Etymologies & Word Origins: 
Letter B


Bailiwick is an old legal term from England. It is a compound of bailie + -wick. Bailie is an obsolete form of bailiff, or an administrative official, from the Middle English and Old French bailli; -wick is from the Old English wic, meaning dwelling, farm, town, or enclosed space. The term bailiwick dates to the mid-15th century and originally meant the district under a bailiff's jurisdiction. The term was brought to America in the mid-19th century, where it generalized to mean a person's sphere of knowledge or expertise.

Baker's Dozen

The popular tale behind this phrase's origin is that a medieval law specified the weight of loaves of bread and any baker who shorted a customer was in for dire punishment. So, baker's would include a thirteenth loaf with each dozen just to be safe. The story is partly true. There was such a law, but the practice of adding an extra loaf to the dozen had nothing to do with fear of punishment.

The law in question was the Assize of Bread and Ale, first promulgated in England in 1266. There are various versions of the law, but they all regulated the weight and price of loaves of bread that were sold on the market. During years of good harvests, bakers could make more bread than they could sell locally, so they would sell the excess loaves to hucksters, or middlemen. But since the weight and price was strictly regulated, the only way for these distributors to make money would be to give them extra loaves. The baker would give the huckster a thirteenth, or vantage, loaf for each dozen. This extra loaf provided the profit for the middleman.

The practice of adding the thirteenth loaf is older than the phrase. The phrase only dates to 1599.

Balling the Jack

It means to go fast. It appears for the first time as the name of a lively ragtime tune and dance in 1913. It is likely from the fast pace of this song, but the origin is somewhat uncertain. It has been commonly used among railroadmen, but there is little evidence to indicate that the origin is from railroad jargon--it is more likely that the dance inspired the phrase and railroadmen picked it up and made it their own.

Balls to the Wall

The phrase balls to the wall, meaning an all-out effort, sounds as if it is a reference to a part of the male anatomy, giving rise to some confusion as to what it originally meant. However, the original usage has nothing to do with anatomy, coming rather from the world of aviation.

On an airplane, the handles controlling the throttle and the fuel mixture are often topped with ball-shaped grips, referred to by pilots as (what else?) "balls." Pushing the balls forward, close to the front wall of the cockpit results in the most and richest mixture of fuel going to the engines and the highest possible speed.

The phrase dates to the early 1950s. Several veterans have written me noting their use of the term during the Korean War era. The earliest written citation is a bit later. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang contains a quote from 1966-67, in Harvey's Air War:

You know what happened on that first Doomsday Mission (as the boys call a big balls-to-the-wall raid) against Hanoi oil.

Like balling the jack, this phrase is often thought to have arisen from railroad work. A speed governor on train engines would have round, metal weights at the end of arms. As the speed increased, the spinning balls would rise--being perpendicular to the walls at maximum speed. But there is no evidence to support this story. No use of the phrase is known to exist prior to the mid-1960s, and all the early cites are from military aviation.


One of the more frequent questions to this site's discussion forum has been where the phrase jump on the bandwagon comes from. The confusion stems from the fact that the phrase survives into the 21st century while bandwagons are long gone.

In 19th and early 20th century America, a bandwagon was exactly what it sounds like, a wagon, usually horse-drawn, which carried a musical band. Bandwagons were used in circuses, to lead parades, and at political rallies. Hence to join or jump on the bandwagon was to follow the crowd, and in a political context with the connotation that one was there for the entertainment and excitement of the event, rather than from deep or firm conviction.

The first known use of the term bandwagon is from 1855 in P.T. Barnum's Life:

At Vicksburg we sold all our land conveyances excepting four horses and the "band wagon."

Use of a bandwagon as a metaphor for a political campaign dates to at least 1884, when the magazine Puck published a cartoon depicting Chester A. Arthur driving a bandwagon full of presidential hopefuls.

The familiar phrase first appears in an 1899 letter by Theodore Roosevelt:

When I once became sure of one majority they rumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.

(Updated: 20 June 2003; Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition and Safire's New Political Dictionary.


This American contribution to international cuisine actually originated in the Caribbean, and the word comes to us via Spanish from its Indian roots. The original sense of barbecue is that of a raised, wooden (later metal) framework used for either sleeping upon or curing meats. The Indians of Guiana called it a babracot and the Haitians a barbacoa. The Spanish evidently acquired the Haitian word and it came into English from the Spanish.

The earliest English cite, used for a sleeping platform, is from 1697. By 1733 the word was being used for an open-air, social gathering featuring the grilling of meat.

Barbecue has one false etymology that is commonly promulgated on the Internet and elsewhere. It is claimed that it comes from the French barbe (beard) and queue (tail); the idea being that an entire pig is roasted, from head, or beard, to tail. This is simply not true.


The rules for the modern game of baseball were laid down in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright and the other members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The next year, the first game of baseball, as we know it today, was played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. (The Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club.)

But people have been playing games with bats, balls, and bases for a lot longer than this and the word baseball is considerably older than the modern game.

Believe it or not, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the term baseball is from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, written c.1815, "It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, at the age of fourteen, to books." But even this is not the earliest recorded use of the term. For that we need to go back half a century earlier.

