I would hate to see some old railroad man come here and take my job, and then, I don't think it is right to hire some Hill Billy and give him the same right as I just because he was hired the same time I was. [The Railroad Trainmen's Journal, vol. ix, July 1892]
In short, a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires of his revolver as the fancy takes him. [New York Journal, April 23, 1900]
In Scott's collection of Border ballads, billie is a frequent term of address or intimacy, "comrade, companion, a brother in arms," "a term expressive of affection and familiarity" also "a brother; a wooer of a woman," and generally "a young man" [Jamieson, 2nd edition]. It is said to be a variant of bully (n.) in its old sense of "sweetheart," also "fine fellow."
Middle English pleie, from Old English plega (West Saxon), plæga (Anglian) "quick motion; recreation, exercise, any brisk activity" (the latter sense preserved in swordplay -- Old English sweordplegan -- etc.), from or related to Old English plegan (see play (v.)).
By early Middle English it could mean variously, "a game, a martial sport, activity of children, joke or jesting, revelry, sexual indulgence." Of physical things, "rapid, brisk, or light movement," by 1620s.
Meaning "dramatic performance" is attested by early 14c., perhaps late Old English. Meaning "free or unimpeded movement, liberty and room for action," of mechanisms, etc., is from 1650s. The meaning "activity, operation" (1590s) is behind expressions such as in full play, come into play. The sporting sense of "the playing of a game" is attested from mid-15c.; that of "specific maneuver or attempt" is from 1868.
The U.S. slang meaning "attention, publicity" is by 1929. To be in play (of a hit ball, etc.) is from 1788. Play-by-play in reference to running commentary on a game is attested from 1927. Play on words "pun" is from 1798. Play-money is attested from 1705 as "money won in gambling," by 1920 as "pretend money."
late Old English, sett, "appointed or prescribed beforehand;" hence "fixed, immovable, definite;" c.1300, of a task, etc., "imposed, prescribed;" past participle of setten "to set" (see set (v.)). By early 14c. as "ready." By 14c. with adverbs, "having a (specified) position, disposition, etc.;" by late 14c. as "placed, positioned;" to be set "be ready"
By 1510s as "formal, regular, in due form, deliberate;" 1530s as "placed in a setting, mounted." By c. 1600, of phrases, expression, etc., "composed, not spontaneous" (hence set speech, one planned carefully beforehand). By 1810 of the teeth, "clenched." The meaning "ready, prepared" is recorded from 1844.
By 1844 in reference to athletes poised to start a race, etc., or their muscles, "have or assume a rigid attitude or state." The exact phrase Get set! in the procedure of sprinting (after on your marks) is attested by 1890. A set piece, in theater, is "piece of free-standing scenery only moderately high, representing a single feature (such as a tree) and permitting more distant pieces to be seen over it" (by 1859); also, in the arts, "a painted or sculptured group" (1846).
As a noun, "non-existent place," 1831; "remote or inaccessible place," 1908. Hence such phrases as middle of nowhere (by 1848, seemingly originally a place you knocked someone or something into; see below), road to nowhere (by 1800 as "a way that is not a thoroughfare, a road leading to no destination;" the figurative use, "a program, course of action, etc. deemed likely to lead to no useful result," is by 1891).
Similar constructions were attempted with nowhat ("not at all," 1650s) and nowhen ("at no time, never," 1764), but they failed to take hold and remain nonce words. Middle English also had an adverb never-where (early 14c.).
THE COMET IS COMING.--The appearance of the great comet that is expected to knock all creation into the middle of nowhere about the 16th of June, has been indefinitely postponed on account of the great gift sale at 96 Third street, where every purchaser of 25 cents' worth of liniment receives a free gift as soon as the purchase is made .... [announcement in Louisville Daily Courier, Louisville, Kentucky, May 28, 1857]
Old English scot, sceot "a shot, a shooting, an act of shooting; that which is discharged in shooting, what is shot forth; darting, rapid motion," from Proto-Germanic *skutan (source also of Old Norse skutr, Old Frisian skete, Middle Dutch scote, German Schuß "a shot"), related to sceotan "to shoot," from PIE root *skeud- "to shoot, chase, throw."
