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.”

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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