I was looking for the origins of “quartermaster” as a term the other day and the wisdom of the interwebs tells me that there are two possible sources. It could come from the “master of quarters” who looked after the accommodation (royal or military), or it could come from the “master of the quarterdeck” on ships.
Given there’s no solid path for the origin, I’m going to pick the master of the quarterdeck. Why? Well, I like ships. And I like naval terms.
As a result of my love affair with film noir, I’ve heard the term “button men” (hitmen) a few times and always thought it was an odd phrase for killers. The other day, I finally got around to looking up where it comes from and the origins did not disappoint.
First of all, a “button man” was a post war term for soldier – having “buttons” on their clothes – to differentiate from civilians. I’m guessing post WWI and American, but I could be wrong.
Then “button man” got applied to the lower ranks of mafia people, who are also termed “soldiers”.
Then, possibly due to the upper management of mafia families distancing themselves from actual killing and so relying on their soldiers for the task, it came to mean hitman or assassin in mafia/gangster terms. Which very occasionally means you get “button him” or similar to mean kill, but that might only be in fiction!
Lap is such a small word, but it has a lot of different meanings:
- the upper part of the legs when sitting (1300s)
- to lick up liquid (old)
- water flowing against a shore etc (1800s)
- to lay something over something else (1600s)
- one circuit around a track or length of a pool (1800s)
When you look at that list, it’s not easy to see how they relate. Which is because they have different origins that happened to end up at the same word; lap.
Your lap comes from an old proto-germanic word for a skirt or flap of fabric, which makes sense. Lapping up milk comes from a completely different proto-germanic word for lick. Lapping water comes from the licking sense, but after that it’s a bit harder to pick how you get to the other meanings. Then again a person’s lap has had such a lively life in slang, that it’s easy to imagine those meanings came from something common about laps that we don’t get today.
My favourite slang terms are:
- lap-clap for having sex (around 1600)
- lap-ful for husband
One meaning of lap I didn’t know until I got curious for this post, was that in the 1300s lap also meant to envelop something. Maybe that’s where the covering and then overlapping idea comes from?
I’ve always wondered why the important bit of a plane was called a cockpit. There just doesn’t seem to be anything pit-ish about it and the cocks… well. But that’s, in fact, pretty much what it comes from; the long and inglorious history of people putting roosters in a confined space and betting on who comes out alive!
This goes back to the late 1500s. People came up with the very imaginative name of cockpit to describe where cock-fights took place. The term then became a way to describe any scene of battle. Then, in the 1700s it was applied to the area aboard a naval ship where surgeons plied their trade. Then it was applied to the part from which a yacht is steered and from that, onto the similar area of a plane or car in the early 1900s.
I also love that he snuck ‘grok’ in there… ah, xkcd, you bring me joy!
Staring at a crane the other day (construction site type, not the feathered) I noticed the wind speed gauge spinning its little heart out and wondered what they were called. Surely they had to have a better name than “wind speed gauge”… Apparently, I was admiring an anemometer, which is a word comprised of a bit of Greek and a bit of English.
Anemos means wind and a meter is a measuring device, but the cool thing is that they’ve been around for a quite a while. Long before air travel and kangaroo cranes required them!
My best word-nerdish score though in looking up anemometers was that the cranes I’ve been staring at that have them attached are called “luffing” cranes. Luffing. Isn’t that a great word? It too is to do with the wind, but comes from – of all places – sailing ships! Possibly not so surprising considering just how many words come from ships.
My favourite wind measuring thing though is a wind sock. As cool as anemometers are, you just can’t go past a wind sock for simplicity and amusement. Because they’re are basically a sock on a stick. *giggles*
What’s the fastest fish in the world?
A motor pike.
(Just be grateful I didn’t save all the jokes from the xmas crackers this year! I promise this is the last one.)