Meaning "discharge of a bow, missile," also is from related Old English gesceot. Extended to other projectiles in Middle English, and to sports (hockey, basketball, etc.) 1868. Another original meaning, "payment" (perhaps literally "money thrown down") is preserved in scot-free. "Throwing down" might also have led to the meaning "a drink," first attested 1670s, the more precise meaning "small drink of straight liquor" by 1928 (shot glass is by 1955). Camera view sense is from 1958.
Sense of "hypodermic injection" first attested 1904; figurative phrase shot in the arm "stimulant" is by 1922. Meaning "try, attempt" is from 1756; sense of "remark meant to wound" is recorded from 1841. Meaning "an expert in shooting" is from 1780. To call the shots "control events, make decisions" is American English, 1922, perhaps from sport shooting. Shot in the dark "uninformed guess" is from 1885. Big shot "important person" is from 1861.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
[Emerson, from "Concord Hymn"]
c. 1200, "illustrious, distinguished, of high rank or birth," from Old French noble "of noble bearing or birth," from Latin nobilis "well-known, famous, renowned; excellent, superior, splendid; high-born, of superior birth," earlier *gnobilis, literally "knowable," from gnoscere "to come to know" (from PIE root *gno- "to know"). The prominent Roman families, which were "well known," provided most of the Republic's public officials.
Sense of "distinguished by splendor, magnificence, or stateliness" is from late 13c. Meaning "worthy of honor or respect " is from mid-14c. Sense of "having lofty character, having high moral qualities" is from c. 1600. Noble savage is "primitive man conceived of as morally superior to civilized man;" the phrase itself is from Dryden; the idea developed in the 18c.
I am as free as Nature first made Man,
Ere the base Laws of Servitude began,
When wild in Woods the noble Savage ran.
[Dryden, "Conquest of Granada," 1672]
A noble gas (1902) is so called for its inactivity or inertness; a use of the word that had been applied in Middle English to precious stones, metals, etc., that did not alter or oxidize when exposed to air (late 14c.), with noble in the sense of "having admirable properties" (c. 1300).
"the color of the clear sky," c. 1300, from blue (adj.1). From late 15c. as "blue clothing." The blue is from 1640s as "the sky" (hence bolt from the blue "lightning," 1837); from 1821 as "the sea." In reference to a particular party which has chosen blue for its color, by 1835. "In most parts of England the Conservative party" [OED], but in 17c. it often was the Whig color (opposed to royal red).
Blue was by c. 1600 the distinctive color of the dress of servants, which may be the reason police uniforms are blue, a tradition Farmer dates to Elizabethan times. Blue as the color of police uniforms in U.S. is by 1853, when New York City professionalized its force. They previously had had no regular uniforms, only badges.
An outburst of indignation followed [the order to wear uniforms]. The men declared the order was a violation of their rights as free men ; that no respecting American would wear livery, and raised a fund of five hundred dollars to test in the courts the authority of the Commissioners to compel them to wear uniforms. But the order was enforced when the day came. [John Bach McMaster, "A History of the People of the United States," vol. viii, 1913]
c. 1500, "without speech, silent, not speaking," from Latin silentem (nominative silens) "still, calm, quiet," present participle of silere "be quiet or still" (see silence (n.)). Meaning "free from noise or sound" is from 1580s.
Of letters, c. 1600; of films, 1914. In the looser sense "of few words," from 1840. Phrase strong, silent (type) is attested from 1905. Silent majority in the political sense of "mass of people whose moderate views are not publicly expressed and thus overlooked" is first attested 1955 in a British context and was used by John F. Kennedy but is most associated in U.S. with the rhetoric of the Nixon administration (1969-74).
