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.”

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

iStock.com/xxz114
iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

15 Ripsniptious Faux-Educated Words of the 19th Century

London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

In his 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, John Camden Hotten discussed a recent craze for long, fancy-sounding made-up words. These drew, loosely and creatively, on the prefixes and suffixes of educated big words to get their point across. “Nothing pleases an ignorant person,” he writes, “more than a high-sounding term ‘full of fury.’ How melodious and drum-like are those vulgar coruscations … what a ‘pull’ the sharp-nosed lodging-house keeper thinks she has over her victims if she can but hurl such testimonies of a liberal education at them when they are disputing her charges, and threatening to ABSQUATULATE!”

Though an educated person could sneer at the "vulgar" corruption of Latin-inspired word formation rules, few could deny their delicious mouth-feel, the genius rhythm with which they rolled off the tongue. Most of the terms came and went in the way that slang does, but a few were so melodious and apt that they became a part of our permanent vocabulary. Here are 15 of the most ripsniptious faux-educated words of the period.

1. Absquatulate

This word, popular in the 1830s, meant to make off with something. It vaguely calls up abscond, but in a longer and more complicated way. There was also an alternate term absquatualize and the noun abscotchalater, meaning thief.

2. Rambunctious

This familiar term also emerged in the U.S. around 1830 and was probably formed off the earlier rumbustious.

3. Bloviate

Bloviate, a combination of blow and orate, goes back to the 1850s. It was widely popularized in the early 1900s by President Warren G. Harding, who was known for his long, windy speeches.

4. Discombobulated

This word for a feeling of uncomfortable confusion started in the 1820s as discombobberate. There was also a noun conbobberation, used to refer to some kind of disturbance.

5. Explaterate

The –ate suffix was a particular favorite in these words. Explaterate, a bit like explain and a bit like prattle, meant talk on and on in the 1830s.

6. Teetotaciously

A much more forceful and enjoyable way to say "totally."

7. Exflunctify

"To drain" or "wear out." An activity could exfluncticate you and leave you worn out or exflunctified—or even worse, teetotaciously exflunctified.

8. Obflisticate

Obliterate is a perfectly fine word of proper standing, but its substitute obflisticate somehow makes the obliteration seem more complete.

9. Ripsniptious

Snappy, smart, heart-filling and grand. “Why, don’t you look right ripsniptious today!”

10. Bodaciously

Our modern sense of bodacious as "excellent" didn’t come about until the 1970s, but in the 1830s, bodaciously was used as an exaggerated way to say bodily. If you weren’t careful out there in the wilderness, you could get “bodaciously chewed up by a grizzly bear.”

11. Discumgalligumfricated

Louise Pound, founder of the journal American Speech, recorded this glorious creation, meaning “greatly astonished but pleased,” in her notes on the terms used by her students at the University of Nebraska in the early 1900s.

12. Ramsasspatorious

This word for "excited, anxious, impatient" makes you feel all three at the same time.

13. Slantingdicular

If something can be perpendicular, why not slantingdicular (also written as slantindicular)? This one, first seen in the 1840s, deserves a comeback.

14. Dedodgement

Old dialect descriptions note this as a Kentucky term for "exit."

15. Explicitrize

H.L. Menken’s The American Language records explicitrize as a word for "censure."

This list was first published in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER