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.

history

Most occupational titles are self-explanatory: A teacher teaches, a preacher preaches, a gardener gardens and a writer writes. But the origins of some job names are more obscure.

The verb to vet means “to examine credentials, manuscripts, or other documents as a veterinarian examines an animal, hoping to give it a clean bill of health.” The noun veterinarian came about because the first veterinarians treated only animals that were old (Latin vetus) and experienced enough to perform work such as pulling a plow or hauling military baggage. That’s why veteran and veterinarian start with almost the same letters.

Janitor derives from the Roman god Janus, who guarded doorways. A professor is “one who makes public declarations,” while the first deans were military officers in charge of ten (decem) soldiers. Those soldiers were so called because they were paid in Roman coins called solidi.

Close kin to janitor is usher. The word has a long history, going all the way back to the Latin ostium, “door,” related to os, “mouth,” because a door was likened to the mouth of a building. Usher, then, turns out to be a body metaphor for a person who stands at a door.

A ventriloquist is someone who is skilled in the art of throwing his or her voice so that it appears to emanate from a source other than the speaker. Appropriately, the roots of ventriloquist are the Latin ventris, “belly” + loqui, “speaker.” In other words, a ventriloquist is a “belly speaker.” (I’m thinking of one day writing a book titled Ventriloquism For Dummies.)

The standard explanation traces cop or copper, meaning “police,” to copper buttons worn on early police uniforms, or to copper police badges supposedly issued in some cities, but there is no convincing evidence for this conjecture. Another theory explains cop as an acronym standing for “constable on patrol” or “chief of police.” But these acronymic etymologies almost always turn out to be spurious, after-the-fact explanations. Another inconvenient truth is that acronyms were virtually unknown in English before the 20th century, while cop itself was well-established by the mid-19th century.

In reality, the law enforcement sense of cop and copper harks back to the Latin word capere, meaning “to seize,” which also gives us capture. Cop as a slang term meaning “to catch, snatch, or grab” took its place in English in the eighteenth century. Criminals apprehended by the police were said to have been “copped” — caught by the “coppers” or “cops.”

Why are psychiatrists often called shrinks? Turns out that the slang term shrink applied to those who practice psychotherapy is a shortened form of headshrinker, a jocular comparison to primitive peoples who dry and shrink the heads of their slain enemies. The first print occurrence of shrink used in this way reposes in Thomas Pynchon’s 1967 novel, The Crying of Lot 49.

When Geoffrey Chaucer quilled in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, “a clerk ther was of Oxenford,” the poet was referring to a clergyman or cleric, the first meaning of the word clerk. In the Middle Ages, literacy was largely confined to the clergy, but clerk gradually became the name for bookkeepers, secretaries, and notaries — anyone who could read or write.

Have you ever worried about the fact that the person with whom you trust your hard-earned life savings is called a broker? Worry no more: The original broker was one who broaches (opens) casks of wine.

The surname Webber means “a man who weaves,” Webster “a woman who weaves.” Brewer signifies “a man who brews,” Brewster “a woman who brews.” Dyer is the last name of “a man who dyes cloth,” Dexter the last name of “a woman who dyes cloth.” Baker, of course, denotes “a man who bakes,” while Baxter denotes “a woman who bakes.”

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What fictional detective survived an attempted murder by his creator?

Whose gravestone bears the inscription “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”?

 Who was the single mother, living on state benefits, whose series of fantastic novels made her the richest writer in England?

My new book, Richard Lederer’s Ultimate Book of Literary Trivia, offers amazing facts, curiosities and quizzes about famous authors and their works. Looking back at the Bible, classic mythology and Shakespeare and moving up to a library of contemporary writers, Literary Trivia entertains and enlightens the passionate book lover.

Answers: Sherlock Holmes, Mark Twain, J.K. Rowling.