What Lost Luggage Led Me To Find


My son’s luggage got lost at O’Hare International Airport last weekend. It’s still missing in action, to his extreme annoyance.

As I texted him for an update, the lug in luggage leapt out at me. Did the two words share etymological DNA?

Sure enough, at, I found that luggage derives from the late 14th-century lug, meaning “to move (something) heavily or slowly.” Even better, lug derives from the Swedish lugga and Norwegian lugge, “to pull by the hair.” Ouch.

Luggage emerged about a hundred years later, meaning “what has to be lugged about.” By the 20th century, it referred to “baggage belonging to passengers.”

True to lug’s Scandinavian roots, my son will be pulling his hair out if his bag doesn’t show up at his doorstep soon. What a drag.

In the meantime, I have newfound respect for the word luggage. I love words that tell a good story.

I’ll never call it a suitcase again.

Word Games: The Language Of Sport

I love sports – and the words that games give us.

My daughter asked what “par” means the other day. I told her it’s a golf term that refers to the number of strokes a good player is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. The more interesting question followed: where does the word come from?

Par is Latin for equal. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score. Use fewer strokes and you’re under par; use more and you’re over par. Par first appeared as a golfing reference in 1898. The figure of speech “par for the course” dates back to 1928.

Love is a tennis term: Federer is up, 40-love. In the tennis sense, love has nothing to do with romance; it means zero. A popular theory is that it’s an anglicization (i.e., Englishification) of the French word l’oeuf, which means “egg”. Of course: an egg’s shape resembles a zero. Leave it to the French to get a food reference into sports parlance – and then abandon it when everyone else follows suit. They now use “zéro” instead. Incroyable!

In baseball, the bleachers are the uncovered seats out beyond the outfield, where sunscreen, binoculars, and cold beer are the order of the day. The term appears in 1889, when these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun.

Southpaw is baseball slang for a left-hander. I like the etymological explanation that the word was coined when baseball diamonds typically had home plate oriented to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references from boxing. So much for pastoral roots.

Umpire is the odd-looking word for an official who arbitrates between two teams in a sporting match. It derives from the French nonper – non “not” + per “equal”. Umpires are not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

When fans in the bleachers disagree with an umpire, they may call him another name: “bum” or “idiot” or something more colorful and fricative.

Which, on a sunny day at Fenway, is par for the course.

In A Word: The Story Behind “Scrimmage”

Football has given us lots of weird, cool words. Take “scrimmage,” for example. During Saturday night’s Patriots-Broncos game, you’ll hear a lot about the “line of scrimmage,” the point at which each play starts. But there are actually two lines of scrimmage: the offensive line of scrimmage and the defensive line of scrimmage. These are the imaginary vertical planes at either tip of the football before it is put in play and parallel to each team’s end zone.

The space in between the two lines of scrimmage is called the “neutral zone,” a gridiron Switzerland. (“Neutral” comes from the Latin “neuter” which is a combination of ne- “not, no” + uter “either.”) No player can line up in the neutral zone at the beginning of a play except the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback. When he does, the teams engage in a “scrimmage,” which is an alteration of the word “skirmish.” “Skirmish” derives from the Germanic “skirmen,” which means “to protect or defend.” It has come to have the broader meaning of “a minor or preliminary conflict or dispute.”

At, we learn that the meaning of “scrimmage” in rugby and U.S. football today dates from 1857, when it described “a confused struggle between players.” Clearly, the people in charge of definitions back then had never seen a Belichick team play.

Go Pats!

In a Word: The Story Behind Solstice

In Dublin today, the sun will set at 4:08. That is, if you can see the sun. I remember waiting for a bus on Merrion Road in Dublin right before Christmas in 1980. It was 4:00, it was raining, and it was nighttime dark. The following morning, I caught a train at 8:00, again in total darkness. That’s because the sun wouldn’t rise until around 8:40. Nothing like living farther north as winter approaches! Which brings us to the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Solstice is a great word because its Latin roots explain the planetary event with a touch of poetry: sol means sun and sistere means to stand still, which is exactly what the sun appears to do as it reaches its farthest southward point for the year, usually on December 21st or 22nd. Winter begins in the northern hemisphere and the days get longer. I remember trying to explain this phenomenon to my kids with an orange and a grapefruit. Good thing they had science teachers! Enjoy the solstice and the sight of the sun at dawn as it begins its welcome northward creep.

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