Category Archives: Etymology

Why is it called Omicron?

The New York Times explains it all:

“When the W.H.O. began to name emerging variants of the coronavirus, they turned to the Greek alphabet — Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and so on — to make them easier to describe. The first “variant of concern,” Alpha, was identified in Britain in late 2020, soon followed by Beta in South Africa.

“But veterans of American sorority and fraternity life might have noticed the system has skipped the next two letters in the alphabetical order: Nu and Xi.

“Officials thought Nu would be too easily confused with “new,” but the next letter, Xi, is a bit more complicated. W.H.O. officials said it was a common last name, and therefore potentially confusing. Some noted that it is also the name of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

“A spokesman for the W.H.O. said the organization’s policy was designed to avoid “causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional, or ethnic groups.”

“Next in line? Omicron.”

From Omicron: What Is Known – and Still Unknown by Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, Dec 2, 2021

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You guys, y’all and youse. Or yintz.

Is “you guys” no longer appropriate to use in our more enlightened gender-neutral speech? It has an undeniably male “twang” to it, that’s for sure. But how do modern English-speakers – especially female and non-binary folks – respond to that catch-all term used to conveniently and informally address a group of people in the absence of a genderless second person plural in standard English (which German-, Turkish- and Gaelic-speakers, among others, are lucky enough to have in their linguistic toolkits)?

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The OED: the birth of a dictionary, Part 2. The editor and the mad surgeon.

Dr. William Chester Minor: an American army surgeon, lunatic asylum inmate, and one of the most prolific contributors of quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary. / Wikimedia Commons

Continuing Glosso’s telling of the OED birth story…

Five years into the New Dictionary project, in 1884, James Murray and his family moved to a large house in north Oxford, where he built a second – larger – Scriptorium in his back garden, to store the growing mountain of paper slips that were flooding in for him and his team following his Appeal (see yesterday’s Glosso post). The Scriptorium, crafted from corrugated iron, was lined with wooden planks, book shelves and 1,029 pigeon-holes for the quotation slips. Anything addressed to ‘Mr Murray, Oxford’ would find its way to him, and the volume of mail sent by Murray and his team was so vast that the Post Office erected a special mailbox (or what the British call “postbox”) outside his house, which he had named ‘Sunnyside’. Among those slips of paper were some penned by a notorious murderer detained at the even more notorious Broadmoor.

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When Irish words are smiling (in English)

Another favorite from the Glosso archives, posted again to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. What do galore, slew, hooligan and boycott have in common? Glossophilia celebrates 13* colorful words in common English usage that we got from the Irish.

Banshee: in Irish folklore, a type of female fairy believed to foretell deaths by singing in a mournful, unearthly voice, 1771, from the phonetic spelling of the Irish bean sidhe (“female of the Elves”) from bean “woman” + Irish sidhe (Gaelic sith) meaning “fairy” or sid meaning “fairy mound”.

Boycott: From Irish Land League ostracism of Capt. Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897), land agent of Lough-Mask in County Mayo, who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. Quickly adopted by newspapers in languages as far afield as Japanese (boikotto). The family name is from a place in England.

Brogue: A type of Celtic accent, 1705, perhaps from the meaning “rough, stout shoe” (made of rawhide and tied with thongs), of the type worn by rural Irish and Scottish highlanders (1580s), via Gaelic or Irish, from Old Irish broce “shoe.” The footwear was “characteristic of the wilder Irish” [Century Dictionary], thus the noun might mean something like “speech of those who call a shoe a brogue.” Or perhaps it is from the Old Irish barrog, meaning “a hold” (on the tongue).

Galore: 1670s, from the Irish go leór, and equivalent Scottish Gaelic gu leóir, meaning “sufficiently, enough,” from the Old Irish roar, “enough”. The particle go/gu usually means “to,” but it is also affixed to adjectives to form adverbs, as it is here.

Gobslang for “mouth” 1540s, from the Irish gob, meaning “mouth”.

Hooligan: 1890s, of unknown origin, according to OED, first found in British newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898, almost certainly from the variant form of the Irish surname Houlihan, which figured as a characteristic comic Irish name in music hall songs and newspapers of the 1880s and ’90s.

Leprechaun: c. 1600, from Irish lupracan, a metathesis of the Old Irish luchorpan meaning literally “a very small body,” from lu (“little, small”). The variant leithbragan is probably Irish folk etymology, from leith (“half”) + brog (“brogue”), because the spirit was “supposed to be always employed in making or mending a single shoe.”

