7 Word Origins That Might Surprise You

Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability. ~Sam Keen, author & philosopher I don't want to say I'm lazy, but I do want to take my foot off the gas a bit as we cruise through the summer. Instead of one of my normal "nose-to-the-grindstone" posts, I thought I'd be a bit more playful this month. And what would be more appropriate for a writer to play with than…words.

So today I'll take a look at a few words that we use on a daily basis and discuss their origin - which might be different than you think.


This is an easy one, right? We all know this grew out of the invitations we send each other on Facebook. When you accept, you've been "friended."

Not so fast.

The word "friended" was actually created a few years before Mr. Zuckerberg came on the scene - like 400 years before. The source: none other than the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.

He actually used it in several plays including this passage from Cymbeline:

"Frame yourself to orderly solicits, and be friended with aptness of the season."


Some incorrectly claim this is an acronym for "portable open database." But according to multiple sources, as related in this article in Wired News, iPod is not an acronym. It's a name coined by a copywriter (yea!) named Vinnie Chieco.

The story goes that in discussing the new player, Apple founder Steve Jobs continually referenced Apple's digital hub strategy. The Mac was the hub for the other devices that could connect to it. Chieco then began thinking of the Mac as a spaceship and visualized a smaller connecting vessel as a "pod."  When Chieco first saw a white, plastic prototype iPod, he immediately thought of the famous line from the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey: "Open the pod bay doors, Hal!"

Supposedly the "i" prefix has a double meaning - both "internet," as in "iMac," or the first person: "I," as in me.


As in having no money. This appears to have originated in the 1700's in the banking industry. Customers who had good credit would be issued porcelain tiles - much like today's credit cards - which would list the borrower's name and available credit. The borrower would have to present the tile every time upon every withdrawal. If the credit limit was exceeded, the bank teller would "break" the tile immediately.


This one comes from the Middle Ages when most huts had stone or dirt floors. People would scatter threshing - pieces of grain or hay - to warm the floor and make it less slippery. As people walked about the room they would shift the threshing around and ultimately push it out the door. A piece of wood or stone was then placed at the entrance to the house to "hold the thresh" in the room.


The French gave us this one. Literally from the french couvrir feu meaning to "cover the fire." Ironically, that's exactly the opposite of what we baby boomers understood when our edict was to come in when the streetlight CAME ON.


We have the Celts to thank for this one. It's a combination of two Celtic words: "slough" which means "battle" and "gheun" which means "cry."


Finally, what would a post on words from a copywriter be without examining the word "write."

The base origin is from the Old English writan "to score, outline, draw the figure of" and from the Proto-Germanic writanan meaning to tear, scratch." Other sources include the Old Saxon writan "to tear, scratch, write," the Old Norse rita "write, scratch, outline" and the Old High German rizan "to write, scratch, tear."

Scratching and tearing? That sounds about right to anyone who's sat in front of a blank piece of paper or computer screen and begged for the words to come. Usually the process involves scratching your head and tearing out your hair.

That's it for now. You'll excuse me so I can go back to "scratching" out a living.

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It's Spring! Time to Content-scape

Only a few weeks ago I sat looking out my window at a yard covered with several feet of snow. The white blanket has finally melted away but it's revealed a lawn beaten by a long, hard winter. It's not very appealing right now, but after a few weekends of cleaning, raking, and feeding, it'll be back to its familiar, green self. Unfortunately, you won't get a similar stark wake-up call when it comes to your content. But if you take a close enough look, you'll likely find things aren't quite as lush there either. Time to get to work on that too. 

Spring is a time for growth - an appropriate time to re-evaluate your business and make some positive changes. While you're getting ready to landscape your yard, plan to do some content-scaping as well. Both tasks can seem overwhelming, but they don't have to be. Take small steps now to make a big impact later.

Here are three things you can do to get started.

1. Evaluate your tools - Start with your basic tools. Thankfully I found my rake buried behind the snow blower. Good start.

How about your content marketing tools? Determine what you have for eBooks, white papers, case studies, and other engaging content that can attract leads and new clients. Begin with a simple inventory of what you have and what you think still works. 

2. Do a cleanup - The next step is a good cleanup. I need to pick up the leaves I missed last November and rake the dead grass that's stifling new growth. No worries. I'll just get the leaves this first weekend.

