CLOSE
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

The Dirty Etymology of 9 Everyday Words

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Within our lexicon lives a library of forgotten stories, developed over centuries and tucked away in words. Thanks to the dirty impulses of our forefathers, quite a few of them also contain filthy chapters, making us the unwittingly foul-mouthed butt of their humor. Here are some of our language’s naughtier practical jokes.

1. Orchid

Oops, you just said: Testicles

Take a look at certain orchids’ roots, and you’ll probably notice that they look like testicles. If not, you’ve set yourself apart from multiple generations of language-makers that simply couldn’t help but name the whole plant family after this snicker-worthy observation. Our contemporary word for the flower, introduced in 1845, comes from the Greek orchis, which literally translates as “testicle.” Speakers of Middle English in the 1300s came up with a phonologically different word—inspired by the same exact dirty thought. They called the flower ballockwort from ballocks, or testicles, which itself evolved from beallucas, the Old English word for balls.

2. Porcelain

Oops, you just said: Pig’s vagina

The word “porcelain” comes from the material’s Italian name, porcellana, which literally translates as a “cowrie shell” and refers to porcelain’s similarly smooth surface. But the Italian cowrie shell in turn takes its name from porcella, a young sow, because the shell’s shape is reminiscent of a small, female pig’s vulva.

3. Vanilla

Oops, you just said: Vagina

During Hernando Cortes’ conquest of the Aztec empire, his men discovered the vanilla plant and dubbed it vainilla, literally “little pod” or “little sheath,” from the Latin vagina, “sheath.” The conquistadors drew the name from the shape of the plants’ bodies, which need to be split open in order to extract the beans they enclose—still a bit of a stretch as they more closely resemble tough, dark string beans. Funny enough, the ‘70s slang sense of vanilla as “conventional” or “of ordinary sexual preferences” has nothing to do with its original etymology; instead, it refers to the unadventurous choice of vanilla ice cream and the blandness of the color white.

4. Seminar

Oops, you just said: Semen

"Seminar” comes from the Latin seminarium, meaning “breeding ground” or “plant nursery,” which itself comes from the Latin seminarius, meaning “of seed.” Given the words’ phonological likeness, it's pretty obvious that they all come down to the Latin semen, “seed.”

5. Fundamental

Oops, you just said: Buttocks

The 15th-century word “fundamental” is derived from the Late Latin fundamentalis, meaning “of the foundation,” which itself is from the earlier Latin fundamentum. While taking another step back won’t lead you to the buttocks, a small, crooked step forward will take you to fundamentum’s more immediate descendent, fundament, which has meant “anus” or “buttocks” since the 13th century.

6. Avocado

Oops, you just said: Testicle

Yet another generation that looked at plants and saw balls, 18th-century Spaniards took the vegetable fruit’s name from an earlier Spanish version, aquacate, which evolved from the region’s pre-conquest Nahuatl ahuakati, meaning “testicle.”

7. Pencil

Oops, you just said: Penis

In the 14th century, “pencil” took on the meaning “an artist’s fine brush of camel hair” from the French pincel, meaning the same thing minus the camel part. Pincel came from the Latin penicillus, which means “paintbrush” or “pencil” but literally translates as “little tail,” the diminutive of the Latin penis, “tail.”

8. Musk

Oops, you just said: Scrotum

Again we return to the testicles. “Musk,” the substance secreted from a male deer’s glandular sac, traces back to the Sanskrit muska-s, meaning “testicle,” because of its origin’s resemblance to a scrotum. For more evidence of our forefathers’ far-fetched visual association games, one need only trace muska-s back to its origin, mus, meaning “mouse,” which allegedly also looks like a scrotum. But why stop there when the same root gives us “muscle” from the Latin musculus, literally “little mouse.” How, you ask? Well, muscles, too, allegedly look like mice... which look like scrotums, which look like deer glands.

9. Amazon

Oops, you just said: Breastless woman

In the late 1300s, the Greek spoke of the Amazones, a Scythian race of female warriors that, according to popular folk etymology, had an interesting custom of cutting or burning off one breast in order to draw bowstrings more easily. They stood out quite starkly as a- mazos, “without breasts.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan
The Origins of 9 Great British Insults
ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan
ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan

For as long as people have been speaking the English language, they’ve been deploying it to poke fun at one another. Let's dig a little deeper into the grab bag of insults that language has bequeathed us throughout history, and find out where those terms come from.

1. Wazzock

Wazzock was a particularly prevalent—and particularly loutish—insult in the 1990s. At the time, "lad culture" ran throughout British music and television, and wazzock, a North-England accented contraction of the sarcastic wiseacre (a know-it-all) became a powerful tool to shoot people down in an argument.

2. Lummox

Though the etymology of lummox is heavily disputed, one thing is for certain: It came from East Anglia, the coastal outcrop of Britain above London. There, around 1825, someone threw out the word as an insult, and it stuck, becoming a typically British go-to term. Some linguists believe it comes from the word lummock, which typified a lummox: it means a clumsy oaf.

3. Skiver

Skivers and shirkers are one and the same. Someone who manages to duck under any responsibility and loaf around, doing very little, is a skiver. The origins of this particular insult are contested: some think it’s from an Old Norse wordskifa—meaning “slice,” whereby the worker slices off as much work as possible.

4. Minger

Often hurled at the opposite sex, to call someone a minger is to say they are objectively unattractive. Though etymologists struggle to agree where the word came from, it seems likely that it stems from the Old Scots word meng, meaning “sh**.” We didn’t say it was pretty.

5. Nincompoop

For such a colloquial word, nincompoop actually has a very learned past. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of England’s first proper dictionary, claims the word comes from the Latin phrase non compos mentis (“not of right mind”), and was originally a legal term.

6. Pillock

As words are used more regularly, the laziness of pronunciation can often warp them slightly. So it was with pillock. Originally pillicock (a Norwegian slang word for penis), the word has since been condensed to plain old pillock—though its meaning remains.

7. Clod hopper

According to the brilliant Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, dating back to 1811 and compiled by Captain Francis Grose, a clod hopper refers to a country farmer or ploughman—with the implication nowadays that you’re slow witted and bumbling.

8. Dunaker

Grose’s Dictionary of vulgarities is a rich seam of overlooked insults. In the 200 years since it was published, there have been several terms that have fallen out of favor. One of them is dunaker, a common thief of cows and calves.

9. Git

By calling someone a git, you’re invoking the old Scots word get, which means "bastard." When it came down south of the border, it lost its harsh vowel sound and became something softer, albeit with the required spikiness in.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
14 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, 'Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression' or does it mean, 'Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default'? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
*
2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’
*
3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)
*
4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.
*
5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.
*
6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).
*
7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning ‘to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,’ “trim” came to mean ‘to prepare, make ready.’ Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: ‘to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance’ or ‘to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of.’ And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?
*
8. Cleave can be cleaved into two “homographs,” words with different origins that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,” meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the contrary meaning ‘to split or sever (something), ‘ as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: “cloven,” which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”
*
9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced differently.
*
10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in "running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in "holding fast." If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.
*
11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm went off."
*
12. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come safely through,’ as in “The company weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”
*
13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).
*
14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including “auto-antonym,” “antagonym,” “enantiodrome,” “self-antonym,” “antilogy” and “Janus word” (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

Update: Here are 11 more words that are their own opposites.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios