12 Historical Speeches Nobody Ever Heard

U.S. National Archives // Public Domain
U.S. National Archives // Public Domain

For every speech, there are a bunch of versions that ended up on the writers' room floor. Here are 12 speeches that were written but, for a variety of reasons, never delivered.

1. “In Event of Moon Disaster”

As the world nervously waited for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to land on the moon, Nixon speechwriter William Safire penned a speech in case the astronauts were stranded in space. The memo was addressed to H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, and includes chilling directions for the president, NASA, and clergy in case something went awry.

Here's the text:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

2. Eisenhower’s “In Case of Failure” Message

General Dwight D. Eisenhower sounded confident before the Normandy Invasion. “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be. We’re going down there, and we’re throwing everything we have into it, and we’re going to make it a success,” he said.

Operation Overlord was a massive campaign—an invasion of 4000 ships, 11,000 planes, and nearly three million men. Despite a year of strategizing and a boatload of confidence, Eisenhower had a quiet plan in case his mission failed. If the armada couldn’t cross the English Channel, he’d order a full retreat. One day before the invasion, he prepared a brief speech just in case:

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone."

Although the allies suffered about 12,000 casualties—with an estimated 4900 U.S. troops killed—155,000 successfully made it ashore, with thousands more on the way. Within a year, Germany would surrender.

3. Wamsutta James’s 1970 Plymouth Anniversary Speech

The people of Plymouth, Massachusetts wanted to celebrate. It was the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims, and a day of festivities was planned. For the celebration dinner, organizers invited Wamsutta James—a descendent of the Wampanoag—to speak. They hoped James would give a cheery address recounting the friendly Pilgrim-Indian relationship. But James was not interested in that airbrushed version of history:

"It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you—celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People."

From there, James debunked a slew of cultural myths. The relationship between Pilgrims and Native Americans was always uneasy, he said. Wampanoag ancestors had lived in New England for nearly 10,000 years before the Europeans had arrived. But, in just a few years, the newcomers had brought disease and gobbled up land. The relationship eventually burst in 1675, when King Philip’s War erupted, decimating the Native American population and Wampanoag culture.

"History wants us to believe that the Indian was a savage, illiterate, uncivilized animal. A history that was written by an organized, disciplined people, to expose us as an unorganized and undisciplined entity. Two distinctly different cultures met. One thought they must control life; the other believed life was to be enjoyed, because nature decreed it. Let us remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white man. The Indian feels pain, gets hurt, and becomes defensive, has dreams, bears tragedy and failure, suffers from loneliness, needs to cry as well as laugh. He, too, is often misunderstood."

When James submitted his address for approval, the organizers rejected it. They asked him to read a speech prepared by a public relations writer instead. James walked away.

4. “I Don’t Feel Like Resigning”

With swaths of damning evidence around him and no support behind him, Richard Nixon stared into a television camera August 8, 1974, and announced his resignation. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. That was Plan B.

A few days earlier, Nixon’s speechwriter, Raymond Price, prepared two drafts for that address. In one—titled “Option B”—Nixon announced his resignation. In the other speech, he vowed to fight for his job. Here’s an excerpt:

“Whatever the mistakes that have been made—and there are many—and whatever the measure of my own responsibility for those mistakes, I firmly believe that I have not committed any act of commission or omission that justifies removing a duly elected official from office. If I did believe that I had committed such an act, I would have resigned long ago. . .”

“If I were to resign, it would spare the country additional months consumed with the ordeal of a Presidential impeachment and trial. But it would leave unresolved the questions that have already cost the country so much in anguish, division and uncertainty. More important, it would leave a permanent crack in our Constitutional structure: it would establish the principle that under pressure, a President could be removed from office by means short of those provided by the Constitution.”

Shortly after the speech was written, the “smoking gun” was released—a tape-recording of Nixon’s plan to halt the FBI’s Watergate investigation. His political support evaporated overnight. Impeachment became a certainty: “Option B” was the only option left.

5. JFK’s Dallas Trade Mart Speech

It was late November 1963, and President Kennedy had begun a two-day, five-city tour of Texas. After a speedy 13-minute flight from Fort Worth, a motorcade picked up JFK at the Dallas airport and took him on a ten-mile tour through downtown. The president was bound for the Trade Mart, where he was scheduled to speak at a luncheon. He never made it.

Here’s a short excerpt of Kennedy’s undelivered Trade Mart speech.

“There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding faults but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.

But today other voices are heard in the land—voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. . .

We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that few people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this Nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is not but just plain nonsense.

That day, Americans sorely needed to hear Kennedy’s unread closing:

“[Our] strength will never be used in pursuit of aggressive ambitions—it will always be used in pursuit of peace. It will never be used to promote provocations—it will always be used to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

A second undelivered Dallas speech, for the Texas Democratic Committee in Austin, can be found here.

6. Anna Quindlen’s 2000 Villanova Commencement Address

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Anna Quindlen had already written Villanova’s keynote speech when protests at the Catholic university began to roil. A handful of students disagreed with Quindlen’s views on abortion, and the issue boiled over so badly that Quindlen bowed out from the event. Although never delivered, her speech “A Short Guide to a Happy Life” has been widely circulated on the internet:

“Get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. . . Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over the water gap or the way a baby scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.

"And realize that life is the best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted. . . It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the color of azaleas, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kid’s eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live.”

7. Condoleezza Rice’s 9/11 Address


Getty Images

On September 11, 2001, Condoleezza Rice was slated to deliver a speech at Johns Hopkins University, addressing “the threats and problems of today and the day after.” Terrorists made their own statement that morning, forcing Rice to scrap her speech.

