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13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. BUG

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. CABAL

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word "cabal" is a complete coincidence.

3. GOLF

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. KANGAROO

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like "kangaroo." Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. MARMALADE

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade," ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. NASTY

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. POSH

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. PUMPERNICKEL

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. SH*T

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. SINCERE

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. SIRLOIN

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. SNOB

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.  

13. SWORD

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12 . This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce." 

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23 Slang Terms You Only Understand if You Work in Antarctica
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Thanks to extreme conditions, a small research population, close quarters, and the unique experience of life there, Antarctica has developed a lingo all of its own. Yes, even freezing, remote Antarctica has slang. Here is a sample of some, er, cooler terms, which come from the many English-speaking nationalities, from Canada to New Zealand, that have stepped foot on its ice.

1. BIG EYE

In winter, Antarctica is covered in perpetual darkness; in summer, sunlight. The continent can certainly put a wrench in one’s circadian rhythms, as this slang for light-related insomnia makes plain.

2. TOASTY

Antarctica’s climate also puts a wrench in one’s mental faculties. Crew stationed there often experience a loss of words, forgetfulness, irascibility, and “brain fog” brought on by the dark, cold, and altitude. Toasty is also used for other general misdemeanors committed around the camp.

3. ICE SHOCK

Antarctica’s shell shock. As one Antarctica-based worker blogged about it, ice shock is “when you get back to the rest of the world and realize that no matter how insane Antarctica is, the real world is FAR nuttier, and that you can no longer function in it.”

4. GREENOUT

A riff on whiteout. As The Antarctic Dictionary defines it, greenout is “the overwhelming sensation induced by seeing and smelling trees and other plants spending some time in antarctic regions.”

5. THE ICE

Speaking of the ice, this is how Antarcticans refer to the whole ice-covered continent.

6. CHEECH

Not the counterpart of Chong, but a play on consonant clusters in the name of the place from which many researchers jump off to Antarctica: Christchurch, New Zealand.

7. MACTOWN

McMurdo Station, the U.S. research hub and largest Antarctic community, which can host around 1250 residents in summer.

8. CITY MICE

These are personnel who work at the main research stations.

9. COUNTRY MICE

These are crew who move among different camps on the continent.

10. ICE-HUSBAND/ICE-WIFE

When the cat's away, the mice will play. One’s ice-husband or ice-wife is like a fling for crew down in Antarctica for the season.

11. ICE-WIDOW/ICE-WIDOWER

Meanwhile, one’s spouse or significant other is stuck all alone back home as their loved one is working at the South Pole.

12. FINGY

This pejorative term for a newbie apparently derives from “f—king new guy,” or FNG.

13. BEAKER

An epithet for “scientist.” Some specialist personnel also have nicknames, like fuelie (responsible for fueling various equipment) and wastie (who deal with refuse).

14. WINTER-OVER

When crew, bravely, stay in Antarctica over the entire brutal winter.

15. TURDSICLE

It gets cold down at the southern end of the world. The average—yes, average—temperature is -52ºF. The excrement freezeth, shall we say.

16. SNOTSICLE

So too do boogers freeze in this blend of snot and icicle.

17. DEGOMBLE

“To disencumber of snow,” as The Antarctic Dictionary explains, especially before coming back inside shelter. The origin of gomble is obscure, possibly a term for little balls of snow stuck to the fur of sled dogs.

18. SKUA

Named for the predatory, scavenging skua birds found in Antarctica, a skua pile or bin is a sort of rummage bin. Crew can leave and pick over unwanted items there. Also used as a verb.

19. OFFENSIVE POTATOES

British speakers apparently did not take a liking to canned potatoes they had to eat ...

20. SAWDUST

... nor the dried cabbage.

21. FRESHIES

Shipments of these fresh fruits and vegetables are quite welcome to the cuisine-deprived Antarctica researchers and personnel.

22. POPPY

Alcohol served over Antarctica ice, which makes a pop sound as it releases the gas long pressurized into it.

23. CARROTS

Not that much of the food sounds terribly edible, if slang is any measure, but these carrots aren’t to be munched on. They refer to ice cores, ‘uprooted’ samples whose cylindrical shape resemble the vegetable.

This slang is only the tip of the, um, iceberg. For more, see Bernadette Hince’s The Antarctica Dictionary, the Cool Antarctica website, and The Allusionist podcast, which has explored linguistic life on the ice in its episode, “Getting Toasty.”

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What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
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Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.

1. METHIONYLTHREONYLTHREONYGLUTAMINYLARGINYL … ISOLEUCINE 

Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.

2. LOPADOTEMACHOSELACHOGALEOKRANIOLEIPSAN …P TERYGON

The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 

3. PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS

At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.

4. PARASTRATIOSPHECOMYIA STRATIOSPHECOMYIOIDES 

The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.

5. PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM

This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.

6. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.

7. SUBDERMATOGLYPHIC

At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 

8. SQUIRRELLED

Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.

9. ABSTENTIOUS

One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.

10. ROTAVATOR 

A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

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