Today is National Limerick Day, so in memory of our friend and fellow Wordnik Quentin M. Sullivan (August 22, 1945–July 4, 2019), we’re celebrating his contribution of nearly three thousand limericks to Wordnik.
From late 2013 to mid-2019, Quentin (qms) wrote a limerick featuring the Wordnik word of the day, nearly every day. His wit, kindness, and linguistic creativity are sorely missed.
In his honor, we’ve put together a downloadable PDF of our favorites, and we’ve adopted the word limerick in his name, forever.
Welcome to the third installment of “Five words from …” our series which highlights interesting words from interesting books! Up now is Tana French’s The Trespasser, a crime thriller that’s chock-full of excellent Irish slang.
His accent has got stronger. I put on the Thicko Skanger act too, now and then, but I do it for suspects, not for my own squad. Sometimes Steve makes me want to puke.
Thicko Skanger, skanger, or scanger seems to be the Irish slang equivalent of the British chav, a disparaging term for a young, presumably uneducated person with a brash sense of style and manner. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says thicko is a shortening of thickhead, a stupid person.
Breslin’s planning on working a long shift, for a bog-standard case.
Something bog-standard is something ordinary, basic, or unexceptional. The OED says the origin is uncertain but cites the theory that it’s an alteration of box-standard, an old term for the hollow column or standard for a machine, with bog meaning a lavatory or toilet.
That was the gaffer getting all up in our grille.
A gaffer is a boss or foreman. According to the OED, the term was “applied originally by country people to an elderly man or one whose position entitled him to respect,” and might be a contraction of the word godfather. The same sense carried over to gaffer meaning the head electrician on a movie or TV set.
From the outside, my gaff looks a lot like Aislinn Murray’s.
Gaff in this context means a house, building, or home. Other meanings include a fair and a public place for cheap entertainment.
We’d be banjaxed anyway.
Meaning ruined, stymied, or confounded, banjaxedis a fun Irish slang term with an unknown origin. The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1939 novel, At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien: “Here is his black heart sitting there as large as life in the middle of the pulp of his banjaxed corpse.”
Because The Trespasser is full so much great slang, we had to include some bonus terms:
bentadjective Corrupt, venal. Bent cops exist. Fewer in real life than on the telly, but they’re out there.
scut worknoun Trivial and tedious tasks. For a second I think Breslin’s gonna tell me to stick my scut work, but instead he says, “Why not,” although there’s a twist to his mouth.
naffadjective Unstylish or cliched. One of the reasons I don’t trust O’Kelly is because of his office. It’s full of naff crap.
kipnoun Sleep. Go get some kip. Ye look even worse than this morning.
skintadjective Poor, broke. But they’re both skint as well.
spanoun An idiot or clumsy person. You spa, you. Come on and get this case meeting done.
bolshieadjective A leftist; short for Bolshevik. I say, just bolshie enough, “Because I didn’t want to.”
bickied adjectiveDrunk. He was always so bickied he kept forgetting he’d already tried and got nowhere.
Every Wednesday of the last full week in April — that’s April 22 this year — celebrates those who keep businesses running like well-oiled machines. Not only does it make us appreciate all the administrative professionals and assistants out there, it’s gotten us thinking about trusty assistant words. Here’s a brief history of 11 of our favorites.
The word secretary is an old one, dating back to the 14th century when it meant a keeper of secrets. By the early 15th century, it referred to someone who keeps records, writes letters, and performs other clerical duties, especially for a king.
The secretary bird is so called because of its resemblance to male secretary garb back in the day, namely, says the San Diego Zoo, “long, gray wing and tail feathers” that resemble gray tailcoats, “black feathers that go midway down the legs like short pants,” and “long, dark quills at the back of the head” like the “goose-quill pens that they carried behind their ears.”
This phrase, in addition to meaning, well, your right hand, has referred to an indispensable helper since the 16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Meanwhile, right-hand man is from 1626 and first meant “a soldier holding a position of responsibility or command on the right of a troop of horse,” according to the OED, before it meant a trusted male assistant. Right-hand woman is the female equivalent, but it’s not clear when it originated.
Originating in 1735, grisette is a French term that refers to a young woman of the working class, especially “one employed as a shop assistant or seamstress,” says the OED. It originally referred to a kind of inexpensive gray fabric, such as that worn by these women. The implication is also of women “who are free in their manners on the streets or in the shops.”
Named for the sidekick character in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, man Friday first appeared in print in 1809, says the OED.
The female equivalent, girl Friday, is from about 1928. The term seems to have risen in popularity after the release of the 1940 film, His Girl Friday, and then again, sharply, in the 1970s and ‘80s, dropping off after 1985. Why the term became so popular in the ‘80s isn’t clear.
