According to Watkins, perhaps via Etruscan from Greek diphthera "tablet" (with change of d- to l- as in lachrymose), from a hypothetical root *deph- "to stamp." In this sense it replaced Old English bocstæf, literally "book staff" (compare German Buchstabe "letter, character," from Old High German buohstab, from Proto-Germanic *bok-staba-m).
Latin littera also meant "a writing, document, record," and in plural litteræ "a letter, epistle, missive communication in writing," a sense passed through French and attested in English letter since early 13c. (replacing Old English ærendgewrit "written message," literally "errand-writing"). The Latin plural also meant "literature, books," and figuratively "learning, liberal education, schooling" (see letters).
The custom of giving the school letter as an achievement award in sports, attested by 1908, is said to have originated with University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Earlier in reference to colleges it meant "university degree or honor that adds initials to a name" (1888). Expression to the letter "precisely" is from 1520s (earlier after the letter, mid-14c.). Letter-quality (adj.) "suitable for (business) letters" is from 1977. For letters patent (with French word order) see patent (n.).
"very large flightless bird inhabiting the sandy plains of Africa and Arabia," early 13c., also hostriche, estrich, ostrig, esterige, etc., from Old French ostruce "ostrich" (Modern French autruche) and Medieval Latin ostrica, ostrigius, all from Vulgar Latin avis struthio, from Latin avis "bird" (from PIE root *awi- "bird") + Late Latin struthio "ostrich," from Greek strouthion "ostrich," from strouthos megale "big sparrow," the first word perhaps from PIE *trozdo- "thrush" (see thrush (n.1)).
The Greeks also knew the bird as strouthokamelos "camel-sparrow," for its long neck. Among its proverbial peculiarities are indiscriminate voracity (especially a habit of swallowing small bits of iron and stone to aid digestion), a supposed want of regard for its eggs (which are incubated partly by the heat of the sun), and a tendency to hide its head when pursued. Ostriches do put their heads in the sand, but ostrich farmers say they do this in search of something to eat.
Like the Austridge, who hiding her little head, supposeth her great body obscured. ["Something written by occasion of that fatall and memorable accident in the Blacke Friers on Sonday, being the 26. of October 1623"]
Hence expressions cruel as an ostrich (late 14c.); foolish as an ostrich (late 15c.). From the Vulgar Latin word also come Spanish avestruz, Italian struzzo, Old English struta, German Strausz, Dutch struis, Danish struds.
For generic use of "sparrow" for "bird," compare Spanish pájaro, Romanian pasăre "bird," from Latin passer "sparrow."
1867, "calf or yearling found without an owner's brand," a word from the great cattle ranches of the American West, so called for Samuel A. Maverick (1803-1870), Texas cattle owner who was notoriously negligent in branding his calves.
All neat stock found running at large in this State, without a mother, and upon which there is neither mark nor brand, shall be deemed a maverick, and shall be sold to the highest bidder for cash, at such time and place, and under such rules and regulations, as the round-up commissioners of the district shall prescribe. [act to amend the General Statutes of the State of Colorado, approved April 8, 1885]
The family name is an old one in Boston, and a different Samuel Maverick was killed in the Boston Massacre. The sense of "individualist, unconventional person" is said to be attested by 1886, via the notion of "masterless," but its modern popularity seems to date to the late 1930s and the career of Maury Maverick (1895-1954) of Texas, grandson of Samuel the rancher and a Democratic congressman 1935-1939 famous for his liberal independent streak, who also coined gobbledygook.
"The Crisis" (April 1939) wrote that "During his stormy career in Washington Maverick became known as the one dependable liberal among the southerners. He recognized the broad problems of our nation, refusing to allow his vision to be limited by sectional prejudices, or racial or economic bugaboos. He was the only southern congressman to vote for the Gavagan federal anti-lynching bill. Not only did he vote for it, but he made a speech on the floor of the House in support of it."
1707 as a direct phrase, but implied much earlier, and Old Norse had bikkju-sonr. Abbreviated form SOB from 1918; form sumbitch attested in writing by 1969.
Abide þou þef malicious!
Biche-sone þou drawest amis
þou schalt abigge it ywis!
["Of Arthour & of Merlin," c. 1330]
"Probably the most common American vulgarity from about the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth" [Rawson].
Our maid-of-all-work in that department [indecency] is son-of-a-bitch, which seems as pale and ineffectual to a Slav or a Latin as fudge does to us. There is simply no lift in it, no shock, no sis-boom-ah. The dumbest policeman in Palermo thinks of a dozen better ones between breakfast and the noon whistle. [H.L. Mencken, "The American Language," 4th ed., 1936, p.317-8]
Elsewhere, complaining of the tepidity of the American vocabulary of profanity, Mencken writes that the toned-down form son-of-a-gun "is so lacking in punch that the Italians among us have borrowed it as a satirical name for an American: la sanemagogna is what they call him, and by it they indicate their contempt for his backwardness in the art that is one of their great glories."
