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Word Histories


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Words, like people, have a past, and as with people, some words have more interesting stories than others. Knowing a word's history can help you remember it and incorporate it into your daily speech. The following ten words have especially intriguing backgrounds. Read through the histories.

1. bootlegger (b»t"leg'*r) Originally, a "bootlegger" was a person who smuggled outlawed alcoholic liquor in the tops of his tall boots. Today the term is used to mean someone who unlawfully makes, sells, or transports alcoholic beverages without registration or payment of taxes.

Dozens of bootleg copies of the British special are selling on internet auction site eBay.

2. bugbear (bug"bâr') The word refers to a source of fears, often groundless. It comes from a Welsh legend about a goblin in the shape of a bear that ate up naughty children.

Ex: Broken links, disabled back buttons, the Flash intro - everybody has a web bugbear.

3. fiasco (fe as"ko) "Fiasco" is the Italian word for flask or bottle. How it came to mean a complete and ignominious failure is obscure. One theory suggests that Venetian glassblowers set aside fine glass with flaws to make into common bottles.

4. jackanapes (jak"* naps') Today the word is used to describe an impertinent, presumptuous young man; a whippersnapper. Although its precise origin is uncertain, we know that the term was first used as an uncomplimentary nickname for William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who was murdered in 1450. His badge was an ape's clog and chain. In a poem of the time, Suffolk was called "the Ape-clogge," and later referred to as an ape called "Jack Napes."

5. jeroboam (jer'* bo"*m) We now use the term "jeroboam" to refer to a wine bottle having a capacity of about three liters. Historically, Jeroboam was the first king of the Biblical kingdom of Israel, described in I Kings 11:28 as "a mighty man of valor," who, three verses later, "made Israel to sin." Some authorities trace the origin of today's usage to the king, reasoning that since an oversized bottle of wine can cause sin, it too is a jeroboam.

Ex: Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there.

6. nonplus (non plus", non"plus) The word "nonplus" means to make utterly perplexed, to puzzle completely. The original Latin phrase was "non plus ultra," meaning no more beyond.

7. quisling (kwiz"ling) This term refers to a traitor, a person who betrays his or her own country by aiding an enemy and often serving later in a puppet government. It is directly derived from the name of Vidkun Quisling (1887–1945), a Norwegian army officer turned fascist who collaborated with the Nazis early in World War II.

8. bowdlerize (bod"l* riz', boud"-) In 1818, Scottish physician Dr. Thomas Bowdler published a new edition of Shakespeare's works. The value of his edition, he stated, lay in the fact that he had edited it so that all "words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud to the family." Good intentions aside, he found himself being held up to ridicule. From his name is derived the word "bowdlerize," meaning to expurgate a literary text in a prudish manner.

9. boycott (boi"kot) In an attempt to break the stranglehold of Ireland's absentee landlords, Charles Stewart Parnell advocated in 1880 that anyone who took over land from which a tenant had been evicted for nonpayment of rent should be punished "by isolating him from his kind as if he was a leper of old." The most famous application of Parnell's words occurred soon after on the estate of the Earl of Erne. Unable to pay their rents, the earl's tenants suggested a lower scale, but the manager of the estate, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, would not accept the reduction. In retaliation, the tenants applied the measures proposed by Parnell, not only refusing to gather crops and run the estate, but also intercepting Boycott's mail and food, humiliating him in the street, and threatening his life. Their treatment of Boycott became so famous that within a few months the newspapers were using his name to identify any such nonviolent coercive practices. Today "boycott" means to join together in abstaining from, or preventing dealings with, as a protest.

10. chauvinism (sho"v* niz'*m) One of Napoleon's most dedicated soldiers, Nicolas Chauvin was wounded seventeen times fighting for his emperor. After he retired from the army, he spoke so incessantly of the majestic glory of his leader and the greatness of France that he became a laughingstock. In 1831, his name was used for a character in a play who was an almost idolatrous worshiper of Napoleon. The word "chauvin" became associated with this type of extreme hero worship and exaggerated patriotism. Today we use the term "chauvinism" to refer to zealous and belligerent nationalism.



Sample Usage

1) The big bugbear of cheap horns has always been the accuracy of the action.

2) Joy Division's performance can be found on bootleg recordings.

3) Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there.

4)USAID and RTI is recruiting and mobilizing Iraqi quislings who it hopes will push for and defend preferred US policies.

5) Sinclair is a stuck-up jackanapes, and it would do me good to kick him.


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