All of the highlighted words in the story below came into the English language via Spanish.
A good set of flashcards is worth its weight in gold! Check out all the vocabulary-building flashcard sets in Donald’s English Classroom!
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 confusing, 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 which 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.
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” 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.”
When introducing young ESL students to CVC words, Donald’s English Classroom has a variety of activities ready to download and start using today! Click here to check out all our flashcards, game sets, worksheets, and more!
As a follow-up to my previous post, Teaching Pronunciation, I wanted to share with you some files I’ve been busily producing. If you missed that post, I offered up some free templates for making minimal pair flash cards and other pronunciation activities, plus some downloadable charts for your classroom. I’ll list them here again and encourage you to give them a try in class.
If you aren’t inclined to making your own materials, or you’re not in a space right now for researching vocabulary, I put together a variety of files that you can download from my online store, Donald’s English Classroom. These are print-ready pdf files that you can start using today.
Each of these Minimal Pair Flash Card sets comes with charts, assessment logs, master cards, pair cards, and individual word cards. With each of these sets you will have a flexible resource for assessments and to utilize in pronunciation activities.
Aligned to the Minimal Pair Flash Cards above, these sets of Exit Tickets specifically target speakers of 10 different languages. Exit tickets are a fast and easy way of assessing lessons taught or determining lessons that need to be taught. Use these as a cool-down exercise at the end of class, collect the completed tickets as students leave, and you’ll have a clearer idea where students need the most attention.
These Pronunciation Pyramids are fun for the whole class or in small groups. With a base of 48 minimal pair sets, there are 96 pyramids total. Have these ready for a quick assessment or as a warmup activity to get students focused on pronunciation.
Pronunciation Mazes are a fun challenge for students to complete in or outside of class. These 27 puzzles address three areas of pronunciation for ESL learners: past tense, third-person singular verbs, and noun plurals. Each set includes a word bank of 60 common nouns and verbs, nine puzzles for each target (color & black and white), plus answer keys.
These pronunciation activities can be employed in class with minimal time requirements and without redesigning your whole curriculum. Remember, a little pronunciation practice on a regular basis will go a long way toward improving speaking and listening skills.
As always, best of luck in your classes!
Kinney Brothers Publishing
Gender-specific nouns, especially titles in professional spheres, have been losing favor in the past few decades. While the effort to be inclusive and gender-neutral is an honorable one, it’s a linguistic one-way street in many cases, a compromise in others, and nearly impossible when moving from originally feminine to masculine-inclusive nouns. With words like widow/widower, there appears to be no path to neutrality at all!
Feminine terms like actress, usherette, and comedienne are marked, or divergent, in relation to their masculine forms. Only the masculine forms can serve as gender-neutral terms. For example, ushers can be inclusive of males and females, whereas usherette is exclusively female.
Similar to widow and widower, policeman and policewoman are categorically separate with neither being able to serve as gender-neutral terms. In such cases, proponents of neutralism have opted for officers to reduce and replace the terms to a manageable and inclusive definition.
With the loss of feminine nouns of agency, understood by their suffixes -tress, -trix, -ette, and -enne, it might seem we’re losing lingual diversity; opting for language that does its best to embrace inclusiveness and discard difference for the sake of economy.
On the binary flip side, an interesting thing happens when men move into occupations that have been traditionally female. Solutions for gender neutrality are not so easy, in part, because of the entrenched notions of their feminine exclusivity. Consider the professions of nursing, sewing, childbirth, childcare, housekeeping, or even the role of a lover taken outside of marriage.
Historically, a nurse and seamstress are occupations held by women that excluded men. Though nurse is becoming widely recognized as a gender-neutral title, and the awful murse didn’t stick, it’s still quite common to hear “male nurse” as a distinction. To most people’s way of thinking, a female nurse is redundant. In the clothing industry, seamstress has already been replaced with stitcher or sewer, whereas the masculine tailor is the gender-neutral term for a man or woman.
Consider the word housewife. A male housewife sounds as ridiculous as the 1980s comedy, Mr. Mom. Though “stay-at-home dad” is commonly used, what if he’s not a dad but just a “stay-at-home guy?” Housedude? According to the definition below, “stay-at-home husband” is an oxymoron. Homemaker still has a feminine ring and caregiver, though inclusive, only sits in relation to a dependent. The culture can be quite critical of a male relying on his female partner or parent for support. Bum, lazy, and mooch are some of the colorful words that come to mind for a husband or son who opts not to work outside the home — or work at all. The culture has yet to define a term to address men in such partnerships and points to the idea that traditional marriage brings a man’s labor to the fore (husband) and keeps a woman in her place (housewife).
Husband – from hús ‘house’ + bóndi ‘occupier and tiller of the soil’. The original sense of the verb was ‘till, cultivate’.