It was in 1934 also that the New York Daily News, with commendable frankness, in reporting a hearing in Washington at which Senator Huey P. Long featured, forsook the old-time dashes and abbreviations and printed the complete epithet "son of a bitch." [Stanley Walker, "City Editor," 1934]
Old English smæl "thin, slender, narrow; fine," from Proto-Germanic *smal- "small animal; small" (source also of Old Saxon, Danish, Swedish, Middle Dutch, Dutch, Old High German smal, Old Frisian smel, German schmal "narrow, slender," Gothic smalista "smallest," Old Norse smali "small cattle, sheep"), perhaps from a PIE root *(s)melo- "smaller animal" (source also of Greek melon, Old Irish mil "a small animal;" Old Church Slavonic malu "bad"). Original sense of "narrow" now almost obsolete, except in reference to waistline and intestines.
My sister ... is as white as a lilly, and as small as a wand. [Shakespeare, "Two Gentlemen of Verona," 1591]
Sense of "not large, of little size" developed in Old English. Of children, "young," from mid-13c. Meaning "inferior in degree or amount" is from late 13c. Meaning "trivial, unimportant" is from mid-14c. Sense of "having little property or trade" is from 1746. That of "characterized by littleness of mind or spirit, base, low, mean" is from 1824. As an adverb by late 14c.
Small fry, first recorded 1690s of little fish, 1885 of insignificant people. Small potatoes "no great matter, something petty or insignificant" is attested by 1924; small change "something of little value" is from 1902; small talk "chit-chat, trifling conversation" (1751) first recorded in Chesterfield's "Letters." Small world as a comment upon an unexpected meeting of acquaintances is recorded from 1895. Small-arms, indicating those capable of being carried in the hand (contrasted to ordnance) is recorded from 1710.
1560s, in drama, "person who speaks the prologue and explains or comments on events on stage," from Latin chorus "a dance in a circle, the persons singing and dancing, the chorus of a tragedy," from Greek khoros "round dance; dancing-place; band of dancers; company of persons in a play, under a leader, who take part in dialogue with the actors and sing their sentiments at intervals."
The Greek word is of uncertain origin, because the original sense is unknown. Perhaps it is from PIE root *gher- (1) "to grasp, enclose," if the original sense of the Greek word is "enclosed dancing floor," or *gher- (2) "to like, want," if the original notion is "to rejoice."
Extension from dance to voice is because Attic drama arose from tales inserted in the intervals of the dance. In Attic tragedy, the khoros (of 12 or 15 (tragic) or 24 (comedic) persons) gave expression, between the acts, to the moral and religious sentiments evoked by the actions of the play. English 16c. theater adopted a stripped-down version of this.
When a Poet wished to bring out a piece, he asked a Chorus from the Archon, and the expenses, being great, were defrayed by some rich citizen (the khoregos): it was furnished by the Tribe and trained originally by the Poet himself [Liddell & Scott]
The meaning "an organized company of singers" is from 1650s. Meaning "the refrain of a song" (which the audience joins in singing) is from 1590s; that of "a song to be sung by a (large) chorus" is from 1744. Meaning "main part of a modern popular song" (as distinguished from the verse, q.v.) is by 1926, originally in jazz. As a verb, 1703, from the noun. Chorus girl "young woman who sings and dances in a stage chorus" is by 1852.
c. 1200, pointe, "minute amount, single item in a whole; sharp end of a sword, etc.," a merger of two words, both ultimately from Latin pungere "to prick, pierce," from a nasalized form of PIE root *peuk- "to prick."
The Latin neuter past participle punctum was used as a noun, meaning "small hole made by pricking," subsequently extended to anything that looked like one, hence, "dot, particle," etc. This yielded Old French point "dot; smallest amount," which was borrowed in Middle English in the "smallest amount" sense by c. 1300. The meaning "small mark, dot" (mark made by the end of a pointed instrument) in English is from mid-14c.
Meanwhile the Latin fem. past participle of pungere was puncta, which was used in Medieval Latin to mean "sharp tip," and became Old French pointe "point of a weapon, vanguard of an army," which also passed into English (early 14c.). The senses have merged in English, but remain distinct in French.
The sense of "peak or promontory from a land or coast" is from 1550s. The extended senses often are from the notion of "minute, single, or separate items in an extended whole." The sense of "brief period of time, instant" is from late 14c. Meaning "distinguishing feature" (especially a good one) is recorded from late 15c. Meaning "a unit of score in a game" is recorded from 1746.
The meaning "recognized unit of fluctuation of price per share on an exchange" is by 1814. As a typeface unit (in Britain and U.S., one twelfth of a pica), it went into use in U.S. 1883. As a measure of weight for precious stones (one one-hundredth of a carat) it is recorded from 1931. Meaning "diacritical mark indicating a vowel or other modification of sound" is from 1610s.
