Pardon the dust — relaunch coming this summer!

Hey everyone!

Apollo 15 takes off on  July 26, 1971.
Apollo 15 takes off on July 26, 1971.

It’s been a very long time, hasn’t it?

I have a lot I’ll want to start saying more often here, now that I’ve moved more fully into the “writing up” stage of my dissertation at the UW and as I start teaching at Northwest University this fall.

My etymology (and posts) in the form of “Will’s Word of the Week” (slightly renamed as “Will’s Word(s) of the Week”) will also be moving here, carried forward from a wonderful (and long!) run at the UW Daily. If you’re one of my readers from before, then welcome!

But beyond etymology, this site will be my academic home-on-the-web, and I’ll try to post interesting round-ups of media history, links to long-form journalism, news about the field, and other fascinating odds and ends for your perusal. If I get published elsewhere, I’ll make sure to also cross-post/link here. I’ll also keep my CV/work page fairly regularly updated so you can track my progress into the wild blue yonder that is my still very nascent career.

Please bear with me as I prepare to softly re-launch this space this summer, and check back often. For more daily (and sometimes) hourly updates, visit my very serious Twitter account.

I welcome your ideas and feedback to


Last word from England – “serendipity”

King's at dusk on my last day

I’m home again!

Being of a nostalgic, sentimental inclination, as many of you know, I promise much more in the way of reflective thoughts on my last few crazy days in the UK, when, by the grace of God, I finished my Mphil, said goodbye to good friends, and ended on a very good note indeed. I am blessed, and grateful.

For now, however, I present my final word for The Cambridge Student, for the paper’s May Week issue, which you can find in PDF form here (on p. 16, in its old spot on the left-hand side), or below. I have to thank my forebearing and good-humoured editors, James Burton, and Anna Croall, for letting me repeatedly write such etymological speculations , especially with my Americanized spelling and silly questions.

The word itself is one I had meant to explore last fall (or, rather, autumn, as they call it over there), but had only got around to at nearly the last day I was in England. I hope to keep writing in this space, and either find a new home for my column, while reposting it here, or perhaps writing it just for this blog, if I cannot do that. I will keep you posted, however, as it were. Thanks for reading, during my year away!

But enough preambling:

“Have you ever “found” something when you were not really looking for it? Or met someone, perhaps an old friend, who you did not expect to see?

Such glad happenings are examples of “serendipity,” which the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) defines as “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident [or] the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”

This nuanced word contains the idea of finding something you were not even searching for, or had given up on searching for, having lost it once before, and not knowing when you would see it again, if ever.

“Finding” anything without looking for it has a sort of fairy-tale quality. This is quite appropriate, considering that the OED credits the writer and antiquarian Horace Walpole (1717-1797) with finding it without really looking for it, in an ancient Indian fairy story, “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Incidentally, and not surprisingly, the word draws its origins from “Serendip,” an old name for Sri Lanka.

In it, three princes are sent by their father on a far journey to test their wisdom and fitness to rule. Along their way, they have many adventures, as princes in fairy tales are required to do.

In a letter to a diplomat-friend in 1754, Walpole describes “serendipity,” in its first recorded usage in English: “as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of,” such as how they could tell an awful lot about a camel (what it had for breakfast, what it was carrying, and other camel-related information) just by the way it had walked in the sand, judging by its tracks.

This “accidental sagacity,” as Walpole puts it, is worthy of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown or Lord Peter Wimsey. “For you must observe,” continues Walpole, “that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description.”

Indeed – finding what one is looking for can happen anytime – finding what you are not looking for, or have given up on finding again, now that is serendipity, or, perhaps, Providence.

I myself hope to be more of a “serendipitist,” and develop a keener sense of suspecting serendipity, and hope you do, too, now that term is finished and the summer well-nigh upon us. My MPhil also being done, this columnist will be heading home, back to Seattle in the United States, and to, he prays, more serendipity.

He is grateful to his friends back home and new friends here for letting him humor them with his etymologies, and wishes to thank his readers, for, well, reading. If you have any final word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until we meet again, take care!”

Last word(s) from England: “perspicacity” and “berserk” (yes, a nutty duo)

perspective-hunting in London

I’m sorry for only getting last week’s word(s) up just now, on the literal eve of my going home for my “working break.” Please note that there will only be two words next term, probably, as there will only be two issues of The Cambridge Student, one at the beginning, and another at the end, of the term. I may continue to (indeed, I’d even love to try, even in the midst of writing up my research project, ostensibly the reason I’m here) and post blog-only words/put up some old ones from the first term, but stay posted, as it were. In the meantime, please see below (as also found on the left-hand side of pg. 16 in the paper):

“The longer one lives, the more perspective one has, at least in theory. As a university student, I confess that I sorely lack it, especially at those crucial junctures in life that involve making Big Decisions (yes, with capital letters, making them Serious). I must thank my friend Colin Thomas for suggesting we look at such matters, or, rather, some “perspicacity.”

