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10 Body Parts Hiding in the Dictionary

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If two people capitulate, then they agree to each another’s terms, or one cedes to the other’s opinion. But originally—and, one finds with a bit of etymological digging, quite literally—a capitulation was an agreement drawn up under chapters or headings, and in that sense the word traces its way back to caput, a Latin word meaning head. A chapter, for that matter, means a "little head."

But chapter and capitulate aren’t the only "head" words in the dictionary (so to speak). A capital city refers to a head city. A captain is one who stands at the head of others. If something capsizes, then it sinks head first. Precipices take their name from a Latin word meaning headlong or headfirst. And even though the biceps and triceps muscles might be in the arm, they actually mean two- and three-headed.

And if that last one sounds confusing, there’s a whole jumble of other body parts in the dictionary.

1. GENUINE

The word genuine originally referred to things that were natural or innate, rather than acquired or added later. In that sense, one explanation claims that it derives from gignere, a Latin verb meaning to birth or to beget, but a more imaginative (and no less likely) theory is that the word actually comes from genu, the Latin word for knee. According to this theory, a father would acknowledge the paternity of his genuine offspring by placing his child on his knee, and from there, the use of the word to mean authentic or real emerged.

2. HYPOCHONDRIAC

The hypochondrium is a region of the upper abdomen lying below (hypo) the cartilage of the ribs and breastbone (chondros). Problems affecting the visceral organs inside the hypochondrium—the liver, the gall bladder and the spleen, among others—were once said to cause melancholic feelings or ill health, and ultimately the entire hypochondriac region gave its name to a morbid obsession with ill health.

3. DATE

The date you write at the top of a letter comes from the same root as data, and derives from a Latin word meaning given—the idea being that a letter would be dated when it was given over to be delivered. The date that you eat, however, is entirely unrelated: Its name comes, via French and Latin, from the Greek word for finger, daktylos, because the date palm’s fruits or leaves are supposedly shaped like human fingers.

4. GARGOYLE

There’s a reason why gargoyles are hideous figures with their mouths open: They take their name from the Old French word for throat, gargoule, and their open mouths are used to channel rainwater away from the main structure of a building.

5. HYSTERIA

The hysterical symptoms or hysterics of someone suffering from hysteria were once wrongly believed to be unique to women. As a result, they were blamed on disorders or imbalances of the uterus. The word hysteria and all its derivatives come from the Greek word for the womb, hystera. Incidentally, the use of hysterical to describe something that sends you into uncontrollable fits of laughter emerged in the mid-1900s.

6. RECALCITRANT

If you’re recalcitrant, then you’re extremely obstinate or uncooperative. The adjective derives from an earlier verb, recalcitrate or calcitrate, which originally meant "to kick out angrily," like a stubborn or uncooperative horse—and in that sense the word derives from calx, the Latin name for the heel.

7. GLOSSARY

A glossary is literally a collection of glosses, short annotations or explanatory comments that were once written along or between lines of text to clarify or translate their contents. These glosses take their name, via Latin, from the Greek word glossa, meaning language or tongue.

8. SUPERCILIOUS

Anatomically, the supercilium is the region of the forehead containing the eyebrows. And because inquisitive eyebrow-raising has been associated with haughty, condescending people, the adjective supercilious came to describe people and behavior precisely like that.

9. HANDSOME

It might seem obvious at first glance, but the term handsome derives from the word hand. Less obvious is precisely why a word meaning good-looking should have anything to do with the hands rather than the face. In fact, when it first appeared in the language in the 15th century, handsome meant "close at hand," or "easy to handle," and from there the word gained all manner of positive connotations, including "entirely fitting or appropriate," generous, magnanimous, courageous, skillful, and eventually—by the mid-1500s—stylish, elegant, and good-looking.

10. CHIROPODIST

And lastly, two for the price of one: We might use this word to refer to a foot specialist or podiatrist today, but a chiropodist was originally someone who treated disorders of both the hands and the feet. As a result, the word combines the Greek words for hand, kheir, and foot, pous.

