Twitchers, Megas, and Life Lists: A Brief Guide to Birdwatching Lingo

“Birdwatching in Panama” by Alex Proimos (CC BY 2.0)

Avian celebration is definitely not for the birds. There are no fewer than four days that fete our feathered friends: National Bird Day from the Avian Welfare Coalition on Jan. 5; World Migratory Bird Day from the Environment of the Americas on the second Saturday in May in the U.S. and Canada and the second Saturday in October in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean; and finally Bird Day on May 4 as established in 1894 by Charles Almanzo Babcock, a superintendent of schools in Oil City, Pa.

Whichever day you choose to honor these winged creatures, we hope you enjoy these birdwatching terms.

Birdwatchers

Those who practice ornithoscopy have a few different names. Birder is American English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), first appearing in a 1945 issue of, appropriately enough, Audubon Magazine: “As a birder and a soldier, I’ve wandered up and down the country.”

Twitcher is a British English term that came about later and refers specifically to a birdwatcher “whose main aim is to make sightings of rare birds,” says the OED, often traveling “great distances to do so.” It might also mean an “enthusiastic or obsessive birdwatcher.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation from a 1974 article in The Guardian: “An exhausted North American spotted sandpiper..has become the latest target for the ornithological ‘tick-hunters’ or ‘twitchers’ of Britain.” As for twitcher’s origin, it might come from “the nervous excitement of a birdwatcher.” To twitch is to spot or seek a rare bird.

Or stringers and lists

If someone calls you a stringer, watch out: it might be the worst insult in birding. A stringer is someone who not only often misidentifies birds, they add such mistaken identities to their life list, a record of all the species a birder has seen in their lifetime.

A correctly identified species seen for the first time by someone keeping a life list is a lifer, which can also refer to the sighting itself. A regular addition to a life list is a tick., which the OED defines as “a ticked item on a list, esp. a list of birds to be observed.”

While it’s not clear where stringer comes from, life list dates back to 1900, lifer to 1958, and tick to 1975, all according to the OED. 

Birdwatching hits and misses

Want to attract a little bird’s attention? You might make a noise like pish. Just miss seeing a rare bird? You’ve dipped or dipped out. Meanwhile, the just-missed bird is a dip. Someone else see your dip and tell you about it? They’ve gripped or gripped off

The birds themselves

Of course the birds themselves have nicknames as well. A common species might be referred to as a peep or LBJ, which stands for “little brown job,” while a BOP is a bird of prey. Rare birds might be called mega, mega-find, mega-rarity, and mega-tick.

Battle of the birdwatchers

If you haven’t already noticed, birdwatching can get pretty competitive. Hence, the big year, an informal competition brought to you by the American Birding Association in which twitchers see who can observe “the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.” It’s also the inspiration for a book and a movie.

Want more bird words? Check out these singular bird names and these “wirds” of a feather.

Happy World Elephant Day! Celebrate with Seven Elephant-Related Words and Phrases

We hope you didn’t forget — it’s World Elephant Day! Observed every Aug. 12, this special day seeks to raise awareness about the protection and preservation of this massive mammal. We’re celebrating the way we like best: by exploring some elephant words and idioms.

elephant in the room

“England enter the Guinness Six Nations with a united squad after addressing any grievances over Saracens’ salary cap scandal, described by Jonny May as the ‘elephant in the room.’”

Duncan Bech, “England players address ‘elephant in the room’ as Saracens scandal is discussed,” PA Media, Jan. 24, 2020

This phrase meaning an obvious problem or issue that’s being ignored or avoided might come from a 1984 book title, An Elephant in the Living Room: A Leader’s Guide for Helping Children of Alcoholics, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

An earlier sense (the “type of something obvious and incongruous, esp. (in Logic and Philosophy) in discussions of statements which may or may not correspond to observable facts”) is from a 1935 book American Philosophy Today and Tomorrow: “It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not.”

white elephant

“But the project’s still a white elephant. The elevated tram from the Willets Park station near Citi Field to the airport doesn’t create a one-seat ride to LaGuardia.”