This noun comes to us from the Middle French “perspicacité,” meaning “discernment” or “discrimination,” as derived from the classical Latin “perspicāx,” which, in turn, means, “having keen or penetrating sight,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Since roughly the late 16th century, it has meant keen mental insight. As such, the word is thus related to the adjective, “perspicacious,” referring more figuratively to clear-sightedness, but also to someone’s wit or sense of discernment. It shares the same Latin root as does the word “perspective,” namely, “perspicere,” meaning “to see through, look closely into, discern, [or] perceive,” according to the OED.

To have perspicacious perspicacity, therefore, means to have (suspicious) perspective: the Latin root at it all, “specere,” means “to look,” with a similar root for “suspect” (“suspicere,” meaning, “to look up, look up to, admire, esteem”). Hence having perspective means having a strong sense of being able to “see,” life-wise, what is really there.

All that etymological speculation aside, the first recorded usage of “perspicacity” proper comes in about 1548, in the Solace of Soule, by the theologian Thomas Becon (c. 1512-1567), with the line, “Thou shalte neuer by the perspycacyte and quyckenis of thy reason perceyue, howe it maye be possyble.” A slightly later example, from 1663, comes to us in The Parable of a Pilgrim, by Anglican clergyman (the bishop of Ely, actually) and devotional writer Simon Patrick (1626-1707), “The greatest wits want perspicacity in things that respect their own interest.” Patrick met his future wife thanks to this work, who, having read it, sought him out. This gave him a sort of romantical perspicacity, as it were.

To close, as the term’s end-time approaches, I thought it would be fun to mention a very un- perspicacious word, namely, “berserk.” A quick shout-out is due to my friend Faith Tsuruda for bringing it to my attention. As the OED relates, a “berserk” (singular) was a Viking who flew into a purposely ferocious battle-fury (i.e. the “berserker rage” of yore).

The word is Icelandic, probably, and also probably referred to the “bear-sark,” or the “bear-coat” worn while going berserk. “To go berserk” had a slightly more violent meaning back then, but has mellowed out in contemporary usage, meaning more just-plain frenzy and less frantic head-lopping. Sir Walker Scott (1771–1832) is given credit by the OED for the first modern example of the word’s usage, in a note from The Pirate, published in 1821, “The berserkars were so called from fighting without armour.”

I hope you have perspicacity, and refrain from going truly berserk, between now and next term. If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until next time, take care!”

This week’s word: “random”

David Parry and I looking rather random

It’s about time this blog had a “random” post.

OK, yes, that is a rather lame lead-in to this week’s word, which also happens to be random, as it were, which can be found, as usual, on The Cambridge’s Student‘s site, in its usual corner on its usual page, but also below:

“As one might imagine, the meanings of words tend to change, not always randomly, but sometimes seemingly so. I must thank my decidedly non-random friend Neil Simpson for suggesting that we investigate “random.”

Something or someone that acts in a random fashion, as we know it today, does so rather chaotically, without purpose or guidance. This contemporary meaning has its roots in a much less random meaning of the word, stemming directly from its origins in clashing knights on war-horses.

That is right: chivalry, and all that jazz.

The original Anglo-Norman and Old French word, “randoun,” dating from around the 12th century, and then the later Middle French word, “randon,” refers to “speed” or “haste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED), and also to “impetuousness” or “violence,” from “randir,” meaning “to run fast,” or “gallop.” It might be related to the Germanic word “rand” (as in the Old Saxon, or Middle Low German) meaning “shield,” or, alternatively, “border” or “edge,” and thus “shield-rim” or “shield-boss” (the knobby thing in the middle of round shields, and handy for hitting).

As such, and as noted by the OED, the word can be found in as old a text as “Beowulf” (which itself dates to between the seventh and tenth centuries) with this rather undecipherable line, “He under rande gecranc.” An Old English translation of Exodus from the 10th century describes the parting waves of the Red Sea as the “randgebeorh,” or “shield-wall.”

