6 Ways to Say “You Spineless Weakling”

For my Truly Colorful Idioms post, I looked at the origins of words and phrases which included color in them. Among those was “yellow-belly” – a term meaning coward. Writer Catie Rhodes commented that she wondered where we got the words “sissy” and “nancy” in reference to cowardly or weak people. What a great post idea!

So for today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, please step in between the hedges and let’s go hunt down 6 different ways to say, “You spineless weakling!”

Sissy. Sissy is a familiar term for a sister. I still hear it in the south from time to time (no idea about other regions). In 1887, “sissy” was applied to an effeminate man: “Look and walk too much like sissies to do much fightin’.” (The Lantern, August 27, 1887) – Oxford English Dictionary. This follows the usual strategy of insulting a guy by calling him a girl.

Nancy. There are a few theories here. First, Miss Nancy was an adjective in the 19th century meaning effeminate. It may have come from the early 18th century actress Miss Anne Oldfield (Nancy is a nickname for Anne). Miss Oldfield used her dramatic skills and feminine wiles to sustain a highly successful acting career.

Second, Nancy Dawson was a famous 18th century prostitute about whom the sailors wrote a song that went something like this:
Of all the girls in our town
The red, the black, the fair, the brown
That dance and prance it up and down
There’s none like Nancy Dawson.

Third, the word “nancy” also referred to one’s posterior.

By 1958, one or more of these got applied as “nancy boy” to an effeminate homosexual male. The reference appears in British author Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar: “All he said with sudden petulance was ‘I can’t stand that Toto fellow. He’s an open nancy-boy.'” It is now typically shortened to simply “nancy” to refer to a weak male who may be considered effeminate.

Wimp. Some claim that “wimp” derived from the character J. Wellington Wimpy in the Popeye comic strip, who was known for his timidity and whining. However, the word was used in 1920 in George Ade’s Handmade Fables: “Next day he sought out the dejected Wimp who was hungering for the Eastern Hemisphere” and used several other times in that decade. Meanwhile, Popeye made his first appearance in 1929 and didn’t gain ground until the 1930s. The word “wimp” likely derived from “whimper” – which is what one would assume a coward or weakling does in the face of danger.

Wuss. Well, this is what I get for never having seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). I had no idea where this word came from. Apparently, “wuss” was a term spoken by character Mike Damone in the movie: “You are a wuss: part wimp, and part pussy.” (For the record, I hate that p word.)

Lily Liver. A healthy liver is a dark reddish-brown. The ancient Greeks used to sacrifice an animal the night before a battle; if the animal’s liver was red and full of blood, they considered that a good omen; if it was pale and lily-colored, that was an indication of bad things to come. Likewise, they figured that a coward had a pale liver too. In fact, in the Middle Ages, it appears that some believed the liver to be the seat of courage or passion. The idea of a “lily liver” was popularized by Shakespeare in Macbeth (1605): “Go prick thy face and over-red thy fear, thou lily-livered boy.” (Shakespeare also wrote in The Merchant of Venice: “How many cowards . . . have livers as white as milk.”)

Pansy. First used in 1929, “pansy” refers to a homosexual man. I did not find a definitive source, but it appears that D.H. Lawrence’s poetry collection titled Pansies was the origin of this word. Some of the poems referred to homosexual feelings and acts, and the collection was purged by the publisher of its most controversial material. Some suggest that Lawrence used the word “pansies” from the French word “panser” which means to bandage or bind up; others that he used the Middle English “pancy” from the French “pensee” which means a thought or remembrance. He may have intended a double-meaning. The word “pansy,” however, got a lot of use in the Pansy Craze of the 1920s and 1930s in which gay stage performers had an underground popularity surge.

The usage I’m more familiar with is perhaps best displayed with a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:


“Come on, ya pansy!” – Black Knight

So what other slang words do you know that mean weak or cowardly? (Why do you think they are so often applied to men?) Why do we come up with so many ways to insult others?