In 1744, John Newberry published a children's book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, which contained the following poem. The book was originally published in London, but was reprinted several times in the United States:

B is for
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin'd Post,
And then Home with Joy

Bated Breath

Several people have emailed me asking where baited breath came from. Part of the difficulty is that it is spelled bated. Bate is a verb dating to the 14th century meaning to deprive or to lessen. It is a clipped form of abate.

Shakespeare was the first to use bated breath in 1596 in The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.123.


Bedlam is a Middle English form of Bethlehem, referring to the Judean city where Christ was born.

The sense meaning madness, uproar, or confusion comes from the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London. The hospital was founded as a priory in 1247 and is first mentioned as a hospital in 1330. In 1547 it was incorporated as a lunatic asylum. So, the modern sense is an extension of the idea of a lunatic asylum.


This term for the Warders of the Tower of London was in use by 1670. The term is quite literal, being a reference to well-fed servants of the royal household.

It is often postulated the term comes from a supposed French word, buffetier. This is incorrect. The word, which would mean one who eats from a buffet, does not exist.


This term, commonly used in the phrase none of your beeswax, is an Americanism dating to the 1930s. It is simply an intentional malapropism for business. It has nothing to do with actual wax.

Belfry/Bats in the Belfry

The word belfry, believe it or not, originally had nothing to do with bells. Belfry is from the Old French berfroi, meaning a wooden siege tower. The word first appears in English c. 1300 as berfreyes. Over the years the meaning shifted from a siege tower to watch towers (which may or may not have had alarm bells), and then eventually to bell towers and church steeples. The spelling shift occurred by c. 1430 when the spelling belfreyes appeared. Eventually the new L spelling created an association with bells and the modern sense denoting a room in a tower where bells are hung dates to 1549.

Spelling shifts between L and R, as in berfreyes/belfry, are common in many languages, including English. The L and R sounds are formed almost identically, by raising the tip of the tongue close to the alveolar ridge, which contains the teeth. When pronouncing L, the tongue makes and maintains contact with the ridge; when sounding R, it comes close but does not touch. It is very easy to sound L when you mean R, and vice versa.

While we are on the subject of belfries, the phrase bats in the belfry is an Americanism dating to 1899. This phrase is the source of the sense of bats or batty meaning eccentric or insane, which both appear in the first decade of the 20th century. A belfry is a likely place to find bats and the phrase is simply a jocular expression similar to not playing with a full deck or his elevator does not run all the way to the top. In this case the belfry represents the head and brain and bats were chosen for alliterative purposes and because the creatures can be found there.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

Big Apple

This name for New York City was originally horse-racing slang that made its way into jazz lingo and eventually into the vernacular.

The term dates to 1921 and is a reference to the race courses in and around New York City. These were the big money courses, and the "apple" is associated with a prize, something desirable. By the late 1920s, the term had been adopted by jazz musicians and generalized to the city as a whole. A tourism advertising campaign in the 1970s that used the term as a theme reinvigorated usage and brought the name to the attention of millions who had not otherwise heard it.

There is also a single 1909 use of the term, but this is probably unrelated to the later uses.


This term for an important person dates to c. 1731. It's a reference to the powdered wigs that men wore in the 18th century. Rich and important men would have larger, more expensive wigs. Hence the term.

Contrary to the bit of Internet folklore that is floating about, men did not shave their heads under the wigs (or at least most didn't) and the wigs were not placed in a loaf of bread and baked in order to clean them. That is simply absurd.


This term for a floozie or loose woman is probably derived from the Italian for baby. It makes its English appearance in 1918, in Rosano's Price of Honor in a bit of Italian-accented dialogue. The original meaning was a stupid, inconsequential, or contemptible person. By 1920 the floozie sense had developed.


Many people wonder where these two computer terms come from. Of the two, bit is older, dating to at least 1948. The earliest usage cite in the OED2, an article by C.E. Shannon in Bell Systems Technical Journal, credits a J.W. Tukey with the coinage. The term is an abbreviated form of binary digit, chosen probably because it is also a play on the meaning of the standard word bit signifying a small part.

The term byte is of less certain origin, but probably was coined by someone at IBM (perhaps a Dr. Werner Buchholz according to Safire's Quoth the Maven) around 1964. The original sense of the term was the amount of data required to represent one character (usually eight bits). Over time, the predominant sense shifted to mean eight bits exactly. The earliest cite in the OED2 dates from an article in IBM Systems Journal from that year. Some have suggested that it is an abbreviation for BInary digiT Eight ( Carver) and that the Y was substituted for the I so to prevent typographical confusion with bit (Safire). Neither of these claims is well substantiated, although it is certain that byte was influenced by and is a play on bit. Another suggestion in Safire is that it is short for BinarY TErm. Again, this lacks substantiation.

Also playful, but less well known, is the term nybble or nibble, meaning half a byte, or four bits.

Bit/Two Bits

One of the more frequently asked questions on this site's discussion group is where the term two bits comes from. Most people know that it means 25 cents, but the origin is a mystery to them.

