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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.

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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.

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25 Smart Synonyms You Should Be Using
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The word thesaurus literally means "repository" or "storehouse," and it ultimately comes from the same root as the word treasure. There's certainly some treasure to be unearthed in one, so in honor of Thesaurus Day, here are 25 smart-sounding synonyms to reboot your vocabulary.

1. INSTEAD OF "PAUNCHY," TRY USING "ABDOMINOUS."

Up-close shot of an overweight man measuring his belly.
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Derived from the same root as abdomen, if you're abdominous then you have a paunchy stomach, or a large, protruding belly.

2. INSTEAD OF "BAD LANGUAGE," TRY USING "BILLINGSGATE."

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Billingsgate was a famous fish market in central London. Thanks to the foul language of the people who worked there, the name eventually became synonymous with all coarse or abusive language.

3. INSTEAD OF "BAD IDEA," TRY USING "CACOETHES."

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Derived from the Greek "bad character," a cacoethes (that's "ka-ko-EE-theez”) is an insatiable desire to do something inadvisable.

4. INSTEAD OF "SKILLFUL," TRY USING "DAEDAL."

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Daedalus was the architect who built the Labyrinth in the ancient myth of the Minotaur, and, derived from his name, someone who is daedal is especially skilled or artful.

5. INSTEAD OF "CONFUSE," TRY USING "EMBRANGLE."

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A brangle is a squabble or a noisy argument, while to embrangle someone is to throw them into a quandary or to utterly perplex them. An embranglement, likewise, is a tricky, confusing situation.

6. INSTEAD OF "FEVERISH," TRY USING "FEBRILE."

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If you've come down with the flu you might be feeling febrile, or feverish. It might only be a febricula (that's a light or passing fever), but nevertheless, you might need a febrifuge (a drug that lowers your temperature).

7. INSTEAD OF "SLIPPERY," TRY USING "GLIDDERY."

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If something glidders, it freezes over, which makes something gliddery very slippery, as if covered in ice.

8. INSTEAD OF "GOOSE BUMPS," TRY USING "HORRIPILATION."

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That's the medical name for this curious phenomenon, which is also called gooseflesh, henflesh, or goose-pimpling.

9. INSTEAD OF "APPROPRIATE," TRY USING "IDONEOUS."

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It's a little on the old-fashioned side, but idoneous, derived from the Latin word idoneus, makes a perfectly, well, appropriate replacement for words like proper, fit, and suitable.

10. INSTEAD OF "BOASTING," TRY USING "JACTANCE."

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Derived from a Latin word meaning "to boast" or "speak out," jactance or jactancy is vainglorious boasting.

11. INSTEAD OF "RECOGNIZABLE," TRY USING "KENSPECKLE."

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A word from Scots dialect but with its roots in Scandinavia, kenspeck or kenspeckle means "easily recognizable" or "conspicuous."

12. INSTEAD OF "INDIFFERENT," TRY USING "LAODICEAN."

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Laodicea was a city in ancient Asia Minor. According to the biblical Book of Revelation, the people of Laodicea were known for their religious apathy, their fair-weather faith, and their lukewarm interest in the church—all of which prompted a pretty stern letter from St. John. As a result, a Laodicean is an apathetic, indifferent, or unconcerned person when it comes to religion.

13. INSTEAD OF "SMELLY," TRY USING "MEPHITIC."

Young man with disgust on his face pinches nose
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A mephitis is a noxious, foul-smelling fume emanating from inside the earth, and anything that smells as bad as that is mephitic. Case in point, skunks were known as "mephitic weasels" is the 19th century.

14. INSTEAD OF "MISER," TRY USING "NIPCHEESE."

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As well as being another name for a ship's purser (the steward in charge of the ship's accounts), a nipcheese is a mean, penny-pinching person. Feel free to also call your most miserly friend a nip-farthing, a shut-purse, a pinch-plum, or a sharp-nose.

15. INSTEAD OF "BEND," TRY USING "OBLIQUATE."

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Derived from the same root as the word oblique, if something obliquates then it turns or bends to one side.

16. INSTEAD OF "CONCISE," TRY USING "PAUCILOQUENT."

"Keep it Simple" written in book
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Ironically, the thesaurus is full of weird and wonderful words for people who don't say very much. As well as pauciloquent, people who like to keep things brief can be laconic, synoptic, or breviloquent.

17. INSTEAD OF "QUINTESSENCE," TRY USING "QUIDDITY."

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Quintessence is already a fairly smart-sounding word, but you can up the stakes with quiddity: Derived from a Latin word meaning "who," the quiddity of something is the very essence or nature of something, or a distinctive feature or characteristic.

18. INSTEAD OF "CHEERFUL," TRY USING "RIANT."

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Derived via French from the Latin word for "laugh," if you're riant then you're cheerful or mirthful. A riant landscape or image, likewise, is one that makes you happy or is pleasurable to look at.

19. INSTEAD OF "TWITCHY," TRY USING "SACCADIC."

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A saccade is an involuntary twitch or movement of the eye—and, figuratively, that makes someone who is saccadic characteristically fidgety, twitchy, or restless.

20. INSTEAD OF "EQUIVOCATE," TRY USING "TERGIVERSATE."

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To tergiversate literally means "to turn your back on" something, but more loosely, it means to dodge a question or issue, or to avoid a straightforward explanation.

21. INSTEAD OF "HOWL," TRY USING "ULULATE."

Coyote Howling in Winter
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Probably originally meant to be onomatopoeic, ululation is a howling sound like that made by wolves. More figuratively, to ululate can be used to mean "to bewail" or "lament."

22. INSTEAD OF "PREDICT," TRY USING "VATICINATE."

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Derived from the Latin word for a soothsayer or seer, to vaticinate is to prophesize or predict something.

23. INSTEAD OF "UNLUCKY," TRY USING "WANCHANCY."

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Wanchance is an old Scots dialect word for misfortune. Derived from that, the adjective wanchancy has fallen into more widespread use to mean "unlucky," "ill-fated," or in some contexts, "uncanny" or "eerily coincidental."

24. INSTEAD OF "LAST NIGHT," TRY USING "YESTERNIGHT."

There are more yester– words in the dictionary than just yesterday. As well as yesternight, there's yesterweek, yestereve, and yestermorn.

25. INSTEAD OF "CRITICISM," TRY USING "ZOILISM."

Zoilus was one of the harshest critics of the ancient Greek writer Homer, and he was known for his scathing, nit-picking attacks on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Derived from him, a zoilist is an overbearingly harsh critic, while unduly harsh criticism is zoilism.

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The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

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