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9 Innocent Words with Surprisingly Naughty Origins

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You usually know it when you’re about to use a naughty word. You get that feeling of embarrassment, rebelliousness, or exhilaration. But there are some everyday words that might fool you. Here are nine words with innocent appearances and dubious pasts.

1. GYMNASIUM

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The naughtiest thing most of us might remember about the gymnasium is skipping gym class to avoid getting pelted in dodgeball, but this word has roots in more than just exercise. Gymnasium comes from the Greek gumnazein, which means “to exercise naked.” (Those who suffer from gymnophobia have a fear of nudity, not a fear of the treadmill.) Gumnazein may seem like an oddball word to piece together until you remember that the Ancient Greeks were also the inventors of the original Olympic Games, where nude exercising was nothing to shake a caduceus at.

2. MASTODON

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Surely, the mighty mastodon must have a name befitting its humongous size and razor-sharp tusks. But what do masto- and -don mean, exactly? Massive and daunting? Nope. Breast-tooth. When 19th century French naturalist Georges Cuvier examined fossilized mastodon teeth, he found projections that he said looked “nipple-like.” He chose the woolly beast’s name from the Greek masto (“breast”) and odont (“tooth”).

3. PARTRIDGE

Patridge bird in the grass
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A partridge is an unremarkable game bird or a living gift that sits in a pear tree, right? Its name should mean something similar to “tasty bird” or “eccentric gift.” Instead, partridge originates from the Greek verb perdesthai, which means “to break wind.” Partridge became the “flatulence bird” because its weight and wing shape cause it to make a low, whirring noise when it takes off, creating a rather unfortunate sound.

4. FORLORN

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When you imagine someone who is forlorn, you probably picture a person who is sad and dejected, abandoned by friends. The older version of this word, however, had a much deeper meaning. Forlorn comes from the Old English word forloren, which means “depraved, morally abandoned.” To the Anglo-Saxons, if you were forloren, more than just your friends had abandoned you—your very moral fiber had abandoned you, as well. You were more than just sad; you were doomed.

5. MUSK

Man smelling his armpits in front of a coworker
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Musk comes from the Sanskrit word muṣka, which translates to "testicle." While humans tend to associate musk with cologne, animals, such as the male musk deer, use this pungent substance to communicate. Musk doesn’t play a direct role in reproduction, but it seems to have earned its “family jewel” name because the deer’s musk sac looks a lot like part of the family crest.

6. ORCHID

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While testicles usually only come in twos, the popularity of naming words after this organ seems boundless. This entry comes from the Ancient Greek word órkhis. According to some, an Ancient Greek man took a look at either the roots or rhizomes of an orchid and thought, “Wow, those look a lot like what I saw when I was putting on my tunic this morning.”

7. PUNK

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No one is sure who invented the word punk or what its etymology is, but its first recorded use was during Shakespeare’s time. But when the Bard used this word, he wasn’t talking about someone with a mohawk hairdo or a particular type of music. He was talking about female prostitutes.

Shakespeare used punk or an alternate spelling in several of his works, but one of the most notable mentions appears in All’s Well That Ends Well, when he used the colorful term “taffety punk” to describe a well-dressed prostitute. “Taffety Punk” has since become a popular name for theater groups.

By the 18th century, punk’s meaning had shifted to mean a younger man whom an older man kept around for sexual purposes. A song from that time called “Women’s Complaint to Venus” includes the chilling lyrics: “The Beaus ... at night make a punk of him that's first drunk.”

By the early 20th century, punk meant “young hobo,” and soon, the word had evolved to mean any young person who was generally up to no good. By the 1970s, music reviewer Dave Marsh discussed a band called ? and the Mysterians in Flint, Michigan, and called the music they were playing “Punk Rock.”

While not the first to discuss this music (the band Suicide advertised their “Punk music” earlier, while Ed Sanders referred to one of his albums as “punk rock” in the Chicago Tribune around the same time), soon the word would expand to encompass a new genre.

