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.”

40 Dandy D-Words To Deepen Your Vocabulary

iStock/gazanfer gungor
iStock/gazanfer gungor

It’s thought that the earliest ancestor of our humble letter D was an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph representing a door, which is where D get its hollowed-out shape from. Over time, that hieroglyph became a Phoenician letter, dalet, which then became the Greek letter delta, and finally the Roman letter D, which arrived in England (along with most of the rest of the modern alphabet) from continental Europe more than 1500 years ago.

Before then, English was written using a runic writing system called futhorc, a number of the letters of which—like thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ)—survived into the Old English period before dying out later. The Old English letter eth(Ð ð), however, effectively went the other way: it was invented in Britain (or perhaps Ireland) after the introduction of the Latin alphabet to England, and is actually a derivative of the Roman letter D. Although it too eventually fell out of use, it still survives in modern-day Icelandic.

Nowadays, D is one of the most frequently used letters of our alphabet, accounting for just over 4 percent of a standard page of English text (or one out of every 25 letters), and roughly 2.5 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 delicious D words listed here…

1. DAB-DUMP

An old Yorkshire dialect word for a pool of water left on the beach after the tide retreats.

2. DABERLICK

Daberlick or dabberlack is an old dialect name for long, straggly seaweed. Figuratively, it can be used as a nickname for greasy, lank hair, or for a tall, gangly person.

3. DABSTER

An astute or especially skilled worker.

4. DAFFLED

If you’re daffled, then you’re bewildered or disorientated by a sensory overload.

5. DANDIE-CLAW

A dandie-claw is an easily completed task or, when used in the phrase, “to give it the dandie-claw,” it essentially means “that won’t last long,” or “that won’t take long to finish off.” No one is quite sure where the phrase comes from, but it’s possible that a dandy or dandie-claw was originally a small brush used to groom horses, which at some point in time might have become synonymous with a brief or undemanding chore.

6. DANDLE

To bounce a baby on your knee is to dandle it.

7. DANG-SWANG

To do something dang-swang is to do it vigorously, or with great energy or enthusiasm.

8. DANGLEMENT

An 18th century word either for a finger, or for a dangling decoration, or trim on a garment. A danglet—literally a “little dangle”—is an icicle.

9. DAPPERPYE

An old adjective meaning “variegated” or “multi-colored.”

10. DAPPERWIT

A quick-witted, lively young man.

11. DARING-HARDY

A Shakespearean invention meaning “recklessly bold,” or “foolhardy.”

12. DAWK

A thick fog or mist.

13. DAYLIGAUN

An old Scots word for twilight, dayligaun literally means “daylight-going.”

14. DEAD-HORSE

As a metaphor for something that has ceased to be useful, the term dead horse is today more often than not used in the phrase “flogging a dead horse,” meaning “to fruitlessly continue with something all interest has been lost in.” Before then, however, dead-horse was a 17th-century term for work for which you’d been paid in full in advance—and so to work the dead-horse or for a dead horse meant “to busy yourself in work that at the end of which you won’t be paid.” A dead-man, incidentally, is an old English nickname for an empty liquor bottle, so being down among the dead-men meant “passed out drunk on the floor” in 18th-century English.

15. DEAD-NIP

18th-century slang for a failed idea.

16. DEAMBULATE

To walk about, or to stray away from home.

17. DECIDOPHOBIA

If you’re decidophobic, then you hate making decisions. Other D phobias include dendrophobia (trees), dromophobia (running, or crossing roads), didaskaleinophobia (school), dipsophobia (alcohol), and doraphobia (animal furs).

18. DEDOLEATE

A 17th-century word meaning “to cease to be unhappy.”

19. DEJERATE

To swear a solemn oath. Someone who does precisely that is a dejerator.

20. DEONERATE

To unpack cargo or to remove someone’s burden is to deonerate them. To depauperate them is to impoverish them, while to depulse them would be to drive them off.

21. DEPECULATE

Peculation is an old 17th-century legal term for embezzlement—in particular, the embezzlement of funds belonging to a country or head of state. To peculate or depeculate, ultimately, is an old-fashioned word meaning “to steal by peculation,” which was typically used to refer to public officials pilfering state funds for their own personal use.

22. DEPEDITATE

In medical terminology, a depeditation is the amputation of a foot. Thankfully, the relative verb depeditate can simply be used to mean “to be deprived of the use of your feet”—worth remembering next time you go deambulating in a new pair of shoes.

23. DEPROELIATION

Derived from a Latin word meaning “to engage violently in war,” deproeliation is just a 17th-century word for a battle.

