Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

whole nine yards, the

Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The phrase doesn’t have one particular origin, nor does it represent one particular metaphor. Instead, it seems to have evolved from a sense of yard meaning a vague quantity of something. Later, the words full or whole were attached to it, and even later it was quantified by the numbers six and nine, with the whole nine yards eventually winning out and becoming the canonical form. Use of the full phrase was for a long time restricted to the American Midwest, in particular to the region around the Kentucky-Indiana border, before breaking out into general American parlance in the middle of the twentieth century.

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gaffe

A gaffe is a mistake, a blunder, especially a verbal faux pas made by a politician. The word is a borrowing from the French, but its English use may been influenced by a Scots word as well as by a Vaudeville method of removing a floundering performer from the stage. So the origin is a bit more complex than a straightforward borrowing.

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testilying

Testilying is a blend of testify and lying and refers to someone, especially a police officer, committing perjury. It seems to have first arisen within the ranks of the New York City police department in the early 1990s. The term came into the public consciousness as a result of a 1994 investigation into corruption in that department.

The earliest citation I have found is from a 22 April 1994 New York Times article:

New York City police officers often make false arrests, tamper with evidence and commit perjury on the witness stand [...] And it is prevalent enough in the department that it has its own nickname: “testilying.”


Source:

Sexton, Joe. “‘New York Police Often Lie Under Oath, Report Says.” New York Times, 22 April 1994, A1.

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polycule

Polycule is a relatively new word from the world of polyamory. A blend of poly[amory] and [mole]cule, it refers to a graphical or physical model of a polyamorous relationship, and by extension a name for the group of people in that relationship.

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butler

A butler is the chief servant in a household. The word comes to us from Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England following the Norman Conquest. The Anglo-Norman word was buteiller, a cup-bearer or servant who served wine. The word ultimately comes from the medieval Latin buticularius. It is cognate with the word bottle, which is from the Anglo-Norman botel and the medieval Latin buticula

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saved by the bell

Saved by the bell, which the OED defines as “to be rescued from a difficult situation,” comes to us, as should be no surprise, from the world of boxing. It originally and quite literally referred to a boxer who was about to be beaten into submission only to have the bell ring, signaling the end of round. The origin is so obvious that it shouldn’t require evidence, but there is an absurd-on-its-face explanation that the phrase comes from devices rigged onto coffins that those buried alive could ring if they woke up after having been buried. This myth is pernicious and is repeated by many who should know better.

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Bechdel test

The Bechdel test is an informal way to determine whether a film or TV show exhibits bias against women in the female characters it presents. It’s named for its inventor, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and is sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace test, including Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, whom Bechdel credits with the idea. The test is in three parts:

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incel

Incel is a portmanteau of involuntary celibate, referring to a person, usually a heterosexual man, who desires a sexual or romantic partner but is unable to find one. The term arose as a self-identifier and spawned a virtual subculture as those people reached out for support on the internet. But over the years that subculture and the term itself morphed into one associated with violent misogyny. Ironically, however, the movement was started and the term incel was coined by a bisexual woman.

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cotton-picking, cotton-picker

Cotton-picking is a difficult adjective. On the one hand its origin is rooted in a metaphor for slavery in the American South, and as such carries racist connotations with it. But on the other hand, it’s often used without any racist intent at all. So while someone might use it innocently, that person’s audience might legitimately misinterpret the speaker’s intent.

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