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15 Old Words for the Duplicitous That We Should Bring Back

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Duplicitous is a word with an appropriately tricky origin. It was originally a legal term for including two pleas in one, which is a no-no. Much like that origin, many terms for the Iago-like and Loki-ish have been lost in the mists of time (or maybe stolen by some rat-brained, two-hearted turncoat). Consider reviving these words the next time you encounter anyone twistical.

1. AMBIDEXTROUS

This word is usually a compliment, or at least a neutral description of an impressive talent: being equally skilled with both hands. Maybe because the left hand has often been considered disreputable or even Satanic, the word for this ability took a turn. Laurence Sterne’s A Political Romance, published in 1968, gives this word some slimy ilk, describing “A little, dirty, pimping, pettifogging, ambidextrous fellow.”

2. TWISTICAL

This term, around since the early 1800s, can be literal or figurative. A winding road can be called twistical, but so can a lying scumbag. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition is deadpan and wonderful: “… not straight or plain in character; morally or mentally tortuous.” An example from David Humphreys’ 1815 book The Yankey in England describes a common problem in sketchy men: “In his dealings with t'other sex, he is a leetle twistical.”

3., 4., 5., AND 6. TWO-HEARTED, DOUBLE-HEARTED, TWO HEARTS AND DOUBLE HEART

Two-faced is a common term for the untrustworthy (and the inspiration for a Batman villain), and the number two is part of many similar terms. An OED example from some 1649 religious literature goes on a guitar solo of dualities: “Unlesse we have two faces, two tongues, two understandings, two judgements, two consciences, two hearts, two pair of hands, two pair of leggs, two purses, which every honest man hath not, we cannot see how it may be done.”

7. DOUBLE-HEADED

This term is usually literal, describing trains, snakes, and monsters with two noggins. But it’s sometimes been part of the lexicon of duplicity, much like double-hearted.

8. HAVE AS MANY FACES AS A CHURCHYARD CLOCK

The wonderful Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS) records this expression, which ups the ante from two-centric terms for the untrustworthy, suggesting that a rogue or rascal has, like a church clock, no less than four faces. It was recorded in a 1925 collection of sailor slang as a word for “an unreliable man.”

9. GAMMONACIOUS

This word for describing anything duplicitous stems from the many sketchy meanings of gammon. Gammon and patter is criminal cant or slang. Gammon and spinach is horsefeathers. Various other meanings involve tricking, wheedling, or seducing someone, so if someone’s being twistical, they’re gammonacious.

10., 11., AND 12. TWI-FACED, TWIFOLD, AND DOUBLE

Many meanings of twifold simply refer to things that are two-pronged but basically innocent. Other senses refer to double-dealing diabolical denizens of Deceit-ville. Since the 1300s, double all on its own has had more than a numerical meaning, conveying two-facedness and base treachery. In 1715, Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Time described a dude who was “very double, or very inconstant.” In 1866’s Felix Holt, the Radical, George Elliot wrote about a tricky situation: “To act with doubleness towards a man whose own conduct was double.” This kind of meaning informs double agent.

13. SWIKEL

With roots in Old German and Old Norse, this is one of the least familiar words for the ever-familiar topic of duplicity. You don’t hear about swikel words, deeds, and creeps anymore, which is too bad. There was a real ring to variations such as swikelness and swikeldom.

14. RAT-BRAINED

Rats are among the least trusted animals, along with the stool pigeon and guttersnake. Since the first half of the 1900s, rat-brained has been a term for the sneaky and prevaricating, as seen in an example from William F. Fowler’s The Battle of 1933, published the following year: “The rat brained, snake-eyed rascals who conceal their rascality under the dignified expression ‘financial genius.’” 

15. HOOKEM-SNIVEY

This oddball adjective from the Dictionary of American Regional English is used in a 1938 Atlantic Monthly describing “hookem-snivey capers with public money.”

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Words
How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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language
The Evolution of "Two" in the Indo-European Language Family
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The Indo-European language family includes most of the languages of Europe as well as many languages in Asia. There is a long research tradition that has shown, though careful historical comparison, that languages spanning a huge linguistic and geographical range, from French to Greek to Russian to Hindi to Persian, are all related to each other and sprung from a common source, Proto-Indo-European. One of the techniques for studying the relationship of the different languages to each other is to look at the similarities between individual words and work out the sound changes that led from one language to the next.

This diagram, submitted to Reddit by user IronChestplate1, shows the word for two in various Indo-European languages. (The “proto” versions, marked with an asterisk, are hypothesized forms, built by working backward from historical evidence.) The languages cluster around certain common features, but the words are all strikingly similar, especially when you consider the words for two in languages outside the Indo-European family: iki (Turkish), èjì (Yoruba), ni (Japanese), kaksi (Finnish), etc. There are many possible forms two could take, but in this particular group of languages it is extremely limited. What are the chances of that happening by accident? Once you see it laid out like this, it doesn’t take much to put *dwóh and *dwóh together.

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