A Fall of Leaves

falling leaves

The words “autumn” and “fall” meaning the season that begins today in the Northern Hemisphere both originated in Britain, but one is more commonly used there while the other is more common in America. By the mid-1800s, “fall” was considered to be the  American season by lexicographers.

Autumn is the older word. It came into English in the 1300s from the Latin word autumnus.

At one time there was an intermediary season preceding our autumn that was called “harvest.” It seems that autumn came into usage to distinguish between the time when one harvests crops and the actual crop harvest itself.

Writers, especially poets, wrote about the seasonal colors of this time and the phrase “the fall of the leaves” came into more common usage. That phrase was shortened sometime in the 1600s to “fall.” This coincides with English moving across the ocean with explorers and settlers to the New World. But both words must have been used in the New World as they were in Britain because “fall” for the season doesn’t appear until 1755 when Samuel Johnson added it to his Dictionary of the English Language.

Fall is still occasionally used in countries where British English is spoken, but more likely in phrases, like “spring and fall.” American though I may be, I prefer autumn, since it is used to mark the Autumnal Equinox.


This post originally appeared on Why Name It That?

I Am Not a Pluviophile


I like words. I like learning about new words. I write on another website about the origins (etymologies) of words and phrases and names.

The past few weeks have been very rainy here in Paradelle. It was said that “April showers bring May flowers,” but the rain continued into May and the flowers came more slowly and hung their wet heads.

I discovered the word “pluviophile” this past week. A pluviophile is a person who loves rain. It comes from the Latin word “pluvial,” which means rain, and “phile,” which denotes a thing or a person.

Pluviophiles find joy and peace in a rainy day. I don’t I qualify as one, but there are times when I can love rain. Watching a gentle rain through a window and being warm and dry inside is very pleasant. But I suppose that is not true pluviophile love. It has been a long time since I was a kid who loved running outside in the rain, especially in a summer shower.

I don’t love the flooding rains that wash out my garden or leak into my basement. In fact, I more often dislike rain. But then I see it soak and refresh my vegetable garden and rinse the pollen off the world. And when the sun comes out, there are tiny prisms on leaves and maybe even a rainbow.

The pluviophiles will not accept me as one of them because I’m not with them all the time, but I can appreciate their attraction.

Pluviophiles seem to like to make short films about rain. I prefer to just hear the rain, but if the rain needs a soundtrack, then maybe it is some Erik Satie coming from the next room that is filled with umbrellas.

Lost Words of the Season

This is a topic that I am more likely to write about on my word origins blog: words of the winter season that seem to have gotten lost over the years. An article on the quite wonderful mentalfloss.com website calls a group of words “obsolete Christmas words,” but I think most of them are more winter season words. Because they are English (Modern, Middle or Old) and German, they tend to be associated with the Yule or Christmas season.

I probably won’t be drinking wassail this month. That is a beverage of hot mulled cider, drunk traditionally as an integral part of wassailing, which was a Medieval Christmastide English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year. (I may very well down a few hard ciders though, so hopefully that will please the apple gods.) Wassail probably comes from a Germanic phrase meaning “good health” and was a greeting.

One word that is totally new to me comes from Latin. You can say that it looks ninguid outside when the landscape is snow-covered.

You all know that to hibernate means sleeping throughout the entire winter. It is something animals do – not people, though some of us seem to hibernate. But some of you probably do hiemate (which my spellcheck is not happy with) which means to spend winter somewhere.

Actually, searching online for hiernate turned up nothing, so I kind of wonder about the validity of these words. Are they so lost that even Google can’t find them? For example, doesn’t the term “yule-hole” seem fake or very modern? It supposedly means the hole you need to move your belt to after you’ve eaten a massive meal. And yet, going back to the 1500s, the terms belly-cheer or belly-timber was used for fine food and somewhat gluttonous eating that may occur in winter and around holiday celebrations from Thanksgiving through New Year’s and into those stay-at-home days of February too.

If you give a tip when you’re at the bar for your drinks, that can be called a pourboire. The word comes from French and literally means “for drink.”

Many of us give or get gift cards and money as a gift. To distinguish a thing that is a gift (or present) from one that is money given in lieu of the traditional gift, the term “present-silver” has been around since the 1500s.

