Word Histories


Last April, after Hillary Clinton called a press conference to explain certain of her financial dealings, a supporter pleased with the outcome said, “She was everything that I knew she could be. She was relaxed. She was frank and open.”Frank (free from guile or dissembling, candid) originates in the Germanic *franko, meaning “javelin or spear.” The Germanic tribes of the Rhine region were called Frankonfor reasons perhaps similar to those according to which the Saxons were named: in Old English seax means “knife.” In the Frankish empire, which reached its peak in the ninth century, full freedom was the right only of the conquerors and those under their protection: thus their name came to mean “free men” and, more generally, “free.” (Similarly, slave derives from the Latin Sc lav us or Slav, the name of the eastern Europeans who were routinely conquered and enslaved throughout much of the Dark Ages.) By the sixteenth century frank was used to refer to free or unreserved speech (“With franke and with uncurbed plainesse. Tell us Dolphins minde”—Shakespeare, Henry V, 1599). Frank has also given English numerous other words, including the verb frank (to send mail free of charge), the name Franklin (originally “a freeman or freeholder”), franchise (freedom from some restriction or servitude; suffrage), and frankfurter (hot dog), from Frankfort (Ford of the Franks). Germany, where the sausage was originally made.


“If this is something that can be licked by will power, by tenacity, then he can lick it,” Henry Kissinger said when his former boss. President Richard Nixon, was being treated for a stroke last April. Lick (to overcome, get the better of) is ultimately from the IndoFuropean root *leigh-. whose ancient meaning, “to pass the tongue over.” survives unchanged in modem usage. To lick something with the tongue is to wipe it clean, and thus the basic sense is “to wipe away, destroy, beat, get the better of.”The basic sense was reinforced by the metaphor in Numbers 22:4 (“Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the held”—King James Bible), which gave lick up the meaning “to destroy or annihilate.” To lick a person of something was “to cheat or fleece” him. and to lick of the whip meant “to have a taste of punishment.” The related expression to lick (a person) into shape, meaning “to make presentable,”is from the quaint notion that bears shaped their young by licking them (“Bores ben brought forthe al fowle and transformyd and after that by lyckynge of the fader and the moder they ben brought in to theyr kyndely shap”—translation by William Caxton of The Pylgremage of the Sowle, 1483). All these senses prepared the way for the meanings “to beat or thrash" and, finally, by the nineteenth century, “to overcome or surpass” (“By Dane, Saxon, or Piet / We had never been lick’d / Had we stuck to the king of the island”— The Spirit of the Public Journals. 1800).

fla b be rgast

When the Swiss pharmaceutical and chemical conglomerate Sandoz bought Gerber Products last May for $3.7 billion, it offered $53 a share—more than half again as much as the closing value of a few days earlier. “I think the $53 price is flabbergastingly high.”one New’ York analyst told the Associated Press. Considered fashionable slang when it first appeared in print, in 1772, flabbergast (to astonish, confound) may be a Scots coinage resulting from a blend of flabby and aghast, flabby referring to the slack-jawed expression of someone who is utterly astounded, or aghast, at something. Flabby (hanging loose) originated in flap, an onomatopoeic word resembling the sound of a slap or sudden blow, which became floppy and then the variant flabby. Aghast (frightened, shocked) is ultimately from the Proto-Germanic *gastijan, meaning “to terrify,” which is also the origin of ghost. However, flabbergast developed another early Scots meaning: “to swagger or boast,” with a related noun meaning “bombast, bluster" (“The ‘Asiatic style of oratory’ with . . . its meretricious flabbergast,—its diluvial verbiage"—Fraser’s Magazine. 1831). The relation of this meaning to the common one is unknown. A third early Scots usage, which survived in American dialect into the early twentieth century, is flabrigastit, “worn out with exertion, exhausted” (“Sairly flabrigastit as I was wi" my hard day’s kempin”’—W. D. Latto. Tammas Bodkin, I 864). This use could have led in time to the current meaning of flabbergast.