Etymologies & Word Origins:
Letter U

Uncle Sam

The most famous image of Uncle Sam is from James Montgomery Flagg's WWI recruiting poster. But Sam was not the creation of Flagg. Uncle Sam predates Flagg's poster by over a century and is the product of a different war.

The earliest surviving use of the term is from the Troy, NY Troy Post of 3 September 1813:

'Loss upon loss,' and 'no luck stiring but what lights upon Uncle Sam's shoulders,' exclaim the Government editors, in every part of the Country ... This cant name for our government has got almost as current as 'John Bull.' The letters U.S. on the government wagons &c are supposed to have given rise to it.

But legend has it that the name derives from a real man, and the origin is much akin to that of Kilroy. Samuel Wilson, so goes the legend, was a meat inspector in the service of the federal government whose task it was to approve the quality of meat bought by the army. Workers handling barrels of meat stenciled with "US" questioned what the cryptic phrase went. The joke went up that it stood for Uncle Sam Wilson. There is, unfortunately, no evidence to support the story.

The exact origin is lost in history, but it undoubtedly arose as a joke on the paternal nature of the government.

Under the Weather

This phrase meaning ill dates to 1827 and, according to the OED2, is an Americanism. The phrase probably derives from the idea that the weather can affect your mood and health.

Isil claims that it is a clipped form of the nautical phrase under the weather bow, a reference to the side of the ship's bow that is taking the brunt of rough seas, and is a reference to seasickness.

Partridge, refers to a British/Australian nautical use of the phrase to mean drunk. This usage is from the original Americanism. Isil may have confused the two senses.

United Nations

Believe it or not, the term was actually coined by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill while the British prime minister was sitting in a bathtub. Churchill was in Washington over the New Year's holiday 1941-42 and the two men were struggling with what to officially call their alliance. The term alliance was unacceptable in a formal document because, according to Churchill, it posed constitutional problems for Roosevelt--evidently a formal alliance would require Senate approval. Neither liked the alternative Associated Powers.

On the morning of 1 January 1942, Churchill, who was staying in the White House, was taking a bath when Roosevelt knocked on the door, was wheeled into the bathroom, and proposed the term United Nations. Churchill instantly liked the term, recalling some lines from Byron's Childe Harold:

Here, where the sword United Nations drew,
Our countrymen were warring on that day!
And this is much--and all--which will not pass away.

Later that day Roosevelt and Churchill, along with representatives of the Soviet Union and China signed the United Nations Pact, pledging to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan to the last and to make no separate peace. Eventually twenty-two other nations signed the agreement and the name was taken later on for the post-war international organization.


One of the legendary origins of sports terminology is that the term upset, meaning an unexpected defeat of one favored to win, is from a classic 1919 horse race that pitted Man o'War, probably the greatest race horse of all time, against an unlikely opponent named Upset.

During his career, Man o'War lost only one race, the 13 August 1919 Stanford Memorial at Saratoga. Man o'War was heavily favored to win, but lost to a horse named Upset. This, the legend goes, is where the sports term upset comes from. Man o'War would face Upset in five other races, winning every one, but this one loss early in his career would be the one to make lexicographic history.

Most lexicographers and etymologists thought the story too good to be true, but no one could disprove it. Sporting usages of upset prior to 1919 just could not be found. Then in late 2002, researcher George Thompson, using the newly available tools of full-text online searching of the New York Times databases, turned up a string of sporting usages of upset dating back to the mid-19th century. Thompson traced the verb to upset to 1865 and the noun to 1877. There are numerous uses of the term in 19th century sportswriting, proving beyond a doubt that it was well-established by the time Man o'War lost his only race. Upset did not father a term, he was just well named.


This is pretty much a nonsense word that exists in a wide variety of forms and spellings. Upsidaisy dates to 1862. Up-a-dazy is older, dating to 1711. The original meaning is the same as today, an exclamation encouraging a child to get up. It's almost certainly influenced by lackadaisical and alack-a-day in structure, but there is no apparent semantic connection.

Other variants include: oops-a-daisy and whoops-a-daisy.

Up To Snuff

The original sense of the phrase is knowing, sharp, not easily deceived. It dates to 1811.

The snuff is a reference to the form of tobacco. Presumably, someone who is up to snuff is adult and worldly. Literally, it is one who knows how dangerous snuff can be.

Etymologies & Word Origins:
Letter V


The exact origin of Vampire is disputed. Most sources, including the OED2, derive it from the Hungarian vampir. The word has cognates in several Slavic tongues and may originally derive from the northern Turkish uber, meaning witch.

Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, contends that vampir is originally Serbian and that the Hungarian word traces a path from Serbia, through Germany, to Hungary. The word entered English through German as well.

English usage dates to at least 1734. Bram Stoker wrote the novel Dracula in 1897.


This name for American variety or music hall entertainment that was common in the late-19th and early 20th centuries comes from the French vau de vire, or valley of the Vire river (in Calvados, Normandy), or in full chanson du Vau de Vire, song of the valley of Vire. The French term was first given to the songs of composer Olivier Basselin in the 15th century.

The term was first used in English in 1739 to denote a light, popular song, especially one of a satirical or topical nature. The term was applied to variety theater, that often featured such songs, in 1827.

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Last Updated 21 May 2005
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