The point "the matter being discussed" is attested from late 14c.; meaning "sense, purpose, end, aim, advantage" (usually in the negative, as in what's the point?) is recorded by 1903. Point of honor (1610s) translates French point d'honneur. Point of no return (1941) is originally aviators' term for the point in a flight "before which any engine failure requires an immediate turn around and return to the point of departure, and beyond which such return is no longer practical" [Young America's Aviation Annual]. To make a point of "be resolved to do something and do it accordingly" is from 1778.
Old English heh (Anglian), heah (West Saxon) "of great height, tall, conspicuously elevated; lofty, exalted, high-class," from Proto-Germanic *hauha- (source also of Old Saxon hoh, Old Norse har, Danish høi, Swedish hög, Old Frisian hach, Dutch hoog, Old High German hoh, German hoch, Gothic hauhs "high;" also German Hügel "hill," Old Norse haugr "mound"). The group is of uncertain origin; perhaps related to Lithuanian kaukara "hill," from PIE *kouko-. Spelling with -gh represents a final guttural sound in the original word, lost since 14c.
Of sound pitch, late 14c. Of roads, "most frequented or important," c. 1200 (high road in the figurative sense is from 1793). Meaning "euphoric or exhilarated from alcohol" is first attested 1620s, of drugs, 1932. Sense of "proud, haughty, arrogant, supercilious" (c. 1200) is reflected in high-handed and high horse. Of an evil or a punishment, "grave, serious, severe" (as in high treason), c. 1200 (Old English had heahsynn "deadly sin, crime").
High school "school for advanced studies" attested from late 15c. in Scotland; by 1824 in U.S. High time "fully time, the fullness of time," is from late 14c. High noon (when the sun is at the meridian) is from early 14c.; the sense is "full, total, complete." High finance (1884) is that concerned with large sums. High tea (1831) is one at which hot meats are served. High-water mark is what is left by a flood or highest tide (1550s); figurative use by 1814.
High and mighty is c. 1200 (heh i mahhte) "exalted and powerful," formerly a compliment to princes, etc. High and dry of beached things (especially ships) is from 1783.
Middle English melten, from Old English meltan (intransitive) "become liquid through heat" (class III strong verb; past tense mealt, past participle molten), from Proto-Germanic *meltanan; fused with Old English gemæltan (Anglian), gemyltan (West Saxon) "make liquid, reduce from a solid to a fluid state by means of heat" (transitive), from Proto-Germanic *gamaltijan (source also of Old Norse melta "to digest").
Both Germanic words are from PIE *meldh- (source also of Sanskrit mrduh "soft, mild," Greek meldein "to melt, make liquid," Latin mollis "soft, mild"), from root *mel- (1) "soft." Also in Middle English "dissolve" (of salt, sugar, etc.), "corrode" (of iron), "putrefy" (of flesh). Meaning "pass imperceptibly from one thing into another" is by 1781. Related: Melted; melting.
Figurative use "to diminish, wane; be touched, grow tender" is by c. 1200; transitive sense of "soften" (to love, pity, tenderness) is by early 14c. Of food, to melt in (one's) mouth is from 1690s. Melting point "degree of temperature at which a solid body melts" is by 1807. Melting pot is from early 15c.; figurative use from 1855; popularized with reference to immigrant assimilation in the United States by the play "The Melting Pot" by Israel Zangwill (1908):
DAVID Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, What is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!
"a Conceit arising from the use of two Words that agree in the Sound, but differ in the Sense" [Addison]; "An expression in which the use of a word in two different applications, or the use of two different words pronounced alike or nearly alike, presents an odd or ludicrous idea" [Century Dictionary]; 1660s (first attested in Dryden), a word of uncertain origin.
Perhaps from pundigron, meaning the same thing (though attested first a few years later), itself a word of uncertain etymology, perhaps a humorous alteration of Italian puntiglio "equivocation, trivial objection," diminutive of Latin punctum "point." This is pure speculation. Punnet was another early form.
Pun was prob. one of the clipped words, such as cit, mob, nob, snob, which came into fashionable slang at or after the Restoration. [OED]
The verb, "to make puns," also is attested from 1660s, first in Dryden. Related: Punned; punning.
At the revival of learning, and the spread of what we may term the refinement of society, punning was one of the few accomplishments at which the fine ladies and gentlemen aimed. From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, it was at its greatest height. The conversation of the witty gallants, and ladies, and even of the clowns and other inferior characters, in the comedies of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, which we may be sure was painted from the life, is full of puns and plays upon words. The unavoidable result of such an excess was a surfeit, and the consequent dégout, which lasted for more than a century. Like other diseases, it broke out again subsequently with redoubled virulence, and made great havoc in the reign of Queen Anne. [Larwood & Hotten, "The History of Signboards from the Earliest Times to the Present Day," London, 1867]