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

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.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
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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]

9 French Insults You Should Know

Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images
Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images

Ah, France—internationally synonymous with fine wines, fashion, and elegant cheeses. As it turns out, the country is home to some pretty fine insults, too, as the list below demonstrates. If you need some more ways to express your distaste in a foreign language, we've also got you covered with insults in German. (If historical insults are more your speed, you can peruse these old English insults, or learn how to level a sick burn like Teddy Roosevelt.)

1. Va te faire cuire un oeuf // "Go cook yourself an egg."

Figuratively speaking, this means “leave me alone.” Historically, the idea is that men would criticize their wives cooking dinner, who would then respond, "Go fry yourself an egg"—reminding their mates that they're incapable of cooking anything other than an egg.

2. Bête comme ses pieds // "You are as stupid as your feet."

The feet are the furthest part of the body from the brain, so supposedly, the most stupid. Besides, have you ever seen smart feet?

3. Péter plus haut de son cul // "To fart higher than your ass."

If you have gas in your stomach and try to expel it above your behind, you will fail. It's just too ambitious. This phrase means that a person is arrogant, or thinks they are able to do impossible things. They're a show-off, basically.

4. Poule mouillée // "Wet chicken"

Chickens are not known for their bravery. Especially when it rains, they try to hide, as ridiculous as that may be. A wet chicken is someone who is afraid of everything.

5. Mange tes morts // "Eat your dead."

You use this insult when you are very mad at someone. The original meaning is "You have no respect." It's said to have started among the Yenish people—a European ethnic minority with nomadic origins.

6. Sac à merde // "Bag of sh**"

No need for explanation right? Speaks for itself. Often used while driving.

7. Tête de noed // "Knot face"

Someone stupid. Literally, the knot refers to the tip of the penis, but in essence the term has a meaning similar to (but even ruder) than the English dickhead.

8. Couillon/Couillonne // "Little testicle"

A relatively mild insult that means something like "idiot" in English.

9. Con comme une valise sans poignée // "As stupid as a suitcase without a handle."

What good is a suitcase if you can't carry it? In a similar vein, "con comme un balais" means "as dumb as a broom."

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