10 Language Mistakes Kids Make That Are Actually Pretty Smart

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Little kids make such cute mistakes when they talk. We know they're still learning the language, so we tolerate their errors and chuckle at how funny they sound. Behind that chuckle is the assumption that the kids are getting it wrong because they just don't know the rules yet. In fact, kids' mistakes show they know a lot more about the rules than we think. The mistakes are evidence of very smart hypotheses the kids are forming from the limited data they've been given so far. Here are 10 really smart language mistakes that kids make.

1. "Dop it!" instead of "stop it!"


It's not easy to start a word with a consonant cluster. Kids don't have the fine motor control they need to produce the 'st' in stop, but they don't just leave it out. They substitute a sound they can produce. 'D' is a very smart substitution for 'st' in "stop." If you take a careful look at the acoustics of 't' in adult versions of "stop" vs. "top," you see that the 't's in those words look different from each other. The vocal cords kick in sooner for the 't' in "stop." A 'd' is basically a 't' where the vocal cords kick in sooner, so when children substitute that sound, they show they've heard the difference between "stop" and "top" and hypothesized that it's important for the language. And they are right!

2. Calls the dog "baby."

When children start using words, they haven't figured out all the situations in which they apply. They form hypotheses about word meaning and apply them on their own. The child might call all the kids and pets in the family "baby," but not the parents, revealing a hypothesis that "baby" means "family member who other people have to get food for." She may call everyone she meets "baby," extending the hypothesis to "living creatures." Like any good scientist, she can only confirm her hypothesis by testing it. Eventually, she will get enough data to settle on the right one.

3. Points to something and says "thank you" when he wants it.

This mistake shows complex knowledge of pragmatics, or the meaning of words in contexts. He knows that "thank you" is not the name of a thing in the world, but is rather something we say in a specific context. "Thank you" occurs in the context of a transfer of possession. He's saying, "Let's do that thing where 'thank you' gets said." Very clever way to try to bring about a transfer of possession!

4. "Baby drink. Milk all-gone!"


At about 18 months, children start putting two words together in phrases. But these phrases aren't just words haphazardly thrown in next to each other—they are mini sentences that express the relationships that full sentences do. "Baby drink" refers to the relation "actor performs an action." The words come in the same order they would in a grammatical sentence: subject verb. "Milk all-gone" expresses "object has some quality," and those words also come in the correct order: noun (is) adjective. The child has figured out that word order matters a lot in English for making those relations clear.

5. "I goed fast!"


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Most children go through a phase where they treat irregular verbs like they are regular. The interesting thing is that they do this after they have already learned the irregular versions. They may say "went fast" for a while, when "went" is just a word they've heard a few times. Later they notice the larger pattern—words take –ed in the past tense. Only when they've noticed that pattern, do they start making these overregularization errors. "I goed fast" is a sign that the child is not just saying words, but figuring out the larger important patterns that relate words to each other.

6. "I can't will go today."

Auxiliary verbs are hard! Can, will, do, would, should, might—there are so many little words that change the meaning of a clause. They pile up on top of each other, sometimes contracting into smaller versions, and who knows what order you're supposed to put them in? When kids pile these up, even if they don't do it correctly, they are making an amazing attempt to fit a lot of meanings together in one clause. "I can't will go today" includes information about permission status (can), negation (n't), and future tense (will) in one sentence. Trying these kinds of constructions out is a major step toward serious grammatical complexity.

7. "Ha ha. I won you."

This is not a bad guess. English has tons of verbs that can be intransitive (I watched, I pushed, I drew) or transitive (I watched you; I pushed you; I drew you.) Typically, situations where one person takes an action that affects another person will have a transitive verb associated with them. For a competitive kid of a certain age, what situation could be more stereotypically "one person affecting another" than when somebody wins?

8. "What are you eating it?"


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Questions are complicated. When you ask a question like "what are you eating," you have a situation—"you are eating it"—that you want to know something about—"you are eating what?" The child has to figure out that to ask this question in English you have to move the object of inquiry, the "what," to the beginning of the sentence, and then switch the places of "you" and "are." In "what are you eating it?" the child has correctly switched "you" and "are" and moved the "what" to the beginning. But perhaps she then felt this movement left an empty space where there shouldn't be one, and so she sticks the "it" in to fill the hole. She is making extra sure the sentence is complete.