What about the male equivalent of a mistress? Is he a kept man? A mister? “He is her mister” sounds like they’re married. A kept man seems too restricting for a dashing gentleman moving among the shadows. Neither of these terms has that mysterious and provocative air of extra-marital naughtiness. While the French paramour is inclusive and neutral, should I find myself in such circumstances, I fancy the Italian term cavalier servente.
Now let’s look at the word midwife. On its surface, the occupation seems to indicate the feminine and it’s a cultural given that the person performing the task will be a woman. The Old English word simply means “with the woman.” Today, a man can be defined as a midwife, though “man midwife” has been used in centuries past. In ancient Greece, any person who had not given birth themselves was restricted from becoming a midwife. In the U.K., the Royal College of Midwives barred men from the profession until 1983. Because of the social and sometimes legal barriers to men, pediatrics emerged in the 1930s as a “modern” medical field and women’s traditional role and knowledge as midwives increasingly came under attack.
Finally, to bring this back to the beginning, because widower is divergent from the feminine, it’s unlikely that widow will become the gender-neutral term for both men and women who have lost a partner. In legal terms, “surviving spouse” seems to be the closest we have to neutrality. Interestingly, whether a heterosexual or homosexual coupling, the gender-specific terms maintain their lingual integrity. For those who object to binary terms, there is the simple and inclusive phrase, “I am widowed.”
The complete lineup of full textbooks from Kinney Brothers Publishing are available in color or black and white, ready to download and start using in class today!
The term mondegreen, itself a mondegreen, was coined in 1954 by American writer Sylvia Wright in a Harper’s Magazine article titled, The Death of Lady Mondegreen. A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase occurring most often when listening to a poem or song. Steven Connor, of the University of Cambridge, suggests that mondegreens are “the result of the brain’s attempts to make sense by filling in the gaps when it cannot clearly determine what it is hearing.”
We’ve all had the embarrassing experience of mistaking the lyrics of a popular song. Sometimes there’s a need to correct a friend or child’s hilariously misinterpreted verse or phrase in a sing-along. Just as surprising (or confusing) is when mondegreens are used to deliberately encode a phrase or bemuse the listener, as in the case of reverse mondegreens. There are also numerous examples where a mondegreen becomes collectively accepted as the original!
Our sometimes buggy inability to grasp or interpret words can be easily demonstrated with a game of Chinese Whispers (Telephone in North America). This involves consecutively repeating a whispered sentence to produce successive mondegreens that gradually and inevitably distort the original sentence.
Another closely associated linguistic term, oronym, refers to a pair of phrases that are homophonic. One example is “ice cream” and “I scream,” as in, “I scream; you scream; we all scream for ice cream.” “Four Candles,” a comedy sketch from the British show, The Two Ronnies, is built entirely around oronyms and begins when a customer’s request for “fork handles” is misheard as “four candles.”
Unlike oronyms, mondegreens don’t hold so strictly to homophonic phrases. Instead, a befuddled brain will fill the gap with even illogical nonsense and ignore any cognitive dissonance. This can make mondegreens surprisingly silly but serves to satisfy the listener’s need for some kind of meaning.
The Star Spangled Banner, with its howling verses, is at a high risk for mondegreens. The very first line, “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light” has been accidentally and deliberately misinterpreted as “Jose, can you see, by the donzerly light.” Incredibly, there are people who believe that “donzerly” is a real word.
The archaic language of many Christian hymns is another common source of mondegreens. The most-cited example is “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” for “Gladly the cross I’ll bear” from the song Keep Thou My Way. Sir Ken Robinson, in his popular 2006 TED talk, relates the story of his son’s stage debut in a Nativity play where he replaces “frankincense” with “Frank sent this.”
Sometimes, a mondegreen in lyrics becomes an accepted standard. Such is the case with The Twelve Days of Christmas. The original song has “four colly birds” where colly means black. Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, the gifted fowl became calling birds, with Frederic Austin’s 1909 version becoming the stock lyrics for the holiday song.
International travelers may be familiar with the travel guide series, Lonely Planet. Upon first encounter, you may have had a brief moment wondering why a guide promoting world travel would be called “lonely.” In fact, the title of the Australian travel series is a mondegreen of “lovely planet” as sung by Joe Cocker in the song Space Captain.
A reverse mondegreen is the intentional production of words or phrases that appear to be gibberish but actually disguise a logical meaning. A cheery example is the 1943 song, Mairzy Doats. Written and sung to challenge the listener, the lyrics are deliberate mondegreens, made up of oronyms and (seemingly) nonsense words.
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey. A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you? (Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?)
Olive, the Other Reindeer is a 1997 children’s book by Vivian Walsh, with the title being a mondegreen of the line, “all of the other reindeer” from the song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The popular children’s book was adapted into an animated Christmas special in 1999.
