10 favourite word origins – Dingbats, Dunces and Nimrods

Dingbats, dunces and nimrods, oh my!

Let’s take a break from the goat song that is this Presidential election and enjoy some hilarious and strange word origins.

Find out why Donald Trump isn’t a real dunce, how to use the word “dingbatty” and discover the true majestic nature of the nimrod.

word origins – Dingbat


A word with a ridiculously diverse variety of meanings and applications, dingbat first referred to an alcoholic drink in 1838.

While it first appeared meaning “nut case” around 1911, “dingbat” has borne many other meanings. At that time, a “dingbat” could be “a sum of money, or coins or bills themselves,” “an unidentifiable or nameless object or tool” (a “thingamabob” or “whatchamacallit”), a tramp or hobo, or a hard or heavy object suitable for throwing.

The use of “dingbat” to mean “an ornamental item of type” appeared around 1921 and is almost certainly based on “dingbat” meaning “a nameless object.”

The fantastic word “dingbatty,” popped up in 1911, suggesting that the word may be a bit older and raising the intriguing possibility that “dingbat” may be related to “batty,” which has been slang for “insane” (“bats in one’s belfry”) since the end of the 19th century.

While the word took on its current, most common sense of “a foolish person” as early as 1905, that definition was popularised in the U.S. by the TV show “All in the Family” in the 1970s.

word origins – Tragedy


Tragedy basically means “goat song“. From the old Greek words for goat (tragos) and song (oide, which we also get the word ‘ode’ from). Goat song.

Many theories have been offered to explain it. One is that Greek tragedies were known as goat-songs because the prize in Athenian play competitions was a live goat.

Sometimes the goat would be sacrificed, and a goat lament sung as the sacrifice was made. Hence the goat-song became intertwined with the Greek plays.

Others believe that in the plays themselves men and women would wear goat-costumes to dress up as satyrs—half-goat beings that worshiped and surrounded Dionysus in his revelry.

word origins – Dunce


The term Dunce meaning idiot comes from the name of Johannes Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher and theologian.

Due to the intricacy and complexity of his theories, Scotus was given the terrific papal title, “Doctor Subtilis,” or “The Subtle Doctor.”

Scotus did indeed like pointy hats. Either he was inspired by the use of such hats by wizards OR his love of the headgear spawned the popular image of wizards wearing conical caps. Whichever version is true, they were both meant to denote wise men.

Scotus believed the pointed shape of the hat would act as a reverse funnel for knowledge, with wisdom flowing into the pointed tip, and spreading into the brain below.

During the Renaissance (200 years after his death), followers of Duns or Dunsmen came to be called “old barking curs.” The new thinkers of the Renaissance accused them of philosophic hair-splitting. Thus the Dunsmen became known as Dunces – a person who is incapable of scholarship.

The term “dunce” as we understand it today appeared as early as 1624, when a “dunce-table” was mentioned in the John Ford play, The Sun’s Darling, in reference to a place where children or dullards were seated apart from others. The Dunce Cap was used as late as the 1950s in American schools.

Today John Dun Scotus is thought to be one of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages. Dunce cap or not, Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1993.

word origins – Nimrod


In most English-speaking countries, Nimrod is used to denote a hunter or warrior, because the biblical Nimrod is described as “the first on earth to be a mighty man” and “a mighty hunter before the Lord.”

English speakers of the 16th century didn’t think Nimrod was particularly benevolent; they used his name as a synonym of “tyrant“—a meaning that is now long-forgotten.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary suggests that because the legendary Nimrod was associated with the Tower of Babel, a disastrous idea, nimrod acquired the meaning of “a stupid person.

In American English, however, the term assumed a derogatory meaning, probably because of Bugs Bunny’s references to Elmer Fudd as a “poor little Nimrod”. While Bugs was most likely using the term’s “hunter” sense sarcastically, most people didn’t get the joke.

The meaning stuck, and today it’s the prevailing one such that most people are surprised to learn it ever meant anything else.

word origins – Toerag

An Affectionate term a grandparent might use was originally the frayed end of a rope, used for cleaning one’s backside!

A toerag or Toe Rag is a length of rope which dangled in the water at the head of the ship, which is where the toilet is (hence the toilet being called The Head in the Royal Navy). The Toerag, which was dangled in the water to keep clean, was used to wipe your rear end. You would certainly want to be the first person to use the head in the morning as by 11am the toerag would have been used by most of the ships company!

The epithet “toerag” later referred to a poor person who wraps rags around his or her feet instead of socks. The term initially appeared in the literal sense of a rag wrapped around the foot inside a shoe in about 1864, but by 1875 it had become the synonym for “tramp” it remains today.

word origins – Shambles


The Latin word it’s derived from, scamillus just means a little stool or bench. “Shambles” originally meant a stool as well. The word then came to mean, more specifically, a stool or stall where things were sold. Then, a stall where meat was sold. Eventually, a meat market. Then, a slaughterhouse. Eventually, “shambles” just came to mean a bloody mess.

The term may go back to Biblical times indicating the meat market where meat from the temples was sold. Apparently, the priests received more meat offerings than they could eat and sent the rest to the shambles for sale to the general public. If originally offered to idols, the meat may have brought a higher price that the same cuts from local producers.

The wonderful word flesh-shambles arose from this and the English playwright John Day (1574-1638?) used it figuratively in his 1608 comedy Humour out of breath: a character says that Venice is “counted the best flesh-shambles in Italie”, i.e. the best whoring ground.)

The recent noun omnishambles denotes a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.

It was first uttered in 2009 by Malcolm Tucker in the British political comedy television series The Thick of It. On 18th April 2012, Labour Leader Ed Miliband noted in the House of Commons that “even people within Downing Street” were referring to the “omnishambles Budget”.

word origins – Barbarian


The notion that Barbarians were named from their beards or lack of razors has been discounted.

Barbarian came to us from Greek bárbaros “the sound foreigners make”. Funny how now we say “It’s Greek to me” to mean something similar!

The Greeks that came into contact with other people that spoke different languages always thought they sounded like they were saying “barbar”. Yep, instead of rhubarb.

word origins – Pumpernickel.


There is legend that the term was coined by Napoleon when he recived a pumpernickel and replied that it’s only good enough to feed it to his horse “Nickel” by saying “bon pour Nickel”.

It turns out the true origin of pumpernickel is even more colorful than the story of Napoleon’s horse. Pumpern is a German verb meaning “to fart,” and Nickel, like Old Nick in English, was a name for the devil, so it actually breaks down as “farting devil.

Thomas Lediard describes the bread in The German Spy :

Upon Enquiry, I found it was made of Rye, coarsely ground, with all the Bran left in it, and that there had not been the greatest Care taken, to sever it from the Pieces of Straw, Hair, and other Nastiness, which had been swept with the Corn from the threshing Floor.

An earlier German name for it was krankbrot, literally “sick-bread.”

word origins – Nightmare


The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first used of “nightmare” in English to around 1300, as “a female spirit or monster supposed to settle on and produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal.”

Since we experience most “nightmares” at night, and with the perception that death and other bogies haunt the darkness, “night” was naturally paired with “mare,” which traces in English to before the 12th century. A “nightmare” soon came to mean any bad dream, whether accompanied by that suffocating feeling or not.

word origins – Muscle


The word “muscle” is derived from the Latin word “musculus”, which translates to “little mouse”.

When physicians were first observing the musculature, it is said that they remarked that the muscles in the biceps and calves (most notably) looked like mice running under the skin.

Weirdly, in Middle English, lacerte, from the Latin word for “lizard,” was also used as a word for a muscle.

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