Grammar Moses: Does entomology bug you, too?

  • Etymology is the study of word origins, while entomology is the study of bugs, like these cicadas in Chevy Chase, Md.

    Etymology is the study of word origins, while entomology is the study of bugs, like these cicadas in Chevy Chase, Md. Associated Press

Updated 1/18/2022 8:38 AM

How is it that two nearly identical words can describe something I love so much that I write about it almost every week and something that makes me recoil in terror?

No, I'm not talking about "dessert" and "desert," but there probably is something to that.


I'm talking, of course, about "entomology" and "etymology."

"Etymology" is the study of the origin of words and how they've changed throughout history.

"Entomology" is the study of insects. Cut to the scene in "The Silence of the Lambs" in which Agent Starling consults the two concupiscent bug freaks who identify the death's head moth, complete with scalpel and oozing pupa juice. Yech.

When I was a boy, I loved to read my dad's National Geographic magazines to learn about exotic places and people.

But I would not go near the magazine whenever the editor would put a life-size photo of a hairy tarantula on the cover. The big drawback to the national parks we camped in when I was in my preteens was bellying up to national park urinals in which small black scorpions were secreted.

That might explain why you never see giant bugs or masses of smaller ones on the front page of this newspaper.

And, yes, I know both scorpions and tarantulas are arachnids -- not insects.

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I started writing today's column with a tenuous grip on a point, but I seem to have lost it completely. So why not take a look at the etymology of interesting terms that popped up recently on my Facebook feed.


I think we all know that to get off "scot-free" is to extricate yourself from a situation without penalty or obligation.

But from whence did the term come?

A Facebook friend posted the other day that in a Scottish court juries can make a finding of "guilty," "not guilty" AND "not proven" -- the last having the same legal result as an acquittal but with the understanding that, yeah, Joe probably stole all of the cranachans from the bakery but the Crown failed to prove it.

My friend concluded that getting out of a sticky situation -- such as a court case -- without penalty even though you did the deed is the definition of "scot-free."


The unusual third verdict part of the story is true, but I could find no reputable source that made the leap to the origin of the term "scot-free."

The handy Online Etymology Dictionary and Merriam-Webster tell a different story of a term first published in 1528.

They say "scot-free" is derived from the Old English "scotfreo," meaning exempt from royal tax.

And that comes from the Old Norse verb "skjota," meaning pay or transfer to another.

French, German and Dutch all have similar meanings.

In Illinois, one must surmise, it is impossible to do anything scot-free.


Perhaps it's my propensity to watch movies involving prisons that leads me to understand what it means to be "stir-crazy."

Because the Facebook friend's definition of "scot-free" seemed believable at face value, I did not want to assume that my hypothesis on "stir-crazy" was correct. So I did some research.

If your viewing habits overlap with mine, you've heard prison referred to as "the stir."

That's an abbreviation of the Romany word "sturiben," meaning prison.

If you think I'm crazy now, put me in a prison cell with an insufficient amount of reading material.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's new book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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