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary; Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack; Shakespeare’s Words, Word Wizard; godfreydykes.info; Centretruths Digital Literature; Dissertation by Christine Courtland Mather; Word Detective; Indiana University Authors; Wikipedia (I double-check information from this site); Word Origins Discussion Forum; Online Encyclopedia

Truly Colorful Idioms

Idioms are one of my favorite things to look up and discover their origins. Idioms are phrases or sayings which have an underlying and generally understood meaning apart from the literal words themselves. For instance, “dead as a doornail” or “break a leg.”

Curiously, we have quite a few idioms which revolve around COLOR. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, we’ll navigate a labyrinth of phrases that include colors.

Blackmail. The word “mail” here is the old Scottish word for rent (which actually comes from Old Norse “mal” meaning contract). In the 1600s tenants paid their rent in silver coins known as “white money.” However, the Highland clan chiefs began threatening tenants with violence if they didn’t pay for “protection.” This additional rent soon became known as “black rent” or “black mail” – the opposite of rent paid on the up-and-up. During the 1900s its meaning was extended to the act of demanding money to protect another’s secrets.

In the pink. The phrase did not originate from the color itself. Its first use is found in Romeo & Juliet (1597), as Mercurio states, “Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie.” In this instance and several others, “pinke” meant tip-top, the highest, the peak. Perhaps using the word “pink” to indicate excellence derived from Queen Elizabeth I’s admiration of Dianthus flowers, commonly called Pinks. These flowers are both pink in hue and edged like pinking shears. So to be “in the pink” is to be in the most excellent condition possible.

Green with envy. According to The Phrase Finder, “the Greeks believed that jealousy was accompanied by an overproduction of bile, lending a pallid green cast to the victim.” I have yet to see anyone with an actual green complexion when envy strikes, but it is an effective saying.

Caught red-handed. The phrase “caught red-handed” is first seen in English novelist George Alfred Lawrence’s Guy Livingstone in which the presence of stolen goods caused the character to say, “we were caught red-handed.” In fact, the word “redhand” or “red-handed” had been used since the 15th century and originated in Scotland. It simply refers to having blood on one’s hands, which was proof of involvement in a killing.

Once in a blue moon. While there are a couple of other possible explanations, I’m going with a more commonly accepted one. In 1819, The Maine Farmers Almanac listed dates of “blue moons.” Various moon phrases were given names (e.g., “harvest moon”), and “blue moons” occurred in those years when there were 13 moon cycles rather than the typical 12. The extra moons were called blue. They don’t happen often, of course; thus, “once in a blue moon.”

Paint the town red. In our town, the D.A.R.E. drug awareness program for school is accompanied by an encouragement to “paint the town red” with red ribbons everywhere. However, the theories on where this phrase came from are hardly as innocent. One suggestion is that in 1837 the Marquis of Weatherford and his friends went on a spree in the town of Melton Mowbray and, among other misdeeds, painted it red. Although the event itself took place, no references to red painting were recorded at that time.

Another option comes from The New York Times in 1883 when a reporter wrote: “Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk… Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to ‘paint the town red’.” Perhaps the drunkenness is related to a red flush on one’s skin. This still doesn’t explain the phrase’s origin.

A final suggestion was that the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan was painted pink in 1853 in honor of a visit from Prince Albert. But then, why paint the town red when the building was painted pink?

Red itself often refers to blood, so perhaps the original meaning was to have such a violent spree that blood was spilled around the town. I think I’ll opt for the nice ribbons instead.

Red Herring. A red herring is a misleading clue, usually in a mystery. In the 18th and 19th centuries, herring was common in Britain. This fish was preserved by salting and smoking, which resulted in a deep brownish red color and a strong smell. Early animal-lovers in the 1800s wanting to preserve the fox could throw hounds off the hunt with red herrings.

