Origins for familiar words

Origins for familiar words ---

The word "nitty-gritty" for fine detail is a corruption of the name of Nitocris, a legendary Egyptian pharaoh. She is best known for a plot, recorded in Herodotus, which involved inviting all her enemies to a feast in an immense underground chamber, and then diverting the waters of the Nile into it, drowning all within. As such action clearly cannot be done on a sudden impulse, one indeed needs to attend to the "nitty-gritty": how high the Nile is, whether the duct is big enough to fill the room quickly, whether everyone is in attendance, whether the chairs float, and the like.

The word "kiosk", or a booth for selling small items such as newspapers, candy, cigarettes and small knives, comes from Cheops, the pharaoh that had the Great Pyramid of Giza built. The word, however, does not come from the pyramid, but from the stands and tents set up by priests in front of it for their ceremonies. According to Herodotus, the priests also sold sacred amulets, drops of blood from Cheops's still-bleeding mummy, small mummified cats, and other tabletop ornaments. His dismissive account of this way of acquiring a living in a rapidly secularizing hostile world made "cheops" a byword for small, banal salesplaces; hence the modern "kiosk".

"Rah" or "rah, rah!" is a common enough cheer; but it is considerably more ancient than people realize. It comes from ancient Egyptian royal funeral rituals, where the name of Ra, the grandfather of the gods, was chanted --- "Ra! Ra! Ra!" --- to announce the ascent of the next pharaoh, the next living god. There may be similarities to how modern athletes are treated.

last updated: (Mar 14 2011)