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bewilder - podictionary 854

Sep 12th, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (0)
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Today’s podictionary word brought to you by GoToMeeting. Try it free for 30 days by following the link

Among the people I met last spring at a writers’ conference was Dennison Berwick.  He’s written a number of books including one on his walk along the Ganges river and another about the Amazon river.

Dennison asked me to look into the word discombobulate but it turns out I’ve already done an episode on that word.  So I popped discombobulate into a website that generates synonyms and from a list that included addle, befuddle, confound and perplex I chose bewilder for today’s word.

The word bewilder is a thoroughly English word and first appeared in the latter 1600s.

It literally means “to cause to be wildered.”  But what does it mean if you are “wildered” I hear you asking.

It means you are “lost in a pathless place” as if in the wild.

The word wilder only turned up in the early 1600s and there are no specific traces of how the word came to be beyond the fundamental inventiveness of English speakers and the willingness of people to pick up on a new word when it appealed to them.

Samuel Johnson the famous dictionary maker is one of the prominent citations for the word bewilder, although not the first.

He used the word in a publication he called The Rambler.  This was like a blog-for-profit of its day.  Johnson produced it twice a week for two years and gave up because it wasn’t making him enough money to be worthwhile.

The guy was starving at this point in his life, before the dictionary made him a celebrity.

As with so many stories about real life there are ironic stories about The Rambler.  Issue 134 of The Rambler considers the subject of procrastination.  Johnston goes on at length about the disadvantages of procrastination and idleness.  But the fact is that when it was time to get this issue off to the printer and the messenger came to pick it up, Johnston hadn’t actually written it yet and had to keep the messenger waiting while he scribbled it off.


nest - podictionary 852

Sep 10th, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (1)
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This episode brought to you by my book on the words we use for our bodies: Carnal Knowledge - A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia available at bookstores or online. For more information please visit

Nest is a word notable for its age and specific meaning.

All of the etymological sources I checked agree that this word has been with us since Indo-European and moreover that it evolved from a combination of words back then that make perfect sense.

The Indo-European word is thought to have been nizdos.  This breaks into ni and sed, also Indo-European words that meant respectively “down” and “sit.”

So the literal meaning of the word nest, running back five thousand years or more is “the place where the bird sits down.”

The strongest connections between Indo-European and Modern English for this word seem to be via Old English and Germanic so it’s thought that this word was already in use in the British Isles before French or Latin brought their versions from the same root.

The oldest example we have of the word in English appeared in the Lindisfarne Gospels—that very beautiful old document first written in Latin in the 600s or so, only a couple of centuries after those Anglo-Saxons had arrived in England.

The passage that mentions the word in the Lindisfarne Gospel is from Mathew and what we would now read as

“The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”

We have extended the word nest to apply to lots of nest-like things but many of these have their own names.  A wasp’s nest is called a vespiary and a bee’s nest was called a bike for centuries.  A squirrel’s nest is a dray and a salmon cleans out a place in the gravel of a riverbed to lay its eggs and this is called a redd.

The food company Nestle has as its logo a momma bird and two baby birds sitting in a nest on a branch. The light went on for me as I was writing this episode as to why they would have this symbol as a logo; nest = Nestle.

In the days when chickens laid eggs in straw instead of wire cages farmers placed fake eggs in the man-made nests to show the chickens where they should put their real eggs.  This is the origin of the phrase nest-egg.

If you put a relatively small amount of money aside for a rainy day it’s called a nest-egg because it’s supposed to encourage you to add more to it as time goes on.

I see a quote here from David Lloyd George when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer—that is he was in charge of the budget of England.  It’s a job he got exactly 100 years ago and the quote shows that not too much has changed as far as government financing is concerned.  He said

“I have no nest-eggs. I am looking for someone else’s hen-roost to rob next year.”


niche - podictionary 851

Sep 9th, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (2)
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Today’s podictionary word brought to you by GoToMeeting. Try it free for 30 days by following the link

I first want to say that I’ve been getting some good feedback lately.  I heard from a number of people about how I mispronounced the name Joaquin Miller as well as other corrections and suggestions.  You can see those—and contribute if you’d like—in the comments that are associated with each post.

