Sailor Sayings: 12 Common Words with Nautical Origins

Torpedoes Away!

While we’re all for talking like pirates, today we’ll be speaking sailor and taking a look at some words that you may not know have nautical origins.


“The President thus remained aloof, not personally involved in the U.N. debate.”

Ted Lewis, “LBJ’s Aloof Pose Was Calculated,” The Spokesman-Review, June 21, 1967

Aloof, meaning distant physically or emotionally, was originally a nautical word. When a captain wanted to “keep the ship’s head to the wind,” therefore staying “clear of a lee-shore or some other quarter,” he’d order the ship to keep aloof. Aloof comes partially from luff, “the sailing of a ship close to the wind.”


“It was the doctrine of his officers that he could not be ruled by anything short of violence, and the man to tame and hammer him was the ‘bucko’ second mate, the test of whose fitness was that he could whip his weight in wild cats.”

Ralph D. Paine, The Old Merchant Marine, 1920

Bucko, “a blustering or bossy person” (and Richie Cunningham’s insult of choice), may play off the word buck meaning a “fashionable man; a fop; a blood; a dandy.” Such a type of sailor was often referred to as a bucko mate.



“Mustering up much skill, one attempts getting the food on chopsticks from the tables to one’s mouth. The first few times most of it falls on the floor or one’s lap.”

Dinner a la Japanese,” Baltimore American, June 12, 1900

British sailors first encountered chopsticks in China in the 17th century. The word is a partial transliteration of the Chinese term, kuai zi or “nimble ones.” This is also where we get chop chop, “right away, quick.”


“After a fellow has served eight days in the front line trenches he may be lonesome for a while after losing his ‘cooties,’ but he must be ‘de-loused.'”

“‘Cootie Cars’ Bring Relief to Sammies,” The Toledo News-Bee, May 9, 1918

The word cootie, otherwise known as the body louse, gained popularity as British slang during World War I but also had earlier nautical use. The word may come from the Malay kutu, “dog tick.”


“To our astonishment the heroine said as she looked with tenderness into the eyes of the hero, ‘You clumsy galoot, you stepped on my foot just now.'”

Mary Pickford, “Daily Talks,” The Day, December 7, 1915

A galoot is a clumsy or uncouth person. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word was “originally a sailor’s contemptuous word for soldiers or marines.”

The origin of galoot is uncertain. Anatoly Liberman of the Oxford University Press’s blog proposes that it may come from the Middle Dutch galioot, which seems to refer to a sailor, pirate, galley slave, convict, or pimp.

hail from

“There will be no dearth of baseball in Ambridge this summer, judging from the number of teams that will hail from that town.”

Ambridge Will Have Plenty of Baseball,” The Daily Times, March 26, 1913

To hail from, or “to be a native of,” was originally “said of a vessel in reference to the port from which she has sailed,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).


“‘I’m all hunky-dory, Gen’ral,’ answered the youth, resuming his temporarily interrupted apple.”

Robert Henry Newell, The Walking Doll: Or, The Asters and Disasters of Society, 1872

There are a few theories behind the origin of this term meaning “perfectly satisfactory; fine.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says it may be a reduplication of hunky, meaning “all right; in good condition.”  However, a 1876 theory traces hunky-dory “to Honcho dori, said to be a street in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors went for diversions of the sort sailors enjoy.”

Hunky meaning “having a well-developed physique; sexually attractive” comes from hunk, which may come from the Flemish hunke, “a piece of food.” Bohunk is a disparaging term for a person from east-central Europe, especially a laborer,” and may be a combination of Bohemian and Hungarian.


“Standing anyhow and all wrong, upon this open space like something meteoric that has fallen down from the moon, is an odd, lop-sided one-eyed kind of wooden building, that looks like a church, with a flag-staff as long as itself sticking out of a steeple something larger than a tea-chest.”

Charles Dickens, “American Notes,” Charles Dickens’ Complete Works, 1881

The word lopsided, originally lapsided, was first used of ships that were disproportionately heavy on one side, says the OED.

Lop in this case refers to “a short, ‘loppy’ sea,” or “to break in short, ‘loppy’ waves.” Loppy means short and lumpy as well as “hanging limp.” To be lop-eared means to have droopy ears.


“I’ve lived in New York City long enough to expect the unexpected and keep cool in the presence of insanity, but an Orthodox Jew cold busting his human beatbox, dressed only in his skivvies and swilling Jack Daniels, still feels to me worthy of the term ‘spectacle.’”

Patrick Egan, “Family Feud: Teeth of the Sons,” The Huffington Post, May 9, 2011

The origin of skivvies, a North American term for underwear, is unclear. The OED puts the earliest citation at 1932. However, World Wide Words puts it much earlier, 1918. Another meaning of skivvy is London slang for a “female domestic servant.” However, this seems unrelated.

