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Morgan Dynamic Phonics: Word or Phrase Origin of the Week

October 2011. Valentines' Day -- In ancient Rome, February 14 was a holiday to honor Juno, the goddess of marriage and women. The next day was the start of the Feast of Lupercalia, during which the names of young girls were put into a big jar. Roman boys would pick out names of the girls in the jar, and these couples would be together until the end of the festival. Some sources report that there was lots of sex between these couples. Some of these couples would end up getting married.

Later, Emperor Claudius II was having trouble getting young men to join the army. He thought that this was because they didn't want to leave their wives and girlfriends, so he forbade any more marriages. Valentine, the bishop of Terni, continued performing marriages anyway. He was condemned to be beaten to death and to have his head cut off. He was later declared a martyr and then became a saint.

October 2011. by the seat of your pants -- American pilots in the 1940s used this term to refer to flying a plane using their instincts rather than relying on the instrument panel in front of them. The idea was that an expert pilot could feel the aircraft, including the vibrations and G force, through the cockpit seat and could tell if the plane was about to stall or have some other trouble.

October 2011. 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.

September 2011. to win hands down -- comes from horse racing. If a horse was so far ahead as to be certain of winning, the jockey could stop urging his horse to run faster -- thus lowering his hands and relaxing his hold on the reins.

September 2011. spin a yarn -- nautical origin. Sailors spent long hours making and repairing ropes. This involved twisting together long threads or yarns. The image of this activity along with sailors' reputation for telling tall tales of far away places and adventures combined to produce this phrase.

September 2011. 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.

September 2011. bet your bottom dollar -- gambling reference. One's bottom dollar was the dollar or chip at the bottom of one's stack -- meaning betting one's last dollar.

August 2011. 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.

August 2011. butterfly -- It is possible that the word is in reference to the color of the insects' excrement.

August 2011. 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. See Lesson 24.

August 2011. siege -- Latin word meaning 'to sit.' Refers to when an army surrounds a fort or castle and remains there until it breaks down the resistance of the defenders.

July 2011. addict -- originally the name for slaves given to Roman soldiers as reward for performance in battle. Eventually, addict became the name for a person who is a slave to anything.

July 2011. 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.

July 2011. 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.'

July 2011. lampoon -- from an old French word meaning 'a drunken song.'

June 2011. onion -- Latin for 'union,' because the successive skins form such a harmonious one-ness.

June 2011. cheer -- Middle English 'face,' from a French phrase meaning 'make a good face.'

June 2011. fair -- Latin word meaning 'holiday,' which, of course, meant 'holy day'. Holidays were usually held on the saint's day of a local priory or church.

June 2011. court -- Latin -- in the days of chivalry (middle ages) men of the higher classes demonstrated a show of elegant manners and consideration towards others. Young boys of noble birth were trained in these manners and the military skills expected of noble knights. These were considered courtly etiquette in the royal court. The related words courtesy and courteous had similar meanings.

May 2011. libel -- Latin for 'little book.' In the sixteenth century the term was used for an insulting pamphlet circulated to embarrass someone in the public eye. By the seventeenth century, it had come to mean 'a defamatory statement.'

May 2011. 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.

May 2011. 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.

May 2011. publish -- Latin -- means literally 'to make something public.' Related words are people (14th century), popular (15th century), and populace (16th century). We also have puberty and publicity.

April 2011. blue blood -- 15th century Spain was occupied by the Moors and also had a large Jewish population. Inevitably, there was a long period of intermarriage creating many citizens of mixed blood. It became the boasting of some of the old aristocratic families of Castile that their families had never interbred as others had. Their proof of their racial purity was in the fairness of their skin through which the veins looked blue. Those who had interbred with the Moors had darker skin which did not allow the blueness of the veins to show through.

April 2011. raccoon -- comes from a Native American word that means 'he scratches with his hands.'

April 2011. umbrella -- was originally used as a sun shade. The word comes from an Italian word meaning 'little shade.'

