Etymologies & Word Origins:
Letter E


Easter, or Eastre as it is originally, was the name of a pagan goddess of Spring whose festival was held on the vernal equinox. The Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices (as they did with Saturnalia and Christmas) for their celebration of Christ's resurrection. The pagan holiday roughly corresponded with the time of year (Passover) of the crucifixion and resurrection.


Most people know that to eavesdrop is to listen in on a conversation to which one is not a party. But where does this word come from? What does it have to do with eaves and roofing?

Eavesdrop is a very old word. It dates to the year 868 in the form yfæs drypæ. This noun referred to the water dripping off the eaves of a building or ground on which such water would fall. From medieval times there were legal restrictions on building close to one's property line so that the eavesdrop would not damage the neighbor's land.

The word eavesdropper, meaning one who stands in the eavesdrop of a building and listens to conversations within, dates to 1487. The verb to eavesdrop probably is a back formation of this--although it could come directly from the original noun--and dates to 1606

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Eeny, Meany, Miney, Moe

Various tales about this children's counting rhyme are circulating, mostly untrue. The rhyme is not an ancient number system that comes down to us through the mists of time. (Usually the tales say the words are Anglo-Saxon or Celtic numbers.)

Instead, the rhyme is simply a nonsense rhyme. The words eeny, meany, miney, moe have no intrinsic meaning. The rhyme was not recorded until 1855, with that early version using the words eeny, meeny, moany, mite. Another version, also published in 1855 but said to date to 1815 begins, Hana, mana, mona, mike. Various versions appear in the mid-19th century in both Britain and America, as well as in many different European languages.

Early American versions of the rhyme tend to contain the line catch a nigger by the toe. In early British versions, chicken or tinker are used instead. With rhymes such as these, there is no "original" version and there are countless early variants. The use of nigger is just one variant among many.

Egg On

This term meaning to incite, to urge, or to encourage has nothing to do with throwing eggs. The verb egg dates to 1200 and is from the Old Norse eggja. The phrase to egg on is 16th century.

The Norse root is the same as for the sense of the verb to edge meaning to encourage.


The term eighty-six is restaurant/bar slang for an item that is out of stock or a customer that is to be denied service. The origin is obscure. The earliest clear reference is to the February 1936 issue of American Speech; it was undoubtedly in existence before that. Lighter cites a 1926-35 comedy where a waiter gives his number as eighty-six.

The OED2 postulates that it may be rhyming slang for nix, and most authorities tend to go with this explanation although there is no strong evidence to support it. It is plausible as restaurant crews frequently employ codes such as this.

American Heritage suggests that it may derive from Chumley's Bar in Greenwich Village, which is located at 86 Bedford Street. This is chronologically possible as the existence of Chumley's predates the earliest known use of the term by a few years, but I know of no solid evidence supporting it. Other explanations include:

There is no evidence to support any of these latter contentions.

Its usage as a verb meaning to get rid of, dates only to 1955, according to Lighter.

Elephant, To See The

I have seen the elephant is a expression denoting world-weary experience. It is an Americanism dating to the early 19th century. The elephant is metaphorical, standing it for the exotic and strange things one sees when one has experience and has seen the world. Many associate the phrase with the Civil War. While it was certainly in use during the war and undoubtedly crops up in letters and diaries from that period, the phrase is older, dating to at least 1844.

This is an American version of the older British expression to see the lions. This phrase, meaning the same thing or, in later use, meaning to see something of celebrity or note, is a reference to lions that were kept in the Tower of London and were an early tourist attraction. Those who came to London from the country were often taken to see the lions in the Tower. The British phrase dates to 1590.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Ethnic Cleansing

The term ethnic cleansing, a euphemism for genocide, came to the fore in the 1990s with the war in the former Yugoslavia. On 2 August 1991, a Washington Post article used the term in a translation of a Croatian political statement, "The Croatian political and military leadership issued a statement Wednesday declaring that Serbia's ' obviously the ethnic cleansing of the critical areas that are to be annexed to Serbia'."

The history of the term is much older though. The term ethnically clean dates to a decade earlier, in a 1982 New York Times article about the Serbian province of Kosovo. And the use of cleansing to refer to purging of minorities in an area or region dates to the 1936 in translation of the German Säuberungsaktion, meaning cleansing process.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This exclamation is from the Greek heureka, meaning I have found it.

Legend has it that Archimedes uttered this exclamation when he realized that objects placed in water displace an amount of water equal to their own volume. King Hiero of Syracuse had supplied a goldsmith with gold to make a crown. But the king was not certain that the smith had used all the gold and so he asked Archimedes to test the crown. Archimedes was stumped until one day when climbing into his bath he noticed the water displacement and realized that he could measure the volume of the crown through displacement.


Charles Darwin will forever be associated with the "Theory of Evolution," but, interestingly, Darwin did not call his theory that. In fact, he eschewed the use of the word evolution, using that word but once, in the closing paragraph of his Origin of Species. Why did Darwin prefer his own term "descent with modification" over evolution? And how did the non-preferred term come to describe Darwin's theory?

The first question is actually rather easy. In Victorian England, the word evolution already had two distinct meanings. Neither of which adequately described Darwin's idea of "descent with modification."

The first definition was a biological one. In 1762, a biologist named Bonnet first used the term evolution to describe the theory of embryological development. Bonnet believed that each embryo grew from a little homunculus contained within the egg, with each homunculus containing eggs, each carrying its own homunculus, and so on like a set of Russian nesting dolls. In this theory, now commonly called the "theory of preformation" to avoid confusion, genetic development and change was preordained. Darwin did not want to associate his theory with one in which natural selection could have no effect.

The second definition was a more general and common one, but one that was still anathema to Darwin's theory. In common usage, which dates from at least 1647, evolution was a concept of progress, the idea that things developed from simple to complex in an orderly manner. Darwin's natural selection was not orderly, rather it was haphazard and chaotic. Nor did Darwin's theory have room for a preordained path of development. If species became more complex, it was because complexity benefited survival. Given slightly different circumstances, speciation could just as easily go the other way--from the complex to the simple. There were no guarantees, no "higher" or "lower" organisms. Humans were at the top of the food chain because they were the best adapted, not because of any plan.

And to answer the second question, it was the Victorian belief in progress that led to the use evolution to describe Darwin's theory. To the well-bred Victorian, progress was inevitable. Any change had to be for the better, including organic change. The works of Herbert Spencer and other eminent Victorian biologists (but not Darwin) popularized the idea that natural selection would lead to progress, to bettering of the species. Darwin was alone in contending that his theory led only to improved adaptation, not to any other sort of progress. Spencer and the others gave birth to the ideas of Social Darwinism and the evils that philosophy spawned.

In the end, Darwin, not the others, was proven correct, but the name given to the theory by Spencer was the one that prevailed.

(The source for much of the above is Stephen Jay Gould's "Darwin's Dilemma: The Odyssey of Evolution," which appears in Ever Since Darwin.)

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Last Updated 21 May 2005
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