Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins

Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins

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by Charles Earle Funk

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There are hundreds of words in our common speech that originated or acquired their meanings in unusual ways, & the dictionaries cannot find the space to give us the stories. This book thoroughly & entertainingly tells the stories of these words & the circumstances that brought them into our language. For example, the word dunce comes from the great philosopher Duns…  See more details below


There are hundreds of words in our common speech that originated or acquired their meanings in unusual ways, & the dictionaries cannot find the space to give us the stories. This book thoroughly & entertainingly tells the stories of these words & the circumstances that brought them into our language. For example, the word dunce comes from the great philosopher Duns Scotus. Tantalize comes from the Greek legend of punishment given to Tantalus by the wrathful god Zeus. The name Easter was taken from a pagan goddess, & the names of the days of the week denote dedication to ancient pagan gods.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Colophon Books
Edition description:
1st Harper colophon ed
Product dimensions:
6.11(w) x 8.11(h) x 1.11(d)

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The so-called sport of bear-baiting was widely known among the Teutonic countries a thousand years ago, but it became nowhere more popular than in England, especially after the fourteenth century. For the pleasure of the spectators, a bear, freshly caught and starved enough to make it vicious, was fastened to a stake by a short chain or, it might be, was turned loose in a small arena. Then dogs were set upon it, fresh dogs being supplied if the first were maimed or killed. In the end, of course, after perhaps hours of sport, one of the dogs would succeed in seizing the exhausted bear by the throat and worry it to death. The man or boy who urged his dog to attack was said to abet it, using a contracted Old French word -- abeter, meaning to bait, or hound on. The early French, in turn, had taken a Norse word, beita, which meant to cause to bite. So, though we now use abet in speaking of persons -- chiefly of persons who encourage others in wrongful deeds -- the word traces back to an Old Norse command to a dog, an order to attack, equivalent, perhaps, to the modern "Sic 'em!"


When anything is in abeyance now we mean that it is in a state of inaction, that the matter, whatever it was, is dormant, although some action is expected to occur eventually. It was that expectancy that gave us the word, for it came as a law term, after the Norman Conquest, from the Old French abeance, a state of expectancy. The term referred especially to the condition of a property or title while, after the death of the former possessor, often by foul means in those days, his successor could be determined from among variousclaimants. The Old French word was derived from the verb beer (modern bayer), to gape, to expect, perhaps because of the gaping expectancy with which the settlement of an estate was awaited either by the rightful heir or by a hopeful usurper, none too certain that his claim would pass scrutiny.


When the hair stands up from fright or dread, we have the literal meaning of abhor. The Latin source of our verb was abhorreo, from ab, away from, and horreo, to stand on end, to bristle. Thus the literal meaning was to shrink back from with horror, but though the verb still expresses great repugnance, it no longer conveys the notion of shuddering dread or fear that its use indicated to the Romans.


We must turn to the Bible to see why this feminine proper name started to become a synonym for servant. In the First Book of Samuel, the twenty-fifth chapter tells how David, in return for past favors, made a peaceful request to the wealthy Nabal for food for his followers. Nabal rejected the request and David was about to take by force what had been denied. But Abigail, Nabal's wife, heard of the affair. She learned, first, that the request was reasonable, then taking more food with her than had been requested, she went to David to turn away his wrath. She was just in time. Her abject apologies for the churlishness of her husband fill the next eight verses of the chapter; in them, to show her great humility, she refers to herself six times as David's "handmaid." The association of name and occupation was further fixed in men's minds by the dramatists, Beaumont and Fletcher. When writing the play, The Scornful Lady, in 1609, they gave the name Abigail to the very spirited lady's maid who had one of the leading parts. This character, or the actress who played the part, made so great an impression on the audiences that the later writers, Congreve, Swift, Fielding, Smollett, and others began to use the name as that of any lady's maid.


The Romans were intensely superstitious. Any chance event or chance remark that occurred on the eve of an undertaking was carefully examined to determine whether it might indicate good luck or bad luck. Thus Cicero tells us that Crassus, when about to embark upon his ill-fated expedition against the Parthians, should have turned back. At the harbor, a man selling dried figs from Caunus, gave the cry, "Cauneas!" to signify the source of his wares. This to the Romans sounded like "Cave ne eas," meaning, "Beware of going," which Crassus should have taken to be a sign of bad luck, an evil omen. Crassus had not heeded the warning, however, and was treacherously slain by the Parthians. Any such omen as that was considered to have been a clear portent of doom, amply warning one to avoid whatever undertaking he had in mind. For that reason it was described as abominabilis, from ab, away from, and omen. The early sense of the term, "direful, inspiring dread, ominous," came through association of ideas to mean "loathsome, disgusting," because it was usually loathsome things that were taken as omens of evil.

abound, abundant

When things are in such profusion as to be like the waves of the sea overflowing the land, we may properly say that they abound. Literally, that is what the word means. It comes to us from the Latin, abundo, to overflow, from ab, from, and unda, wave, billow, surge. Our words abundant and abundance have the same poetic source.


Card-playing has been known in Europe since about the middle of the thirteenth century, but it is not known how soon thereafter the players discovered ways to cheat their opponents. But by the late sixteenth century, at least, the players had learned that cheating was more difficult, more easily detected, if the cards around the table were all kept in open sight -- literally, "above the board." This expression was used so frequently among card-players that it became contracted in the early seventeenth century to aboveboard.

Thereby Hangs A Tale. Copyright � by Charles E. Funk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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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