Sheila: The Australian slang for “woman” comes from the Irish name “Síle”, the Irish equivalent of Celia, a shortened form of Cecilia, the feminine form of Cecil. A standard Irish women’s name since 1828; slang for “girlfriend, young woman” dates from 1839.

Slew: meaning “large number” 1839, from the Irish sluagh meaning “a host, crowd, multitude”.

Slogan: 1670s, earlier slogorne (1510s), “battle cry,” from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm meaning “battle cry” used by Scottish Highland or Irish clans,” from sluagh (“army, host, slew” — see slew above), from the Celtic and Balto-Slavic slough (“help, service”). Second element is gairm meaning “a cry”.

Tory: Colloquial name for a member of the British Conservative Party: 1566, “an outlaw,” specifically “one of a class of Irish robbers noted for outrages and savage cruelty,” from the Irish toruighe, “plunderer,” originally “pursuer, searcher,” from the Old Irish toirighim (“I pursue”) from toir (“pursuit”) from Celtic to-wo-ret (“a running up to”). In about 1646, it emerged as a derogatory term for Irish Catholics dispossessed of their land (some of whom subsequently turned to outlawry); in c.1680 it was applied by Exclusioners to supporters of the Catholic Duke of York (later James II) in his succession to the throne of England. After 1689, Tory was the name of a British political party at first composed of Yorkist Tories of 1680. It was superseded in c.1830 by Conservative, although it continues to be used colloquially. As an adjective from 1680s.

Shamrock: 1570s, from Irish seamrog, the diminutive of seamar meaning “clover.”

Whiskey: 1715, from Gaelic uisge beatha “whisky,” literally “water of life,” from the Old Irish uisce, meaning “water”. Note that the spelling distinction between Scotch whisky and Irish and American whiskey is a 19th-century innovation.


And here are two words that are commonly thought to be of Irish origin but probably aren’t:

Dig? Some people think the slang word dig — meaning to understand or “get it” — comes from the Irish tuig. However, read Frank McNally’s dig into the word dig in the Irish Times a decade ago: it’s a complicated subject, and probably not of Irish heritage after all.

Hillbilly? It’s commonly thought that the pejorative term for people living in rural areas of the U.S., especially around the Ozark Mountains (Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas) and Appalachia, initially came from 18th-century Ulster Protestant settlers in the Appalachian Mountains. However, as Michael Montgomery argues in his From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English: “In Ulster in recent years it has sometimes been supposed that it was coined to refer to followers of King William III and brought to America by early Ulster emigrants, but this derivation is almost certainly incorrect. … In America hillbilly was first attested only in 1898, which suggests a later, independent development.”

* Don’t worry: we’ve got the luck of the Irish on our side.


Come one, cum all!

Originally posted in 2013, and then updated in 2018 when it came back into the news, Glossophilia is happy to republish one of its most popular posts.

2018 update: The word “cum” is back in the news today, with a censored cake that went viral.

The censored cake / Facebook

*  *  Warning: contains strong language *  * 

Original post in 2013: I was watching Masters of Sex the other night on Showtime, and it struck me that Masters and Johnson were using the word come a lot. And they weren’t meaning the opposite of go. (It didn’t escape my notice that they also seemed to be coming a lot — but that’s another story…) I know these ground-breaking sex researchers of the 1950s and ’60s were famously ahead of their time, but not in their word choices — and their use of this particular piece of sexual terminology sounded weirdly anachronistic to me. I really thought that this word “come” was a more modern invention… Continue reading

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge with a "Stay Woke: Vote" tee shirt in 2018


Update in March 2021: Back in June 2017, Glosso reported that the word woke had officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary (and I believe it also entered Webster Merriam that same year). A further post in September 2019, which is reposted below, delved more deeply into the word’s etymology and nuanced history. Has the figurative adjective evolved further in the past year-and-a-half, given its prominence and ubiquity in the Black Lives Matter movement and other areas of social justice consciousness? Has its meaning shifted again, taking on a mocking or pejorative insinuation, in addition to the conscious and righteous sense that makes so many people – if not a whole generation – “woke and proud” today? Continue reading

Is there a difference between “inoculation” and “vaccination”?