Bit, which ultimately comes from the Old English bita, originally meant a morsel of food. From there it went on to denote any small thing, particularly a fraction of a larger whole. By 1683 in the English-speaking American colonies bit had come to denote a Spanish/Mexican real, or one eighth of a peso. The peso was a common form of currency in the colonies. And in the early days of the United States, pesos were commonly used as dollar coins and real coins represented twelve and half cents, hence two bits equaled 25 cents.


Bizarre was borrowed into English from French meaning handsome or brave, which in turn took the word from the Italian bizarro, meaning angry. When it jumped the channel, it shifted radically in meaning to its current sense. It first appears in English in 1648.

There is a commonly touted etymology for bizarre, however, that claims the word is originally from the Basque bizar, meaning beard. This explanation has been around since at least 1607, before the word existed in English, but is not supported by evidence.

A letter by Brenda Brody of Westport, Connecticut in Safire's Watching My Language contains an interesting, but false, tale of the origin of the word bizarre. Ms. Brody informs us that in the latter part of the eighteenth century, a man named Richard Randolph owned a plantation in Virginia that went by the name Bizarre. This is an odd name if the sense of strange or uncanny is considered, but not so strange if the older, European sense of handsome or brave was meant.

Well, it seems that Randolph sired an illegitimate child by his sister-in-law and shortly after the birth the infant was found dead. Randolph and Anne "Nancy" Cary, the child's mother, went on trial for murder. Much as O.J. Simpson did two centuries later, Randolph used his wealth and connections to assemble a crack, legal team for his defense--Patrick Henry and John Marshall--and the case was eventually dismissed, but not before a lot of media attention about the "Bizarre Murder Case." Brody suggests that the earlier usages of bizarre have been misinterpreted and that this trial was what brought about the change in meaning.

Brody's hypothesis, unfortunately for it's a fun story, just doesn't hold water. The earlier English usages of bizarre mean "strange" or they just don't make sense. It is more likely that the newspaper editors who used the term "Bizarre Murder Trial" were making a pun based on the plantation's name and the commonly understood meaning of the term.

Bizarre is unrelated to bazaar, which is from the Persian bazar, meaning marketplace.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam Webster's 10th Collegiate, American Heritage Dictionary, and Watching My Language.


When an airplane crashes, what follows is inevitably a search for the black box, or more accurately the two black boxes, the cockpit voice and flight data recorders. The odd thing is that whenever the boxes are recovered and shown on the news, they are not black at all. Rather, they are painted bright orange for visibility at a crash site.

So why are they called black? Black box is a generic term for a piece of electronic equipment on an aircraft. The term originated in the RAF during World War II. The first black boxes were radar bomb "sights." Later, the term expanded to include various electronic navigational devices. When the flight recorders started being installed on civilian aircraft in 1958, the name was applied to these devices. The original WWII black boxes were literally black boxes and many pieces of avionics equipment still come in black housings, but the term is applied to all of them regardless of color.

There is another type of black box that also takes its name from these WWII devices. A black box can be a mechanism whose internal workings are not understood, but its function is. If an engineer knows that the device will give output Y if he inputs X but doesn't understand why, then that is a black box. This sense dates from at least 1953 and is from the fact that aircrews did not understand how their black boxes worked (the components and processes were closely guarded military secrets), they just knew they did.


The exact etymology of this term for a villain is a bit uncertain. What is known is that it is literally from black guard; it is English in origin; and it dates to at least 1532.

The two earliest senses (it is impossible to tell which one came first) are:

The OED2 doesn't dismiss the possibility that there may literally have been a company of soldiers at Westminster called the Black Guard, but no direct evidence of this exists.

The earliest known citation (1532) uses the term blake garde to refer to torch bearers at a funeral. A 1535 cite refers to the Black Guard of the King's kitchen, a scullery reference. The second sense of a guard of attendants appears in 1563 in reference to a retinue of Dominican friars--who would be in black robes.

The sense of the vagabond or criminal class doesn't appear until the 1680s. And the modern sense of a scoundrel dates to the 1730s.


Blackmail derives from the old practice of freebooting clan chieftains who ran protection rackets against Scottish farmers. If the farmers did not pay the mail, the chiefs would steal their crops and cattle. Mál is an Old English word meaning rent or tribute. The black either comes from the evil connotation of this practice, or from the fact that this "rent" was usually paid in goods, like cattle, as opposed to silver coin, known as white money.

The opening scene of the movie Rob Roy depicts this practice. The hero, Rob Roy MacGregor, has accepted protection money for the lord's cattle. He therefore is out hunting men who have stolen some of the cattle under his protection. Later in the movie he admits to having stolen cattle himself, but never cattle that were under his "protection." Proving once again that there is honor among thieves.

The OED2 dates this historical usage of the term blackmail to 1552. The modern sense of any type of extortion money dates to 1826, but it was probably not in common use until sometime later. Webster's 1828 dictionary only contains the original, Scottish sense. The verb to blackmail dates from 1880.

Mail, meaning tribute, dates to at least 1200. While it once was common throughout Britain, it survived into modern times only in Scotland and the north. It is now extinct, except for its use in blackmail.


