Unfortunate English

Author: Bill Brohaugh

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use

Published: 2009

I read it: September 2016 (re-read)


My wife’s hometown friends claim that backyard bonfires are a common evening event in the summertime. I can never resist asking for more details, as I doubt most city regulations would allow for common fires to reach a humongous size. But apparently what they consider “bonfire” is what I consider “campfire,” and there the conversation devolves into standard MN vs. IA barbs. (Cue the ducks and gooses.)

Because of Unfortunate English, I can add a little more detail to make my case. “Bonfire” is not “bon” as in “good,” but “bon” as in “bone.” It’s a fire big enough for—and originally, with the explicit purpose of—burning bones. Not exactly the type of thing I image lighting the horizons of suburban Minneapolis.

The book is a fun (see below), if often corny, compendium of etymological nuggets. The angle is the unseemly origin of the words, some worse than others. Here are some notable discoveries:

  • bicker, cope – bicker originally meant “to fight physically, to exchange blows” while cope was “to battle” with an enemy
  • trophy – a Greek monument (a “tropaion”) to victory, made up of an enemy’s armor, weapons, and treasures
  • battery – artillery that discharges, so a connection can be drawn to modern batteries discharging electricity; another meaning of battery is specifically “beating drums”
  • first-string – not musical, but rather the first bowstring used by an archer (kind of a no-duh after you realize it… and “high-strung” follows from the same basic source)
  • thrill – from a word meaning hole, from which we get “nostril” for “nose-hole” (it was good ol’ Shakespeare who used thrill as in “piercing or penetrating someone with emotion or excitement”)
  • travel – at one point, the same word as “travail,” with a word describing an old torture device buried deep in the etymological layers
  • drat! – a nice tightening of “God rot it” to “’od rot” to “rat”; others in the same blasphemous vein include “gadzooks” from “God’s hooks,” “zounds” from “God’s wounds,” and “blimey” from “God blind me” (even further in the same entry, we learn that in “What the dickens?” and “What the deuce?,” both the d-words mean “devil”)
  • fun – “an instance of cheating, a swindle, a deception, a hoax,” as surviving in “make fun of” and “poke fun at,” with the connotation of “make a fool of” (and if you are “fond” of something, you are fooled by it)
  • nostalgia – “a severe reaction to being in unfamiliar surroundings—homesickness in the literal sense”
  • verge – “a staff, rod, or scepter that symbolizes rank or office” which at various times was also the word for a candle, an architectural column, and a penis (which itself spawned its own slang in “pencil,” but which also meant “little tail” and eventually led to “penicillin” and “peninsula”)
  • feisty – from “fisting,” used to describe dogs, as in “fisting cur,” meaning “farting dog”
  • bridal – from “bride-ale,” when “ale” had an alternate meaning of feast or celebration, and meant more generally a wedding celebration, of which one 1587 author decried “the heathenish rioting at bride-ales”
  • snack, snap – both meant small quick bites
  • muscle – from a poetic description of ripples underneath the skin that resembled a “little mouse,” or “musculus”
  • God forbid – at one time, this was used specifically because it rhymes with “kid” and used as a noun phrase: kids were “God forbids,” as in “God forbid I have any more”
  • suggestion – in the 1300s, an “enticement or prodding to evil” or in the 1500s “to propose something evil”… which we still see in “suggestive”

The book would work just as well, if not better, had it included even more deep history about each word, and less awkward attempts at humor. But if that can be overlooked, then this collection may thrill you to the feisty verge.


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