According to World Wide Words, the word might come from a term meaning “Japanese prostitute,” which was used by American servicemen in the Philippines in the early 1900s, possibly as an alteration of the “Japanese sukebei, randy or lecherous.” Sukebei “was later generalised to mean any Japanese, though it remained derogatory and was deeply resented by those so described.”

spin a yarn

“He was fond of society, was a good story teller, having traveled much, and was always willing to spin a yarn, but when asked about himself he immediately became taciturn.”

Perhaps Jack the Ripper,” The New York Times, March 17, 1892

While the phrase spin a yarn may seem like it comes from the telling of tales in a knitting circle, it’s actually a sailors’ expression from the early 1800s. The saying is based on the “notion of telling stories while engaged in sedentary work such as yarn-twisting.” A yarn is not just a story but one “often implying the marvelous or untrue.”


“The rule dates to a time when so-called squeegee men, who roamed the roadways demanding tips in return for washing windshields, were common.”

Michael M. Grynbaum, “Under Rule, Hailing a Cab for a Stranger Can Be Illegal,” The New York Times, November 25, 2011

Squeegee is another word that we know little about except that it has nautical origins. It could come from squeege, “a dialectal form of squeeze.” A squeegee band, another nautical term, is an improvised band, according to the OED, and is also known as a washboard band.

taken aback

“Admiral Davis was taken aback and considerably shocked at the tone and contents of this letter.”

Admiral at Government House,” The Age, January 22, 1907

Like aloof, taken aback, meaning surprised, originally referred to the positioning of a ship, in this case “in reference to a vessel’s square sails when a sudden change of wind flattens them back against the masts and stops the forward motion of the ship.”

Finally, if you’re missing some pirate-speak, enjoy our classic post on pirate words.

[Photo: “Torpedoes Away!” Public domain by National Library of Ireland on the Commons]
[Photo: “Chopsticks,” CC BY 2.0 by Clare Bell]

English Words with Welsh Origins

welsh rarebit

Happy National Welsh Rarebit Day!

In case you don’t know, rarebit, a corruption of the word rabbit, isn’t rabbit at all but “cheese melted with ale or beer served over toast.” If bunnies have nothing to do with this dish, how did it get its name?

The word Welsh was “used disparagingly of inferior or substitute things,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary. So cheese and bread is presumably a poor substitution for rabbit meat. Welsh was also used disparagingly to mean to swindle or cheat someone, and is now considered offensive.

Thinking about Welsh words inspired us to find some common English words with origins in Wales.


“May only virgins wear white at their wedding? Baldridge says ‘Balderdash!’ ‘When it’s a first wedding, a bride has the right to pull out all the stops – even if she’s been living with her man for years and just left his bed that morning.'”

Maureen Early, “Times Change – From Doggie Bags to Living in Sin,” Ottawa Citizen, December 28, 1978

There are a few theories behind the origin of the word balderdash, meaning nonsense, one of which is that it comes from the Welsh baldordd, “idle noisy talk, chatter.”

What’s more certain is that the original definition was “a jumbled mixture of frothy liquors,” thought to refer to “the froth and foam made by barbers in dashing their balls backward and forward in hot water,” as per the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

We honestly don’t know if balls here mean testicles or some olden day barber paraphernalia. If anyone knows, please enlighten us in the comments.


“An army of 200 knitters from Cardigan have created a giant cardigan to mark the town’s 900th anniversary.”

Cardigan’s close-knit community celebrates 900 years,” BBC, November 25, 2010

The cardigan sweater was named for the Seventh Earl of Cardigan, James Thomas Brudenell. The Earl,  says the Online Etymology Dictionary, “set the style, in one account supposedly wearing such a jacket while leading the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.”

Cardigan is an anglicization of the Welsh Ceredigion, “Ceredig’s land.” Ceredig was an ancient Welsh king.

Outside Corgi


“Poppy, Anna, Alice, Oliver and Megan — five corgis who appeared alongside Helen Mirren in the film about Queen Elizabeth II — were named best historical hounds during a ceremony at London’s South Bank arts center Sunday.”

Corgi stars from Queen take top Fido honor,” Houston Chronicle, November 2, 2007

It’s not surprising that the corgi, also known as the Welsh corgi, is Welsh in origin. The original Welsh, corci, translates as “dwarf dog.”

Another English word related to the Welsh cor is coracle, “a small rounded boat made of hides stretched over a wicker frame.” It comes from the Welsh corwgl, which may be translated as “small boat.”


“The new Administration is conservative. It’s buttondown, grey flannel, boardroom and locker-room. It’s businesslike – and dull.”

