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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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What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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Of Buckeyes and Butternuts: 29 States With Weird Nicknames for Their Residents
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Tracing a word’s origin and evolution can yield fascinating historical insights—and the weird nicknames used in some states to describe their residents are no exception. In the Mental Floss video above, host John Green explains the probable etymologies of 29 monikers that describe inhabitants of certain states across the country.

Some of these nicknames, like “Hoosiers” and “Arkies” (which denote residents of Indiana and Arkansas, respectively) may have slightly offensive connotations, while others—including "Buckeyes," "Jayhawks," "Butternuts," and "Tar Heels"—evoke the military histories of Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. And a few, like “Muskrats” and “Sourdoughs,” are even inspired by early foods eaten in Delaware and Alaska. ("Goober-grabber" sounds goofier, but it at least refers to peanuts, which are a common crop in Georgia, as well as North Carolina and Arkansas.)

Learn more fascinating facts about states' nicknames for their residents by watching the video above.

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