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Feb 17, 2003
This week's theme
Words with interesting etymologies

This week's words

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A subscriber recently wrote to share this:
    "During a walking tour in Alexandria, Virginia I learned that the maids would be sent to the taverns to go sip wine and learn about their neighbors. You can easily see how this would turn into gossip over the years! (It also illustrates how integrals maids were to the family unit.)"
Talk about an easy maiden life in those olden days! Well, it's a good story but I'm afraid it's not true (much like gossip!). It falls in line with many myths circulating on the Internet: "Life in the 1500s", the explanation of a certain scatological word as an acronym for "Ship High In Transit", etc.

That's not to say that stories behind words aren't interesting. Most of the words have fascinating histories, it's just that they are not as cut-and-dried. Words have biographies -- we call them etymologies -- that are engaging. Take "gossip" for example. It came originally from Old English godsibb (sibb: related) meaning godparent. From there, the word took a downward journey to the sense of one who is a familiar acquaintance, to one who engages in idle talk, to the talk itself.

This week we'll look at a few terms with etymologies that make entertaining reading.

Pronunciation RealAudio


sobriquet (SOH-bri-kay) noun, also soubriquet

A fancy nickname or a humorous name.

[From French sobriquet, from soubriquet (chuck under the chin). Probably from the fact that calling by a nickname affords one to cozy up to someone and tap under the chin.]

"Tony Blair's role as Bush's unwavering ally has already earned him a long list of unflattering sobriquets, including puppet, poodle, the US 'foreign minister', and the MP for Texas North."
Mark Rice-Oxley; Tony Blair's Risky Stance on Iraq; Christian Science Monitor (Boston, Massachusetts); Feb 14, 2003.

"In a speech honoring the airmen waging the Battle of Britain -- `Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,' he (Churchill) said, coining the soubriquet ('the Few') by which the RAF pilots would forever be known."
David M. Kennedy; Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945; Oxford University Press, 1999.


There's no sauce in the world like hunger. -Miguel de Cervantes, novelist (1547-1616)

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