Post Editorial Board, “AOC is right: LaGuardia AirTrain is a worthless white elephant,” New York Post, Jan. 14, 2020

A white elephant is a burdensome possession — basically something that yields very little return on investment. The OED’s earliest citation is from a Dec. 16, 1721 issue of London Journal: “In short, Honour and Victory are generally no more than white Elephants; and for white Elephants the most destructive Wars have been often made.”

As for the origin of the phrase, one theory says it comes from a story about a king in Thailand who would gift white elephants in order to bankrupt his enemies. However, there might be no such story as, according to Thai historian Rita Ringis, white elephants would never be considered a burden by Thai monarchs and in fact are a symbol of good fortune.

Regardless of where the phrase came from, during the winter holidays many of us are victims participants in white elephant gift exchanges, otherwise known as Yankee swaps, during which unwanted or ridiculous presents are foisted on others in exchange for something else unwanted or ridiculous.

pink elephant

“In the film, the circus’ water bucket becomes tainted with Champagne, causing both Dumbo and his rodent sidekick to see visions of terrifying pink elephants engaged in trippy shapeshifting, morphing into musical instruments, and forming a giant super-elephant made up of elephant heads.”

Sarah Baird, “The Boozy Underbelly of Saturday Morning Cartoons,” Eater, Aug. 10, 2015

To see pink elephants means to hallucinate from drugs or alcohol. The OED’s earliest citation is from an April 1900 issue of Blue Pencil Magazine: “She don’t stand for this booze business, and I’m opposed to it myself. D’ye see them pink elephants running up my pants legs?” Perhaps the most famous hallucinatory pink elephants are from Disney’s 1941 animated film, Dumbo.

to see the elephant

“It is not positively an eternal Gun-Cotton-dom which they crave, but simply to see the elephant — to have a great time, and retire.”

Seeing the Elephant,” The New York Times, March 1, 1861

To see the elephant is an old-timey way of saying to see the world or get experience in life. It originated in American English, says the OED, perhaps around 1835: “That’s sufficient, as Tom Haynes said when he saw the elephant.”

elephant joke

“How do you get six elephants in a Volkswagen? Three in the front and three in the back. This fad began in 1960, when Wisconsin toy maker L.M. Becker Co. released a set of 50 elephant-joke trading cards.” 

Bathroom Readers Institute, “Why the Chicken Actually Crossed the Road—and the History Behind 9 More Jokes,” Reader’s Digest, Nov. 1, 2018

Elephant jokes refer to a series of riddles involving, you guessed it, elephants, which was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. The trading cards mentioned in the quote seem to have been released in 1960 by now seemingly defunct toy manufacturer L. M. Becker. The OED’s earliest citation for elephant joke is from the 1968 comedy film Don’t Just Stand There starring Robert Wagner and Mary Tyler Moore: “Well, hell, do isometric exercises, tell elephant jokes, write postcards.”

proboscis

“Despite how easy it is to snap those all-pervasive self portraits, the short distance from the camera combines with the wide-angle lens to puff the proboscis.”

Leslie Katz, “Yes, selfies do make your nose look bigger,” CNET, March 1, 2018

Before proboscis jokingly referred to a person’s nose, especially of Cyrano proportions, it meant an elephant’s trunk. Ultimately from the Greek proboskis, meaning “elephant’s trunk” but literally translating as “means for taking food,” the word’s elephant sense is from the late 16th century while the human one is from 1631. From The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart by Ben Johnson: “No flattery for’t: No lick-foote, paine of loosing your proboscis.”

mammoth

“The bill takes aim at a problem of mammoth proportions: up to a third of the world’s food is wasted, much of it rotting in landfills.”