Moving into the the realm of adult language, a reverse mondegreen appears in James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses, in the phrase “if you see Kay” (F-U-C-K). The phrase has been repeatedly used in jazz, blues, and rock songs with the most recent being Britney Spears’, “If you seek Amy.” In the Ulysses quote below, take note of the mondegreens that are “spelled out” in the first and third lines of the stanza.
‘If you see kay / Tell him he may / See you in tea / Tell him from me.’ Ulysses, by James Joyce
Below is a short list of some of my favorite (unintentional) mondegreens. I agree with Sylvia Wright’s assertion that mondegreens are often better than the original lines — which may be why I haven’t LOL’d so much in a very long time!
“Every time you go away/you take a piece of meat with you” (for ” . . . take a piece of me with you,” from the Paul Young song Every Time You Go Away)
“I led the pigeons to the flag” (for “I pledge allegiance to the flag”)
“There’s a bathroom on the right” (for “There’s a bad moon on the rise” in Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival)
“Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (for the Jimi Hendrix lyric “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”)
“The ants are my friends” (for “The answer, my friend” in Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan)
“I’ll never leave your pizza burning” (for “I’ll never be your beast of burden” by the Rolling Stones)
“The girl with colitis goes by” (for “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles)
“Dr. Laura, you pickled man-thief” (for the Tom Waits lyric “doctor, lawyer, beggar-man, thief”)
“Take your pants down, and make it happen” (for “Take your passion and make it happen” in Irene Cara’s Flashdance)
“the bright blessed day and the dog said goodnight” (for “the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night” in What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong)
“The girl from Emphysema goes walking” (for “The girl from Ipanema goes walking” in The Girl from Ipanema, as performed by Astrud Gilberto)
“America! America! God is Chef Boyardee” (for “God shed His grace on thee” in America, the Beautiful)
“You’re the cheese to my pizza mine” (for “You’re the key to my peace of mind” from Carol King’s Natural Woman)
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Puzzles and word play in various forms have been a source of mental exercise and pleasure for well over 2000 years. Contemporary crossword puzzles evolved from simple acrostics and word squares into a wildly popular pastime all around the globe.
An acrostic is a poem or other form of writing in which the first letter, syllable, or word of each line spells out a word, message, or alphabet. Acrostics are common in medieval literature and were popular during the Renaissance as well.
Hold onto your dream while mindful of time.
Optimism required, let your light shine.
Persistence prevails, while some may cast doubt.
Expectation desired is what it’s about.
From the Old Testament to Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, and Lewis Carroll, acrostics have been used to conceal messages, reveal prophecies, and target lover, friend, or foe with clever wordplays. Even as recently as 2017, upon resigning from the Trump administration’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, members sent a letter containing the acrostic “RESIST” formed from the first letter of each paragraph.
A word square is a special type of acrostic. It consists of a set of words written out in a square grid, such that the same words can be read both horizontally and vertically.
The Sator Square is the earliest datable 2D palindrome. It was found in the ruins of Pompeii, at Herculaneum, a city buried in volcanic ash in 79 AD. It consists of the Latin sentence, “Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas” (Arepo, the sower, carefully guides the wheels). It’s remarkable in that it can be read four different ways: horizontally or vertically from either top left to bottom right or bottom right to top left. The meaning of the acrostic is debated but it is believed by some scholars to mean, “God controls the universe.” Throughout the medieval period, the acrostic was commonly carved into amulets and worn to ward off disease and ill-fortune.
The first crosswords derived from acrostic word squares appeared in England during the 19th century. They were printed in children’s puzzle books and periodicals.
The first “Word-Cross” puzzle (see below) was published in the New York World on December 21, 1913. It was created by Arthur Wynne, a journalist from Liverpool, England. During the 1920s, the idea was picked up by other publishers and crossword puzzles became a permanent feature in many American newspapers.
The first appearance of a crossword in a British publication was in Pearson’s Magazine in February 1922. British puzzles developed their own style and quickly gained popularity.
The first crossword puzzle book was published by Simon & Schuster in 1924. Sold with an included pencil, the book was an instant hit and lead to crossword puzzles becoming the craze of 1924.
In the early days, not everyone was a fan of the new fad. One clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles “the mark of a childish mentality” and said, “There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.” Another clergyman, however, wrote a complete “Bible Cross-Word Puzzle Book.”
The New York Times, an early critic of the crossword craze, didn’t begin publishing puzzles until 1942. Their decision to finally start publishing them was spurred on by the idea that a puzzle feature would be a welcome distraction from the harsh news of World War II.
“I do The New York Times crossword puzzle every morning to keep the old grey matter ticking.” Carol Burnett
Click here for the solution.
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