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Morgan Dynamic Phonics: Fascinating Word and Phrase Origins

The Dynamic Roots program used word histories to explain how many words came to mean what they do today.  This helps student remember new vocabulary.  At the end of the Teacher’s Manual is an additional list of interesting word origins to share with students.  Here is a selection of those word histories.

idiot - In ancient Greece, anyone who was not a public official was called an idiot.  It did not mean stupid back then. It just meant private person.  It is related to idiom, one’s personal or individual language, and idiosyncrasy, one’s personal characteristics.  At one point, public life was considered a necessary condition of man’s best education. At one time in its development, idiot referred to someone who writes prose instead of poetry (which was considered the only true form of writing by the Greeks).

come up smelling like roses -- Roses need lots of fertilizers or manure to grow well. You would have to be very lucky to land in a bed of roses and come up smelling even remotely pleasant.

boulevard -- Middle German -- originally the top of a wide defensive wall -- often 20 or more feet wide -- around medieval towns. As more modern weaponry made such walls obsolete, they were sometimes razed to the ground and used as wide streets.

clock -- comes from the Latin word meaning 'bell,' since bell towers rang every hour. The same word gives us cloak, which is shaped like a bell.

butterfly -- It is possible that the word is in reference to the color of the insects' excrement.

genuine -- Latin -- meant 'placed on the knees.' In ancient Rome, a father legally accepted his new child by placing it on his knee in front of his family.

sincere -- Latin -- meaning 'without wax.' The Romans used to fill cracks or holes in their furniture with wax, so 'without wax' meant flawless, pure, and clean.

navel -- At the turn of the century (1900), Boston refused to accept shipments of navel oranges from California, saying that the fruit's name was 'indelicate and immodest.'

cheer -- Middle English 'face,' from a French phrase meaning 'make a good face.'

tournament -- from old French word meaning 'to turn or joust,' referring to the contestants wheeling about to face each other for another charge forward -- 12th century.

dial -- adapted from a Medieval Latin word meaning 'daily.' When it first appeared in the 15th century, it meant 'sundial. It was used extensively in 16th and 17th centuries for any kind of timepiece.

umbrella -- was originally used as a sun shade. The word comes from an Italian word meaning 'little shade.'

satellite -- Latin -- originally referred to attendants and guards who surrounded princes or other distinguished people.

adultery -- Latin -- 'to pollute, corrupt or defile.' This in turn comes from a word meaning 'to alter.' Extramarital affairs were seen as defiling or adulterating the marriage.

buttonhole -- originally button-hold, as though taking a hold of a button on the person's coat or shirt to prevent them from leaving.

deadpan -- 1920s -- originally actors' lingo for saying a line without expression. The word 'pan' was a slang term for face. It was like saying the line with a 'dead face.'

digital -- 'having to do with numbers' goes back to a Latin word for 'finger.' Roman numerals were called 'digits' because they looked like fingers.

freelance -- a medieval mercenary -- one free to sell his skills with a lance to the highest bidder.

hippocampus -- from a Greek word meaning 'sea horse,' because the hippocampus brain structure looks like a sea horse.

philodendron -- These plants climb on trees. Their name comes from Greek and means 'loving tree.'

restaurant -- from a French word meaning 'to restore.'

to a T -- 17th century -- from 'to a tittle.' A tittle is the dot over the lowercase 'i.' So, 'to a tittle' meant to the finest details of something, like dotting all the i's in a manuscript.

trump -- In cards, a trump card usually helps you win. Trump is a shortening of the word triumph, which comes to us from a Latin word referring to a ceremony where a victorious military commander would enter Rome with his army and the SPOILS taken in battle.

well-heeled -- from an early adjective heeled, 'armed with a weapon.' That in turn came from an earlier heeled, that referred to the sharp blades fastened to the legs of the birds in cock fighting. Today, it just means wealthy.

accolade -- Latin -- 'against the neck.' In the middle ages men were knighted in a ceremony called the "accolata," meaning 'near or against the neck.' The ceremony involved a hug around the neck, a kiss and a tap of a sword on the shoulder.

bastard -- Mule drivers in the Middle Ages used packsaddles called 'basts' for beds when out on the road. A child conceived on these 'basts' with drivers on the road, was often conceived out of wedlock and called fils de base, - 'son of a packsaddle.'

