15 Words That Aren’t As Straightforward As They Look

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There’s an etymological old wives’ tale that suggests the “step” in stepmother and stepfather comes from the fact that they're added onto genealogical charts one step away from your biological ones. Unfortunately, it’s completely untrue.

Despite appearances, the “step” in these words stems from an Old English term, steop, which was once used to indicate loss or bereavement. Way back then, “stepchild” or steopcild meant orphan, not just the offspring of a second spouse.

Here are 15 more words whose true origins and meanings aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem.

1. THE “QUICK” IN QUICKSAND DOESN’T MEAN FAST.

Despite what you might think about the stuff sucking people to their deaths before they have time to escape, this word isn’t a synonym for speedy. It doesn’t mean “fast” in the word quicksilver—an old name for mercury—either. Instead, these adjectives both mean “alive” or “living,” a reference to the moving, animated ground in a patch of quicksand, and to the fact that quicksilver, as a liquid, can move and be poured.

2. THE “LOLLI” IN LOLLIPOP DOESN’T MEAN LOLLING.


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The old story that the word refers to popsicles and ice-lollies that droop as they melt just isn’t true. In fact, this lolly is an Old English dialect term for the tongue.

3. THE “MID” IN MIDWIFE DOESN’T MEAN MIDDLE.

For that matter, the “wife” in midwife doesn’t mean, well, wife. The word wife originally meant “woman,” while mid stood in for “with”—making a midwife a woman who is literally with a woman as she gives birth.

4. THE “WILDER” IN WILDERNESS DOESN’T MEAN WILD.

At least not in the sense of the “woods and wilds.” This wilder is a corruption of the Old English wild deor, meaning wild deer or animal—which you will definitely find in the wilderness.

5. THE “CUT” IN CUTLET DOESN’T MEAN TRIMMED.

This prefix has nothing to do with cutlets being “cut” from a larger joint of meat. In this case, cutlet descends from the French word costelette, meaning little rib.

6. THE “BEL” IN BELFRY DOESN’T MEAN BELL.

A belfry isn’t necessarily a bell tower. The original belfry was actually a mobile siege tower that could be wheeled up to castles and town walls by invading armies to gain access from outside. In that sense, the word derives from bercfrit, the old Germanic name for this piece of equipment.

7. THE “HAM” IN HAMBURGER DOESN’T MEAN MEAT.

The beginning of the word has nothing to do with meat of any kind. You probably know this one already: Hamburgers are people or things that come from Hamburg, Germany. The hamburglar, on the other hand, comes from Des Plaines, Illinois.

8. THE “JERUSALEM” IN JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE DOESN’T REFER TO THE CITY.

A bag of Jerusalem artichokes
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The adjective for this unassuming tuber is a corruption of girasole, the Italian word for sunflower. The Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke—it’s actually a member of the sunflower family. It's also called a sunchoke or sunroot.

9. THE “PIGGY” IN PIGGYBACK DOESN’T MEAN PIG.

Piggyback is believed to be a corruption of pick-a-pack or pick-pack—a 16th-century expression for carrying something on your shoulders. It might derive from the old use of pick to mean “pitch,” and pack, meaning a sack or satchel.

10. THE “SAND” IN SANDBLIND DOESN’T REFER TO THE BEACH.

Sandblind is a 15th-century word, seldom encountered today outside of literature and poetry, for being half-blind. It is often said to allude to the poor visibility experienced during dust storms and sand storms. But it’s simpler than that: sandblind derives from its Old English equivalent samblind, the “sam” of which means the same as “semi” does today.

11. THE “CURRY” IN CURRY FAVOR DOESN’T MEAN STEW.

A chestnut horse eating hay
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There’s an old myth that currying favor with someone alludes to slowly working your way into their social circle, just as the flavors in a curry or stew mingle together as it cooks. Instead, the true story behind this one is even more peculiar. In this case, curry derives from a Middle English word meaning “to groom a horse,” while favor is a corruption of Fauvel, the name of a chestnut-colored horse that appeared in an old French poem and folktale about a horse that wanted to usurp its master and take over his kingdom. In the tale, Fauvel succeeds in his quest and ends the story being fawned over and “curried” by all the obsequious members of his master’s court. Currying favor literally means “sycophantically grooming a chestnut horse.”

12. THE “FACE” IN SHAMEFACED DOESN’T MEAN VISAGE.

Shamefaced was originally shamefast, with -fast in this sense meaning fixed or constant, as it does in steadfast or stuck fast. Presumably the word changed over time because the shame of a shamefaced person can be seen in his or her expression.

13. THE “CHOCK” IN CHOCK-FULL DOESN’T MEAN A WEDGE OR BLOCK.

Being chock-full has nothing to do with being rammed as tightly as a chock is below a door or the wheels of a vehicle. Instead, chock in this context is derived from choke, in the sense of something being suffocatingly crammed or crowded.

14. THE “D” IN D-DAY DOESN’T STAND FOR DISEMBARKATION.

It also doesn’t mean deliverance, Deutschland, doomsday, decision, or any of the other D-words popular history might have you believe. In fact, D doesn’t stand for anything at all: just like (albeit less common) expressions like H-hour, D-Day was just an alliterative placeholder used during the planning of the Normandy landings for the unspecified day on which the operation would take place. As further evidence, the earliest use of the term comes from 1918, a full 26 years before Allied troops stormed the beaches. The French name for D-Day, by the way, is J-Jour.

15. THE “GOOD” IN GOODBYE DOESN’T MEAN GOOD.

Goodbye is a contraction of “God be with you,” an expression of departure or best wishes in use in English from the medieval period. As the phrase simplified over time, “God” drifted toward “good” in other similar expression likes good day and good morning. By the late 16th century, we were left with the word we use today.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

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English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

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The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

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