Early sleeping potions were composed of apples and urine. The malic acid in apples combined with uric acid to produce a potion capable of interfering with nerve function, inducing calmness and euphoria. Early experiments in Germany incorporated urine donated by a waitress named Barbara. Researchers combined her name with uric of uric acid to coin the term “barbituric acid,” now known as barbiturates.
Edward I of England invaded Scotland in 1296. In every town that was overtaken, he would force the local politicians to sign a document pledging support to the King. The term for an official document written on a scroll was “ragman roll” likely named for a clergyman named Rageman who was the first to insist rules and accounting be kept. As officials made public readings of the long boring ragman rolls, people got tired of listening to what we now call “rigamarole.”
The Greek word for oyster shell was “ostrakon.” In Athens a citizen could be banished by popular consent of other citizens. People would gather in the marketplace and vote to get rid of the offending person by writing down their name on a piece of tile or pottery and dropping it into an urn. Because the pieces of pottery looked like oyster shells, they were called “ostrakon.” That’s why when we exclude a person, we have “ostracized” them.
Early stage actors were lighted by primitive lights that used heated calcium oxide, or quicklime, to produce a brilliant light. Thus, they were standing in the “limelight.”
Agates were found in abundance near the Sicilian river Achates, pronounced “akate.”
“Char” was an old-fashioned synonym for “chore,” thus “charwoman” was a woman who did chores.
When you soft-pedal something, you are referring to the pedal on a piano which is used to mute the tone. When you pull out all the stops, you are acting like an organist who pulls out all the knobs, or stops, in order to use all the organ pipes.
Quarrymen in ancient Rome sometimes covered their marble blocks with wax to conceal flaws and cracks in the stone. The imperfections appeared as soon as the first rainfall washed the wax away. The Roman Senate passed a law to prevent this duplicity, stating that all marble must be sold “sine cera” or “without wax.” Today “sincere” means “without deception.”
The definition of blizzard was originally “a stunning blow, as by the fist” and usually was used in reference to knock-out punches in boxing. On March 14, 1870 a snowstorm hit Iowa hard and a newspaper reporter wrote that the storm had knocked-out the city with a blizzard— and a new definition was born.
During the days of knights in shining armor, a “buckler” was a small shield used to defend oneself from the blows of an adversary’s sword. “Swash” was the word used as we use the word “swish” today: a sound that a sword cutting through the air might make. A swashbuckler was a man who made a great show of fencing, by swashing his sword and striking his opponent’s buckler.
The work “knuckle” once meant any joint in the body such as elbows and knees. Kneeling down as in submission came to be called “knuckling under.”
The Italian word for a drinking flask is “fiasco.” How did an Italian drinking flask come into our language meaning a total failure? Because when Italian glass blowers were creating a piece of fine crystal glassware but ruined it with a mistake, the only way some value could be salvaged was to turn it into a fiasco.