Vocabulary Rocks! B is for…

Vocabulary Rocks! B is for…

Continuing the quest to cover the alphabet! That may prove impossible due to the vast number of words in the English language, but I can try to find a few fascinating examples. For a list of all my archived posts covering the topic: VOCABULARY


Bupkes (BUP-kiss) Something outrageously insignificant; a trifle.

Also spelled bobkes, this word derives from Yiddish for "goat turd."

"I work my fingers to the bone, and still they pay me bupkes!"


This American contribution to international cuisine actually originated in the Caribbean, and the word comes to us via Spanish from its Indian roots. The original sense of barbecue is that of a raised, wooden (later metal) framework used for either sleeping upon or curing meats. The Indians of Guiana called it a babracot and the Haitians a barbacòa. The Spanish acquired the Haitian word and it came into English from the Spanish.

The earliest English citation, used for a sleeping platform, is from 1697, in William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round The World:

And lay there all night, upon our Borbecu’s, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground.

By 1733 the word was being used for an open-air, social gathering featuring the grilling of meat. From the diary of a B. Lynde:

Fair and hot; Browne, barbacue; hack overset.

Barbecue has at least one false etymology that is commonly promulgated on the internet and elsewhere. It is claimed that it comes from the French barbe (beard) and queue (tail); the idea being that an entire pig is roasted, from head, or beard, to tail. This is simply not the origin of the word.

Berserk, Berserker

Clive Standen as Rollo in “Vikings”

Today, to be or to go berserk means to be frenzied, crazed, and the word and phrase carries a connotation of violence. The phrase to go berserk is relatively recent, only dating to the opening years of the twentieth century, but the noun and adjective is about a hundred years older than that, or at least it is in English usage.

The word comes from the Icelandic berserkr, meaning a powerful Norse warrior who displayed a wild and uncontrolled fury on the battlefield. In other words, a stereotypical Viking, or at least how Vikings appear in modern, popular imagination. The etymology of the Icelandic word is disputed, but it probably comes from bear +sark, a type of shirt or tunic. So a berserk or berserker was literally a bearskin-clad warrior.


Brothel derives, through the Middle English broþel, from the Old English bréoðan, meaning ruined or degenerate. It is a variant of the word brethel, meaning a good-for-nothing, a wretch. The original sense was of a worthless or degenerate person and first appears in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, written c.1367-70.

A century later, the term was used to refer to a prostitute. From the 1535 Works of Bishop John Fisher:

Why doeth a common brothel take no shame of her abomination?

The sense meaning an establishment that houses prostitutes comes from the form brothel-house, from the 1493 Festivall. By 1593, the -house had been dropped and this clipped form has survived. From the Works of Henry Smith:

Some [return] unto the taverns, and some unto the alehouses…and some unto brothels.

Despite the similarity in appearance and meaning, the word is etymologically unrelated to bordel or bordello, which come from Portuguese and Italian respectively.



Boycott is an eponym, or a word that comes from a person’s name. The namesake is Captain Charles Boycott, who managed the Irish estates of the Earl of Erne, an absentee landlord in County Mayo, Ireland. In September 1880, Erne’s tenants and laborers were demanding reduced rents, and Boycott evicted them. In response, the Irish Land League, under the leadership of Charles Parnell, organized the tenants and neighbors to resist the evictions, refuse to rent a farm from which someone had been evicted, refuse to work on the estate Boycott managed, and even to refuse to deliver the mail to Boycott. Boycott managed to get the autumn crop harvested, but at a loss, and by the end of the year he had resigned his post and returned to England.

The word was evidently coined by one or more of the local protesters. The rapidity with which the word boycott caught on is astounding. It even managed to make its way into French by the end of the year. Also surprising is that the term has lasted. Most such eponyms rapidly fade as the events that inspired them recede into memory. Boycott has not only survived, but most people who use the word don’t even know who Charles Boycott was.


Blackmail derives from the old practice of clan chieftains who ran protection rackets against farmers in the Scottish-English border counties. If the farmers did not pay the mail, the chiefs would steal their crops and cattle. This sense of mail is from Old English meaning rent or tribute and ultimately comes from the Old Icelandic mál, meaning speech or agreement. (This is one of those Old English words introduced by Viking raiders.) This sense is unrelated to other senses of mail and is now obsolete except for its use in blackmail.

The black either comes from the evil connotation of this practice, or from the fact that this “rent” was usually paid in goods, like cattle, as opposed to silver coin, known as white money.

The earliest citation of blackmail in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Archbishop John Hamilton’s Catechism of 1552:

Whoever takes too much mail, too great farm rent, or any blackmail, from their tenants, or puts their peasants to too much labor, where the tenants and peasants are thrown into ruin.

The modern sense of any type of extortion money dates to sometime before 1826. It appears in Bishop Reginald Heber’sNarrative of a Journey Through The Upper Provinces of India from that year:

The country is burdened with a crowd of lazy, profligate, self-called suwarrs, who…obtain for the most part a precarious livelihood by spunging [sic] on the industrious tradesmen and farmers, on whom they levy a sort of “black-mail.”


Jacques Heim revealing the “bikini”

On 1 July 1946, the United States conducted the first post-war test of an atomic weapon at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Bikini was the site for numerous nuclear weapons tests through 1958. Four days after this first test, fashion designer Jacques Heim exhibited a two-piece swimsuit which he dubbed the bikini in an attempt to ride the publicity wave created by the well-publicized detonation.

Le Monde Illustré of August 1947 glosses bikini thusly:

Bikini… likened the level of the clothes at the beach to an annihilation of the dressed surface; an extreme minimization of modesty.


Boustrophedonic (boo-strohf-ih-DON-ik) Pertaining to lines of writing that run right to left, then left to right, etc.

Ever wonder why we read left to right, then whip back to the left side of the page before starting the next line? Not all ancient peoples wrote that way. Some used a style called boustrophedon –Greek for "ox-turning"– mimicking the pattern of an ox trudging back and forth in a field. Archaeologists have found boustrophedonic inscriptions in such places as Crete, Italy, India, Northern Europe, Central America, and Easter Island.



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