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15 Common Expressions Younger Kids Won't Understand

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Etymology is fun! It’s especially fun to learn about the quaint old-fashioned practices that gave rise to some of the words we use. Stereotype comes from printing, hard-up comes from sailing, pipe dream comes from opium dens.

Cultural practices change, technology changes, but words stick around—and not just in some long ago, far away place. It’s happening all around us as we speak, a hard truth that mental_floss editor-in-chief Jason recently had to face up to.

That’s right. Kids these days don’t know where hang up comes from, and those of us who remember the pre-cell phone era are already receding into the mysterious, etymological past. Here are 15 etymologies to answer the questions of future English speakers. Because the future is already here. 

1. WHY DO WE "HANG UP" A PHONE?

Phones used to have two parts to them, a base and a receiver. In order to end a call, the receiver had to be placed or "hung" on the base.

2. WHY DO WE "DIAL" A PHONE?

To call someone on an old phone, you had to stick your finger in a rotating dial at number positions that would turn the dial for various lengths of time when released. You had to do the entire number every time.

3. WHY DOES A PHONE OR ALARM CLOCK "RING"?

Now phones and alarm clocks can make any kind of sound to catch your attention, but a long time ago, phones and alarm clocks had little bells inside them for this purpose. 

4. WHY DO CASHIERS "RING UP" A PURCHASE?

Cash registers also used to have little bells in them. Cashiers would enter the price of each item on a set of mechanical levers, when they pressed the button to get the total, the total price would pop up in a window and the bell would ring.

5. WHY DO WE "ROLL" A WINDOW UP OR DOWN?

Cars used to have hand cranks in the doors that moved the windows up or down when turned. To open or close a window, you had to roll the crank around a few times.

6. WHERE DOES "SOUNDS LIKE A BROKEN RECORD" COME FROM?

Music used to be played on grooved discs, called records. When these discs were scratched or otherwise damaged, it would cause the same sound to be played over and over again. So to sound like a broken record was to repeat the same thing over and over.

7. WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF "LUGGAGE"?

People used to travel with big, heavy bags that had no wheels or collapsible handles. They had to "lug" these bags around from place to place. 

8. WHY DO WE DESCRIBE HEALTH FOOD PLACES AS "GRANOLA"?

I know! Granola is full of gluten and sugar! But decades ago, granola was considered a healthy alternative to eggs, pancakes, and bacon, which were then considered unhealthy.

9. WHY DO WE "TURN" A DEVICE ON OR OFF?

Many devices used to require the user to turn a handle or knob in order to release the flow of an energy producing substance like gas, steam, or electricity. To stop the flow the knob would be turned back the other way and the device would cease operating. 

10. WHY DO WE CALL IT A MESSAGE "BOARD"?

Before the internet, when people wanted to make an announcement or share information they would put it on a piece of paper and attach it to a board mounted in a public location where many people would see it.

11. WHY DO WE CALL SOME SHOWS "REALITY" TV?

Even though these shows do not actually show reality, at the time they first appeared, they were, in comparison, much less scripted and controlled than other shows, so they seemed somehow closer to the world as the way it was.

12. WHAT IS "CLOCKWISE"?

Clocks used to be a circular array of numbers, with pointers mounted on a controller in the center that moved around the circle over the course of the day. The direction that the pointers moved, beginning towards the right at the top of the circle, was referred to as clockwise.

13. WHY DO WE SAY "ON LINE" FOR COMPUTER THINGS?

In the early days of computing, when one machine needed to communicate with another, they had to be attached with a physical cord or "line." Processes that could be completed without this communication were "off line."

14. WHY DO WE SAY "REWIND" FOR A DO-OVER?

Video and audio used to be on strips of tape that moved across a reader in order to be played. A gear on one side would wind the tape, pulling across it the reader from a wheel on the other side. When you wanted to re-play a section you had just heard or seen, or go back to the beginning, you had to re-wind the tape in the other direction.

15. WHAT DOES "CC" MEAN ON AN EMAIL?

When you cc someone, you send them a copy of your message. It comes from carbon copy, an old method of creating copies of paper documents by transferring lines via carbon paper.

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Words
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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Here's How British and American Spelling Parted Ways
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Why do Brits and Americans spell certain words differently? A colourful tale of dictionaries, politics, and national identity ensues here.

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