I teach genealogy at a senior center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.. This city is a virtual melting pot of many nationalities of the world and people of many colors. We sometimes get into discussions that really are "food for thought." It is so astounding that we (usually 20 people) can sit in a room and have a black-white, Catholic-Protestant discussion and no one is upset but, rather, adds to the discussion of family and names and sayings and we all learn. Some American words are a bafflement to immigrants and our ancestors brought "old-fashioned" words with them. Words do change, as have surnames.

When Thomas Jefferson was asked to study plans for the new federal Capitol, he invited undertakers to advise him. It seems odd that Jefferson would require the aid of morticians to examine blueprints and measure archways, until one understands that eighteenth-century "undertakers" were people-in this instance, building contractors-who "undertook" projects. 

The word hooligan originates from the Irish family with the surname Houlihan who lived in London suburb and were known for their wild lifestyle. 

The use of "buck" to mean "dollar" did not originate from a practice of referring to African slaves as "bucks" (male deer) when trading. "Buck" was originally short for "buckskin", as buckskins were used in trade. 

The word "spic" (a pejorative term for a Latino) did not originate as an abbreviation of "Hispanic"; nor as an acronym for "Spanish, Indian, and Colored" (in reference to minority races in the United States); nor as an acronym for "Spanish, Polish, Italian, and Chinese", falsely said to have been used by U.S. immigration officials in the1940s,1950s, or 1960s to categorize citizenship applications. The word, originally spelled "spig", was short for "spiggoty", which is probably from the Spanglish phrase "No speak the English". 

In 1711, Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator that "I exercise myself an Hour every Morning upon a dumb bell." The word comes from the heavy weights hung on the end of bell ropes to help ringers pull them. 

Some eighteenth-century words still used today now have different meanings. "Nice" meant "finicky" or "over-scrupulous" as the 1700s began but it acquired its current meaning before that century ended. Such shifting meanings can confuse modern ears.

Dee Notaro is an amateur genealogist based in Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.A.).  Her own ancestral background is made up of a mixture of cultures, including her Irish forebears who hailed from County Sligo.  Dee teaches classes on genealogical research and is passionate about helping others find answers to their ancestry questions.

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Tags: Language, United States

Comment by Robert A Mosher on October 24, 2014 at 6:03pm

We were greatly amused while studying Russian to learn that "hooligan" had made its way into the Russian language.  Ironically, because of pronunciation and alphabet differences, in Russian it starts with a hard consonant sound and comes out as "gooligan" or in the plural "gooligani" or "hooligans"


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