This term for a non-rigid airship is of uncertain origin. We do know that it was coined during the First World War, but who coined it and why the rather enigmatic term blimp was chosen may never be known.

The OED2 says it is of uncertain origin. That dictionary gives three explanations. The first explanation is that it derives from a Royal Navy airship classification system. Under this system there were two types of airships, Type-A, Rigid (i.e., dirigibles with metal frames), and Type-B, Limp. Blimp is simply a clipped form of B-Limp. Credit for the coinage goes either to the aviator Horace Shortt, according to a 1918 citation, or to a Lieutenant A.D. Cunningham according to a 1951 citation.

The OED2 further confuses the matter by saying that the term may be onomatopoeic. According to this story, officers would check the inflation of balloons by flicking their fingers against the gas bags. If the bag responded with the sound blimp, the bag was inflated to the proper pressure. For what it's worth, the British Airship Association plumps for this onomatopoeic explanation, and says it was Cunningham, not Shortt, who coined the term in 1916. Their sources date to 1974, not as far back as the OED2's.

And, as if there were not enough confusion, the OED2 cites a 1924 article by J.R.R. Tolkien (remember he was a distinguished Oxford linguist who only wrote fantasy stories in his spare time) who speculates that the word is a combination of blister and lump.

Most sources plump for the "Type B, Limp" explanation. Presumably because the documentation is earlier.

Do not confuse the British coinage of Blimp, meaning an ultra-nationalistic person, with the aircraft. This usage is after a cartoon character, Colonel Blimp, invented by David Low (1891-1963) in the 1930s.

Blind Tiger

This is an American slang term for an illegal drinking establishment. The term is most commonly found in the South. Its synonym, Blind Pig, is more common in California, the Northwest, and the Northern Tier states.

The terms apparently arose from the fact that it was illegal in many areas to sell alcohol by the drink or because the term was used to avoid licensing fees. Proprietors of drinking establishments would advertise animal curiosities and give customers who paid to see the animals a "complimentary" drink. Often, there were no actual animals to be displayed and it was a thin facade that law enforcement officials winked at.

Blind pig dates to at least 1870, while blind tiger appears to be a bit older, being traced to at least 1857.


This term has three distinct senses. The first use of blockbuster was during World War II, meaning a large aerial bomb. It was formed from the words for a city block and bust, a verb meaning "to break." A blockbuster was a bomb large enough to destroy a city block.

The second sense means anything, especially a movie, play, or book, that is large, important, or popular. The term appears to have arisen shortly after the war, and was probably a play on the concept of the large bomb. Ironically, the term bomb in show business or publishing means a complete failure, while a blockbuster is a huge success.

The third sense is from real estate. A blockbuster is a real estate agent who sells a house in an all-white neighborhood to a minority, especially black, family. Once the city block is busted, the other houses on the block are likely to come on the market at a depressed price and end up being sold to other minority families. This term, again created from the words for city block and bust, meaning to break, appeared after the war as well, and again was probably a play on the original concept of the aerial bomb. Only this time, it was not the size of the bomb that is the reference, but rather its ability to "destroy" a city block.


A British swear word (in its rare American usage it is not considered particularly offensive, only British, and in Australia it is a staple of the dialect, an all-purpose adjective), usage of which dates at least to 1676 according to the OED2. Popular derivations include the belief that it comes from the oath God's Blood or is a corruption of the phrase By our Lady. Alternately, some suggest it is a reference to menstruation.

The OED2 states that there is no evidence to suggest it comes from God's Blood and suggests that it derives from a reference to the aristocratic rowdies of the Restoration (i.e., those of noble or aristocratic blood). As an epithet, the 1676 usage was in bloody drunk evoking the phrase drunk as a lord. Similarly, the By our Lady and menstruation hypotheses lack evidence. Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English disagrees with all of the above, stating, "there is no need for ingenious etymologies: the idea of blood suffices."

The adjectival and adverbial uses are not to be confused with bloody-minded, which means cruel, stubborn, or cantankerous. This usage is probably derived from the standard sense of bloody meaning violent.


The adjective blue has been associated with despondency and sadness since the 16th century. The noun the blues has been with us since 1741. The blues is a shortening of blue devils, demons popularly thought to cause depression and sadness. Blue devils have been around since 1616.

The name of the musical style has been around since 1912, taking its name from the mournful and haunting nature of the lyrics. Some sources say the style takes its name from the blue notes that it uses, blue notes being a minor interval in place of a major, an off-pitch note. But the opposite is true. Blue notes get their name from the blues, not the other way around. Blue note is attested to in 1918.

Blue Moon

In one of the internet newsgroups I regularly read, one of the local pedants maintains that a blue moon is the second full moon of a calendar month--a rather rare occurrence. While the descriptivist in me acknowledges that is certainly one of the meanings, the original meaning is more general, referring to any rare occurrence.

The original sense is that of an absurd event that can never occur. The moon is never really blue and once in a blue moon is akin to when pigs fly. (Well actually, when a lot of dust is kicked up into the atmosphere, the moon can appear blue. The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 caused the moon to turn blue, as did late Indian monsoons in 1927, and Canadian forest fires in 1951.)

