What’s In A Word?

CEBOOKMARK Cara/Andrea here, red-faced for having garbled my posting date and blithely danced off to New York City for two days, leaving the text and pictures on my hard drive. Apologies to all for the delay, and on the theory of better late than never, here goes!

If you are like me, you may you may often stop and wonder where a word or a phrase came from . . .

In the course of researching various arcane historical subjects, I occasionally come across some unexpected—and fascinating—facts. Being a writer, the ones pertaining to language are especially interesting to me. Now, maybe I’m a geek, but knowing the origins of a particular word or a phrase is fun, and gives me an appreciation of the wonderfully wide range of texture, color and inspiration that we have in English. I thought you might enjoy some of the ones that have particularly caught my fancy, so without further ado, here’s a short list:


Slush fund
During the early 1800s, the meat served aboard ship in the British Navy was pretty disgusting and consisted mostly of fat and gristle. For the most part, it was simply boiled in large vats, leaving a thick scum on the top of the water which was called “slush.” This was skimmed off, and half of it was used to waterproof the ship’s rigging. The other half belonged to the ship’s cook as an official perk of the job, and he sold it to tallow merchants to supplement his Navy wages. Thus the term “slush fund”.

Sailing-ship Head
This modern nautical term for toilet also derives from the British Navy. The beakhead was a term for an area in bow of the ship. The figurehead and the catheads were also located in the bow, as were the primitive wooden latrine seats that hung over the sides of the ship. When sailors needed to relive themselves, it became customary to say they were going to the “head.”

A square meal
For easy storage, the wooden plates used in the British Navy were usually square instead of round.


A slang term still used for the British, it came about because during the 1700s, the British government discovered that scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of Vitamin C, could be prevented by giving sailors citrus fruit. So in 1795, it became standard orders that all sailors in the British Navy received a daily ration of lemon or lime juice.


Marines worn leather stock (which is a band of material under the collar to keep a chin up) Thus called ‘leathernecks.’

the invention of a fused spherical case-shot that was designed, by General Sir Henry Shrapnel, to explode over the heads of enemy troops and shower them with musketballs.

Musket-close-up Lock, stock and barrel
This term dates from the 1600’s and comes from a British government Ordnance order demanding that the gun barrels being ordered for the army be equipped with wooden stocks and double spring French locks—in other words, the weapons had to be in full working order. Toda, it still means “complete, and ready to go.”

Going off half cocked
An improvement was made to flintlock weapons in the early1600s, whereby a mechanical safety mechanism was designed to keep the gun from firing in the half cock position. Thus, “going off half cocked” means “exploding” prematurely. It also has connotations of something not working properly.

Bite the bullet
In the days before anesthesia, soldiers wounded on the battlefield would be given a bullet to bite down on while a doctor operated on a wound in order to keep from screaming in pain.


Fashion Milliner
In the 1500s, the English considered hats and trimmings from the northern Italian city of Milan to be the best in the world. The merchants were called Milaners, which became milliner.

Lordraglan Raglan sleeve
The style, which is inset without a seam at the shoulder, is named for Lord Raglan, the dashing commander-in-chief of the British forces during the Crimean War. Having lost an arm at Waterlo
o, he favored a loose-fitting overcoat with this type of design and it came to be named for him.

During the Thirty Years’ War, a regiment of mercenaries from Croatia—then a part of the Austrian Empire—were hired by the French. The Croats, called Cravates by the French, traditionally wore a colorful muslin scarf knotted at the neck, with long tails, often trimmed in lace. The style quickly caught on with the French, who simply named it after the original wearers. When the neckcloth became popular in England, it was simplified even further to ‘cravat.”

The Romans were the first to invent chinstraps for war helmets, and as the fastener that held the strap in place was positioned on the cheek, it was called a “buccula,” meaning “little cheek.”


At Muirfield, one of the oldest and most exclusive golf clubs in Scotland, when someone applied for membership it was a tradition that the all the current members voted on whether to admit the applicant by putting a golf ball in a wooden ballot box—white signified approval, black signified a rejection. It took only one black ball to sink a person’s chances of being admitted to the club.

The acid test
Nitric acid was used to test the purity of gold before countries had a standardized system of coinage.

Bobby (or Peeler)
The modern day London bobby, or policeman, owes his nickname to Sir Robert Peel, who established the first official police force in London, circa 1830. Early law enforcement officers were also called “peelers”.

Tennis-scene-3 Cut to the chase
This saying comes from the arcane game of court tennis, which was the sport played by Henry VIII (very different from lawn tennis, which didn’t come into being until the 1870s.) It has a very complex, complicated set of scoring rules—don’t ask—but one of them involves a ball landing in a certain place. When it does, a “chase” is called. However, the set is played out before the players engage in a game within a game, which ultimately determines the winner. So “cut to the chase” means skipping over parts of an endeavor to get to the most important, or dramatic, point.

Pleased as punch
This saying has its origins in the traditional street puppet show of “Punch and Judy”, where the character Punch is always very proud of himself when he murders off everyone else in the play. Popular in 19th century England, the show had its origins in medieval Italian street theatre.

Pipe dream
This term, which refers to an unrealistic goal or notion, came into being in England , where during the 18th and 19th century smoking opium had become prevalent. (Samuel Taylor Coleridge is said to have written many of his famous poems, including Kubla Khan, under the influence of the drug.)

I could go on and on, for etymology is a source of endless smiles. However, at this point, I’d rather turn the pen over to you. Do you like learning the root of phrases or words? And have you a favorite arcane term or phrase? Please share!