Tag Archives: etymology

The donzerly spangles

I timed my latest article for The Week for July 4. I thought it might be nice to have something light and fun on an American theme to get away from the unpleasant stream of daily political news, at least briefly. (Oh, and if you’re raising an eyebrow at the first-person statements in the article, I am, after all, an American citizen – dual Canadian-American, in fact – and have lived in the US, though I’m happy in Toronto now.) How many of these did you know?

Impress your fellow Americans with the patriotic etymologies of these July 4 words



There’s good, and then there’s best.

There’s George Best, for one, the Northern Irish footballer counted one of the best ever to play the game. He was known for his wild and dissipated lifestyle as he was for his play, and later in life it caught up with him. “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he once said. “The rest I just squandered.”

Not what you expected? Well, he was best one way at football (soccer), best another way at the rakish life, but Best all around. Something beyond a simply good player. The best is different from just double-plus-good. It’s not just more of the same; it’s something other.

As best is. We know the pattern: fast, faster, fastest; fun, funner, funnest… why not good, gooder, goodest?

It’s what linguists call a suppletive form. Just as the past tense of go is went, which is really borrowed from the verb wend (rarely seen, usually in self-conscious phrases such as “I’ll just wend my way”), our comparatives for good (and bad, but I’ll leave that for another day) come from a different adjective. In Old English, that adjective came through as bat and, with vowel shift, bet; it meant ‘good’, ‘well’, or ‘better’. It traces back to Proto-Indo-Europan *bhAd- ‘good’ (huh! that’s not bad) by way of Proto-Germanic. The comparative form of it is, of course, better, and the superlative bettest got collapsed to best.

So why did it bump gooder and goodest out? In fact, it’s about as fair to say good bumped bet out. It was well in place (oh, yes, better and best also supply the comparative and superlative of well) before English was even a distinct language; German has gut, besser, beste and Dutch has goed, beter, best. Where does good come from? If we go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, we find *ghedh meaning ‘unite, be associated, suit’… in effect, as an adjective, the origin of good meant ‘suitable’.

Suitable? Well, that’s good. It’s always nice for something to be fitting. If the pattern has been set, sometimes we follow it with others that aren’t quite the same kind but will do as needed. If you can’t be amazing, then play your part well. Perform as expected. Until you’re nudged aside by someone better… maybe the best.

Of course, even the best isn’t best everywhere and for all time. George Best retired from football at age 26, though he did make a couple of less successful comebacks, and he had a liver transplant at age 56 and died before he turned 60. Another Best, Pete Best, was the original drummer for the Beatles. He may have been good, but he was replaced by Ringo, who was better. Pete may have been Best, but Ringo was a Starr.

Anyway, the surname Best doesn’t come from the adjective best. It comes from the same root as beast and referred to one who kept beasts – i.e., a herdsman. Best can just be pretending to be best.

And best is relative. There are some areas where we can set clear measurable standards and establish one thing as the best for that purpose (at least until we find something better). But what’s best for one purpose may be no more than good for another related purpose. And for many things, best is very much a question of personal needs, wants, and tastes. Anything in any aesthetic realm – music, literature, food, painting, etc. – is like that: one person’s best may be another person’s good, or bad, or even worst. Notwithstanding which some things will be more people’s best than others.

All of this is really leading up to a question. I’m not sure what people who read these word tasting notes like best. What you have liked best. Tell me: What of my word tastings have you liked best? Which ones stuck in your mind and spring to mind readily? If any? I’ve been writing them for nearly a decade now, more than 2,000 of them so far. I should probably find out which ones are the best ones.


Not nice, not silly, actually rather awful

My latest article for The Week is about words with meanings that have travelled quite a bit over the centuries. It’s not that they’ve clouded or warped the senses, but their histories are likely to throw you, or at least leave you in doubt.

11 words whose meanings have completely changed over time


Going off the rails on a gravy train

Donald Trump tweeted that line about the gravy train again. How Rob-Ford-esque can he get! I decided to do a little digging to find the origin of the phrase. It’s my latest article for The Week:

Was there ever an actual train that carried gravy?

You can’t use it however you want; however, you can use it

My latest piece for The Week is on the word however, which just happens to be one of Wikipedia’s favourite words – however, people aren’t always sure how to handle it.

However: Everything you need to know about a commonly abused word


Etymology in dire straits

A very common mistake, and source of linguistic misinformation being passed around, is the assumption that because A resembles some apparently older B, B must be the source of A. Such resemblances are suggestive and worth investigating further, of course, but without a historical record, you can’t say A comes from B – and if the historical record pretty clearly indicates something else, then it undermines the initial hunch. It’s true that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but when there’s sufficient contradictory evidence, the absence of evidence does gain some weight. (And, as historical linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology.) At the very least, as the likelihood narrows, your appealing account is in increasingly dire straits.

I’m listening to some Dire Straits right now, not by coincidence. I decided to play them after being forwarded this account:


The Origins of the phrase “In Dire Straits”

In Hebrew “The Three Weeks” is also referred to as Bein ha-Metzarim (בין המצרים), or “Between the Straits” or “In Dire Straits”. It is based onLamentations 1:3: “Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.” Thus, when you next hear someome refer to being “in dire straits” you’ll know it comes from the exile of Jews from Israel.

