Word Facts for Jan. 1-7, 2011

Word origin for the weekend of Jan. 1-2, 2011: ibuprofen – The chemical compound called “ibuprofen,” used as an anti-inflammatory and painkilling medication, was first brought to market in 1969. Its inventor, a British chemist named Stuart Adams, named it after its ingredients and qualities: i(so) and bu(tyl) and pro(pionic) + fen (that is, phenyl). Depending on last night’s celebrations, the medication might be useful today.

Word origin for Jan. 3, 2011: sell like hotcakes – A good that moves out the store door faster than it can be restocked is said to be “selling like hotcakes,” an expression with literal roots. At fairs in medieval England, hotcakes – crepes, really, such as can be bought on the street in Paris – were popular snacks, with an audience inclined to let caution fly and spend money freely, stuffing itself with treats otherwise rarely enjoyed.

Word origin for Jan. 4, 2011: pilgarlick – Readers of Charles Dickens and other nineteenth-century English writers may have encountered the word “pilgarlick” before. It does not mean someone who licks pilgars, whatever awful thing a pilgar might be, but instead a bald person, someone whose head figuratively looks like peeled garlic, which is the origin of the word. More figuratively still, it is a rough synonym for “wretch.”

Word origin for Jan. 5, 2011: cantankerous – An overly fussy person is called, in some parts of the United States, “cantankerous.” The word is an old one, borrowed from the dialects of southern England, in which (in the medieval period) a conflict was called a “contack” or “contank.” Thus, a “cantankerous” person is someone quick to engage in conflict… though of a smallish nature, as in “You kids go play someplace else!”

Word origin for Jan. 6, 2011: Epiphany – The Christian holiday “Epiphany” is celebrated on January 6, the last of the twelve days of Christmas. It takes its name from the Greek word meaning “appearance,” since (according to traditional belief) it was on that day that the Magi – or Three Wise Men from the East – first saw the baby Jesus.

Word origin for Jan. 7, 2011: lucrative – Something “lucrative” is profitable, as its Latin root lucrari (“to gain”) suggests. In England, the word has had a tainted sense since the 1520s, when the religious writer William Tyndale paired the word “lucre” (meaning “money”) with the word “filthy”: “filthy lucre.” This also gave us the expression “filthy rich.” Thus, in the United Kingdom, “lucrative” carries the suggestion that the profit is not on the up and up. The word does not carry the pejorative meaning in American English.


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