Fluzone vaccine
Fluzone vaccine; image Wikimedia Commons/CDC

In a recent family Zoom call, my mum (who’s now in her 80s) made an interesting observation: the main topic of conversation these days – because let’s face it, what else is there to talk about? – is vaccines and vaccinations; but back in the day, when my sibs and I were infants and littlies, the talk was more of inoculations. I still have my old “inoculation” booklets for myself and for my own children when we were babes in arms or toddlers; these were the jabs to prevent diseases like Diptheria and Tetanus, Measles, Mumps and Rubella (“MMR”) that we all had to get before going to school and taking part in the big party called life. But then there’s my yellow “vaccination” booklet, which first started getting stamped with names like cholera and smallpox and yellow fever back in the late ’60s when my family started to travel and live abroad. Do those two words – inoculation and vaccination – have essentially different meanings? Is it to do with what exactly is being injected or ingested, or perhaps to do with their respective goals or the way they are being delivered? Or are they in fact synonymous, with vaccination simply being more trendy in our pandemic-torn times?

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Celebrating International Mother Language Day on 21 February

Procession march held on 21 February 1952 in Dhaka / Wikimedia Commons

“A language is far more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within it. It is through language that we transmit our experiences, our traditions and our knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the incontestable wealth of our imaginations and ways of life.” So explained UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay three years ago on February 21: International Mother Language Day.

What follows is a brief history of the UNESCO international day that was inaugurated in 1952 to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism.

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Two “I” words in Jan 2021: What do “impeach” and “insurrection” mean?

Are you confused about what the word impeach actually means? Does it refer to indicting or convicting, and what are its consequences? With different meanings in different places, it’s one of those muddy words that always sounds – to my ear at least – as though it should mean something slightly different. Then there’s insurrection, the other hot word of January 2021, which despite its straightforward dictionary definition has somewhat ambiguous connotations. Here’s a quick dive into what these two words mean and where they come from.


“A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
― Alexander Hamilton

Here are the dictionary definitions: OED has it as “to accuse of treason or other high crime or misdemeanour (usually against the state) before a competent tribunal.” Merriam Webster basically agrees, without the British ‘u’: “to charge with a crime or misdemeanor; specificallyto charge (a public official) before a competent tribunal with misconduct in office.”

In practice, impeachment is the process by which a legislative body addresses charges against a government official. However, the specific definition varies from country to country: in some places – for example in Latin America – a president is only considered to have been impeached once he or she has been removed from office. In the US, however, impeachment refers to the indictment itself, no matter what the ultimate outcome of the charges; it is essentially a statement of charges against an official who can remain in office during the trial. A judgment that convicts the official on the articles of impeachment usually results in that person’s removal from office, but that is not necessarily part of its definition. Impeachment is a legal process in many countries around the world – including Brazil, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and the US – but each one has its own rules and nuances in terms of its protagonists, process, timing and consequences.

The word impeach has an equally muddy etymology, with several Latin forebears. It probably derives from the old French word empeechier, in turn from the Latin word impedīre meaning “to catch or ensnare by the foot”, and it has similarities with the modern French verb empêcher (to prevent) and the modern English impede. Back in medieval times, etymologists confused it – wrongly as it turns out – with derivations from the Latin impetere, meaning “to attack”. Some linguists argue that the word impeach is associated with the Latin impicare, which refers to a certain punishment meted out to parricides in centuries past: “punishment of the sack,” or poena cullei in Latin. This rather gruesome process involved throwing the parent-killer into the sea sewn inside a culleus, a leather sac made of cowhide covered with pitch or bitumen to slow down the process of the water breaching and filling the sac. They sometimes sewed aggressive animals – a snake, a monkey, a rooster and a dog – in with the drowning criminal to make his final hours especially torturous.

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“Most commonly revolt is born of material circumstances; but insurrection is always a moral phenomenon. Revolt is Masaniello, who led the Neapolitan insurgents in 1647; but insurrection is Spartacus. Insurrection is a thing of the spirit, revolt is a thing of the stomach.” – Victor Hugo

“Literature is a form of permanent insurrection. Its mission is to arouse, to disturb, to alarm, to keep men in a constant state of dissatisfaction with themselves.” –
Mario Vargas Llosa

“For those of us who have been thrown into hell, mysterious melodies and the torturing images of a vanished beauty will always bring us, in the midst of crime and folly, the echo of that harmonious insurrection which bears witness, throughout the centuries, to the greatness of humanity.” – Albert Camus

