Humorous English Etymologies 14 Bigwig

Bigwig (n.)
Simple this one, from 1731, it just puts together big and wig, in reference to the imposing wigs formerly worn by men of rank or authority.
In more detail - The term bigwig originated in the 17th century, when the short lived fad of wig-wearing (1) was at its peak. It became fashionable for people to shave their heads (2) and replace their hair with wigs; in this way they could sport a style they might not be able to naturally grow. It was seen as a triumph of man’s ingenuity over nature. However hair to make up these wigs was quite rare and expensive. Hair was sold by the strand and it was not uncommon for the lower classes to be seen wearing wigs consisting of only several strands of hair. The rich folk on the other hand were able to purchase large wigs made up of thousands of strands of hair and very soon the term ‘bigwig’ became associated with the very wealthy. This fad faded away as quickly as it had come with the advent of the top hat, however it lives on in the large ceremonial wigs seen in the British courts.



Because I love words so much I can sometimes remember where I first came across a word. As a teenager I was a big fan of T Rex. In May 1972, aged 13 or 14, I bought a music magazine called Cream because it contained a long article about my favourite group (and a free poster I now recall having found the cover on the Internet). It was by someone called Charles Shaar Murray, a name that would have meant nothing to me at the time. The one thing that struck me about the article's style was that he was trying to be objective, something I was not really used to. You can find the article here I believe, including the bit where he says that Cosmic Dancer is "a fine song, spoilt by incongruously heavy-handed drumming by Legend". He has a point but I still find it hard to accept. (The comment about "Visconti's saccharine string writing" was lost on me then and now).


Humorous English Etymologies 13 Nipper

Nipper (n.)
One of the meanings of nipper (ithers include a crab's claw or a pair of pliers) is a young person (usually a boy). A cousin of mine always used to refer to his younger brother as "ow' nip'". People argue about the etymology of nipper. Most suggest that it goes back to the sixteenth century use of the verb nip to mean arrest, leading to the idea of speed, a young person being nippy or quick about the place and hence a nipper. Others go for a nautical origin. At one time young boys were employed by the navy to weave together anchor cables. Because the cable of larger vessels were often too thick to go round the capstan thinner, messenger lines would be attached. The process of fastening the cables was known as nipping, hence nippers. Humour is thus being employed in either case. Alan Titchmarsh has a book called When I was a nipper.

Humorous English Etymologies 12 Magazine

Magazine (n,)
In the 1580s it meant "a place for storing goods, especially military ammunition," and was taken from the Middle French magasin "warehouse, depot, store" (15c.), from the Italian magazzino, from Arabic makhazin, plural of makhzan "storehouse" (cf Spanish almacén "warehouse, magazine"), from khazana "to store up." The original sense is now almost forgotten although the use of the word for a small ammunition chamber fitted toa  gun continues. The regular meaning "periodical journal" dates from the publication of the "Gentleman's Magazine," in 1731, which was so called from earlier use of the word for a printed list of military stores and information, or in a figurative sense, from the publication being a "storehouse" of information. Perhaps the idea of it packing an explosive punch is in there too.

Change impossible by nature


"It is our nature to do evil. We have no more prospect of changing that nature by ourselves than a man with black skin has of turning it white or a leopard has of exchanging its spots for tiger stripes."
From my book What the Bible teaches about being born again, p 82

New birth more than a beggar finding bread


"Sometimes Christians describe becoming a Christian using the figure of a beggar finding bread. This is fine as far as it goes, but the biblical picture is closer to that of a dead man being brought to life. The change needed is less like a veterinary surgeon sewing up a wound in the paw of some poor creature and more like the total transformation involved when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly."
From my book What the Bible teaches about being born again, p 79


Humorous English Etymologies 11 Sarcophagus

Sarcophagus (n.)
A box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse, most commonly carved in stone, and displayed above ground, though it may also be buried. c. 1600, "type of stone used for coffins," from Latin sarcophagus, from Greek sarkophagos. The word also came to refer to a particular kind of limestone that was thought to decompose the flesh of corpses interred within. Literally the word means "flesh-eating," perhaps in reference to the supposed action of this type of limestone (quarried near Assos in Troas, hence the Latin lapis Assius) in quickly decomposing the body. From sarx (genitive sarkos) "flesh" + phagein "to eat". The "stone" sense was the earliest in English; meaning "stone coffin, often with inscriptions or decorative carvings" is recorded from 1705. It is not entirely clear whether the Romans truly believed that limestone from the region around Troy would dissolve flesh. That assertion came from Roman scholar Pliny the Elder (but he also reported such phenomena as dog-headed people and elephants who wrote Greek). It is more likely that was again a little joke.

Humorous English Etymologies 10 Plonk

Plonk (n.)
Plonk is a non-specific and often derogatory term used primarily in British and Australian English for wine. It is believed to come from Australian slang, in reference to blanc (the French word for "white"), before it became naturalised in Britain. Despite the reference to the colour white, the term is not limited to white wine, and can as easily indicate a red wine or rosé. In this context, the phrase has even spawned the title of a novel which evokes the perceived tackiness of the 1980s. The word is perhaps influenced by another meaning of plonk - the sound as of something being set down heavily, in this case a glass bottle. The latter word is perhaps influenced by the onomatopoeic plunk. The idea that the sound of a cork coming out of a wine bottle has played its part too cannot be discounted.


Humorous English Etymologies 9 Bootleg

Bootleg (n.)
A product, especially alcoholic liquor, but including recorded music, that is illicitly produced, distributed, or sold. The phrase "leg of a boot," goes back to the 1630s, using boot + leg to refer to that part of a boot. As an adjective in reference to illegal alcohol and is found from 1889 on and is American English slang. Presumably it was knives and pistols that were hidden in boots by smugglers and that led to the idea of hiding booze there, although this obviously cannot easily be done while the boots are being worn. An alternative understanding suggests that the word bootleg in reference to alcohol relates to the unpleasant taste of some illegal brews.


Humorous English Etymologies 8 Bumf

Bumf (n.)
Papers, paperwork. First attested 1889, this was originally British schoolboy slang for "toilet-paper". It is a shortened from of bum-fodder.