Lindsay Abrams, “France’s bold attack on food waste: Law will prohibit supermarkets from trashing unsold food,” Salon, May 22, 2015

Mammoth meaning a prehistoric elephant-like mammal is Russian in origin, coming from mamant, which probably comes from probably an Ostyak word meaning “earth” since the creature’s remains were dug up from the ground in Siberia. Its first recorded use in English is from 1706: “The old Siberian Russians affirm that the Mammuth is very like the Elephant.” 

It was around 1801 that mammoth came to mean huge or gigantic. In a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I recieved [sic] … a present of a quarter of a Mammoth-veal which at 115. days old weighed 438. lb.”

Check out this list for even more elephantine words.

A Brief History of ‘Dollar’ Words

Another day, another slang term for dollar, especially when it’s National Dollar Day.

On this day in 1786, the U.S. Congress adopted “a monetary system based on the Spanish dollar.” However, by then the word dollar had already entered the English language.

Back in the mid-16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it was the English word for the German thaler, a large silver coin once used as currency in various German states. The word thaler ultimately came from Joachimstal, a town in what is now the Czech Republic “where similar coins were first minted.”

By the 1580s, dollar also referred to the peso formerly used in Spain and South America and adopted by the U.S. during the Revolutionary War. By 1782, Thomas Jefferson was a proponent for the Spanish dollar as the official U.S. currency. In the OED’s earliest citation for this sense, Jefferson writes: “The Unit or Dollar is a known coin, and the most familiar of all to the minds of the people.”

The buck starts here

By the mid-19th century, the word buck was being used to mean a dollar. However, where it comes from is unclear. The OED says the origin is “obscure” while the Online Etymology Dictionary says it might come from buckskin, which was “a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days.”

We propose buck could be a shortening of sawbuck, slang for a ten-dollar bill. This sense — which is attested from 1850 while buck is from 1856 — comes from the X, or Roman numeral 10, shape of a sawhorse or sawbuck, says the OED.

Greenbacks and frogskins

Before it referred to a U.S. dollar in general, a greenback was a specific form of currency released in the early 1860s to help finance the Civil War, says the Museum of American Finance. It was so called because the back was printed with green ink. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1862 in Captain James Wren’s Civil War Diary: “Ready for tomorrow for the paymaster when he makes his appearance to hand over green backs, which is much needed.”

The Museum of American Finance also says this new form of currency “initiated debates about the proper anchor for the US monetary system.” For example, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might be read “be read as an allegory regarding those debates with the yellow brick road representing gold, Dorothy’s slippers (in the book) representing silver, and the Emerald City representing greenbacks.”

A later nickname for the greenback was frogskin. From a 1902 publication, Mickey Finn’s New Irish Yarns: “He had to spind ‘frog skins’ to git an eddicashun.”

Simoleons up the wazoo

This fun slang term for a dollar is attested from 1881, says the OED, in a humor magazine called Puck: “And thereupon he goeth down town, and the Nassau Street auctioneer scoopeth him in with a three-trade-shekel chromo and a genuine old master for seven simoleons.” Where the word comes from is uncertain. The OED says it might be a blend of two names for coins: the simon and the Napoleon.

Of plunks and clams

These two slang terms for a dollar are attested from around the same time, plunk from 1885 and clam from 1886, according to the OED. We’re guessing plunk might come from an earlier sense of a large sum or fortune, which itself might be “after the sound made when putting down a heavy coin,” says the OED. It’s unclear how clam came to mean a dollar. The Word Detective says it’s probably from “a supposed ancient use” of the bivalve as currency.

Of smackers and smackeroos

In addition to being a noisy kisser, a smacker is also a dollar. The OED’s earliest citation is from a Jan. 2, 1920 issue of the Chicago Herald & Examiner — “Along comes Earl Gray and knocks off the U.S. treasury for 13,000,000 smackers” — while the Online Etymology Dictionary says the word might come from the idea of something being smacked into one’s hand. As for smackeroo, that’s from about 1942, also according to the OED.

Want even mo’ money words? Check out these lists of one-dollar words and money slang terms.

