Sunday, September 23, 2012


Ciao! You probably know this as a friendly Italian greeting, which it is, but did you know it comes from the Italian word schiavo, meaning "I am your slave"?

We use words every day, but do we really understand what they mean? What about all those clichés (that I can never seam to get right)? They have some interesting histories as well...

Clichés and stereotype share their origin. Back in the days of the printing press, a plate would be cast with several words that were frequently used together. These were called clichés, or stereotypes, and eventually cast their name onto the ready-made phrases or libels.

Chubby doesn't come from any sweet picture of a plump rosy-cheeked cherub, but a type of carp common in England and northern Europe. The portly fish possesses thick round cheeks and the name "chub" that gave us the word.

The supposed archaic humans got their name from the Neander Valley (the Neander Thal) in Germany. The valley was named after a learned churchman and poet, Joachim C. Neander, whose name was changed from Neuman. So, traced all the way back, Neaderthal means "the man from the valley of the new man [the man of the future]." A far cry from the primitive and brutal man that it means today.

There's a Scandinavian tradition that says swallows hovered over the Cross crying Svala! Svala! ( Console! Console!) hence their name Svalw, the bird of consolation.

To hobnob with someone is to be very close friends with them. Comes from hob "give" and nob "take"which derive from anglo-Saxon hab and nab meaning the same. To hobnob involves giving and taking, which has always been the way of good friends.

Nail one's colors to the mast
This expression is from crews on warships often nailed their ships flag to the mast to signify that they would never surrender and would fight to the last man.

Here's for all you Frisbee lovers: The disk is said to be named after the disposible metal pie plates made by the Frisbee Pie Company. Yale students began throwing them around and spawned the well known game.

Hubbub is believed to come from an ancient Irish war cry "abu! abu!" repeated again and again as hordes of warriors ran into battle.

Sabotage essentially is the damage done to machines by wooden shoes, a sabot being a shoe carved out of a singe piece of wood. Apparently the working class protested the coming of mechanical labor, fearing it would deprive them of work. So they would throw their shoes into the machinery in protest. Sabotage is still considered valid by some radical labor unions as a way to insure fair treatment.

Parting shot or Parthian shot
Variations on the phrase: 
Parthinian glance - a very keen backward glance
Firing a Parthinian arrow - getting in the last word in an argument
Some of these phrases were new to me, but we've all heard of a "parting shot". Well, the Parthian soldiers were famed as deadly mounted archers. These mail-clad horsemen would ride furiously to the attack, pour a shower of arrows on their enemies and then evade any closer action by rapid flight, withdrawing according to plan and firing their shafts backwards from thir horses while galloping away. Such tactics made Partia, located in what is now northwest Iran, a world power that even defeated the Romans under Mark Antony when he attempted to invade their country in 36 B.C.