Tickled pink. The word “tickled” here doesn’t mean to touch someone in a way that makes them laugh; it’s an older usage which means to give pleasure. “Tickled pink” is to be so pleased that you appear pink (as when blood rushes to the skin’s surface). Its earliest written reference was in 1910 in The Daily Review, an Illinois newspaper: “Grover Laudermilk was tickled pink over Kinsella’s move in buying him from St. Louis.”

White Elephant. Perhaps you’ve participated in a White Elephant gift exchange, in which you pull out some useless, unwanted item from your home and place it in a pretty gift bag for some other sap. Back when Thailand was Siam, whenever a white elephant was discovered, the king automatically took ownership but not possession. One could not neglect, ride, or work a white elephant, so it was a huge burden to have one. In fact, the king was said to give a white elephant as a special royal gift to those who displeased him. You couldn’t refuse the royal gift, but then you had to take care of said elephant without getting any use from it. Frankly, I’m happy that all of the white elephant gifts I’ve received required no feeding and shoveling.

White knight. In Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, Alice is rescued by the White Knight from the Red Knight. He represents the chess piece of the same name. In the tale he is clumsy, but helps Alice nonetheless. Indeed, the term now simply means “one who comes to the rescue of another” (Merriam-Webster).

Yellow-belly. What the color of one’s stomach has to do with one’s level of courage, I’m not certain. There are several theories. However, the most convincing one involved the Texas revolution. The Wisconsin Enquirer reported in 1842 that “We learn from Capt. Wright, of the N. York, that it is the intention of the Texans to ‘keep dark’ until the Mexicans cross the Colorado, and then give them a San Jacinto fight, with an army from 5000 to 7000 men. God send that they may bayonet every ‘yellow belly’ in the Mexican army.” Was that merely a reference to the skin color of Mexicans? I suspect so. Thankfully, such racist tones have not lingered with the use of the term (that I know of). A “yellow-belly” is simply a coward.

What other color idioms can you think of? Why do you think we use color in our common sayings?

Sources: Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack; The Phrase Finder; Merriam-Webster online; Wikipedia

One more thing: Roni Loren‘s erotic romance novel has debuted! Congrats on her release of Crash Into You.

Merci Beaucoup: Borrowing from the French

One of the great things about English is that we have no compunction about borrowing from anyone else. Our language is a hodge-podge of words from various regions. For today’s Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, I’d like to thank the French for their contribution to the English language by highlighting some words we stole borrowed from them.

Biscuit – Originally taken from the French word “bescuit” meaning twice-baked. I guess a biscuit is twice-baked, somehow. But it isn’t, is it?

Butcher – Taken from the French word “bouchier” which literally means “slaughterer of goats.” The term is also applied to executioners and murderers – whether their victims are goat-like or not.

Cliché – Clicher is presumably the sound of a mold striking molten metal – part of the printing process. A cliché is thus the French word for stereotype, derived from printing jargon. That’s appropriate since writers are perhaps the ones most likely to use clichés.

Curfew – From the French word “coeverfu,” meaning “cover fire.” In medieval times, there was a practice of ringing a bell to signal the time to extinguish hearth fires and prepare for sleep. The signal was in hopes of preventing unintentional conflagrations. Now, it’s primarily a warning to teens to put out the smooching fire and head home.

Garage – Derived from the French verb “garer,” meaning to shelter. Garages were thus automobile stables, or shelters. Nowadays, however, many of us are simply sheltering the excess stuff that won’t fit in our house but we can’t seem to get rid of.

Parliament – From the French word “parlement.” The verb “parler” means to talk in French. (Remember “Parlais vous Francais?”) To this day, parliaments do a whole lot of talking. What else they do is a subject of debate.

Rapport – “Rapporter” in French meant to bring back (Re – back/again, porter – bring). By 1894, this somehow began to apply to a harmonious relationship. Maybe people had good relationships with their porters. I would definitely want to keep things harmonious with the guy who watches over my stuff.