While this term might seem quite modern, it’s actually from 1841, according to the OED. From a book called Italy and the Italian Islands, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time by William Spalding: “Deliberations are led by the Gonfaloniere, who is recognised as the representative of the commune, the Anziani being his administrative assistants.”
Need an assistant for work that doesn’t require much training? You’ll want a swamper. According to the OED, the word made its written debut in 1851 and referred to a “workman who clears a road for lumberers in a ‘swamp’ or forest.” By 1870, it was also slang for an “assistant to a driver of horses, mules, or bullocks”; by 1907 a “man-of-all-work in a liquor saloon” and cook’s assistant; and by 1929, an assistant to a truck driver.
This strangely named title you might have spotted in movie credits refers to the chief assistant of the gaffer, the chief electrician on a television or film set. While it originated in 1931 or earlier, where the term comes from is unclear. The OED cites two theories: one, “that it originated as a term for a master’s most able apprentice,” or two, “that it was transferred from earlier use for a member of a ship’s crew.” However, neither has much evidence to support it.
A body man, says the Political Dictionary, is “an assistant who follows a political figure around the clock, providing logistical assistance for daily tasks ranging from paperwork to meals.” William Safire discusses the term in a February 2001 “On Language” column, saying the earliest citation he can find is from a 1988 article in The Boston Globe by Susan Trausch:
Every candidate has a body man, someone who fulfills a kind of mothering role on the trail. The body man makes sure the candidate’s tie is straight for the TV debate, keeps his mood up and makes sure he gets his favorite cereal for breakfast.
It’s not clear where body man comes from. Similar terms include body servant (1689), body valet (1874), and bodyguard (1701).
The earliest mention of this female equivalent of body man might be from 2008 in reference to Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman, Huma Abedin. From a June 30, 2008 Vanity Fair article by Gail Sheehy: “During the campaign she was accompanied by a body woman, Huma Abedin, a tall, stunning woman of Indian-Pakistani background with an unerring style sense.”
Ooey, gooey, and oh so delicious: the grilled cheese sandwich. Every April 12 celebrates this delectable dish, and just thinking about it makes us hungry. But it also gets us wondering about cheese-filled words and idioms. Today we sink our teeth into the language of cheese sayings.
Some really old cheese
The word cheeseis an old one, dating all the way back to the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Its etymology is long and winding: in a nutshell, it ultimately comes form the Latin caseus, meaning, you guessed it, “cheese.”
Some simple Scottish word fare
Cheese and bread (sometimes bread and cheese) is an old Scottish phrase that refers to plain and simple food, says the OED, or food that’s needed for subsistence. Its earliest citation is from about 1530 while bread and cheese was first spotted in written form in Shakespeare’s 1602 play, The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I love not the humour of bread and cheese.”
Cheese it, the cops!
Meaning to stop, hide, or flee, cheese it could be thieves’ cant. The OED cites 1811 as the earliest recorded usage although it was likely in use long before then. While its origin is unknown, one theory says that it could be a corruption of cease.
As for the phrase, “Cheese it, the cops!” World Wide Words says an early version appears in O. Henry’s 1908 story, “The Voice of the City”: “The defence of Mr Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of ‘Cheese it — the cop!’”
This cheese spins you right round, baby
So what do you do to amuse yourself when you’re a schoolgirl in 1835? You make cheeses of course. To make or perform a cheese was the act of spinning to flare out one’s petticoats, then landing on the ground with petticoats spread like a wheel of cheese. The phrase would also come mean “to curtsy deeply.”
That’s the cheese!
The cheese is an old British slang term for “the correct or proper thing; the finished or perfect thing,” says Century Dictionary. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from the Urdu word chiz, meaning “a thing,” and was “picked up by British in India by 1818 and used in the sense of ‘a big thing’ (especially in the phrase the real chiz).”
We’re in the cheese
Slang for money, this sense of cheese first appears in 1850, says the OED, which contradicts the popular theory that the meaning came about at the end of World War II when Americans received a big piece of cheese as part of their welfare benefits.
The big cheese
This term for the big boss or an important person (or someone who thinks they’re important) might come from the cheese meaning the best thing. The OED points to a quote from an 1882 publication, The New York Commercial Advertiser: “There is a paper published in Florida called the ‘Cracker’. We presume its editor is the cheese.”
The phrase the main cheese first appeared in writing in 1899 while the OED’s earliest citation for the big cheese is from Raymond Chandler’s 1934 short story, “Smart-Aleck Kill” published in Black Mask magazine: “So the big cheese give me the job.”
Grilled cheese is the bee’s knees
According to How Stuff Works, the grilled cheese sandwich as we know it today can be traced back to the 1920s when a bread slicer was invented “that made distributing white bread easy and affordable.” By then James L. Kraft had patented and was distributing affordable processed cheese. Combine the two and voila! The homemade grilled cheese sandwich.
