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15 Pairs of Words That Seem Etymologically Related, But Aren’t

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A crayfish is not a fish, an outrage is not a rage, and there’s no bomb in bombast. Words suggest one thing, but their histories tell us another.

1. PEN AND PENCIL

Pencil originally referred to a paintbrush with a fine, tapered end, and can be traced back to the Latin penicillus, for paintbrush. Pen, on the other hand, goes back to Latin penna, for feather, which is what the original pens were.

2. MALE AND FEMALE

Where male goes back to Latin masculus, female comes through French femelle from Latin femella. The eventual overlap in pronunciation was accidental.

3. FISH AND CRAYFISH

In Middle English, crayfish was crevice/-visse, related to French écrevisse, related to the German Krebs, for crab. The visse was close enough in pronunciation to fish that some confusion led to a spelling change.

4. HANG AND HANGNAIL

Though a hangnail seems to be a piece of skin that “hangs” off your nail area, it’s actually an “angry” nail. Ang-, meaning troubling or distressing in Latin, also meant painful in Old English.

5. EAR AND EAR (OF CORN)

Isn’t it odd how an ear of corn looks nothing like an ear? That’s because the root of the corn ear is in Old English éar or eher, which always referred to the spiky, seed bearing part of a grain plant, and not to éare, which always meant the ear.

6. HOUSE AND PENTHOUSE

There is no house in penthouse. It came from Anglo-Norman pentiz, which was an outbuilding, or “appendage” to a main building.

7. STAR AND STARLING

A starling is a bird of the genus Sturnus, which was the Latin name for the bird. It was called stær or stærlinc in Old English, and the pronunciation drifted its way to starling.

8. FACE AND SHAMEFACED

Shamefaced began as shamefast, with the same suffix found in steadfast and holdfast, and it had the sense of being shy or restrained by shame.

9. GINGER AND GINGERLY

The ginger in gingerly is not related to the spice identified by the genus Zingiber but to Old French gensor, which is related to gent, as in “well-born.” It referred to small, elegant steps, like those a gentleman would make.

10. STEP AND STEPMOTHER/FATHER

The step- in words for step family members comes not from the word for taking a step with the foot, nor the related metaphor for being removed by one unit, but to an old root stéop-, related to the concept of bereavement. The earliest use of this prefix was in an Old English word for orphan, stéopcild, or stepchild.

11. SCOTLAND AND SCOT-FREE

Scot-free is an alteration of shot-free, where shot was a charge or share of a payment. It was a lucky thing to get out of a meal or a night at the tavern shot-free. It later came to mean escaping without injury, and came to be pronounced as scot instead of shot.

12. LOCK AND WEDLOCK

Wedlock comes from Old English wedlác, where lác was a suffix that formed an action noun out of another noun. Other suffixed words were brýdlác (nuptials), réaflác (robbery), and feohtlác (warfare). Wedlock is the only one we still use today.

13. BOMB AND BOMBAST

Bombastic talk can be explosive and in-your-face, but the word traces back to the soft, downy, French bombace, the name for raw cotton. It was used as stuffing or padding in clothing and in that way took on the meaning of talk that enlarges, pads out, or inflates.

14. RAGE AND OUTRAGE

Etymologically speaking, outrage is not a type of rage. While rage traces back to the Latin for rabies, outrage comes from Old French ultrage, where the ult- is that of ultra, meaning beyond and the -age is the suffix found in plumage, steerage, usage, etc. Outrage is “ultra-age” or beyond-ness. It originally referred to a serious transgression or insult.

15. MAN AND HUMAN

Man comes from a Germanic root, and in all the Germanic languages has had both senses of “person” and “adult male person.” Human comes from a Latin root, humanus, meaning that having to do with people (rather than animals or gods).

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Can You Guess the Secret Word in This Brain Teaser?
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On his YouTube channel Mind Your Decisions, Presh Talwalkar shares logic puzzles dealing with geometry, statistics, and algebra. The puzzle below from the former Stanford math and economics student features no numbers, but that doesn’t mean it's easy to figure out.

To solve the brain teaser, you need to guess the secret word based on a few clues. Here’s the set-up: A teacher is leading a class and Albert, Bernard, and Cheryl are his students. He writes the words "cat," "dog," "has," "max," "dim," and "tag" on the board. He distributes one sheet of paper to each of his three students, with each piece containing a different letter from one of the words. He then tells them that together their letters spell one of the words on the board. The students only know their letter, they don’t know anyone else's.

The teacher asks Albert if he knows the secret word. Albert says yes, he does know it. Next, the teacher asks Bernard. After some hesitation, he replies that yes, he knows the secret word as well. Finally, the teacher asks Cheryl if she knows what the word is. She thinks for a moment and says that yes she does. Albert, Bernard, and Cheryl have successfully guessed the secret word. Do you know what it is based on their answers?

Figuring out the word without knowing any of its letters may seem difficult, but it’s not impossible. If you don’t know where to start, think about Albert’s answer and use the process of elimination to rule out some of the letters and words written on the board. Keep in mind that Bernard could only come to his conclusion from Albert’s answer, and Cheryl from Bernard’s.

Still lost? If you haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet, the correct answer is "dog." When Albert answers that he knows what the right word is based on one letter, you can use that information to narrow down his possible letters to one of the six that are never repeated on the board: c, o, h, s, x, and i. And when Bernard says that he knows too, you can deduce that his list of potential letters is limited to t, g, h, or s. That leaves "cat," "dog," and "has" as the three remaining options. Cheryl’s answer confirms that she has the letter d, which means the secret word is "dog."

If you’re looking for a more detailed walkthrough of the puzzle-solving process, check out the video from Presh Talwalkar below.

[h/t Mind Your Decisions]

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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