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
The term doughnut is first attested to 1809 in Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York. But Irving does not refer to the toroidal confection that we know today. Instead, what he describes are small balls of fried dough, what we would today call doughnut holes:
An enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called doughnuts, or olykoeks.
The nut comes from the size and shape of these balls, literally nut-like objects made out of dough.
Thoreau references oblong-shaped doughnuts, what we might today call a cruller, in an 1847 Atlantic Monthly article:
The window was… the size of an oblong doughnut, and about as opaque.
Apparently, the familiar toroidal shape did not become standard until the 20th century.
Deadline is currently almost exclusively used to mean a time by which a task must be accomplished, but this was not always so. In the past, deadline had a variety of meanings, all related to a boundary for which there was a severe penalty for crossing.
The oldest of these uses dates to the American Civil War and refers to a line drawn around a military prison outside of which a prisoner could be shot, a literal “dead” line. From the Congressional Record of January 12, 1864:
The “dead line,” beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the sense of a physical boundary or cordon predominated, although deadlines weren’t necessarily associated with the use of lethal force. Here is a typical example from an Indiana newspaper, the Fort Wayne Gazette of April 22, 1899:
…the crowds gathered just outside the “dead line” drawn by the watchmen, beyond which only possessors of tickets were allowed to pass.
This one refers to the border between financial solvency and insolvency for a dancing establishment. The Decatur Review of October 24, 1909:
The dancing proposition seems to be hovering near the dead line. During the last year that feature has made a little money, though only a little.
By 1909 the term had developed to also mean a mandatory retirement age, or an age beyond which a worker would not be hired. This sense appeared with some frequency, although it is not nearly as common as the sense of a physical boundary, but was the first use involving a concept of time. By 1913 the use of deadline was firmly established by newspapers for when material must be ready for print — “…midnight is the absolute “dead line” for “copy” to go into the next day’s Record.” The Sheboygan Journal of January 15, 1913 — and has since remained primarily in use referring to publications.
Is it duct or duck? One might think that duct tape — the grey tape used for sealing heating and ventilating ducts — is the original and that the duck version formed as an eggcorn. Not so. Duck tape appears to be the original, and is definitely older than duct tape. The real question as to whether duct tape formed from duck tape, or was independently coined.
Duck is a strong, untwilled linen or cotton fabric, similar to, but lighter than canvas. The word comes from the Dutch doeck, meaning linen cloth, and appears in English by the mid-17th century. A 1640 reference appears in John Entick’s 1766 History and Survey of London and Places Adjacent:
Duck hinderlands, middle good headlock.
(Hinderland is a type of cloth from Europe.)
Duck tape appears in the 1940s. An ad in the New York Times of June 14, 1945 uses duck tape to refer to the cloth holding venetian blinds together:
In cream with cream tape or in white with duck tape.
The New York Times on October 22, 1945 includes the following in a list of surplus military equipment being auctioned. Like the venetian blind tape, this is probably not the sticky tape we are familiar with today, but rather non-adhesive cloth tape:
Cotton Duck Tape, 1” to 1 1/2” wide, 44,108 yds
Duct tape appears a few decades later, this time definitely of the adhesive variety with which we’re familiar today. Again from a New York Times ad from November 1970:
14,000 Rolls 2″x60 yds silver & colored cloth tape packed 24 rolls to a case, asking $1.25 a roll.
The sticky duct tape could have come from the early non-sticky duck tape, a specialized application for the tape. Both are cloth tape. But it could also have developed separately.
Dizzy sounds like it should be a fairly recent coinage. The double Z makes it seem very modern and the word has a slangy air about it. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dizzy is a very old word, going back to the Old English dysig or dyseg, meaning foolish or stupid. The word appears in the Vespasian Psalter from c.825:
swe folc dysig
(such dizzy folk)
And in the Lindisfarne Gospel of Matthew, c.950:
gelic bið were dysge se ðe getimberde hus his ofer sonde
(is like a dizzy man who built his house upon sand)
This sense seems to have dropped out of general use in the 13th century, being preserved in the dialectal speech of northern England until the late 19th century, when it reemerged in America and reentered general use. From the 1878 Funny Fatherland: A Leg-end of the Rhine:
She has seen many a dizzy Blond in America, and don’t think they are so wonderful.
The sense meaning giddy, subject to a whirling sensation, or prone to vertigo appears in the 14th century. From Richard Rolle of Hampole’s c.1340 The Pricke of Conscience:
Than waxes his hert hard and hevy. And his heved feble and dysy.
In Roman myth, the hunter Orion had a favorite dog that was rewarded at the end of his life by being turned into the bright star known as Sirius. The Romans therefore gave the star a nickname: Canicula or “little dog” (a relative of English canine). During late summer, Sirius rises and sets with the sun, and the Romans believed that the presence of Canicula made the sun even hotter during that time. So they referred to those weeks as the dies caniculares, or “Dog-Star days” – the forerunner of our own term for this sweltering period.
To throw something or someone out of a window.
Angry at a lack of religious freedom, Protestant insurgents broke up a meeting of royal officials in Hradcany, the Prague Castle, then went on to express their extreme displeasure by tossing two officials and their secretary out a window. The defenestrated trio weren’t seriously hurt, however. Depending on which account you read, this is either because they were tossed out of a window that was relatively low, or landed in a moat, or perhaps both.
At any rate, this picturesque event became widely known as the “Defenestration of Prague.” It ignited the devastating Thirty Years’ War, as Protestants from neighboring countries joined together in revolt against the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II. For more on this event, click this link: The 30 Years War: The Defenestration of Prague
Defenestrate comes from Latin fenestra, meaning “window,” and is therefore a relative of words for “window” in several other languages, including French fenêtre, German Fenster, and Italian finestra.