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;; Online Etymology Dictionary

Limericks: There Once Was a Blogger from Texas

It’s another Amaze-ing Words Wednesday with a fun with language post! Who doesn’t love a good limerick?

Leprechauns in the
City of Limerick, Ireland

Limericks are five-lined poems with the aabba rhyme scheme in which the 1st, 2nd, and 5th lines are longer and the 3rd and 4th lines form a rhymed couplet. Although poetry with this meter and rhyme appeared centuries earlier, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that such poems were referred to as limericks.

How they got they got the name limerick is a debated issue. Some suggest that it hails from the tavern song, “Will You Come Up to Limerick?” in which drinkers/drunkards made up their own verses, most with bawdy lyrics. However, Arthur Deex, editor of the Limerick Special Interest Group newsletter, makes a better case that the nonsense poems were adopted by Irish taverns, in particular the ones in the town of Limerick. By the late 1800’s, the name stuck to the poems themselves. (See The Assent of the Limerick.)

Edward Lear is the most famous purveyor of the limerick. His Book of Nonsense published in 1861 included 112 limericks, although he did not use that term. Here are a couple of examples of his children’s poetry in limerick form:

There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.

There was an Old Person of Berlin,
Whose form was uncommonly thin;
Till he once, by mistake,
Was mixed up in a cake,
So they baked that Old Man of Berlin.

Lear’s limericks usually began with a person from a place, and that format has been followed by most. (Poor Nantucket.)

Of course, most of us don’t think of children’s poetry when we imagine a limerick. (Once again, poor Nantucket.) Limericks are often a vehicle for suggestive or even offensive poetry (such as the few I found from science fiction author Isaac Asimov). Since I try to keep this blog a mostly PG place, I am going to leave you to hunt down the most shocking limericks yourself if you wish. But here are two examples, the first featuring a military trumpeter:

There was a young bandsman of Dee,
Tried to play with a girl on his knee
But the point of the joke
Is he struck the wrong note
And the wedding’s on Thursday at 3.

There was a young girl named Bianca
Asleep on a ship whilst at anchor,
But awoke with dismay,
When she heard the mate say,
“Let’s hoist up the main sheet and spank her.”


Frankly, if you ask most people whether they like poetry, they would say no. But ask if they enjoy a good limerick, and you might get a different response. There is something about the rhythm of the limerick and ease of the beginning “There once was . . .” that endears it to most. It’s easy to hear the beats of the poem and find something interesting to say.

In fact, the limerick lends itself to many topics. I’ll give it a shot:

There once was a storyteller
Who wrote and wrote in her cellar
Though at times it was weary
She sent query after query
And now she’s a multi-bestseller

Do you enjoy limericks? Do you know any that you could share without blushing? Can you come up with your own limerick below? Have you ever been to Limerick, Ireland and sung a drinking song in a pub?

Can I Make Up a Word?

“I speak of the pompatus of love.”

Welcome to Amaze-ing Words Wednesday! There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe that Steve Miller is super-cool for making up a word -“pompatus” [of love] – and those who think Steve Miller was being silly.

It would be convenient at times to simply make up your own words. For instance, if you are writing a poem or a song, it might help to invent a word to better rhyme with another word. You might need something to rhyme with “angst” (nothing does).

When attempting to avoid cussing (for whatever reason), it might be nice to call someone a “kerpluk,” which you have personally decided means “you dim-witted, selfish, son of a #!*%*.” (If my mom is reading this, that was “son of a gun.”)

Moreover, you may have discovered some item or concept that has yet to be labeled. After all, what do you call that string of dead bugs which gather between your carpet and baseboard? If it happens often to enough people, maybe someone should invent a word for it.

I think the pompatus of love sounds delightful. I don’t know what it means and don’t need to (although The Straight Dope has a good article on its origin). The word is just fun to say and to sing.

Made-up words yet to be officially defined or commonly used are neologisms. The Washington Post hosts neologism contests through The Style Invitational. They invite readers to submit invented words based on some concept and parameters (for instance, using foreign words) and then choose winners from among the entries.

Some winners and runners-up of the contest are featured below:

Cogito ergo bum: Sudden realization of graduating philosophy majors.

Fit accompli: When the screaming 2-year-old finally gets the cookie.

Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

The New York Times also printed a few neologisms in March 2011, including the following words that you might wish to add to your vocabulary:

Centrovert: One who is slightly introvert and slightly extrovert and is thus ideally suited for mediation, negotiation and collaboration.