Anne Woodham, “A City of Grey Flannel Suits, Beaded Dresses,” The Sydney Morning Herald, January 26, 1969

The word flannel may come from the Welsh gwlanen, “woolen cloth.” This may be why Shakespeare used the word to ludicrously “designate a Welshman,” says the OED, in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I am not able to answer the Welsh flannel.”

Other lesser known definitions of flannel include “a warming drink; hot gin and beer seasoned with nutmeg, sugar, etc.”; “a person of homely or uncouth dress, exterior, or manners”; nonsense or hot air; or insincere flattery or praise. A flannelmouth is an empty talker, a braggart or flatterer.


“Approaching Sylvia’s position and outlook from this level then, I thrust my way through what I impatiently dismissed as the ‘flummery‘; by which I meant the poetry, the picturesqueness, the sacrosanct glamour surrounding his Reverence and St. Jude’s.”

Alec John Dawson, The Message, 1907

The earliest meaning of flummery was “a sweet gelatinous pudding made by straining boiled oatmeal or flour,” and later also referred to “any of several soft, sweet, bland foods, such as custard,” says the OED. Its figurative meanings, deceptive language or humbug, and “trifles, useless trappings or ornaments,” came about in 1749 and 1879, respectively.

The word comes from the Welsh llymru, “soft jelly from sour oatmeal.”


“The treacherous massacre alluded to is said to have been concerted by Gurtheryn (Vortigern), the British pendragon, (leader) who wished to obtain absolute power.”

“Ancient Dagger Found at Stonehenge,” The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 1833

A pendragon is “a chief leader or a king; a head; a dictator; — a title assumed by the ancient British chiefs when called to lead other chiefs.” The word is now mainly known in the “Arthurian Uther Pendragon,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Uther Pendragon is the father of King Arthur and mentioned in Old Welsh poems.

The word pendragon is only half-Welsh. While pen comes from the Welsh word for “head,” dragon comes from the Latin draco, “large serpent.”



Penguin pairs are known for their elaborate collaboration in raising chicks under harsh Antarctic conditions. But it turns out penguins will take teamwork only so far.”

Hadley Leggett, “Penguin Parents Won’t Chip in to Help Handicapped Spouse,” Wired, July 2, 2009

Penguin is our favorite word with a possibly Welsh origin. Like pendragon, it froms the Welsh pen, “head,” while -guin comes from the Welsh word for  “white,” gwyn.

But wait, you might be saying, penguins don’t have white heads. According to World Wide Words, the word might have “first applied to the Great Auk, a flightless seabird now extinct which, like the penguin, used its wings to swim underwater.” It also kind of looks like a penguin. But the Great Auk apparently didn’t have a white head either. However, “it did have a white patch between the bill and the eye and this must have made it very visible.”

[Photo: “welsh rarebit,” CC BY 2.0 by Tristan Kenney]
[Photo: “Outside Corgi,” CC BY 2.0 by Austin White]
[Photo: “Penguins,” CC BY 2.0 by axinar]

Come Fly With Me: 9 Common Words with Aviation Origins

New Wright Military Aeroplane  (LOC)

Earlier this week was National Aviation Day, which celebrates the field of aviation and the birthday of airplane innovator Orville Wright. Inspired by this we decided to explore some common words and idioms that you may not know have their roots in flying.

ahead of the curve

“In ‘Insider Baseball,’ her shrewd, funny account of those primaries that is ahead of the curve and galvanized by disgust, Didion would foresee the trivialization and manipulatability of America’s political process to come.”

Sarah Kerr, “The Unclosed Circle,” The New York Review of Books, April 26, 2007

The earliest reported usage of the idiom ahead of the curve, meaning changing before competitors or performing well in general, is from 1926, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The phrase may derive “from the mathematics of flight,” according to World Wide Words, and is also written as ahead of the power curve.


“The Hold Steady always caught flak for being a mock bar band, but somewhere along the way it became an actual bar band.”

August Brown, “Album Reviews,” Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2010

Flak, meaning “excessive or abusive criticism or “dissension; opposition,” originally referred to antiaircraft artillery. This latter meaning originated around 1938, coming from the German Flak, which was “condensed from Fliegerabwehrkanone, literally ‘pilot warding-off cannon.’”

The figurative meaning of flak came about around 1968, according to the OED. A flak catcher is “a slick spokesperson who can turn any criticism to the advantage of their employer.” This U.S. colloquialism originated around 1970, says the OED.


“While the computer network was fixed by 1.50pm, the gremlin wasn’t found, leaving open the possibility of a repeat performance on any given weekday – when up to 950,000 commuters could be thrown into chaos.”

Joseph Kerr, “CityRail Gremlin Could Strike Any Day,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 3, 2004

The word gremlin originated as Royal Air Force slang, says the OED, and has been in use since at least 1941. Pilots jokingly attributed inexplicable aircraft mishaps to this mischievous sprite, which later came to embody any type of mischief.