With respect to niche, subscriber Anne Marie asked me to look into the word saying she thought it was a “cute, snug little word.”

She also pointed out that in Texas—where she is—the pronunciation is “nitch.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has updated its entry for niche as recently as June 2008 and according to them, although the usual British pronunciation is “neesh” these days, when the word first appeared it was pronounced “nitch.”

That first appearance in English was recorded in 1610 but the OED also says that “nitch” was the typical pronunciation well into the twentieth century and it wasn’t until 1991 that a pronouncing dictionary first pointed out that “neesh” had become the dominant form in British English.

Another proof that language has changed over time, and that change is still taking place right now.

That first 1610 citation for the word held a meaning of a recess in a wall where you’d place a statue or something.

This is the meaning it brought from French where it had that meaning as early as 1395.

Before that there is a bit of debate as to the word’s origin.  The American Heritage Dictionary says that one possibility is an Italian word nicchio that meant “seashell” but the OED says this doesn’t work based on both the order in which the words appeared over time, and also the normal changes in pronunciation seen in other words.

I don’t know if the word could relate because a seashell is a small opening or because sometimes wall openings for statues were ornamented above with a shell-like arch.

A more popular theory seems to be that niche is related to the word nest.  This shows up in a number of dictionaries including American Heritage, Merriam-Webster Unabridged and John Ayto’s Word Origins.

But the OED has just gone through the exercise of refreshing their entry for niche and hasn’t even mentioned this nest connection.

Niche began in English as a physical opening intended to house something and it was only as the word’s pronunciation was beginning to change that this meaning morphed into metaphorical senses such as an ecological niche where a species might live—that was in 1913—or a specialized area of business—market niche appeared in 1963.


chrome - podictionary 850

Sep 8th, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (3)
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Google has come out with its own browser and called it Chrome so I thought I’d look into chrome as a word.

First of all I think many people know that Google as a company took its name in error, based a made-up name for a large number.

Edward Kasner was an American mathematician who once asked his nine year old nephew Milton Sirotta what he thought a really big number should be called.  Milton said googol and that an even bigger number should be called googolplex.

So these are now the names of two numbers.

  • Googol is 1×10100 (that’s 1 with 100 zeros after it)
  • Googolplex is 1×10googol

The founders of Google Sergey Brin and Larry Page knew the internet was big and so chose googol for their name; except, like me, they weren’t perfect spellers.

There the similarity ends.

Anyway, on to chrome.

Like Google itself the origins of chrome touch on a rags-to-riches story.

I’m not sure why Google named its new browser Chrome but here are some thoughts.

Google has been pretty supportive of the browser Firefox and buried within any Firefox installation there is a folder called chrome and in that folder there is a file called userchrome.  Within the userchrome file it says

“This file can be used to customize the look of Mozilla’s user interface.”

Wired Magazine says chrome is

“the term used to describe the frame, toolbars, and menus bordering a browser window”

and a Wikipedia article on Graphical User Interface says that

“the visible…features of an application are sometimes referred to as chrome.”

So chrome denotes “the look” of things.

I find further support for this “look” meaning from Google themselves.

In one of the YouTube videos issued to promote the new browser project manager Brian Rakowski says:

“From top to bottom we designed the interface to make sure that it was as efficient and as clean as possible.  We argued over every single pixel in the chrome of Chrome to make sure there was nothing wasted.”

So from that “chrome of Chrome” you might expect that Google wants Chrome to be the new look of the internet.

But Google doesn’t do something for nothing and there is a slang meaning to chrome that might apply too.

To most people chrome denotes a shiny mirror-like finish on metal. One metal object in particular gave the word chrome a slang meaning; that object is a handgun.

I can’t find a date for a first citation where chrome meant “gun” but I see it in many Urbandictionary entries as well as in Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.

Software applications that become really popular are called killer apps so perhaps chrome as “gun” fits there with Google’s hopes for it.

But it’s the logo that Google has chosen for Chrome that points to chrome’s etymology.

It’s Google’s corporate blue, red, yellow and green.  There isn’t a metallic look to it at all; it’s more a plastic look.