Happy National Lighthouse Day! Luminous Lighthouse Lingo

In addition to looking cool, giving spectacular views, and, of course, prevent shipwrecks, lighthouses give us some enlightening lingo. Today we shine a beam on some beacon words on this National Lighthouse Day.

In the beginning

While lighthouses have been around since ancient times, the word doesn’t appear in English until about 1622, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), namely in The History of the Reign of King Henry VII by Francis Bacon: “They … were executed … at diuers places vpon the Sea-Coast … for Sea-markes or Light-houses, to teach Perkins People to auoid the Coast.”

Earlier terms for “lighthouse” are phare (1450) and pharos (1550), both of which refer “to the island of Pharos off the coast of Alexandria,” an ancient Egyptian city where the philosopher “Ptolemy Philadelphius built a mighty lighthouse,” believed to be the first lighthouse in existence. Another word from Pharos is pharology, the study of lighthouses and signal lights.

A very fancy way of saying “lighthouse” is obeliscolychny. According to the OED, this term from the late 17th century comes from a Greek word meaning “a spit used (by soldiers) as a lamp-holder.” 

Lighthouse traits

While lighthouses might all seem pretty much the same, they each have distinctive traits, says HowStuffWorks. At night mariners can distinguish one from the other by their light signatures or characteristics — in other words, the number of lights they flash per second.

Aerial photograph of Westerheversand Lighthouse by Marco Leiter (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the daylight, lighthouses can be distinguished by their daymarks, their distinctive patterns, colors, or shapes, which can also help them stand out against their backgrounds. If they’re up against a dark background “such as fields or woodland,” they might be painted all white, says Trinity House. Dolled up in red and white stripes? The pattern helps make a lighthouse more visible against a white background “such as cliffs or rocks.”

Keepers and parts

The 19th-century lighthouse keeper was rescued many people from the seas

The person who runs the lighthouse is the light-keeper or, to use a more archaic term, the lampist. They were also known as wickies, named for the oil lamp wicks they had to light and trim by hand before advances in automation came along.

Fresnel lens shot at Point Arena, CA by Gabelstaplerfahrer (CC BY 3.0)

Speaking of lighthouse parts, the Fresnel lens might be the most important one. Invented by French physicist August-Jean Fresnel in the 1820s, the lens “used a network of prisms to magnify a small amount of light and cast a beam over distances of 20 miles,” says HowStuffWorks

Check out this list for even more lighthouse and beacon words and this one for words from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

The Luscious Language of Ice Cream

We scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream words! Every July 19 honors our favorite frozen dessert, and in celebration we’re sinking our semantic spoons into the luscious language of this tasty treat.

Ice cream makes a kingly debut

Like fireworks, ice cream made its debut in China long before it appeared in the West. In the 7th century, King Tang of the Shang dynasty “had 94 ice men who helped to make a dish of buffalo milk, flour and camphor.”

It wasn’t until 1671 or 1672 that it was first served in England, namely at a Feast of St. George banquet thrown by Charles II. The term first appeared in print around that time, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in a book called The Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter as part of the menu at the “The Sovereign’s Table,” which also included “Two Plates of Duke Cherries,” “One Plate of Red strawberries,” and “One Plate of White strawberries.”

Gelato, mi amor

Gelato, in case you didn’t know, is Italian for “ice cream.” However, its consistency is denser since it has “a higher proportion of milk and a lower proportion of cream and eggs (or no eggs at all),” according to The Kitchn. The word first appeared in English almost 200 years after ice cream — around 1868, says the OED, in a Baedeker about northern Italy: “Ices (gelato) of every possible variety are supplied at the cafes.”

Adding some fruit to the mix

The fancy-sounding plombière is ice cream made with frozen fruit. First appearing in English in 1818, according to the OED, the term might be named for Plombières-les-Bains, a village in the Vosges department in France.