Same thing for your content. When was the last time you did a thorough clean up on your web site? Are you still showing that case study from four years ago for a product you don't carry anymore? Is your most recent blog post dated last August? None of that will help promote growth or be of interest to visitors to your site. Start small. Get rid of anything that's out of date, irrelevant, or would lead a visitor to think you haven't been paying attention.

3. Start planting - You reap what you sow and this is the season to seed and feed that lawn. That'll be the biggest payoff when it comes back to life in a few weeks.

Time to plant some new content as well. The cleanup was good, but if you don't replenish your site with fresh material, it's going to look pretty barren. Generate new content by posting a recent customer success story, a white paper on a hot topic in your industry, or an eBook that provides valuable information that your prospects can use in their businesses.

Landscaping and content marketing can be hard work, but the rewards are well worth it. I'll be enjoying my lush, green lawn this summer and hopefully you'll be proud of a healthy crop of new prospects and customers.

So what are you doing to promote your growth? Could your content use a good spring cleaning?



Upon Further Review…5 Tips for Effective Proofreading

The photo above received a lot of play in the Boston newspapers several months ago. Four letters. Two wrong. Not good. It's bad enough that someone painted the sign incorrectly, but then a crew went through the trouble of actually hanging it up. Mind boggling.

A couple of weeks later during one of our all-too-frequent snow storms here in the Northeast, I drove past a restaurant with the following message displayed on its outdoor sign:

"Closed Due to Inclimate Weather"

Which prompts the question: Whatever became of proofreading?

As a copywriter, I'm deathly afraid of submitting or posting copy with typos or missing words. Writing is my stock in trade so if I can't deliver error-free copy I'm not going to be instilling much confidence in my clients.

I don't think people - whether professional writers or not - realize the impact that misspellings and other mistakes have on their readers.

In my prior life as VP/North American Operations for a global manufacturing/fulfillment company, I had the pleasure (?) of reviewing hundreds of resumes. The first things I looked for were typos. If I found one, the applicant was on thin ice. Two, he or she was slipping into darkness. Three? They hit the discard pile.

And that was even before I got into the meat of the person's background. I just felt that if the applicant couldn't take the extra time needed to proofread probably the most important document in his or her life at that time, how conscientious of a worker would they be? In my mind, not very.

Whether you're sending an email, writing a blog post, or preparing a business plan for investors, the content you put out directly reflects on you. It goes a long way toward forming your reader's opinion of you - for better or worse. Your content must be credible to be effective. And nothing destroys your credibility faster than a careless typo or two.

Here are five tips you can use to make sure your copy is correct before you hit the send or print button.

1. Sleep on it - My first rule is to never proofread anything the same day I write it. After spending several hours composing a piece of content, I'm just too close to it to be able to switch gears from creation to detail checking. It's almost like snow blindness. I just can't see the words anymore. I have to let the piece simmer overnight, get some separation, and then attack it with a fresh set of eyes the next day.

2. Proofing is hard (copy) - I know it's not very green of me, but I nearly always print out a hard copy to proofread one of my pieces. This is a technique I picked up from my days as a proofreader in a printing company many, many years ago. I was trained to use a ruler to block out every line but the one I was proofing. The most important thing in proofreading is focus. By highlighting one line at a time, I force myself to focus only on the words on that line. I suppose I could try to use that technique on my iMac screen but I don't think it would work as well.

3. Don't trust spellcheck - President Ronald Reagan once said when discussing negotiating with the USSR that we must "trust then verify."

I feel the same way about spellcheck. As we all know, if you spell something wrong enough that it becomes another word, spellcheck will let you proceed on your merry way without displaying the deadly red squiggly underscore. SpellCorrect has made the problem worse by changing a word you want into something else entirely without even letting you know. And you're well aware of the trouble with homonyms like "there and their" or "too and to." Spellcheck will never catch those mistakes. This is one area where technology can't help you.

4. Strunk and White are your friends - I know. Seeing those two names gave you nasty flashbacks to high school English. I'm sure many of you have a pristine, uncracked copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style stored somewhere in the attic or basement. If you're going to be doing any writing, do yourself a favor and dig it out. It was originally written over hundred years ago by William Strunk and then updated by E. B. White. It's just under 100 pages and is the best reference book you could ever have.  It's basic training for writing covering proper usage, form, words and expressions. I refer to it at least once a day.

