Thursday, February 18, 2016

Word Origins (Part Two)

Jessica Nelson

Last week, I posted a blog on the origins of a variety of words and phrases. This week, I’m continuing that article, because I’m total word nerd.

Just for fun, I’m going to list some common phrases—at least ones I’m most familiar with—and their origins, based on the findings of Robert Crum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran as written in their book, The Story of English, and filling in the blanks with information from the uber-useful OED (Oxford English Dictionary) online ( This is part two of a two part blog.

From African languages:

For this first set, the book does not explain origins other than to say they came from African languages. A little research in the OED gives us more information, however.

·         voodoo – from the Dahomey word vodu. (A type of religious practice by blacks in Haiti, the West Indies, and southern America). New Orleans voodoo is similar but has different origins.

·         banjo – a corruption of the African word bandore. (An instrument similar to a guitar)

·         bad-mouth – originated as an African American colloquialism and is now fairly common. (To talk badly about someone)

·         high five – OED doesn’t have much to say about this one. (To slap palms with someone else, generally in celebration)

·         jam session – Again, OED doesn’t have much to say about this one, either, other than that it emerged from the jazz age. (An informal meeting of musicians to play music generally after a formal show ended)

·         nitty gritty – OED says they are uncertain of the origins of this one, but it was an African American colloquialism. (Used in the phrase “getting down to the nitty gritty,” meaning to get down to the essentials or the hard work)

This next set still does not have a particular etymology in The Story of English other than that the words and phrases developed and were appropriated from Black English over the years. (“Black English” is Crum’s, McNeill’s, and Cran’s terminology. By my best approximation, it refers to the English that developed out of African/English creoles in places where English was/is the dominant language, such as the United States and England. This is different from an “African English” which would encompass the variations in an English spoken as a second or third language in African countries.) According to the OED, for most of these entries, the individual words themselves have an etymology outside of African languages, but the way/context in which we use these words/phrases developed out of Black (generally American) English. The OED isn’t positive where or when exactly these phrases originated; it only gives conjectures.

·         rock’n’roll (a type of music)

·         jazz (a type of music)

·         blues (a type of music)

·         the spiritual (a type of music)

·         ragtime (a type of music)

·         jive (a type of music)

·         rhythm and blues (a type of music)

·         cakewalk (originally a dance, now used to describe something that is easy to do.)

·         jitterbug (a type of dance)

·         break dancing (a type of dance)

·         cool (use in slang to mean something is “awesome”)

·         “doing your own thing” (this one is self-explanatory)

·         flappers (used to describe the white “downtown” women who would come to Harlem to listen to the jazz musicians)

·         beat (meaning “exhausted”)

·         chick (meaning “girl”)

·         “have a ball” (to enjoy yourself)

·         hype (“persuasive talk,” now meaning to talk something up)

·         “in the groove” (doing something without deviation)

·         “latch on” (take hold of something)

·         mellow (“all right” or “fine”)

·         sharp (as in “looking sharp,” meaning to look neat or smart)

·         fierce (a way to mean “good”)

Now we get into words and phrases that developed out of technological innovations. As new inventions in transportation became widespread, the vocabulary that went with them diffused into the everyday language.

 From steamboats:

·         “letting off steam” – originally referred to literally letting steam off (or out) of the boilers so they wouldn’t explode. Now we use it to refer to doing an activity that releases excess energy or pent up emotions.

·         riffraff – originally referred to people who floated down the rivers on rafts they steered with oars (called riffs). Now it means people of a lower social class, synonymous with rabble. According to the OED, this term has its origins in, or is at least closely related to, the French rifraf or the Danish ripsraps.

·         high falutin’ – referred to people wealthy enough to travel on steamboats, and came from the fact steamboats had tall, flute-shaped stacks that kept smoke and cinders away from the passengers. Now it is used slightly condescendingly to refer to someone who is bombastic or pretentious (OED).

·         hogwash – originally referred to the water left after washing pigs before they boarded boats. According to the OED, this word is related to pigswill, but only in the context in which hogwash means “kitchen scraps or refuse.” In another context, it means a drink that is really bad, like nasty beer. As an American colloquialism, it means “worthless nonsense.”

