15 Words That Aren’t As Straightforward As They Look

dizelen/iStock via Getty Images
dizelen/iStock via Getty Images

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.

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.

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.

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.

This piece first ran in 2017 and was republished in 2019.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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