24. DIABLERIE

The perfect word for Dr. Faustus: diablerie is work or business done with, or for, the Devil. Figuratively, it can mean recklessness or audaciousness, or else any underhand, shady dealing.

25. DIABLOTIN

Borrowed into English from French in the 1800s, a diablotin is a tiny devil or imp. It’s also, because of its unusual appearance, a nickname for the oilbird.

26. DIAL-PLATE

An 18th century nickname for a person’s face (derived from the dial or “face” of a clock).

27. DILLYALL

An old English dialect word for anything owned because it looks nice, not because it’s useful or functional.

28. DILORICATE

To diloricate something is to rip or tear it. It derives from a Latin word, lorica, for a Roman soldier’s leather cuirass or breastplate—and so might originally have referred to injuries suffered in battle that were bad enough to puncture armor.

29. DIMBER

Dimber was a 17th-century word meaning “pretty” or “smart,” while a dimber-damber was the leader or “face” of a gang of rogues or vagabonds.

30. DISCALCEATE

To discalceate is to remove your shoes. Worth remembering once you’ve deambulated and depeditated.

31. DO-NO-BETTER

The slightly less complimentary Edwardian equivalent of bae—a do-no-better or do-nae-better was “a sweetheart whom one has to be content with, for want of a better.”

32. DOATY

When your head nods up and down while you’re trying to stay awake? That’s doatying.

33. DOCH-AN-DORRIS

A doch-an-dorris or deochandorus is a “stirrup-cup”—a drink or toast made with, or in honor of, someone about to leave. It derives from an old 17th-century Scots Gaelic phrase, deoch an doruis, that literally means “door-drink.”

34. DOCK-WALLOPER

Originally a nickname for someone who hangs around dockyards looking for work, dock-walloper is an old 19th-century American slang word for a loafer or idler.

35. DOLLYMAWKIN

A frivolous, scatterbrained young woman.

36. DOODLE-SHOP

An old dialect nickname for a sweetshop.

37. DRAGGLETAIL

In 18th-century English, an untidily or slatternly dressed woman. Literally, a woman who has let the tails of her dress drag through the rain or mud.

38. DULCILOQUY

A soft or sweet manner of speaking. Likewise, if you’re dulciloquent, then you have a pleasant voice.

39. DUTCH CONCERT

The incomprehensibleness of Dutch to speakers of English is the origin of double Dutch, meaning “gibberish” or “nonsense,” and Dutch concert, an old nickname for an incongruous or cacophonous mishmash of noises or sounds.

40. DWINE

To dwindle or pine away.

This article originally ran in 2016.

To Apostrophe or Not to Apostrophe: How to Pluralize Your Last Name

iStock.com/katerinasergeevna
iStock.com/katerinasergeevna

Let's suppose your last name is Jones, and you and your family want to send out holiday greeting cards or wedding invitations. How would you make your last name plural—Jones'? Jones's? Or Joneses?

Although it may seem complicated at first, the rules of pluralizing last names are actually pretty simple, as Slate has pointed out. Unless you want to make your last name possessive, there aren't any circumstances where you would need to add an apostrophe.

The rule goes like this: If your name ends in s, x, z, ch, or sh, add -es to the end. Walsh becomes Walshes, and Malkovich becomes Malkoviches. For all other endings, simply add -s to the end (as in Smiths, Whites, Johnsons, etc).

Of course, things get a little trickier when you want to make a last name plural and possessive. "Errors involving plural proper names are so common that I almost never see them written correctly," June Casagrande writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Let's say you want to notify friends and family that a party will be held at the Jones household. You could take the easy way out and write just that, or you could opt for, "The party will be held at the Joneses' house." Simply tack an apostrophe onto the end of a plural name to make it possessive. Plural first, then possessive.

The LA Times provided a few other examples of plural possessives:

"Unlike singular possessives, which take an apostrophe followed by an S, plural possessives take an apostrophe alone. So if you're going to the home of the Smiths, you're going to the Smiths' house. If you're going to visit the Williamses, that would be at the Williamses' house. Mr. and Mrs. Mendez, known collectively as the Mendezes, live in the Mendezes' house. And Mr. and Mrs. Berry, whom we call the Berrys, live in the Berrys' house."

On the other hand, if Mr. Jones lived alone and was having a party at his place, you would write "Mr. Jones' house" or "Mr. Jones's house." Both are acceptable—it's merely a difference of style and personal preference. Names that end in s are the exception to the singular possessive rule, though. You'd normally just add 's to make a singular name possessive, such as Mr. Berry's house or Mrs. Mendez's house.

Now that you know exactly when and where to add an apostrophe, your holiday greetings will not only be jolly but also grammatically correct.

[h/t Slate]

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