The Origins of 12 Silly-Sounding Compound Words

iStock.com/Kontrec
iStock.com/Kontrec

Some compound words make perfect sense. Bedbugs? They’re bugs that live on your bed (among other places). Railroad? It’s a road constructed from rails. Waterfall? It’s where the water ... falls. The list goes on: afternoon, earthquake, popcorn, graveyard, airport—all of these words just work.

Other compound words … not so much. A nightmare is not a nocturnal horse. An earmark is not some kind of head tattoo. And who in the world knows what a hodgepodge is? We consulted the holy book of English etymology—the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—to get some answers.

1. HOPSCOTCH

The game has nothing to do with little kids skipping over glasses of Johnnie Walker. Back in the 17th century, the word scotch could be used to describe a gash, score, or line. While that usage is now obsolete, it was preserved in the children’s game—when you play hopscotch, you’re literally hopping over scotches.

2. COBWEB

The word sounds less corny when you consider that, in the original Middle English, it was spelled coppeweb—and that back in the 14th century, coppe or cop was a synonym for “spider.” (In fact, the etymon cob wouldn’t be associated with corn for another 300 or 400 years.)

3. KIDNAP

Kidnap is a relic of an old spelling battle (and has nothing to do with child abductors taking a snooze). Back in the 17th century, both nab and nap meant “to snatch or seize” something. Nab eventually won the semantic battle—but the old spelling remains ossified here.

4. SCAPEGOAT

According to Leviticus, two goats were chosen on the Day of Atonement: One was sacrificed, and the second was symbolically burdened with the people’s sins and sent into the wilderness. In the 1300s, scape meant “escape.” Thus, an individual who assumes blame on behalf of the many is like the symbolic “escaped goat.”

5. DOUGHNUT

According to the OED, starting in the 1770s, the word nut could be used to describe “a small rounded biscuit or cake.” In fact, the first “doughnuts” didn’t resemble the circles of fried goodness we know today. They resembled little balls—what would today be called a “doughnut hole.”

6. WEDLOCK

The word has nothing to do with “locking” couples together. Rather, wedlock is a fascinating relic of Old English. Centuries ago, many words ended with the suffix -lāc, which helped denote an action or state of being. (For example, the word brewing—that is, the “state of being brewed”—used to be spelled brēowlāc). Similarly, in the 12th-century the word wedlāc or wedlayk denoted the “the state of being wed.”

7. HONEYMOON

In the 16th century, honeymoon had nothing to do with a post-marriage vacation—rather, it simply denoted the first month of marriage. At the time, honey was commonly used to mean “sweetheart” and moon could be used to describe the passage of time, usually a month. In other words, honeymoon literally meant “sweetheart’s month.” (Though the OED offers more cynical alternative explanations, suggesting that new love waned like the moon, or lasted no longer than a month.)

8. HODGEPODGE

If you don’t know what a hodge or podge is, join the club: The word is a corruption of the 15th century word hotchpotch, which itself is a corruption of hotchpot, hochepoche, or hotpotch. In Anglo-Norman, a hochepot was a blended stew of minced beef or goose and veggies.

9. EARMARK

Today we typically use earmark to denote money that’s been set aside for a particular purpose, but back in the early 1500s, earmark was far more literal: Farmers would mark the ears of their sheep as proof of ownership. Over the following two centuries, the meaning of earmarking would broaden to denote the act of “[marking out or designating] for a particular role, purpose, or fate.”

10. EGGPLANT

In the 1760s, the word egg-plant made far more sense, because it was used to describe a white-fruited type of tomato, or Solanum esculentum, that resembled ... an egg. About a century later, the word began applying to the purple-fruited (and not-so-eggy) aubergine.

11. HOGWASH

In the late 1500s, the word wash—derived from the German wäsch—was also used to denote a type of kitchen or brewery swill that no human dared to drink. (Hogwash, specifically, was a swill so bad that it would be thrown out for the swine.) Eventually, the word for this rotten, pig-quality hootch took on a more colorful meaning to denote rotten, pig-quality ideas.

12. PIECEMEAL

The meal in piecemeal has nothing to do with eating lunch; it’s an obsolete suffix. Back in the 14th century (and earlier), the suffix mele, mǣl, or mǣlum was used to denote a “measure or quantity taken at one time,” according to the OED. Gēarmǣlum meant “year by year,” stæpmǣlum meant “step by step,” and pecemele meant—and still means—“piece by piece.”

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
ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

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

iStock.com/JCPJR
iStock.com/JCPJR

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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