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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.

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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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15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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