The term dates to a 1528 work by William Barlow, the Bishop of Chichester, the Treatyse of the Buryall of the Masse, more commonly known by its first line, Rede me and be nott wrothe, For I say no things but trothe:

Yf they saye the mone is belewe,
We must believe that it is true.

The modern formulation "blue moon" first appears in 1821. Modern usage holds that a blue moon is a rare, but not impossible, event.

The astronomical definition began in 1932 with the Maine Farmer's Almanac. That periodical defined a blue moon as a season with four full moons rather than the usual three. Given that the seasons are defined by the equinoxes and solstices and not the months, this means a year can have twelve full moons, and each month one, yet have one season with four--a blue moon. In 1946, amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett published an article in which he misinterpreted the Maine rule to mean two full moons in one month. From there the error seems to have propagated--even being repeated in the original game of Trivial Pursuit, which is probably the primary reason for this definition to have spread so widely and quickly.

Two articles on the origins of blue moon appear in Sky and Telescope magazine by folklorist Philip Hiscock and by astronomers Don Olson, Rick Fienberg, and Roger Sinnott respectively in the March and May 1999 issues.

(Sources: Hiscock: Once In A Blue Moon; Olson, et. al.: What's A Blue Moon?; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition.


In the publishing trade, a blurb is a testimonial to the book that is printed on the dust jacket. It is meant as an advertisement for the book and it is used to increase sales. The origin of blurb is one of the more humorous etymologies.

Blurb was coined by the American humorist Gelett Burgess in 1907. According to his publisher, B.W. Huebsch (quoted in Mencken), Burgess's book, Are You a Bromide?, had been published and was selling well. At the annual trade association dinner that year the publisher distributed some five hundred copies of the book with a special jacket as was the custom. It was also:

the common practise to print the picture of a damsel--languishing, heroic, or coquettish--anyhow, a damsel on the jacket of every novel.

Burgess provided a drawing of a particularly buxom and pulchritudinous blonde for the jacket and labeled her Miss Blinda Blurb. The name stuck, eventually including not only drawings of buxom women but also any excessive testimonial to the book.

From Burgess's Burgess Unabridged, 1914:

Blurb 1. A flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher ... On the "jacket" of the "latest" fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the "sensation of the year."

And Bob's Your Uncle

Robert, Lord Salisbury Arthur Balfour

This British catch phrase, meaning all will be well or all will be taken care of dates from the 1890s. Popular etymology says that it derives from a particular act of nepotism in the British government. Robert, Lord Salisbury, the prime minister (left), appointed Arthur Balfour, his nephew (right), to the post of Secretary for Ireland in 1887. Balfour was, at the time, considered young and a political lightweight, and the post was a high-profile, political plum currently embroiled in the question of Irish independence. Aside from the dates, there is no evidence, either way, to link this act with the origin of the phrase, although the phrase's specificity makes this hypothesis appealing.

Partridge says the phrase may stem from the cant phrase All is bob, meaning all is safe. Although, Paul Beale, editor of Partridge's A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, acknowledges the possibility of the Salisbury/Balfour story.


Several people have emailed me asking how Humphrey Bogart's name became associated with a term meaning selfishness. Ah, how soon we forget the intricacies of '60s drug culture. The selfish connotation comes from hogging a marijuana cigarette. Someone who kept the joint in their mouth, hanging from their lip like Bogey, would be bogarting the joint. Instead of bogarting, one should pass it on to another. The term can be used for hoarding items other than pot.

The term is first attested to in the song Don't Bogart Me, by Elliot Ingber and Larry Wagner, which appears on Fraternity Of Man's eponymous album, released 24 June 1968 by ABC Records. The song was featured the next year in the movie Easy Rider and is on that movie's soundtrack. (The song was later covered by the band Little Feat under the title Don't Bogart That Joint.)

In some circles, there is a slightly different definition of bogarting. It is to get saliva all over the joint before passing it on--again from the imagery of the cigarette hanging from Bogey's lip. But this sense seems to be used by a minority.

There is an older, unrelated meaning of the term--to be aggressive or bullying. It comes from the fact that Bogart played toughs in the movies.


Bogey is a term that today is usually only heard in the air force or on the golf course. Up in the wild, blue yonder it is a reference to an unidentified aircraft that is presumably hostile. Its counterpart is bandit which is used to refer to a known hostile aircraft. Both these aviation usages date to World War II, but the term bogey is much, much older.

On the links, a bogey is a score of one over par on a particular hole. According to the OED2, this term was invented in 1890 by a certain Major Wellman at the Great Yarmouth Golf Club. He was playing against a Dr. Thomas Browne using the scratch value of each hole. Wellman, having difficulty beating the scratch score, claimed that he was playing against a bogey-man, a character in a popular song at the time. In American usage, bogey came to mean one over par. The verb form appeared around 1942, the earliest cite in the OED2 being from Ben Hogan's Power Golf.