The word may be a combination of the Old English gremman, “to anger, vex,” and the -lin of goblin, or it may come from the Irish gruaimin, “bad-tempered little fellow.”

In the early 1960s, gremlin gained the meaning of “a trouble-maker who frequents the beaches but does not surf,” as per the OED. It was also the (unfortunate) name of a car from the 1970s and a popular movie from the 1980s.


“‘Lighter than air,’ said the promotional material for the laptop, which like the Macbook Air has a 13.3-inch screen but which at 1.27 kilograms is 90 grams lighter. That difference is roughly the weight of a cell phone.”

Martyn Williams, “Samsung’s X360: Lighter Than Air — but Not Thinner,” PCWorld, September 5, 2008

The phrase lighter than air, now used figuratively to describe everything from clothes to laptops to frog-leg raviolis, originally referred to lighter-than-air aircraft, which “flies because it weighs less than the air it displaces.” This meaning originated in the 1880s, says the OED.

panic button

“The head coach of the U.S. track and field team said Friday it’s too soon to ‘push the panic button’ over America’s early reversals  on the Olympic Games.”

“No Panic Button Yet,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 3, 1960

Panic button is slang for “a signal for a hasty emotional response to an emergency.” This figurative sense is from the 1950s and seems to have originated as U.S. Air Force slang, says the OED.

World Wide Words cites a “jokey guide” from 1950 that describes that panic button as “state of emergency when the pilot mentally pushes buttons and switches in all directions.” During the Korean War, pilots who “bailed out at the first sign of action” were disparagingly referred to “as panic-button boys.”

The origin of the panic button may “have been the bell system in the Second World War bombers (B-17, B-24) for emergency procedures such as bailout and ditching, an emergency bell system that was central in the experience of most Air Force pilots.”

push the envelope

“Actor Bob Gerics, who plays Ben in Forest for the Trees, said the company wanted to be able to push the envelope with the show and felt they could do that best in a new venue.”

Kathy Rumleski, “U.S. Playwrights Push the Envelope,” The London Free Press, June 21, 2010

To push the envelope means “to go beyond established limits; to pioneer,” and the envelope here is mathematical, specifically “a curve or surface that is tangent to every one of a family of curves or surfaces.” The flight envelope, as per Cracked, is “the particular combination of speed, height, stress and other aeronautical factors that form the bounds of safe operation.” To go beyond that, or to push that envelope, is both dangerous and, some would argue, pioneering.

According to the OED, the phrase was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.


“Charismatic, unpretentious, always positive, Couples eschews any kind of deeply thought-out system. Instead he’s a seat-of-the-pants American pragmatist, trying to make things work, lead his team to victory, by muddling through.”

John Paul Newport, “Majesty at Royal Melbourne,” Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2011

Seat-of-the-pants describes something done by intuition or trial and error rather than through careful planning. According to the OED, this phrase originated in the mid-1930s or sooner, referring to “fog-bound pilots without instruments [who] soon learned to tell whether they were flying right-side-up by the pressure against their parachute packs.”


“Yes, he sounds like a superhero. But ‘Wingman’ is something else entirely. . . . He befriends the BFF, runs interference, breaks the ice, buys drinks. He’s not supposed to win the girl himself.”

John Anderson, “Carrell Has Wingman in ‘Crazy Stupid Love,’” Newsday, July 22, 2011

The modern sense of wingman refers to someone who lends support to a friend trying to attract a love interest. The original meaning, “a pilot whose plane is positioned behind and outside the leader in a formation of flying aircraft,” came about in the early 1940s while the figurative use is from 2006, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

However, we found some figurative uses of wingman from before 2006, for instance from August 2004: “Senator John McCain was serving as President Bush’s wingman today as he joined the president for a swing through the Florida Panhandle,” although the only courting here is for votes. This romantic usage is from December 2004: “Those who ride shotgun in the dating world, acting as a wingman or wingwoman, discover there are singles willing to pay for their services.”

If you can find an earlier citation, let us know!


“Five Russian fighter planes zoomed into Britain’s Berlin-to-Hamburg air corridor Tuesday, the British announced last night.”

Five Red Fighter Planes Zoom into British Air Lane,” Meriden Record, July 8, 1948

The word zoom meaning “to make a continuous low-pitched buzzing or humming sound” has been around since the late 19th century. However, the word gained popularity around 1917 “as aviators began to use it,” says the Online Etymology Dictionary.

[Photo: No copyright restrictions, The Library of Congress]

We Like Big Back-Formations

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos ) (bird) in Mo

Inspired by our list of the day, Baby Got Back-Formations, which was in turn inspired by the posteriophile, Sir Mix-a-Lot, we’ve gathered here eight common words you might not have known are back-formations, that is, shortened versions of sometimes-obsolete longer words.


