15 Perfect Metaphors Hidden in Word Etymologies


It's human nature to conceive of abstract ideas through more immediate, concrete experiences—which is to say, through metaphors. Most of the words we have for abstract concepts began this way. We can still find evidence of these originating metaphors in the etymological history of our words. Here are 15 of them hidden in words where we may not see them anymore.


The central root of companion is pan- from the Latin for bread. Com is from the word for "with." A companion is a “with bread person,” a person you break bread with.


Explain comes from ex planare, or “out flatten.” When you explain something you flatten it out for inspection, so the meaning is laid out clearly for viewing.


The morse in remorse is from mordere, "to bite" (also found in the word morsel). When you have remorse over something, it is returning to bite at you.


In classical Latin, a norma was a carpenter’s square, used for confirming straight, right angles. To be normal is to be in accordance with the norma, to fit into the standard measurement.


In Latin, spirare is "to breathe." To ex spirare is to breathe out. When something expires, it has breathed out its last breath.


Pendere is to hang. It is also the root of pendulum. De- is "from," so to depend is to hang from. When something depends on something else, it hangs from it, at its mercy if it should let go.


The cord in discord is from the Latin word for heart. When there is discord, hearts are divided or separated from each other.


The –pede, also found in centipede and millipede, comes from the Latin for foot. Something that is impeded cannot go; its feet are entangled or otherwise obstructed.


Fant is the past participle of fari, to speak. To be infant is to be non-speaking or unable to speak. The word captures a salient characteristic of babies and very young children.


In Latin, humus is the earth, the soil, the ground (also seen in exhume, to bring something out of the ground). Humility is the characteristic of being low to the ground, and to humiliate is to bring someone to that low level.


Obvious comes from a joining of ob- (toward, against, in front of) and via (way, road). When something is obvious it is right there, in the way of you, in front of you in the road. You can’t miss it.


Dict is the past participle of the Latin dire, to speak or say. And ver- is the root for truth. A verdict is proclamation of a decision reached after judging the evidence, a saying of the truth.


The Latin verb minere is to hang over or jut out. Something that is in minere, or imminent, is hanging over or jutting out so much that it is about to fall.


The heart of this word is the root ducere, to lead. Appended to the front is e-, a shortened version of ex-, meaning "out." To educate is to lead out. Two metaphorical views are possible, one where the student is being led out of ignorance, and another where the potential of the student is being led out by the process of education.


Preposterous combines pre-, meaning "before" and post-, meaning "after." To be preposterous is to be before the after, or all out of order, which is a preposterous state to be in.

Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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

How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages

“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.


More from mental floss studios