Curious Word Origins
~ W ~
|wimp - ineffectual, weak person|
Probably an abbreviation of 'whimperer', one who complains in a soft plaintive whine.
|windfall - unexpected acquisition or benefit|
Literally, anything - such as fruit or a branch - that falls from a tree as a result of being blown by the wind. The connection between this and the figurative meaning is obvious enough in that both come about without human effort, but the underlying idea of benefit originates from the old days when laws controlled tree-felling but allowed windfallen branches to be freely gathered for fuel.
~ Y ~
|Yank, Yankee - American|
Originally US slang for a citizen of New England, then for a citizen of the northern states generally: during the Civil War it was applied to the Federal army of the north by the Confederates of the south. In Britain, however, these distinctions have not been observed and the word is used of any American.
...The derivation is probably from the Dutch Janke, a diminutive of Jan (John) pronounced 'Yan', or from Jan Kees (John Cheese), both derisive nicknames used by New York Dutch settlers when speaking of English colonists in nearby New England, especially Connecticut.
|yen - longing|
A comparatively recent importation (about 1930) from the USA, this was originally the Chinese (in-) yan or ye(e)n, an intense craving for opium smoke.
~ Z ~
|zany - comical in a fantastic or absurd way|
The word comes from Italian zanni, originally a traditional masked clown in the Italian commedia dell'arte. The buffoon was known as Zanni - an alteration of the name Giovanni (John), one of the traditional names for a clown. Zanni's role was to mimic the clown's tricks and generally to play the fool.
|zap - use a remote-control device to operate a television or video machine|
This word was invented in the drawings of American comic strips to represent the sound of a bullet, laser, ray-gun, etc. It passed into spoken and written vocabulary during the Vietnam War when American troops used it as a childish euphemism for 'kill' or 'strike'. Computer language then adopted it, in the related sense of 'erase', and this sense persists in its latest use.
|zero - the figure 0, a cipher, nothing, nought, nil|
The centrepiece of the Hindu-Arabic numerical system was the invention of zero - sunya as the Indians called it, and cifr as it became in Arabic. The term has come down to us in English as cipher, which means 'empty' and refers to the zero column on the abacus or counting frame. (The term also entered English as decipher, 'to determine the meaning of anything obscure'.) The Arabic word survives even in Russian, where it appears as tsifra, which is the word for 'number'.
|zizz - sleep|
From the convention in cartoons, especially in children's comics, of depicting sleeping characters with 'zzzz' coming out of their mouths to represent the sound of snoring. This was turned into a word in RAF slang some time before the Second World War.
|zombie - inactive person lacking mental or physical alertness|
A word from West African voodoo, transferred to the Americas by the slave trade and then into standard English. It may originally have been the name of a snake deity but is better known as the term for a soulless corpse allegedly revived by witchcraft; hence the idea of lifelessness.
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