code -- for a system of laws, etc., is from a Latin word meaning 'the trunk of a tree,' from which wooden tablets were made - on which the codes were written.

broom -- British housewives long ago used to sweep their floors with the twigs of the broom bush tied together. Brooms were also placed across the door of a house to keep witches away.  It was believed that a witch would have to count every straw in the broom before she could open the door.

buckle down to work -- to buckle oneself, during the blossoming of English knighthood, meant to fasten one's armor to prepare for battle. The word "buckle" comes from a Latin word meaning 'cheek,' which originally referred to the strap holder on Roman battle helmets that was close to the cheek.

chubby -- Middles Ages -- from the thick, fat and round cheeked fish named the 'chub,' a kind of carp found in England and northern Europe.

cockpit -- named after the arena where cock fighting occurred.

come to a head -- originally an agricultural term referring to waiting for cabbage leaves to come together and form a head.

con; con game; con man -- originally a shortening for 'confidence game,' and referred to swindlers selling fake gold mines in the West after the Civil War. They would scatter a couple of pieces of gold in an old mine to fool investors buying it. The 'con' counted on gaining the confidence of the mark.

February -- was named for Februaria, the goddess of fertility. During the festival of Lupercalia, held in February, youths roamed the streets presumably making barren women fruitful by touching them with magic thongs called februa, made from the hides of goats sacrificed to Februaria.

male and female symbols -- The female symbol represents a hand mirror and is associated with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty. The male symbol represents the shield and spear of Mars, the Roman god of war.

fret -- Middle English -- 'voracious eating by animals.' Currently, it's about 'What's eating you?'

gee -- an American euphemism for "Jesus" and dates back to 1895. Some of its antecedents are gee whiz! (1895); jeez! (1900); jeepers! (1920); and jeepers creepers! (1934).

give a damn -- originally -- "I don't give a damn." Brought back to England from India by military men in mid 18th century. A dam was an Indian coin of very little value.

half-wit -- originally meant, 'an ineffective writer of humor,' 'someone who wasn't funny half the time.'

hormone -- coined by Dr. E. H. Sterling in 1905. Made from a Greek root meaning 'to set in motion.'

make waves -- This possibly comes from an old joke about a person who arrives in hell to the sound of thousands of lovely, serene voices singing. He is amazed to hear such sweet sounds in hell. As he gets closer, he finds the chorus of hell is standing up to their chins in excrement, singing softly to each other, "Don't make waves, don't make waves."

maroon; marooned -- Black people who lived in the remote forests of Dutch Guiana and the West Indies were often runaway slaves. They were called maroons, French for “runaway black slaves.”

mint -- gets its name from the Greek nymph Minthe, who was changed into the herb by Proserpine, the jealous wife of Pluto, god of the underworld. Wild mint has been chewed from earliest times and is thought to be an aphrodisiac. Aristotle banned the chewing of mint by Alexander the Great’s soldiers because he felt it stimulated them sexually and sapped their desire to fight.

to rub out -- meaning to kill someone, comes from the Plains Indian sign language, which expresses ‘to kill’ with a rubbing motion.

steak -- Old English word referred to the way the meat was cooked -- on a thin stake. Note: during the Great Vowel Shift in English -- all of the ‘ea’ words pronounced with a long “a,” changed their sound to the long ‘e’ sound, with the exception of: steak, great, and break.

strung-out  -- originally was a term used for ‘out of tune musical instruments.’

uncouth -- 14th century -- Old English -- originally meant ‘unknown or unfamiliar.’ The dislike and distrust of the unfamiliar, of strangers, of foreigners, is probably responsible for the change in meaning over time.

wing it -- a theatrical term from the 19th century. When an actor could not remember his lines, he depended of prompters in the wings to get him through the performance.

zombie -- was originally the snake god worshipped (python god) in West Indian voodoo ceremonies in West Africa. Dead people, it was said, were brought back to life in these ceremonies. Such people would shuffle along in states of being half dead and half alive, and were called zombies.

wet blanket - refers to using a wet blanket to smother a fire.

