"variety of magnetite characterized by its power of attracting iron and steel," mid-15c. (earlier magnes, late 14c.), from Old French magnete "magnetite, magnet, lodestone," and directly from Latin magnetum (nominative magnes) "lodestone," from Greek ho Magnes lithos "the Magnesian stone," from Magnesia (see magnesia), region in Thessaly where magnetized ore was obtained. Figurative sense of "something which attracts" is from 1650s.
It has spread from Latin to most Western European languages (German and Danish magnet, Dutch magneet, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese magnete), but it was superseded in French by aimant (from Latin adamas; see adamant (n.)). Italian calamita "magnet" (13c.), French calamite (by 16c., said to be from Italian), Spanish caramida (15c., probably from Italian) apparently is from Latin calamus "reed, stalk or straw of wheat" (see shawm) "the needle being inserted in a stalk or piece of cork so as to float on water" [Donkin]. Chick magnet attested from 1989.
Sense of "mere exterior" is from 1650s; that of "hollow framework" is from 1791. Meaning "structure for a band or orchestra" is attested from 1938. Military use (1640s) was first of hand grenades, in reference to the metal case in which the gunpowder and shot were mixed; the notion is of a "hollow object" filled with explosives. Hence shell shock, first recorded 1915. Shell game "a swindle" is from 1890, from a version of three-card monte played with a pea and walnut shells.
also cat-bird, 1731, common name for the North American thrush (Dumetella Carolinensis), so called from its warning cry, which resembles that of a cat; from cat (n.) + bird (n.1). Catbird seat is a late 19c. Dixieism, popularized by Brooklyn Dodgers baseball announcer Walter "Red" Barber (1908-1992) and by author James Thurber:
"She must be a Dodger fan," he had said. "Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions—picked 'em up down South." Joey had gone on to explain one or two. "Tearing up the pea patch" meant going on a rampage; "sitting in the catbird seat" means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him. [James Thurber, "The Catbird Seat," The New Yorker, Nov. 14, 1942]
early 15c., "eccentric circle or orbit," originally a term in Ptolemaic astronomy, "circle or orbit not having the Earth precisely at its center," from French eccentrique and directly from Medieval Latin eccentricus (noun and adjective), from Greek ekkentros "out of the center" (as opposed to concentric), from ek "out" (see ex-) + kentron "center" (see center (n.)). Meaning "odd or whimsical person" is attested by 1817 (S.W. Ryley, "The Itinerant, or Memoirs of an Actor").
June 4 .—Died in the streets in Newcastle, William Barron, an eccentric, well known for many years by the name of Billy Pea-pudding. [John Sykes, "Local Records, or Historical Register of Remarkable Events which have Occurred Exclusively in the Counties of Durham and Northumberland, Town and County of Newcastle Upon Tyne, and Berwick Upon Tweed," Newcastle, 1824]
pulpy drupe of a well-known type of tree, c. 1300, earlier in surname Chyrimuth (1266, literally "Cherry-mouth"); from Anglo-French cherise, from Old North French cherise (Old French, Modern French cerise, 12c.), from Vulgar Latin *ceresia, from late Greek kerasian "cherry," from Greek kerasos "cherry tree," possibly from a language of Asia Minor. Mistaken in Middle English for a plural and stripped of its -s (compare pea).
Old English had ciris "cherry" from a West Germanic borrowing of the Vulgar Latin word (cognate with German Kirsch), but it died out after the Norman invasion and was replaced by the French word. Short for cherry-tree from 1620s. As an adjective, "of the color of a cherry," mid-15c.
Meaning "maidenhead, virginity" is by 1928, U.S. slang, from supposed resemblance to the hymen, but perhaps also from the long-time use of cherries as a symbol of the fleeting quality of life's pleasures (and compare English underworld slang cherry "young girl," attested from 1889). Cherry-bounce, popular name of a cordial made from fermented cherries, is from 1690s.
late 14c., the Hebrew word shibboleth, meaning "flood, stream," also "ear of corn;" in Judges xii.4-6. It was the password used by the Gileadites to distinguish their own men from fleeing Ephraimites, because Ephraimites could not pronounce the -sh- sound. Hence the figurative sense of "watchword" (first recorded 1630s), which evolved by 1862 to "outmoded slogan still adhered to." A similar test-word was cicera "chick pease," used by the Italians to identify the French (who could not pronounce it correctly) during the massacre called the Sicilian Vespers (1282).
During training exercises on Pavuvu and Guadalcanal, the need to improve battlefield security is to be implemented not by a simple password, but by an identification procedure described as "sign and countersign." The ground rules are to sequentially interrogate an unknown friend or foe with the name of an automobile, preferably one with an "L" in its vocalization. The response is to be a cognomen for another automobile uttered in the same manner. This insures the "friend" entering our lines will reply with the correct countersign in a dialect distinctly American; call out "Cadiwac" or "Chryswer," and you're dead. [Perry Pollins, "Tales of a Feather Merchant: The World War II Memoir of a Marine Radioman," 2006]
"the female of the domestic fowl," Old English henn "hen," from West Germanic *hannjo (source also of Old Frisian henn, Middle Dutch henne, Old High German henna), fem. of *hanan- "male fowl, cock" (source of Old English hana "cock"), literally "bird who sings (for sunrise)," from PIE root *kan- "to sing."
