Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Crocodile tears and buccaneers

"I'm a sentimental sap that's all...."
I trust I'm not giving too much away by revealing that the answer to the question posed in the title of the book What Made the Crocodile Cry (subtitle: "101 Questions About the English Language") is that their tear ducts spew due to the enthusiasm with which they masticate. Ewww … 
On a more savory note, "buccaneer" derives from the tradition of cooking wild oxen and boars on a "boucan" (barbecue) in the West Indies, a favorite hangout of pirates and other assorted swashbucklers.

"Gone ashore for boar..."
 "Steal my thunder" comes from a theatrical device for creating same that was appropriated from its inventor, whereas "short shrift" describes a no-frills confession given to convicts on the way to execution.

Who knew that "serendipity" is often chosen as Britain's favorite word, behind "nincompoop" and "discombobulate"? And can you imagine the U.S. having such a survey? This loverly coinage came to us from Horace Walpole, who based it on a fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip" in which the heroes make a series of accidental discoveries that prove fortuitous.

For me, the picturesque term "skid row" always conjured up a scary scene in which the populace and their environs had slid down to the bottom of the social ladder. Turns out that's about right. Apparently, skids were used to propel logs down to lumber mills, and the phrase was applied to the cheap bars and other establishments that sprang up in the vicinity.  Any favorite word origins you care to share?


  1. So, When I eat an especially delicious meal and cry tears of joy, those would be crocodile tears of joy?
    I love the mental image I got from thinking of the sentimental old croc weaping tears of culinary delight over his dinner.

  2. I will answer your question, then get back to the future.
    You may never see this; please ask the question again!
    My favorite word origin is for sardonic. It comes from Sardinia, where, it is alleged, there is a plant which, when eaten, produces convulsive laughter until death. One can die of laughter, even without the plant.
    I don't know anyone personally who has a favorite word origin, so they may be right in saying I'm a bit weird.
    I predict your blog to be a great success, by the way.