wear one's heart on one's sleeve - a reference to the old practice of a woman tying her favor to a lover's sleeve. The phrase was in use as early as Shakespeare's time, since he uses it in Othello.

warm the cockles of one's heart - in the later part of the 1600s, a Latin phrase for the heart's ventricles (cochleae cordis) was corrupted into "cockles."

run the gamut - from Guido d'Arezzo's medieval music scale. On the scale, "gamma" was the lowest note, and "ut" was the highest, so the two became contracted to become "gamut."

run of the mill - this phrase comes from the practice where fabrics would come right from the mill with no attention to quality.

push the envelope - a term from aviation where the "envelope" means the shape on a graph of a plane's performance limits; there is an "envelope" on the graph in which the plane and pilot are safe.

over a barrel - is said to allude to a practice of placing a drowning victim in a barrel and rolling it back and forth in the hopes of emptying the lungs of water and reviving the victim.

off the top of one's head - referring to saying something without using the inside of one's head.

off the cuff - may mean a practice where a public speaker would make notes on the cuff of their shirtsleeve.

make a stink - an idiomatic way of comparing a public disturbance to a bad smell.

basket case - originating from World War I. If a soldier had lost his arms and legs in combat he would have to be carried in a basket; thus, too impaired to function.

beat a retreat (beat a hasty retreat) - from the war practice of the 1300s when the sounding of drums signaled troops into retreat.

breathe easy - from the late 1500s as 'breathe again'. The idea that when stressed or anxious, one would hold one's breath or stop breathing.

come up roses - Eric Partridge believed this phrase was at its origin 'fall into shit and come up smelling like roses'; the vulgarities now are omitted with only 'come up roses' alluding to emerging from a difficult situation untarnished.

crack a smile - colloquial transference of 'break' to 'crack' as in the breaking of a more serious facial expression into a smile.

cut both ways - from the 1600s reference to a double-edged sword; currently meaning having advantages and disadvantages.

cut to the chase - alludes to a part of the process of film editing (cutting) which gets the exciting chase scenes incorporated in the final product.

fit to be tied - this phrase suggests volatility so intense that physical restraint is needed.

fizzle out - initially dating from the late 1500s "to break wind without making noise". With time, the meaning was applied to any hissing type of noise; later the meaning transposed into any endeavor with a disappointing ending.

for crying out loud - early 1900s; a less crass way of saying "for Christ's sake".

good grief - origin from early 1900s; an exclamation of grief, alarm, surprise etc. referencing the euphemism 'good God'.

goose pimples (goose bumps) - alludes to the look of the skin of a plucked goose bearing resemblance to the look of a person's skin when he/she is cold or afraid.

haste makes waste - originally recorded as a rhyming warning in 1575; full text from John Ray's proverb collection of 1678 is 'haste makes waste, and waste makes want, and want makes strife between the good man and his wife."

head over heels - initially coined in 1300s 'heels over head', upside down; transposed to present form in 1700s; by 1800s had acquired present meaning.

hear, hear - transformed from 'hear him!', calling attention to the words of a speaker, to current usage as a cheer (late 1600s).

hold someone's feet to the fire - from the practice of the ancient test of holding one's feet to a fire to determine the degree of courage one possessed. Figurative use began in mid 1900s.

hold up - references the action of a victim of a bank robbery holding their hands high in the air (late 1800s).

in cold blood - alludes to the idea of blood being the keeper of emotions (hot in passion, cold in calm); therefore the term negates the heat of passion and advances the idea of a calculated manner.

in the cards - origins from the phrase 'on the cards' which references fortunetelling cards.

keel over - alludes to the capsizing of a vessel as it rolls on its side and overturns, with the keel pointing up or turning over.

la-la land - slang, around 1980 referencing the city of Los Angeles and its reputation for harboring eccentric inhabitants.

absurd - Latin surdus means "deaf." Something that is absurd is presumably something only a deaf person could stand. Something that is not compatible with reason. The implication is that a person who holds an absurd idea is deaf to the rules of logic or to common sense.

birds, for the - In big cities like New York, when horse-drawn wagons were in fashion, horse manure littered the streets. A large population of sparrows ate it, or the undigested oats in it. So when you say that something is for the birds, you are saying it is like horse manure.