In 1797 a French chemist by the name of Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin isolated chromium as an element.  He noticed that compounds that contained chromium had especially vibrant color and so he chose as the name for this new element the Greek word for “color” khroma.

Other chemists liked Latin better than Greek which is why we call the stuff chromium; it sounds more Latin.

Google is also offering the source code for its new browser for others to use.

By amazing coincidence the open-source project name is chromium.

So maybe Google thinks mixing its new browser with other elements of the web will give the internet more vivid color—figuratively speaking of course.

I said there was a rags to riches story in here somewhere.

Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin’s parents were French peasants but Louis-Nicolas was lucky enough to be apprenticed in what we’d now call a drug store or pharmacy.  This highlighted his natural genius for chemistry and he went on to become one of the first professors to make lab work part of an education.  Instead of just talking about how chemicals reacted with each other, he got them to actually mix the stuff up and see for themselves.

Today’s episode brought to you by Grammar Girl’s New York Times bestselling book. Look for the link at


switch - podictionary 849

Sep 5th, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (0)
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Today’s podictionary word brought to you by GoToMeeting. Try it free for 30 days by following the link

The word switch almost went out with the buggy whip.

In fact for the longest time a buggy whip was a switch.

It was Shakespeare himself who first mentions switch in his play Romeo and Juliet.  There, he was trying to whip things along a little faster.

No one knows for sure why a word for whip ended up as the word we use to describe those things that turn on and off our lights.

A number of sources theorize that it is the back and forth motion of a whip that led to a mechanical switch taking on the word.

One fellow named Ernest Weekley suggests instead that the Germanic root of the word not only related to swish as would a whip of this kind, but also to a shorter rod—even a peg—that had a German name zweck or zwick. He thought the peg might relate to the handle of a mechanical switch.

Whatever the case, the first mechanical switches were named switches during the early days of the age of steam.  These were railway switches for shunting trains onto other tracks at junctions.

Electrical switches naturally took their names from the railroad switches.

It wasn’t until about 100 years ago that switch meant to exchange something.

I’ve not introduced that etymologist Ernest Weekly before.  He only died in 1954 and he wrote a number of books on words and their histories including an etymological dictionary.

With respect to the word switch however, I bet he wished his wife had never heard the word.

He met her in Germany when he was studying languages.  Her name was Frieda and she was a baroness.

Frieda means “peaceful” but in her case the name didn’t fit very well.

Ernest and Frieda had been married about 12 years and had 3 kids when an old student of Ernest’s came to ask his help in getting a job.

That student was named D. H. Lawrence and Frieda decided she liked him a lot. They ran away together breaking our etymologist’s heart.

D. H. Lawrence didn’t exactly have a peaceful existence with her either since he is reported to have said he appreciated especially her ability to fight and argue with him.  Her adoption of the word switch seemed to stick, since even after divorcing Weekley and marrying Lawrence she took other lovers.  Lawrence once told her:

“Frieda if people really knew what you were like, they would strangle you.”


Tabasco - podictionary 847

Sep 3rd, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (5)
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Lyn Hancock is an author and has written a children’s book entitled Tabasco the Saucy Raccoon.  She asked me to look into the word Tabasco.

I don’t mind hot food but I was a little taken aback when I visited the website for Tabasco sauce and saw that they sell the stuff in gallon jugs.

Tabasco sauce is named for the type of peppers used in making it and in turn those peppers are named after a place in Mexico.

This is a similar sort of naming convention to jalapeno and habanero peppers.  Jalapeno peppers are named after a Mexican city and habanero peppers are named after Havana, the capital of Cuba.

The company that makes Tabasco sauce makes it in a few different flavors including habanero which is supposed to be about three times as hot as regular Tabasco sauce and—even more incredibly to me—is also sold in gallon jugs.

I’m sweating just thinking of it.

I wonder if it’s legal to ship that stuff; isn’t it a hazardous material?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the very first citation for Tabasco in English was from 1876.  Yet the Tabasco website claims that Edmund McIlhenny started selling Tabasco sauce nine years before that.

There’s more confusion too.

