Tag Archives: word origins

The Many Ways to Say You Need the Bathroom


I was shelving my copy of “The Horologicon” by Mark Forsyth this week and noticed I’d marked his section about how to say you need to use the bathroom. Apparently in Victorian times you would explain that you needed to visit Mrs. Jones. Jones isn’t a particularly unusual surname so I do wonder how Mrs. Jones felt about this phrase.

The need to urinate has spawned a vast array of euphemisms. Here is a selection. Feel free to add some in the comments as I’m sure I won’t be comprehensive. Some are more explicit than others so don’t read on if you’re easily offended. That’s why we have euphemisms in the first place, I suppose.

  • Pay a visit to Mrs. Jones (Victorian)
  • Powder your nose (mainly used in US)
  • Caught short
  • Take a leek
  • Tinkle
  • Take the Browns to the Super Bowl (American)
  • Drain the snake
  • Use the restroom (American)
  • Visit the little girls’/boys’ room
  • I need to wash my hands
  • Spend a penny (English – public toilets used to require a penny to open the door to the cubicle)
  • visit the conveniences
  • call of nature
  • going to the loo
  • where’s the head (nautical)
  • going to the jacks (I think this one is Irish – can anybody confirm? May comes from jakes, the Tudor term for the toilet)
  • I’m going to talk to a man about a horse/package
  • I need to freshen up (American – not always understood in British English)
  • Going for a big greasy jobby (Scottish)
  • going for a slash/piss/wee
  • go potty (small children) presumably from the old-fashioned chamber pots originally
  • I’m going to the throne room

The toilet itself can be named john, pisser, loo, bog, can, throne, smallest room, privy (dates back to 1200s), washroom (especially in Canada), lav (short for lavatory), WC (water closet), crapper, outhouse, dunny (Australia), biffy (America), commode (from French), netty or necessary (Northern England), carsey/karzy (Cockney) etc. There’s a very good article about the etymology of many of those here.

The origin of the word loo is debatable. It is often seen as a shortening of the word lavatory from the early 1900s. Lavatory came from the French phrase lieux d’aisances (a place of ease) and was collected by British soldiers serving in France during  World War I but there’s also a chance that loo is a pun on Waterloo, based on the English use of WC or water closet.

Can you add to the list?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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Horripilation and Goosebumps


This week’s word is horripilation (pronunciation here) and it means the bristling of the hair of the head or body due to disease, terror, or chilliness. The common slang for this would be goosebumps or gooseflesh/goosepimples (US).

The word comes from Latin horripilatus – to bristle with hairs. Horrere means to tremble and pilare is to grow hair.

For some reason, my biology lessons in school included the exact mechanics of how the muscles in/under the skin move in order to raise those tiny hairs. The teacher explained that this enabled humans (and other hairy mammals) to trap a layer of insulating air amongst the hairs and keep ourselves warm. Anybody who has seen an angry cat will attest that raising our hackles can be a defense ploy as well as a heating one. Looking larger in the face of attack is generally a good thing, right?

It wasn’t until more recently that I found that humans have more hair than gorillas and hence we have massive horripilation potential. There’s some debate on whether that fact is entirely true. Gorillas have darker skin and thicker hair and hence appear hairier. Meanwhile we have very fine skin hair (vellus hair) so it’s hard to tell. It is likely that we have roughly the same amount but look less hirsute. More interesting is that researchers are beginning to understand why we still have so many hairs after all those years of evolution. It’s to beat the insects that want to bite us. Thus explaining why my hairy male friends always get bitten less than me during insect season and that shaving your legs is a bad idea.

So, the next time your heroine horripilates as the killer creeps up behind her, at least she won’t get a bed-bug bite.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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Months of the Year and their Origins


Months of the Year

Months of the Year

This week, as the year draws to a close, I’m thinking about the origin of the month names. I recently posted about the days of the week and it seems only logical to move on up to the months. Again, I’m doing so with thanks to Encyclopedia Mythica.

January – named for Janus the Roman god of beginnings and endings. He’s an easy one to spot in Roman carvings – he’s depicted as being two-faced. One face presumably reviewing this year and another looking for a new beginning.

February – some debate here – either named for the Etruscan god of the underworld, Februus, or for Februa the Roman festival of purification celebrated in this month.

