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

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.”

The Surprising Origins Behind 9 Modern Slang Expressions

Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
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Slang evolves so quickly these days—especially on social media—that it can be hard to recall how we first learned a term, much less where it actually came from. This list will help you figure out whether you should be thanking Erykah Badu, LL Cool J, or an academic journal for some of the expressions you love to throw around in conversation and online.

  1. FOMO

A marketing strategist named Dan Herman claims to have identified the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) phenomenon and published the first academic paper about it in The Journal Of Brand Management in 2000. Yet the credit for the popular usage of FOMO often goes to venture capitalist and author Patrick J. McGinnis, who used the term in 2004 in an op-ed for Harvard Business School’s magazine The Harbus to describe the frenetic social lives of his grad school cohort. (One acronym from the op-ed that McGinnis deserves complete credit for: FOBO—Fear of a Better Option.)

  1. Bye, Felisha!

A diss by any other name might still sting as sweet, but there's something satisfying about ending a conversation with "Bye, Felisha!" (Though it’s often mistakenly written as Felicia.) The phrase comes from the 1995 stoner comedy Friday, co-written by and starring Ice Cube as Craig, a young man in South Central Los Angeles just trying to get to the weekend. When the mooching bit character Felisha (played by Angela Means Kaaya) asks Craig’s friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) if she can borrow his car and then a joint, Craig mutters "Bye, Felisha." And now everyone says it, though usually as an exclamation.

  1. Lit

In the last few years, lit has been literally everywhere—in popular music, speech, memes, and a series of articles about what it actually means. People have been using the word to mean “intoxicated” since at least 1918, when John McGavock Grider, an American pilot who served in England's Royal Flying Corps during World War I, used it in his book War Birds: Diary Of An Unknown Aviator. In recent years, however, hip hop has brought the word back to describe a general excitement that can be achieved with or without substances.

  1. Woke

Neo-soul singer Erykah Badu has been credited with bringing woke into popular usage with the 2008 song “Master Teacher,” which was a collaboration with the musician Georgia Anne Muldrow. But using the word to mean “aware in a political or cultural sense” dates back to 1962, when novelist William Melvin Kelley tackled appropriation of black culture in a New York Times article entitled “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” The Oxford English Dictionary finally “woke” up (sorry) and included this timely definition of the word in 2017.

  1. Humblebrag

Humankind has probably been humblebragging since that one Neanderthal complained about how bloated he felt after eating too many woolly mammoths over the weekend. Credit for the term, however, goes to Harris Wittels, the late comedian and writer best known for Parks and Recreation. He coined humblebrag in 2010, explaining the concept through retweeted examples from celebrities on the @Humblebrag Twitter account before publishing Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty in 2012.

  1. On Fleek

This phrase was first used in 2014 by a Vine user named Peaches Monroee to describe perfectly groomed eyebrows. But fleek is defined in the annals of Urban Dictionary as early as 2003 as “smooth, nice, sweet” and 2009 as “awesome.” It quickly evolved to encompass anything that’s flawlessly on point, until adults started awkwardly using it and younger, hipper English speakers moved on to the next vernacular phrase we’re probably not cool enough to have heard yet.

  1. First World Problem

A cousin of humblebrag, this phrase is a helpful reminder to count our blessings and stop complaining about trivial setbacks, like a delayed flight or, if you're really fortunate, slow Wi-Fi on the yacht. It may feel like a relatively new addition to the vernacular, but the phrase "First world problem" has been around since 1979, when an academic named Geoffrey K. Payne used it in an article in the journal Built Environment (although Payne was talking about legitimate First World Problems, notably housing). The more ironic usage developed in the 1990s, perhaps helped along by the Matthew Good Band song "Omissions of the Omen," which included the term in the lyrics. But it didn't go mainstream until it became a self-deprecating internet meme around 2005.

  1. Yas/Yass/Yaass

Everyone’s favorite new affirmative was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2017 and defined as “expressing great pleasure or excitement.” Many first heard it on Broad City, which debuted in 2014. But according to "Reply All," we owe its current popular American usage to the LGBTQ black and Latino ball scene of the 1980s, where attendees hollered “Yas!” at the sight of fiercely strutting drag queens. Ball culture was fertile linguistic ground, by the way: The subculture also gave us voguing (which inspired Madonna), fierce, throwing shade, and more. Call it the Kween’s English.

  1. G.O.A.T.

James Todd Smith, better known as the rapper LL Cool J, clearly loves wordplay: The letters in his stage name stand for Ladies Love Cool James. So it’s no surprise that he brought the acronym G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, pronounced like the name of the animal) into popular usage with the 2000 hip hop album of the same name. But many trace the use of G.O.A.T as an initialism to boxer and fellow wordsmith Muhammad Ali, who frequently referred to himself as "the greatest" and occasionally "the greatest of all time." In 1992, Ali’s wife Lonnie even incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties.

32 Forgotten Weather Words

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A yowe-tremmle—literally an “ewe-tremble”—is an old Scottish dialect word for a week of unusually cold or rainy weather beginning in the final few days in June that is literally cold enough to make the season’s freshly-sheared sheep “tremmle,” or shiver.

Depending on what the weather is like where you are, this could be the perfect word to add to your vocabulary. But even if you’re currently enjoying a bout of sunshine, or enduring a sudden downpour of rain, the most obscure corners of the English language have precisely the right word for you.

1. Armogan

Presumably derived from an even older French dialect word, armogan is a 19th-century naval slang name for fine weather—in particular, the perfect weather for traveling or starting a journey.

