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Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

“At full tilt” means flat out, at top speed, as fast as possible. Its origins don’t have anything to do with being unsteady, at an angle, or, indeed poker.

The term derives from the sport of jousting, or tilting (ever heard of ’tilting at windmills’?), and ‘at full tilt’ is believed to have first come into use as an expression in the mid-1600s. Common theories (check out etymonline.com for even more good stuff) are that it comes from either the practice of leaning in to meet the attack when jousting, or, conversely, from tilt or tent, referring to the flimsy barrier that separates the two riders when they joust.

Examples of ‘at full tilt’

I ran down the hill at full tilt.

We’re going to need to work at full tilt to get this done in time.

Is it still in common use? Depends who you ask. I’m a Millennial, and I use it; my parents’ generation certainly did. On the whole, it’s probably more likely to be used in British English than American English.

It’s one of those phrases you can use to hint at a character’s background in contemporary work such as a thriller – maybe your anti-hero is British and gives himself away with it, for example.

If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you can also adapt this type of expression. If (random example, honest) your invented culture includes people swinging on big metal balls hung from cranes, you’d use ‘at full swing’. (Oddly enough, ‘in full swing’ is another weird English idiom that I probably will be covering on another day.)

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: coming down the pike

Etymology Excavation: coming down the pike

‘Coming down the pike’ can be used to indicate something coming to prominence, up-and-coming, making itself noticed. I’ve also seen it used as a warning phrase, e.g. ‘something big’s coming down the pike – better get ready.’.

A common mistake with this one is ‘coming down the pipe’, which possibly came into being as the word ‘pike’ became less and less common.

Coming down the pikeAccording to Grammarist, usage of the word pike originated in the U.S.A. in the early 19th century, and the earliest known instances of ‘coming down the pike’ appeared around 1900.

However, the word pike, or turnpike, has become increasingly rarer, mostly replaced by ‘toll road’ or ‘highway’ – ‘motorway’ in other English dialects – and so many people have slipped into using ‘pipe’ for ‘pike’, most likely because they know what ‘pipe’ means and are a lot less certain of ‘pike’.

Examples of ‘coming down the pike’:

  • With the budget report out next week, we’re looking at a lot of questions coming down the pike
  • Jim McClaffee is the biggest thing to come down the pike since Bob Dylan!

This phrase is fairly common, although not exactly well-known, and ‘down the pipe’, as mentioned above, is probably its most common misspelling. Pretty much every source that mentioned this phrase indicated it originated in US English, although I have heard it occasionally used in the UK.

This would be a really simple base phrase to adapt to pretty much any fantasy or sci-fi world; after all, everyone has to get from place to place somehow. For example, substitute ‘skyway’ for ‘pike’…and there you are, brand new, relatable idiom.

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: 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).

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