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26 First Names That Ended up in the Dictionary

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Almost everybody’s first name means something. Adam means "man," as do Charles, Karl, and even Charlotte. Deborah and Melissa both mean "honeybee." Hilary means "hilarious." William means "desire-helmet." 

Sometimes, however, through some quirk of etymology—and sometimes entirely by coincidence—first names like these find their way into the dictionary as words in their own right, and end up ultimately taking on whole new meanings in the language.

1. ABIGAIL

In the Old Testament, Abigail is described as “a woman of good understanding and beautiful countenance.” Her husband Nabal, on the other hand, is “churlish and evil," and when he offends a group of King David’s men, Abigail tries to defuse the situation by offering her services as David’s personal handmaiden. After Nabal discovers what his wife has done, he promptly dies of a heart attack, leaving David free to marry Abigail and make her Queen of Israel. Leaving the Biblical soap opera aside, it’s Abigail’s selflessness and her willingness to offer herself into the king’s service that led to her name ending up in the dictionary as a byword for a female servant or handmaiden.

2. ANDREW

Derived from Greek, Andrew is another first name that simply means “man,” making it an etymological cousin of words like anthropology, androgeny, and philanthropy. In this literal sense, Andrew has been used since the early 18th century in English as another name for a manservant or assistant (the male equivalent of an Abigail), while a merry-andrew is an old 17th century name for a court jester or clown.

3. ANNA

Anna is an old Hindi word for a coin worth 1/16th of an Indian rupee that, during the British rule of India in the 19th century, dropped into colloquial English as a nickname for a small portion of something. Anna is also the name of a species of hummingbird native to the Pacific coast of North America, named for the wife of amateur naturalist François Massena, Duke of Rivoli (1799-1863), who discovered it in the early 19th century.

4. AVA

As well as being the name of a Polynesian liquor (in which case it’s pronounced “aah-va,” not “ay-va”), ava is also an old Scots word meaning “above all” or “in particular,” formed simply from the words “of all” running together over time. In this sense, it appears fairly regularly in 18th and 19th century Scottish literature, most notably in the works of the Scots poet Robert Burns.

5. EMMA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, emma can be used “in telephone communications and in the oral transliteration of code” to represent the letter M. Originally used only in military contexts, after the First World War emma—along with a handful of others, like pip (P), ack (A), and toc (T)—slipped into occasional use in everyday English. So when P.G. Wodehouse wrote of “twelve pip emma” in A Pelican At Blandings (1969), he was referring to 12pm.

6. ERIC

An eric is a “blood-fine,” namely compensation paid by an attacker or murderer to his victim or victim’s family. Derived from an old Irish word, eiric, this tradition of quite literally paying for your crimes dates back into ancient history in its native Ireland but wasn’t encountered in English until the 16th century, when the English playwright Edmund Spenser explained in his Two Histories of Ireland (1599) that, “in the case of murder, the judge would compound between the murderer and the friends of the party murdered … that the malefactor shall give unto them, or to the child or wife of him that is slain, a recompense, which they call an erick.”

7. GEORGE

A George can be a loaf of bread, a one-year prison sentence, a kind of wig, an earthenware jug or bowl, an aircraft’s autopilot system, and an expression of surprise. It can also be any one of a number of coins and currencies, including a dollar bill or a quarter, both of which depict George Washington; an old English guinea, issued during the reigns of George I, George II, and George III; and a Tudor coin or “noble,” worth around 80 pence, which bore an image of St. George.

8. HARRY

As a verb, harry means to pester or attack, but it can also be used to mean to lay waste to something, to drag or pull something around roughly, and even to steal eggs from a bird’s nest. In the 18th century, it was also a nickname for a country bumpkin or “a rude boor” according to one Victorian dictionary, while in the Middle Ages it was used as a rider’s call to spur a horse forward.

9. HELENA

In Greek mythology, Helen (or Helena in Latin) was the sister of Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers who inspired the constellation Gemini and gave their names to its two brightest stars. Among sailors in Tudor England, the twins’ names came to be used of dual shooting stars or mysterious flashes of light seen at sea, while a single light or "corposant"—a glowing electrical haze seen around the mast of a ship during a thunderstorm—was nicknamed a Helena.

10. HENRY

The henry is the SI unit of electrical inductance. If you’re a physicist you’ll need to know that one henry is equal to the inductance of a circuit in which an electromotive force of one volt is produced by a current changing at the rate of one ampere per second. If you’re not a physicist, all you need to know that it was named in honor of the American scientist Joseph Henry (1797-1878).

11. ISABELLA

Also called isabelline, Isabella is the name of a greyish shade of pale yellow often used to describe the color of sandy-haired horses, or else encountered in the names of creatures like the Isabelline shrike and the Isabella tiger moth. How it came to earn its name is debatable, but one popular anecdote claims that it comes from Isabella of Austria, a 17th century archduchess whose father, Philip II of Spain, besieged the Belgian city of Ostend in 1601. According to the tale, Isabella was so confident of her father’s military prowess that she jokingly announced that she intended not to change her clothes until the siege was ended. Unfortunately for her, it went on to last another three years, and ultimately her name came to be associated with the yellowish, slightly off-white color of dirty underwear. Sadly, this tale has since been proven entirely untrue as the Oxford English Dictionary have now traced the earliest record of Isabella to one year before the siege even took place, when a “rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten set with silver spangles” was listed in an inventory of the contents of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe in 1600.

