'Primrose' Path Leads to 'Buttery' Slope

Rob Kyff on

Did you know there's no "linger" in "malinger," no "butter" in "buttery" and no "rose" in "primrose"? With the help of Hugh Rawson's illuminating book "Devious Derivations," let's examine some words whose "obvious" origins lead us down a primrose path toward etymological perdition.

Though "pester" has come to mean "act like a pest," it originally had nothing to do with "pest." Derived from the French word "empstrer" (hobbled), "pester" once meant obstructed, clogged.

But inevitably the meaning of "pester" came under the influence of "pest," from the Latin "pestis," meaning a contagious disease, and, by extension, any curse, bane or annoyance. Eventually, "pester" lost its "clogged" denotation and came to mean "annoy or harass."

I'll pester you with three more tricksters. Someone who "malingers" (fakes illness) may linger around the house, at least until the school bus has come and gone.

But "linger" lingers not in "malinger," which actually comes from the French "malingre" (sickly). The deceptive aspect arose when people started using "malingre" to describe street beggars who feigned illness to gain sympathy.

Because a buttery is a large room for storing food at a school or college, you might be tempted to assume it's derived from "butter."

"Butter" not. "Buttery" is a rebottling of the Middle English "botterie" (bottle) and originally referred to a room where liquors were stored in bottles or casks. Another genie let out of the "bottle," by the way, is "butler" ("boutellier" in French), someone who, among other duties, delivers bottles, and, if the employer is a heavy drinker, a lot of bottles.


Treading this path of derivation dalliance, we also discover that a "primrose" is neither prim nor a rose. Because this flower was thought to be one of the first to bloom in spring, it was called "prima rosa" (first flower) in Latin. (Compounding this misnomer is the fact that a primrose isn't even one of the first flowers to bloom in spring.)

If being pestered by these false etymologies leaves you feeling down in the dumps, you'll be glad to know those dumps have nothing to do with garbage. The melancholy "dumps" comes from the Dutch "domp," meaning a haze or mist, because a sad person seems to be in a gloomy fog. The garbage "dump" comes from the Middle English "dompen," meaning to drop or fall.

The true origin of "dumps" might explain why, when you're down in them, your eyes often become misty.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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