bulldozer - During Reconstruction (1865-76), a "bull-dose" (a dose of a bullwhip) was given to black people in the South who tried to vote by groups who did not want them to like the KKK. Soon anyone who used coercion, by threats or violence, was called a 'bulldozer.'

clod - yet another slight on people who lived in the countryside. City folk looked down on country folk, which is how a clod of earth turned into a clod - originally just someone not living in the city, and assumed to have the intelligence of a piece of dirt.

cloud nine - Meteorologists classify the very tallest cloud, cumulonimbus, as cloud nine. If you feel like you are on cloud nine, you are feeling pretty high.

fiend - from Old English and originally meaning 'enemy,' then 'Satan,' and then 'someone acting like Satan.'

partridge - from a Greek word meaning 'farter,' - apparently from the sound of the whirring wings of a partridge taking off in flight.

tide one over - small rivers often had bars of sand or mud at their mouths. At low tide, this area was not passable by boats or ships. They would have to wait until high tide to pass through. A friend may lend us some money to tide us over a difficult time financially.

zealot - a Greek word originally referring to the Jewish sect who led a great revolt against Roman rule in 72 A.D. The Zealots were called such because of their extreme religious and nationalistic zeal.

abracadabra - Latin - first used as a charm in the 2nd century. Romans wrote the word in the shape of a triangle and wore it hanging from their necks as a way of warding off the 'evil eye.' They believed that the word had the power to cure toothaches and other illnesses.

bottle - from Latin meaning 'thick skin,' since the first bottles were made of animal skin.

bug - from an Old Welsh word meaning 'specter' or 'ghost.' It later became another word for "beetle," some of which resemble a frightful specter.

calculate - from a Latin word meaning 'pebble.' Two thousand years ago, merchants used pebbles as counters while doing business. Taxis contained a revolving can that dropped pebbles used to calculate the fair. Related word is calculus. 

defend - Latin - originally meant 'to protect by prohibiting' - referring to the 'fence' used to defend buildings, towns, or boarders.

diplomat - Latin - meaning 'folded twice.' A diplomat deals in matters so secret that his or her documents require special handling.

euphemism - Greek - originally denoting 'abstinence from words of ill omen at religious ceremonies.'

extravagant - Latin - 'one who wanders outside his usual path,' or 'beyond his usual manner of behavior.' Related words are vagrant (one who wanders) and erratic (having no fixed path, wandering).

heeby-jeebies - derives from an American Indian term for the 'dance of the witch doctor.'

nemesis - Greek goddess, Nemesis, was the goddess of retribution. She punished crimes with her sword and her swift avenging wings. She measured out happiness and unhappiness, and saw to it that nobody had too much of one without the other.

nifty - Latin - a slang word meaning 'very good.' It is believed to have come from the middle portion of 'magnificent.'

pamper - Latin - originally meaning 'to stuff with food.'

plausible - Latin - it once meant 'that which obtained applause,' with the assumption that it deserved the applause.

polka dot - When the polka dance craze came to the United States in the 1880's, certain cloths and designs were named after the dance. A knitted jacket with a dot-pattern on it was used when dancing the polka, and was called a "polka."

poodle - comes from a Low German word meaning 'to splash in water,' because the dog was once used to retriever waterfowl.

precipice - Latin - from a word meaning 'headforemost,' or 'to cast down or fall headlong,' as if from a high place. Many Roman criminals were executed by being thrown from Tarpeian Rock in Rome. Many suicides occurred there also.

quack - during the great plague in the middle ages, bogus healers preyed on the people by selling them fake medicines. Their noisy sales talks reminded the Dutch of ducks, so in Holland they became known as quacks.

test - Latin - referred to a porous earthenware pot used to extract precious metals from ores containing less precious metals like lead.

ukulele - Hawaiian - meaning 'jumping insect,' since the fingers jump back and forth very quickly when it is played.

vamp - as used for 'an unscrupulous seductive woman,' is simply a shortening of 'vampire.'

wake - Middle English - 'to be awake.' Drinking ale or whiskey from lead cups often knocked a person out for a couple of days. After someone died, they were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days, and the family would eat and drink at the table and wait for the person to wake up.