12. JACOB

The Biblical tale of Jacob’s ladder—a vast staircase to Heaven, dreamt of by Jacob in the Book of Genesis (28:10-19)—led to criminals who used ladders to break into houses being nicknamed jacobs in 19th century slang.

13. JAMES

Gim or jimp is an old Tudor word variously used to mean "smart," "elegant," or "befitting." In the 18th century, gim became gimmy or jemmy, which was used to describe anything particularly dextrous or well-designed for its purpose. Based on this, in the early 19th century, criminals began nicknaming their housebreaking tools jemmies, and because "Jemmy" is an old pet form of James, james came to be used as another name for a crowbar in Victorian English. (It’s also an old name for a boiled sheep’s head served as a meal, but where that association came from is anyone’s guess.)

14. JESSE

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah predicts that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (11:1-2). His words are usually interpreted as prophesizing that one of Jesse’s descendants will one day become a divinely ordained ruler, and true enough the New Testament Gospel of Matthew lists Jesse as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jesus. Based on Isaiah’s prophecy, in the Middle Ages, the name Jesse became another word for a family tree or a genealogical diagram, while his line that “there shall come forth a rod out of Jesse” apparently inspired the Victorian schoolyard phrase to catch Jesse or to give someone Jesse, which meant to be caned.

15. JOHN

Of all first names to have found their way into the dictionary, John is probably the most fruitful. It can refer to a policeman, a butler or a manservant, a priest, an Englishman, a toilet, a signature, a plant, an unknown or otherwise unnamed person, a cuckold or hen-pecked husband, and even the client of a prostitute. The vast majority of all these meanings are probably derived from nothing more than the fact that John is such a common name, but its use as another name for a policeman is based on an English corruption of the French gendarme, while as a signature it’s famously derived from John Hancock, the Governor of Massachusetts whose elaborately written name dwarfs all of the others on the Declaration of Independence.

16. LUKE

Luke is a 13th century word essentially meaning "moderately" or "half-heartedly." So as well as being lukewarm, you can be luke-hot and luke-heartedLukeness is an old 15th century word for indifference or apathy.

17. MATILDA

The Australian folksong Waltzing Matilda tells the story of an itinerant “swagman” (traveller) who sets up camp “by a billabong,” “under the shade of a coolabah tree.” There he steals and kills a “jumbuck” (sheep), before drowning himself when the “squatter” (sheep-farmer) and three “troopers” (policemen) confront him. It ends with the famous line, “and his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong: ‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?’” The song is renowned for its use of traditional Australian vocabulary, including the two words in its title: Here waltzing doesn’t mean dancing, but rather wandering or journeying, and Matilda isn’t the name of the swagman’s sweetheart, but his backpack.

18. MOLLY

A molly can be a fruit-picker’s basket, an Irishwoman, a prostitute or working class woman, a weak or effeminate man (the molly in mollycoddle, incidentally), and, in 18th century slang at least, a man who “concerns himself with women’s affairs.” It’s also a nickname for the northern fulmar, a seabird of the Arctic, Atlantic, and North Pacific Oceans, in which case it probably derives from an old Dutch word, mallemok, meaning “foolish gull.”

19. REBECCA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the girl’s name Rebecca can be used as a verb to mean “to demolish a gate.” In this sense it derives from the Rebecca Riots, a series of demonstrations in southwest Wales in the early 1840s in which groups of so-called “Rebecca gangs” attacked and demolished a series of tollgates in protest at the high charges being imposed. The gangs took their name from the Old Testament's Rebecca, who is blessed with the words “let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” in the Book of Genesis (24:60).

20. ROBERT

Robert is an old English nickname for the European robin or “robin redbreast,” probably derived from a corruption of the Dutch nickname rode-baard, meaning “red-beard.” It’s also an early 20th century nickname for a restaurant waiter, in which case it comes from a series of comic tales published in Punch magazine in the late 1800s written by the Victorian writer J.T. Bedford (1812-1900) under the pseudonym “Robert, A City Waiter.”

21. SAM

No one quite knows why, but in 19th century American slang, to stand Sam meant to settle a bill, or to pay for someone else’s food or drink. As a verb, sam is also an old English dialect word meaning to clot or thicken, or to come together as a group.

22. SARAH

Sarah is 1950s military slang for a portable radio used by pilots who have been forced to crash-land to transmit their position to rescue ships and other aircraft. It’s an acronym of “search and rescue and homing.”

23. STEVEN

Steven is an old English dialect word for your voice, ultimately derived from the Old English word for a command or order, stefn. It can also be used to mean a great outcry or raucous argument, while to do something in one steven means to do it in absolute agreement with everyone else.

24. TOBY

For some unknown reason, toby is an old 17th century slang name for the buttocks. It’s also the name of a type of pottery jug bearing a grotesque caricature, a cheap cigar, a machine used to print designs on textiles, and a type of pleated collar popular in the 19th century. Among Victorian criminals toby was also a slang name for a road—highway robbery was nicknamed the toby concern, while to ply the toby meant to rob coaches or travellers on horseback.

25. TONY

Tony was a reddish-brown color popular amongst fashion designers and dressmakers in the 1920s and '30s. Before that, in the late 19th century it was used an adjective to mean “stylish” or “smart,” presumably in the sense of something striking a good “tone.”

26. VICTORIA

Victoria is the Latin word for victory, which in the Middle Ages was “employed as a shout of triumph,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The name has since also been applied to a golden sovereign minted in the 19th century, a species of domestic pigeon, a type of water lily, a woollen fabric, a type of plum, and a two-seater horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible roof, all of which are named in honor of Queen Victoria.

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15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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