Bizarre And Hilarious Word Origin Stories From The English Language

People speak an average of 16,000 words every day. It's not often that we take a moment to stop and think about the origin of each of these words the stories behind their creation, and how they came to be a part of our every day life. Below are some of the most interesting word origin stories of the English (and a couple other) language. 

If you would like to read more, click on the source under each word.

The latin prefix pen comes from paene, which means almost. So a peninsula is almost an island, the penultimate thing is almost last. I wonder what that means about people named Penelope? 

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The word dingbat has an incredibly diverse array of meanings and applications. It's not just a funny insult to hurl at your friends. 

First, it referred to an alcoholic drink in 1838. Then it evolved to mean something similar to words such as "thingamabob" or "gizmo" a stand in word for something that has no names. 

Throughout the next century and a half, dingbat was really all over the map when it came to applications. It was used as one of a broad range of typographical ornaments ( la the typeface Zapf Dingbats by Hermann Zapf), a muffin, a woman who is neither your sister nor mother, a foolish authority figure the plural for male genitalia.

The word took on its current, most accepted definition of "foolish person" as early as 1905, but that application wasn't popularized until the 1970s, when it was used in the U.S. TV show, All in the Family.

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(c. 1784): 

Although it was widely popularized by the Warner Brothers character Yosemite Sam (What in tarnation!?!), this word has been floating around since 1784. 

Tarnation started out as an American English derivative of "darnation," which was, as you may have already guessed, a milder way of expressing the profanity "damnation." 

So where did that t come from? 

The "t" in tarnation was influenced by "tarnal," yet another mild 18th century profanity derived from the phrase "by the Eternal," which was used as such: "Joe paid a tarnal high price for his dillydallying."

So, in essence, tarnation is a mash up of words that translate to mean eternal + damnation. Yet, it doesn't exactly seem to be used in that way anymore. 

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The origins of the word "peculiar" lie in the mid-15th century, when peculiar actually meant belonging exclusively to one person and denoted the concept of private property. As in, John's house is peculiar. 

The English word derived its meaning from the Latin word peculiaris, which held a similar meaning. 

Peculiaris, in turn, was plucked from the Latin peculium, which implied private property, but literally meant property in cattle. One might consider livestock to be a curious root for a term referring to private property, but in ancient times, cattle were considered the most important form of property, and wealth was measured by the number of cows one owned. 

So how did we get from ownership to the meaning we have today? 

The current meaning of peculiar (i.e. unusual) arrived in the 17th century. This definition surfaced after the term evolved to mean distinguished, or special in the late 16th century (because, naturally, people blessed with bovine abundance were considered distinguished and special).

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The word slang was popularized in the English language throughout the mid-18th century. It originally referred specifically to the lexicon of thieves and sex workers of the time. 

The word's origin is largely believed to have been Norwegian, derived from the phrase slengja kjeften, which literally meant to sling the jaw, but which carried the implication to abuse with words. 

Its current meaning—informal colloquial speech that is used as a substitute for other terms or concepts in the same vernacular—became common in the early 19th century. The use of "slang" was popularized around the same time as the word slangwhanger, an American English term meaning "one who uses abusive slang" or "a ranting partisan". Sadly enough, slangwhanger is uncommon in our current lexicon, but I vote for a comeback!

There is a common belief that the word slang is actually just short for "shortened language." However, there are no reputable sources to verify this belief, and doesn't necessarily make sense because slang terms aren't always shorter than the language they are replacing. On the contrary, the factors required for colloquialisms to qualify as slang are that they are informal, and they are specific to a particular social group or culture. 

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Since the 1500s, the word periwinkle has been used as the name of two distinct items: an edible sea snail and a broadleaf evergreen plant—or, in its adjective form, periwinkle refers to the color of the periwinkle flowers. 

Interestingly enough, each of the two noun forms comes from a distinct root with disparate—though not entirely unrelated—origins. The name of the plant is a diminutive form of the 12th century English word parvink, which is derived from the Old English word perwince, which is in turn derived from pervinca, the Late Latin word for the periwinkle plant. Pervinca is likely derived from the verb pervincire, which means entwine or bind. More literally, pervincire could be read as thoroughly bound, from per- (thoroughly) and vincire (to bind or fetter). This root presumably refers to the way the creeping plant grows, thickly and carpet-like, across the ground or other surfaces, entwining anything in its path.

