Curious Word Origins

~ T ~


taboo - forbidden
This was originally a Tongan word which came into English as a result of the Pacific explorations of Captain Cook in the 18th century. It meant something consecrated for and restricted to a specific purpose, especially a sacred one, and therefore untouchable and banned from general use. The system of prohibition, social as well as religious, extended throughout Polynesia and applied to many aspects of behaviour, including certain actions, food, words and contact with others. In its modern use taboo remains a strong word, but usually carries no religious implications.
tank - armoured and armed combat-vehicle
Invented by Colonel Ernest Swinton in 1914 and first used in the late stages of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, this vehicle was initially a secret weapon; a codename had to be found for it that would mislead any spy, especially when it was being moved through France. From a list of possible codenames that included 'reservoir' and 'cistern', tank was chosen and has remained. The original intention was to give the impression that it was a bulk water-carrier.
teetotal - totally abstaining from alcohol
English authorities date the word to 1833 and credit it to Richard Turner, a working man from Preston, Lancashire, in a speech advocating total abstinence as distinct from mere abstinence from spirits. Where he got the word from is not known. Perhaps he had in mind some such ideas as 'total with a capital T' or 'T for Total' (some commentators unkindly speculate that he had a stutter). Perhaps he knew that some American temperance societies kept registers of those who signed the pledge of abstinence, recording OP (old pledge) against the names of those who promised to refrain from spirits and T against those pledging total abstinence. The total of the latter was thus the T-total (1807). Be this as it may, the documentary evidence is that teetotal as an adjective with the now familiar spelling was first used by Turner; indeed his invention of the word was such a source of pride that it is even referred to on his gravestone.
titan - a person of superhuman strength or genius; titanic - huge, colossal
The original Titans were, according to Greek mythology, the first race, born to Gaea (Earth) and Uranus (Heaven) after the creation of the universe. They were six male and six female giants of enormous power and strength and were deities of the early Greeks, to whom they represented huge natural forces and, in some cases, abstract qualities. After a mighty 10-year struggle for sovereignty they were overthrown by Zeus, who became supreme ruler and thus dominated the more familiar later mythology. The Titans themselves were cast into deepest hell. It is their gigantic strength and original eminence, however, not their revolt and downfall, that are remembered in modern uses of their name.
tomfoolery - foolishness, buffoonery
From 'Tom Fool', an old invented name for any foolish or half-witted person. This was probably based on the earlier 'Tom o'Bedlam', a 16th century name used either for a madman let out of custody with a licence to beg or for an itinerant lunatic, sometimes someone who feigned madness to attract sympathy while begging. Tom was the name such beggars often assumed; a character in King Lear adopts both the name and the disguise to escape danger.
trivia - trifles, inessentials
This derives from the Latin for 'crossroads': tri + via, which means three streets. this is because in ancient times, at an intersection of three streets in Rome (or other Italian city), they would have a type of kiosk where ancillary information was listed. You might be interested in it, you might not, hence they were bits of trivia.
tycoon - an exceptionally wealthy or powerful business executive
The hereditary commander-in-chief of the Japanese army, and until 1867 the virtual ruler of Japan, was called the shogun, but the title by which he was described to foreigners was tycoon, from the Japanese word taikun, meaning 'great prince'. The Americans adopted the word as a jocular name for the boss of a large business empire and it has since become standard English.

~ U ~


umpire - a person chosen to enforce the rules and settle disputes in a game
The original form of this word was the 14th century Middle English word noumpere, from the Old French nomper, meaning 'peerless, odd, in the sense of odd man'. The original role of an 'umpire' was different from today, in that he served as an impartial arbitrator of legal disputes. This legal function still exists, although the umpire is usually called the 'arbitrator'. Naturally, the arbitrator, like the umpire in a cricket game, must be rigorously impartial and not a peer; that is, not a member of either team, for the process to work.
...The curious thing about noumpere is that it looks only slightly like 'umpire', for one thing, it begins with the letter n. What happened was a linguistic process called metanalysis, by which letters from one word migrate over time to a neighbouring word. So, a noumpere in the 14th century became an umpere in the 15th and finally, by the 17th century, an umpire. A similar metanalytic process transformed a napron (related to napkin) to the modern an apron and a nadder (a snake) became an adder.
umpteen - an indefinite but fairly large number
From First World War slang, in which umpteen meant merely an unstated number; it was used to disguise and keep secret the official number of a brigade, division, etc. for reasons of operational security. Its origin was 'umpty', signallers' slang for a dash when reading Morse code; presumably the basis of this was 'um' as a noncommittal sound.
upstage - take away attention from
Originally a theatrical term. An upstage position is in that part of the stage away from the audience; stages used to slope slightly from back to front, which explains 'up'. If an actor is speaking from such a position, other actors who are downstage have to face him or her, in order to be addressed. This obviously focuses attention on the speaker and upstages the others, putting them in a subordinate position with their backs to the audience.
...In the days when this sort of thing was thought to matter to actors, anyone who unnecessarily upstaged others was guilty of theatrical bad manners and excessive self-importance. Modern uses of the word still often imply petty manoeuvring.

~ V ~


vandal - wantonly destructive person
The original vandals were members of a Germanic tribe which in the 4th and 5th centuries invaded western Europe and settled in France and Spain before moving on to north Africa. Their reputation for destructiveness comes especially from their sacking of Rome in 455, when they destroyed its artistic and literary treasures.
vaudeville - a miscellaneous series of sketches, songs, etc.
This goes all the way back to Medieval France, to the town of Vire in Normandy. The townsfolk of Vire were fond of songs satirising current events and personalities of the time, and eventually such humorous creations came to be known as chansons du Vau de Vire, or 'songs of the Valley of Vire'. The most famous of Vire's songsmiths was a man named Olivier Basselin, whose fame made the clipped form vau de vire (or vaudevire) synonymous with 'satirical song' all over France by 1500.
...Meanwhile, another popular genre of songs in France was known as voix de ville, or 'voices of the city'. Evidently the two terms were melded at some point, and by 1600 the combined form vaudeville was used to mean 'humorous song' throughout France.
...When vaudeville first appeared in English in the early 1700s, it was used to mean 'light, topical song'. It was not until the 19th century that it came to mean 'variety show' in the sense that it became famous in the 1930s and 40s.

<< Previous Page

Main Index

Next Page >>


Home ~ The Stories ~ Diversions ~ Links ~ Contact