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 "...The thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away, and quit - and then rip comes another flash and another sockdolager..." (Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn)

The word "sockdolager" appears to be a combination of two words: "sock", as in punch; and "doxology", a form of rhetorical praise ("doxa" comes from the Latin, "glory". A glorious knock-out punch!


 Round-Robin and John Hancock

The "Round-robin" almost certainly comes from the French "ruban", a round ribbon, and tradition has it that its English usage in began in the British navy (although citations occur as early as the 16th century in other contexts).

This was a way for British tars to sign a petition of grievances in such a way that they could not be identified as the instigator. A "round-robin" was signed in circular fashion, each signature beginning at the center of the circle and extending out to the radius of the circle.

It is used in modern English to describe a competition where each of the entrants competes at least once with every other entrant.

John Hancock, while signing the American Declaration of Independence, commented that he wanted his signature to be legible to the king without need of spectacles and made his signature especially large. "John Hancock" is used in American English to mean one's signature (..."place your John Hancock on the dotted line...").



References do not agree whether this word is sourced to "bon fire" (i.e., "good" fire) or "bane fire" (i.e., fire to remove evil) or "bone fire" (i.e., burning animal bones).

The OED, however, favors the "bone fire" etymology, and lists a citation from 1493 associating a "bone fire" with Saint John. Traditionally, this would be Saint John's Eve, or June 23rd. This is consistent with earlier references to a Celtic midsummer festival where animal bones were burnt to ward off evil spirits. Scotland and Ireland have similar traditions.

In modern English, "bonfire" means any large, but controlled, open-air fire. Many American universities have a "bonfire" as part of their "homecoming" tradition.


 Scuttlebutt, Grapevine, and Watercooler

"Scuttlebutt" is used in English to mean free-floating rumour or idle gossip. It comes from "scuttled butt". A "butt" was a large barrel (holding up to 140 gallons) used for drinking water on British ships of the line. A "scuttle" was a small hole cut into the barrel to allow individual cups of water to be drawn out. The traditional image is British tars gathering at the "scuttled butt" for refreshment and exchanging gossip. Over time, the word became "scuttlebutt".

The "watercooler" is the modern equivalent to the "scuttled butt".

"...through the grapevine..." means to have heard a rumour from an anonymous source. This metaphor (which exists in all European languages) is grounded in the tangled sprouts of the grapevine.



"Gossip" is one of the oldest words in our language. It comes from two Old Norse root words: "God" and "Sib" (meaning "next", as in "sibling"), and was originally used to convey what we now call "Godfather" and "Godmother". After the Norman invasion, it retained the meaning as someone who sponsored an infant at a baptism, and was contractually obligated to care for a child if the parents should die.

By Shakespeare's time, it was used exclusively for women who were present at someone's birth, "...And sometimes lurk I in a gossip's bowl..."(MSND); and Shakespeare adapted the verb form to mean someone acting with a presumption of familiarity or intimacy, "...with all my heart I'll gossip at this feast..." (CE). From this coining, the word evolved to mean a woman given to idle talk or rumour.

By the 17th century, the noun had become largely obsolete and the verb came into widespread usage meaning to talk loosely about the personal affairs of others (although the noun linked with "Godparent" still retained some usage through the 19th century).

In modern English, the noun is all but obsolete, and the verb "to gossip" is used in a depreciatory sense to mean spreading idle (sometimes unfounded) rumours about the personal affairs of another.



The Tooth Fairy

"...Who do you suppose pays for the $50 billion difference? The tooth fairy? Hardly. You do..." 1977 Age (Melbourne) 18 Jan.

The Tooth Fairy is an imaginary entity that visits in the night and exchanges money for milk teeth. Tradition has it that the child places the tooth under his or her pillow and the exchange occurs whilst the child sleeps. The standard amount for the "baby boomer" generation was six pence (or a dime), but this amount has steadily risen.

The origins of the Tooth Fairy are obscure, but it is reasonable to conjecture that the Tooth Fairy would have originated in a culture that incorporated benevolent fairies into folklore, literature, and the arts. English literature is rich along these lines, perhaps best epitomized by Mercutio's whimsical description of Queen Mab in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or the reconciliation of Titania and Oberon.

While not dealing with the Tooth Fairy specifically, Victorian artist John Anster Fitzgerald (1823 - 1906) captured the imagery in his series of "dreaming girl" paintings. In each of these, a girl sleeps whilst attended by one or more fairies. An excellent example of Fitzgerald's imagery is given at (The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of).

Richard Doyle's (uncle of Sir Arthur Conan) The Fairy Tree shows over 200 different fairies from various folklore sources (see, but none are immediately identifiable as the elusive Tooth Fairy.

Reaching further into history, the Vikings had a tradition called "Tooth Fee" in which a gift was made to a child when its first tooth appeared, and a substantial amount of superstition has always surrounded children's teeth...

"...when a child's tooth comes out, it must be dropped into the fire, and rhyme repeated, or the child will have to seek the tooth after death..." Elizabeth Wright, Rustic Speech and Folklore, OUP, 1914

The alt.mythology news group had a thread on the origins of the Tooth Fairy in 1998 which can be reviewed at (, but the results were inconclusive. One contributor offered this observation: "...Traditionally, if a witch possessed any part of a person then he or she had some power over them. Nail-clippings and cut hair spring to mind; I'm not sure which cultures exactly, but the superstition features in Apuleius' _The Golden Ass_; a witch asks her maid to obtain some hair from a young man she had fallen in love with, but after the barber chased her away, she cheated by shaving hair of some wine-skins - when the witch worked her spells, the wine-skins came walking up to her gate!"

Regardless of its origin, the term "Tooth Fairy" can used in English as a sarcastic allusion to gullibility, imagined benevolence, or fantasies about one's good fortune.





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