What does that have to do with snails, you ask? 

Well, the common periwinkle is a marine mollusk native to the northeastern Atlantic Ocean—particularly the European coastline—though they can now be found on North American coastlines as well, perhaps having traveled over while attached to mid-19th Century sea vessels. These hitchhiking gastropods were likely called periwinkles as a cultural variation on their Old English name, pinewincle. With entirely different origins from parvink, pinewincle is comprised of the Old English pine-"—which is derived from the Latin word pina (mussel, originally from the Greek pine)—and wincel, which means spiral shell and comes from the Proto-Germanic prefix winkil- (bend, curve).

While its fascinating that two words implying curling, bending, binding and entwining came from entirely different origins, its not entirely clear why these two nouns converged into a homonym/graph/phone. It seems likely that its due to the similarity between the sounds and meanings—particularly those of the diminutive attribute of the plants name that implies its entwining growth (winkle from Latin) and the portion of the snails name that describes its curved shell (the Old English-Germanic wincel turned winkle). 

So, if youve ever asked yourself that age-old question, What the heck do flowers and snails have in common? the answer is periwinkle.

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(Thanks to Etymologist articulateantagonist for contributing this one!)

The word muscle derives from the Latin word "musculus", which translates to "little mouse". 

When physicians were first observing musculature, it is said that they remarked that the muscles in the biceps and calves (most notably) looked like mice running under the skin.

So, I guess it stuck!

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Quarantine comes from the French word "qarante", which means forty. 

It comes from way back in the 1600s, when people were wary of diseases travelling by ship. When a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected, it had to forego contact with the shore for a period of about 40 days. They would just float around for that period of time before coming in. 

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The word hazard comes from the Arabic "al zahr" which means "the dice". 

The term came to be associated with dice during the Crusades and eventually took on a negative connotation because games of dice were associated with gambling.

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The word disaster comes from the Greek "dis" meaning bad, and "aster", meaning star. The ancient Greeks used to blame tragedies on unfavorable planetary positions, hence "bad" "stars". 

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The word lemur comes from a Latin word that means "spirit of the dead". The person that named them was influenced by their nocturnal nature. 

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An Ultracrepidarian is a person who gives opinions beyond his area of expertise. It's a great one to whip out at a party. 

The story behind the word goes like this...

In ancient Greece there was a renowned painter named Apelles. He was a little bit cocky, and sought out validation (don't we all) from others, so he used to display his paintings, then hide behind them to listen to the comments. 

One time, a cobbler pointed out that the sole of the shoe was not painted correctly. Apelles fixed it. Encouraged by this, the cobbler began offering comments about other parts of the painting. At this point the painter cut him off with Ne sutor ultra crepidam meaning Shoemaker, not above the sandal meaning: one should stick to ones area of expertise.

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The word "nice" comes from a Latin word meaning "ignorant".

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Not a specific word, but rather a whole group of words. Consider that we call many animals by a different name than the food from them. 

Cow = Beef. 

Pig = Pork. 

Chicken = Poultry. 

Deer = Venison.

This can be traced back to the Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century, when the French came and took the crown. When the dust settled, England had French nobility ruling over peasantry with Germanic origins. As a result, the languages used were a mish-mash of French and Germanic.

What does this have to do with food? The peasantry raised the animals, so the names of the animals have Germanic origins. Cow from cou, pig from picbred, deer from dier or tier. Although they raised the animals, it was the nobility who ate the majority of them, so the words for the food come from French. Pork from Porc, Beef from Boeuf, Venison from Venesoun.

Obviously this doesn't hold true for all foods, especially those from the New World (which was many centuries after the Norman Conquest). And modern language has begun to eliminate some of the usages (such as calling the meat chicken instead of poultry).

Thanks to Etymologist SJHillman for contributing!

Tragedy comes from the Greek word "tragodia" which means "song of the male goat".

Although there is no consensus as to how this came to be, there are a few theories. Here are the primary ones from the Oxford English Dictionary: 

One is that Greek tragedies were known as goat-songs because the prize in Athenian play competitions was a live goat. The contests were part of worship to Dionysus, involving chants and dances in his honour. The Romans knew Dionysus later as Bacchus, god of all things bacchanalian: in other words he freed people from their normal self through madness, wine, and ecstasy.