Disposophobia: A sesquipedalian term for hoarding.

Sheening: To behave like Charlie Sheen – partying, questionable decision-making and public humiliation.

Rice University keeps a Neologisms Database (compiled by ENGL215/LING215 students). Here are some of their entries:

Aberzombie: One who wears only clothing from the Abercrombie clothing store and is viewed as lacking in unique personality or independent taste in style.

Pirattitude: To act like a stereotypical pirate, by singing chanties and engaging in other such activities.

Sweaxy: The feeling of having an attractive glow of good health after exercising.

The University of Pennsylvania maintains a website called the Language Log which also notes neologisms as they appear in our language, such as:

Scrobble: To kidnap or capture, such as media that you shouldn’t be pirating.

Sportspocalypse: The month packed with sports video game releases; a showdown of licensed sports titles.

Additionally, I hear slang terms all of the time which make no sense to me, so I head over to the Urban Dictionary to look them up. These are words which people have made up or heard and then written their own definition for. Top entries as I write this post include:

Carnevoyeur: A vegetarian who derives satisfaction from watching other people eat meat or hearing about the eating of meat.

Chiptease: When you buy a bag of chips thinking that it will be full of chips, but when you open the bag it’s barely full.

Manolescent: A man of any age that shirks adult responsibilities.

Some neologisms have crept into my own vocabulary, such as “staycation”and “cringeworthy.” Yet I want to invent my own word. Something filled with meaning, beneficial to humankind, and lasting in its impact (Shakespeare coined words, you know). Living with three guys (hubby and two sons), I believe I’ve come up with a few good ones:

Legonavigate: To pick out a path and walk around Legos strewn across the floor in an effort to keep from stepping on those building blocks and cursing the Danes. “I had to Legonavigate his room to reach the dresser.”

Pyrecreation: Setting things on fire – such as paper, twigs, crackers, Cheetos, etc. – for recreational amusement. “Our sons are engaged in pyrecreation with the fire pit on the back porch.”

Spocktacular: A statement or action revealing the overly analytical nature of a person such that they should be compared to the Star Trek Vulcan. “Dude, that was Spocktacular!”

So what do you think? Which of the above neologisms do you like? What neologisms can you offer? Have you heard any great ones lately?

Town Names: Welcome to Hell

In a former post, I talked about the importance of our own names. But today, I want to highlight fascinating names of towns around the good ol’ U.S.A.  While only two people are typically involved in naming a child, I would think that more input would go into the naming of a town. I don’t know, though, since I’ve never been asked to name a municipality.

Certain town names have clearly been chosen to give you a warm fuzzy feelings and a desire to visit or live there:

Friendly, West Virginia

Magnet, Nebraska

Paradise, Utah

Pleasureville, Kentucky

Welcome, Minnesota

Welcome, North Carolina

What Cheer, Iowa

Other towns, however, aren’t so sure about their appeal:

Accident, Maryland

Boring, Oregon

Cut Off, Louisiana

Embarrass, Wisconsin

Experiment, Georgia

Okay, Oklahoma

Peculiar, Missouri

Uncertain, Texas

Why, Arizona

Whynot, North Carolina

Some towns are named after animals, such as Antelope, Idaho or Swans Island, Maine. But I want to know the stories behind Ducktown, Tennessee; Fishkill, New York; and most especially, Lizard Lick, North Carolina.

Other towns seem to be named after the kind of people you might expect to find residing there. Which of these would you want to live in?

Guys, Tennessee
Idiotville, Oregon
Loco, Oklahoma
Normal, Illinois

Perhaps these towns are named for what one might expect to find there:

Hygiene, Colorado
Jackpot, Nevada
Tightwad, Missouri
Yellville, Arkansas

Some towns don’t have names at all, but numbers:

Hundred, West Virginia
Ninety Six, South Carolina
Village Eight, Hawaii

A few towns changed their names when a company offered some perk. The most widely known is Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. T or C, as it is often called, changed from Hot Springs in 1950 when Ralph Edwards, host of the radio show Truth or Consequences, asked a town in America to rename in celebration of the game show’s tenth anniversary.

The town of Clark, Texas renamed itself DISH, Texas in 2005 in exchange for all town residents receiving free basic television service for ten years and a free DVR from Dish Network. And Halfway, Oregon was temporarily named, Oregon, for which it received computers and $110,000 from the company. It has since reverted to Halfway.

Some towns seem inappropriately named, like Unalaska, Alaska; Beach, North Dakota; and Hurricane, Utah. Do they understand where they live?

And some towns are downright scary. There is War, West Virginia and Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Moreover, who wants to drive into a town with the sign “Welcome to Hell”? And yet, there is Hell, Michigan.

More frightening to me is Roachdale, Indiana. You couldn’t pay me enough to live in a place named after roaches! If enough of them occupy the area to determine the town’s name, I’m packing up and moving to Humansville, Missouri – where presumably we have a chance against those nasty exoskeletal creatures.

Finally, here are two of my Texas favorites:  Cut and Shoot and Gun Barrel City.


For those towns that simply cannot come up with an appropriate label, they could take a page from a town in Tennessee called Nameless.

What’s the most strangely named town you’ve visited? What unusually named towns are in your state? Where did your town get its name?

Wednesday Words: Euphemistically Speaking

When someone dies, we often say something like, “We lost Uncle Eddie.” In my quirky little mind, I always think, Lost? Like our car keys, an umbrella, or what? If you lose something, you look for it. But we aren’t looking for Uncle Eddie. We know where he is. And we aren’t going to reach between the couch cushions and recover his soul like last week’s change. But saying that we lost someone sounds so much better than saying they died. It’s a euphemism.

What other popular euphemisms are there? There are plenty when it comes to death: passed on, kicked the bucket, no longer with us, etc. But other topics are also too sensitive for us to use frank wording to express our thoughts. How about the following?

Assisted living facility – Nursing homes, or old folks’ homes, had a bad reputation, so these places needed a better moniker for their business. Assisted living facility at least conveys what happens there, but the phrase doesn’t roll off one’s tongue.

Correctional Facility?

Correctional facility – If you’ve been saying that your cousin is in a correctional facility, face it: He’s in jail, prison, the slammer. We all hope that the experience corrects whatever was askew to begin with that landed him in jail, but regardless, he’s locked up like Tweety Bird in a cage.

Electronic surveillance – It’s spying with a camera or bug, plain and simple.

Esthetician– Waxing someone’s nether regions is a hot job these days (no pun intended). I suppose calling your personal hair-yanker an esthetician is preferable to other options, like Follicle Remover, Hair Hijacker, or whatever. I don’t what it should be called, but somehow “esthetician” makes it sound much nicer.

Exotic dancer – It’s not that exotic really. You can find strippers just about anywhere. I’ve never visited a strip club, but my understanding is that their dancing ability also varies in its quality, so dancer isn’t necessarily an accurate term either.

Indisposed– If you call someone and receive the message that he/she is “indisposed,” you might hear the flush in the background soon after. But it is a whole lot better than some of the terms I heard boys call it back in junior high. And we use other euphemisms as well like “using the bathroom,” “taking care of business,” “answering nature’s call,” etc.

Laid off – This euphemism can join “let go” and “downsized,” along with the ridiculous “right-sized” term, to express that your company fired you. Getting fired stinks, and changing its name doesn’t help the person without the job. It just makes the company feel less guilty for kicking an employee out the door.

Over the hill – Exactly when this proverbial hill peaks, I’m not sure. (If you say 40, I’m crawling through the internet, finding you, and smacking you upside the head.) But at some point, when you are truly old, you have to call it something. I plan to call it “chronologically misrepresented” – as in my age won’t indicate how young I really am.

Preowned– Your car is USED. If you can’t say that aloud, buy a new one.

Sanitary landfill – Growing up, we called it the dump. I don’t know what’s so sanitary about it. It’s refuse, trash, waste – all heaped in a pile on some discarded piece of land.

Genesis: “Illegal Allien”

Undocumented worker – When did this term overtake “illegal alien”? I don’t think the Genesis song would sound nearly as good with “It’s no fun being an undocumented worker.” Fun doesn’t even rhyme with that! Immigration policy aside (and I do not discuss politics here!), the term isn’t exactly clear who we are talking about.

What other euphemisms have you noticed? Which ones do you think are appropriate?Which ones seem completely ridiculous? Do you have any euphemisms to suggest? Why do you think we use euphemisms, instead of saying what we really mean?


Wednesday Words: Rock Band Names

If you want to have a lot of fun with words, learn to play a musical instrument, form a band, and then name it! One of the interview questions I want asked of bands is how they chose their name. Were they inspired by a person, a place, or a thing? Did they choose it out of a hat or consider the possibility for hours on end before arriving at their moniker? Did one person name it or did all of them agree?

Some band names are rather straightforward – like Heart, Train, and Alabama. Others are a mouthful like Credence Clearwater Revival or Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Here are a few curious rock band names and the origin of those names:

10,000 Maniacs– Originally The Burn Victims, the band changed its name to 10,000 Maniacs based on the low-budget flick Two Thousand Maniacs. According to one source, Steven Gustafson said none of them had seen the 1964 horror movie and thought the title was 10,000 Maniacs.

ABBA – ABBA is an acryonym for its four members: Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Ani-Frid. It’s catchy and means “father” in Aramaic.

Butthole Surfers– I hate this band name, but you do wonder where they got it. It’s based on an early song they did with the same title. The band called themselves many irreverent or even offensive names and eventually stuck with this one.

Def Leppard –Originally called the Atomic Mass, Joe Elliott joined the band as vocalist and suggested changing the name to Deaf Leopard – which he had come up with at school. Joe also changed the spelling to match up with Led Zeppelin’s name – you know, misspelling.

Duran Duran –This 1980s band was named after the villain in the movie Barbarella, starring a scantily-dressed Jane Fonda. Dr. Durand Durand is the inventor of the Positronic Ray. I have no idea what happened to the extra D’s when the band adopted his name.

Foo Fighters– World War II pilots from the United States War described anomalous balls of light they saw flying alongside them at high altitudes as “Foo Fighters,” based on the Smokey Stover comic strip phrase, “Where there’s Foo, there’s fire.” So essentially, the Foo Fighters are named after UFOs.

Hootie & the Blowfish – Hootie & the Blowfish were named after two friends of lead singer Darius Rucker – one of whom looked like an owl and the other who had fat cheeks.

Led Zeppelin– When Jimmy Page formed the band, Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer, commented that the band would go down “like a lead balloon.” Band member John Entwhistle remarked that it would be more like a “lead zeppelin.” The spelling of the first word was changed, presumably to prevent anyone from mispronouncing it “leed.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd– Lynyrd Skynyrd is a butchering of the name Leonard Skinner, a gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida, where three of the band members attended. Apparently, Mr. Skinner did not appreciate long hair and sent each of these boys to the principal, resulting in their suspension. All those y’s were used to avoid the legal trouble involved with matching his name too closely.

Mr. Mister –Why the two misters? It was an inside joke about the Weather Report’s album Mr. Gone ,in which there are references to Mister This and Mister That. Then it simply became Mr. Mister.

Nickelback –Thank Starbucks for this one. Before stardom, band member Mike Kroeger worked at the local coffee shop. Whenever a customer ordered a $1.45 coffee and handed over $1.50, he had to give them a nickel back.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys chose their name by combining various words Andy had written out as part of song ideas and lyrics.

Pink Floyd –Pink Anderson and Floyd Council were two blues men who inspired founding member Syd Barrett.

Smashing Pumpkins– Seriously, I could not get a straight answer on this one. The band has given various responses to the question, none of them making any more sense than the “Smashing Pumpkins” moniker itself. Does anybody out there know?

The Grateful Dead– Originally called the Warlocks, that name was being used by another band also. Presumably, Jerry Garcia found the phrase “grateful dead” in a dictionary one night, which refers to a spirit who is thankful to a living person who has helped him find peace. From the Egyptian Book of the Dead: “Amidst the sullen darkness, there shown a solitary light. For it is known ‘neath the sands of the pharaohs that deep in the land of night, the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead.”

Thompson Twins– Growing up, I could never figure this one out since there were three of them and no one was a twin. But the band is named after Thompson and Thomson, Scotland Yard detectives in a Belgian comic bookseries called The Adventures of Tin-Tin. Though not related,the two fictional characters are at times referred to as twins.

Three Dog Night– Vocalist Danny Hutton’s girlfriend saw a documentary on indigenous Australians who used the expression “three dog night” to refer to a night so cold, one needed to sleep with three dogs to stay warm. Appropriately, the band had three lead singers.

ZZ Top – It has been theorized that they were named after two brands of cigarette rolling papers – Zig Zag and Top. However, guitarist Billy Gibbons stated that it was a combination of blues men Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King which led him to ZZ King, and then – figuring that B.B. King was on top – ZZ Top.

What band names do you like? Have you ever considered what you would name a band? Do you like knowing the origin of band names? Be sure to also check out Erin Brambilla’s post on What Would You Name Your Punk Band? with a link to a band name generator.