Bogle is an old Scottish word for ghost, often spelled bogy, bogil, bogie, and other ways. The term dates at least to 1505, and is the source for our modern bogeyman or boogieman. It is akin to the Middle English bugge, meaning scarecrow, which survives to this day in bugbear.

So both of the above are usages representing phantoms, whether they be phantom planes or phantom players.


The term booby meaning a stupid person dates to about 1599. It probably comes from the Spanish bobo meaning the same thing as well as being the name of the type of bird--which were slow, stupid and easy to kill.

The sense meaning breast is 20th century coinage, but traces back to the mid-17th century with the term bubby meaning the same thing.


Boondocks is a relic of American colonialism. British English imported lots of words from its far-flung colonial possessions, but American colonial aspirations mainly produced words derived from Spanish and adopted with the settling of the West. This one, however, is an exception. It derives from the Tagalog word bundok, meaning "mountain." It was adopted into the language by occupying American soldiers in the Philippines as a word meaning any remote and wild place. By 1909, only some ten years after the American conquest of the islands, the word had caught on enough to rate an entry in that year's Webster's New International Dictionary. Despite this, however, it remained primarily a military slang term, especially among Marines, until the 1960s, when, probably because of the Vietnam War, it gained wider, civilian usage.


This term meaning a useless or impractical task has its origins in original sense of boondoggle meaning a gadget of some sort. In particular it referred to trappings and devices made of leather by ranchers and cowboys.

The sense of frivolous work came from the ranch. When nothing else was to be done, the cowboys would boondoggle--that is make various leather devices. The ultimate origin of boondoggle is unknown.

A secondary meaning of the word known to Boy Scouts is a braided cord of leather worn as a neckerchief slide. This sense was coined in 1929 by Scoutmaster Robert T. Link. This sense also comes from the sense of a device made of leather.


Folklore has it that this term for liquor comes from a Philadelphia distiller named E.C. Booz who prospered around 1840 by selling a popular spirit in bottles shaped like a log cabin. This is not correct. The word has been around since the fourteenth century and in use in America since the early eighteenth century. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang records a cite of Benjamin Franklin using the term boozy from 1722, and Webster's 1828 dictionary has entries for boose and bouse meaning "to drink hard; to guzzle," and for boosy meaning "a little intoxicated; merry with liquor."

It derives from the Middle Dutch verb busen, meaning to drink heavily, and first appeared in English as a verb spelled bouse.

From Spenser's 1590 The Faerie Queene, I.iv.22:

And in his hand did bear a bouzing can,
Of which he supt so oft, that on his seat
His dronken corse he scarse upholden can

Brass Tacks

The phrase "get down to brass tacks" is of uncertain etymology. No one knows why it was originally coined, but there are several explanations. What we do know is that the phrase dates to at least the 1890s and that it is American in origin. Beyond that, there is only speculation.

The earliest citation in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is from an 1895 letter by Frederick Remington: How little I know ... when you get down to brass-tacks. The OED2 dates it to 1897.

Morris postulates two explanations. The first was that general stores used to mark out a yard on the counter with brass tacks so that customers buying cloth could "get down to brass tacks" and ensure they weren't being cheated. The second is that brass tacks were used as a foundation for upholstery. So getting down to brass tacks meant getting down to basics.

More likely is the explanation in Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and in Brewer's, which hold that brass tacks is rhyming slang for facts.

Break a Leg

Superstition against wishing an actor Good Luck! has led to the adoption of this phrase in its place. Popular etymology derives the phrase from the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth, the actor turned assassin, leapt to the stage of Ford's Theater after the murder, breaking his leg in the process. The logical connection with good luck is none too clear, but such is folklore. But unfortunately for this great story, there is no evidence to suggest that this is the origin of the phrase or even that the phrase dates to the 19th century.

There are various other explanations to the effect that it really refers to bending the leg during a bow or to the curtains pulls that were allegedly called "legs," the opening and closing of the curtains during numerous curtain calls could result in the curtain pulls breaking, or so one might wish. These are also undoubtedly false. The origin is far more likely to be simple superstition, not wanting to bring on a jinx.

Break a leg is commonly thought to date to the 1920s, but the earliest actual appearance in print that anyone has found is from 1957. There are, however, numerous recollections of actors dating the phrase to decades eariler, so it probably was part of theatrical slang during the first half of the 20th century.

Partridge's A Dictionary of Catch Phrases suggests that there may be a connection with the German phrase Hals und Beinbruch, which is an invitation to break one's neck and leg or to break one's neck and bone, depending on how one translates it. Partridge, unfortunately, does not provide any evidence to support the connection. Etymologist and word sleuth Barry Popik, however, has. Popik discovered a 1954 newspaper article that refers to actors in Frederick, Maryland wishing each other a "neck and leg break." The similarity with the German phrase is striking and given that it is a tortured construction in English, the German is probably the source. Also worth noting is that the article does not mention the phrase "break a leg," even though the article details how the director of the show literally broke his leg during a rehearsal. Clearly, the reporter was not familiar with the break a leg construction.