We also find the Middle-French expression, de randon or “at speed,” and the Anglo-Norman phrase, a grant randun or “in great haste.” To strike “with great random” was to do so with great force while riding or running, as in the medieval joust, though “at the random” probably refers to the wilder jousting that did not include such niceties as barriers. Additionally, in falconry, “flying at speed” was said to be “at random.” These now obsolete meanings, as the OED tells us, referring to a “an impetuous rush” or a “rapid, headlong course” were its predominate senses until the 17th century.

By the end of the 1500s, the meaning behind the phrase began to change, and meant something less directed, and more out-of-control, perhaps stemming from the idea that running at a full gallop was not always the picture of serenity and restraint. Thus we have the Bard using this line in his Venus and Adonis (c. 1592), “But hatefully at random dost thou hit.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744) later used the word in his Dunciad, which attacked hack writers, with the line in question being, “She shows … How random thoughts now meaning chance to find.”

Finally, in a bit of nostalgia, Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens; 1835-1910), used the word in 1889, in its older sense, in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, with the line, “Two knights came together with great random.”

Well, I hope that was not too terribly random, as it were. If you have any (random) word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until next time, take care!”

This week’s word: “merry-andrew”

trying to, everyday!

I am a merry-andrew, about many things.

It’s true.

Starting with writing about rugby; I happened to be going to the Royal-Navy-Cambridge game on Wednesday night, and was drafted by the sports editor at The Cambridge Student to write something about it. Their real sports reporter couldn’t make it; I was silly enough to mention that I was going to be there.

“Do you want cover the match, Will?” my editor asked, turning from his computer to face me.

“You do realize I know nothing about rugby, having never seen a live match, or any sort of match, for that matter?” I implored.

“Oh, that’s fine, it’ll be fun!” he enthused, adding, “it’ll be an experience!”

“But I don’t even know the rules!”

“Oh, just write down who scores what and when,” he assured me, “and just do your best.”

So your vainglorious etymology columnist set off to write not only his first story about rugby, but his first sports story, ever.

With lots of help from my editor, and my friend Werner, who came to the game with me and who used to play rugby, and was thus a sort of interpreter,  it turned out all right (indeed, a far more experienced sports-reporting friend of mine said I exercised some “1920s sports writer lingo”). I should also give a shout-out to the Green family from Tennessee; they were part of our little group too. Their dad, Dr. Brad Green, is here on sabbatical at Tyndale House.

he's not a merry-andrew

Regarding the word, I was inspired to write about it after recalling a scene from Kate and Leopold (and yes, it’s a romantic-comedy, but I’m still manly … I have a beard … that makes me manly, right?). You can find it in its usual spot, on the left-hand side of p. 16 (the rugby story is on the back, on p. 32) as posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site, but also here:

“In the film, Kate and Leopold, Hugh Jackman’s character (the titular Leopold) warns his friend Charlie that he is acting the part of a “merry-Andrew.”

“A what?” asks Charlie, who, unlike Leopold, was not born in the 19th century, literally.

“Everything plays a farce to you,” replies the debonair duke. “Women respond to sincerity. No one wants to be romanced by a buffoon.”

Certainly not! Hello there, fellow word-fans; taking a break from our etymological trek into contemporary idiom, let us spend a few minutes pondering … buffoonery.

The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) identifies this (apparently) formerly proper noun with the antics of a crowd-pleasing clown, a foolish jokester or a mountebank’s assistant (more on that in a moment). While I am sure we have all felt like merry-andrews (or Merry-Andrews) at one time, or even acted like one, the actual origin of the phrase, and its connection to clownish behavior, can be traced back to London’s infamously rowdy Bartholomew Fair.

Held in Smithfield, in the ward of Farringdon Without, from roughly the 12th to the mid-19th centuries, this was not an innocent country fair, but rather a rancorous gathering of all manner of crazy entertainments, including prize fights, acrobatic exercises, music and puppets. Yes, puppets, as well as bawdy ballads, an especially silly character from which probably inspired the original idea, which had enough popular cachet by 1668 to be recorded by that prolifically observant diarist, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), when he noted in his entry for Aug. 29, “I … took her and Mercer and Deb to Bartholomew-fair, and there did see a ridiculous, obscene little stage-play called ‘Mary Andrey’, a foolish thing but seen by everybody.”

The word’s use by a  pair of poetical playwrights, John Dryden (1631-1700) and Aphra Behn (c. 1640-1689), shows how it had caught on by the end of the century, with the former using it in a 1684 poem with the line, “Th’ Italian Merry-Andrews took their place, And quite Debauch’d the Stage with lewd Grimace.” The latter used it in a more descriptive sense, with this line from the 1678 play, Sir Patient Fancy, “I am made a John A-Nokes of, Jack-hold-my-staff, a Merry Andrew Doctor to give Leander time to marry your Daughter.”