March – named for Mars, the Roman god of war.

April – named for the goddess of love and fertility – Aphrodite (Greek) or Venus (Roman) – approriate enough for the month when Spring gets underway in the northern hemisphere.

May – probably named for Maiesta, the Roman goddess of honor and reverence.

June – named for Juno, queen of the Roman gods, much like Hera was in Greece.

July – named for Julius Caesar.

August – named for Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.

September – by this stage in the year inspiration was failing the Romans, so this one is named for septem (seven in Latin). You will point out that September is the ninth month but the Roman year began in March.

October – named for octo (eight in Latin).

November – named for novem (nine in Latin).

December – named for decem (ten in Latin).

So, unlike the days of the week which are torn between Norse gods and Roman ones, the months were fully named by the ancient Italians and in what seems a rather unfair move, Mars gets to have March as well as Tuesday named in his honour. But given that September to December were only named for numbers I think there’s still a chance we’ll confound calendar-makers worldwide and rename those for some extraordinary individual – perhaps a peacemaker, just to balance Mars influence?

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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Does Lusk mean Lazy?


This week, in the aftermath of NaNoWriMo 2013, I’m taking it easy. Which put me in mind of a word I jotted down to investigate a while ago.

Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary tells us that lusk means idle or worthless. It caught my eye because the town of Lusk, North Dublin isn’t a million miles from my home. I couldn’t help wondering if its past inhabitants had been such sloths as to spawn a new English word.

Merriam Webster adds that luskish is to be sluggish or somewhat lazy and that its obscure origins lie in the Middle English verb lusken meaning to lie hidden. It sounded very Germanic/Scandinavian to my ears and sure enough it comes from Danish origins and means to slink about and is related to a favourite verb of mine to lurk.

I like the notion of luskers lurking under their blankets, hiding from activity. I might need a little of that this week while my brain recovers from NaNo fever.

As for the good people of Lusk, they are off the hook. The town’s name comes not from Danish, or Middle English but is an English corruption of the original Irish name. The word lusca (pronounced loo-ska) means cave and refers to the cave dwelling of their founding Saint MacCullin c. 450.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


p.s. I made it to 62,251 words by November 30th – nine chapters still to write, so I can’t lusk for long.

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Days of the Week and their Origins


Last week’s post about Frigga being the source of the word Friday made me think about the other days of the week. I knew Thursday came from Thor (another Norse god, fond of his hammer) and Wednesday had something to do with Woden, but hadn’t a clue on the rest. Cue some research.

Days of the Week

Days of the Week

Monday literally translates (in lots of languages, not just English) as day of the moon. The word dates from around 1000 A.D. and Old English. No Norse god here.

Tuesday again an Old English word meaning Tiu’s day (or Tiw or Ty, depending on who you consult). He was, you’ve guessed it, a Norse god. You’ll find some entertaining tales about him here. Interestingly he was a war god and so was Mars (from the Roman pantheon). In many languages the day is named after Mars – Mardi (French) and De Mart (Irish), for example. Either way – Tuesday is named for the god of war.

Wednesday is again named for one Norse god and, depending on language, a Roman god. The Norse god this time is Odin (Woden in Germanic terms) and he’s credited with creating people and the universe. But if you’re French you’ll call Wednesday Mercredi and that’s from Mercury – the Roman messenger god, the one with the winged sandals and helmet.

Thursday is named for Thor, another Norse god. The one with the hammer.

Friday, as discussed in an earlier post, is named for Frigga a Norse goddess. In another parallel – the Romans named this day after a female god of their own – Venus – hence Vendredi in French.

Saturday is named for Saturn (the god of wealth and time) by the Roman’s and this time the Norse decided to skip the gods and named it Lordag – washing day.

Sunday as you might expect has a religious source. The Roman root “dies solis” (in Latin – day of the sun) records a pagan holiday alright, but later it’s called “Dominica” (day of God in Latin) which turns into Dimanche in French. In many other languages the word for this day translates as “no work day”.

See further reading on this topic at The Encyclopedia Mythica.

If you were feeling adventurous you could have a word origin week as follows; Monday – ebb and flow with the moon, Tuesday – make war, Wednesday – creativity and communication, Thursday – DIY (hammers, get it?), Friday – dedicated to love, Saturday – do your washing, and Sunday – relax. Apart from Tuesday, not a bad week overall.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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The Eponyms Series – Guillotine


I always assumed that the inventor of the guillotine pronunciation here) must have been a Frenchman called Guillotine during the Revolution (1789-1799) and it would have been used on nobility only. Assumptions are dangerous things, however.

A blade beheading device invented by Dr. Antoine Louis, originally called a louisette, was used for the first time in 1792 to behead a highwayman called Pelletier. Its eventual name did come from another Frenchman – a humanitarian doctor called Joseph Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) who argued passionately for its introdution during a debate in the French Assembly in 1789. He said that it would be more humane than the current methods of capital punishment – hanging for commoners and beheading with a sword for nobility.

But the guillotine wasn’t unique to France. Similar devices were used in Scotland, England, Germany, and other European countries, usually for noble executions.

It also wasn’t confined to the ten blood-soaked years of the Revolution when between 17,000 and 40,000 died beneath its slanted blade. The last execution by guillotine in France was in 1977.

After Guillotin’s death his children tried to rename the device, without success, and were ultimately forced to change their own surname – a wisely-rejected eponymnous connection.

As a Frenchman carrying a long ladder once said to me in Paris – “Gardez lat tete. Il y aurez une revolution!” (mind your head, we’re going to have a revolution).

Interested in eponyms? I’ve written a book about nearly 300 of them and the lives of the fascinating people who gave their name to English. “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” is out now in Amazon paperback (USA and UK), and ebook for Kindle, iBooks, and on Kobo.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


Origins of “Being sacked”


Like many a suburban girl, I grew up in a cul-de-sac. Planners like family housing streets to have them, slows down the traffic for kids playing, I suppose. I remember distinctly being 13 and finally knowing enough French to decipher the term as “bottom of the bag” – I thought it was hilarious to live in such a place.

But to be sacked isn’t so funny. Losing your employment is rarely an enjoyable experience. The origin of “being sacked” lies in the days when workmen carried their tools with them in a sack. When asked to leave, they moved on bringing their tools (and sack) with them. It dates back to France in the 17th century (source) as “On luy a donné son sac”, reaches published English by 1825 and had variants in a 1869 slang dictionary as “get the bag” (North of England) and “get the empty” from London.

This suggests to me that “sacked” needs an update for the office-working age. How about “You’ve been laptoped” or “Oh poor Albert was briefcased last week”?

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


Quiz and the Urban Myth

How disappointing urban myths are! I frequently find that when I research a word or phrase for this blog that a story I loved about it, simply isn’t true. Take for example a tale told to me by a school-friend when we were in our teens about the word quiz. She had it that a lecturer in Oxford had challenged his students to introduce a new word into the English language for their homework assignment. They proceeded to literally paint the town red with their chosen word “quiz” and within days the town was abuzz with the new word – wondering about it, talking about it, and asking questions about it – i.e. quizzing each other.

Sadly this tale is unlikely to be true and ironically the sources I found set the story in Dublin (my home town and setting for my original hearing of the tale). The Oxford Dictionary has a Dublin theatre man getting his staff on the case while Wikipedia gives much the same story, with a different name and street urchins doing the handiwork instead – a tad more likely I would think and cheaper labour to boot.

I loved the story because it gave me hope that one day I could achieve the immortality of adding a word to the wonderful English language. The closest I came to this quiet ambition since then (and I haven’t quit yet) was “strude”. With able help from a friend, Brian Ellerker, I convinced several friends that the past-tense of the verb “to stride” was “strude”. As in, “The woman strude across the room and slapped him across the face for his impertinence”. The correct term is, of course, strode (or it might be strided in American-English?).

I confessed shortly after convincing people of this linguistic lie, as I struggled to contain my giggles. In time the term did enter our own local vocabulary to mean a verbal exaggerated lie played upon someone for the sake of laughs. For example, “I struded Marie that Henry the Eight died by galloping his horse off the cliffs of Dover.” There was some debate over spelling, with a seperatist movement supporting the strood spelling, but it’s my word, and I say it’s strude.

Living languages are constantly evolving. Who knows, perhaps you will add to English vocabulary today? Fool with words enough, and something exciting is sure to happen.

Happy writing and reading,