“A young Corapolis man who went berserk at a Christmas party in his own home because the victim early yesterday morning when he decided to shoot it out with police who came to quiet him.”

Berserk Host Is Wounded In Duel With Cops,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 27, 1950

The word berserk refers to differing degrees of craziness, from “frenetically violent” to “mentally or emotionally upset” to “unrestrained, as with enthusiasm or appetite.”

It’s also a back-formation of berserker, “one of a band of ancient Norse warriors legendary for their savagery and reckless frenzy in battle.” The word was introduced by Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott and comes from the Old Norse ber, “bear,” plus serkr, “shirt,” which together mean “a warrior clothed in bearskin.”


“There are no bums among them. The statements that have been sent out about their being tramps and all that sort of thing are untrue.”

Claim They Are Not Bums,” The Lewiston Daily Sun, April 21, 1894

The word bum meaning tramp, vagrant, or loafer, has been around since around 1864, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. It comes from bummer, an older word with the same meaning, which in turn ultimately comes from the German bummeln, “go slowly, waste time.”

Bummer meaning an adverse reaction to a drug or something depressing or frustrating is from the late 1960s. Bum meaning “buttocks,” in case you were wondering, originated in the 14th century. The word could be onomatopoeic, says the Oxford English Dictionary, “with the general sense of ‘protuberance, swelling’.”


“That gift of gab for which wives have been blamed, and rarely praised, over the years, is coming in mighty handy to the men candidates in current congressional campaigns.”

Dorothy McCardle, “In Fall Political Campaigns,” The Miami News, October 14, 1954

The origin of gab, meaning to talk a lot, is a kind of back-and-forth formation. It came about in 1786, probably as a shortening of gabble, which has the same meaning. Gabble originated 200 years earlier as a frequentive of gab meaning “to reproach.”


“When we were eager to cook, a ham bone tucked away in the freezer inspired a pot of pea soup.”

Split Pea Soup with a Twist,” Chicago Tribune, February 24, 2010

The word pea is what’s called a false singular. A false singular is formed when a word that ends in an s or z is wrongly thought to be plural, and an alteration of the word thought to be singular is made. The misinterpreted plural in this case was the Middle English pease.

Pease Porridge Hot is a nursery rhyme that originated around 1760. Pease here is treated as a mass noun.


“Seated across the table, at the police station, the Hindu philosopher gazed dreamily into the eyes of Chief Quigg in an effort to mesmerize him, but the hypnotic influences were sharply interrupted when the chief ordered him to stop.”

Yogi’s Effort at Hypnotizing,” The Miami News, February 2, 1928

Mesmerize, meaning to enthrall or hypnotize, was formed from mesmerism, which while now refers to fascination in general originally referred to hypnotism, specifically the early 19th century “doctrine that one person can exercise influence over the will and nervous system of another.” Mesmerism was named for its creator, Franz Mesmer, a German physician.


“The landlord allowed himself to be dissuaded, and, after a glass or two of ale, confessed that sherry was a sickly disagreeable drink, and that he had merely been in the habit of taking it from an idea he had that it was genteel.”

George Borrow, The Romany Rye: A Sequel to ‘Lavengro’

Sherry, a fortified Spanish wine, is another false singular. The original word was the Middle English sherris, which comes from the Spanish (vino de) Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” Xeres is now commonly known as Jerez.


“The best ball player that ever crawled into a uniform was Mike Kelly of Paterson, and you still have with you my old sidekick, Jim McCormick.”

Paterson Is Cool to Billy Sunday,” The New York Times, April 5, 1915

Sidekick, which originated originated in 1906, was originally side-kicker, as popularized by O. Henry in 1904 short story: “Billy was my side-kicker in New York.” According to World Wide Words, side-kicker comes from an even older term, side-partner.


“At the ‘Tee,’ for the first shot, the ball may be placed on a little heap of sand or earth, about 1/4 inch high, known as the ‘Tee’ also.”

“Some Remarks on Golf,” The Grove: A Monthly Miscellany, November 1891

Another false singular! The golf tee comes from the Scottish teaz. Although the origin of teaz is unknown, the original form was “a little heap of sand.”


“There came in with the man a kind of waft of the sea as he threw off his great-coat and clattered his cutlass in a corner–a fine figure of a man, towering up to the rafters, and his voice held in as though it would be more comfortable to hurl an order in the teeth of a gale.”

John Sillars, The McBrides: A Romance of Arran

The word waft, to cause to go smoothly over water or to float gently, is a back-formation as well. It comes from wafter, an “armed convoy or escort ship.” Wafter ultimately comes from the Middle Low German wachter, “a guard.”

This list is nowhere near complete. Again, check out our list of the day for even more back-formations.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Mike Baird]

A Brief History of Yippee-Ki-Yay

Twenty-five years ago this week, the action movie Die Hard opened and Bruce Willis uttered that famous line.