Regret – From “Regreter,” meaning to weep or wail after. “Greter” is likely from the Frankish term for weeping or groaning. I know that every time I eat a calorie-heavy French meal, I experience a bit of regret there.

Résumé – “Resumer” is to sum up. A résumé is an effort to sum up your entire work history on about one page and still get an employer to think you can do it all. Good luck with that.

Sauté – Sauté in French literally means jumped or bounced. Apparently, that refers to how you toss that garlic around in the pan and let in bounce in the oil. I am not a cook, but I have mastered this cooking activity.

Tennis – “Tenetz” was called out by the server to the receiver, and it means “hold, receive, take!” Interestingly, “requette” means palm of the hand, which was the original way of hitting a tennis ball, and it eventually became racquet, that thing you hold in your hand instead. (Personal note: I got to watch Roger Federer play in a tournament in Houston some time ago. Great sport!)

Umpire – “Nonper” is broken down as not (“non”) + equal (“per”). A non-equal here was a third person brought in to arbitrate between two. In French, it became “noumper.” Then the “n” got dropped somewhere along the way. Yada, yada, yada…umpire. Personally, I would have guessed the word umpire meant something like “cockeyed” or “stubborn,” at least when my son is batting.

Unique – From the French “unique.” Actually in Latin, “unicus” means single, or solitary, one. Despite its common use as meaning special or remarkable, “unique” actually means one of a kind.

Le Freak – Okay, this isn’t a French or an English word exactly, but anyone growing up in my era knows what this is. Thank you, Chic, for this French-y tidbit. Here’s the music video (and it’s from a French TV show):

What other French words do you know of that we have happily added to our English dictionary? Do you like that English borrows from other languages?

Sources: WISC-Online; Etymologically Speaking; ManyThings.org; Online Etymology Dictionary

Where Did That Come From? Toponyms

On Amaze-ing Words Wednesday, we enter the sometimes confusing but always intriguing world of the English language. One of the curiosities of language is how words are created and evolve. The study of word origins is etymology, and today’s topic is  toponyms.

What is a toponym? Well, “topo” means place and “nym” means name. A toponym, therefore, is a word that derives from a place. Some familiar ones might be Bohemian (a free spirit, Bohemia); Neanderthal (an intellectually backward man, Neander Valley); and limerick (a five-lined aabba poem, Limerick, Ireland).

But I was surprised to learn certain other words are toponyms. For this post, I must credit John Bemelmans Marciano, author of Toponymity. His book masterfully describes the origins of dozens of toponyms, with a bit of humor thrown into the mix.

Here are a few toponyms and their interesting backgrounds.

Bikini. In 1946, two big things were happening: Americans were conducting atomic tests in the South Pacific, and clothing designers were shrinking swimwear. Jacques Heim designed “the world’s smallest swimsuit” and called it the Atom. Soon after, Frenchman Louis Réard designed a two-piece swimsuit which scandalously exposed the navel and claimed that it split the Atom. The Americans’ nuclear testing had started a few days before at Bikini Atoll, so Réard called his creation the bikini. Since their inception, nuclear bomb explosions have been rare, but bikinis are seen in huge numbers every summer.

Reard hired a stripper to model the first bikini.

Danish. President Woodrow Wilson was a widower. Then he fell in love with Edith Galt and married her in 1915. Their White House wedding was a huge affair, and Danish pastry chef L.C. Klitteng used the event to introduce his country’s pastry to the American public. Soon after, he convinced Manhattan businessman Herman Gertner to begin offering these delectable pastries at his restaurants. Eventually, Gertner got out of the restaurant business and started manufacturing danishes instead. Meanwhile, the Danes call this pastry wienerbrod, or Viennese bread, after those people who taught the Danes how to make it.

Call it what you want, it's delicious.

