partridge /pɑːtrɪdʒ/

The word partridge

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me

A partridge in a pear tree.

Perhaps it’s the cynic in me that brings immediately to mind the question “why” and the scientist that asks “how.” But the etymologist is much more fascinated by the flatulent origins of the word. Yes, you heard right – flatulent or “related to farts.”

A partridge

The word was borrowed from the French perdriz, which is found in Anglo-Norman with varieties such as perdix, pardis , pardriz , partriz , and partreiz. This in turn can be traced back to the Latin perdix and even further to the Greek perthiks (πέρδικ), which is thought to refer more specifically to the Rock partridge (Alectoris graeca) that’s found in Greece and southern Europe in general.

The Oxford English Dictionary then goes on to suggest that perthiks is actually derived from the Greek perthesthai (πέρδεσθαι), which means “to break wind.” Apparently the connotation here is “perhaps after the noise made by the bird as it flies away.” At this point, I should say that I have no experience whatsoever of the noise a partridge might make when it takes flight but if only for the sake of a good story I’m willing to believe the folks at the OED, who, for all I know, may have sent out hundreds of field agents to listen to farting partridges to check the veracity of the claim.

And why “in a pear tree” as opposed to any other? Do partridges like pears in particular? And where do you find pears on trees at Christmas? Well, one reasonably plausible (at the phonetic level) explanation that was recently alluded to by the good folks at Mental Floss magazine is that the original line was “A partridge, une perdrix” where the English and French words were used. Those of you familiar with French can hear that the pronunciation of “in a pear tree” and “une perdrix” are stunningly similar. Given that non-French speakers – and singers – are likely to “hear” an English phrase (“a pear tree”) than a French one, “a partridge in a pear tree” sounds pretty good.

So next time you are tempted to be witty and sing the line, “and a fartdridge in a pear tree,” you can bask in the knowledge that you’re actually correct!


[1] This mishearing of words, especially from a foreign language, gives rise to what are called mondegreens, coined in 1954 by poet Sylvia Wright who wrote that for many year she had thought the line “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And laid him on the Green” as “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” Several websites are available that list some classics; here are just two to start you off: Mondegreens and Misheard Lyrics.

tocsin /’tɒksɪn/

TOCSINConsider the following cryptic crossword clue:

Sounds like an alarming poison. (6)

Experienced cruciverbalists will instantly recognize the “sounds like” as a clue element that suggests the answer is some sort of homophone – a word that sounds like another. The next step is therefore to come up with a word related to poison, and one such word is toxin. Finally, all that’s needed is to think of a word that sounds like toxin and which is also related to the concept of “alarming.” Bada bing, bada boom – it’s tocsin.

The original meaning is defined by the OED as;

A signal, esp. an alarm-signal, sounded by ringing a bell or bells: used orig. and esp. in reference to France.

The first written reference to the word comes from 1586 in William Fulke’s A Treatise against the Defense of the censure, giuen upon the bookes of W. Charke and Meredith Hanmer, by an unknowne popish traytor:

The priests then went vp into the steeple, and rang the bells backward, which they call Tocksaine, whereupon the people of the suburbs flocked togither.

By the mid-1800’s, the more general use of tocsin as a signal became more specific over time to refer directly to the actual bell used as opposed to the act of warning. In his poem, The Belfry of Bruges, Longfellow refers to the bell in the tower as “the tocsin“;

And again the whiskered Spaniard all the land with terror smote;
And again the wild alarum sounded from the tocsin’s throat;
Till the bell of Ghent responded o’er lagoon and dike of sand,
“I am Roland! I am Roland! there is victory in the land!” [1]

The belfry of bruges

The Belfry of Bruges

The word can be traced back to the French tocsin, which appears in Old French as toquassen and Provencal as tocasenh. It actually comes from two words; tocher meaning “to touch or strike” and senh=”a sign” or, in this case, “a signing bell.” Ultimately the Latin roots are *toccare=”to touch” and signum=”a sign,” which also was used in late Latin for bell.

Today it would be rare to refer to a tornado siren or a fire alarm, for example, as a tocsin even though it would be accurate. But feel free to give it a try next time the warning goes off (“Hark, yonder tocsin is a harbinger of meteorological peril!”)

