Some words and phrases are so significant, so revealing of our society and our view of language and the world, that they deserve a book of their own. So, for example, we have The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner (HarperCollins 2012).
Then there is Jesse Sheidlower’s demurely titled The F-Word (which shamelessly spells it out on the pages inside), now in its third edition (Oxford University Press, 2009).
But the unquestioned champion of single-word studies, at least with regard to American English, is the etymologist par excellence Gerald Cohen, professor of German and Russian at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He is writer, editor, and publisher of the monthly print-only journal Comments on Etymology, now in its 48th year. He looks not so much for prominent words as for those that offer the greatest etymological challenges, those that dictionaries label “origin unknown.”
Typically, Cohen will introduce his theory about a word of uncertain origin in an article in Comments, wait for responses from his small but active readership, and happily reconsider his conclusions and print them too. Sometimes a word will have been so thoroughly and conclusively analyzed that it becomes a book. He generously shares full credit with his collaborators, in both the journal and the books.
So far his method of printing draft after draft until the origin is firmly determined has resulted in books on Shyster (1982) and Origin of New York City’s Nickname “The Big Apple” (with Barry Popik, second edition, 2011).
Now he has a third: Origin of Kibosh (Routledge), with co-authors Stephen Goranson, who made the key discoveries on the origin of the word, and Matthew Little, the first to notice that it probably derives from “kurbash” (a sticklike Middle Eastern whip). In 161 well-organized pages, they provide ample citations of the earliest known examples. They show how “kibosh” shifted from one meaning to another as it moved from criminal slang to modern acceptability.
When they began this investigation, there were at least eight alternatives for language of origin of “kibosh,” including Hebrew, Irish, Old High German, even Latin and French. The book respectfully includes the full arguments for each of the three most likely.
But early citations discovered by Goranson convincingly point to Cockney slang early in the 1830s with the meaning “whip” or “lash” as the most likely origin of the word. The authors include copious citations with generous amounts of context, including a facsimile of a broadside poem (circa 1830) that provides the earliest example.
A special twist with the book’s publication is the October 2018 issue of Comments on Etymology, its 23 pages devoted entirely to “Update #2 on Research into Put the Kibosh On.” So the book is just a stop along the way. It doesn’t put the kibosh on future investigations of that word and phrase.
Editor’s note: Allan Metcalf ’s book about a single word, OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (Oxford University Press, 2011), is the basis for a new video by Vox.