Tutti-frutti, Italian for “all fruit,” can refer to a concoction of ice cream and pieces of candied fruit (the Neapolitan-flavored version is called cassata). According to the OED, the term first appeared in English in a September 1834 issue of The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine: “Tutti Frutti, (all fruits) is the cognomen of an Italian ice, composed of, or rather flavored with, various fruits.”

Coupe, a mixture of ice cream and fruit, might be named for the stemmed glass container it was often served in. French for “goblet,” the term referring to the container first appeared in English in 1895, says the OED, while the dessert sense might have first appeared in English in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: “What sweet shall we have today, dear—Coupe Jacques or Pêches à la Melba?”

Speaking of peach Melba, this dish of peaches, vanilla ice cream, and raspberry sauce was named for famed Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, and created by French chef, Auguste Escoffier, at the Savoy Hotel in London during her stay there in 1893. However, the term didn’t appear in print until 1905, says the OED.

Calling all coneheads

While it’s not exactly clear who invented the ice cream cone, it’s evident, at least according to the OED, that the earliest mention of the word cone related to ice cream is in 1920: “Ray licked the ice cream from out his dripping cone.” Cornet, which the OED describes as “a conical wafer, esp. one filled with ice-cream,” is from shortly afterward, in 1926: “In England an ice-cream cone is called a cornet.”

Slurp it up

The term milk shake first appeared in print in 1886, says the OED, but back then it referred to a “variety of concoctions” with the modern version — a thick beverage of milk, ice cream, and flavoring — is only from the 1930s. In parts of New England, you might hear a milk shake referred to as a frappe, which comes from the French frappé, “made cold by application of ice.”

A float meaning a scoop of ice cream floating in a soft drink is from 1915, says the OED, while the Australian equivalent, spider, is from about 1941, and might be named for the spider-like appearance of the ice cream as it melts.

Affogato al Caffee, ein Espresso mit einer Vanilleeiskugel by Richard Huber (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The affogato could be considered a grown-up float. The delectable dessert usually consists of vanilla ice cream “drowned,” as the Italian translation of the name says, in espresso and sometimes a shot of liqueur. The word first appeared in English in 1988, says the OED.

Sundae, chocolatey sundae

Fentons ice cream sundae by show and tell (CC BY 2.0)

Why have just ice cream when you can have it with the works? While it’s been long disputed who invented the sundae, the OED can attest it first appeared in print in 1892: “Cherry Sunday. A new 10 cent ice cream specialty, served only at Platt & Colt’s famous day and night soda fountain.”

As for why the word is now commonly spelled with an “e,” the Online Etymology Dictionary says it might have been “re-spelled in deference to religious feelings,” although “the reason for the name is uncertain,” and perhaps comes from the idea of “ice cream left over from Sunday, on sale later.”

Ghirardelli Banana Split by Sodanie Chea (CC BY 2.0)

As for the banana split, it’s believed to have been invented by a soda jerk named David “Doc” Strickler in 1904 at the Tassell Pharmacy in Latrobe, PA. While the OED’s earliest citation is 1920, the Online Etymology Dictionary says the term is attested from 1905, possibly referring a Soda Fountain Magazine article about a 1905 ice cream convention in Boston, which credits the wrong person as the inventor of the banana split.

How to Make a Knickerbocker Glory by WikiHow (CC BY-NC-SA 2.5)

Then there’s the knickerbocker glory, a kind of elaborately layered ice cream parfait with plenty of toppings. The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1936 Graham Greene novel, A Gun for Sale: “They do a very good Maiden’s Dream. Not to speak of Alpine Glow. Or the Knickerbocker Glory.”

As for where the name comes from, that’s unclear. Atlas Obscura says one theory is that it comes from Knickerbocker meaning the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of New York, and therefore, might be an American invention although it’s largely considered a British dessert.

What are your favorite ice cream words? Let us know in the comments! In the meantime, you can check out even more yummy lingo here and flavors here.

