On the Origin of Spitting Image

It was my wife’s turn to read a chapter of Andrew Peterson‘s On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness to our kids when she was stopped by a comment from our eldest daughter.

“Not nice!” said our eldest.

“What?” asked my wife.

“It isn’t nice to spit,” said our eldest.

“That’s true,” supported my wife, “but the thing I just read means something different from that. The phrase ‘spitting image’ means that someone looks just like someone else.”

“Oh,” said our eldest. “Okay.”

spitting-water-1550479The exchange got me curious about that phrase. Where did “spitting image” come from? How did it come to mean what it does?

Here’s what I found.

While some people think that “spitting image” is a deviation from “split image” or “spirit and image” or something like that, all evidence points to a salivary origin. In fact, the older mentions of the phrase use “spit and image” instead of “spitting.”

The idea behind the phrase is that a person is so like another that the original “spit” the copy out of their mouth. According to phrases.org.uk, examples of likeness and being spit out of someone’s mouth date back to at least the 17th century. To back up the fact that the “spit” in question is definitely of the salivary type, the same phrase with the same meaning is attested in both French and Norwegian (though the Norwegians suggest that a person is not spit out of the mouth, but blown out of the nose).

I still can’t say that I completely understand the phrase, since I’ve never looked at something I’ve spit out and thought that it bore a striking resemblance to myself. Other people may think that I look like a bit of phlegm, but I’ve never thought it personally. Oh well, I guess I’d rather have a truth that I don’t fully understand than a lie (like “split image” or “spirit and image”) that makes complete sense.

So next time someone asks you where we got “spitting image” from, you can spit some truth at them.

When Viking Gods & Christmas Mix: The Norse Mistletoe Origin

My family decorated our home for Christmas the other night, and my eldest daughter was puzzled when I handed her our Mistletoe holder.

“What is this?” she asked.

“That is mistletoe,” I responded. “And it’s a Christmas tradition to kiss people beneath it.”

“Why?” she asked.

And this is what I told her:

The vikings used to tell stories about their gods and heroes. The most popular god of all time was Baldur.

When Baldur began having troubling dreams about his mortality, his mother went to every living creature and asked them to never hurt her son. All of creation loved Baldur and agreed at once. But Baldur’s mom forgot to ask the mistletoe.

The Death of Baldur from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript.

The Death of Baldur from an Icelandic 18th century manuscript.

Being (nearly) invincible, it became a fun sport to lob axes, knives, and arrows at Baldur. He would laugh off each blow as none of it hurt him in the least.

In time, Baldur’s only real enemy, Loki, discovered his weakness. And so he crafted an arrow made of mistletoe and tricked Baldur’s blind brother Hodur into shooting at Baldur. The arrow killed the hero and mistletoe became a reminder to show love while we are alive, because no one lives forever.

There’s a lot more to the story about how the gods petitioned the keeper of Helheim (the world of the dead) to return Baldur to life and how Loki thwarted that plan too, but the part about the mistletoe ends there.

So what does this have to do with Christmas and kissing? I like to think that the mistletoe tradition was rolled into Christmas celebrations because of the similarity of their intent. Christmas, like the message of the Baldur’s mistletoe story, is a time to celebrate life. Christians are specifically celebrating the gift of Christ whose death brought life everlasting, but as this gift can only be accepted by the living, the same sense of urgency and awareness of mortality exists within both narratives.

I hope this new knowledge helps you appreciate the mistletoe a little more this year. Now get out there and greet each other with holy kisses!

On the Origin of Down the Pike

highway

I’m not going to lie to you. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure whether the correct phrase was “Down the pike” or “Down the pipe”.

Spoiler Alert! It’s “down the pike”.

This phrase, which means that something is on its way (as in a project in development), hails from just over a century ago when roads and highways began to proliferate. Back then, the common term for a highway was a turnpike. And while this term is rarely used any more, the phrase “down the pike” refers to a vehicle coming down the turnpike.

Now, the word pike exists almost exclusively in the phrase, so it isn’t surprising that people are confusing it with the word “pipe”. After all, everyone knows what a pipe is and things do in fact come down pipes as well.

But if you are a word nerd and care about using the right word, use pike.

In fact, let’s all start using pike and turnpike again when referring to the highway. That way, future generations won’t have to stumble or cough when finishing the phrase “down the pike/pipe”, as I did until recently.

On the Origin of Dawdling

Photo by Scott Wieman

Photo by Scott Wieman

Confession time. There are times when my eldest daughter drives me a bit crazy. If this makes me a bad parent, then I have a feeling that the world is filled with bad parents. Not that everyone is annoyed with my eldest daughter (at least, I hope not). But kids have a tendency to know just how to push their parents’ buttons.

With my eldest daughter, it is her dawdling.

It’s true. She’s a dawdler. Anything she can do slowly in order to put off something that she doesn’t want to do, she does as slow as possible. Admittedly, the reason this probably annoys me so much is because it is a trait within myself that I dislike, but that’s (slightly) beside the point.

In recent conversations with various family members, I’ve discovered that the word “dawdle” is semi-archaic. And though it is a perfectly apt word, it is one that is not much used in today’s parlance.

That got me curious about the word’s origin. What I found out was pretty interesting.

Dawdling is for the birds. Well, one bird specifically: the daw, also known as the jackdaw.

Borrowed_plumesThe jackdaw is a relative of crows and ravens, perhaps named for the sound that it makes. It is semi-famous for it’s role in Aesop’s fable about vanity in “The Bird in Borrowed Feathers“. Tradition holds that the daw was a silly bird with a slow walk.

