Horsefeathers: And Other Curious Words


Oh, horsefeathers!

If you've ever wondered why the candy is called butterscotch; why a certain southern food is called a hush puppy; why tog supports in a fireplace are known as andirons, or sometimes firedogs, you'll be fascinated by the origins of the more than 600 words discussed in "a book that gets curiouser and curiouser as it goes along" (Son Francisco Chronicle).

Dr. Funk looks at the ...

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Oh, horsefeathers!

If you've ever wondered why the candy is called butterscotch; why a certain southern food is called a hush puppy; why tog supports in a fireplace are known as andirons, or sometimes firedogs, you'll be fascinated by the origins of the more than 600 words discussed in "a book that gets curiouser and curiouser as it goes along" (Son Francisco Chronicle).

Dr. Funk looks at the origins of our common speech that have aquired their meanings in unusual ways.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060513375
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 815,962
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Earle Funk was editor in chief of the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary Series. He wrote several other books on word and phrase origins, including Horsefeathers, Heavens to Betsy!, and Thereby Hangs a Tale.

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First Chapter

Stirrup Cup

The Anglo-Saxon word which has become stirrup was stigrap, and if this were to be literally translated into modern English, it would become "sty-rope" or "climbing-rope." The Anglo-Saxon word is composed of the root stig-, from stigan, "to climb" (see under steward for sty, "to climb"), plus rap, "rope." This leads us to the conclusion that the first stirrups were merely short lengths of ropes thrown over the back of the steed, and having loops tied in either end. But the stirrup cup had nothing to do, either then or later, with any resemblance of these loops to cups. Instead, it could be translated today as "one for the road," for it was the cup of wine or other refreshment offered to the traveler who, having mounted, was in the stirrups and ready to take off upon a journey.


Nowadays one rarely hears this except as an expression of surprise coupled with annoyance or indignation, usually uttered by a precise elderly person in condemnation of the behavior of a niece or granddaughter. And that reflects its source, for hoity at one time -- some three centuries ago -- described a person who indulged in hoiting, an obsolete word, but meaning "acting like a hoyden." The toity was added just for rhyme, as scurry to rhyme with hurry in hurry-scurry. The variant exclamation highty-tighty arose through mispronunciation, from the same change in vowel sound that, in the seventeenth century, caused oil to be pronounced "ile"; boil, "bile"; join, "jine," etc.

Cucking Stool

Often confused withthe later and much less immodest ducking stool. The earlier device dates back, in England, at least to the eleventh century and was sometimes disguised under the Latin cathedra stercoris of the same meaning. When used, as it generally was, for the punishment of viragoes, and perhaps then modified in form, it was often merely called a scolding stool. Actually the cucking stool was a crudely constructed commode, upon which the culprit was securely fastened and exposed to the jeers of the townspeople for such length of time as the magistrate might determine. The punishment might be meted out also to dishonest bakers or other tradesmen. (See also ducking stool.)


Another beautiful example of what will happen to an Englishman's attempt to pronounce a foreign word. Nothing whatsoever of mush in it, nor of room. It was, in the fifteenth century, a poor English rendition of the Old French moisseron, modern mousseron. Some then spelled it, and probably pronounced it, muscheron, and in following years at least a score of other forms appeared . But before the French name was introduced, the fungus had the far more descriptive name, toad's hat. If only that name were still in use we might now use that for the edible fungus and toadstool for the inedible.


Authorities are in general agreement that steward is a descendant of the Anglo-Saxon stigweard, a combination of stig, "sty," and weard, "ward, keeper." However, they are quick to point out that it should not be inferred that this proves that the exalted position of steward, as major-domo, arose from such humble beginnings as the keeper of the pigsty. Sty is an old, old word, and its relatives are to be found in many, if not all, of the Teutonic family of languages, with a number of meanings, quite dissimilar. Even in English there have been such different meanings as "a path," "a ladder, or stair," and a verb sense, "to climb," as well as the common meaning today, "a pigpen." Skeat, in his Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, seems to have resolved the matter very prettily in saying, for steward, "The original sense was one who looked after the domestic animals, and gave them their food; hence, one who provides for his master's table, and generally, one who superintends household affairs for another." The key phrase is "one who provides for his master's table." This, far from being a menial task, has assuredly always been an important one, and it would be only natural that such a trusted servant would be given the greater responsibility of looking after the household in all other respects, too.

Proud Flesh

It is proud only by virtue of being swollen, as if by pride. In the same sense, we speak of grain which, by luxurious growth, is unseasonably proud, swollen beyond the normal stage of advancement.


The Spanish, at one time the rulers of the seas, have left their contributions to seafaring terms, and one of these is stevedore. It is derived from the Spanish noun of agency estivador, "one who stows cargo," of which the corresponding verb form is estivar, "to stow cargo." From the same source is the English verb, now little used, to steeve, "to pack tightly." A further derivation takes us to the Latin stipare, "to press closely together."


One might suppose that this had developed from the hole or den in which the young of the bear or fox may be found, but no. In rural parts of England one may still find places where cub means the shed or pen or stall for cattle, or the coop for chickens, or the hutch for rabbits, or even a monk's cell. It is a term, that is, for any small shelter. The diminutive, used chiefly by children referring to any small retreat of their own, is cubby, frequently extended to cubbyhole.

Horsefeathers. Copyright © by Charles E. Funk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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