But where does the yippee-ki-yay part come from? (If you’re more interested in the origins of the second half of that saying, check out this article from Slate.) Let’s break it down.

The yip part of yippee is old. It originated in the 15th century and meant “to cheep, as a young bird,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The more well-known meaning, to emit a high-pitched bark, came about around 1907, as per the OED, and gained the figurative meaning “to shout; to complain.”

Yip is imitative in origin but probably also influenced by the 16th century yelp, which has an even older meaning of “boasting, vainglorious speaking.” Yawp is even older, coming about in the 14th century, but now is primarily associated with Walt Whitman’s late 19th century “barbaric yawp.”

The yips are “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf.” As we mentioned in a Word Soup column back in November, some sources, including the OED, cite the first known use of the yips as 1962. However, we found a citation from 1941: “The match consumed three hours and thirty minutes, most of it because Cobb, the tingling-nerved old baseball Tiger, got the ‘yips‘ on many greens and would step back and line up his putts several times per putt.”

Yippee came about after yip. The earliest record of this exclamation of delight is from 1920 in Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Main Street: “She galloped down a block and as she jumped from a curb across a welter of slush, she gave a student ‘Yippee!’” Yippee beans, by the way, are amphetamines.

Yippie with an -ie refers to “a member of a group of politically radical hippies, active especially during the late 1960s.” The word, which originated in 1968, stands for Youth International Party and was modeled after hippie.

Now how about the whole phrase, yippee-ki-yay? It seems to be a play on “yippie yi yo kayah,” a refrain from a 1930s Bing Crosby song, I’m An Old Cowhand.

Do cowboys really say this? We’re guessing probably not, unless of course they’re single-handedly (and shoelessly) defeating a gang of bank robbers on Christmas Eve.

Word Soup Wednesday: anxiet, tickety-boo, truthinews


It’s time for another installment of Word Soup Wednesday, in which we bring you some weird, funny, and interesting words from recent TV.


Roger Furlong: “I’m burning calories with the old anxiety diet. You know, the anxiet.”

“D.C.,” Veep, June 23, 2013

Anxiet is a combination of anxiety and diet. Other bizarre diets include the vinegar and water diet popularized by poet Lord Byron; the grapefruit diet, also known as the Hollywood Diet; and the cabbage soup diet. See here for even more.

border surge

Stephen Colbert: “The boys over here think they can get conservatives like me to swallow their amnesty enchilada by including so-called security measures, also known as a ‘border surge.’”

The Colbert Report, June 27, 2013

The term border surge refers to a surge, or increase, of security along the U.S-Mexican border. The plan is to “put 18,000 additional federal agents and hundreds of miles of new fencing between the two neighbors,” according to the Washington Post, or, as Colbert says, “double the border patrol with one agent every 1,000 feet.”

The proposal was approved by the Senate last week.

Colombian necktie

Gideon: “They call this the Colombian necktie.”

“Roti,” Hannibal, June 6, 2013

The Colombian necktie is “a method of execution in which the victim’s throat is slashed vertically, then his tongue is pulled out through the gaping wound toward the sternum,” dangling over the chest like a necktie.

The term comes “from its frequent use as a method of intimidation during La Violencia,” a Colombian civil war. Related is the Glasgow smile.

confidence man

Linda: “Gene learned confidence.”
Louise: “From a confidence man.”

“The Unnatural,” Bob’s Burgers, May 12, 2013

A confidence man is someone “who swindles his victims by using a confidence game,” so-called, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, because “the victim is induced to hand over money as a token of confidence.”


Mike: “Please, I can’t afford to be furloughed.”

“Shutdown,” Veep, June 2, 2013

A furlough is a temporary, sometimes unpaid, leave of absence. In government, furloughs can result if a plan to reduce a budget deficit is not resolved, resulting in a shutdown. The word comes from the Dutch verlof, “permission.”

high, hot, and a helluva lot

Jenny: “High, hot, and a helluva lot!”

Episode 8, Season 2, Call the Midwife, May 19, 2013

The phrase high, hot, and a helluva lot refers to the 3H enema, which apparently is a hot water and soap suds enema, according to Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, author of Birth as an American Rite of Passage. The enema may be given to “selected patients who have given the staff a hard time,” says writer Paul Dickson.

We couldn’t find the origin of the term high, hot, and helluva lot or the 3H enema. If anyone knows, please tell us in the comments.

put the tin hat on it

Sister Evangelina: “That just puts the tin hat on it.”

Episode 8, Season 2, Call the Midwife, May 19, 2013

To put the tin hat on it, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), means “to bring something to a [usually unwelcome] close or climax.” The phrase may have origins in World War I, where the “tin hat” could have been “the last piece of the kit” for a soldier.

