orgins of common office words

from uncle john’s bathroom reader, as found on neatorama


This word came from the Dutch word baas, meaning “master.” But early americans didn’t like using master – it was too aristocratic to survive as a general term. So they started using “baas” in the late 18th century. It caught on (against the objections of some word snobs) and eventually became “boss.”


Dating back to the 1400s, this word stemmed from the Latin cubiculum, meaning “sleeping area” (completely apropos). It became obsolete after the 16th century, but it was revived in the 19th century as a word for “dormitory sleeping compartments.” Its use as any partitioned space didn’t surface until the 1920s.

Getting Fired

The phrase “fired out,” meaning to throw out or eject someone from a place, was first used in 1871. When the “out” was dropped a few years later, the phrase was narrowed to mean “dismissal of an employee.” There’s a consensus among etymologists that both “fired” and “fired out” refer to the firing of a gun.

Learning the Ropes

Before an old-time apprentice sailor could really help out on a big ship, he had to learn which ropes had what effect on which sails. Before he did, he wasn’t much use to anyone. After he “learned the ropes,”
he could finally hoist the right mast – and avoid being flogged.

Logging On

This phrase’s predecessor was “logging in” (sometimes still used interchangeably). Back when mainframe computer operators used to go on shifts, they’d have to write everything they did in a paper log, beginning when they arrived. So when you log on to a computer today, you’re signing in.


From the Latin word “to be remembered,” it was originally a word written at the top of a note. But by 1542, it became the word for the note itself.

Rank and File

This phrase that refers to an organization’s mass of low-ranking peons has military origins: soldiers in formation marched side by side (rank) and one behind the other (file). Its first known usage was in 1598. Later, it became generalized to mean common soldiers and then further generalized to refer to common people.


The word dates back to the 1200s, to the funky English-French word siwte, referring to the uniform worn by the royal court’s stable servants. It came to mean a more general set of clothes to be worn together in the 14th century. As a derisive term for a businessman, it dates from 1979, possibly from the hippie term for an FBI agent, circa the late 1960s. The term “empty suit,” meaning a person of small intellect or personality, evolved in the 1980s.


The original Middle English meaning of team was applied to a group of draft animals yoked together. Around 1828, someone thought of combining the word “team” with the word “work” – probably hoping to spur sluggish workers into action. So “teamwork” really mean working like one of many beasts of burden. Depressing, huh?

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