[1] The bell in the Belfry of Ghent was named Roland after King Charlemagne’s nephew and Commander-in-Chief, Roland, who fought at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. His story is told in the 11th century poem, The Song of Roland, where the battle takes place between the Franks and the Spanish Muslims, resulting in Roland’s demise. During the fighting, as the Franks started to be overwhelmed, Roland used a horn called an olifant to call for help from the rest of Charelmagne’s army, hence the notion of a “warning” or “summons for aid.”

cicerone /sɪsəˈrəʊnɪ/


Growing up as I did in the north of England during the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a definite class distinction between the drinking of beer and the drinking of wine. Beer was for the proletariat and wine the bourgeoisie. This didn’t mean that we proles didn’t drink the odd bottle of plonk on special occasions but a good night out included pie, peas, pints of bitter, a few games of darts, and a Google-free night of arguing about anything under the sun for which the facts weren’t available.

As the times were a’changing during the 1970’s, British beer production slowly found its way into an ever-decreasing number of corporate players who began to sacrifice quality and diversity for mass-production and cheapness. In response to this, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed as a consumer pressure group to encourage the brewing of more unique beers from local sources with distinct flavors.

On moving to the US in the mid 1990’s, I had to adapt from the “warm” ales[1] of Britain to the “cold” beers of America – not too difficult but the dominance of Budweiser, Miller, and Coors meant that there were limited selections unless you wanted to buy bottled offerings. Wine, on the other hand, was as bourgeois as it has always been back in Europe, and beer was still the choice of the working man.

But here we are in the glorious 2000’s and the world of beer has grown splendiferously. Along with the development of more choice with more flavors, we’re seeing a shift in attitudes away from beer as the common man’s option. And just as the wine-drinking community has its specialist, knowledgeable professionals called sommeliers [2], beer-drinkers are creating a similar breed known as the cicerone.

The word cicerone, sometimes pronounced using its Italian form of /tʃɪːtʃəˈrəʊni/ (chee-chuh-ROH-nee), can be traced back to the Roman orator and politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was born on January 3, 106 B.C.E. and died on December 7, 43 B.C.E., tragically beheaded by the soldiers of Marc Anthony. Recognized as a man of great intelligence and learning, the Latin Ciceronem was used to refer to a learned guide, often in relation to providing information about objects, events, and locations of antiquities. This became the Italian cicerone with the first mention in Joseph Addison’s The Works of the Right Honorable Joseph Addison Esq. in 1721:

It surprized me to see my Ciceroni so well acquainted with the busts and statues of all the great people of antiquity.

By the end of the 18th century, the word was also being used as a verb meaning to act as a cicerone.

The word appears to be more often used in Europe than in the US, where docent is more typically found, which means someone “employed to instruct visitors about exhibits at a museum, art gallery, etc., especially as a guide at historical homes and reconstructions.” Docent comes from the Latin docere, which means “to teach.”

The current use of the word in relation to beer can be traced to Ray Daniels, a beer expert and brewer, who created the Cicerone® Certification Program and took out a trademark on this use of cicerone as it relates to beer. Technically, this would be to stop people calling themselves cicerones instead of “beer experts,” “beer sommeliers,” or even cervesario, an untrademarked name for a beer specialist. Oddly the creators of Cicerone® don’t use it as trademarks are typically recommended to be used – which is as a nominal premodifier (or more commonly an adjective). Sure, folks talk about having “an iPad,” or “a Ford” or “a Band-Aid,” but the correct use (from the legal perspective) is “an iPad tablet” or “a Ford car” or “a Band-Aid bandage,” where the trademarks are used to specify a noun. You can’t trademark common nouns, such as “tablet,” “car,” or “bandage,” but you can mark adjectival pre-modifiers. Using a trademark as a noun ultimately leads to the demise of the mark as it becomes “genericized” – think “escalator,” “aspirin,” or “trampoline,” all of which started as trademarks but are now generic [3].

[1] So let’s get that old myth of “warm beer” dealt with here and now. A good English beer is NOT served warm but at something called “cellar temperature,” which is 12°C or 55°F. Before mechanical cooling systems were invented, a pub would store its casks of ale in a cellar where the temperature would be at or around that 55°F mark. A fine British bitter or Stout is brewed to be at its best at cellar temperature and to serve it colder and in a chilled glass would make it taste terrible. Most of the common American beers are brewed to be best at around 37°F/3°C with IPAs at 47°F/9°C – lower than the “warm” English drinks. If your experience of English beer comes from bottles of Newcastle Brown kept in a refrigerator, rest assured that should you actually visit Newcastle you’ll have a much better appreciation of what it should taste like.

[2] Originally used to refer to a simple wine waiter, it comes from the French meaning “butler” and somme meaning pack or baggage. So the first sommelier was the butler who carried the bags.