In 1929, the phrase grilled cheese sandwich appeared in print for the first time (at least as far as the OED can tell) in a publication called The Van Wert (Ohio) Daily Bulletin:
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches—spread bread with butter and place a thin slice of cheese between two slices. Either toast or saute in a little bacon fat over the fire in a frying pan.
Sounds delicious to us!
Meanwhile cheesecake is the cat’s pajamas
Cheesecake meaning revealing photographs of women is also from 1929, says the OED. From a an issue of Photo-Era magazine: “It was with the ship-news boys, too, that I learned to shoot ‘cheese-cakes’.” However, how this meaning originated is unknown. The male equivalent, beefcake, is from 1949.
So why the heck do we say cheese when we have our picture taken? No one knows for sure, but the earliest mention is from 1943:
[Ambassador Joseph E.] Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of his ‘Mission to Moscow.’ It’s simple. Just say “Cheese,” It’s an automatic smile.”
The ambassador goes on to say he learned the trick from an “astute” and “very great politician.” He won’t name names but it’s believed he’s referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Prior to say cheese was simply cheese for a smiling expression. It originated prior to 1930 as Rugby School slang.
This British slang term for being annoyed or disgruntled is from 1941 or earlier: “‘I’m browned off,’ announces Taff. ‘I’m cheesed.’” However, where the phrase comes from is largely unknown.
Cheesy, not in a good way
Before cheesy meant corny or overly sentimental (originating about 1943, says the OED), it meant ostentatious or showy (1858) and inferior or second-rate (1863). These earlier terms were perhaps an ironic reversal of cheese meaning the best.
As for where the phrase comes from, that seems to be a mystery. The Phrase Finder says “cut” has been used to mean to expel gas since the 1800s, but we couldn’t find such evidence in the OED. We’ll just have to leave it to our imaginations — and our noses!
Cocktails are a complicated business, from the mixology to the glasses to the names. To get you started, drink up these cocktail slang terms and where they come from.
The origin of cocktail
While cocktail referring to a mixed drink with alcohol has been in use since at least 1803, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word itself has been around since 1750. At that time it meant “a horse with a docked tail that sticks up,” and by 1863 had also gained the sense of “characterized by a lack of gentility or good breeding; lacking social propriety.”
By 1808, it was used in horseracing to denote a “racehorse which is not a thoroughbred; a horse of mixed or inferior breed.” This “mixed breed” meaning might be how cocktail came to mean a mixed drink. Another theory, says the Online Etymology Dictionary (OEtD), is that it comes from the French coquetier, “egg-cup.” Back in 1795, an apothecary named Antoine Amédée Peychaud (the inventor of Peychaud’s Bitters) would brandy toddies in egg-cups. Eventually, the drink took on the name of the cup.
The sling is a the thing
Of cocktail, the OED also says “there was a gradual transition” from the word referring to “a specific type of mixed drink — essentially a sling” to “being used to refer to any alcoholic mixed drink.” This drink meaning of sling — consisting of “brandy, whiskey, or gin, sweetened and usually lemon-flavored” — is from about 1792. The origin is unknown, but there are a couple of theories. One says it comes from the sense of literally throwing or slinging back a drink while another cites the German word schlingen, “to swallow,” as the source. Popular “slings” include the gin and Singapore varieties.
Measure by measure
You might have noticed bartenders using a nifty silver measuring tool when they make your drinks. That’s called a jigger and measures about 1.5 fluid ounces. The OEtD says the term is from about 1836 and originally referred to a 1.5-ounce shot glass. It might come from an earlier meaning of an “illicit distillery” or else a kind of flea.
Another small measure of liquor is the nip. From about 1736, the term originally referred to “a half-pint of less of ale,” says the OED, and then came to mean any small quantity of spirits. A shortening of nipperkin, a nip might refer to a small sip of alcohol taken on the sly or a miniature bottle of any alcoholic drink.
Shaken versus stirred
We may all know James Bond prefers his vodka martinis “shaken not stirred,” but what does that mean exactly? In the former, the cocktail ingredients are put into a special shaker and, well, shaken (or tossed if you’re 1980s-circa Tom Cruise). In the latter, they’re stirred with a spoon.
But the differences don’t end there. The Cocktail Lovers says the shaken method is best for cocktails with “strong fruit juice content” while stirring is gentler and the ideal way to mix “a largely spirit-based cocktail” — like the vodka martini. Take note, 007.
Back versus chaser
Backs and chasers are the side dishes of the cocktail world: drinks that accompany the main one. For instance you might have a beer with a whiskey chaser or a Bloody Mary with a beer back. While essentially the same thing, some say the two terms have a subtle difference: a back is usually “sipped alongside another drink” while a chaser follows a drink that’s thrown back quickly.
How do you want it?