5.  I can't hear you - Once you've written your piece, let it sit over night, and proofread it thoroughly, you're done right?  Wrong. Go over it one more time. This time without the ruler but instead read it out loud. This may make your fellow house members think you've lost your mind, but this is a critical key last step. Reading aloud will help you catch the rhythm of the piece and alert you to missing words, double words, and clumsy phraseology. I promise that you'll find at least one more thing that needs correcting.

Finally, for those of you furiously rereading this piece to uncover a typo so you can rub it in my face, I have a treat for you. I intentionally included one for you to find so you wouldn't be disappointed. It happens to be one of the 100 most incorrectly spelled words in English according to It also happens to be my personal demon. I nearly always mispell it but I catch it in the proofreading stage. If you find it, congratulations and let me know.

How about you? Do you proofread thoroughly enough? What tricks and tips do you use?

(Photo credit: Rich Shertenlieb on

Keys to Writing a Better Bio

Former Red Sox first basemen Kevin Millar was once quoted as saying, "Enough about me. Let's talk about me." Most people are not as comfortable talking about themselves as Millar is, but in today's world, you sometimes have to do it. For many of us that comes in the written form of a "Bio" which pops up everywhere from blog  posts to LinkedIn profiles to web sites. Many times it's the first thing someone reads so you'd better make it as good as it can be.

For some ideas, check out this blog post from Deanna Layton of Layton Squared titled Write a Better Bio by Focusing on Benefits.


A Content Christmas Carol

"Uncle, have you finalized your Content Marketing plan for the new year?" "Bah, humbug!" Ebenezer Scrooge replied to his nephew Fred, an independent marketing consultant. "Haven't I got a website?"

"Well yes Uncle, but that's not nearly enough any more," Fred replied.

"I pay to support that site," said Scrooge angrily. "It costs enough. If customers and prospects want to find me, they must go there."

"But Uncle, they need to have a reason to visit your site," Fred persisted. "You need to provide compelling content that will attract them."

"Bah, humbug!" Scrooge roared. "If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with "compelling content" on his lips should be beaten with his own blog and buried with a keyword stuck through his heart!"

The conversation obviously over, Fred turned and left.

Later that night, Scrooge sat eating his gruel when suddenly, the door flew open and a vision passed into the room. With that, Scrooge was facing his long dead partner Jacob Marley.

"Your business is dying Ebenezer. I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of saving it," the vision said. "You will be haunted by Three Spirits. Mark well what they reveal."

Marley then flew out the window.

Scrooge went off to bed and fell fast asleep. Soon after the curtains of his bed were drawn aside and a childlike figure stood before him.

"Who are you?" Scrooge demanded.

"I am the Ghost of Content Past," said the Spirit."Rise and walk with me. Bear but a touch of my hand there and you shall be upheld."

The Ghost and Scrooge flew out the window then stopped at a certain warehouse door and asked Scrooge if he knew it.

"Why it's old Fezziwig's establishment! Bless his heart. It's Fezziwig alive again."

Scrooge's former self, along with Dick Wilkins and Fezziwig were gathered around a table with papers scattered all over it.

"This tri-fold brochure will sure to draw in much business," Fezziwig bellowed. "Look at all the facts and features about our company."

"What about this Yellow Pages ad," cried Wilkins. "Chock full of details. This will surely attract our prospects!"

"Small matters," said the Ghost, "to make these silly folks so excited about their marketing program."

Scrooge thought about that. Though seemingly small, these marketing pieces did indeed help Fezziwig's business thrive in those days.

Abruptly, the Ghost was gone and Scrooge found himself back in bed in a heavy sleep.

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, Scrooge was startled to see a jolly Giant sitting before him.

"I am the Ghost of Content Present," said the Spirit. "Look upon me."

"Spirit," said Scrooge submissively, "conduct me where you will. If you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it."

"Touch my robe." the Spirit said. Scrooge did as he was told and held it fast as they flew through the window.

Scrooge was surprised when they landed at his own nephew's office. There in a bright, gleaming conference room, Fred addressed his colleagues.

"He said that Content Marketing was a humbug, as I live," cried Scrooge's nephew. "He believed it too. I have nothing to say against him. I am sorry for him. He and his business will suffer for it. I told him he needed to provide his prospects and customers with valuable information that would show him as an expert and attract new business."

Scrooge  suddenly looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. Lifting up his eyes, he instead beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming towards him.

