What's in a Word | All Blogs

The bios behind the words

By Debra Dobbins

A little cove on the southeast coast of Norway is a charming spot to go for some rest and relaxation. It would be excellent for swimming, except for one problem. Strewn throughout the water are huge boulders—boulders that cannot be removed by mandate of the Norwegian government.

During World War II the Nazis invaded Norway by land through neighboring Sweden and by sea. Many Norwegians did everything they could to impede (slow down) the progress of the Nazis. For instance, they pushed boulders into coves and other landing areas so that the Germans would have a more difficult time coming ashore. After the war, the Norwegian government said the boulders must remain as a tribute to the courage and sacrifice of ordinary citizens.

For much of the war, Norway was under the rule of a puppet government headed by Vidkun Quisling. Quisling was a Norwegian who collaborated (worked with) with the Nazis. As noted above, Quisling was executed by firing squad for betraying his country. His name now is a synonym for traitor.

Other men have contributed their names to English, as well. In the late 1700s, John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was reputedly too engrossed in his card games to take a break to eat. He ordered his valet to bring him meat in two slabs of bread so that he could remain at his card table. Others started saying that they wanted what he was having. Thus, the sandwich became popular. Were he alive today, the Earl of Sandwich might well be astonished at all the variations of his culinary concoction.

The word “maverick” comes from Samuel Maverick, a Texan rancher who bucked the system in the 1800s by not branding his cattle. Maverick now means someone who refuses to conform, according to Webster’s.

Finally, there’s “bowdlerize,” a word which means to take out passages in a literary work that might be offensive. It comes from Thomas Bowdler, an English editor who published sanitized versions of Shakespeare’s works in the early 1800s. According to http://shakespeare.palomar.edu, he said, “I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world's greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare.”

Now, of course, daughters (and sons) everywhere read unaltered plays of Shakespeare. Bowdler must be turning over in his grave.


John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich

photo of oil painting courtesy of Wikipedia


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