The etymology of common phrases means what it means!

The etymology of common phrases is an interesting study. Etymology is the research into the origins of words and phrases. The English language is a curious collection of widely mis-used words and phrases. It has a varied past and incorporates strains from several cultures.

I went to a private boys high school and took four years of Latin. Now most would find that absurd but it did enable me to mine the meaning of difficult words. So when I am stuck, I can go a little farther than most and come up with a possible meaning.

One of the clearest examples is "to transport". Is this English? Most people believe it's just a regular word, but it comes directly from Latin. "trans" means "across" and "Port" comes from "portare" meaning "to carry".


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Many words we associate with the sciences come from Greek, in fact, anything ending in "logy" provides us with "words". Anything that starts with "anti" is up "against" something. "Science" itself comes from Latin... "Scio" being "to know". The etymology of common phrases goes on and on, and it's quite entertaining.

Common phrases used in everyday speech also have a hidden past and although many adults use such phrases frequently, they don't really know what they mean. Adults will have some notion, or feeling for it, else they wouldn't choose it, but that's as far as it goes. Kids won't have the foggiest clue what old world phrases might mean. Yet, we may still be unwittingly throwing some their way.

I'd like to think that those phrases which remain acceptable and work their way into the language will not lose their heritage but I fear they will. It's a good thing if our youth is reminded once in a while that what they see and hear is not always "cast in stone".

So let's take stock and examine some etymology of common phrases and words that children may hear or say. Then you can decide for yourself if the phrase will survive and be understood as today's English (without a past) or, as something that old people say. Also try to judge a word's appeal and applicability in a short story.

Samples in etymology of common phrases

"OK kids, everyone in the car right now... all aboard!" What does this have to do with a car? Nothing, the root comes from boarding, a word for the sides of a ship, and its original use was a warning to passengers that the ship was about to depart.

"He is an aboriginal." From two Latin roots ab = from and origine = the beginning.

"Abracadabra, you're a rabbit." An old Greek named Abraxas symbolized supreme power and his name in pendant form served as a lucky charm.

"Let's do some aerobics." Of course from Greek for aero = air and bios = life.

"Eat your alphabet soup." Try alpha and beta together from the first two letters in Greek.

"You were wrong and I want an apology." From apologia meaning a speech in defense.

"She's a cartoon character" The Italian cartone was the heavy, stiff paper on which artists would draw their preliminary sketches.

"He says he's quitting cold turkey" Serving cold turkey required little preparation so it could be done quickly, without preparation.

"Don't contradict me" Based in Latin this refers to diction = speaking and contra = against.

"Please be more courteous" Having courtly bearing or manners.

"Don't be such an eavesdropper". Refers to the place around the house, closest to the walls where rainwater might overflow the eaves above. One may be trying to hear through the walls.

"You can really entertain your classmates" From entre and tenir it means to hold the group together.

"He wants to be a forensic scientist" From the Latin for forum or gathering place and pertaining to legal trials.

"Look at her under the covers, just as happy as a clam" Originally happy as a clam in the mud at high tide, where it can't be dug up and eaten.

"Now isn't this a real hot-bed of activity" Originally referring to a bed of earth heated by fermenting manure for encouraging plant growth.

"Don't be a such a nitwit" nit is German for nothing and you can guess the rest.

"Let's get down to the nitty-gritty" Likely in American English for finely ground corn... the basic facts.

"Here, I'll put some potpourri in your room to make it smell nice" Actually from the French for rotten pot, it started as a collection of mixed meats served in a stew, often growing rotten and giving off an odour.

"Pretend you are serving tea" To stretch before, or put forward... from Latin.

These samples have been made available by the Etymology of Common Phrases Online Dictionary which you really should have a look at. After scanning its many pages covering the etymology of common phrases and words, you will wonder if English is its own language at all!

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