Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

I am a freelance writer of magazine and newspaper pieces. That means that I write these articles on a fee-paid assignment basis rather than on a regular-salary basis for a single employer. Most medieval knights were committed to a feudal lord, but those who weren’t could hire themselves and their lances to anyone willing to pay for their “freelance” military services.

Writers, students, workers and business people constantly face deadlines, dates when manuscripts and homework must be submitted and orders filled. When such deadlines are not met, penalties result, such as lower grades or loss of business. But the punishment for straying beyond the original deadlines was more deadly.

During the American Civil War, a deadline was a line of demarcation around the inner stockade of a prison camp, generally about 17 feet. At the notorious Confederate camp in Andersonville, Ga., a line was actually marked out some distance from the outer wire fence. Any prisoner crossing this line was shot on sight.

Writer Douglas Adams, author of “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” quips, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Every writer wants to create a blockbuster. That word first exploded onto the scene in World War II Britain as Royal Air Force slang for a bomb of enough penetrating power to shatter whole blocks of homes and pavements. By the later 1940s blockbuster had come to signify a mega-hit play, film or book.

Freelance, deadline and blockbuster are but three words among thousands that have entered our language through warfare and other hostilities. With Memorial Day approaching, I offer other medal-winning examples beginning with the letters A to F. I’ll cover the rest of the alphabet in future columns:

• Ambulance issues from an invention of Napoleon Bonaparte’s l’hopital ambulant, “walking hospital,” a light litter that served as a field hospital for wounded soldiers. We see the word amble in the Preamble to our Constitution, an initial walk before the longer journey through the document.

• Assassin descends from the Arabic hashshashin, literally “hashish eaters.” The original hashshashin were members of a religious and military order located in the mountains of Lebanon. These fanatics would commit political murder after being intoxicated with great quantities of hashish.

• AWOL began life during World War I as an acronym for “Absent Without Official Leave.” During World War II, the meaning extended to civilian life to identify any person absent from any job or activity without explanation.

• The 1960s expression bang for the buck started as a frivolous iteration for how much destructive power does the Defense Department get for the money it shells out.

• Figuratively, a battle-ax is a pejorative expression for a woman, often elderly, who is unpleasantly loud and aggressive. The original battle-ax was a sharp, broad ax used by Gothic tribes. When wielded or thrown, the weapon could penetrate Roman armor and split a shield.

• Bikini. Those skimpy two-piece swimsuits for women are named after the Marshall Islands atoll, where the first hydrogen bombs were tested after World War II. Quite possibly the name bikini was chosen as a metaphor comparing the explosive effect of the swimsuit on men to the bombs detonated on that Pacific atoll.

• From a certain Nicholas Chauvin of Rochefort we gain the eponym chauvinism. Chauvin was a veteran soldier of the first Republic and Empire, whose overly demonstrative patriotism came to be ridiculed by his comrades.

• After the Norman conquest of England in A.D. 1066, William the Conqueror required civilians to extinguish all fires and candles and to stay inside after dark. Night patrols enforced this regulation by calling out “Couvre feu!” (“cover the fire”), which became curfew in English.
• Decimate once described the nasty habit of the Romans of maiming or killing one out of every 10 captives or mutineers. Now decimate means “to destroy a large number of living things,” with no connection to the number 10.

• An eager beaver was originally an underclassman of the Army Air Corps during his first 30 days of training, a soldier so anxious to impress superiors that he would volunteer to do anything to display diligence beyond the call of duty.

• Since the 18th century field day has designated a special day set aside for military maneuvers and reviews. Through a linguistic process called expansion, field day has broadened to mean “a day marked by a sense of occasion and great success.”