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Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

Lodestar

This week the New York Times took the unusual step of publishing an anonymous op-ed piece by someone identified as “a senior official in the Trump administration” that was sharply critical of Trump. The writer described the president as incompetent and out of his depth and said that they and other senior administration officials actively worked to keep Trump from making decisions. Needless to say, it was a rather explosive article and speculation about who wrote it began immediately.

One particular speculative claim, however, is of particular interest and relates to this blog because of its linguistic nature. A certain Dan Bloom took to Twitter with the claim that the piece was written by Vice President Mike Pence, claiming that the giveaway was the piece’s use of the word lodestar. The anonymous op-ed had praised the recently deceased Senator John McCain as being “a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue.” Bloom points to the fact that Pence has used lodestar on numerous occasions in the past, dating back to 2001, and that it is an unusual word. But he is just wrong in the way he conducts his analysis.

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just do it

Nike’s famous Just Do It advertising campaign was launched in 1988 and went on to become one of the most famous slogans of all time. But the inspiration for the slogan is somewhat morbid, rooted in the execution of an infamous spree killer.

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Red Baron

Manfred von Richthofen is the most famous aviator of World War I, if not of all time. Credited with eighty air-to-air victories, he shot down more planes than any other flyer in the war. And he is popularly known as the Red Baron, probably because as commander of Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 1, known as the Flying Circus, he flew in a bright-red Fokker triplane. But researcher Brett Holman has discovered something quite interesting about the nickname Red Baron: until the mid-1960s, almost sixty years after his death in 1918, Richthofen was rarely called the Red Baron. Instead, the popularity of that nickname derives from the Peanuts comic strip, which often featured the beagle Snoopy engaging in imaginary dog fights with the German nemesis.

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Katy, bar the door

Katy (or Katie) bar the door is an American catchphrase used to warn of impending danger. The bar the door part is self-explanatory, referring to locking a door against intruders. But who is Katy? There’s no satisfactory answer to that question, but the phrase is connected with traditional folk music on both sides of the Atlantic.

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crisis actor

The term crisis actor originated in the emergency preparedness community and originally referred to actors available for hire to participate in disaster and mass casualty drills as victims, witnesses, criminals, etc. Hiring trained actors is thought to increase the realism and effectiveness of such drills. But after the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the term took a darker, conspiratorial turn.

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unicorn

We all know a unicorn is a mythical creature resembling a horse with a single horn projecting from its forehead, but the term has some quite interesting slang uses. The word comes to English via Anglo-Norman, the variety of French spoken in England after the Norman conquest, and ultimately from the Latin unicornis, uni- (one) + cornu (horn).

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whole nine yards, the

Few phrases have as many tales attached to their origin as does the whole nine yards, which has spawned a raft of popular etymologies, all of them wrong. The phrase doesn’t have one particular origin, nor does it represent one particular metaphor. Instead, it seems to have evolved from a sense of yard meaning a vague quantity of something. Later, the words full or whole were attached to it, and even later it was quantified by the numbers six and nine, with the whole nine yards eventually winning out and becoming the canonical form. Use of the full phrase was for a long time restricted to the American Midwest, in particular to the region around the Kentucky-Indiana border, before breaking out into general American parlance in the middle of the twentieth century.

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gaffe

A gaffe is a mistake, a blunder, especially a verbal faux pas made by a politician. The word is a borrowing from the French, but its English use may been influenced by a Scots word as well as by a Vaudeville method of removing a floundering performer from the stage. So the origin is a bit more complex than a straightforward borrowing.

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testilying

Testilying is a blend of testify and lying and refers to someone, especially a police officer, committing perjury. It seems to have first arisen within the ranks of the New York City police department in the early 1990s. The term came into the public consciousness as a result of a 1994 investigation into corruption in that department.

The earliest citation I have found is from a 22 April 1994 New York Times article:

New York City police officers often make false arrests, tamper with evidence and commit perjury on the witness stand [...] And it is prevalent enough in the department that it has its own nickname: “testilying.”


Source:

Sexton, Joe. “‘New York Police Often Lie Under Oath, Report Says.” New York Times, 22 April 1994, A1.

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