April 2011. aboriginal -- Latin -- meaning 'from the beginning.' Related words are original, abort (which originally meant 'to miscarry'), and orient (a rising sun -- where the sun rises or originates).

March 2011. broadcast -- originally an agricultural term meaning 'to sow seed by scattering it widely over the land,' rather than by placing it in holes or trenches.

March 2011. blitz -- shortening of a German word meaning 'lightning war.' Coined in 1939, the term referred to a German tactic of using aircraft and tanks to carry out an intensive attack on the enemy at the rear instead of from the front. Today, when Blitz is capitalized it refers to the period when these raids took place.

March 2011. satellite -- Latin -- originally referred to attendants and guards who surrounded princes or other distinguished people.

March 2011. 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.

February 2011. bellwether -- Shepherds would castrate a male sheep -- who was called a "wether." They hung a bell around his neck and the other sheep would follow him wherever he went. Over time, the word bellwether came to mean anything that led to or predicted a future trend.

February 2011. blacklist -- The first blacklist was created by Charles II of England. It consisted of the 58 judges and officials responsible for his father's (Charles I) execution in 1649. In 1660, when Charles II got the throne back, he made his list. Of the officials he could find, 13 were executed and 25 were sentenced to life in prison.

February 2011. buttonhole -- originally button-hold, as though taking a hold of a button on the person's coat or shirt to prevent them from leaving.

February 2011. 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.'

January 2011. deep six -- Before sonar, ships measured the depth of the water by dropping a weighted line, marked with fathoms, into the water. When the man with the rope saw a depth of 6 fathoms (36 feet), he would shout out 'by the deep six.' This was the minimum depth at which a burial at sea could take place.

January 2011. digital -- 'having to do with numbers' goes back to a Latin word for 'finger.' Roman numerals were called 'digits' because they looked like fingers.

January 2011. freelance -- a medieval mercenary -- one free to sell his skills with a lance to the highest bidder.

January 2011. hippocampus -- from a Greek word meaning 'sea horse,' because the hippocampus brain structure looks like a sea horse.

December 2010. groggy -- Edward Vernon was a British admiral (18th century) who ordered that the sailors' daily ration of rum on board his ship be diluted, which was not well accepted by his men. His nickname was Old Grog because he wore a grogram cloak. His crew called the diluted rum Grog, and this eventually led to the word groggy.

December 2010. jaywalker -- The word 'jay' was an old insult meaning 'a stupid or silly person.' So a jaywalker is really a 'stupid walker.'

December 2010. ornery -- first meant just 'ordinary'; then came to mean 'common or inferior'; and then finally, by late 19th century -- 'mean and cantankerous.'

December 2010. paparazzi -- This word came from Fellini's film La Dolce Vita, which included a street photographer named Signore Paparazzo. In dialect Italian, paparozzo means 'buzzing insect.'

November 2010. philodendron -- These plants climb on trees. Their name comes from Greek and means 'loving tree.'

November 2010. the four humors -- from medieval physiology -- the theory that four "humors" (body fluids) were thought to determine a person's behavior. Too much phlegm caused sluggishness -- which is where we get 'phlegmatic.' A lot of blood makes a person courageous and hopeful -- which gives us the word 'sanguine.' Yellow bile was also called choler, and made one bad-tempered, hence 'choleric.' Black bile caused low spirits, and gives us 'melancholy.'

November 2010. restaurant -- from a French word meaning 'to restore.'

November 2010. starboard - The word originally meant 'steer board,' because that is the side of the ship that the rudder was found -- the right side. The left side of the ship is called the port side because, when a shipped docked, it docked on that side to avoid damaging the rudder.

October 2010. 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.

October 2010. 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.

October 2010. 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.

October 2010. 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.

September 2010. afterward -- The Saxons called the back of their boats the "aft," and "ward" meant 'in the direction of.' So "aftward" meant 'toward the rear of the ship, or behind.' Later, it came to mean 'behind in time,' and then 'later.'

September 2010. ain't -- 18th century - This word was a contraction of "am not," and was considered quite proper English by all classes. It became unacceptable in the early 19th century when it began to be used as a contraction for "is not" and "are not" as well. My spell check told me this word is not in the dictionary.

