Archive for category Uncommon Definitions of Common Words

Give Peace a Chance

It seems to me that I’m hearing a lot more people arguing with each other these days, and I’m not just talking about the squabbling we hear out of Washington, or those big fights that are going on in places like Pakistan or disputeIraq.  I’m talking about the petty threaps and brabbles (e.g., arguments) between friends and in places like our kids’ schools.  Maybe it’s the economy.  Maybe it’s the long winter behind us.  But spring is upon us now and with it comes an opportunity to set aside our dissimilitudes and enjoy a regenesis from the warm weather.

Today’s common word is bicker, as to quarrel about petty matters. The word itself has an obscure history but probably comes to us from Middle Dutch in the 13th century from the word bicken which means to attack.  The word also has some pretty uncommon meanings.  The first is the noun form of the common definition above where bicker means a petty dispute or contention.  That one makes sense.  But bicker can also mean to sprint quickly over a short distance – maybe in reference to the person who is losing a bicker and wants to avoid escalation to a full-out brawl.  Closely associated with this last verbal definition is bicker as a verb meaning to quiver or vibrate.  Get mad enough during an argument and I’ve seen people begin to quiver all over.  These last two related noun definitions both come to us from the Scots and have no apparent connection with the common usage of bicker. In these definitions, bicker is both a wooden dish or bowl, especially one made of wooden staves and used for eating porridge, and a wooden drinking cup.  The etymology here is probably from the Middle English word biker which gives us the modern word beaker and can be associated with a cup or eating vessel.

So, let’s put aside our differences, realize that life’s too short as it is, kick back and imbibe your favorite drink, and just enjoy the silence.


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For Peat’s Sake

peatWhen I think of peat, which isn’t particularly often, I think of that partially carbonized organic vegetable matter that is used as fuel, but more importantly, is employed during the distillation process of creating Scotch whiskey.  My thoughts quickly turn to the Scottish highlands, bagpipes, William Wallace, and Scottish lassies running through fields of thistles.  See how this word association exercise focuses so predictably on the female gender, and managed to mention an alcoholic beverage, as well?  This is how I often find inspiration for my various word ramblings.

But back to the subject at hand; namely, peat.  The origin of this word is from the Middle English, but one variant from Old Irish was spelled pet, which probably explains the genesis of today’s alternate definitions of peat. (And just in case you ever want to pass along a gift to your favorite word blogger, my pet Scotches are Highland Park and Glenfiddich.)

One additional note – I’m aware that the real phrase for today’s subject is for pete’s sake, not peat, so please hold off on those correcting comments.  For pete’s sake falls under that broad subject of minced oaths – oaths that substitute a milder word, in this case pete, for a more offensive one, such as Christ or God.  I have a whole list of these oaths and a top 10 list might be in the offing.

peat n. 1. an endearment used for a young woman; darling.  2. a small person; often used disparagingly.

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Today’s common word comes from the Middle English term wede, meaning clothes or clothing.

weed n. 1. an article of clothing that indicates one’s profession or standing in society.  2. an article of clothing worn as a sign of mourning, especially a band of black crepe worn as a man’s hatband or as a widow’s black veil.  Also sometimes referred to in the plural as weeds.

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jugI am always amazed by the variety of meanings that everyday words, especially short, simple words, have adopted over time.  For example, take the word jug. This simple word, in use for at least five or six centuries, has obscure roots.  The origin is probably a familiar form of the given names of Joan and Jenny. Shakespeare used the word in this form, and in fact jug still has the meaning of a young woman in England.  Today, when we use jug, generally we are referring to a large, typically earthenware container with a narrow mouth and often a stopper, with the possibility of containing spiritous liquids.  The British has a similar common meaning for jug as a small pitcher.  But other meanings have developed over the years:

jug vt. to stew meat in a ceramic jar; also called jugged.

jug vt. to commit to jail or prison; imprison.

jug vi. of certain birds, such as quail and partridges, to collect in a covey.

jug n. an informal Scotish unit of liquid capacity equal to approximately 1.7 liters.

jug n. a jail or prison.

jug n. the sound made by a bird, especially a nightingale.

jug n. a bank.



oystersToday’s common word with an uncommon meaning is:

oyster n. a person who can keep a secret.

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Shaken, not stirred.  This immediately identifiable quote from James Bond was selected by the American Film Institute in 2005 as one of the top 100 best movie quotes.  The common word bond has a number of lesser known meanings, but the closest one to Bond’s famous martini order is:

bond n. 100 proof straight whiskey that has been aged a minimum of four years under regulatory supervision.

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The word orient is a very occidental word.  It comes from the Latin orient, and even further back to the Greek ornynai, meaning to rise. The word has always been associated with rising, the sunrise, and east, which makes sense since the modern term is most associated with the East, and the Orient is located east of Greece, Rome, and all points of occidental origin.  Over the years, this common word has taken on several alternate meanings, some of which have obvious links to its roots.

orient n. 1. a moderate to strong blue.  2. dawn; the time of day associated with the sunrise.  3. a very high quality gem, especially a pearl with an exceptional luster.  4. used in navigation, the place on the horizon where the sun rises.   5. adj. ascending; especially, rising in the sky.   6. vt. in mathematics, to assign to a surface a constant outward direction at each point.

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