Hack. Hackney, England was once a smaller village outside London and was well-known for its horses in the Middle Ages. A hackney horse was not bred for work or war or even hunting, but for the mere pleasure of riding. Thus, hackneys became popular for renting, and all rented horses became known as hackneys. Shortened, it became “hack.” When something is rented a lot, however, it tends to get worn out. Thus, the transition of the word “hack” to mean that worn-out, work-for-hire type – which now applies specifically to writers.

There's got to be a hack in there somewhere.

Jeans. Fustian cloth was “the first widely used cotton fabric in Europe,” and it included linen on the base. It was both soft and easily dyed. A cheaper, tougher version of this cloth was made in Genoa and named after the city (“Geane” or “Jeane” in French). Both fustian and denim became popular in America. Having similar uses, their names became confused, or interchangeable. So when denim became the stuff of pants, the name “jeans” stuck.

Levi Strauss, a German immigrant, invented blue jeans.

Morgue. The original Morgue was the dungeon of the Châtelet prison where anonymous corpses were dropped off. Visitors were free to wander around looking for their lost loved ones. The place was named after an archaic French word, morguer – meaning “to stare at questioningly.” Edgar Allen Poe made the name morgue more widely known in his tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Today’s morgues also store the dead and ask family members to identify loved ones; they are all named after the original.

The least disturbing photo of a morgue I found.

Serendipity. Author Horace Walpole invented the word “serendipity,” in a letter he wrote in January 1754. He based it on a fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip,” in which the princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Serendip is the ancient Persian name for Sri Lanka.

There's something you didn't expect.

Spa. The town of Spa, Belgium became known in the 13th century for its hot springs, which were touted as healthy for both bathing and ingesting. The fad of bathing in springs spread, and eventually the English opened a resort at a spring in Yorkshire known as the English Spaw. Why they added the “w”, I don’t know, but it’s gone again. Thankfully, our spas are more than hot springs and include everything from baths to mani-pedis to massage, which are still good for our health, if only our mental health.

Looks relaxing, doesn't it?

Tarantula. Taranto, Italy was once so infested with a particular type of spider that the arachnid became known as a tarantula. However, these were not the tarantulas that we think of – you know, the ones that Indiana Jones and his assistant encounter in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Americans borrowed the name “tarantula” to label the big, furry spiders that most would rather avoid.

That is NOT my hand!

These are just a few toponyms – words that derive from places. I recommend Marciano’s book, Toponymity, if you are interested in etymology. He provides further detail for each of these words and expounds on many more.

What other toponyms do you know? Do you enjoy discovering the origins of words? Do you want to suggest a neologism and coin your own toponym? Go right ahead.

Wednesday Words: Idioms, in a Nutshell

My son begs over and over to do something that I have repeatedly explained is SO NOT going to happen.  Still, he’s in my face with the persistence of a severe case of hiccups and reasoning he’s spent more time developing than a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court.  In frustration, I turn to him and exclaim, “You sound like a broken record!”

Which means almost nothing to the generation that grew up with x-box instead of Atari, cell phones instead of rotary dialers, and MP3 players instead of turntables.  But I hate letting go of the perfect idiom to describe what’s happening.  I suppose my mother had the same problem when she would tell us, “Don’t upset the applecart!” – as if I had received any exposure to a sidewalk fruit seller growing up in suburbia.

I love idioms.  They create word pictures for what’s happening.  They refer back to memories (like the continuous skipping of a record as the needle stuck against a scratch on the vinyl).  They relate something new to something familiar.

Of course, they can be overused.  They can become clichés rather than enlightening descriptions.  Describing a stormy day as “raining cats and dogs” is not particularly creative.

Also, idioms can be misunderstood.  For instance, if you’re writing a middle grade novel and say, “he has a chip on his shoulder,” does the reader get the point or picture a Pringle balanced precariously?

Some idioms make no sense, as they seem to be the opposite of what they are trying to convey.  How about “she drinks like a fish”?  Or “he works like a dog”?  And who can explain “head over heels”?  Isn’t my head always over my heels?