The first citation from the OED is credited to Joaquin Miller.  Miller was a kind of American frontier poet.  Wikipedia describes his career as including “a variety of occupations, including [a] mining-camp cook (who came down with scurvy from only eating what he cooked), [a] lawyer and a judge, [a] newspaper writer, [a] Pony Express rider, and [a] horse thief.”

His story as noted in the OED is First Families in the Sierras and the appearance of the word Tabasco is from a scene in a western bar named the Howling Wilderness Saloon.

The bar itself was just a plank laid across a wall of sandbags intended to protect the barkeep from stray bullets. The drink selection is described as

  • Old Tiger
  • Bad Eye
  • Forty Rod
  • Rat Pizen
  • Rot Gut
  • Hell’s Delight, and
  • Howling Modoc

“all made from the same decoction of bad rum, worse tobasco, and first-class cayenne pepper.  The difference in proportion of ingredients made the difference in infernal drinks.”

The other day I did an episode on Caesar with a side-track into the drink Bloody Caesar, which is like a Bloody Mary so I guess there is precedent for talk about spicy drinks.  But drinks made with rum, Tabasco and cayenne pepper sound unlikely.

More confusing, when I checked Google Book Search and Amazon I found both sources had the text of this book but where the OED found the word tobasco Google and Amazon have the word tobacco!

Could the OED have read it wrong?

I tend to doubt it.  Especially since I’ve come across other old documents that have been scanned into software and been “autocorrected” incorrectly.

And I’d think that drinks made with “bad rum, worse tobacco, and first-class cayenne” would be even more unlikely.

So here’s where I get to be an amateur lexicography detective.

I see that the OED definition number 3 for the word habanero reads

“A Latin American alcoholic drink, typically distilled from sugar cane”

with a first citation date within a few years of Tabasco.  I wonder if

  1. the OED got it right with that first Tabasco citation and
  2. instead of referring to the pepper sauce that first Tabasco might have been another rum alternative.

One more note on Joaquin Miller.

I was stunned to see that he is the author of a little rhyme that hangs on my parents’ wall and has done my entire life:

In men whom men condemn as ill
I find so much of goodness still
In men whom men pronounce divine
I find so much of sin and blot
I hesitate to draw the line
Between the two where God has not.

Today’s episode brought to you by Grammar Girl’s New York Times bestselling book. Look for the link at


bluff - podictionary 846

Sep 2nd, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (0)
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Today’s podictionary word brought to you by GoToMeeting. Try it free for 30 days by following the link

I stumbled into this word blindly when I came across a Wikipedia entry entitled Blind Man’s Bluff.

This is reportedly a children’s game.  The Canadian Oxford Dictionary says that this is also, and particularly in Britain, blind man’s buffThe New Oxford American Dictionary contains both versions too, thought they don’t say anything about one being British.

You may be surprised that there is yet another dictionary from Oxford called The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English and that it has its entry for blind man’s buff, giving bluff as the alternative.

Turning to the Oxford English Dictionary—the mothership—there is no mention at all of blind man’s bluff; there is only blind man’s buff.

The game seems to have originated in the 1500s and as a parlor game for adults.  The buff part of the name was the original because the poor guy in the blindfold quite often got thumped and smacked around by those merry sighted players.  So buff was along the lines of buffet and rebuff.

No wonder no one  wants to be “it.”

But that’s the word buff and today’s word is bluff.

To bluff is what poker players do.

Somewhere in the 1600s there seem to have been four meanings to the word bluff that came together.

On one side we have men in boats who referred to a craft whose bow was square and blunt as being bluff.  This then got applied to shorelines that were broad and precipitous.

In a separate development a word bluff appeared meaning “to blindfold” and also as a noun referring to those little patches people put on horses so they can’t see sideways or behind them.

I’d have called those blinkers, but evidently in the 1600s they were also called bluffs.

The OED isn’t really sure if the act of blindfolding someone, or the objects that block horses’ vision came first.

With these four meanings as the groundwork, bluff by the 1850s took on a meaning of trickery in cards, from the notion of blinding someone to what you were doing.

It was only later that the “cliffy” meaning of bluff was layered on top, so that someone now bluffs at poker not only by tricking you—keeping you blind to what hand they have—but also mounting a bold impenetrable cliff-like front that they hide behind.

