Category: etymology

Duct tape was initially used during World War II for a very specific military purpose: keeping ammunition boxes sealed. It quickly became clear that it was useful for many other things, as well. And its incredibly adhesive qualities as well as inherent waterproofing led to soldiers calling it “duck tape,” referring to a duck’s wicking feathers.

After the war, former American soldiers who went to work in construction spread the word about the amazing new tape. It ended up being used for all sorts of HVAC applications, but mostly for holding ductwork together, so “duck tape” became “duct tape.“

This is the famous Waldseemüller map, from 1507. It is believed to be the first use of the word “America” as a name for the newly-encountered continents. Waldseemüller was apparently impressed with the stories of Amerigo Vespucci, and bestowed the name on today’s South America in honor of Vespucci.

Waldseemüller

also named North America “Parias” on this map. Parias came directly from a passage in the Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci: the expedition arrives at a region that was “situated in the torrid zone directly under the parallel which describes the Tropic of Cancer. And this province is called by them [the inhabitants] Parias.” The (possibly) indigenous name did not stick. (I had not heard the word “Parias” before writing this post, and you probably hadn’t either.) Instead, the two continents are called after a random Italian explorer because a random German mapmaker was a fan of the explorer’s book. But that’s history for you.

The Waldseemüller map was intended for a well-educated, elite audience. It was large, made of twelve panels, each 18 by 24.5 inches (46 cm by 62 cm). The entire map could be hung on a wall, or kept folded for when one wanted to reference a particular panel. One thousand copies of the map were printed, and unfortunately, there remains only one survivor in its entirety. It is now housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

It was made up by Donald Watson, who founded the first organization for those seeking a lifestyle free from animal products in 1944 in London. Watson and his friends – correctly – thought that ‘non-dairy vegetarians’ was a bit too long a term. So they agreed to create a new word, something shorter and easier to say.

Many options were considered, including vitans, dairybans, benevores, and allvegans. They eventually decided on “vegan” as it took the beginning and the end of the word “vegetarian.” It may also have been influenced by the fact that a popular London vegetarian restaurant was named “Vega.”

The sadly uncommon English word “fearnought” is “a thick heavy overcoating that is made of wool often mixed with shoddy and that has a rough shaggy face.” Such overcoating is also known as “dreadnought” according to Merriam-Webster.

I was very disappointed when I discovered the word’s official meaning. Fearnought sounds like such a cool word! And a “thick heavy overcoating” is simply not as cool as it sounds like the word should be!

In Latin it means “small pebble.”

It is a reference to the abacus, where mathematical calculations used to be done by moving back and forth small beads or pebbles. Over time, the Latin word had come to mean “reckoning, account,” mathematicians borrowed it for the phrase “differential calculus” and the rest is history.

It can be traced back to Middle English, around the year 1000 CE, along with turd and arse. Making it one of the true Anglo-Saxon words left in English.

The word probably originated much earlier than it can be traced. Because, well, swear words tend not to get written down. They are spoken, slang words. Another piece of evidence that sh*t is older than 1000 CE is that similar words exist in other languages in the Germanic family including Dutch, Icelandic, and of course German. Which suggests that sh*t was born not in Middle English, but descended from a common ancestor in the original proto-Germanic language.

Sh*t was not always a taboo word. It initially meant, very specifically, diarrhea in cattle.

Native Americans and First Nations people, who spoke a language of the Algonquian group, were the first to meet English explorers in North America. So many words from these languages entered English:

  • caribou (“snow-shoveler”)
  • chipmunk (“red squirrel”)
  • moccasin
  • moose
  • muskrat
  • opossum (“white dog”)
  • pecan (“nut”)
  • powwow (“to dream, to have a vision”)
  • raccoon, skunk (“to urinate” + “fox”)
  • woodchuck

The word “coward” comes from the Anglo-French word “cuard” – which might itself come from “cue/coe,” meaning tail. Which makes sense. That is the part of a coward that you see!