Why Admirals Use the Big, Big 'D'

Rob Kyff on

In "The Secret Life of Words" (Harcourt, $24), Paul West becomes a tabloid gossip columnist, revealing the skeletons (or "spell-etons") in the closets of famous words.

You might assume, for instance, that "admiral" derives from "admire"; certainly such a high-ranking naval officer is worthy of admiration. But West reveals that admiral comes from the Arabic "amir-al-bahr," meaning chieftain of the sea. "Amir-al" became "amiral" in French, and English threw in a big, big "D," just like the salty captain of the good ship H.M.S. Pinafore.

Admire, by the way, derives from the Latin admirari (to regard with wonder), from the Latin mirus (wonderful).

Wandering -- and wondering -- further afield, we find that "champion" derives from "campus," the Latin word for field, where champions are crowned in game or gore.

A champion is likely to celebrate with champagne from the Champagne region of France, also derived from "campus," through "campania" (level country.) "Campania" also gave rise to "campaign" because the ancient Romans often conducted military operations on flat plains.

It's hard to believe that a massive boondoggle, such as the notorious "highway to nowhere" in Alaska, could be named for something as modest as a braided leather cord made by Boy Scouts for use as a neckerchief slide, but it is.

During the 1920s, American scoutmaster A.H. Link dubbed these trivial doohickeys "boondoggles," and soon the term was being used to describe any time-wasting, make-work project.


Boondoggles usually involve a lot of red tape and rigmarole. "Red tape," which emerged in the 1600s, originally referred to the British practice of tying bundles of legal papers with red cloth. By the 1800s, it had become a term for maddening bureaucratic paperwork and delays.

The origins of "rigmarole" can be traced to a game in which people would write out verses on a roll of paper and then attach a string to each verse. Players then randomly selected one of the strings and read the verse affixed to it. This roll was called a "Ragman role" for a mythical king who had supposedly written the verses.

Soon "ragman roll" became one word, "rigmarole," which came to mean a list of foolish or nonsensical statements and eventually any complex and ritualistic procedure.

One more thread of rigmarole: This word is spelled either rigmarole or, less commonly, rigamarole, but both words are usually pronounced with four syllables: "RIG-eh-mah-roll."


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His 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 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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