A similar phrase is to put the kibosh on something. While the origin of kibosh is unclear, one theory is that it comes from the Gaelic caip bháis, “cap of death,” which was “sometimes said to be the black cap a judge would don when pronouncing a death sentence.”

rough puff

Cody: “They’re expecting a puff piece. There’s the bluff puff. Start out with you’re her friend. . . .Then switch right over to rough puff. No one does rough puff like you.”

“First Response,” Veep, June 9, 2013

A rough puff is a puff piece that has become something that makes the intended target look bad. A puff piece is “a journalistic form of puffery,” or “extravagant praise.” Puff piece originated around 1950, says the OED.


Dr. Turner: “That’s all tickety-boo marvelous.”

Episode 7, Season 2, Call the Midwife, May 12, 2013

Tickety-boo is British slang for correct or satisfactory. The term may come from the Hindi ṭhīk hai, “all right,” says the OED, or from the phrase, that’s the ticket.


Stephen Colbert: “So this [IRS] scandal is not connected to Obama. I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear tonight’s Wørd. Truthinews. I don’t know about you but I do not watch the news to see what I don’t want to hear.”

The Colbert Report, June 24, 2013

Truthinews is based on a term Stephen Colbert introduced in 2005, truthiness, which is, according to Colbert, “ignoring what the facts say and instead going with what feels right in your gut.” Truthinews happens “when you put a bunch of guts together,” and cable networks that practice truthinews “have only one obligation: to report what the American people already think.”

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Jiří Zralý]

Mad Men Soup: 15 Groovy Words From Season 6

Another season of Mad Men is wrapping up, and we’ve been collecting our favorite groovy words along the way. We have 15 here, including slang of the times, a bit of sales lingo, and some catsup (or is it ketchup?).


Arnold: “It doesn’t matter if he goes back to school. He’s 1-A. His induction could be tomorrow. He’s on a damned list for the rest of his life.”

“Favors,” June 9, 2013

1-A, or Class 1-A, is a classification of the Selective Service System, “an independent agency of the United States government that maintains information on those potentially subject to military conscription.”

Someone who is classified as 1-A is “available for unrestricted military service.” Class 1-S is someone who has deferred by statute, either high school or college. In 1969, President Nixon established “conscription based on random selection,” otherwise known as the draft.


Stan [upon seeing Peggy and her rival agency]: “It’s a bake-off? Since when?”

“To Have and to Hold,” April 21

The first bake-off was held by the Pillsbury Company in 1949. At the time the contest was called the Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest, and was first referred to as a bake-off by Sheboygan Press, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “In a grand final bake-off at the Waldorf-Astoria, Pillsbury Mills will award $150,000 in prizes.”

The word bake-off comes from playoff, which was coined around 1895, and cook-off, coined in 1936. It’s unclear when the figurative use of bake-off began. The earliest citation the OED has is from 2003.

blow (someone’s) mind

Ted [to Peggy]: “Your friend’s mistake was underestimating you. I hope ketchup makes the same mistake so you can blow their minds.”

“Collaborators,” April 14, 2013

The phrase, blow (someone’s) mind, originated in the mid-1960s to mean “to induce hallucinatory experiences (in a person) by means of drugs,” says the OED. It gained its figurative meaning, to astonish or shock, around 1967.

In 1965, a band called The Gas Company released a song called “Blow Your Mind,” while in 1966, the Barry Goldberg Blues Band had an LP called Blowing My Mind.


Rollo: “Should I roll another? Your friend bogarted the last one.”

“The Quality of Mercy,” June 16, 2013

Bogart has a few different meanings. The OED says the word originated around 1965 as African American slang meaning “to force, coerce; to bully, intimidate,” named for the actor Humphrey Bogart’s tough guy characters.

The meaning, “to appropriate (a marijuana cigarette) greedily or selfishly,” is from 1968, also named for Humphrey Bogart, in this sense referencing his “frequent on-screen smoking, especially to the long drags he took on cigarettes.”

Bogart also refers to “the first cup of brewed coffee collected from under the coffee filter.” We couldn’t find how this meaning came about. If you know, please fill us in.


Peggy: “So, what’s the difference between ketchup and catsup? Well, catsup has more tomatoes, comes in a bigger bottle, is cheaper, but tastes just like ketchup. Now we know that’s not true, but that’s what your competitors are saying.”

“To Have and to Hold,” April 21

As Slate tells us, there’s no difference between catsup and ketchup (and catchup for that matter) except the spelling. Catchup seems to have come first with a 1699 citation in the OED. Ketchup is next in 1711 and catsup brings up the rear in 1735.

These catsup varations may come from Amoy, also known as Xiamenese, a Chinese dialect. Kôechiap or kê-tsiap is Xiamenese for “brine of pickled fish or shell-fish.”