There are also idioms that we know the meaning of, but few rarely know why it means that.  Do you know where the phrase “Beyond the pale” comes from?  Apparently, “pale” is an obsolete word for a stake (think “impale”).  “Beyond the pale” means outside a safe, staked-in area.  How about “the proof is in the pudding?” Am I looking for geometry logic in my tapioca? Fingerprints in the banana pudding?  No, the original phrase was “All the proof of a pudding is in the eating,” and it was coined at a time when pudding was more like sausage that apparently could be fatal if improperly prepared; you knew it was safe to eat once you ate it.

But idioms convey rich meaning when used well.  For instance, rather than talk about that person who rides in your car and gives a play-by-play critique of your driving, it’s easier to just call him a “back seat driver.”  Or to describe trying to meet your writing deadline in a frenzied panic as running around “like a chicken with its head cut off”!

Idioms can also be varied.  For instance, I had a friend who never stated her opposition to an action with the hackneyed “over my dead body.”  She spiced it up and proclaimed, “Over my flopping-on-the-ground dead body!”  (She was also known for the phrase, “You’re jumping on my last exposed nerve!”)

Conversationally, idioms are great communicators.  While writing, they have to be chosen carefully and applied sparingly.  Perhaps you can introduce your own idiom into the common language.  Other authors have.  That’s why we refer to a grinner as “smiling like a Cheshire cat.”

What are your favorite idioms?  Which idioms do you think are overused?  Which ones make no sense to you?  Have you come up with your own perfect comparison that should become common usage?

Wednesday Words: Sesquipedalianism

I love long, descriptive words that hint at their meaning.  Serendipity is surprisingly delightful every time it rolls off my tongue.  The word tentacles seems to reach and encircle me.  Rambunctious has a pop in the middle of the word that seems energetic and ornery at the same time.  Effervescent sounds hissing and bubbly.

But perhaps my favorite example is the word sesquipedalianism – which means the use of long words.  Isn’t that grand?!  I’ve known people who are sesquipedalians (given to the use of long words), including my husband at times.  There is something intriguing about a person who can insert the perfect, arcane four-syllable word whenever a situation calls for it.  Plenty of authors are in favor of peppering their writing with tongue-twisting words of great length.  I’ve read them; haven’t you?

I don’t know when I could possibly interject the word sesquipedalianism into a novel, but I await that golden opportunity.  Maybe I’ll create a character who uses long, esoteric words excessively and have another character quip about his rampant sesquipedalianism.   Perhaps I’ll babble on and on in a novel myself and refer to the narrator’s sesquipedalianism.  Someday, though, somehow, someone in my novels will display sesquipedalism.  (Perhaps I’m doing it already.)

In case you’re wondering about the word’s etymology, “sesqui” means one-and-a-half and “ped,” of course, means “foot.”   Thus, the use of words over a foot-and-a-half long!

In reality, of course, most writing should be far more accessible.  The trick is to make what the narrator and characters say seem natural, effortless.  A well-placed, multisyllabic word can be appropriate.  But C.S. Lewis, replying to a letter from a child, advised, “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long vague one.  Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”  Soon after, he added, “Don’t use words too big for the subject.  Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”(Letters to Children, p. 64.)

I agree.  In fact, it would be awful to talk about serendipity when something is only slightly surprising or nice.  Or to constantly refer to my children as rambunctious when they rarely run that wild.  In fact, I have yet to find a perfect spot for my word sesquipedalianism.  I have opted instead for relatively average words of average length.  I hope that makes my writing more readable.

Still, one of these days, the perfect circumstance will arise, and I will happily type sesquipedalianism on a stark white screen.  Okay, not simply on this blog, but in a book.  Won’t that be serendipitous?

What are some of your favorite one-and-a-half foot words?

Round of Words in 80 Days Update:  1,392 of 5,000 words written, 64 of 186 pages edited, and two sick kids back at school.  Okay, that last one wasn’t a write goal, but now that they are well, I can write even more!