The original masculine word survives in German (Hahn "cock"), Swedish, Danish, etc. German also has a generic form, Huhn, for either gender of the bird. Extension to "female of any bird species" is early 14c. in English.
Hen as slang for "woman" dates from 1620s; hence hen party "gathering of women," first recorded 1887. To be mad as a wet hen is from 1823, but the figure was used to indicate other states: As wanton as a wet hen is in "Scots Proverbs" (1813). Among Middle English proverbial expressions was nice as a nonne hen "over-refined, fastidiously wanton" (c. 1500); to singen so hen in snowe "sing miserably," literally "sing like a hen in snow" (c. 1200). The figure of the hen with one chick dates to 1590s. Hen's teeth as a figure of scarceness is attested by 1838.
Some, on the contrary, are viciously opposite to these, who act so tamely and so coldly, that when they ought to be angry, to thunder and lighten, as one may say, they are no fuller of Heat, than a wet Hen, as the Saying is; .... ["Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton," London, 1710]
Orth. Out upon you for a dastardly Fellow; you han't the Courage of a wet Hen. ["A Sermon Preached at St. Mary-le-Bow, March 27, 1704"]
"feathered, warm-blooded vertebrate animal of the class Aves," Old English bird, rare collateral form of bridd, originally "young bird, nestling" (the usual Old English for "bird" being fugol, for which see fowl (n.)), which is of uncertain origin with no cognates in any other Germanic language. The suggestion that it is related by umlaut to brood and breed is rejected by OED as "quite inadmissible." Metathesis of -r- and -i- was complete 15c. (compare wright).
Despite its early attestation, bridd is not necessarily the oldest form of bird. It is usually assumed that -ir- from -ri- arose by metathesis, but here, too, the Middle English form may go back to an ancient period. [Liberman]
Still up to c. 1400 it was often used in the specific sense "the young of a bird, fledgling, nestling, chick," and of the young of other animals (bees, fish, snakes) and human children. Compare the usual Balto-Slavic words for "bird" (Lithuanian paukštis, Old Church Slavonic pŭtica, Polish ptak, Russian ptica, etc.), said to be ultimately from the same root as Latin pullus "young of an animal."
The proper designation of the feathered creation is in E. fowl, which in course of time was specially applied to the gallinaceous tribe as the most important kind of bird for domestic use, and it was perhaps this appropriation of the word which led to the adoption of the name of the young animal as the general designation of the race. [Hensleigh Wedgwood, "A Dictionary of English Etymology," 1859]
Figurative sense of "secret source of information" is from 1540s. Meaning "man, fellow, person" is from 1799. Bird-watching attested from 1897. Bird's-eye view "the view as seen from above, as if by a bird in flight," is from 1762. For the birds recorded from 1944, supposedly in allusion to birds eating from droppings of horses and cattle. The bird-spider (1800) of the American tropics is a large sort of tarantula that can capture and kill small birds.
A byrde yn honde ys better than three yn the wode. [c. 1530]
The form with bush is attested by 1630s.
Old English bean "bean, pea, legume," from Proto-Germanic *bauno (source also of Old Norse baun, Middle Dutch bone, Dutch boon, Old High German bona, German Bohne), and related to Latin faba "bean;" Greek phakos "lentil;" Albanian bathë "horse-bean;" Old Prussian babo, Russian bob "bean," but the original form is obscure. Watkins suggests a PIE reduplicated root *bha-bhā- "broad bean;" de Vaan writes that the Italic, Slavic and Germanic "are probably independent loanwords from a European substratum word of the form *bab- (or similar) 'bean'."
As a metaphor for "something of small value" it is attested from c. 1300 (hill of beans as something not much to amount to is from 1863). Meaning "head" is U.S. baseball slang 1905 (in bean-ball "a pitch thrown at the head"); thus slang verb bean meaning "to hit on the head," attested from 1910. Bean-shooter as a child's weapon for mischief, a sort of small sling-shot to fire beans, is attested from 1876. Slang bean-counter "accountant" recorded by 1971.
The notion of lucky or magic beans in English folklore is from the exotic beans or large seeds, carried from the Caribbean or South America by the Gulf Stream, that wash up occasionally in Cornwall and western Scotland. They were cherished, believed to ward off the evil eye and aid in childbirth.
To not know beans "be ignorant" is attested by 1842 in American English, often said to be a New England phrase; it is perhaps from the "object of little worth" sense. Some of the earliest citations give it in a fuller form, but they do not agree: "why, I sometimes think they don't know beans when the bag is open" ["The History of the Saints," 1842]; "This feller don't know beans from porridge, no how." ["Etchings of a Whaling Cruise," 1850]. It might have a connection to the English colloquial expression know how many beans make five (1824) "be a clever fellow."