Here are a few of my favorite entries, all beginning with the letter “C,” from Word and Phrase Origins, a book given to me (and a most thoughtful gift it was) shortly after its 1997 publication.
Cannoli. Reflecting its shape, this crisp Italian pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and chocolate chips is named from the Italian word for tube. Cannoli is the plural form, and one cannoli is technically a cannolo, although it is not called that, at least in America.
Catch-22. Coined by Joseph Heller in his 1961 novel of the same name, a catch- 22 is an unsolvable dilemma, a double bind. In Heller’s book, American pilots forced to fly an excessive number of dangerous missions could not be relieved of duty unless they were diagnosed insane. But the same regulations stated that a pilot who refused to fly so that he wouldn’t be killed could not be insane, as he was thinking too clearly.
Cheddar. First recorded in 1666, the word cheddar originally referred to a cheese made in the village of Cheddar in England’s Somerset County. Today it refers to a wide variety of hard, crumbly cheeses ranging in flavor from mild to sharp and in color from yellow to orange.
Chicago. Although it has been suggested that that Indian word from which the city derives its name means wild onion place, it is much more likely that chicago actually means place of skunk smells or skunktown.
Claptrap. While claptrap now means pretentious or insincere language, when first recorded in 1727 it referred to a playwright’s trick or device to elicit and catch applause from the audience.
A note about the author: Word and Phrase Origins was written by Robert Hendrickson, now 84 years old and the author of more than 25 other books, including American Literary Anecdotes, New York Tawk, and More Cunning than Man: A Social History of Rats and Men.