call) of characters described in verse and beginning with '[King] Ragemon le bon'. The French implies an origin before the Norman conquest, and the name of the game is therefore an anglicisation of this French name (perhaps a demon's). In another version (1377) the game is a method of gambling and also illegal.
...There is another historical Ragman Roll, a set of documents recording the pledges of homage paid by Scottish nobles to Edward I of England, but this (unexplained) name comes later; it may even have been adopted from that of the earlier game, which should be regarded as the true origin of the modern rigmarole.
robot - a machine capable of acting and speaking in a human manner
Introduced into English in 1923 with the first London production of R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by the Czech novelist and dramatist Karel Capek (1890-1938) in which it is the name, from the Czech robota (drudgery), for a mechanical automaton. In the play, a remarkable early example of science fiction, several of these robots acquire human emotions, rise up against their servitude, and destroy the humans who have enslaved them.

~ S ~


sabotage - malicious damage done to stop something working
This word became known in Britain shortly before World War I. At that time there was a railway strike in France; in order to cause disruption the railway workers were reported as loosening or removing the shoes (sabots) that held the railway lines to the sleepers. This, according to many commentators, accounts for the origin of the word sabotage and for its appearance in English.
...They may be right on the second count but not on the first. Sabotage existed as a French word long before this. A sabot was a large, heavy wooden clog made of a single piece of wood and worn by workers. The verb saboter (literally, to wear sabots) meant to clatter about in clogs and, figuratively, to do something ham-fistedly. Sabotage was therefore clumsy workmanship, tools that were no good, low levels of skill, broken down vehicles, etc. - all related to the clog's clumsiness and lack of refinement. From this general sense of botched workmanship it was a short step to deliberate botching, the sense eventually taken over into English.
sanguine - hopeful, confident, cheerful
According to medieval physiology the human body contained four chief fluids or 'humours' - blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy - and the relative proportions of these in one's body determined one's temperament, among other things. If blood (sanguis in Latin) predominated, this gave a ruddy complexion and a hopeful, brave character. A person with these attributes was therefore said to be of a sanguine disposition. The word used to have some other meanings but this is the one that has survived.
scapegoat - person (occasionally thing) made to carry the blame for the faults of others
The ceremonies prescribed for the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) by the Mosaic Law in Leviticus, chapter 16, included the bringing of two goats to the altar, one for God and one for Azazel (a devil, perhaps Satan). The former was sacrificed; the latter, to which the priest transferred the sins of the people, was led to the wilderness and allowed to go free, taking the people's sins with it.
...When William Tyndale translated the Old Testament into English (1530), He either mistook or misinterpreted the Hebrew Azazel as ez ozel ('goat that departs') and invented the word scapegoat as a translation, scape being a variant of 'escape'. By this accident he added a useful new word to the language
shambles - a place or condition of great disorder
Like the Latin and then Old English words from which it is derived, a shambles was a bench. It came to be specially used of a bench or stall for the sale of meat. In the plural it therefore meant a meat market or row of butchers' shops, which is why there are still areas of old cities such as York called the Shambles. Later, and understandably enough, it meant a slaughterhouse and thus, figuratively, a scene of bloodshed and carnage such as a massacre or fierce battle. The modern meaning is a weakening of this.
shirty - bad-tempered; irritable
A development from the slang expression, 'have one's shirt out' (be or become angry), the idea being that the clothing of a person in a rage becomes dishevelled.
silly - foolish, fatuous, weak-minded
The word originally had an entirely different meaning to that which it bears today. It is derived from the German selig, meaning 'blessed'. An early quotation refers to Jesus as 'the harmless silly babe', meaning 'blessed babe'. Later, the term was used as 'innocent', and there is a reminder of this today in the explanation frequently given where a youth is charged with some offence: it was a silly prank - innocently done.
sinecure - paid job involving little work
From the ecclesiastical term beneficium sine cura, a benefice without the cure of souls, i.e. a paid position without any spiritual responsibility for a congregation.
sirloin - a joint of beef
Despite the old joke about this being a loin that was once knighted by an appreciative king of England - variously identified as Henry VIII, James I and Charles II - who placed his sword on it and said 'Arise Sir Loin', the truth is more pedestrian. The word is a variant spelling of surloin, meaning ' above [French sur] the loin', which is where the meat comes from. This is not to deny that a king may once have made a joke, but it would have been after, not before, the word had come into existence.
skinflint - a niggardly person, a miser
Flint stones were used in olden days to start a fire. The term skinflint derives from the idea that a miserly person would go to the extreme of skinning a flint, or using a flint until it was as thin as a skin, in order to save money.
slapstick - (comedy) of an exaggerated, knockabout style
The original slap stick, in American pantomime or low comedy, was a split rod or two flat pieces of wood hinged at one end: when it was used to hit someone it gave an unexpectedly loud crack. Sometimes a small explosive charge was hidden in the stick to make a bang of the sort associated with clownish circus-comedy.
slipshod - untidy; careless
The 16th century 'slip-shoe' was a loosely fitting shoe or slipper that was thought to be unsmart; there are lines in Shakespeare and Johnson suggesting that slip-shoes were suitable for folk with chilblains. They became synonymous with down-at-heel poverty and finally with slovenliness.
smithereens - tiny pieces
Smithereens is a borrowing from Irish Gaelic, the word having an Irish diminutive ending, and simply means 'tiny pieces'.
spinster - an unmarried woman
When the word was properly used, as in the Middle Dutch and Freisian languages, a spinster was exactly that - one who spins. The women of the Anglo-Saxon household span, in winter, the fleeces which had been taken from the sheep during the summer. That was their expected task. It was a recognised axiom that no woman of that period was fit to be a wife until she had spun for herself her body, table and bed linen. Thus, the task of spinning was generally delegated to the unmarried women of the house, who were the spinners or the spinsters.
steeplechase - a track race over obstacles including hurdles and water jumps
This dates back as far as the late 18th century and the story is that a number of fox-hunters were returning home from the hunt without a kill, when one of their number saw in the distance the steeple of a village church. He proposed that they should run a race to the steeple in a direct line, regardless of all obstacles, the winner to be the one who first touched the stones of the steeple with his whip. This was done, and ever since cross-country races, over all obstacles have been called steeplechases.
swashbuckler - an adventurer, a daredevil
Although swashbuckling may be associated with pirate stories and Hollywood movies, the term was originally anything but complimentary. A swashbuckler, when the word first appeared around 1560, was a swaggering braggart, bully or ruffian. Swashbuckler actually came from the antiquated words swash (to make a noise by striking) and buckler (shield). A swashbuckler was originally a mediocre swordsman who compensated by making a great deal of noise, strutting through the streets banging his sword on his shield, challenging passers-by to duels, and generally acting like a lout.
...Although the real swashbucklers were mostly cheap bullies, swashbuckling got a romantic spin in popular adventure novels, and later in dozens of Hollywood swashbucklers, pirate movies starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn.

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