September 2010. aloof -- originally from a nautical Dutch term meaning 'windward.' Since a ship cannot sail directly into the wind, it must keep the bow pointed slightly away -- hence the meaning, 'to keep away from,' and 'to keep a distance.'

September 2010. 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.'

August 2010. bimbo -- originally applied to men and meant 'unimportant or undistinguished.'

August 2010. 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.

August 2010. 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.

August 2010. 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.

July 2010. chubby -- Middles Ages -- from the thick, fat and round cheeked fish named the 'chub,' a kind of carp found in England and northern Europe.

July 2010. a clean bill of health -- 18th century - originally a document issued to a ship showing that the port it departed from had no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.

July 2010. clerk -- Clerks were originally scholars. Clerk comes from 'cleric,' which in the Middle Ages meant a member of a religious order, all of who were considered scholars because they could read and write. Most of the general population could not.

July 2010. cockpit -- named after the arena where cock fighting occurred.

June 2010. come to a head -- originally an agricultural term referring to waiting for cabbage leaves to come together and form a head.

June 2010. 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.

June 2010. crisis -- Greek -- meaning 'to decide or determine.' At one time physicians believed that "the humors of the body ebbed and flowed like the tides of the sea." Hippocrates called these tidal days 'critical days' and called the tide itself crisis "because it was on these days that the physician could determine whether the disorder was taking a good or a bad turn."

June 2010. crystal -- Greek -- originally meant 'ice.' When quartz crystals were observed, the ancients thought they were petrified ice crystals.

May 2010. egghead -- a term of mild contempt applied to intellectuals -- first used to describe candidate Adlai Stevenson during his run for president in 1952.

May 2010. engine -- from the Latin root 'gen, genus' -- lesson 24. It first meant 'the powers inborn,' 'native talent, mother wit, genius.' Later it meant 'trickery or device.' Then 'the products of engine or wit.'

May 2010. epitaph -- Greek -- meaning 'writing on a tomb.'

May 2010. 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.

April 2010. 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.

April 2010. filch -- Thieves in the 16th century used a pole and line with a hook on it to pilfer goods from the stalls of street vendors.

April 2010. first rate -- In Elizabethan times, British warships were rated by the number of guns and weight of the guns on them. First rate ships were the ships with the most and the heaviest guns.

April 2010. fret -- Middle English -- 'voracious eating by animals.' Currently, it's about 'What's eating you?'

March 2010. 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).

March 2010. geek -- A carnival man, usually an alcoholic, who performed acts like biting off the heads of chickens; a person who has sunk to the lowest depths, or is odd and ridiculous. It is a variation on the English word geck for 'fool' -- 16th century.

March 2010. get one's ducks in a row -- American bowling alleys were the first to have duckpins -- short, slender pins. Pin boys had to set these up before the time of automatic bowling machines. They had the job of getting their ducks in a row.

March 2010. 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.

February 2010. go over the top -- was used during World War One and meant to climb out 'over the top of one's trench,' and fight the enemy on the open ground between the trenches.

February 2010. half-wit -- originally meant, 'an ineffective writer of humor,' 'someone who wasn't funny half the time.'

February 2010. hobnob -- Anglo-Saxon meaning 'give' and 'take.'

February 2010. hormone -- coined by Dr. E. H. Sterling in 1905. Made from a Greek root meaning 'to set in motion.'

January 2010. klutz -- was originally a Yiddish term for 'a log or block of wood.'

January 2010. landlubber -- six centuries ago lubber meant 'a clumsy lout,' a word sailors originally used for green seamen who didn't know their way around a ship yet.

January 2010. lean over backwards -- Judicial reform in 18th-century England brought new judges sensitive to the civil rights of the accused. In contrast to older judges known for 'leaning' toward the crown,' these new judges were said to 'lean over backwards' towards the accused, in judging cases.

January 2010. 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."

Word Origins for 2007-2009 | Word Origins for 2004-2006

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Updated: June 5, 2011