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Words at Play

10 Godly Words

These words owe their origins to divine inspiration


Definition: to dislike (someone or something) very strongly

The word detest does not come from the name of any particular deity, but rather from an action associated with one. It comes from the Latin word detestari, which has the literal meaning "to curse while calling a deity to witness." The Latin word is taken in part from testis, meaning "witness," and so detest shares its origin with a number of other English words, such as testimony, contest, and testament.

“I do not detest you,” she began, doubtfully, “but—but—I cannot like you so.”
—Julia Kavanagh, Silvia, 1870

Definition: used as a mild oath or to express surprise

In many cultures, using the name of a deity is considered to fall somewhere between improper and scandalous. This would appear to be the case for many of the English-speaking people, judged by the large number of euphemistic terms we have for God, and for god-related-things. Many of these are simple and short substitutions for the word God itself, such as gosh or golly. Then we have some slightly more colorful terms, such as doggone and dodgasted, which stand in for "God damn" and “God blasted," respectively.

But this is really just the tip of the iceberg, for our tongue has many, many more such words, some of which are quite creative ways of not saying something. We have gadzooks (sometimes written as odszooks, which is a euphemism for god attached to zooks; the latter word may or may not represent hooks, since "god’s hooks" would signify the nails used for the crucifixion of Jesus. We also have odsbud ("God’s blood"), zounds ("God’s wounds"), and struth (which stands for "God’s truth"). Moving somewhat further afield, our language has a variety of ways of saying "God’s body": gadsbodikins, odsbodikins, and ods-bobs. If you want to make mention of something belonging to God, but don’t want to mention his name or his body you may use odds fish, which may refer, depending on who you ask, to either the fish or to the flesh of God. If all these euphemisms are a bit too much you can always fall back on that old standby, gorblimey ("God blind me").

Wal, sir, I’m blest ef they didn’t come right out from mass an’ steer straight for that liquor shop. Gosh! Why, I counted 26 go up to the bar an’ drink in twenty minutes.
Henry Morgan, Boston Inside Out! Sins of a Great City!, 1883

Definition: markedly good-humored especially as evidenced by jollity and conviviality

Jove (also known as Jupiter) was the name of the chief god of the ancient Romans, and served as the Roman equivalent to the Greek god Zeus. It is somewhat curious that we should have a word taken directly from his name which is concerned with jollity and good humor, as these are not qualities which are typically associated with a sky-god who is armed with thunderbolts. When jovial was first used as an adjective—around the beginning of the 17th century—it was also occasionally with the sense of "majestic," but this meaning has not lasted.

A plump and jovial American at the door—“Is the jacket of my wife ready?”
—James Brooks, A Seven Months’ Run, Up, and Down, and Around the World, 1872

Definition: strong excitement of feeling

Enthusiasm did not always mean "that feeling that is absent when your in-laws plan a visit." The word originally meant "divine possession or frenzy." Our earliest record of its use comes from 1577, in a letter written by Daniel Rogers, a British diplomat during the reign of Elizabeth I, to Sir Francis Walsingham: “And here he began to be ravished with an heroical enthusiasm, affirming, that in this voyage, he would make all the Papists in Christendom tremble.”

The word comes from the Greek enthousiasmos, which is a combination of enthous ("inspired") and theos ("god"). In the early 18th century enthusiasm began to take on the extended meaning which it primarily has today, referring to feelings of strong excitement or fervor on behalf of something.

Then came the Chassepot which raised such an unfortunate enthusiasm in the French army.
—The Colorado Magazine, June 1893

Definition: to rake (as ground troops) with fire at close range and especially with machine-gun fire from low-flying aircraft

The word strafe is connected to the word god, but only insofar as both words were included in a foreign phrase. That phrase was Gott strafe England!, which was a slogan popular among German soldiers in the First World War. The original meaning of strafe in German had nothing in particular to do with shooting machine-guns from a low-flying plane; it simply meant "God punish England."

