Etymology From The Epidemiologist


Yes, I am procrastinating once more.  I am fond of saying that I am a professional crastinator, which would be funny if (a) there existed such  a thing as a crastinator, and (b) as a professional, I were actually paid for such a thing.

It is 1:AM and I am thigh-deep in paperwork, while in the background I enjoy my endless stream of British history documentaries.  I particularly enjoy those documentaries that throw in some word trivia.  In the past week, several shows have enlightened me with respect to the origins of several common English phrases.  I thought I would share them with you.  Ready?

(1) Humble pie

This one I learned from “The Supersizers Go… to Elizabethan England“.   It seems that the archaic word for the unappetizing innards of food animals is “umble“.  The poor folk of 17th century England would make a pie of these bits, and call it “umble pie”.

Because of the similarity between “umble” and “humble”, the term “eating humble pie” arose to refer to someone so humbled that he had been reduced to eating umble pie.

(2) Out of sorts

This and the remaining entries I learned from “Tudor Monastery Farm“.

This one comes from the print shop.  “Sorts” were the small pieces of type used to make up a font.  So when there weren’t enough of them to complete a print job, the printer was frustratingly “out of sorts“.

(3) Upper case and lower case

Repeated in “Victorian Farm“, this one also comes from the printer’s shop.  Back in the day, the capital letters were placed in a case further from the compositor, and higher than that which contained the small letters.

(4) Rule of thumb

No, contrary to urban lore, this does not refer to the thickness of the stick one can legally use to beat one’s wife.  There is absolutely no evidence of such a law ever having existed.

Rather, the phrase comes from the days of manual milling of flour.  The coarseness of the flour between the thumb and fingers determined the quality of that flour.  The miller knew the product was sufficiently fine for marketing when he applied the “rule of thumb”.

(5)  Watermark

Know that mark on fancy paper, or that your Word Processor can add to a document?  The term originates from the original paper-making process, in which pulp was pressed into sheets of paper.  This was done wet, since the pulp is immersed in water.  During the pressing process, the raised emboss of a logo or mark was also pressed into the sheet, creating the famed mark… or watermark.


There were probably more. But that’s all I can remember right now!