As to any deeper etymology for the word the OED says

“the etymology is quite unknown.”

And that the “blindfold” meaning

“does not appear to have any possible connexion with [the cliff meaning]“

They go on to say that “the word is probably one of the numerous cant terms which arose between the Restoration and the reign of Queen Anne.”

Cant was the supposed secret language of thieves starting in the 1500s.

It makes some sense that the bluff to “blindfold” meaning could have come from the language of the criminal underclass.


buff - podictionary 845

Sep 1st, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (0)
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Today’s episode brought to you by my audio-book Global Wording - The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English. Available in downloadable form from iTunes or or as a CD from bookstores. For more information and a few samples, go to

I have just concluded a summer spent largely on a lake where the residents are lucky enough—and the houses are far enough away from each another—that it is not uncommon to start your day with a swim in the buff.

This feeling like a natural thing to do, I naturally wanted to look up the word buff.

Merriam-Webster holds 9 entries for the word while the Oxford English Dictionary shows 13.  Of course many of these entries contain multiple definitions.

  • buff can mean “polish”
  • it once meant “buffalo” the animal
  • it can mean “an enthusiast” as in “I’m a word buff “; and of course
  • it can mean “without any clothes on”

Most of these meanings are fairly old.  A newer meaning of buff is to be muscular and well built.

It turns out that all of the meanings I’ve mentioned here evolve from a single source.  They grew out of the name of an animal.

The word buffalo and its roots predate any European sightings of the animals that gave Buffalo Bill his name.

In fact those buffalos aren’t strictly buffalos as far as their species goes, they are bison.

Buffalo as a word can certainly be traced back to ancient Greek where it referred to a kind of antelope.  The American Heritage Dictionary points a vague finger further back at the same Indo-European roots that gave us beef.

From Greek it evolved through Latin and into French.  By the time buff got to English in the 1500s it had lost its trailing “–o”.

One of the useful things about the animals referred to—and their precise species seems to have changed fairly freely—is that as well as making a good meal, the provided leather.

Leather is useful in all kinds of ways and it makes sense that the skin of an animal might retain the name of the animal that provided it so buff also held a meaning of leather.

A piece of leather can be used to polish something and so the noun for the type of leather became a verb that you still use when you wax and buff your car.

Leather is great for making coats and jackets too and so a buff coat meant a “leather coat.”

At some time before 1600 somebody made the analogy that if you were naked it was as if you were in buff.

The thinking is that the color of the leather coats was light enough to resemble people’s skin color, as opposed to making the analogy that your personal skin was a hide just like those of the buffalo.

Surprisingly a buff who is “an enthusiast” comes from this same etymological source.  The first citation from the OED is from 1903 and refers to buffs who were volunteer fire fighters. They were called buffs because of the color of their protective gear, but they were thought to be enthusiastic about fires, and so to be enthusiastic about anything later made you a buff.

The physically fit buff is new enough that it’s hard to find a first citation.  It isn’t even mentioned in the OED yet.

Merriam-Webster does mention it and I get the sense that this meaning comes from the “polishing” or “enhancing” effect of body building.

Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang says that this sense of buff appeared in a 1993 movie called Sneakers.

The first time that we know of where someone admitted to being in the buff was in 1602.  It was a line from a play called Satiromastix by a guy named Thomas Dekker.

This was the heyday of Shakespeare and Dekker was also one of the London theater crowd.

These playwrights and actors were all scrambling to make a living and there was a fair amount of competition.  This play Satiromastix was actually written to ridicule another theatre guy of the time, Ben Johnson.  You can think of this as an early form of negative advertising.

Ben somehow got warning that the play was on its way and so wrote a counter-attack play called Poetaster.  He got it on stage before Dekker’s play and it was a big success, so his strategy worked.

It worked well enough that although I can find the complete text of Poetaster online, I can’t find the text of Satiromastix and so I can’t tell you who it was who was in the buff 400 years ago, or why.


cushy - podictionary 844

Aug 29th, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (2)
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The general tone of the word cushy these days seems to be moving from comfort to luxury.

Where a cushy job means a “comfortable job” the examples I see in my newspaper web-searching talk of cushy hotels and such. This seems to me to have a tone of something more than “comfort.”