Another word that is brand new to me but old is xenium. It sounds like a new drug or tech company, but it means a gift that is given to a houseguest, or a gift given by a guest to their host.

Do you know nog, a word that comes from ancient English ales but still shows up in words we use during the season, such as eggnog.

While you are celebrating, keep in mind “apolausticism,” a long-lost 19th-century word derived from Greek meaning “to enjoy,” that describes the total devotion to enjoying yourself.

And after you totally enjoy yourself, a word that looks and sounds just right is crapulence. The OED tells us that this 18th-century word describes “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

Parbunkells and the World Wide Web’s Life Cycle

“Words are like flies: you notice them when they’re buzzing; when they’re not, it’s as if they don’t exist at all, ” says in The New Yorker. She came upon a billboard with a single word – parbunkells – in black Apple Garamond typeface on a white background. An advertisement for a new product?

Some investigating led her to Julia Weist, an artist.  She came across the word (which means two ropes bound together with nooses [loops] on all four ends and merged in the middle) and thought it was “a nice metaphor for things coming together.” It is a real word with hundreds of year of usage. Just not on the Internet.

She had been looking for a word that did not appear in the results of a search engine. Not an easy task, though Weist also has a degree in library science.  I had my students one semester try to find a relevant course topic that was not in Wikipedia. Also a tough assignment.

Next, Weist went beyond normal curiosity. She decided to put the word somewhere easily visible in public, just to see what would happen. Weist got billboard space via 14X48, a group that fills empty billboards with work by young artists. It would stay up until someone placed a paid ad in that spot

When her billboard version appeared (June 12) in Queens, New York, if you did a web search on “parbunkells” you would only find a website she created. That didn’t last long.

Her experiment in attention and reach began to appear all over the web on social media sites. Someone created a Twitter handle for the word. Someone bought the domain name parbunkells.org and then offered it on eBay with a starting bid of $8000 and “Buy It Now” price of $20,000.

I did a Google search on the word today and came up with about 4200 search results for “parbunkells.” Given time, this post will be included in those results.

The experiment turned out to be an interesting way to study viewership and the way social media spreads memes. There is something to be studied in the eventual engagement with the word that occurred and also the engagement with Weist that emerged.  A “microcosm of the Web’s life cycle.”

I Wonder Why We Say That?

mugI like to discover new words when I am reading. It doesn’t matter if it is a poem, newspaper article, novel or blog post. My wife has gotten me word-a-day calendars and I have subscribed to email lists that send you one each day. But I do prefer to stumble upon them in the context of my reading.

I (infrequently) blog about word origins, phrases and even the origins of names of bands or teams etc. on my Why Name It That? blog.

I do drop by the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day site pretty regularly. I’m not looking for words to use for Words With Friends or to help me solve crossword puzzles, just looking for that interesting word   You can even subscribe to a podcast version and listen.

Today’s word was forswear   \for-SWAIR\   verb  1. : to make a liar of (oneself) under or as if under oath  2. a : to reject, deny, or renounce under oath b : to renounce earnestly.

For my blog, I usually post something when I either stumble upon an interesting origin or comes across a word or phrase that I wonder about its origin.

For example, in my reading I saw the sentence: “and his own theory is not even wrong.”  I looked that one up and discovered that “not even wrong” is used to describe any argument that purports to be scientific but fails at some fundamental level. The phrase is often used to describe pseudoscience or bad science, and is considered derogatory. The phrase is generally attributed to theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was known for his colorful objections to incorrect or sloppy thinking. The origin story is supposed to be that a friend showed Pauli the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly, “It is not even wrong.” A variation is “It is not only not right, it is not even wrong.”

Last month, I was reading about the celebrity iPhone photo hacks of nude photos and the word paparazzi was used. I’ve heard it many time before and most people know it means those annoying celebrity photographers that often overstep the boundaries of good taste and privacy. But where did the word come from?

As with many words, there are multiple etymologies. The word “paparazzi” as we use it now is an eponym, meaning it is taken from a name. In the 1960 film La dolce vita (directed by Federico Fellini) there is a news photographer named Paparazzo. Fellini took the name from an Italian dialect word that describes the annoying noise of a buzzing mosquito. But there’s more to the origin…

There are also origin stories that might tie together the unlikely rock threesome of The Lovin’ Spoonful, 10 CC and Pearl Jam. It’s not their styles of music. Read and discover…