Thursday, January 4, 2018

Language of Confusion: Joking Words

First etymology post of the new year. Yay? Anyway, I’ve picked light-hearted words for this post. But not joke, as I already did that one.

Zany is an adjective, but it used to be a noun, showing up in the late sixteenth century as a word for a comic performer. It comes from the French zani, taken from the Italian zani/zanni, which basically means zany or a clown. Funnily enough, zanni comes from Gianni, which is a nickname for Giovanni. Zany was taken from the equivalent of Jack.

Kid, as in joke around, is fairly recent, having shown up in the mid nineteenth century (1839 to be specific). It’s believed to come from the other kid, you know, the one that can mean either a young goat or a human child for some reason. That word is much older, having showed up in the early thirteenth century only meaning a goat. It comes from a Scandinavian source, possibly the Old Norse  kið (which would be kith with a very soft h), and before that it was the Proto Germanic kidjom. It started referring to human children in the late sixteenth century as slang. So don’t let anyone tell you that slang words can’t become real words.

Tease first showed up as a word meaning separating wool or flax fibers (weirdly enough, so did heckle) before transforming to mean annoy in the seventeenth century. It comes from the Old English taesan, pull apart or comb, which makes sense for its original meaning, and before that it was the Proto Germanic taisijan. I guess teasing is still to pull something (or someone) apart, just not literally.

Gag, like a joke, showed up in 1863, while the choke version showed up four hundred years earlier. The joke one is thought to come from the other one; see, before it meant a joke, it was a theatrical term meaning “matter interpolated in a written piece by the actor” (from 1847) and before that, a made up story (1805), as in the late eighteenth century it also had the meaning to deceive with talk. Which…I don’t really see how it relates to choking, although the Etymology Dictionary says it’s from the notion of “stuff/fill”. This was a weird one.

Jest first showed up in the early thirteenth century as geste, a “narrative of exploits”, before morphing into what we know it as three centuries later. It comes from the Old French geste, action or exploit, from the classical Latin gesta, events. That word is from the verb gerere, to act, wage, or conduct. I guess it just took on a less serious connotation over the years. And apparently there’s also the word “gest”, which I never heard of but is related and also gesture. Plus more which will make a good post on their own.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. I would've thought jest was related to jester. Interesting.

  2. I know slang words can become real words. Every year, they put out a list of new words in Webster and almost half are slang.

  3. Isn't that how words are born, via slang? No one starts saying something new and people think, "Oh, new word".

  4. I wonder if children picked up the "kid" nickname because they will put anything in their mouths just like goats...?


Please validate me.