Happy International Kissing Day! Kiss Up to These ‘Kissing’ Words

“The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt

Peck. Make out. Lock lips. There are lots of ways of saying kiss. On this International Kissing Day, we’re exploring just some of those ways and where the words come from.

The oldest kiss word in the book

At least as far we can tell. To kiss meaning to touch with the lips as a sign of reverence, respect, admiration, or as a greeting is from circa 900, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Doing so mutually between two people is from 1330. The word comes from the Old English cyssan, “to touch with the lips.”

Technically speaking

The 16th and 17th centuries saw some perfectly scientific words for this romantic action. There’s exosculate (1570) meaning “to kiss heartily,” deosculate (1623), “to kiss affectionately,” and plain old osculate (1656), meaning simply “to kiss.” All three come from osculum, Latin for “a kiss; pretty mouth, sweet mouth.”

French kissing

French kiss began a kiss on both cheeks, “typically as a greeting,” says the OED. That sense is from about 1836 while the modern, tongue-wagging meaning is from the early 1920s. It first appeared in the 1922 book Indelible by journalist Eliot Paul: “She showed me the French kiss where you stick your tongue out, but I didn’t like it.” Soul kiss might be French kiss‘s 1877 predecessor.

The sound of four lips kissing

The earliest onomatopoeia we could find for kiss is buss from 1566. The OED describes this kind of liplock as “a loud and vigorous one.” The 16th century also gives us smack (1570) and smouch (1578). It’s not until 1932 and 1942 that we get the variations of smouch and smack, respectively, smooch and smackeroo

Catching air kisses

The phrase, to blow a kiss, originated in the early 17th century, according to the OED, while air kiss — a kiss during which cheeks might touch but lips do not — has been around since at least the 1880s. From a Nov. 19, 1887 article in the Chicago Tribune: “The minister’s wife … knows where a kiss will do the least harm, and her favorite method is an air kiss, with the gentle pressure of her cheek to your cheek.”

Mwah, an exaggerated smack given on the cheek or an air kiss, is from the 1960s. The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1996 book, How Sweet It Was by Arthur Shulman and Roger Youman: “She performed with infectious enthusiasm and an unfailing smile, ending every show with a ‘Mwah!’—a kiss thrown to the audience.” Mwah-mwah was first seen in print in an Oct. 16, 1993 issue of The Times: “Everybody will have to kiss everybody every time they meet and half one’s day will be spent mwah-mwahing through a plump, wan sea of proferred cheeks.”

Euphemisms (sort of)

Baseball term first base was first used in the figurative sense of the first step toward success around 1892, says the OED, especially in the phrase “get to first base.” The kissing sense is from around the same time with the OED’s earliest citation from 1897: “I next tried to steal a kiss, but slipped and fell before I got to first base.”

Give me some sugar! you might have heard starting in the early 1920s, especially in the south, says the OED, meaning “give me a kiss.” If someone asks you to watch the submarine races, they’re not asking you to attend an aquatic competition. They’d like to “engage in amorous activity (esp. kissing and caressing), usually in a parked car overlooking a body of water,” says the OED, the earliest citation of which is 1950.

Tonsil hockey might be the least euphemistic of kissing euphemisms. According to the OED, it originated as mid-1980s college slang.

One thing leads to another

While necking might make you think of 1950s teenagers in cars, the term goes back to 1825, says the OED. First it meant to hug someone around the neck before it came to mean “to caress and kiss amorously.”

Petting is from 1920 with the OED’s earliest citation from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Parking is from 1922. Snogging is from 1945 with an unknown origin. The OED compares it to snug meaning to nestle or snuggle while the Online Etymology Dictionary says it might have originated in British India.

Pash is the newest word we could find related to kissing. An earlier noun sense meaning a crush or passionate infatuation (with the word being a shortening of passion) is from 1891, says the OED, while the adjective form meaning passionate or physically attractive is from 1920, again thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The OED says that pash meaning to kiss or “engage in amorous play” with is Australian and New Zealand slang. Its earliest citation is from Alan Duff’s 1990 novel, Once Were Warriors: “She had her arms up and he walked over to her and they started pashing.”

