Etymology Excavation: strong suit

Etymology Excavation: strong suit

‘Strong suit’ is a phrase meaning a strength, something you are good at. You can easily substitute ‘strong point’ or ‘forte’.

A common mis-spelling is ‘strong suite’, which may have its roots in common terms like ‘Microsoft suite’. It is nonetheless incorrect, however tempting,

My favourite sources are unusually firmly in agreement on the origins of the phrase, and they universally state that it derives from card games, where the suits are hearts, diamonds, aces, and spades.

To be more exact, most of the etymology sources say it originated from the game of bridge. Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology dictionary disagree on when this phrase came into use: Merriam-Webster holds it was 1742, and Etyonline says 1845. I’m going to go with some considerable time after cards came into common use and before people all got too keen on online games to play cards.

Examples of ‘strong suit’:

  • Patience is not my strong suit
  • He’s playing the long game; it’s his strong suit.

This seems to be a phrase that’s used in pretty much all variants of English, and it could be easily adapted for use in SFF world-building; admittedly, you would need to come up with some basic game concept to root it in first. The concept could equally easily be turned around in the world-building for a game-related phrase meaning a fatal weakness.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: sabotage

Etymology Excavation: sabotage

So, sabotage: what does it mean, and where does it come from?

I wrote a post recently about mercenary troops through the ages, and sabotage (raise your hand if you’re surprised) showed up.

To sabotage something, today, means to damage it, to render it unusable or in need of repairs, or to perform a task so badly as to make it pointless.

Examples of the word in use include:

  • We slashed the tyres to sabotage their transport.
  • The interruption completely sabotaged the flow of the class.

The most direct word origin is a French word, ‘sabot’, which means a wooden shoe, a clog. An expression common in my linguistic background was ‘clog up the works’, in the sense of slowing things down, which is almost certainly related. The term appear to date back to the early 1800s (in French),

Most people who’ve thought about the word ‘sabotage’ have a really alluring theory that it relates to abused French peasants tossing their sabots into the works of their machinery and causing shut-downs. Unfortunately, this has been pretty convincingly de-bunked in terms of actual history (but hang onto the thought for your writing – just because it’s not true here doesn’t mean something similar didn’t happen in your world-building).

The Online Etymology Dictionary and Grammarphobia hold that while there is a link to sabots, the actual reference is to workers moving slowly and clumsily in wooden shoes, and therefore being far less productive than those in leather shoes; industrial action (or inaction), if you will, rather than actual damage.

For another take on the topic of clogs doing some serious damage, check out Jackie Chan in ‘Who Am I?’ fighting with and in clogs.

The origins of the word, in this instance, may be of more interest to writers even than the word itself. As a reader, I find that it’s the small details in world-building that can really make a story click into place for me, and the idea behind sabotage, of a historical item of clothing that so hindered work as to have become proverbial, is something that could be built into almost any civilisation.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: fascinating

Etymology Excavation: fascinating

Well, I haven’t done an etymology excavation in quite some time, and it occurred to me that now would be a good time, because I recently found out where the word ‘fascinating’ comes from…or at least, I think I have, and it’s epic.

So why ‘fascinating’? Usually I look at phrases, where they come from, how they could be adapted to fiction, how they often get misused…well, I reckon actually that you may be misusing ‘fascinating’ without even knowing it.

Fascinate is originally from the Latin half of the English language, from fascinare. Feel free to run that through a few web searches, but originally to bewitch (or to hex, curse), to irresistibly attract, and also to deceive or to obfuscate (hide). You can see how that set of meanings vaguely relate to each other.

So that’s what the origin word meant, and how it got used down through today, when it’s used pretty much interchangeably with ‘interesting’.

However, I put it to you that fascinate shouldn’t actually be used as a conversation-stopper when whats-his-face will not STFU about whatever…fascinate deserves much better than that, and here’s why: I feel there is a solid argument to be made that fascinate, and fascinare, come from the name of  an ancient Roman deity, Fascinus. See the header for a few images of a fascinum amulet…

If you’re thinking that a fascinum amulet looks startlingly akin to a donger with wings on, well, you aren’t wrong. Ancient Romans, eh. Very similar to modern culture in so, so many ways…

But long story short, unless whatever you’re saying is fascinating is at least as good as a flying penis that wards off the evil eye, you’re probably using it wrong and blaspheming to boot.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: Toe the line

Etymology Excavation: Toe the line

‘Toe the line’ means to follow orders, to do as you’re told, conform to a set standard, or to not rock the boat. An alternative phrase that means exactly the same thing is ‘toe the mark’.

It’s often misspelt as ‘tow the line’, since the nautical term to tow something (drag something behind a boat via a line) sounds very similar, and also involves lines (usually, a rope).

Common theories on the origins of the expression include sporting events, where athletes line up with their toes literally on a line; the armed forces; and English public schools, where students would line up for roll-call. Wikipedia offers some entertaining alternatives, including lines separating armed politicians by a minimum distance to restore decorum during heated debates.

Examples of ‘toe the line’:

If you want to keep your job, you’d better toe the line.

She toed the party line when it came to immigration.

This phrase is very common in UK and US English, as is, unfortunately, the misspelling I noted earlier. Sources are notably unclear on when exactly it came into use, but the practice of scratching a line in the dirt to serve as a starting point for races, duels, or even ‘cross this and I’ll turn you into jam’ has been around for at least a couple of centuries – most likely, much longer.

It’s a nice colour phrase that usually adds a slightly ominous shading to the context, and could be used in most contemporary fiction. In sci-fi or fantasy genres, it could be adapted to match a culture from your world, and shouldn’t be used verbatim. In historical fiction, you run the risk of anachronism without doing a lot more careful checking on exactly when the phrase started to be used.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: Quixotic

Etymology Excavation: Quixotic

Seems as if once you start a good thing, the ideas just keep rolling. Today’s excavation concerns the word ‘quixotic’.

It’s a fun dig. Let’s start off with the dictionary definition as used today, courtesy of the Cambridge English Dictionary: ‘having or showing ideas that are different and unusual but not practical or likely to succeed’.

The origin of the term dates back to 1605, and the work of fiction written by Don Miguel de Cervantes, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. It’s more commonly known in English as Don Quixote. It’s a pretty lengthy story, but the basic idea concerns a nobleman (you guessed it, Don Quixote) whose brain has slipped a few vital gears and who thinks he’s a knight in the chivalric tradition. Amongst his antics are included tilting at windmills, which he mistook for giants.

As a point of general trivia, he names his long-suffering horse ‘Rocinante’, also the name given to the Mars ship used by James Holden and his crew in the TV series ‘The Expanse’.

Quixotic, and quixotically, are words which I feel deserve more use than they get. They also have a wide range of definitions; I used the Cambridge one as it sums it up well, but the word can be applied for anything from ‘odd’ to ‘quirky’ to ‘flaky’ (in the sense of someone not to be relied on).

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

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