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 flea market is a translation of the French marché aux puces — literally “market with fleas” — an open-air market where second-hand goods are sold. Generally, the word flea connoted low-rent or cheap, because such places were often infested with fleas.
There is going on just now near the Barriere de Montreuil, at the extreme east end of Paris a sale of rubbish, familiarly known to its frequenters by the unattractive name of the “Flea Market.” ~ Belfast News-Letter, July 28, 1891
The term quickly jumped the pond to America. From the Wisconsin Janesville Gazette of November 4, 1891:
Near the Barriere de Montreuil, in Paris, they have sales of odds and ends known as the “flea market.” A woman recently bought a dilapidated old mattress and, cutting it open, found 14,000 francs in gold.
Some suggest that the term is also influenced by the fact that the locations of such markets are not fixed and jump around like fleas. While this may be a characteristic of the markets, it does not appear to be the origin.
This is one of my favorite words! It is just so fun, isn’t it? Meaning a “chattering gossip, frivolous or flighty woman,” the origins are quite old, dating to 1450 when it was recorded as fleper-gebet. It appears to have been an imitation of the sound of meaningless speech, akin to the origins of babble and yadda-yadda.
There are many spellings over time (the OED lists 15 variations) with flibbergib believed to be the original. The modern spelling is from good ole William Shakespeare —who borrowed the word from a 1603 book by Samuel Harsnet listing 40 fiends. In King Lear, Edgar says:
“This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet. … He gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the harelip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth.”
In Kenilworth, Sir Walter Scott used flibbertigibbet to describe a mischievous and flighty small child. Yet despite the great influence of these two writers upon language, neither meaning (a fiend or mischievous child) supplanted the original usage.
As one might expect, there is more to the word fiddlestick than merely the proper name for “the bow of a fiddle” somehow morphing into the exclamation meaning “nonsense, rubbish.” Indeed, there is nothing inherently hysterically funny about the object used to draw sound from a fiddle. The instrument by either English name (fiddle or violin) dates to the 14th century, with fiddlestick the accepted word for the bow.
William Shakespeare used fiddlestick in Henry IV, referencing “the devil rides on a fiddle-stick” to indicate the imagery of a witch’s broom accompanied by the clamorous noise of a fiddle if played by the devil. Yet even here, the meaning of something trivial or insignificant was not the point.
Researchers believe fiddlesticks in the “nonsense” meaning arose as an exclamation c.1600, most likely simply because it is a strangely comedic sounding word. Thomas Nash is the first user of the word, in his 1600 play Summer’s Last Will and Testament—
“A fiddlesticke! ne’re tell me I am full of words.”
In the century that followed, fiddlesticks evolved into the standard meaning of something trifling, absurd, nonsensical, contemptuous, and so on.
French kiss — an open-mouthed kiss with tongue — dates from a 1918 letter appearing in Private Lindner’s Letters: Censored and Uncensored.
So I have decided to become a linguist. Being able to read French fluently and speak it wretchedly, and to speak German connectively but not to read it at all, I am taking up Luxembourg, which is a wonderful blend of the two, a sort of liaison between tongues. (Not to be confused with French kissing.)
But why French? Well, the French have been associated with sexual practices dating back to the 18th century.
But I am so far from desiring to exhibit such Pictures to the Public, that I would wish to draw a Curtain over those that have lately been set forth in certain French novels. ~ Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding in 1749.
In this case, Fielding was writing about risqué novels that were literally French. By the mid-19th century, the figurative sense was well established. From Robert Browning’s 1842 Bells and Pomegranates:
Or, my scrofulous French novel,
On grey paper with blunt type!
Fog is one of a multitude of words whose origins are obscure. Earliest references had nothing to do with mist or water. Fog was the name for new grass which grows up in a field after it has been cut for hay, or the long grass which is left standing in the field over winter. Various grasses to this day contain this original meaning within their names, such as Yorkshire Fog. In Scotland and the north fog also mean moss, and hence a marsh or bog with mossy growth. The next step was to create the adjective foggy for places overgrown with long grass or a place that was marshy or boggy. It is unclear how, or when the word foggy evolved to mean “the state of being thick or murky, as of the mist or vapors that arose from such places.” Some speculate it was a reference to the heavy morning dew on long grass, which from a distance can look like a layer of mist, developing into the modern meaning of fog.
Some writers suggest that the Danish word fog, meaning “spray; shower” may be connected, although this is less certain.
The oldest sense of fudge is the verb, meaning to cobble together something in a makeshift manner, or to adjust accounts or numbers to make them conform to requirements. It is a variant of the verb to fadge, meaning “to fit; to make suitable” of unknown etymology dating to at least 1578. The form fudge may date to as early as 1674 when it appears in Nathaniel Fairfax’s A Treatise of the Bulk and Selvedge of the World.
Fudge as an interjection meaning “nonsense, or humbug” dates to 1766. It probably comes, in equal parts, from the verb form and from an inarticulate grunt.
The very impolite behaviour of Mr. Burchell, who…at the conclusion of every sentence would cry out Fudge! ~ The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, 1766
The name of the candy is a relatively recent variant, only dating to the late 19th century, and comes from the verb, a reference to it being easy to make.