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

school 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

purple orchids
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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.”

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

11 Words You Might Not Realize Come From “Love”

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iStock.com/PeopleImages

1. BELIEVE

In Old English, believe was geliefan, which traces back to the Germanic galaubjan, where laub is the root for “dear” (so “believe” is “to hold dear”). Laub goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root for “love,” leubh.

2. FURLOUGH

We got furlough from the Dutch verlof, which traces back to the same Germanic laub root as in believe. It is also related to the sense of leave meaning "allowance" or "permission" (“get leave,” “go on leave”). The “leave” in a furlough is given with pleasure, or approval, which is how it connects back to love.

3. FRIDAY

Old English Frigedæg was named for Frigg, the Germanic goddess of love (and counterpart to the Roman Venus). According to the OED, frīg was also a noun for “strong feminine” love.

4. VENOM

Venom comes from the Latin venenum, which shares a root with the love goddess Venus, and originally referred to a love potion.

5. AMATEUR

The root of amateur is Latin amare, “to love.” An amateur practices a craft simply because they love it.

6. CHARITY

The Latin caritas, which ended up as charity in English, was a different kind of love than amor, implying high esteem and piety, rather than romance and passion. It was used to translate the Ancient Greek agape, the word used in the New Testament to express godly love.

7. PHILOSOPHY

Greek had another word for love, philia, that—in contrast to agape and eros (sexual love)—meant brotherly or friendly love. It’s used in many classical compounds to signify general fondness or predilection for things. Philosophy is the love of sophos, wisdom.

8. PHILANTHROPY

This one means love of anthropos, humanity.

9. PHILADELPHIA

You might know it as the “city of brotherly love,” but you might not know that the tagline is right there in the name. It’s love for adelphos, brother.

10. PHILIP

The name Philip comes from the compound phil- + hippos, love of horses.

11. ACIDOPHILUS

Have you been taking acidophilus probiotic supplements for digestive health? It’s made from acid-loving bacteria, i.e., bacteria that easily take up an acid dye for viewing under the microscope.

This list originally ran in 2015.

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