As for acting like a mountebank’s assistant, to understand that, you should know that historically, a “mountebank,” as related by the OED, was “an itinerant charlatan who sold supposed medicines and remedies, frequently using various entertainments to attract a crowd of potential customers.” The word comes from the Italian phrase, “monta in banco,” or “mount on bench,” as such roguish tricksters were wont to do as they sold their quackery, and a merry-andrew or two could come in handy.

You definitely do not want to be a merry-andrew, or worse, a mountebank’s sidekick.  Having been forewarned, if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until next time, take care!”

Finally, here’s the group of us from the rugby match:

my friend and the other Will, Werner and the Green family at the rugby match

This week’s word: “hep-cat”

"I am hep?" probably not ...

Behold! This week’s word continues my recent series (that sounds quite serious, doesn’t it? to have a series, I mean) on slang; you can read it below, or look on pg. 16 on the left-hand side of the version posted on The Cambridge Student‘s site. A quick note though: “hippy” and “hipster” are cousins of “hep,” just in case you were wondering (now that you know, you are “hep,” ha …):

“Since we have been on such a slangy roll in this column, I thought we ought to continue it this week with “hip,” or, rather, “hepcat.” I must thank my friends James and Erica for suggesting it, in Grantchester, of all places.

By “hip” as an adjective, what is really meant is “hep,” a classic piece of mysterious American slang that has its roots in jazz (just like “cool”), when to “be hep” is to be “well-informed, knowledgeable, ‘wise to’, up-to-date [or] smart,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED).

Hence a “hip-cat,” or a “hep-cat,” is “in the know” as an avid aficionado of jazz, and all its hep derivatives, including swing. It appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1896-1940) posthumously published novel (in 1941), The Love of the Last Tycoon, with the line, “Suddenly they were at work again – taking up this new theme in turn like hepcats in a swing band and going to town with it.”

A “cool-cat,” incidentally, is much the same thing, defined as “an admirably fashionable or stylish person,” a fan of jazz and swing, says the OED. Now, how cats become cool, and learned to dance, is another matter entirely.

But the fact remains that cats and cool and dancing, along with dancing cool cats, became synonymous in the swing scene in early 20th-century America, so much so that Louie Armstrong could declare in 1932 that “All the cats were there,” and a May 23, 1942 issue of the Chicago Defender could say that “Perry Givens played a cool cat at the May dance Friday,” two of the earliest attributed examples of “cool-cat.”

As far as hep-cats are concerned, in 1938, the academic journal American Speech defined the word as a “guy who knows what it’s [the swing music is] all about.” As related by the OED, a 1940 issue of the same journal contains this anecdotal bit of speculation: “‘Tis said that back in the 1890s Joe Hep ran a saloon in Chicago… Although he never quite understood what was going on, he thought he did… Hence his name entered the argot as an ironic appellation for anyone who thought he knew but didn’t. The ironic sense has now largely disappeared … in … to ‘get hep to.’”

Your etymological columnist thinks that explanation is more than a little spurious, but it is interesting, and helps to illustrate how such theories make a sort of sense, even when nonsensical.  Technically, however, “hep” proper first showed up in written English in the Dec. 5, 1908 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with the line, “What puzzles me is how you can find anybody left in the world who isn’t hep.”

Yes, that is most puzzling indeed. I hope you enjoyed that hep slang, and if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until next time, take care!”

This week’s word: “doldrum”

looking Serious as I Study

My apologies for not being so prolific with posting this past week. I was blindsided and then thoroughly becalmed by a nasty cold through the weekend and have only just now started to feel better. I promise to finally put up a new post on my long walk out to Madingley, and at least another fresh one soon on a silly Englishism or two (scaffolding, anyone?).

But for now, here is this week’s word, doldrum, which you can find on The Cambridge Student‘s site, on page 18, but also here:

“It now being well and truly wintertime, the cold and the chill in Cambridge can either serve to inspire the studious to press on toward the greater glories of spring, or leave them wallowing in the frigid academic doldrums. Singularly “inspired” by a recent, and maliciously stubborn, head cold, this columnist has been enduring a bit of a doldrum (yes, singular), of his own, which brings us not-so-coincidentally to this week’s word.

A “doldrum” was once defined, as the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) reminds us, as a “dullard; a dull, drowsy, or sluggish fellow.” As such, its first appearance in recorded written English, in this now-obsolete form, comes to us in the Sept. 7, 1812 edition of a publication called the Examiner, with the line, “A doldrum is, we believe, the cant word for a long sleeper.” But the April 13, 1811 edition of the London-based Morning Herald contains the first use of the plural form, “I am now in the doldrums; but when I get better, I will send you.”