Sometimes the goat would be sacrificed, and a goat lament sung as the sacrifice was made. Hence the goat-song became intertwined with the Greek plays.

Others believe that in the plays themselves men and women would wear goat-costumes to dress up as satyrs—half-goat beings that worshipped and surrounded Dionysus in his revelry.

But by far my favourite suggestion is one that was offered in the Guardians celebrated Notes & Queries section. In answer to why the word tragedy comes from a word for goat-song, a Mr Marcus Roome of Clapton in London wrote simply: Have you ever heard a goat sing?.

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Before the invention of guttering, roofs were made with wide eaves, overhangs, so that rain water would fall away from the house to stop the walls and foundations being damaged. This area was known as the eavesdrop. 

The large overhang gave good cover for those who wished to lurk in shadows and listen to others conversations. Since the area under the eaves was considered part of the householders property, you could be fined under Anglo-Saxon law for being under the eaves with the intention of spying.

Hence the word, eavesdropping!

Thanks to Etymologist Kelderm2 for contributing!

Pumpernickel is a dark rye bread originating from Germany. Originally, the word pumpernickel was an abusive nickname for a dumb person, originating from "pumpern" meaning, to fart, and "nickel", meaning goblin, lout, or rascal.  

An earlier German name for pumpernickel bread was krankbrot, which translated to "sick-bread."

But as of now, the bread translates to farting goblin. 

Enjoy that fact the next time you eat it! 

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The word "sinister" comes from the Latin word (also "sinister") meaning left. This is because left-handed people were blamed for being cowards, evil, and demons. You know, because obviously your dominant hand is a true sign of evil. 

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The word dunce, meaning idiot, comes from the name of Johannes Duns Scotus, a medieval philosopher and theologian who was really caught up in the battle that raged over the status of universals. He was a really good arguer, so spiteful trolls from long ago, who couldn't face him in the court of logic, just turned his name into a pejorative and fought him in the court of public opinion.

After he had been dead for 200 years.

That's how much that guy ruled. I personally don't agree with his views on the metaphysical status of universals, but I have to admit that it's pretty baller that people are so afraid of your logic and argumentative skills that it inspires this kind of response.


Thanks to Etymologist logos__ for contributing!

Pretty much every modern Christian holiday (and many holidays from other religions as well) correspond to Pagan holidays, and Valentine's day is no different. 

Ancient Romans had a similar holiday, called Lupercalia, that took place from February 13 to 15. Christians felt left out so they created their own version. 

One of the main things celebrated and encouraged at the Lupercalia festival was fertility. Obviously, the best way to make girls more fertile is for men to run around naked, swatting virgins with goat-skin thongs (strips of leather) - called februa

And that's why we call the month February. 

This fact isn't totally confirmed, but it's a hilarious theory on the origin of the word. 

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You probably use this word at least once a week, but have you ever bothered to look up the origin? Look no further, because we've got you covered...

In Ancient Rome, the mint (the place where all the money was kept) was in a temple of Juno on the Capitoline hill. At one point or other, a group of people were going to attack Rome. As they were coming up the hill, the geese who lived there started squawking, and alerted everyone to the fact that they were being attacked. The Romans believed that Juno had sent them this warning, and because of this, the temple became the temple of Juno Moneta - Juno the Warner. So, the word "money" comes from the word monre - to warn.

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You probably know this word to mean something along the lines of a perfect paradise. 

Well, it actually comes from the Greek , meaning "not," and , meaning "place," because a utopia is an impossible place - something that couldn't exist. 

As for the word dystopia, it just means a bad utopia. The word was coined after "utopia" by John Stuart Mill and based directly on it.

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The word shambles has a very confusing backstory. 

The Latin word it's derived from, scamillus just means a little stool or bench. 

"Shambles" originally meant a stool as well. 

The word then came to mean, more specifically, a stool or stall where things were sold. 

Then, a stall where meat was sold. 

Eventually, a meatmarket. 

Then, a slaughterhouse. 

Eventually, "shambles" just came to mean a bloody mess. (That was a pun - "shambles" now just means something along the lines of "a scene of destruction.")

So, there you have it! Shambles!

Thanks to Etymologist camelopardalisx for contributing!

The word lunatic derives from the Latin word "luna" meaning "moon". This was because people believed that insanity was caused by changes in the moon. 