"Am I in the presence of the Ghost of Content Yet To Come?" asked Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.

"Lead on," said Scrooge.

The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of business men. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Scrooge advanced to listen to their talk.

"No," said a great fat man with a monstrous chin. "I don't know much about it either way. I only know they padlocked the doors. Likely no one will much care about it. Upon my life I don't know of many customers he had left."

"Spirit," Scrooge said. "Tell me who they are talking about."

The Spirit instead silently led him down a dark street and stood before a building that looked familiar to Scrooge. The Spirit pointed to the building.

"Are these shadows of things that WILL be or are they shadows of things that MAY be only?" Scrooge asked.

Still the Ghost only pointed.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went and following the finger, then read the sign upon the door of the abandoned building: Scrooge and Marley, Out of Business.

"No, Spirit! Oh no, no!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe. "Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life. I will honor Content Marketing in my heart and try to keep it all the year. Oh tell me I may sponge away the writing on this sign!"

Scrooge suddenly saw the Phantom shrink, collapse, and dwindle down into a bedpost.

Yes! And the bedpost was his own and the room was his own. Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.

"What's today?" cried Scrooge, calling downward to a disheveled looking man in the street.

"Today?" replied the man. "Why it's Monday. The first day of a new work week."

"It's Monday!," said Scrooge to himself. "The Spirits have done it all in one weekend!"

"Hallo my fine fellow," Scrooge continued to the man. "What do you do for a living?"

"Me?" replied the man. "I'm just a poor freelance copywriter out here begging for work."

"Well beg no longer," Scrooge replied. "Come with me to my office. You are now in charge of my Content Marketing program. We have a great deal to do. domain owner . We need white papers, case studies, and blogs! Can you write blogs? We'll do eBooks, newsletters, and email campaigns. We'll become the kings of Content Marketing I'll say!"

On his way to the office he stopped by to see his nephew Fred.

"I wanted to thank you for your advice," Scrooge said to Fred, "and to tell you I am embarking on a complete Content Marketing program beginning today."

He then grabbed his new trusty scrivener by the scruff of the neck and held him up to Fred.

"See, I already hired a copywriter!" Scrooge cried. "Can you stop by today and help me with the details!"

"Of course I will uncle!" exclaimed Fred.

From that day forward, Scrooge was true to his word. Under Fred's direction, Scrooge and Marley became a Content Marketing machine, driving enormous amounts of traffic to their site and growing revenues manyfold. Scrooge had no further interaction with Spirits. It was always said of him that he knew how to drive Content Marketing well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

As for the scrivener, sitting in his corner cubicle he spoke for all copywriters when he said quietly, "God bless us, every one. And Happy Holidays."

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Back to Basics: 3 Questions Your Copywriter Should Be Asking You

I was sitting with a new client the other day and we were discussing her copywriting needs. I asked her what she liked and didn't like about working with her other copywriters. One of her concerns was that she would get copy back that wasn't quite what she wanted. Either it didn't have the right tone or angle or it simply didn't fit into the space or design where it was to be placed. My response was straightforward. Before I write anything, I will always ask these three questions:

1. What is the piece?

Writing a blog is very different from crafting web copy which is different from doing a white paper. This is also where I define the length of the piece. Writing 500 words for a web site blurb that only has room for 40 words is a problem.

2. Who is the target audience?

Every piece I write has a specific person in mind. Is it a consumer or a business executive? Am I directing it to a student or a parent? Am I trying to reach the purchasing manager, the CEO, or a technology expert? If I don't know where the target is the chances are pretty good that I'll miss it.

3. What is the goal or desired outcome of the piece?

I need to know what each piece I write is trying to accomplish. Is it a blog post meant to educate or inform or am I trying to encourage someone to buy something? Am I establishing credibility as an authority in a particular field or am I trying to get someone to sign up for a free whitepaper?

Pretty obvious right? However it's amazing how many times those basic questions don't get asked. The inevitable result is 1) an unhappy customer who either has to rework the copy or send it back for revisions and 2) a frustrated writer who wonders why he or she didn't have the right information in the first place. Neither party is happy with the outcome.

Usually the second time around those three questions get answered and the piece is written appropriately and to the client's satisfaction. You can make the process a good deal more productive by getting it right the first time around.

How do you work with your writers? Are you getting the copy you need the first time?

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