2. Bengy

This word, pronounced “Benji,” is an old southeast English dialect word meaning “overcast” or “threatening rain.” According to one theory, it might derive from an earlier word, benge, meaning “to drink to excess.”

3. Blenky

To blenky means “to snow very lightly.” It’s probably derived from blenks, an earlier 18th-century word for ashes or cinders.

4. Bows of Promise

Rainbows were nicknamed "bows of promise" in Victorian English, in allusion to the story in the Book of Genesis.

5. Cairies

Cairies are swiftly moving clouds. An old Scots dialect word, it derives from cairy (a Scots pronunciation of “carry”), a local name for a burden or a load to be conveyed.

6. Drouth

This is an old Irish-English word for the perfect weather conditions in which to dry clothes. Probably related to an identical Scots word for an insatiable thirst (or for an insatiable drinker), drouth was borrowed into American English in the 19th century, where it eventually became another name for a drought.

7. Flenches

If the weather flenches, then it looks like it might improve later on, but never actually does.

8. Foxy

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, if the weather is foxy then it’s “misleadingly bright”—or, in other words, sunny and clear, but freezing cold.

9. Gleamy

If, on the other hand, the weather is gleamy then it’s intermittently sunny, or as one 19th-century glossary put it, “fitful and uncertain.”

10. Gleen

A gleen is a sudden burst of warm sunshine. Dating back to the 17th century (if not earlier), it’s probably related to an earlier Scandinavian word, glene, for a clear patch of sky.

11. Halta-Dance

As well as also meaning “to run around frantically,” halta-dance is a heat haze.

12. Hen-Scartins

This is an old northern English word for long, thin streaks of cloud traditionally supposed to forecast a rain. It literally means “chicken scratches.”

13. Hunch-Weather

Hunch-weather is an old 18th century name for weather—like drizzle or strong wind—that’s bad enough to make people hunch over when they walk.

14. Lawrence

There’s an old myth that Saint Lawrence of Rome was martyred by being burnt alive on a red-hot gridiron. Although it’s doubtful whether this is true (a more likely explanation is that the Latin announcement of his death, passus est, “he suffered,” was misread as assus est, “he was roasted”), Saint Lawrence’s gruesome death has long been the subject of folk tales and works of art. Not only that, but he’s now considered the patron saint of cooks and restaurateurs (for obvious reasons), while the boy’s name Lawrence has been an American dialect word for a shimmering heat haze since at least the early 1900s.

15. Mare’s Tails

Mare's tails are cirrus clouds—long, thin wisps of cloud very high up in the sky—that are traditionally said to “point” toward fine weather.

16. Messenger

A single sunbeam that breaks through a thick cloud can also be called a messenger.

17. Mokey

Moke is an old northern English word for the mesh part of a fishing net, from which is derived the word mokey, describing dull, dark, or hazy weather conditions.

18. Monkey's Wedding

In South African slang, a monkey's wedding is a “sun-shower,” or a period of alternating (or simultaneous) sunshine and rain. No one is quite sure where this expression comes from: one theory claims that it could derive from an earlier phrase, monkey’s wedding-breakfast, meaning “a state of confusion,” or else it could be a vague translation of an even older Portuguese saying, casamento de raposa—literally “a vixen’s wedding”—that was likewise used to describe a sunny shower of rain.

19. Moonbroch

This is an old word from the far north of Scotland for a hazy halo of cloud around the moon at night that was supposedly a sign of bad weather to come.

20. Queen's Weather

In 1851, Charles Dickens wrote “the sky was cloudless; a brilliant sun gave to it that cheering character which—from the good fortune Her Majesty experiences whenever she travels or appears publicly—has passed into a proverb.” The “proverb” in question here is actually the expression queen's weather, a 19th-century nickname for sunshine, derived from Queen Victoria’s reputation for always seeming to bring fine weather with her on her official visits.

21. Pikels

Pikels are heavy drops or sheets of rain. The word pikel itself is an old Lancashire dialect name for a pitchfork, while the local saying “to rain pikels with the tines downwards” means to rain very heavily indeed.

22. and 23. Smuir and Blind Smuir

This is an old Scots word meaning “choke” or “smother,” which by extension also came to be used to refer to thick, stiflingly hot weather. A blind smuir, oppositely, is a snow drift.

24. Sugar-Weather

Sugar-weather is a 19th-century Canadian word for a period of warm days and cold nights—the perfect weather conditions to start the sap flowing in maple trees.

25. Sunblink

This is a 17th-century Scots word for a single glimmer of sunshine …

26. Sunwade

… and sunwade is an old Yorkshire word for a haze of cloud around the sun.

27. Swullocking

This is an old southeast English word meaning “sultry” or “humid.” If the sky looks swullocking, then it looks like there’s a thunderstorm on its way.

28. Thunder-Head

Herman Melville used the old English word thunder-head in Moby-Dick (1851). It refers to a thick, rounded mass of cloud on the horizon, usually indicating that a storm is on its way.

29. and 30. Twirlblast and Twirlwind

Both twirlblast and twirlwind are old 18th-century names for tornados.

31. Water-Dogs

These are small rainclouds hanging individually below a larger bank of cloud above.

32. Wethergaw

Gaw is an old word for a drainage channel or a gutter, the U-shaped cross-section of which is the likely origin of the word wethergaw—an old Scots nickname for a rainbow.

This post first ran in 2015.

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