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Words
15 Wintry Words for Snowy Weather Across the United States
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While the “Eskimos have 100 words for snow” debate remains up in the (cold, cold) air, we do know—thanks in large part to the folks at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)—that Americans have no lack of idioms for the chilly white stuff. Here are 15 of them from all over the United States.

1. CAT’S TRACK

A long-haired tabby cat playing in the snow.
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When there’s a light fall of snow, you can call it cat’s track, a term used in Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin. A resident from the Badger State says, “If there is enough snow to track a cat, there has been a snowfall.” Conversely, not much snow can be described as “not enough snow to track a cat.”

2. SKIFT

A little girl rubbing her nose on the carrot nose of a snowman while snow falls.
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Skift refers to a light fall of snow, according to DARE, as well as a “thin layer of snow or frost on the ground, or of ice on water.” The use of the term is widespread across the U.S. except in the Northeast, South, and Southwest.

3. SKIMP

A pond covered in a thin layer of ice and snow.
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If someone in Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, or north-central Arkansas says, “Watch out for that skimp,” better take heed. They’re talking about a thin layer of ice or snow. Skimp can also be a verb meaning to freeze in a thin coating.

4. GOOSE DOWN

Two Canadian geese on a frozen pond.
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Get a light snow in Alabama? You can call it goose down.

5. GOOSEFEATHERS

A white feather on a black background.
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In Vermont, large, soft flakes of snow might be referred to as goosefeathers.

6. THE OLD WOMAN IS PICKING HER GEESE

Five Canadian geese in a snow storm.
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This colorful idiom for “It’s snowing” is especially used in the Appalachians, along with “The old woman’s a-losin’ her feathers.” Meanwhile, in Kentucky, you might hear Aunt Dinah’s picking her geese.

7. SCUTCH

A forest in a flurry of snow.
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Another term for a light dusting or flurry of snow, this time in Delaware. Scutch might come from scuds, a word of Scottish origin meaning ale or beer.

8. SNOW SQUALL

Pedestrians and cars in the snow.
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Why say snow shower when you can say snow squall? This chiefly Northeast saying refers to “a sudden snowstorm of short duration.” Its earliest recorded usage in American English is from 1775.

9. FLOUR-SIFTER SNOW

Flour being sifted in front of a black background.
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The next time you’re in Montana surrounded by small-flaked snow, you can say, “We’ve got some flour-sifter snow!”

10. CORN SNOW

Brown stalks of corn in the snow.
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You know it and you hate it: that granular, kernel-like snow that’s the result of repeated thawing and freezing. The term corn snow is used in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Oregon.

11. HOMINY SNOW

Three snowmen wearing bright scarves and hats.
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If grits are more up your alley, there’s hominy snow, a saying native to the South Midland states. The word hominy, referring to a kind of boiled ground corn, is Native American in origin, possibly coming from the Algonquian uskatahomen, “parched corn.”

12. GRAMPEL

Snow and hail on wood.
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This term in northeast Washington and southwest Oregon for a snow pellet that’s “somewhat like hail” is probably a variant on graupel, “soft hail.” Graupel is German in origin and comes from graupel wetter, which translates literally as “sleet weather.”

13. SNIRT

Dirty snow marked with tire tracks.
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While it might sound like a cross between a snort and a snicker, this Upper Midwest term actually refers to a mix of windblown snow and dirt. The moniker itself is a blend too, namely of the words—you guessed it—snow and dirt.

14. SPOSH

A man shoveling slushy snow in a driveway.
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Back in the day, New Englanders called slush sposh, which also referred to mud. The word is probably imitative in origin and might be influenced by words like slush, slosh, and splash.

15. POST-HOLING

A close-up of a person's legs, feet covered in snow.
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Ever walk in snow so deep you sink with every step? That’s post-holing or post-holing it, a saying in Colorado, Arkansas, Montana, and northwest Massachusetts. The post here refers to a fence post and hole to the hole created to secure it in the ground. Now we just need a word for sinking up to your knee when you step off a curb into slush that you’ve mistaken for ice.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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