Pronounced: BIH-nih-kuhl, noun

Notes: I thought this was something on a ship, but that wasn’t entirely correct

Yesterday’s word

As most probably know, a cubit is an ancient unit of length based on the length of the forearm to the tip of the middle finger.

Background / Comments

The word comes from a Latin source meaning “elbow”; however, the measurement itself may have originated in Egypt. The actual length varied from time to time and place to place, but is generally estimated at 18 inches. My personal cubit is 19 inches (possibly from carrying heavy engineering textbooks in school). The word is used in English translations of the Bible to represent the Hebrew word ammah and the Greek word p├ęchus.

First usage

The word showed up in the mid-1300s (it was used in the Wycliffe Bible in 1382)


Pronounced: KYOO-buht, noun

Notes: Anyone with some familiarity with the Bible probably knows this word, but this is one that I found the background interesting.

Yesterday’s word

The word titfer is rhyming slang for “hat”

Background / Comments

As in the case with rhyming slang, there is a fairly well-know expression (tit for tat); hat rhymes with tat, and, with compression, what’s left becomes titfer.

First usage

This word showed up around 1925.


Pronounced: TIT-fur, noun

Notes: I don’t think I’ve run across this word… it’s another case of rhyming slang (and, unlike the last post, this one is guessable)

Yesterday’s Phrase

A parting shot, as you probably know, is “a threat, insult, sarcastic retort, or the like uttered upon leaving”.

Background / Notes

As I noted yesterday, I knew this phrase, but what I didn’t know is that this is a corruption of the actual phrase: Parthian shot. I’ve run across Parthian shot in reading; I could tell from the context that it was similar in meaning to parting shot (I assumed it had some more specific meaning, but I didn’t look it up). The word goes back to the ancient Parthians, who had a practice of firing missiles backwards while fleeing. More fun: in 53 BC, the Parthian army was the underdog in a fight with the Romans, but won an overwhelming victory, killing the filthy rich general Marcus Lincinius Crassus. His income was 32,000 times the average wage of the day, and he is still one of the richest men who ever lived – in modern terms, he was worth around 170 billion dollars. He made his money in real estate, but unscrupulously: he had his own private fire brigade, but he wouldn’t save a man’s property from fire unless the owner agreed to sell at a deeply discounted price, which Crassus then re-sold at immense profit. His name has not been entirely forgotten: It survives in our word crass (without refinement, delicacy, or sensitivity; gross; obtuse; stupid).

First Usage

The word showed up in the late 1800s

parting shot

Pronounced: Really? (just as it looks)

Notes: I assume that you know this phrase; I know it also, but I did not know the origin, which was interesting enough that I included this word. Interestingly enough, the background of this word reveals the background of another word (kind of a 2-for-1)

Yesterday’s Word

The word eventuate means “to come out finally : result, come about”.

Background / Comments

The word comes from Latin eventus (event), which in turn comes from the Latin verb evenire (to happen). I should have been able to figure this out, as it is clearly related to eventually. This word first came out in America and was looked down upon by English purists — a British commentator called it “another horrible word, which is fast getting into our language through the provincial press”. Even some Americans didn’t think much of the word. Today, the word is less controversial, even though some still consider the word to be pompous and unnecessary.

First usage

This word first showed up in (American) English in the late 1700s


Pronounced: ih-VEN-chuh-wate, verb

Notes: Another word that I didn’t recognize, but should have figured out

Yesterday’s word

The word oscar means “cash”.

Background / Comments

As noted yesterday, this is rhyming slang named for Oscar Ashe, who was an Australian actor, directory, and writer. I had never heard of Oscar Ashe, so I couldn’t “unwind” the rhyming slang.

First usage

This word came into usage in the early 1900s.


Pronounced: OS-kuhr, noun

Notes: More rhyming slang… I didn’t know this one; do you, reader?

Yesterday’s word

The word preterit means “past tense”

Background / Comments

This form of the word is the original form; it can also be spelled preterite. The word comes from Latin praeter (beyond, past, by). I think that back when I was taking languages that we used this word for the past tense.

First usage

The word showed up in the first half of the 1300s.


Pronounced: PREH-tuh-ruht, noun

Notes: I should have known this word

Yesterday’s word

The word roister-doister, as a noun, means “a swaggering buffoon or reveler”. The adjective form is similar – “engaged in swaggering buffoonery”.

Background / Comments

This word comes from Ralph Roister Doister, the main character in a play written by Nicolas Udall in the mid-1500s. Roister means to behave in a boisterous, swaggering manner, and comes from Middle French rustre (boor), which itself comes from Latin rusticus (rustic).

First usage

This word entered English in the late 1500s.


Pronounced: ROY-stir doy-stir, noun/adj

Notes: I didn’t know this word

Yesterday’s word

The word deflagrate means “to burn rapidly with intense heat and sparks being given off; to cause to burn in such a manner”

Background / Comments

This word has Latin roots; the main word comes from flagrare (to burn) with the prefix de-, which means “down” or “away” (instead of negation, like I had thought). From the Latin flagrare, we get “flagrant” and “conflagration”. Our word is most commonly found in the field of explosives to describe the burning of fuel accelerated by the expansion of gasses under the pressure of containment, thus causing the containing vessel to break apart. In the same way that deflagrate is an intense fire; detonate, based on the Latin tonare (thunder) is a louder explosion. Deflagrate is an older word than detonate.

First usage

The word showed up in the mid-1700s.

Rejected word

I rejected canary because most people know the definitions, but the various definitions have an interesting background: The first meaning was the bright yellow bird; it was named for the “Canary Islands” (which were supposedly named for the large dogs there: Canariae Insulae [in Latin], literally “the island of the dogs”). The second meaning was the shade of yellow named after the birds. Next came the meaning of a singer, from the bird’s singing. Finally, the “informer” meaning comes because an informer “sings”.


Pronounced: DEF-luh-grate, verb

Notes: I thought this might be putting out a fire (I was wrong)

Yesterday’s word

The word scaramouch means “a boastful coward, buffoon, or rascal”

Background / Comments

This is another word from the Italian commedia dell’arte (Italian comic theater popular in the 1500s to 1700s). The character is Scaramouche – he was often beaten up by Harlequin.

First usage

The word showed up in the mid-1600s.


Pronounced: SCAR-uh-moosh, SCAR-uh-mooch, SKER-uh-moosh, SKER-uh-mooch, noun

Notes: Also spelled “scaramouche”

Yesterday’s word

The word antipode means

  • the parts of the earth diametrically opposite
  • the exact opposite or contrary
Background / Comments

The word is Greek; anti- (opposite) and the root pod (foot). The place from which I got this word claims that this word was first used to translate a Latin text into English. It was used to mean “men that have their feet against our feet”; that is, inhabitants on the opposite side of the world. Although this sense is no longer used, the idea of the other side of the globe is still used. The plural form (“antipodes”, an-TIH-puh-deez) refers to Austrailia and New Zealand; this was a British term because those countries are on the other side of the earth from Britain. Note that when I looked up the word online, it had a different (and later) origin: it claimed that “antipode” was a back-formation from “antipodes”. (I’m sticking with the former background).

First usage

There word goes back to the early 1400s