Commentary: Origin of our words offers a fascinating peek into history

  • 0
  • 3 min to read
Dr. Lucas Boyd, Columnist

Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at

For some reason, I have always been interested in words, and not just the words, but where they came from and why they are the way they are.  

We have a rich language. Much of its richness and flavor come from the fact that it has borrowed so much from other tongues and cultures all the way from the ancients to modern-day “made up” words.  

Here are just a few examples.  

Tantalize (v.): It means to tease or torment, especially by exposing to view but keeping out of reach something that is much desired. Its source is a Greek myth. A person named Tantalus did something that angered the gods. His punishment was to stand in a waist-deep pool of inviting water. When he got thirsty, he would bend down to drink, but the water would recede so that it could not be reached.  

Overhead, there were branches bearing delicious fruit. But when he got hungry and reached for it, a wind would come and blow it just out of his reach. Thus, he was “tantalized” for eternity.

Distaff (n.): It is the female side of the family. It comes from the distaff on a spinning wheel, which held in its cleft end the unspun fiber from which thread was spun. The women, of course, did the spinning, hence the designation. The male side was the spear side, because they did the fighting.

Sideburns (n.): This is the facial hair in front of the ears and grown down the side of the face. They are named after Ambrose Burnside, a Civil War general who wore that style of beard. They are sometimes called mutton chops from the shape of that cut of meat.

Draconian (adj.): This designates a law code or set of rules or a penalty of extreme harshness. The word comes from Draco, the Athenian law giver who formulated the city’s first code of laws in 621 B.C. They were so severe that it was said they were written in blood. Later lawgivers produced codes that were much more humane.

Bedlam (n.): This is a place or situation of noisy uproar and confusion. At one time, Bedlam was a mental hospital in London from which the screams and cries of its inmates could be heard day and night and whose name became synonymous with such conditions.

Sabotage (n.,v.): This is any underhanded effort to defeat or to do harm. The word dates to the early days of the industrial revolution in Europe. Spinners and weavers fought against the new water-powered machines that they feared would put them out of work. 

In the Netherlands, workers would jam their wooden shoes into the gears of these machines, putting them out of commission. The wooden shoes were “sabots,” thus the name.

Ostracize (v.): This means to exclude or banish someone from a group. The Athenians believed in democratic government and feared one-man rule. To ensure that an absolute ruler would not come to power, all citizens were given each year the opportunity to name anyone they thought might be gaining too much power or becoming too popular. 

If a person was named on enough ballots, that person had to go into exile for a certain number of years before he could return. Voting was done on shards of pottery or seashells (ostrakons), thus the person was “ostracized.”

Stogy/stogie (n.): This is a long, inexpensive (in other words, cheap) cigar.  During the settlement of the West, goods were moved overland in large Conestoga wagons, pulled by several pairs of horses or mules. 

Most of the drivers liked to smoke, but with more than one rein in each hand, it was impossible to roll a cigarette. So, they smoked cigars, but the small, regular-size cigars did not last long enough. The solution was the over-size cigars that the cigar makers named “Conestogas” for the wagons. Through use, the name was shortened to stogy or stogie, which became a slang term for all cigars.

Snafu (n.): This describes a state of complete confusion and it originated during World War II. Units had to report their situation up the chain of command several times daily. If nothing was going on, the message was supposed to be “situation normal.” No one knows where it started, but somewhere in some unit an unhappy radio operator added some words, reporting “situation normal, all f---ed up.” Others soon picked it up and this became the “normal” report. Then 

someone started using just the first letters of the words and “snafu” was born.

Baltimore chop (n.): This is a baseball term denoting a ball that goes off the bottom of the bat, hits home plate, bounces high into the air and allows the batter to reach first base before it comes down. It’s viewed as a cheap hit. Just why the fine city of Baltimore got saddled with this term is obscure.

Dead man’s hand (n.): This is a poker hand consisting of two pair — aces and eights. This designation comes from the fact that these were the cards Wild Bill Hickok was holding in a saloon poker game in 1876 when he was gunned down.

Weather cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey: Most people think this description of extremely cold temperatures refers to a metal statue of the animal. It does not. It dates to the era of cannon-armed sailing ships. 

To ensure that cannon balls did not roll around and become missiles of destruction, they were stacked in pyramids on triangular trays with indentations for the first layer. These trays were made of brass and called monkeys.  

They were made for the balls to fit exactly. In extremely cold weather, they would shrink, so that the balls would not fit. You knew it was cold when your cannon balls had been frozen off your brass monkey.

And that’s a good phrase to end on.

Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. Contact him at


(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.