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.”

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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