It is time for America's silent majority to stand up for its rights, and let us remember the American majority includes every minority. America's silent majority is bewildered by irrational protest. [Spiro T. Agnew, May 9, 1969]
In Victorian use, the phrase meant "the dead" (1874; compare Roman use of the noun plural of "silent" to mean "the dead"). Silence is golden (1831) is Carlyle's translation ["Sartor Resartus"] of part of the "Swiss Inscription" Sprechen ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden. In one 14c. text Latin "one who is silent" is translated by a beere stille.
c. 1200, piler, "a column or columnar mass, narrow in proportion to height, either weight-bearing or free-standing," from Old French piler "pillar, column, pier" (12c., Modern French pilier) and directly from Medieval Latin pilare, from Latin pila "pillar, stone barrier," a word of unknown etymology. The figurative sense of "prop or support of an institution or community" is recorded from early 14c. Related: Pillared.
In medieval architecture often made so as to give the appearance of several shafts around a central core; "by architects often distinguished from column, inasmuch as it may be of any shape in section, and is not subordinated to the rules of classic architecture" [Century Dictionary].
Phrase pillar to post "from one thing to another without apparent or definite purpose" is attested from c. 1600, late 15c. as post to pillar, mid-15c. as pillar and post; but the exact meaning is obscure. Earliest references seem to allude to tennis, but post and pillar is recorded as the name of a game of some sort c. 1450. The theory that the expression is from pillar as the raised ground at the center of a manège ring around which a horse turns is unlikely because that sense seem to date only to 18c.
The Pillars of Hercules are the two hills on opposite sides of the Straits of Gibraltar, Abyla in Africa and Calpe in Europe, said to have been torn asunder by Hercules.
mid-14c., "fluid or juice of an animal or plant," from Old North French humour "liquid, dampness; (medical) humor" (Old French humor, umor; Modern French humeur), from Latin umor "body fluid" (also humor, by false association with humus "earth"); related to umere "be wet, moist," and to uvescere "become wet" (see humid).
In old medicine, "any of the four body fluids" (blood, phlegm, choler, and melancholy or black bile).
The human body had four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—which, in turn, were associated with particular organs. Blood came from the heart, phlegm from the brain, yellow bile from the liver, and black bile from the spleen. Galen and Avicenna attributed certain elemental qualities to each humor. Blood was hot and moist, like air; phlegm was cold and moist, like water; yellow bile was hot and dry, like fire; and black bile was cold and dry, like earth. In effect, the human body was a microcosm of the larger world. [Robert S. Gottfried, "The Black Death," 1983]
Their relative proportions were thought to determine physical condition and state of mind. This gave humor an extended sense of "mood, temporary state of mind" (recorded from 1520s); the sense of "amusing quality, funniness, jocular turn of mind" is first recorded 1680s, probably via sense of "whim, caprice" as determined by state of mind (1560s), which also produced the verb sense of "indulge (someone's) fancy or disposition." Modern French has them as doublets: humeur "disposition, mood, whim;" humour "humor." "The pronunciation of the initial h is only of recent date, and is sometimes omitted ..." [OED].
For aid in distinguishing the various devices that tend to be grouped under "humor," this guide, from Henry W. Fowler ["Modern English Usage," 1926] may be of use:
HUMOR: motive/aim: discovery; province: human nature; method/means: observation; audience: the sympathetic
WIT: motive/aim: throwing light; province: words & ideas; method/means: surprise; audience: the intelligent
SATIRE: motive/aim: amendment; province: morals & manners; method/means: accentuation; audience: the self-satisfied
SARCASM: motive/aim: inflicting pain; province: faults & foibles; method/means: inversion; audience: victim & bystander
INVECTIVE: motive/aim: discredit; province: misconduct; method/means: direct statement; audience: the public
IRONY: motive/aim: exclusiveness; province: statement of facts; method/means: mystification; audience: an inner circle
CYNICISM: motive/aim: self-justification; province: morals; method/means: exposure of nakedness; audience: the respectable
SARDONIC: motive/aim: self-relief; province: adversity; method/means: pessimism; audience: the self