What are “The Three Weeks”? I’ll get into that at the end. But first, let’s dive into some dire straits.

The phrase in dire straits – or even just the two words dire straits – is not to be found in the Bible; the passage quoted from Lamentations is one of two uses of dire in the King James Bible (which gives us most of our quotable terms from the Bible), the other being in Job 20:22, “In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits: ever hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” Thus a translation of the Hebrew phrase into in dire straits is one using an idiom seemingly not traceable to an English translation of the Bible. Quotes from Shakespeare are often confused with Biblical quotes, but the only use of straits in Shakespeare is from As You Like It, act V scene iii: “I know into what straits of fortune she is driven.” The word straits (plural) doesn’t appear in Bartlett’s Quotations at all! Dire shows up 22 times in Shakespeare but not once in the King James Bible. Its first appearance in English, mutated from Latin dirus, is in the mid-1500s, and it caught on as a useful adjective. Likewise, as we see, straits and in straits and in a strait (and even great straits and desperate straits) were long used figuratively – since the mid-1500s also, in fact. But they don’t show up together until much more recently.

Google ngrams graphs the phrase as emerging in the late 1800s. According to a newspaper column from 2000, the first use of dire straits together that can be dug up in anything recorded is a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 24, 1933: “It was . . . absolutely essential to do something about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.” But Google Books takes us back a bit farther, giving several hits in the decades around 1900. It finds it in an article about Paganini from 1892; there is one from the debates of the Legislative Council of the Colony of Natal, June 26, 1890: “He told us in terms of infinite scorn that when the Colony was in dire straits of extremity after the Zulu War we were silent and still”; there is one from the story “A Masai Adventure” by Joseph Thomson, in the annual periodical Good Words in 1888: “he answered with unusual humility, showing to what dire straits they had fallen.” Even then, the phrase seems established.

The earliest hit I can find goes all the way back to the 1700s: the (long) epic poem The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius, in translation by Francis Fawkes, published in 1780, which has at lines 719–720 “When now the heroes through the vast profound / Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.” This is clearly a literal use! But could have been a seed for later figurative uses if some of the authors had been educated in the classics in translation. But I can’t find it in a search through a fairly good corpus of English fiction books (novels and collected stories) from 1710 through 1920. It seems to have gained some momentum for a reason uncertain to me in the early 1900s; the Roosevelt speech no doubt helped at least some. The first time the phrase shows up in the Hansard (transcribed debates) of the British Parliament is 1884, and its use accelerates slowly: 1 hit in the 1890s, 2 in the next decade, 5 in the 1910s, 12 in the 1920s, 19 in the 1930s, 14 in the 1940s. There’s no sharp jump as we might expect if it showed up in a single important source.

The term, anyway, according to the Google ngram, rose in usage through the 1900s, peaking in the 1930s and holding fairly steady, but then it started to climb again in the early 1980s… which is when the musical group Dire Straits hit the scene (they were formed in 1977 and had their first hit – “Sultans of Swing” – in 1978, but they became really huge starting in 1980, when they got two Grammy nominations, one of which for Best New Artist). Usage of the term dire straits has been climbing ever since, even as the band Dire Straits has subsided from charts somewhat.

Now for that Hebrew phrase: בין המצרים (bein hamitsrayim) names the period from the seventeenth of Tammuz through roughly the ninth of Av, The Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the first and second Jewish Temples, a time of solemnity for observant Jews. I like Wikipedia’s commentary:

The Three Weeks are historically a time of misfortune, since many tragedies and calamities befell the Jewish people at this time. These tragedies include: the breaking of the Tablets of the Law by Moses, when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf; the burning of a Sefer Torah by Apostomus during the Second Temple era; the destruction of both Temples on Tisha B’Av; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain shortly before Tisha B’Av 1492; and the outbreak of World War I shortly before Tisha B’Av 1914, which overturned many Jewish communities.

But while Wikipedia puts in a “cf ‘dire straits’” next to the literal “Between the Straits” translation, it just links to the Wiktionary definition. There is no evidence I can find that links the term dire straits historically to this period; the connection appears to be a modern one, made readily enough once the phrase dire straits was common. We don’t much use the term straits outside of names and figures of speech anymore, so when we see it in one place (Between the Straits), it’s unsurprising if we connect it to another common collocation (dire straits). It just doesn’t happen to be the origin as far as the historical evidence I can find goes.

By the way, בין המצרים is, I find, also translatable as “among the Egyptians”: בין (bein) means ‘between, among, amid’; ה (ha) is ‘the’; מצרים (mitsrayim) is ‘Egypt’ – Wiktionary points out that the name of Egypt has a dual ending (–im) perhaps because Egypt was formerly two realms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and it says “Connections have also been drawn to מֶצֶר ‎(métser, “border, limit”) and מיצר \ מֵצַר ‎(meitsár, “sea strait”).” Still, the closest to Egyptians that dire straits seems to come is the Sultans of Swing.

The bird from everywhere but where it’s from

The turkey, as you may know, does not come from Turkey. It also does not come from France, India, Rome, or Peru. And yet its names in different languages around the world attribute it to those places. So… why? Find out in my latest article for The Week:

How the Thanksgiving turkey was named after the country Turkey