The word cushy hasn’t been with us for all that long.  The Oxford English Dictionary first citation is from 1915.

Most of the etymological resources I looked at said that the word came via Anglo-Indian from Hindi and perhaps even from Persian.  The source word being khush meaning “pleasant” or “beautiful.”

I said most of the etymological sources.

One holdout is the American Heritage Dictionary that acknowledges this Ango-Indian theory but then pours cold water on it.

According to American Heritage that first citation for cushy appears in the writings of a young soldier fighting in France during the First World War.  They point out that no direct Indian connection has been found with cushy and so they speculate that instead of coming from a Hindi word for “pleasant,” cushy may simply be a modification of cushion, or possibly a French word coucheé which they translate as “lying down, a bed.”

I’d have translated it as “sleeping.”

The point here is that even thought the most authoritative dictionaries in the world—and here I’d say the OED and Merriam-Webster represent the pan-oceanic superpowers—even though they claim an etymology, the fact is that oftentimes it’s just a theory.

But in the case of the American Heritage Dictionary their theory is just a theory too.

It is true that the word first shows up from the pen of an Englishman in Europe.  But that Englishman was fighting in the British army which had just spent 50 years policing colonial India.

Other early citations for the word cushy also seem to have emerged during the First World War.

One of these was the phrase a cushy wound.  A cushy wound was one that didn’t actually endanger your life but was enough to get you out of the trenches.

Though the American Heritage Dictionary can’t find an Anglo-Indian connection, there seems to me to be a military connection and the British military were steeped in Indian sourced words.

That first citation has a bit of a poignant story behind it.  It comes from a book that was privately printed in only 150 copies.  These were the letters of Denis Oliver Barnett; Dobbin to his friends.

He wrote of some of the cushy billets he had during training and as an officer but unfortunately for him when he eventually got wounded it wasn’t a cushy wound.  He died in just a few hours.

He was 20 at the time.


thug - podictionary 842

Aug 27th, 2008 | podcasts | Comments (0)
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My personal understanding of the word thug is that a thug is someone I want to avoid because they are likely to clobber me, either to rob me or just because they think it’s some kind of fun.

But I see from a few very popular entries at Urbandictionary that rap music and hip-hop have gone some way to changing the meaning of thug. It seems to have become something of a legitimate badge of honor in some circles.

I suppose it was a badge of honor anyway for toughs who need to prove themselves through deeds of violence.

But the new meaning appears to be that someone from underprivileged origins toughs it through to be a legitimate success; so that in this case to be a thug means you’re toughing it through.

The origins of the word thug aren’t too honorable or legitimate though.

The word comes from Hindi and originally held a meaning not all that different from my original English understanding of the word.  It meant a robber or a cheat.

The word root reaches back into Indo-European where teg or steg meant “to cover”; a robber wants to cover up their crime.

But it was the antics of a weird Hindu religious cult a couple of hundred years ago that brought the word into English.

Hinduism has numerous gods but one of the main ones is Shiva. Shiva is, among other things, the god of destruction.

This particular cult though, they worshipped his wife Kali.

She seems to have been a pretty nasty piece of business and her worshippers followed suit.  By some delusion they regarded killing and robbing people as some kind of act of worship.

Their usual method was to strangle their victim but there are claims of poison, stabbing and dumping down wells.

These guys were called the Thugs in Hindi and the word was adopted by the British government in India.

A book published in 1837 called Illustrations of the History and Practices of the Thugs claims that

“for many years after the British power had gained the ascendant in India the Thugs continued to practice their execrable trade…the evil seems to have been regarded in much the same light as the fixed inconveniences of the climate or the accidental inclemency of unfavorable seasons—as a thing greatly to be lamented but beyond hope of remedy and which it was the part of wisdom to endure with patience.”

Finally a lowly civil servant named William Sleeman started to point out to his government that it was really irresponsible of any governing body to let this go on.

For some time he was ignored as is the familiar lot of so many responsible civil servants even today, but finally a new Governor General arrived from England and took the issue seriously.

They say it took 50 years to stamp out the cult.

Today’s episode brought to you by Ammon Shea’s book Reading the OED.

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