breast and leg - these words were never used in the 1880's and 1890's - they were considered too risqué. During the 17th and 18th centuries English speakers euphemized the language by changing 'breast' to 'boson,' 'titbit' to 'tidbit,' 'cock' to 'rooster,' 'belly button' to 'tummy button,' and 'underwear' to 'unmentionable' or 'small clothes.'

hell bent - from American slang meaning 'so determined to do something as to be unconcerned about the consequences, even of hell itself.'

keep one's fingers crossed, to - This is from the belief that the sign of the cross would ward off evil and bring good luck. The American tradition of crossing one's fingers behind the back when telling a lie probably comes from the idea of keeping the devil (or an angry parent) at bay, even when being dishonest.

beside himself - In ancient times, it was believed that the soul and the body could separate and that under great stress the soul would leave the body. When this happened, the person was described as being "beside himself." The word "ecstasy" from Greek origin has the same sense and literally means, "to stand out of."

God bless you - what we are actually saying in Old English is "God bathe you in sacrificial blood," - to ward off evil spirits. See bless. The ancients believed that the body and soul of a person could be separated. They believed that when a person sneezed, the soul would momentarily leave the body and there was a chance that the Devil could slip in and prevent the soul from returning. They believed that if a friend blessed you after a sneeze, the Devil could not invade your body and the individual soul would be able to return.

boss - in the old days bosses had the authority to beat their employees. This word comes from an Old High German word meaning 'to beat.'

cold feet - originally referred to a soldier whose feet were frozen or very cold and who therefore could only proceed into battle slowly or not at all.

farce - comes from a Latin word meaning 'to stuff.' Early plays were stuffed with jokes and low comedy scenes, and so this came to be the name for this type of comedy.

happy as a clam - This phrase was originally, "happy as a clam at high tide," which was when clams are the safest from people who wish to collect and eat them (which is done at low tide).

auspices - Latin - in ancient Roman times political leaders consulted an 'augur' before making important decisions like on which day to start a war. These fortunetellers got their names because they would watch birds flying in order to make their predictions. If something is done under the auspices of a consultant or organization, it has that person or organizations guidance, help, and support. Inaugurate - means "to take omens from the flight of birds." Roman officials only wanted to be sworn into office with the approval of the birds and their watchers.

nest egg - Farmers would leave one egg in the hen's nest to encourage her to have more eggs. This procedure apparently works for at least some of the bird family. So the phrase came to mean 'something set aside for the future.'

rack one's brain, to - Rack here means to 'stretch' or 'strain by force' - as a metaphor to being stretched on a 'rack' as torture in olden times.

speakeasy - Iris in origin - originally referred to establishment that sold liquor illegally. The customers had to keep their voices down, (speak quietly or easy) so as not to attract the attention of the police.

vibrant - Latin - 'energetic,' 'vibrating.' Related word vibrate.

visit - Latin - originally - 'God coming to comfort, benefit or punish people for their for sins.' (14th century)

vulnerable - Latin - 'that may be wounded,' 'open to attack.'

stifle - Old English - 'cause to choke,' 'kill by suffocation.' (14th century)

tally - Anglo-Norman - 'rod of wood marked with notches recording payments.' (15th century)

squadron - Italian - 'body of soldiers in square formation.' Related to squad.

stark naked - Old English - 'tail' - meaning naked even to the tail.

prize - Latin - 16th century - 'booty captured at sea.'

protestant - Latin - applied to those who joined in the protest at the Diet of Spires in 1529 - hence non-Roman Catholic.

purple - Greek - from the name of the shellfish that yielded the Tyrian purple dye.

rib - Old English - 'wife' or 'woman,' (16th century). Biblical reference.

nickel - German - 'mischievous demon' - because the ore yielded no copper in spite of its appearance.

outlaw - Old English - 'one put outside the protection of the law' - one banished from the city or town.

pot shot - shot taken at game (not necessarily the best game) merely to provide something for the pot - shot aimed at something within reach.

mastodon - Greek - the name means 'tooth, breast' - this extinct mammal which had small prominent outgrowths on his molars that were nipple shaped.

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Copyright Morgan Dynamic Phonics, Inc., 3811 Hannett Ave NE, Albuquerque NM 87110
Updated: February 22, 2020