A stack of paperback books

From starve to snow: word histories to delight and astound

I may have oversold it … Nonetheless, here are a few of my favourite things etymologies.


Growing up in the North East of England – but having already relocated through several counties (and India) along the way – my family was often stumped by the British love of weather talk. In particular, on cold days we’d hear it said that it was “starvation out there” and, for a while, put this down to a kind of collective familial mishearing.

Starve via Old English steorfan meant simply to die or, as Etymonline notes, “to literally become stiff”. The sense of starving through lack of food followed (earliest recorded use in the 12th Century). By the 14th Century – though increasingly a regionalism – there was also the idea of dying from cold. Starvation in its hyperbolic sense of ‘extremely cold’ is obsolete except for this regional use, but it’s preserved in the North, especially the snowy tundras around Newcastle upon Tyne.


“I’m very adept at formal dining settings because, even though our houseman would serve us, I was still expected to clear the table in between courses.”

That’s Melissa, Joan Rivers’ daughter, explaining to Closer Weekly how she kept it real growing up. To be adept is to be “very skilled or thoroughly proficient at something” (OED). In the 17th Century, however, to be adept (or an Adeptus) was to have gained the secrets of alchemy, a branch of study much concerned with turning base metals into precious gold. The sense of ‘skilful’ didn’t follow until 1698.

Presumably as alchemy isn’t the career choice it used to be, adept’s magical roots are less visible these days – but are the meanings entirely dissimilar? After all, when musicians, footballers or pencil sculptors do what they do best, they elevate the everyday to golden heights.


“Wait, I have a theory … I think limousine and magazine come from the same word!”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Detective Scully was typically wide of the mark when he pondered the similarity of Limousine and Magazine. In fact, these words couldn’t be further apart geographically.

Limousine, now used to signify any kind of luxury car, was originally “an ‘enclosed automobile with open driver’s seat,’ from French limousine, from Limousin, region in central France … from a perceived similarity of the car’s profile to a type of hood worn by the inhabitants of that province.” (Etymonline)

But magazine – both of the reading matter and storage for ammo – comes quite delightfully from the Arabic.

“Once upon a time”, writes Mark Forsyth in The Etymologicon, “there was an Arabic word khazana meaning to store up. From that they got makhzan meaning storehouse and its plural makhazin.” This word – with the sense of storehouse (esp. military) – was carried to Europe, becoming magazzino in Italy, magasin in France and magazine in Britain. For a gun clip to be called a magazine (‘a place to keep ammunition’) is hardly any leap at all.

In the 18th Century, however, when Edward Cave was pondering what to call his printed journal of news, politics and gardening tidbits, he settled on The Gentleman’s Magazine – presumably as it was a storehouse of information. For the purveyors of premium printed matter that followed, the name stuck.


The Boomtown Rats didn’t like Mondays (for a fairly sobering reason), while Wednesay’s child is “full of woe” – yet Tuesday gets off fairly lightly. Perhaps interesting things don’t happen on the second day of the week?

The ancient Germanic languages (one of which mutated into Old English) adopted the Roman convention for naming the days of the week after planets, but filtered these names through local culture and their own gods. Mercury’s day (Dies Mercurii in Latin) became Mercredi in French and Mercoledì in Italian. For the Anglo Saxons, via the influence of old Norse, that became Wōden’s day (Odin’s day) i.e., Wednesday.

Tuesday for the Roman’s was named for Mars (and thus Mardi and so on), but by the time it reached Old English was Tiw’s day. The Germanic tribes, and their descendants, put a local stamp on inherited languages, introducing their own gods into the mix along the way, and yet centuries later, we’ve ended up almost back at the beginning.

What’s cool about Tuesday is that the word is cognate with Jupiter and Zeus – the big dog of Greek/Roman divinity. Tuesday, Jupiter and Zeus all hail from the same root word in Proto-Indo-European (the hypothetical ancestor to all Indo-European languages): Dyeus-Pater – literally ‘sky father’. The History of English Podcast gets into this in fascinating detail:

The early Germanic tribes, whose languages eventually evolved into the Germanic languages we have today, like English – well they also had a god whose name came from that same original Indo-European root word [Dyeus-Pater] but over time the ‘d’ sound often shifted to a ‘t’ sound.

The old Norse language had a god named Týr, and the same god came into Old English as Tiw. This god’s name derives from the same root as Zeus in Greek and Jupiter in Latin.

Those pronunciation shifts over centuries worked a little like this: Dyeus > Zeus (and the ‘dzhu’ sound of Jupiter) > the ‘tchu’ sound of Týr. All link back to the idea of a ‘sky father’.

So Tuesday is conceivably Zeus’s Day – which makes Tuesday quite important after all. When it comes to language, we’re not that different, you and I. And yes, everything’s Tuesday.


Words & picture: my own; source material as credited above. All rights reserved: no copying, pasting or re-using without permission.