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.”

Grocery Stores vs. Supermarkets: What’s the Difference?

gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images
gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images

These days, people across the country are constantly engaging in regional term debates like soda versus pop and fireflies versus lightning bugs. Since these inconsistencies are so common, you might have thought the only difference between a grocery store and a supermarket was whether the person who mentioned one was from Ohio or Texas. In reality, there are distinctions between the stores themselves.

To start, grocery stores have been around for much longer than supermarkets. Back when every town had a bakery, a butcher shop, a greengrocery, and more, the grocery store offered townspeople an efficient shopping experience with myriad food products in one place. John Stranger, vice president group supervisor of the food-related creative agency EvansHardy+Young, explained to Reader’s Digest that the grocer would usually collect the goods for the patron, too. This process might sound familiar if you’ve watched old films or television shows, in which characters often just hand over their shopping lists to the person behind the counter. While our grocery store runs may not be quite so personal today, the contents of grocery stores remain relatively similar: Food, drinks, and some household products.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, have taken the idea of a one-stop shop to another level, carrying a much more expansive array of foodstuffs as well as home goods, clothing, baby products, and even appliances. This is where it gets a little tricky—because supermarkets carry many of the same products as superstores, the next biggest fish in the food store chain, which are also sometimes referred to as hypermarkets.

According to The Houston Chronicle, supermarkets and superstores both order inventory in bulk and usually belong to large chains, whereas grocery stores order products on an as-needed basis and are often independently owned. Superstores, however, are significantly larger than either grocery stores or supermarkets, and they typically look more like warehouses. It’s not an exact science, and some people might have conflicting opinions about how to categorize specific stores. For example, Walmart has a line of Walmart Neighborhood Markets, which its website describes as “smaller-footprint option[s] for communities in need of a pharmacy, affordable groceries, and merchandise.” They’re not independently owned, but they do sound like grocery stores, especially compared to Walmart’s everything-under-the-sun superstore model.

Knowing the correct store terms might not always matter in casual conversation, but it could affect your credit card rewards earnings. American Express, for example, offers additional rewards on supermarket purchases, and it has a specific list of stores that qualify as supermarkets, including Gristedes, Shoprite, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods. Target and Walmart, on the other hand, are both considered superstores, so you won’t earn bonuses on those purchases.

And, since grocery shopping at any type of store can sometimes seem like a competitive sport, here’s the ideal time to go.

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

15 Words for Gossips and Chatterboxes

Sheikoevgeniya/iStock via Getty Images
Sheikoevgeniya/iStock via Getty Images

We all know someone who never seems to stop talking. They’re a yammerer, a babbler, a chatterbox—but they’re also a blatherskite, a clatterfart, and a twattle-basket, as well as a “clucking magpie” and a “seller of gossip."

1. Babliaminy

Babble has been used to mean “to talk excessively” since the mid-13th century at least; the word babliaminy, coined by the English playwright Thomas Middleton, was derived from it in 1608. You can also call an incessant babbler a babelard, a bablatrice, and …

2. Babble-Merchant

… an old English slang word, literally meaning “someone who sells nonsense noise.”

3. Blatherskite

Blatherskite or bletherskate is a 17th century word, probably originating in Scotland, that combines the verb blether or blather, meaning “to talk incessant nonsense,” and skite or skate, meaning “a sudden quick movement.”

4. Blatteroon

Derived from blaterare, a Latin word meaning “to chatter” or “babble,” blatteroon or blateroon first appeared in English in the mid-1600s.

5. Bloviator

Popularized by President Warren G. Harding (who probably picked it up from local Ohio slang in the late 19th century), the word bloviate is now taken to mean “to speak verbosely or long-windedly”­—and someone who does precisely that is a bloviator.

6. Clatteran

As a verb, you can use clatter to mean “to disclose secrets,” or “to chatter or gossip,” and clatteran—alongside clattern and the next word on this list—are all derivatives of that.

7. Clatterfart

According to one Tudor Latin-English dictionary from 1552, a clatterfart is someone who “will disclose any light secret.” In other words, a gossip or a blabbermouth.

8. Clipmalabor

Clipmalabor is an old Scots word for a gossip or a chatterbox, or according to the Scottish National Dictionary, “a senseless silly talker.” It’s a corruption of the earlier Scots word slip-ma-labor, which referred to a lazy slacker or idler who would literally let their work (i.e. their labor) “slip.” Ultimately, its original meaning was probably something along the lines of “someone who gossips while they should be working.”

9. Gashelbike

Gashle is an old dialect word meaning “to twist something out of shape,” while bike or beik is an old Scots derogatory term for a person’s mouth. And if you’re twisting your mouth out of shape by incessantly talking, then you’re a gashelbike.

10. Jangler

Long before it came to mean a jingling, clinking noise, the word jangle was used to mean “to talk excessively or noisily,” or “to dispute angrily.” It’s probably derived from an old French word meaning “to jeer” or “grumble,” and so a jangler was probably originally a constant, vocal complainer as much as a chatterer.

11. Jawsmith

Dating back to the 1880s at least, the word jawsmith began life as late 19th century American slang for a chatterbox, but ultimately it came also to be used to refer to a proficient or professional talker or orator, or a vociferous leader or demagogue.

12. Languager

This word is derived, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from an old French word, langagier, meaning “to talk abundantly.”

13. Pratepie

Prate has meant “to chatter” since the 15th century, and probably originally referred to the clucking of hens and poultry. The “pie” of pratepie comes from magpie, a bird that, like many other members of the crow family including jackdaws, jays, and choughs, has long been seen as a proverbially very vocal, garrulous creature.

14. Tongue-Pad

The word tongue-pad first appeared in English in the late 1600s, and was defined in A Dictionary of the Canting Crew in 1699 as “a smooth, glib-tongued, insinuating fellow.” That meaning had changed by the time it was added to Webster’s Dictionary in 1913, which defined it as “a great talker; a chatterbox.”

15. Twattle-Basket

What we would now called tittle-tattle was once also known as twittle-twattle in 16th century English, and derived from that, a twattle-basket is someone full of useless, idle chatter.

This list first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

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