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The word dinosaur comes from a comes from two words, first the Greek , meaning "terrible, awesome, mighty, fearfully great." 

Second, , meaning lizard. 

So, a big ol' scary lizard.

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This word origin is hilarious! The word itself means "the estimation of something as worthless or valueless," but it comes from four Latin words that all mean the same thingfloccinaucinihili, and pili - all meaning something like "at little value" or "for nothing." Total absurdity.

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Okay, get ready to get a little scandalous with this one! 

Today, lots of people use the word vanilla to mean something that's kind of boring or bland, (or, you know, the flavor), but after you get a load of it's origin, you might not be able to think that way ever again. 

The word vanilla comes from the Latin word vagina! Vagina in Latin means sheath, and another meaning for the word sheath is the husk of a plant. 

Vagina becomes Spanish vaina, also meaning "sheath," which becomes the diminutive form vainilla, meaning "vanilla plant." If you're confused, take a look at this picture and you'll see where they grabbed the inspiration...

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Camelopardalis is a Latin word and it's origin is pretty hilarious. 

The word camelopardalis is just Latin for "giraffe." But it's a portmanteau of two other words (meaning they just took two words and smushed them together). Can you guess which words they smushed together? 

Camelus, meaning "camel," 

and pardalis, meaning "panther." 

Why? Because the ancient Romans and Greeks thought a giraffe looked like a cross between a camel and a panther. I'm not exactly sure how, though. 

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This isn't exactly an English word, but it's a rather unexpected cross-family connection.

Now, as you may know, English is a member of the Indo-European language family, which includes languages from Icelandic to Bengali. Japanese, however, is not, and is most likely unrelated to any other language on Earth.

Check this out, though: The Japanese word (well, maybe it's a bound morpheme) for 'honey' is , typically3pronounced as , or mitsu.

Then, there's this English word, 'mead', which is a alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey. Now, 'mead' and 'mitsu' certainly sound similar, but to imagine that they are in any way related is surely a stretch of the imagination.

Turns out, they're cognates! That is, they come from the same root. How, you ask? Well, English 'mead' comes from Old English medu, from Proto-Germanic *meduz, still referring to mead. This, in turn, came from Proto-Indo-European *mdu, one of two4 words in PIE meaning 'honey'.

Japenese mitsu is a borrowing from Middle Chinese *mjit (preserved in plenty of modern Chinese languages, e.g. Mandarin  m) which was borrowed from one of the freakin' Tocharian languages, which are an extinct group of Indo-European languages that were spoken in the Tarim Basin in modern Xinjiang, China. 'Honey' in Tocharian B, for example, was mit. This came from Proto-Tocharian *t() from, you guessed it, Proto-Indo-European *mdu.

Thanks to Etymologist canineraytube for contributing this!

The word "sardonic" comes from a sardonia mushroom. It was fabled that if you ate it, it caused facial convulsions resembling those of sardonic laughter, usually followed by death, bringing the meaning of sardonic humor to a whole new level.

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The words "candidate" and "candid" both come from the Latin "candidus", meaning bright white. Why is this, you ask?

Well, way back in the day, orators and high-ranking Roman politicians would wear very clean, white togas when speaking to crowds to try to convey a sense of trustworthiness. Thus, the English word "candid's" modern definition of honest or trustworthy ties back to the perceived honesty of politicians. Kinda funny when you look at politicians today.

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We often use the words "uppercase" and "lowercase" to denote which kinds of letters we're using, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself what these terms actually mean? 

The words come from the way in which print shops were organized hundreds of years ago. Individual pieces of metal type were kept in boxes called cases. The smaller letters, which were used most often, were kept in lower cases that were easier to reach. The bigger letters were, as you have probably already guessed, kept in the upper cases. 

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Not many people realize that the term "Nazi" it was a label long before the National Socialists came to power.

You see, lots of Bavarian farmers were Catholics. Lots of Catholics named their children after Saint Ignatius. So, lots of people called Ignatius came to be viewed as "dumb country folk" (which, by the way, is an insult that came from English peasant farmers named Richard). And Igantius ("Ignazius" in German pronunciation) is shortened to 'Nazi'.

Calling the National Socialists Nazis is a bit like calling (a made up political party) the 'Red States for the Next America' the 'RedNex'.

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Thank you for reading! 

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