Ketchup caught on when Heinz, again according to Slate, changed “Heinz Tomato Catsup,” to “Heinz Tomato Ketchup” to distinguish it from competitors.


Roger: “I have this check for $10,000 because I close, Pete. I close things.”

“For Immediate Release.” May 5, 2013

Close here means to close a deal or bargain. The earliest citation, according to the OED, is in Charles Dickens’s 1839 novel, Nicholas Nickleby: “He closed the bargain directly it reached his ears.” The word closer, someone good “at bringing business transactions to a satisfactory conclusion,” is from around 1906, says the OED.

Always be closing (ABC) is “a sales strategy in which a salesperson should constantly look for new prospects, pitch products or services to those prospects and complete the sale.” According to Investopedia, “the phrase was popularized in the 1992 film ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’”

get it on

Wendy [to Don]: “Do you want to get it on?”

“The Crash,” May 19, 2013

Anachronism alert! While this episode takes place in 1967, the term get it on, or to have sex, didn’t come about until 1971, according to the OED, appearing in B.B. Johnson’s Blues for a Black Sister: “She gripped him with her legs and they got it on.” But if anyone can antedate this term, please let us know in the comments.


Squatter [to Betty]: “What you can’t grok is that we are your garbage.”

“The Doorway,” April 7, 2013

To grok means “to understand profoundly through intuition or empathy.” The word was coined by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein in his 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land: “Now that he knew himself to be self he was free to grok ever closer to his brothers.”

In Heinlein’s invented language, grok “is described as being from the word for ‘to drink’ and, figuratively, ‘to drink in all available aspects of reality.’” Grog is an alcoholic drink named for Old Grog, the nickname of a British admiral who always wore a grogram cloak.


Ted: “Fleischmann’s. Groovy. We’ll get right on that.”

“Man with a Plan,” May 12, 2013

Groovy originated in the late 1930s as jazz slang, says the OED, meaning “playing, or capable of playing, jazz or similar music brilliantly or easily.” Groovy comes from in the groove, which has the same meaning. Groove refers to the groove of a record, perhaps from the idea of a record playing smoothly and easily in a groove, as opposed to skipping.


Peggy: “[Margarine] was invented for Napoleon III because armies need to move and it never spoiled.”

“Man with a Plan,” May 12, 2013

Peggy’s right: in the 19th century, Napoleon III “offered a prize to anyone who could make a satisfactory alternative for butter, suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes.” In response, a French chemist “invented a substance he called oleomargarine, the name of which became shortened to the trade name ‘margarine’.”

Margarin, which comes from the Greek margarites, “pearl,” was the French term given to “a peculiar pearl-like substance extracted from” animal fat, a main ingredient in the original formulation of margarine.

out of sight

Party-goer: “I heard the bread is out of sight.”

“A Tale of Two Cities,” June 2, 2013

While out of sight might seem like typical slang from the ‘50s or ‘60s, it’s actually much older than that. The OED has it originating as U.S. slang for “excellent” or “wonderful” in 1891. We particularly like this citation from 1902: “‘How do you feel old chap?’ ‘Out of sight,’ replied the American.”

Bread as slang for money is from the 1940s, and comes from breadwinner, which originated in the 19th century with the idea of winning or earning bread or other food.

rap session

Ted: “I want to have a little rap session about margarine in general.”

“Man with a Plan,” May 12, 2013

The term rap session, “an informal discussion held especially by a group of people with similar concerns,” was very new at the time of this episode. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1968. To rap meaning to talk is from the 1920s.

Second Avenue subway

Realtor [to Peggy]: “Believe me, when they finish the Second Avenue subway, this apartment will quadruple in value.”

“The Flood,” April 28, 2013

While a few subway lines run up and down the west side of Manhattan, only one runs the entire length of the east, the Lexington Avenue Line. Plans for constructing a second east side subway, the Second Avenue subway, began in 1929. As of today, it is nowhere near completion.


Michael: “You’re a truncheon, Cutler!”

“A Tale of Two Cities,” June 2, 2013

A truncheon is “a staff carried as a symbol of office or authority,” and ultimately comes from the Latin truncus, “trunk.” It may also be used figuratively to refer to an authority figure.

Yankee wrinkle

Pete: “How come you didn’t get yourself a job?”
Duck Phillips: “That’s a Yankee wrinkle. You interested in my business?”

“The Better Half,” May 26, 2013

A wrinkle is a “clever trick, method, or device, especially one that is new and different.” This meaning originated around 1817. Yankee, in addition to referring a native of New England or the U.S., has the 19th century meaning of “to deal cunningly with like a Yankee, to cheat,” says the OED. Thus, a Yankee wrinkle is an especially cunning trick or scheme.

From a 1912 article: “I have discovered the latest Yankee wrinkle. You couldn’t guess what this new scheme is if you tried a hundred times.”