8. PORCELAIN

blue and white porcelian bowl on surface
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Porcelain comes from the old Italian word porcellana, which means “cowrie shell,” because porcelain is smooth and shiny like a cowrie shell. It would be perfectly innocent if the story ended there, but it doesn’t. The word porcellana comes from the Italian word porcella, which is a young sow. Cowrie shells are thought to have gotten their name because someone decided that they were small, smooth, and shiny … just like a young sow’s vulva.

9. PASTA ALLA PUTTANESCA

This flavorful tomato and anchovy dish is popular from Naples to Los Angeles. What many of us aren’t aware of, though, is the literal meaning of this dish’s name. While puttanesca sauce is a combination of tomatoes, anchovies, olives, and capers, its name doesn’t include any of those ingredients. Instead, it literally translates to “pasta in the style of prostitutes.”

There are a couple of theories as to why. One popular one: The powerful aroma of simmering puttanesca sauce would entice clients to the Italian puttanas’ doors and help them increase trade, or perhaps this easy sauce was quick to whip up between clients. Another is that, because puttana is a sort of catch-all word in Italian slang, saying “I made pasta alla puttanesca” is like saying “I made pasta and threw in whatever.”

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5 Fascinating Facts About Koko the Gorilla
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ZUMA Press, Inc., Alamy

After 46 years of learning, making new friends, and challenging ideas about language, Koko the gorilla died in her sleep at her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California on June 21, 2018. Koko first gained recognition in the late 1970s for her ability to use sign language, but it was her friendly personality that made her a beloved icon. Here are five facts you should know about the history-making ape.

1. SHE KNEW OVER 1000 SIGNS.

Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a graduate student at Stanford University, was looking for an animal subject for her inter-species animal communication experiment in the early 1970s when she found a baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo. Originally named Hanabiko (Japanese for "fireworks child," a reference to her Fourth of July birthdate), Koko took to signing quickly. Some of the first words Koko learned in "Gorilla Sign Language," Patterson's modified version of American Sign Language, were "food," "drink," and "more." She followed a similar trajectory as a human toddler, learning the bulk of her words between ages 2.5 and 4.5. Eventually Koko would come to know over 1000 signs and understand about 2000 words spoken to her in English. Though she never got a grasp on grammar or syntax, she was able to express complex ideas, like sadness when watching a sad movie and her desire to have a baby.

2. SHE CHANGED WHAT WE KNEW ABOUT LANGUAGE.

Not only did Koko use language to communicate—she also used it in a way that was once only thought possible in humans. Her caretakers have reported her signing about objects that weren't in the room, recalling memories, and even commenting on language itself. Her vocabulary was on par with that of a 3-year-old child.

3. SHE WASN'T THE ONLY APE WHO SIGNED.

Koko was the most famous great ape who knew sign language, but she wasn't alone. Michael, a male gorilla who lived with Koko at the Gorilla Foundation from 1976 until his death in 2000, learned over 500 signs with help from Koko and Patterson. He was even able to express the memory of his mother being killed by poachers when he was a baby. Other non-human primates have also shown they're capable of learning sign language, like Washoe the chimpanzee and Chantek the orangutan.

4. SHE HAD FAMOUS FRIENDS.

Koko received many visitors during her lifetime, including some celebrities. When Robin Williams came to her home in Woodside, California in 2001, the two bonded right away, with Williams tickling the gorilla and Koko trying on his glasses. But perhaps her most famous celebrity encounter came when Mr. Rogers paid her a visit in 1999. She immediately recognized him as the star of one of her favorite shows, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and greeted him by helping him take off his shoes like he did at the start of every episode.

5. SHE WAS A LOVING CAT MOM.

Koko was never able to have offspring of her own, but she did adopt several cats. After asking for a kitten, she was allowed to pick one from a litter for her birthday in 1985. She named the gray-and-white cat "All Ball" and handled it gently as if it were her real baby, even trying to nurse it. She had recently received two new kittens for her 44th birthday named Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
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The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
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When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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