Word Histories: Etymologies Derivedfrom the Files of the Dictionary of American Regional English




Amid a scandal involving First American Bankshares which he had been chairman for ten years, Clark Clifford the consummate Washington insider and adviser to Presidents, was asked why, at the age of seventy-five, he had gone to work for a bank to begin with. “The suggestion of retirement is total anathema to me,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to Florida and rot.”Anathema (someone or something cursed, shunned, or reviled) is from the classical Greek anathema (a votive offering), and means literally “that which is set up.” The word was used in the sense of “offering” in the Septuagint (“Judith offered for an anathema of oblivion all the arms of Holofernes, which the people gave her. . . .”—Judith 16:23, Douay version) and appears in English with this sense as late as the seventeenth century (“Will not permit a [spider’s] web—the very pattern, index, and anathema of supernaturall wisdome—to remain untouched” — Edward Topsell, The Historie of Serpents, 1608). Because a votive offering can be made not only for good purposes but also for evil ones, in ecclesiastical Greek and Latin anathema came to refer to “anything offered or devoted to evil, an evil or accursed thing” (“Neither shalt thou bring anything of the idol into thy house, lest thou become an anathema, like it"—Deuteronomy 7:26, Douay). In the Christian tradition, to be accursed is to be cut off from the Church and consigned to damnation—an implication that entered into the meaning of the English word in the sixteenth century. Its figurative secular sense has been common almost as long.


“Across this country people have started to transform the American school,” President Bush remarked in a speech earlier this year. “They know that the time for talk is over; their slogan is: Don’t dither, just do it.” The original meaning of dither is “to shake, tremble, or quiver” (“So tremulous is she/Dith’ring both in heart and knee”—Horace, Odes, in a 1666 translation), from the Germanic root * dud- (to shake). From this root came several English words, including the Middle English doten (“to be weak-minded or deranged by reason of old age,” hence dote, dotage, and dotard ) and doderen (to shake, tremble), later becoming dodder and giving rise to the related terms dadder, dudder, and didder. From didder (“By his extraordinary chattering and diddering, one half of his Teeth dropt out"—Cyrano de Bergerac’s Comical History, translated by Archibald Lovell, 1687), which is used chiefly in northern England and is the origin of diddle (to jerk up and down), came the midland and southern variant in which the pronunciation -ther replaced the older -der—as it did, for example, in father mother, feather, and hither. It was not until around 1900 that the current sense of dither— “to vacillate or act indecisively"— developed, no doubt arising from the tremulousness of someone in a state of agitated indecision (“All newspapers are run by madmen, but the ‘Watchman’ merely dithers”— H. C. Bailey, Mr. Fortune’s Practice, 1923).

duke it out

“I love duking it out with Tom and Dan and Peter.” These are not just any Tom, Dick, and Harry but the news anchormen of the three major networks: Tom Brokaw, of NBC; Dan Rather, of CBS; and Peter Jennings, of ABC. The speaker is Bernard Shaw, the anchorman at CNN, discussing his competition: “I talk to them all the time, socially, professionally. We always peel off into some corner when we’re together on a story.” Duke, meaning “a fist,” comes circuitously from the title Duke of York. The early nineteenth century saw the development of Cockney rhyming slang, in which a word or phrase stands in for something that it rhymes with. For example, holy friar means “a liar,”trouble and strife is a wife, and Duke of Yorks are forks. Because fork tines are like fingers and five fingers make a hand or fist, Duke of Yorks, or simply dukes, became hands or fists. Duke it out (to fight with the fists) is from the earlier put up one’s dukes (1874; literally, “to raise one’s fists to fight”). Although most etymologists accept the rhyming-slang explanation of duke, it is possible that the term derives from dookin, which was gypsies’ and thieves’ cant for “fortune-telling.” Dookin is from the Romany word dukker (to tell fortunes). Since a common method of fortune-telling was palm reading, dookin would have been interpreted as reading one’s “dook,” or palm, later confused with duke.