Check out this list for even more kissing words and phrases.

A Brief History of the Language of Fireworks

Crash! Boom! Pow! It’s that time of year again (much to the consternation of pets and phonophobes everywhere). However you might feel about the noise of pyrotechnics, you might still enjoy the language behind them. Ooh and aah at this brief history of firework words and names.

The birth of firework

While it’s believed that fireworks were invented in China back in the year 800 A.D., the word firework referring to the bright and noisy display we know today didn’t appear in the English language until 1580, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). 

Earlier and now obsolete definitions include a “combustible or explosive substance for use in war” (1528) and “work or activity involving fire” (1560). A later military slang sense (1916) from World Wars I and II is “the lights and sounds of shells, flares, anti-aircraft fire, etc., esp. when occurring at night.”

Another word for fireworks, pyrotechnics, is from 1729 (its root, pyrotechnic meaning “of or pertaining to fire,” is from 1704). As for the word firecracker, while it became popular in the U.S. in the early 19th century, again as per the OED, it first appeared in English way back in 1650 in a book by philosopher Henry More called Observations upon Anthroposophia theomagica, and Anima magica abscondita by Alazonamastix Philalethes: “The word σκιρτηδòν… seemes to allude to … fire-crackers and squibs rather then Cannons or Carbines.”

“You disgusting little Squib!”

In addition to being a non-magical person born into a magical family, a squib is a defective firecracker “that burns but does not explode.” The OED’s definition is slightly different — a “common species of firework, in which the burning of the composition is usually terminated by a slight explosion” — with its earliest citation from 1534. The dictionary also says the word might be imitative of the sound such a firecracker might make. A damp squib is something that disappoints or fails to meet expectations.

Fizgig (in addition to being everyone’s favorite Dark Crystal sidekick) as well as fluff-gib seem to be other names for the unbroken sense of squib.

Take these fireworks for a spin

A girandole or girandola is a kind of spiraling firework. The word comes from the Italian girandola, a diminutive of giranda, “a revolving jet,” which ultimately comes from the Latin gyrare, “to turn round in a circle, revolve.” It also refers to a fancy candlestick holder.

The tourbillion is another spinning firework, specifically a “skyrocket with a spiral flight.” The word comes from the French tourbillon, says the OED, which means “whirlwind.” The English term might also refer to a whirlwind or vortex.

The catharine-wheel or Catherine wheel is a type of pinwheel firework. Rather than shoot up into the sky, it remains stationary and spins. The name seems to come from the heraldry meaning of “a wheel with sharp hooks projecting from the tire, supposed to represent the wheel upon which St. Catharine suffered martyrdom.”

When in Rome or Bengal

A Roman candle is a cylinder-shaped firework that, when shot up into the sky, throws off sparks and fire balls. It’s unclear where the name comes from although the OED says it was “perhaps originally with reference to the transmission of the firework technique from China to Europe via the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.” Roman candle is also a derogatory term for someone who is Roman Catholic as well as slang for a parachute descent during which the parachute fails to open.

The Bengal light emits a steady and vibrant glow of blue, and is often used for signals. The name originated in the 18th century and might come from the Bengali region of South Asia, where one of the firework’s chief ingredients, saltpetre, came from at the time. 

Noisy names

One of our favorite noisily named fireworks is the whizbang, which makes a whizzing name before making a bang or exploding. This name originated around 1881, says the OED, while during World War I, it gained the meaning of a small artillery shell.

A petard is more commonly a small bomb but is also a small, loud firecracker. The name might come from an Old French word meaning to fart. The peeoy is a firecracker of the homegrown variety: a small pyramid of damp gunpowder lit on top. Also called the spitting-devil, the word is Scottish and imitative in origin. Who knew a lit mound of gunpowder made a sound like peeoy

Want even more firework words? Check out these lists!