9. "Mommy, you're a grown up. I'm a grown down."

This shows that not only has the child learned that "up" is the opposite of "down," but that that sense of oppositeness can be applied to the relationship between "adult" and "kid" in a meaningful way. Just the kind of analogy-making that came in handy when learning the difference between "good guy" and "bad guy" or "backyard" and "front yard."

10. "Unless I will get a lollipop, if I won't will get dressed fast."

So much going on here. Clausal connectors like "unless" and "if" are some of the last words that children master. In fact, when used in tests of logical reasoning, many adults have problems with them too. The child here is combining two statements: 1. Unless I get a lollipop, I won't get dressed fast. 2. I will get a lollipop if I get dressed fast. He stipulates his conditions for getting dressed fast and lays out the anticipated consequences of his getting dressed fast all in one extremely complex blend. Before we can say he's mastered English, he needs to simplify this construction down to a level that even adults can understand.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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12 Old-Fashioned Insults We Should Bring Back

mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images
mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images

With the help of social media, slang words and phrases can gain momentum around the globe in what feels like mere minutes. But trendy terms were making splashes long before YouTubers were stanning guyliner-wearing pop stars who slay all day and woke Gen Z-ers were tweeting their hot takes about fake news, mansplaining, and more.

In a new study, digital subscription service Readly analyzed data from its magazine archives to identify some popular terms from years past and present and pinpoint exactly when they stopped appearing in print. Among more positive terms like crinkum-crankum (“elaborate decoration or detail”) and sweetmeat (“item of confectionery or sweet food”) lies a treasure trove of delicious insults that have all but disappeared—and could definitely add some color to your future squabbles.

View Readly’s full timeline of terms here, and read on to find out which insults were our favorites.

1. Loathly

This alternate form of loathsome, meaning “repulsive,” had an impressive run as an insult for nearly 900 centuries, starting in 1099 and not falling out of public favor until 1945.

2. Purblind

According to the Merriam-Webster entry, purblind originally meant “blind” during the 1400s, and later became a way to indicate shortsightedness or lack of insight.

3. Poltroon

The next time you encounter an “utter coward,” you can call them a poltroon. They’re probably too much of a poltroon to ask you what poltroon means.

4. Slugabed

Though this term for “a person who stays in bed late” hasn’t been used much since the early 20th century, it’s the perfect insult for your roommate who perpetually hits the snooze button.

5. Mooncalf

This obscure term for a foolish person also once meant a "fickle, unstable person," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

6. Fainéant

Fainéant derives from fait-nient, French for “doing nothing.” Its tenure as a popular insult for “an idle or ineffective person” lasted from 1619 to 1670, but the fainéants themselves didn’t disappear with the term—there’s one in practically every group project.

7. Otiose

If you want to pack an extra punch when you accuse someone of being a fainéant, you could also call them otiose, meaning “lazy” or “slothful.”

8. Scaramouch

In Italy’s commedia dell’arte—a type of theatre production with ensemble casts, improvisation, and masks—Scaramouch was a stock character easily identified by his boastful-yet-cowardly manner. Much like scrooge is now synonymous with miser, the word scaramouch was used from the 1600s through the 1800s to describe any boastful coward. Wondering why the obsolete expression sounds so familiar? The band Queen borrowed it for their operatic masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though scaramouches aren’t necessarily known for doing the fandango.

9. Quidnunc

From the Latin phrase quid nunc, or “What now?”, a quidnunc is an “inquisitive, bossy person” who’s constantly sniffing around for the next juicy morsel of gossip. Usage dropped off in the early 20th century, but you can always bring it back for that friend who unabashedly reads your text messages over your shoulder.

10. Sciolist

A sciolist is someone “who pretends to be knowledgeable.” Though they might fool a mooncalf or two, any expert would see through their facade.

11. and 12. Rapscallion and Scapegrace

Rapscallion and scapegrace are both wonderful ways to offend a mischievous person—if such a person would even be offended—that overlapped in popularity between the 1700s and the 1900s. While scapegrace refers to an incorrigible character who literally escaped God’s grace, rapscallion is an embellished version of the identically defined (but rather less fun to say) word rascal.

[h/t Readly]

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