the origins of words and phrases … namely, etymologies

I'm an amateur philologist, having this perpetual fascination with the origin of words and phrases—etymologies—of many things that we often take for granted.

For instance, many words used—like "Hi ", "Just kidding", "Neat"—have origins in Elizabethan English.


From life in English counties or shires around the year 1000, a bailiff or reeve managed the estates, collecting rents etc for the lord of the manor. They were known as the Shire Reeve. The title eventually became Sheriff.

From The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

It is better to get the Sack than be Fired

Prior to the invention of toolboxes all English craftsmen and tradesmen carried their tools around in a sack. To be given their sack meant being discharged from employment and the worker would carry his tools either home or on to his next job.

However, miners who were caught stealing coal or other materials, such as copper or tin, would have their tools confiscated and burned at the pit head in front of the other shift workers—a punishment that became known as 'firing the tools' or being Fired. This meant the offender would be unable to find other work and repeat his crime elsewhere. Other trades adopted the practice and the phrase quickly established itself.'

From Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack


The phrase "…went ballistic" suggests someone exploded with rage. Sadly, this colloquialism is incorrect.

Ballistics is the science of the motion of items like bullets, bombs and rockets. 
It pertains to the throwing of projectiles and the course they take. When missiles go ballistic they don't explode, they actually coast … and then fall to earth.

From Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge


Often heard ", …a quantum leap" is thought of as a giant leap. It isn't.

In its technical sense from Quantum Mechanics—a subset of physics explaining the physical behaviours at the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels—quantum means 'the sudden transition of an atom or electron from one energy state to another'. In other words, it's the smallest distance between
two points.

Maybe over time, like other phrases, the meaning will change.

From Wikipedia and Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge—same page as Ballistic


As opposed to a normal vessel under sail, a Dutch-named Jaghtschip was a fast, lighter, hunting/pirate ship—jagen being the Dutch verb to hunt. This is from where we get our word, Yacht.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

In the Age of Sail, all war ships and many freighters carried iron cannons which fired round iron cannon balls. It was necessary to keep a good supply near the cannon. And the best method to stop them rolling about the deck was to stack them as a square based pyramid with one ball on top, resting on four resting on nine which rested on sixteen. Thus, a supply of thirty cannon balls could be arranged in a small area right next to the cannon.

There was only one problem—how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others. The solution was a metal plate called a 'Monkey' with sixteen round indentations. However, if this plate was made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. So the remedy was to make the 'Monkeys' out of brass.

Then another problem arose—when in very cold weather with the temperature dropping too far, because brass contracts faster than iron, the iron cannon balls would pop off the monkey.

Thus meaning it was very cold weather, we got the phrase…

"Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey!" or sometimes in the shorter form "Brass monkeys!"

Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan and Derelict

Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo, or something fallen off of a ship.
Its origins are Anglo-Norman floteson from the verb floter—to float.

Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is purposefully cast overboard or jettisoned to lighten the load in time of distress and that sinks or is washed ashore.
It comes from the Anglo-Norman getteson, in turn Old French getaison and earlier from Latin jactatio—to cast, or jactare—to throw.

Lagan (also called Ligan) is cargo that is lying on the bottom of the ocean, sometimes marked by a buoy, which can be salvaged or reclaimed. It comes from Old French and possibly the Old Norse lagn—to lie.

Derelict is cargo or a ship that is also on the bottom of the ocean, but which is abandoned and no one has any hope of reclaiming. Its origins are Latin derelictus—left, or derelinquere—forsake wholly, abandon.

A feather in your cap

In medieval England, knights who had shown great courage were allowed to put plumes in their helmets. The Black Prince—16 year old Prince Edward—the Prince of Wales of his day, showed such courage at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 in the Hundred Years War, that he was awarded the crest including the motto of one of his defeated enemies—John of Bohemia. That crest, of three ostrich feathers and the motto, Ich dienI serve, remains the property of the Prince of Wales to this day.

From Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack

Hip! Hip! Hoorah!

Next time you are cheering at a birthday party, here’s something to think about...

Hip is a notarikon*, composed of the initials of Hierosolyma est perdita. And when the German knights headed a Jew-hunt (Horrifying!!) in the Middle Ages, they yelled “Hip! Hip!” as a way of saying "Jerusalem is destroyed!".

The "Hoorah" part was derived from the old Slavonic hu-raj meaning “to Paradise”.

Hence “Hip! Hip! Hoorah”—and now “Hip! Hip! Hooray”—would translate as “Jerusalem is lost to the infidel …we are on the road to Paradise.”

*notarikon (Latin, notarius, a shorthand writer) is 'a cabalistic word denoting the old Jewish art of using each letter in a word to form another word, or using the initials of the words in a sentence to form another word'.

The Barbershop Pole

In the Middle Ages the early barbers were also the early surgeons, both having a collection of scissors, knives and other sharp, gouging instruments.

After operations, the surgeons bound the bleeding wounds in bandages, which often seeped blood between the binds, looking much like a barbershop pole.

Hence the sign for the barber / surgeon was this pole, which continues to be seen outside some barbershops today.


In the early Industrial Revolution in France many textile mill workers were disgruntled that their jobs were being replaced by machinery.

Taking their wooden clogs—sabots—they threw them into the machinery causing malicious destruction of their employer's property. Hence sabotage.


A mixture of Greek and Latin meaning flesh-eating.

There was a kind of stone known among the Greeks to have the properties of eating any flesh deposited on it. Hence, early coffins were made of this stone, and subsequently devoured the dead within.


When a wealthy Roman landowner wanted, for example, a sculpture for the grounds of his villa, he would visit a stone mason, who in turn would visit the local quarry.

At the quarry, he may have got a great deal on marble—somewhat flawed—but still
a great deal.

So when chipping away at his creation, a crack appeared or a limb / the head fell off, the mason rectified matters by smearing wax into the crack and covered it over with marble dust.

Then, when finished, he took the sculpture to the landowner who proudly displayed it at his villa. However, when the sun came out, the wax melted and the head fell off!

So the more reputable masons used to portray their honesty by inscribing the base of their statues with the words sines cera, which means without wax !

(Another source suggests that sincerely came into the English language from the Latin sincerus, meaning clean or pure.)


Though the definitions of words are continually changing, there is still a general misunderstanding of the word celibacy.

Often it is thought to mean no sexual relations. Roman Catholic priests had to be celibate. However, the connotation is wrong.

Yes, they had to celibate—they had to be unmarried. That's all celibate means : unmarried, single, bound not to marry, a bachelor, the state of living unmarried.

Bill Bryson, in his book Dictionary of Troublesome Words, puts it this way…
'Celibacy does not, as is generally supposed, necessarily indicate abstinence from sexual relations. It means only to be unmarried, particularly if as a result of a religious vow. A married man cannot be celibate, but he may be chaste.'

Word meanings are changing all the time and I'm sure that of Celibacy will one day too.

See also books on word origins