Insurrection is much more straightforward than impeachment in terms of its dictionary definition and etymology. “The action of rising in arms or open resistance against established authority or governmental restraint; with plural, an instance of this, an armed rising, a revolt; an incipient or limited rebellion.” (OED) However, as evidenced in the quotes above, it does seem historically to have had an alternative more moral, poetic, philosophical and even righteous sense that its cousins in riot, revolution and rebellion somehow lack. To my mind, it characterizes a morally justifiable reaction to oppressive and established authority almost as often as it represents a reprehensible or criminal act. (Which isn’t to say that I believe that’s true of the insurrection at the US Capitol this month.) But perhaps I’m completely wrong in any case; as H. T. Buckle stated in 1858 (see citations below): “Insurrections are generally wrong; revolutions are always right.”

Its etymology is simple: meaning “an uprising against civil authority,” it dates back to the early 15th century term insurreccion, from the Old French insurreccion or directly from late Latin insurrectionem, meaning “a rising up.”

Citations (courtesy of the OED):


1459   Rolls of Parl. V. 346/2   He [Jack Cade]..wrote letters to many have made a comon insurrection.

1461   J. Berney in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) II. 241   Yll dysposyd persones, that I intend to make jnsurrexcyones contrari vnto the lawe.

1535   Bible (Coverdale) Ezra iv. 19   This cite of olde hath made insurreccion agaynst kynges.1548   Hall’s Vnion: Richard III f. xxxviij   Other dyd secretely moue and sollicite the people to rise and make an insurrecion.

1587   R. Holinshed et al. Hist. Eng. (new ed.) v. xviij. 98/2 in Holinshed’s Chron. (new ed.) I   The remnant of the Britains therefore withdrew..into Cornwall, and into Wales, out of which countries they oftentimes brake out, and made insurrections [1577 reyses] vpon the Saxons.

1687   A. Lovell tr. J. de Thévenot Trav. into Levant i. 277   The Moors made an Insurrection, and made one Osman their first Dey.1854   H. H. Milman Hist. Lat. Christianity II. iv. ix. 207   The people broke out in instant insurrection, declared their determination to renounce their allegiance.

1858   H. T. Buckle Hist. Civilisation Eng. (1873) II. viii. 593   Insurrections are generally wrong; revolutions are always right.


1569   R. Grafton Chron. II. 353   Whether the Lordes and commons might without the kings will empeche the same officers and iustices vpon their offenses in the parliament or not.1702   Clarendon’s Hist. Rebellion I. iii. 139   Mr Pym at the Bar [of the house of peers], and in the Name of all the Commons of England, impeach’d Thomas Earl of Strafford..of High Treason, and several other hainous Crimes and Misdemeanours.

1769   W. Blackstone Comm. Laws Eng. IV. xix. 261   The representatives of the people, or House of Commons, cannot properly judge; because their constituents are the parties injured; and can therefore only impeach.1863   H. Cox Inst. Eng. Govt. i. x. 229   Latimer was impeached and accused by the voice of the Commons.

1868   Trial Andrew Johnson 3   On Monday, February the 24th, 1868, the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States resolved to impeach Andrew Johson, President of the United States, of high crimes and misdemeanors.1883   G. T. Curtis Buchanan II. xii. 247   In regard to the President, it was their duty to make a specific charge, to investigate it openly, and to impeach him before the Senate, if the evidence afforded reasonable ground to believe that the charge could be substantiated.


1640–4   in J. Rushworth Hist. Coll.: Third Pt. (1692) I. 356   The Lords sat upon the Impeachment against the Judges and Bishop Wren.

1667   A. Marvell Let. 26 Oct. in Poems & Lett. (1971) II. 59   This morning seuerall members of our House did..moue the House to proceed to an impeachment against the Earle of Clarinden.

1754–62   D. Hume Hist. Eng. III. 15 (Seager)   The first impeachment by the house of commons seems to have been carried up against Lord Latimer in the latter end of Edward the Third’s reign.

1789 Constit. U.S.  ii. §4   The President, Vice-President, and all Civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

1805   S. Chase in Life Rufus King (1897) IV. 444   Congratulations on my acquittal by the Senate of the Impeachment by the House of Representatives.

1827   H. Hallam Constit. Hist. Eng. I. ix. 566   The articles of Strafford’s impeachment.

1867   Nation (N.Y.) 14 Feb. 121   Discussion of the power of the Senate to suspend the President [Johnson] during his impeachment.