Interestingly, a slight shift in meaning had occurred, as the OED defines the plural as “a condition of dullness or drowsiness; dumps, low spirits, depression.” We can hardly blame slang for changing, of course, as that is part of its nature. As for the actual etymology of the word, it is old, derivative slang from “dull,” which may come from an old Germanic root word (“dwel-”) meaning, “to be foolish.”

George Gordon Noel Byron, aka Lord Byron (1788–1824) gets the credit for using the word in its more becalmed, nautical sense for the first time in The Island, with the line, again thanks to the OED, “From the bluff head where I watch’d to-day, I saw her in the doldrums; for the wind Was light and baffling.” From this more generalized sense it took on a more specific meaning, to the region near the world’s equator where the trade winds tend to nullify each other, to the annoyance of sailors, who, well, use sails still. More cerebrally, to be in a doldrum can mean that one is “intellectually nonplussed,” or, to borrow a handy cliché, that one has hit the proverbial brick wall: mentally, of course.

I sincerely hope that if you are in such a sate, that you can get out of such a doldrum, or doldrums, as soon as possible. If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until next time, take care!”

This week’s word: “custom”

the top of King's College
the top of King's College

Good day to you, as they say here. The short version of the word for this week can be found here, on page 16 on the left-hand side, on The Cambridge Student‘s site. But the long version can be found here (I will try to put other long versions if the need arises, as well as to perhaps add extra bits and pieces to the weekly word here and there); I hope you enjoy it, at least a little:

“Hello again, my fellow fans of etymological exploration. I pray your holiday-time went well, and that Lent term in all its wintery grimness has not fallen too heavily upon you. By way of settling back into a routine, and because Cambridge is rather rich with such traditions, I propose that we look at a word that conveys the soothing rhythm of routine, namely, “custom.” I must thank my friend Mary for suggesting it.

As that old standby of definition, the Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) puts it, “custom” is something that has become “habitual or usual practice … [a] common way of acting … [the] usage, fashion, [or] habit (either of an individual or of a community).” People become accustomed to custom, as it were. Customs tend to vary from place to place and time to time, as you might imagine, and represent the collected body of tradition passed from one generation to the next. In this sense, appropriately, the word has been around in early forms of English since the 13th century.

“Custom” as such can also refer to regionalized or local law, legal tradition that through long use has acquired a certain jurisdictional weight. In medieval times, tenants beholden to a feudal lord paid their masters in customary service or in money rent. This has been extended into modern times to the tolls, taxes or duties placed by governments on goods exchanged across their borders, hence “the Customs,” i.e. the government agency assigned to collect such fees.

The Middle English “custume” comes from the Anglo-French word of the same spelling, from the Latin “consuetudinem,” from “consuescere,” meaning, “to accustom,” from “suescere,” from “suus,” related to the idea of possessing something, or “one’s own” (and here I have to acknowledge help from Merriam-Webster). The OED cites the Magna Carta’s use of “consuetudo,” and notes how the “magna custuma,” or “the great custom,” applied to inter-border export-imports, and the “parva customa,” or “the little custom” applied to the smaller operation of markets “within the realm.”

Interestingly, “custom” and “costume” have a shared heritage, as the OED observes, with the latter coming from the Italian version of the former, and meaning “use, wont, fashion, guise, habit, [or] manner: in other words, what you are accustomed to wearing by way of hair and clothes, and as it belongs to a particular place and time. As recorded by the OED, the first use of the word in this sense comes to us from an 1802 issue of the Edinburgh Review, with the line, “There is always a certain pleasure in contemplating the costume of a distant nation.”

As portrayed on the stage, an actor or actress dons the clothes of the character he or she is playing. Over time (and by that I mean by the early 19th century), current fashion was also referred to as the “costume” of the day. Incidentally, by the mid-19th century, regarding women’s clothing, the outer garment, gown or dress was the “costume” proper.

This leads to another interesting tie to “custom,” since patronizing a shop or store was to give it your custom, as it were, even as you hunted for your costume. The first usage of this meaning can be found in about 1596, in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” from act four, scene three, when Petruchio “quarrels” with the poor tailor, “Go, hop me over every kennel home … For you shall hop without my custom, sir: I’ll none of it: hence! Make your best of it.”

I hope you found that tidbit on customs and costumes at least marginally customary. In the meantime, if you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to Until next time, take care!”