Whether or not the German is the origin is still not clear though. If break a leg does indeed date to the 1920s, this 1954 article may not be pointing out the origin. The possibility that both languages developed similar phrases is plausible (Japanese has a similar phrase as well). The superstition of the jinx is common enough. Still it seems likely that the German phrase at least influenced the English, if it is not the origin.

(Sources: Partridge: Dictionary of Catchphrases; ADS-L)


Where did this slang word for woman come from? Evidently, it is not from being broad in the hips as is commonly believed.

Broad originally meant a playing card, especially one used in three card monte. This usage dates to 1781 and may refer to style of playing deck. In modern card decks, a bridge deck has narrower cards than are found in in poker deck. If this variation in card size is older (I know words, not cards), then a broad could be a reference to this larger cut of cards.

By 1912, broad was also being used to refer to a ticket (admission, transport, meal, etc.). Why this is so is uncertain. It could be due to the resemblance between a ticket and a playing card, or there could be another reason.

By 1914, the word was being used to mean a prostitute (perhaps from a pimp's meal ticket), then to women of loose morals, and eventually to women in general. Another explanation for this last shift could be the use of cards in three card monte. The goal of that game is to pick the queen from among three cards, and broad could have transferred from the card, to the queen, to women.


Brothel derives, through the Middle English broþel, from the Old English bréoðan, meaning ruined or degenerate. It is a variant of the word brethel, meaning a good-for-nothing, a wretch.

The original sense was of a worthless or degenerate person and dates to around 1393. A century later, the term was used to refer to a prostitute. The sense meaning an establishment that houses prostitutes comes from the form brothel-house. By 1593, the -house had been dropped and the clipped form survived.

Despite the similarity in appearance and meaning, the word is etymologically unrelated to bordel or bordello, which come from Portuguese and Italian respectively.

Brownie Points

This term derives from the girl scouts. That organization had (has?) a system of points that the girls would accumulate toward advancement.

The phrase entered the general language from WWII in military slang. Uniforms, the army's tendency to have soldiers do things that seemed silly and child-like, and evocation of brown-nose all contributed to the popularity of the phrase.


Buck, the slang term for a dollar, is a clipped form of buckskin. On the American frontier, buckskins were often used as units of commerce. The term buck, meaning a unit of value, dates to at least 1748.

Buckley's Chance

Buckley's chance is an Australian phrase meaning a slim chance or no chance at all. It is not found in British or American speech. Partridge believes that it is probably a reference to William Buckley, a convict who escaped from Port Phillip in 1803 and lived with the Aborigines for 32 years before surrendering to authorities. What it refers to exactly is uncertain. The term is first recorded in 1897, but may date to 1856--the year of Buckley's death. The variation two chances--mine and Buckley's dates to 1944.

Another possible origin related by Partridge is that it could be a pun on the name of the Melbourne retailer Buckley & Nunn.


Popular etymology (or perhaps it is entomology in this case) has it that Grace Hopper, naval officer and computer pioneer, coined the term bug for a computer defect when she discovered an insect in a malfunctioning computer. It's a fun story, and it's even true, except in that it is not the origin of the term. Hopper (or perhaps one of her colleagues) did discover an insect in a computer, but the term bug for 'defect' dates from the nineteenth century.

In 1947, computer workers on the Harvard Mark II machine at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia found a moth in a relay of the machine. They taped the insect into their logbook and recorded it as the "first actual case of bug being found." This was clearly a case of the workers making a joke. Lots of bugs (i.e., defects) had been found, but this was the first "actual" bug (i.e., insect). The log book is now at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. Grace Hopper came to be associated with the story as she was a programmer for the Mark II and often told the tale.

This was not the first use of bug to mean defect. That usage was quite common by 1947. The earliest references to the usage in the OED2 and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang refer to Thomas Edison, and the term may have been coined by him or someone in his laboratory. The earliest usage cite dates from 1878 (Random House).


One of the mysteries of the game of baseball is the origin of the term bullpen, the name for the area in which relief pitchers warm up. Several competing theories, none with compelling evidence to support or refute them, vie for the origin. About all we know for sure is the earliest recorded use of the term to refer to the pitchers' warm-up area was not until 1915, in Baseball Magazine.

One theory is that around the turn of the century relievers would warm up near the outfield fence, where signs for Bull Durham Tobacco. The picture of the bull, associated with the pitchers, who were usually the largest and strongest members of the team, was enough to create the imagery for the term.

Another, perhaps somewhat more likely, theory comes not from the use of relievers, but rather from late-arriving fans. In the 1870s, and perhaps earlier, after the game had started tickets would be sold at a discount. These late arriving fans with cheap tickets would be herded into a roped-off, standing-room-only area in foul territory. Because the fans were herded in like cattle, the area was known as the bullpen. In 1877 the Cincinnati Enquirer used the term to describe this practice. The name for this area of foul territory stuck, and later when relief pitchers became part of the game, they used this area of foul territory to warm up. After that, the term bullpen stuck to relievers.

And yet another explanation, not even directly associated with baseball, may be the origin. The term bullpen was used as early as 1809 to refer to a stockade or jail. By 1903, O. Henry was using the term to refer to any waiting area. Perhaps the generic term for waiting area simply became a more specialized term when applied to the sport.

