Vocabulary Rocks! C is for…

Vocabulary Rocks! C 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


Cachinnate (KAK-uh-nayt) To laugh loudly and boisterously; to guffaw.

This word is from Latin cachinnare, meaning "to laugh loudly," and is probably onomatopoetic.

"I have a feeling that the authors of that new book that says you can lose weight by sleeping more are going to be cachinnating all the way to the bank."


This enthusiastic exclamation of surfers has its roots in children’s television programming of the 1950s. Cowabunga, or Kawabonga, was originally used by the television character Chief Thunderthud on the Howdy Doody Show. From a Mad magazine parody of the show in the December 1954 issue:

Gosharootie … I mean Kowabunga, Clarabella! Is something me gottum askum you!!

(Clarabell the clown was another character on Howdy Doody and this appears to be a reference to the show.)

“Buffalo Bob” Smith, host of the show, explained where the term came from:

As far as I know, our Howdy Doody writer, Eddie Kean “made up” the word Kawabonga—which Chief Thunderthud used when things were bad. When he was happy he said another original word, Kawagoopa.


The word curfew originates in the medieval practice of ringing a bell at a fixed time in the evening as an order to bank the hearths and prepare for sleep. It comes from the Anglo-Norman coeverfu, the equivalent of the Old French cuevre-fe, or cover fire.

We can see the Anglo-Norman in the 1285 Statutes of London:

Apres Coeverfu personé a Seint Martyn le graunt.  (After Curfew person on Saint Martin the great.)

And the English a few decades later in the Seuyn Sages, c.1320:

Than was the lawe in Rome toun, That, whether lord or garsoun That after Corfu be founde rominde, Faste men scholden hem nimen and binde.
(Then was the law in Roman towns, that, when a man or boy is found roaming about after curfew, men should take and bind him fast.)


Cancer Stars

Both the disease and the astronomical constellation derive from the Latin cancer or cancrum, meaning crab. The astrological sign is said to resemble a crab, and was known to the Anglo-Saxons, but only as a Latin name, and was not assimilated into English until the Middle English period. It appears in Ælfric’s De Temporibus Anni, written c.993, in a list of the constellations of the Zodiac. The disease was so named by the ancient Greek physician Galen (129-200 A.D.) who noted the similarity between a certain type of tumor with a crab—the swollen veins around the tumor resembling the legs of a crab.

Old English adopted cancer directly from Latin and used it for a variety of spreading sores and ulcers. This early sense survives in the modern word canker.  The word was being applied specifically to the disease we today call cancer by the beginning of the 17th century. From Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s Historie of the World:

Cancer is a swelling or sore comming of melancholy bloud, about which the veins appeare of a blacke or swert colour, spread in manner of a Creifish clees.

Call a Spade a Spade

The phrase means: to speak bluntly without euphemism or delicacy, and comes to us from Plutarch (c.46-c.120 A.D.), the Greek biographer and essayist, although not in its current form. Plutarch used the phrase to call a bowl a bowl in his Apophthegmata. The Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1467-1536) translated Plutarch and made an error when he came to this phrase. He confused the Greek word for bowl with that for a shovel; in Greek they are very similar, coming from the same root. This was carried into English by Nicholas Udall’s 1542 translation of Erasmus’ work:

Philippus aunswered, that the Macedonians wer feloes of no fyne witte in their termes but altogether grosse, clubbyshe, and rusticall, as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.

The word spade, meaning shovel, comes from the Old English spadu, which has a root found in many Germanic languages.

The racial epithet, on the other hand, comes from the symbol on a deck of cards. The card suit is from the Italian spada, or sword. The symbol on the playing card is a stylized image of a sword. English use of the card suit name dates to 1598, from John Florio:

Those markes vpon the playing cards called spades.

The derogatory use of spade to refer to an African-American man dates to 1928, in C. McKay’s Home To Harlem:

Jake is such a fool spade. Don’t know how to handle the womens.


coconut holes

When Portuguese explorers first happened upon coconut trees in the tropics, they were struck by the way those three holes in the bottom of the nut resembled a little face. So they called it a coco, their word for a “goblin,” “bogeyman,” or “grinning skull.” Somewhere along the way, speakers of English added the nut to its name.



Where does the word colonel come from and why is the pronunciation so at odds with the spelling?

Colonel is originally Italian, a colonello being the commander of a military column, or in Italian colonna. The French adopted the military rank, and in so doing switched the L for R (L/R switches are a common pronunciation shift), producing the French word coronel.

English adopted the French word, with an R spelling coronell in the mid-16th century. From a letter written by a T. Ellis in 1548:

Certen of the worthiest Almaynes at the desire of their coronell…reentred the same.

Starting in the late-16th century, translations of Italian military treatises started using the etymologically correct L spelling, and by the mid-17th century, colonel was the accepted English spelling. But the R pronunciation was firmly established and did not change. From Robert Barret’s The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres (1598):

In the time of…Henrie the eight…those were intituled Colonels, or as some will, Coronels, which the Spaniardes do call Maesters de Campo.


James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan

James Thomas Brudenell, seventh Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868) was the British soldier who lead the famous charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.

“Their’s not to make reply, Their’s not to reason why, Their’s but to do and die: Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Although more than half of his troops were killed or wounded, the earl survived the battle. The type of woolen waistcoat he habitually wore, and which was worn by his troops for warmth, eventually was named in his honor. A description of the “Cardigan Jacket” from 1867 is recognizable as essentially the same garment as is worn today:

“This jacket is named after the British officer who led the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava it is knitted of worsted, or crocheted of Berlin wool, and your sister or cousins can make it, or they are not half as accomplished in the useful and ornamental arts as I take them to be. It is simply a jacket to fit the figure, long enough to come down over the hips; it buttons down the front, and the sleeves are tight at the wrists, which is a great point towards keeping you warm. These jackets may be seen in the stores, but the price is very high, except for poor, short things, ended soon after they were begun.”


Cenacle (SENN-uh-kull) A clique or circle, especially of writers; a literary group.

The Roman word for "meal" was cena, and they called the "dining room" a cenaculum. This word's English progeny, cenacle, first meant "small dining room", and later "a room where people with common interests gather." Eventually English cenacle came to refer specifically to any group of literary types who might gather in such a place.



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