Neat? Straight up? On the rocks? It’s all about temperature and purity. A drink served neat is undiluted — for instance, a bourbon neat has only bourbon and nothing else — and at room temperature. This sense of neat originally referred to “unadulterated” wine, says the OEtD, starting way back in the 1570s. The meaning of undiluted liquor is from around 1800.
Straight up or up refers to a cocktail that’s chilled but without ice. However, to make things even more confusing, the term straight might be synonymous with neat. Finally, on the rocks means a drink poured over ice and is attested to 1949, says the OED.
A garnish is a little extra something added to a drink, like a curly twist of citrus rind (attested to 1958) or an olive. Speaking of olives, they’re the default garnish for martinis so if you don’t like them, get your martini “with a twist” instead. If you like olive juice, you’ll want a dirty martini or if you prefer a pearl onion, order up a Gibson.
Swizzle that stick!
Some call them tacky, others call them collectible. Swizzle sticks are used to stir drinks but also act as sometimes elaborate drink decorations. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1879. Earlier is swizzle (1813), referring to various alcoholic drinks. That might come from switchel, a beverage of molasses, vinegar, and sometimes rum.
Some cocktails are a mixture of alcohols only. For instance, a Manhattan is made of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters. Others contain mixers or nonalcoholic drinks, like orange juice. Mix that with some vodka and you have yourself a screwdriver. Add ginger beer and lime juice to that vodka and you have a Moscow mule. For its Kentucky cousin, just swap in bourbon for the vodka. A gin and tonic is (you guessed it) gin and tonic water, a gin fizz is gin, lemon juice, sugar, and tonic water, a jack and ginger is whiskey and ginger ale, and a rum and Coke has rum and, you guessed it, Coke.
Welcome to the second installment of “Five words from …” our new feature highlighting interesting words from interesting books! Up next is Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
It was an interrelated process of disaggregation, which one night Aram named codevolution.
In Aurora, codevolution is used to describe a process where the evolution of lifeforms begins to diverge, rather than co-evolving as an ecosystem.
Even naming it was a problem, as some called it the cryptoendolith, others the fast prion, others the pathogen, and others simply the bug, or the thing, or the stuff, or the alien, or the whatever.
The word cryptoendolith is formed from roots meaning ‘hidden’, ‘inside’, and ‘stone’.
In the course of this study we found analyses suggesting that the bad feelings engendered in a subaltern population by imperial colonialism and subjugation typically lasted for a thousand years after the actual crimes ceased.
The word ‘subaltern‘ in this context means “marginalized and oppressed by the dominant culture, especially in a colonial context”.
Apparently dreams are very often surreal; oneiric, meaning “dreamlike,” has connotations of strangeness often startling to the dreamer.
The word ‘oneiric‘ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘dream’.
Criminally negligent narcissists, child endangerers, child abusers, religious maniacs, and kleptoparasites, meaning they stole from their own descendants.
Kleptoparasitism is “the parasitic theft of captured prey, nest material, etc. from animals of the same or another species.”
The people from the stations out around Jupiter and Saturn have made up that name for it: they come back from space to Earth to get a dose of bacteria or whatnot, their sabbatical they call it, come back to get sick in order to stay well, but it’s a tough thing for them, and they often come down with what they call earthshock, and sometimes die of it.
Earthshock is a blend of earth and shock, and isn’t actually a thing yet, although space travel itself has a number of serious physical effects.
Did we miss any other great words in Aurora? Feel free to point them out in the comments!
Got a book you’d like see given the “five words from” treatment? Nominate it through this form!
Welcome to “Five words from …” our new feature highlighting interesting words from interesting books! Up first is The Peripheral, by William Gibson.
Netherton was relieved that she hadn’t yet called the display a shewstone.
A shewstone (often spelled show-stone) is an archaic term for “a polished quartz crystal serving as a magic mirror in certain incantations”.
Your peripheral is a tetrachromat.
A tetrachromat is “a person capable of identifying four primary colors, rather than three”.
It was androgenic, he said, and she knew from Ciencia Loca and National Geographic that that meant because of people.
The word androgenic is usually used in the sense “related to the male hormone androgen” but here is used closer to the sense of anthropogenic, “caused by humans”.
She wore a more ornate reticule than usual, covered in mourning beads and hung with a sterling affair he knew to be a chatelaine, the organizer for a set of Victorian ladies’ household accessories.
Chatelaine is defined in context here. A reticule (bonus word) is “a bag, originally of network, but later of any formation or material, carried by women in the hand or upon the arm, and answering the purpose of a pocket.”
An anthropomorph, really, to be disanthromorphized.
The word anthropomorph can be used to mean “an element in decorative art, derived from the human form” but here is used in the sense of “something endowed with human qualities”.
Did we miss any other great words in The Peripheral? Feel free to point them out in the comments!
Got a book you’d like see given the “five words from” treatment? Nominate it through this form!