Almond suggests that the origin came because a pitcher who had been knocked out of the box had been "slaughtered," and that reliever was just another bull to be slaughtered too. This explanation seems to be a reach.

Finally, no less than Casey Stengel weighed in on the subject. Stengel claimed that it was called the bullpen because that is where pitchers would sit and shoot the bull. This is probably more indicative of Stengel's opinion of relief pitchers than of the term's origin.

Bulls and Bears

These two stock market terms appear in the early 18th century. Bear was the first to appear, first recorded in 1709, and originally referred to the practice of selling stock one does not yet own for delivery at a future date with the expectation that the price would fall in the meantime, enabling the speculator to buy the stock at a lower price. Such speculators were called bear-skin jobbers after the phrase sell the bear's skin before one has caught the bear. Gradually, the term took on the meaning of being generally pessimistic about stock prices.

Bull appears a few years later, in 1714, and was almost certainly influenced by bear.

Bumper Crop

The term dates to 1759. It comes from the sense of bumper meaning a drinking cup filled to the brim--used for toasting, especially departures. This is some 75 years older than the usage with crop.

That in turn probably derives from the notion of bump being a protuberance in a container that is filled to bursting.


Bunk is short for bunkum, which in turn is an alteration of Buncombe, the name of a county in North Carolina. In the year 1820, the Missouri Question, whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave or a free state, was being hotly debated in Congress. Near the end of the debate and amidst calls from the floor to have a vote, Felix Walker, the representative from Buncombe rose to speak. Walker launched into what William Safire describes as a "long, dull, irrelevant speech." When asked by other members to desist, he replied that he was bound to "make a speech for Buncombe," and continued to speak. This is how the word meaning something that is silly and irrelevant was born.

Interestingly, the word bunco, meaning a cheat or swindle, is not from the same source. It more likely comes from the Spanish card game banco.

Busman's Holiday

A busman's holiday is a day off from work spent doing the things one does on the job. It comes from the idea that a bus driver would spend his holiday traveling somewhere on a bus. The phrase dates to the 1890s (and originally referred to horse-drawn buses).

Buy The Farm

This phrase, which means to die (usually in battle or in an aircraft accident) is commonly thought to date to World War II. An American G.I., or so the popular etymology would have it, would die and his soldier's insurance would allow his parents to pay off the mortgage on the family farm. So by dying for his country, he was also "buying the farm" for his parents. A nice sentiment, but it's probably not the origin of the phrase. There is no evidence to suggest that it is somehow linked to GI insurance. Green says it is an ironic term for those aviators who wanted to buy a farm after the war, but who did not make it.

The phrase in this form does date to the World War II era, although it has variants that go back much further. This form is also an Americanism, but the oldest variants are British.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates buy the farm to 1955. Although this reference postdates WWII, the phrase could easily have been in use during the war. The reference is from American Speech XXX, p. 116:

Buy the farm; buy a plot, v.phr. Crash fatally. (Jet pilots say that when a jet crashes on a farm the farmer usually sues the government for damages done to his farm by the crash and the amount demanded is always more than enough to pay off the mortgage and then buy the farm outright. Since this type of crash [i.e., in a jet fighter] is nearly always fatal to the pilot, the pilot pays for the farm with his life.)

This second explanation is also probably false. The most logical explanation is that the farm is probably a burial plot. The variation buy a plot, which Random House dates to a 1954 New York Times article, is the key, along with other variants.

Buy one, meaning to be killed in air combat, dates to at least 1929 according to Random House, and buying it, in the sense of death in an aircraft, appears in the OED2 dated to 1920. Buy a packet was World War I RAF slang for death. A Dictionary of Catch Phrases records as World War I slang, become a landowner, another clear reference to a burial plot. A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English notes that buy it, meaning to become wounded or killed, was in use during World War I, and notes that it was more common in the Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps/Air Force than in the army.

The earliest use of Buying it in the OED2 is from W.N. Glascock's Naval Sketch-Book in 1825, over a century before WWII:

Never mind, in closing with Crappo, if we didn't buy it with his raking broadsides.

["Crappo" in this quotation is a slang word for the French, particularly French sailors.]

Finally, HDAS and Partridge's Catch Phrases record the cryptic and obsolete buy the rabbit, meaning to suffer a setback or to be duped in a bargain, as dating from at least 1825 in the US and circa 1850 in Britain.

Buy the farm is only one of a long list of variants that dates over a century. The references to land, meaning a burial plot, began around World War I. Stories about insurance or damage suits against the government are fanciful and little evidence exists to link them to the origin of the phrase.

By and Large

By and large is nautical in origin, originally referring to the sailing qualities of a vessel. To sail by the wind is to sail directly into the wind (or as close into the wind as is possible). A large wind is one that comes from the stern quarter (on a square-rigged vessel, if the wind is directly astern only the rear sails catch it, therefore the most favorable wind comes from slightly off one side where it will fill all the sails). Therefore, a ship that sails well by and large sails well in all directions. The phrase dates to the mid-17th century.

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Last Updated 21 May 2005
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