From poker (which traveled up and down the Mississippi on the steamboats):

·         “you bet” or “ bet you” – originally American slang; was a standard affirmative phrase and still is. “Bet you” is used to informally mean, in one case, that you believe you are right and someone else is wrong (or some other situation that involves believing one thing over something else but not being sure which is really correct/true).

·         “put up or shut up” – an American colloquialism, it’s an admonition to “take action.”

·         bluffing – while the word “bluff” itself has a much longer etymology, to bluff—or to pretend like something is one way when it’s not in order to trick someone else—is wholly American.

·         “call [your] bluff” – an Americanism meaning to call someone out for bluffing or to state they were bluffing and thereby reveal the “truth” (“truth” being a relative term).

·         “passing the buck” – originally, “buck” in this phrase referred to a buckhorn-handled knife placed in front of the dealer that players in poker passed along if they did not want to deal the next hand. It now means to pass the blame to someone else.

·         poker face – used generally to mean a passive expression that hides a person’s true emotions

·         “cards stacked against you” – means the odds of the game are not in your favor. Generally, though, it means that things aren’t going your way or in your favor.

·         “an ace up one’s sleeve” – means to have an advantage that you’ve managed to keep hidden.

·         “hit the jackpot”  a “jackpot” is “in draw-poker, a pot or pool that has to accumulate until one of the players can open the betting with a pair of jacks or better” (from the OED). Now, to “hit the jackpot” means to have a great stroke of luck or to win a big prize (the “pot”).

·         “follow suit” – originally, “to play a card of the same suit as the leading card” from which we get its current meaning “to do the same thing as somebody or something else” (from the OED).

·        “wild card” – “Of a playing card: having any rank chosen by the player holding it” (as called by the dealer) (OED), which has evolved to refer to something that one is not sure about or that lies outside normal circumstances.

From the railroads:

·         railroaded – in its very first incarnation, “railroaded” was extremely similar to the first definition of “right of way,” which was the railroad company’s right to build tracks through private land as part of eminent domain. So to be “railroaded” was to have the railroad literally built across your land with no consideration to you. Not long after, it came to mean to falsely convict someone, but now the term commonly means to coerce someone.

·         sidetracked – according to the OED, in train-related jargon, this originally meant to move a train into the side track so another train could pass, but by the 1890s this word meant to divert attention or lose focus.

·         streamlining – this term now means to slim down or make something more efficient (OED).

·         gravy train – this term was coined during the presidential race of 1948 between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey (during which they visited cities using trains as their primary transportation). Now we use it to mean easily gained financial success.

·         to make the grade – originally meant “to keep the track level”; now this phrase means to reach the standard or to be successful (OED).

·         to have the right of way – this phrase originally meant (and still can mean) “the right to build and operate a railway line, road, or public utility on land belonging to another, esp. the state.” Now, we’re more likely to use this phrase to mean “the right or ability to travel along a given thoroughfare in the face of the claims of other road users; spec. the legal right of a pedestrian, rider, or driver to proceed with precedence over other road users at a specific point or in a particular situation.” (OED)

·         to backtrack – originally referred to train tracks “lying or leading towards the rear” (OED), but now we use it to mean to retrace our steps or retreat.

·         to go off the rails – originally referred to “derailing,” or when a train somehow ended up off its tracks; now it’s a colloquialism that means to lose one’s ability to understand or cope.

All the words and phrases from steamboats, poker, and railroads are all noted in the OED as Americanisms. Even though the words themselves likely have other etymologies, the way in which we use them did not exist until these innovations in technology came into being. And our language evolved to encompass these new inventions.

It still astounds me the way language is constantly in flux—eternally changing. Every day old words take on new meanings, and new words seem to miraculously pop into existence. Words like “selfie” didn’t exist a decade ago. Does anyone remember when “apple” referred to the fruit and not an electronics brand?

Some call this the corruption or devolution of language, but I believe it’s natural for language to change. If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking like Shakespeare!

Are there any word evolutions that surprised you? Are there any you know that didn’t appear on this list? Tell us in the comments.

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