If these rest on trestles driven deep down into the mud and your trenches are covered by them throughout—well, then you may thank God for all His mercies and proceed to the more interesting consideration of strafing Boches and avoiding being strafed by them.
—"Letter from the Firing Line," The Forum, Oct. 1916

Definition: a person who habitually retails facts, rumors, or behind-the-scenes information of an intimate, personal, or sensational nature

The primary meanings of gossip today are "rumor or report of an intimate nature" (as a noun) and "to relate gossip" (as a verb). Yet when the word first appeared in English, about a thousand years ago, it had the meaning "a godparent" or "a person spiritually related to another through being a sponsor at baptism." This may seem like an unlikely meaning for a word that we now associate with tabloid journalism and whispered innuendo, but it makes a good deal of sense when one examines the etymology: gossip comes from the Old English word godsibb, which it itself comes from the words god and sibb ("related").

You will think me a terrible gossip, Mary, but in a general way I really don't listen to idle talk, only I felt so interested in Captain Beverley after what I saw, and I can't believe any harm of him.
—Mrs. Molesworth (Ennis Graham), Hathercourt, 1878

Definition: a famous and successful woman who is very attractive and fashionable; especially : an attractive and successful female performer or celebrity

Diva came to the English language in the late 19th century from an Italian word for "goddess." Originally, it referred to a prima donna. However, since both diva and prima donna have changed their meanings a bit in the past 100 years, some explanation is in order. Prima donna was first used to describe a female opera singer, especially the leading lady of a company, at the end of the 18th century. Several decades later, it began to take on the connotations "impatient of restraint" or "full of self-importance." Diva initially described a female opera singer and then likewise broadened its meaning to include singers or performers who exhibited self-involved or temperamental behavior. Although both of these words have evolved from "opera singer" to "conceited performer," only one of them (diva) appears to be on its way to taking on positive connotations once again.

When such a diva as Renata Tebaldi gives to Dallas one of the greatest experiences of the art, are we fair in considering our price of ticket the only reward necessary? I think not.
Dallas Morning News, 21 May, 1957

Definition: a prepared foodstuff of grain (as oatmeal or cornflakes)

Quick question: what do Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops have in common with an ancient Roman goddess? The answer is that these foods (as well as well-nigh every other kind of sugared breakfast that is poured from a box, swamped with milk, and plopped down in front of children) are a cereal, and such foods take their name from Ceres. This Roman goddess was associated with agriculture. The earliest use of cereal in English was as an adjective ("relating to grain or to the plants that produce it"); it became a noun shortly after it entered the language.

“Cereals are the cheapest of all foods, but when they are fed alone children are pale and sickly and do not grow. If milk is added to the cereal, children are healthy and grow. Therefore a combination of milk and cereal is the best fuel food for children.”
The Jersey Bulletin and Dairy World, 11 June 1919

Definition: a place (such as a factory) where coins are made

In the English language, we sometimes will get two identical words which come from different sources. So we have more than one kind of mint: the word for the plant that is added to a julep comes from the Latin mentha, but the word for a place where money is coined can be traced to the Roman goddess Juno, the wife of Jove.

This monetary mint was borrowed from a prehistoric West Germanic word, which in turn came from the Latin moneta ("mint, coin, money"). Moneta was one of Juno's names. It took on monetary significance because the ancient Romans coined money in her temples.

Benjamin C. Bergin, an assayer in the branch United States Mint in San Francisco, has been placed under arrest on the charge of stealing gold from the mint.
Dickerman’s United States Treasury Counterfeit Detector, May, 1900

Martian
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Definition: a hypothetical inhabitant of the planet Mars

Mars was the Roman god of war, corresponding to the Greek god Ares. Our word martian comes from his name, albeit in a slightly roundabout fashion. The fourth planet from the sun is named after this deity, and so the term that we have created for the imagined inhabitants of this planet can be said to have ricocheted from mythology on earth to the stars and back again. Mars also serves as the root for the name of our third month (March), and for the word martial.

Now, if the Martians are superior beings, as Lowell has argued, what shall we say to them? In the beginning, something fundamental.
Popular Science Monthly, May 1919




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