Word Histories: Etymologies Derived From the Files of the Dictionary of American Regional English


A version of the 1990 Civil Rights Act that was passed by the Senate last July contained a provision that would allow women to seek compensatory and punitive damages from employers whom they believe to have discriminated against them on the basis of sex. Opponents of this provision claimed, among other things, that it would provoke senseless and costly litigation—a “lawyers’ bonanza,” as Senator Orrin Hatch put it. Bonanza has been a part of American life for well over a century. The long-running television series Bonanza, which portraved a family working to maintain their enormous Nevada ranch, harked back to the bonanza farms of the late nineteenth century, where farming and ranching were done on a vast scale. These farms took their name from a term that referred to a very productive mine or a rich vein of ore (“Their successors no sooner struck a bonanza than . . . they commenced to enjoy life in pretty much the same manner”—Sylvester Mowry, Arizona and Sonora, 1864). Bonan-za is a Spanish word meaning “prosperity” or “success,” and comes from the Vulgar Latin bonaria, meaning “fair weather at sea.”Bonaria was based on a misunderstanding of how another Latin word, malacia, meaning “becalmed at sea”— the bane of sailing ships—had been formed, Mal- in malacia was thought to be a prefix meaning “bad,” from the Latin malus (hence the “bad” weather of a calm sea). Thus bonaria, the reasoning went, would mean “good” weather, bon- being from the Latin bonus. But in reality malacia is a borrowing from Greek malakia (calm at sea), from the word malakos, meaning “soft.”


After Jesse Jackson announced that he would not run for mayor of Washington, D.C., some critics—and even some supporters—wondered whether he would ever get experience in elective office to burnish his credentials as a presidential candidate. Such experience, according to Bert Lance, who is a close adviser to Jackson and was the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Jimmy Carter, “would remove the résumé glitch.” In the jargon of electronics and aerospace engineers a glitch is a sudden surge in an electric current or signal. It is probably a borrowing of the Yiddish glitsh (a slipping), which is, in turn, from the German glitschen (to slide or slip). Because a sudden change or “slipping” in the electric current in a computer or electronic system can cause serious problems, glitch quickly came to mean “a mishap or malfunction,” a meaning that was probably reinforced by hitch. (Something hitches, or moves in a jerky, discontinuous manner, when its progress is impeded or it becomes entangled; hitch eventually became associated with the impediment itself.) Astronauts in the early 1960s adopted glitch — the earliest occurrence in print is in a quotation from John Glenn—and popularized it in its extended sense, “a malfunction or snag.” Glitch has held on to its technological orientation. Its newest sense is astronomical, and refers to a sudden change in the speed of rotation of a celestial body.


“I suppose that he’s an alter ego,” Jim Henson, who died last May, once said of his bestknown Muppet, Kermit the Frog. “But he’s a little snarkier than I am—slightly wise. Kermit says things I hold myself back from saying.” In Britain to be snarky is to be irritable or short-tempered. In America snarky has also been slang tor “elegant" or “stylish.” Snarky is probably from English dialect’s to snark (“to fret, grumble, nag,” which in turn is from the earlier sense “to snore or snort”). Ultimately it is from a Germanic word such as the Swedish and Norwegian snarka or the German schnarchen (to snore), which are probably imitative of the sound of snoring. (The snark that appears in Lewis Carroll’s mockheroic poem “The Hunting of the Snark” is an unrelated coinage: this imaginary animal is a portmanteau of snake and shark.) Snarky may have been influenced or reinforced by the British slang narky, “illtempered, irascible,” which may be from nark, referring to an unpleasant, quarrelsome person, in an extension of the earliest meaning “an informer” or “one who watches.” (“If it was thought we were coppers’ narks it could endanger the lives of our film crews”—London Times, 1975). Nark may be from the word nak (nose) in Romany, the language of the Gypsies. This nark is unrelated to the American narc (from narcotics), a term from the world of drugs which refers to a narcotics officer or a police officer.