In 2004, excerpts from Rice’s address leaked to The Washington Post. The speech did not mention Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden. Rather, it promoted missile defense as an upgraded security strategy. Of the few lines released publicly, one read:

“We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb, and the vial of sarin released in the subway [but] why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of Mace then decide to leave your windows open?”

8. Ninoy Aquino Jr’s Last Remarks

Philippine Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. was not a fan of President Ferdinand Marcos. When Aquino stirred up the political pot, Marcos’s regime—ruled by martial law—tossed Aquino in jail. Years later, Aquino made his way out of prison and exiled himself in the United States. In 1983, upon hearing that life in the Philippines was getting worse, Aquino returned home to help. He came armed with a stirring speech:

“I have returned on my free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through nonviolence. I seek no confrontation. I only pray and will strive for a genuine national reconciliation founded on justice. . . A death sentence awaits me. Two more subversion charges, both calling for death penalties, have been filled since I left three years ago and are now pending with the courts. . . I return voluntarily armed only with a clear conscience and fortified faith that in the end justice will emerge triumphant. According to Gandhi, the willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God and man.”

Aquino never read the address. Over 1000 armed soldiers awaited his landing. He was immediately arrested and, while waiting for his prison escort, was shot in the head. The assassination spurred a revolt against Marcos’s regime, which crumbled three years later.

9. JFK’s Other Cuban Missile Crisis Speech

Keystone/Getty Images

America soiled its collective pants October 22, 1962. The country’s eyes were glued to the television as President Kennedy said what everyone feared: Cuba had missiles, and they were “capable of hitting any city in the western hemisphere.” The United States was a giant bullseye.

Kennedy announced a Cuban “quarantine,” a military blockade that restricted weapons and other materials to the island. Other options, however, were on the table—a second, more aggressive, address announced plans for an airstrike. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, didn’t write the second speech, but he did read it, and he was disturbed by its opening:

“I have ordered—and the United States Air Force has now carried out—military operations with conventional weapons to remove a major nuclear weapons build-up from the soil of Cuba.”

The alternate speech said that America would use nuclear weapons if necessary—a bold statement that never appeared in Kennedy’s televised address. It’s unknown who wrote the speech and if Kennedy ever saw it. “There is still a minor mystery as to who, if anyone, was asked to draft an alternative speech announcing and justifying an air strike on the missiles,” Sorensen later wrote.

10. Romney’s 47 Percent Fixer-Upper

Rick Friedman/Corbis

When Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments leaked in September, his campaign scrambled for a fix. A flurry of press conferences followed as the Romney camp tried to patch the damage. Later in September, an undelivered speech was leaked to the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a taste of what it said:

“One tragedy of the Obama Presidency is how many more Americans have become dependent on the government. I know it’s not their fault. Most want to be self-sufficient, to provide for their families, they can’t because there aren’t enough jobs. . . This is a national scandal. Not because those fellow Americans are free-loaders, but because they aren’t able to get a good job that pays enough to be self-sufficient and lets them fulfill their human potential. . . I don’t want to take food stamps away from Americans in need. I want fewer Americans to need food stamps.”

11. Sarah Palin’s Victory and Concession Speeches

Getty Images

Sarah Palin’s relationship with John McCain was never very warm and fuzzy. The Palin and McCain camps constantly clashed along the campaign trail. As one McCain official explained in a New York Times interview, “It was a difficult relationship… McCain talked to her occasionally.”

The duo’s biggest duel occurred on election night. Palin’s speechwriter, Matthew Scully, had drawn up two speeches: a victory and concession address. Hours before the candidates took the stage, McCain’s senior staffers told Palin that she couldn’t read either. According to The Daily Beast, McCain aides “literally turned the lights out on Palin when she retook the stage later that night to take pictures with her family, fearing that she would give the concession speech after all.”

Here’s the best of Palin’s undelivered addresses:

Victory Speech:

“As for my own family, well, it’s been quite a journey these past 69 days. We were ready, in defeat, to return to a place and a life we love. And I said to my husband Todd that it’s not a step down when he’s no longer Alaska’s 'First Dude.' He will now be the first guy ever to become the 'Second Dude.'

Concession Speech:

“I told my husband Todd to look at the upside: Now, at least, he can clear his schedule, and get ready for championship title number five in the Iron Dog snow machine race!. . . But far from returning to the great State of Alaska with any sense of sorrow, we will carry with us the best of memories. . . and joyful experiences that do not depend on victory.”

“America has made her choice. . . Now it is time for us go our way, neither bitter nor vanquished, but instead confident in the knowledge that there will be another day… and we may gather once more. . . and find new strength. . . and rise to fight again.”

12. FDR’s Final Words


Getty Images

April 12, 1945, was a beautiful day in Warm Springs, Georgia. Franklin D. Roosevelt relaxed inside his woodland cottage, the “Little White House,” and was having his portrait painted. But during lunch, a bolt of pain shot through the back of his head, causing him to collapse. By 3:35 pm, doctors had pronounced the president dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. A speech sat in FDR’s study, unread.

Roosevelt had edited the speech the night before. It was an address for Jefferson Day, a celebration of Thomas Jefferson, and was supposed to be delivered April 13 via a national radio broadcast. Here’s an excerpt of FDR’s last words to the American people:

“Let me assure you that my hand is the steadier for the work that is to be done, that I move more firmly into the task, knowing that you—millions and millions of you—are joined with me in the resolve to make this work endure.

The work, my friends, is peace, more than an end of this war—an end to the beginning of all wars, yes, an end, forever, to this impractical, unrealistic settlement of the differences between governments by the mass killing of peoples.

Today as we move against the terrible scourge of war—as we go forward toward the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this world—the contribution of lasting peace—I ask you to keep up your faith. . .

The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
kieferpix/iStock via Getty Images

Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
ChristinLola/iStock via Getty Images

There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
FromtheWintergarden/iStock via Getty Images

The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER