Feature Word: Blackmail

Definition:

meaning the extortion of money by the use of threats, especially threats to reveal secret or embarrassing information, comes from a now obsolete, sense of “mail” meaning “payment” or “tax.” This “mail” came originally from the Old Norse word “mal,” meaning “agreement,” and exists as a word today only in Scots and some dialects in northern England.

Description:

Not surprisingly, the first blackmailers were corrupt politicians, 17th century Scottish chieftains who demanded protection money from local farmers, who refused only at the risk of having their crops destroyed. The ‘mail,’ or payment, was said to be ‘black’ probably because the color black had long been associated with darkness and evil, but it might also have been because payment was usually made in livestock, rather than in silver (which was known as ‘white money’).
The ‘give me two cows or I’ll burn down your farm’ kind of blackmail first appeared in English around 1552, but by the early 1800’s we were using ‘blackmail’ to mean just about any sort of extortion, especially using threats to reveal secrets.

Source:

The Word Detective (4/18/99)

Chinese Menu

1 Comment

Definition:

The origin of the second sense is from the practice of some Chinese restaurants which — for a fixed price — instruct the customer to make selections such as “one from Column A, two from Column B, one from Column C”, where the columns may contain, for example, a selection of soups, appetizers, and entrees.

Description:

The origin of the second sense is from the practice of some Chinese restaurants which — for a fixed price — instruct the customer to make selections such as “one from Column A, two from Column B, one from Column C”, where the columns may contain, for example, a selection of soups, appetizers, and entrees.

See Details

Toxic

No Comments

Definition:

1. of, pertaining to, affected with, or caused by a toxin or poison: a toxic condition.
2. acting as or having the effect of a poison; poisonous: a toxic drug.

Description:

The word is derived from a Greek word “toxikón”, which is a the arrow of type of bow.
It is thought that this word became our western world meaning of “poisonous” because of the story of Hercules.
Hercules’ second labor was to kill the nine-headed Hydra.

Once Hercules slayed the Hydra, he dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood. This made his arrows poisonous.

See Details

In Spades

No Comments

Definition:

1) in great abundance
2) in the best or most extreme way possible; extravagantly

Description:

The ‘spades’ in this phrase refers to the highest suit in cards, not the shovel. How did this shape get its name?

Playing Cards originated in Asia and spread across Europe around the 14th century. It arrived in England a little later than in Spain, Italy and Germany.

In spades“Essentially, the Italian versions of early cards used the suits CupsSwordsCoins and Batons — which, on migration to England, became HeartsSpadesDiamonds and Clubs. The image for Spades on English and French cards looks somewhat like that of the German Acorn or Leaf suits, but its origin is revealed by its name rather than its shape. The Spanish and Italian for sword is ‘espada’ and ‘spada’ respectively, hence the suit ‘Swords’ became anglicized as ‘Spades’.”

So where does the non-card-playing meaning come from? It is an Americanism:

First of all, the phrase isn’t found before the 1920s. Damon Runyon, an American journalist and writer, used the expression that way in a piece for Hearst’s International magazine, in October 1929:

I always hear the same thing about every bum on Broadway, male and female, including some I know are bums, in spades, right from taw.

Some other spade phrases: “cocky as the King of Spades”, “call a spade a spade”, “spade something up”

See Details

Kick the Bucket

No Comments

Definition:

to die

Description:

The link between buckets and death was made by at least 1785, when the phrase was defined in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

“To kick the bucket, to die.”

Although there is not much evidence to support it, one theory as to why the phrase originates from the notion: people hanged themselves by standing on a bucket with a noose around their neck and then kicking the bucket away.

See Details

Skullduggery

No Comments

Definition:

Noun.
1. Unscrupulous, deceptive behavior 2. A device used to trick
Alt Spelling: skulduggery
scullduggery, sculduggery
Plural: Skullduggaries

Description:

Skullduggery (spelled with either a “k” or “c” and/or two “l”s) comes from the Scottish word for adultry:  “sculdudrie”.  The word is used in modern parlance as a term for underhanded dealings or trickery, often political in nature.  Ex. The skullduggery that was Watergate.

The word Skullduggery has been used to title various things from a 1970s Burt Reynolds film to the University of Adelaide orientation week, established in 1896.  

See Details

Older Entries