In fact, the daw’s name likely influenced the name of the walk for which it was famous, then known as daddling (think waddling, but with a d and pronounced differently). Soon, daddling was being used for anything done slowly, not just walking speed (don’t think that the irony of my daughter doing things slowly and my last name being Mosey (a type of slow walking) is lost on me). Over time, daddling became dawdling and apparently fell out of modern usage.

Well, my wife and I use it still, but I wish we didn’t have to. I’d be so happy if I never had to say, “Stop dawdling!” to my daughter again. But then, she’d probably start saying it to me, so maybe I’ll just have to learn to accept it to some degree.

On the Origin of Jot

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “jot” stems from the Latin “jota” which is a derivation of the Greek “iota”, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. Thus, a jot is one of the smallest things you can write. And it has taken this meaning as both noun (the smallest letter) and verb (to write a small amount).

Jot is also the name that my writer’s group settled on when we came up with our free, one-night writer’s conference concept. As busy guys with full-time jobs and families, we don’t always have the time or money to attend big writers’ conferences, awesome though they be. So we decided to start one of our own targeting the needs of people like us.

So the Jot Conference, or mini-conference if you prefer, is one night only. It is free to attend. And it offers quality sessions on a variety of writing topics by amazing guest speakers who are presenting by the goodness of their hearts (we don’t actually pay any of the speakers, so if you come, be sure to buy their books and tell them that you appreciate their time).

The next Jot is happening on Friday, March 14th, from 7 – 11 pm, at Baker Book House, 2768 E Paris Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49546.

tracy_groot

Tracy Groot

Our keynote speaker is the award-winning author of the newly-released The Sentinels of Andersonville, Tracy Groot.

Other speakers include the author Susie Finkbeiner, speaker and editorial director of Baker Books Chad Allen, and budding novelist Thomas McClurg. We even have a free poetry workshop (available to sign up for at registration) with poetry editor of Structo Magazine, Matthew Landrum.

Keep up to date by following the Jot blog. I hope to see you there!

On the Origin of Mortgage

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy wife and I bought our house just before the housing bubble burst. At the time, we thought we were getting a pretty good mortgage rate. Oh, those were the days.

Since then, we’ve been chipping away at the mortgage, suffering through PMI, and hoping against hope that we might qualify for some sort of refinancing miracle to bring our rates down. Now, we aren’t struggling to make ends meet or anything, but the more we can apply to the principle of our mortgage, the faster we can pay it off, and that is just good sense.

At a recent visit to the bank, we brought up the question of refinancing to the bank employee. Things still don’t look great for the miracle mortgage reduction, but the whole process got me thinking about the word “mortgage” itself.

When you trace it back to its Old French and Latin roots, mortgage is a compound word that is literally translated as “dead pledge”. The pledge part is understandable in reference to the modern use of the word. When we take a mortgage out from a bank, we are pledging, or promising, to pay the money back to the bank. So where does the dead part come in?

Simply stated, if you die before paying off your debt, the bank retains full ownership of the property. And if you pay off your debt to the bank, the debt is considered dead. Either way, something dies.

Just like I did a little inside when I heard what our house is currently worth according to the bank’s estimates.

The Origin of Bah Humbug!

scroogebluray1It’s Christmas time, and that makes everyone happy… well, everyone except the Scrooges among us. And when one of those Scrooges says “Bah Humbug!” to you, don’t you wonder what they are really saying? Well, have no fear. We’ll dive in to this question together. (Yesterday’s usage of the phrase was in reference to the text adventure game by the name of Humbug. We’re talking about something a bit older here.)

Everyone knows the line. Ebenezer Scrooge made it famous. But “Bah Humbug!” existed before Dickens. According to the 1911 Classic Encyclopedia, based on the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term dates back to the mid-1700s:

According to the New English Dictionary, Ferdinando Killigrew’s The Universal Jester, which contains the word in its sub-title “a choice collection of many conceits … bonmots and humbugs,” was published in 1754, not, as is often stated, in 1735-1740. The principal passage in reference to the introduction of the word occurs in The Student, 1750-1751, ii. 41, where it is called “a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion.”

But even then, the origin is unclear. It had apparently been popular already and was synonymous with a hoax or a sham. The Encyclopedia goes on to say:

The origin appears to have been unknown at that date. Skeat connects it (Etym. Diet. 1898) with “hum,” to murmur applause, hence flatter, trick, cajole, and “bug,” bogey, spectre, the word thus meaning a false alarm. Many fanciful conjectures have been made, e.g. from Irish uim-bog, soft copper, worthless as opposed to sterling money; from “Hamburg,” as the centre from which false coins came into England during the Napoleonic wars; and from the Italian uomo bugiardo, lying man.

And so there are many possibilities on where the phrase came from, but each points back to a meaning of deception. Which makes sense in the way that Scrooge used it in A Christmas Carol, as he thought that Christmas itself was a hoax or deception. In fact, this is not the only literary use of the phrase, as the venerable Wizard of Oz declares himself to be “just a humbug.”

So now you know. Though there are many possible sources for this phrase that was “very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion”, there was only one primary meaning. And through time and many versions of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, many have forgotten that the phrase meant anything at all, simply associating it was a bad attitude about Christmas. But not you. You know the truth.

So the next time some Scrooge says “Bah Humbug!” to you, just smile and tell them that Christmas is no hoax.