Here are ten more words with surprising origins! A few of these words appeared in previous Fun Facts About English posts, but I thought them such swell words, they deserved a second showing!
The ampersand (&) was included in schoolbooks as the 27th character of the English alphabet until the mid 19th century. It was understood not as a vowel or consonant, but as a useful symbol, added to the hind end of the Latin alphabet, and simply known as and. Today, when we recite the ABCs, we often say “X, Y, and Z.” Two centuries ago, children’s alphabet chants included and (&) as the last “letter.” To say “X, Y, Z, and and” was a bit awkward, so the Latin phrase per se – meaning “by or in itself “- was inserted. In recitations, it sounded like this: X, Y, Z, and per se and (&). Over time, and-per-se-and slurred into ampersand, a mondegreen that we use today.
There are many idiomatic phrases and words that include the word boot: to be pulled up by one’s bootstraps, to get the boot, boot camp, etc. None of these has any relationship to the “extra bit of something” when we say “…to boot.”
The boot in “to boot” goes all the way back to the Old English word bōt. It means “advantage, help,” and “to making something good or better.” Over time, it also came to mean “something extra added to a trade.” Ex. “We got a great deal on the hotel room and concert tickets to boot!”
In finance, boot is something you add to a deal to make the exchange equal. For example, if you buy a car with a trade-in and also give the dealer some money, that extra money you add is called “the boot.”
The history of chess goes back almost 15 centuries. The game originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to Persia. When the Arabs conquered Persia, chess was taken up by the Muslim world and subsequently, through the Moorish conquest of Spain, spread to Southern Europe.
“Sheikh” (شيخ) is the Arabic word for “chief or head of a tribe.” Players would announce “Sheikh” when the king was in check. “Māt” (مات) is an Arabic adjective for “dead, helpless, or defeated.” So the king is in mate when he is ambushed, at a loss, or defeated.
In Old English, harvest was the season when farmers gathered their crops and prepared them for storage. The word is a derivative of hærfest, an Old Norse word that means “to gather or pluck.”
By the sixteenth century, fall, a shortened version of the phrase “fall of the leaf” was used to describe the third season of the year. During this time, autumn, a word derived from Latin and Old French, was also in common use. Fall and autumn were the preferred words as more people began leaving rural farmlands to move into larger, metropolitan cities. Without farming, the term harvest became less relevant to their lives.
Today, there is a clear preference for autumn in British English and for fall in American English, though both words can be used interchangeably in both places.
As hard as it is to imagine, before the invention of the telephone in 1876, “hello” wasn’t a proper or even casual greeting whatsoever!
In his laboratories, Thomas Alva Edison would shout “Halloo!” into the mouthpiece of his newly invented strip phonograph to test the device. “Halloo” was a word commonly used to incite hounds to the chase, or as a “call” to attract the attention of someone at a great distance, similar to “Hey!”
Mr. Edison also equipped and supplied Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention, a gadget that was (basically) a permanently open line without even a bell. Mr. Edison preferred “Hello” be put in the instruction manual for “calling” the other party to the line, along with “That is all” for ending the exchange. Edison reasoned that “Hello” could be heard from a distance of 10-20 feet and was better than Bell’s nautical recommendation, “Ahoy.”
G.I. has been interpreted as standing for garrison issue, government issue, and general infantry. The true progenitor of the abbreviation is galvanized iron.
G.I. appears in Army inventories of galvanized-iron trash cans (G.I. can) and buckets from the early twentieth century. During World War I, the meaning of G.I. was extended to include heavy artillery shells and large bombs. Around this time, G.I. was applied in the “general issue” sense with G.I. shoes, G.I. soap, and G.I. brushes. During or shortly after the war, soldiers began referring to themselves as G.I.s when the abbreviation was recorded as slang for an enlisted man.
In June 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly known as the G.I. Bill. The bill provided benefits for returning World War II veterans, including funding for college, home loans, and unemployment insurance.
Cartoonist Dave Breger is credited with coining the name G.I. Joe in his weekly comic strip published in Yank magazine beginning in 1942. In 1964, U.S. toy company Hasbro debuted the military-themed G.I. Joe action figure for boys.
John Doe & Richard Roe
“John Doe” and “Richard Roe” originated during the Middle Ages! The fake names were regularly invoked in English legal instruments beginning as early as the reign of England’s King Edward III (1327–1377).
As well as legal instruments, the U.S. courts also use such names to refer to a corpse whose identity is unknown or unconfirmed. There are many variants to the names, including “John Roe,” “Jane Doe,” and “Baby Doe.”
Individuals whose real name is John or Jane Doe report difficulties and unwanted attention, such as being accused of using a pseudonym, being questioned repeatedly by airport security, or suspected of being an incognito celebrity.
During the Victorian era, paddywhack came to mean “a slap or a sharp blow,” in part because of its mistaken association with the word whack, an etymologically different word altogether. The original meaning of paddywhack refers to the tough neck ligament found in many four-legged animals such as sheep and cattle. Even today, this chewy and protein-rich ligament is often sold as a dried dog treat.
The idiom means “excessive bureaucracy or adherence to rules” that make conducting one’s affairs slower or more difficult. They include filling out paperwork, obtaining licenses, or having multiple people or committees approve a decision.
It’s generally believed the term originated with the Spanish administration of Charles V, King of Spain. In the early 16th century, the monarch began binding important dossiers with red twine or ribbon in an effort to give priority to particular issues and modernize the administration of his vast empire. The practice was quickly adopted by other European monarchs.
The idiom was popularized after the American Civil War when veterans’ records were tied up in pink or red binding and difficult to access.
Pipe dream originates from the 19th century and indicates the dreams experienced by opium users and the instrument they use to smoke it. Today, it refers to a fantastic hope or plan that is impossible to achieve.
The earliest known use of the idiom appeared in an 1890 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, referring to aerial navigation: “It has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years.”
If you found this post interesting, you might also be interested in common words that were coined after notorious personalities, body parts that have unusual names, or the origins of collective nouns, such as “A murder of crows.”
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