Words (Yet Again)

Time to burden you again with my fascination with words. Today I start with:

Persnickety. According to Oxford Languages, it means placing too much emphasis on trivial or minor details; fussy. The word is a late nineteenth century alteration of “pernickety.” It is of uncertain origin; the Dictionary of the Scots Language says that it resembles per- (“intensifying prefix”) + nick, but might be derived from particular + finicky with the form influenced by past participles ending in -et, -it, -ed.

Next, wacko. My Merriam-Webster says that the word is an alteration of “wacky,” meaning eccentric or irrational in an amusing way. It might be drawn from “whack head,” meaning one who has been hit on the head and is, therefore, not rational. According to Oxford Languages, “wacko” simply means mad or insane. “Whack,” according to Oxford Languages, means to strike forcefully with a sharp blow. The word “whack” was first used in Old English in 1721. The best guess is that it originated as an imitation of the sound of a slap.

Paparazzi (a plural word) are independent photographers who take pictures of high-profile people. The word derives from the singular form, Paparazzo, an Italian name used by a character in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita.

Petard: According to Merriam-Webster, “petard” is wood or metal case containing an explosive for use in breaking down a door or beaching a wall. These days, the word is almost always used in the phrase “hoist with one’s own petard,” meaning victimized or hurt by one’s own scheme.” According to the online version of Merriam-Webster, the phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “For ’tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar.” “Hoist” in this case is the past participle of the verb “hoise,” meaning “to lift or raise,” and “petar(d)” refers to an explosive device used in siege warfare. Hamlet uses the example of the engineer (the person who sets the explosive) being blown into the air by his own device as a metaphor for those who schemed against him being undone by their own schemes. The phrase has endured, even if its literal meaning has largely been forgotten. The etymology: “petard” comes from the Middle French péter, to fart, from the root pet, expulsion of intestinal gas, derived from the Latin peditus, past participle of pedere, to break wind.

Now aren’t you glad you asked? That’s more than enough for one day.

4 thoughts on “Words (Yet Again)”

  1. Hello, Tom, in your write-up on ‘wacko’ you talk about Old English in 1721. Old English is more commonly used for Anglo-Saxon. The English spoken in the 17th and 18th centuries is more properly called Early Modern English. I am currently immersed in a sea of Early Modern English while working on a massive genealogical project. I have a database of 74,000 records from the Northern Neck of Virginia between 1640 and 1675 that I’m working with. One of the expressions that I’ve come across is “She never swined for a tammy gown.” I’m not sure exactly what it means (nothing in the OED), but it’s certainly not good. I believe that ‘swined’ may be a misreading of ‘swived’ which is an old word for ‘copulate.’ Keep up the good work. It’s always interesting.


    1. As always, Bob, thanks for your response. I know next to nothing about the distinctions in the periods of English development. I was just quoting my source. That said, the history of English, how it developed, and all the other languages that have influenced it (including the seven languages I have studied, even Vietnamese) continue to fascinate me.


      1. English fascinates me as well. There’s always something new. That’s why I enjoy reading your notes about words. Hope you’re having a nice day. Sorry about the cold, but at least it’s bright and sunny.


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