English 'Side' Words

The word "side" goes all the way back to Old English, but we have lots of modern idioms and phrases that use the word "side," including "sidekick," "sideburns," and "blindside."

John Kelly, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #595

‘Side’ notes

If we have a hard time paying attention, we might easily get sidetracked. This term is derived from the 19th-century side-tracks of railroads.

If we want to avoid a touchy topic, we might sidestep it in a conversation, a word first recorded in military marches near the backside, shall we say, of the 1700s. In such a conversation, we might digress with many sidebarswhich US journalists were using by the late 1940s to refer to articles secondary to the feature story in a newspaper; the figurative sense was in place by the early 1950s.

A sideshow may have been—no hoax—a coinage of the great showman P.T. Barnum. He refers to it as a ‘temporary enterprise’ alongside his main attraction, as the OED first records the word in 1855.

A sidekick is also first found in American English. It’s back-formed from side-kicker, documented at least by the start of the 1900s for a ‘close but lesser pal.’ The “kick” may originally have meant “to walk or wander,” yielding “to kick around” or “kick about.”

Another stateside word is “sideburns.” This facial hair is named after Ambrose Burnside, an American Civil War general noted for the particular way he groomed his whiskers. Here, the OED quotes the “Cincinnati Enquirer” in 1875: “His whisker was of the Burnside type, consisting of mustache and ‘muttonchop,’ the chin being perfectly clean.”

Maybe you recall that records had A-sides and B-sides? Another term for the B-side was the “flip side,” dated to the late 1940s. The B-side typically featured the lesser track(s) of a recording, although “on the flip” side lives on as a positive consideration of some matter.

Like “flip side,” we can also speak of the “upside” or “downside” of some event. While “upside” and “downside” have long been in the language, these substantive usages for ‘advantage’ and ‘disadvantage,’ respectively, trace back to the early 20th century, when they were used to describe the movement of share prices in the stock market.

“Upside down” is far older, at least in sense. The OED dates it back to the 1300s, but the phrase took a different form early on: “up so down.” Speakers shaped the word into “upset down” and “upside down,” which stuck, since the usage of “so” was unusual, the OED explains.

“Sidle,” “to edge sideways,” also features some curious linguistic changes at work. The verb is actually a back-formation of “sideling,” which was an adverb meaning ‘sideways’ but whose “-ing” sounds like the progressive tense or a present participle in English. In the word “sideling,” however, this “-ing” is actually part of “-ling,” an old adverbial suffix in the language. Not to be left out, “-ling” got confused with “-long,” another adverbial suffix seen in “sidelong.”

Sports fans, especially of American football, may well be familiar with “blindsided.” As the OED notesthe term, deriving from “blind side,” actually dates back to the very early 1600s, referring to the “weak side of a person or thing.” “Bedside manner” may also strike some as a relatively new phenomenon, but it is in fact recorded by the mid-1800s.

Finally, two words that are surprisingly younger than many may suppose are “insider” and “outsider.” “Insider” is documented by 1848 (and in the context of the stock exchanges), which makes it roughly contemporary to “sunny side.”

In an observation made last year by lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, “outsider,” has been spiking in the American language due to the political “outsider” status some Republican Party presidential candidates were touting. Sokolowski also noted it appears in 1800 in a letter by Jane Austen (the OED attests this, too), referring to some outsiders to a card game.

But like gravy, many like to keep their politics “on the side” on Thanksgiving.

This segment originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog and appears here with permission.

John Kelly is an educator, writer, and word nerd who blogs about etymology at MashedRadish.com and about Shakespeare at ShakespeareConfidential.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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