[3] For a good overview of the interplay between linguistics and trademarking, take a look at “The Grammar of Trademarks” by Laura Heymann.

Heymann, Laura, A. (2010). The Grammar of Trademarks. Faculty Publications. paper 1157, ttp://

Another source is:

Shuy, R. (2002). Linguistic Battles in Trademark Disputes. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

The word thimble

thimble /ˈθɪmbəl/

The word thimble

At the venerable age of 82, the Monopoly thimble has been retired. In an attempt to move the classic board game into the 21st century, Hasbro, the owners, has taken out the thimble, the boot, and the wheelbarrow, to make room for the T-Rex, the rubber duck, and the penguin. It may seem a little ironic that one dinosaur has been replaced by another but it’s perhaps not too surprising that thimbles no longer resonate with the game-playing public – or indeed with anyone under the age of 30. Just out of curiosity, I checked the sewing box we have in the basement, which may be the first time in many years since I’ve done that, and found that even I do not have a thimble.

For those who really don’t know what a thimble is [1], it’s a small cup that can be worn on the tip of a finger or thumb to prevent being hurt by a needle while doing some stitching of cloth. Thimbles have been found dating from the Bronze Age and so been a part of civilization for about 2,500 years. In fact, finger-covering bones have been found dating from 30,000 years ago, used by mammoth hunters to stitch leather. However, it’s currently waning in popularity except as a specialist tool; similar to the fountain pen.


The word sound itself hints at its etymological origins. The first mention in writing is around 1000 CE in the book Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England. Being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest The word is realized as þýmel and comes from þúma meaning “thumb.” The “-el” ending is a suffix that can be used to form the name of tools, in this case a tool for the thumb. Going even further back, the þúma comes from the Germanic *þūmon, which in turn can be traced back to the pre-Germanic *tûmon for “the thick finger.” The ultimate root seems to be – meaning “to swell,” and this is related to Sanskrit tūtumá meaning “strong,” Avestan tûma for “fat,” and Latin tumēre meaning “to swell.” So “a covering for a fat swollen finger” just about sums it up.

During the English Civil Wars of 1642 to 1651, the forces of King Charles I, who was fighting against the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell, referred to the Parliamentary forces as the “Thimble and Bodkin Army.” This was because:

On the parliamentary side the subscriptions of silver offerings included even such little personal articles as those that suggested the term, the ‘Thimble and Bodkin’ army. (Dowell, 1894, The History of Taxation in England).

Unluckily for Charles, he underestimated the value of thimbles and bodkins, and he was beheaded in 1649.

At the beginning of the 18th century, another use for the thimble was in the activity of thimblerigging, an early version of the more recent “shell game.” Three thimbles were placed on a table and a pea hidden under one of them. The operator would then move the thimbles around and people would be invited to bet on where the pea ended up. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing was typically a con and the ultimate winner was the person doing the shuffling – the thimblerigger.

The notion that thimbles are (a) small and (b) used for protection has resulted in the word taking on other meanings. In the south of England, it was used for a ring or socket in the heel of a gate which turns on a pin in the gate-post. In the nautical world, it was used to refer to a broad ring of metal with a concave outer surface, around which the end of a rope was spliced, so that the thimble formed an eye to the rope. By the 19th century, it referred to a ring or tube, or similar part, in phrases such as a thimble-coupling or thimble-joint.

It’s also been used to describe the outer casing of a rifle-ball, a rest for pottery as it cools, a tool in dentistry, a criminal slang word for a watch, and a paper cone used as part of a fat-extraction device! Furthermore, in botany, the Foxglove, Harebell, and Sea Campion have all been called “Witches’ Thimbles” or “Fairy Thimbles” because of the shaped of the flowers, as has the cup that contains acorns.

Witches Thimble - Foxglove

Foxglove – Fairy Thimbles

As if this wasn’t enough, the Oxford English Dictionary has 40 different examples of thimble being used in phrases, from thimble-belt and thimble-berry through to thimble-top and thimble-weed. Oh, and a thief who specializes in stealing watches is called a thimble-screwer.

Finally, a jocular alternative to the word tailor, is “Knight of the Thimble,” along with “Knight of the Needle” and “Knight of the Shears.” So although the humble thimble may have lost its place in the Monopoly game piece pantheon, it still has a long and productive etymological history of which it can be proud.

[1] For those of us old enough to remember when thimbles were a standard household item, and those for whom it still is, it can be difficult to imagine that there are people who honestly don’t know what one is. I still have a hard time with folks who don’t know where the word spam comes from in relation to email. And yes, it’s from a “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch.