Scrabble rouser

AS 'staycation', that meerkat's catchphrase 'simples', 'zombie bankers' and 'Tweetup' make it into the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time, Dani Garavelli looks at the colourful (and occasionally mythical) origins of some everyday words


One of last year's must-have Christmas presents was Assassin's Creed II, in which gamers take on the identity of nobleman Ezio Auditore da Firenze as he avenges his father and brothers' murders in Renaissance Italy. But the word itself is thought to have originated from the time of the Crusades where – many believe – Muslim fanatics, dedicated to ridding their lands of Christian Infidels and other enemies, would prepare for their murderous expeditions by consuming large quantities of hashish. These warriors became known as hashish eaters or "Hashashins".


The name for this fruit comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl meaning "testicle," a reference to its shape and its supposed aphrodisiac qualities.


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The word blockbuster was first used in 1942 to mean a bomb big enough to blow up a whole block of houses. It may also have been used about West End shows, which were so successful that all the other theatres in the vicinity were "busted". But it only took on its modern meaning in the 70s when it was used to describe movies – such as Jaws – which attracted so many people, that queues formed round the block.


Although two-piece bathing suits date back to the classical world, the word bikini didn't acquire its current use until 1946 when French engineer Louis Rard decided to name his slightly scantier version of the swimwear after Bikini Atoll, the site of the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests, the premise being that the clothing would cause as big a stir as a nuclear device. The name also underscored a rivalry between Rard and fashion designer Jacques Heim, who had already unveiled a similar bathing suit called the "atome". Reard claimed to have "split the atome" to make it even smaller. However contrived the advertising campaign, the bikini proved a sensation on the beaches, and the name stuck.


Many banks in post-Renaissance Europe issued small, porcelain "borrowers' tiles" to their creditworthy customers. Like credit cards, these tiles were imprinted with the owner's name, his credit limit, and the name of the bank. Each time the customer wanted to borrow money, he had to present the tile to the bank teller, who would compare the imprinted credit limit with how much the customer had already borrowed. If the borrower was past the limit, the teller "broke" the tile on the spot. Hence its meaning of having no money.


Although some people have claimed the word Chav is an acronym (for council-housed and violent), while others suggest it derives from the Cheltenham Ladies' College and Cheltenham College using the word to describe the young men of the town (Cheltenham Average), etymologists believe its origins lie in the Romany word for child: chavi. This theory is lent weight by the fact that the word was used in Edinburgh in the 1990s, when there was a large Romany encampment on the outskirts of the city, before gaining national currency in 2004 with the success of Little Britain and the character Vicky Pollard.


While many of us may think of this as a modern word, it dates back to the late 19th century when it was used in the US to describe ill-bred and ignorant, but ostentatious, men from the city. In the 1880s, a New York journalist dubbed socialite Evander Berry Hall the "king of the dudes", pronouncing him the winner of a sartorial battle with rival Robert Hilliard after he strode into a bar during a blizzard clad in gleaming boots of patent leather that stretched to his hips. In the early 20th century, "dude ranches" started to appear in the American midwest, offering the cowboy experience to wealthy easterners. The word gained common currency among surfers in the 60s and entered the mainstream in the early 70s, which was when the Mott The Hoople album All The Young Dudes was released.


Though John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, his ideas were scorned by reformists and humanists several centuries later for being sophist and needlessly complex. They called his followers – whom they perceived as dullards – "dunsmen" and so dunce came to mean a dimwitted scholar.


The word eavesdrop came into common usage in the late 15th century when it meant "someone who stood under the eaves of a house trying to hear what was going on inside," hence its modern meaning.


When Venetian glassblowers made an error, they turned whatever artefact they were making into a common flask or "fiasco".


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Some say the word comes from the middle English "haggen" meaning to chop – a reference to the fact that everything inside has been chopped. But it is also possible it comes from the Old French agace, meaning magpie, with the mishmash of entrails and other ingredients resembling a magpie's hoard.


One theory is that 8th Century Islamic alchemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan – Latinised as Geber – wrote his notes in an impenetrable code – or "gibberish" – so only those who had been initiated into his school could understand them. A second explanation is that it comes from the British colony Gibraltar (from Arabic Gabal-Tariq, meaning Mountain of Tariq), whose residents frequently speak in Spanish and English during their conversations. Gibraltarians will often start a sentence in Spanish and switch to English halfway through, making it difficult for non-locals to follow.


In the late 1870s, the then prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, had a plan to send gunboats to halt the advance of the Russian fleet from its own waters into the Mediterranean. This gave rise to a music-hall song, written by GW Hunt, the chorus of which went: "We don't want to fight, yet by Jingo! If we do, we've got the ships, we've got the men, and got the money too." Those who wanted Britain to go to war with Russia took up the song and were labelled "jingoes" by the socialist GJ Holyoake. Eventually, jingoism came to mean blind patriotism.


The word meaning to defer to those in authority comes from the Chineseterm koutou, with kou meaning knock and tou meaning head. It refers to the practice of touching the forehead to the ground while kneeling in front of a shrine or noble.


There are lots of theories about how the word came into being. According to the late Keith Waterhouse it was a US services acronym for "nasty, awful, f*** it". Others believe it originated in the gay community where it stood for straight (or Not Available for F***ing).

What's not in doubt is that it was used to replace less acceptable expletives in the comedy series Porridge in the 70s and that it gained national prominence when Princess Anne shouted "Naff orf" to a photographer after falling off her horse at the Badminton Horse Trials in 1982.


The word nitty-gritty hit the headlines a few years ago when it transpired it had been banned as politically incorrect by some authorities. This is because it is believed to have originally referred to the debris left at the bottom of British slave ships and to have been extended to include the slaves themselves.


Film director Frederico Fellini inadvertently coined the word now synonymous with celebrity snappers when he made his film La Dolce Vita in 1960. One of its main characters is a photographer called Joe Paparazzo. Fellini once said he took the name from an Italian slang word meaning the annoying buzzing noise made by a mosquito, though others dispute this.


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The notion that the word posh was in fact an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home — a reference to the notion that wealthy British passengers on P&O ships travelling to and from India could afford the more expensive shaded cabins on the port side of the ships going out to India, and on the starboard side on the way back – was at one time so entrenched it was featured in the famous song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. However, no evidence has ever been found that any such tickets existed.

Certainly the word was used to mean a dandy from around the end of the 19th century, when George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary Of A Nobody, in the English satirical magazine Punch in 1888, had a character called Murray Posh, who was described as "a swell". But many people believe the modern day meaning comes from the Romany word for money.


This word is Czech for worker. In 1923, Karl Capek, a well-known Czech science-fiction writer at the time, wrote a futuristic thriller about a world in which the machines have taken over and implanted circuitry in human beings to make them into mindless zombies willing to serve them as workers or "robots".


The Eastern European region of Silesia was known for its fine cloth. Eventually, so many poor-quality imitations turned up on the market that Silesian became "sleazy".


This comes from one of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement in Judaism during the times of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the rite, described in Leviticus 16, a goat – carrying the sins of the people placed on it – was sent off to the wilderness to perish.

Gradually the word came to mean a person who is blamed and punished for the offences of others.


The word comes from the Latin for crossroads – the place where three (tri) roads (via) crossed. In ancient Rome, public notices were often posted at the point where roads met so that people coming into the city could read them. Such spots also attracted their fair share of grafitti. The word trivia eventually came to mean any miscellaneous information, lacking in gravity.