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Seeking English words with meanings hidden in plain sight
May 4, 2010 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Help me find English words that have meanings hidden in plain sight. For example, it only recently occurred to me that a "quart" is a quarter of a gallon.

Similarly, it took me 46 years to figure out that the "horizon" is horizontal.

When I talk to people about these two words (quart and horizon), half of them respond by saying "Duh. What rock have you been living under?" The other half, though, says something like, "Oh my goodness! Now I'll be able to remember how many quarts are in a gallon! Thank you!"

I'll note that some of the smartest most well-spoken people I know fall into the second category.

I realize that most words in the English language share etymological roots with other words. What I'm looking for are common words whose etymology is enlightening and dead obvious once you think about it, but which intelligent educated people are often completely unaware of.
posted by alms to Writing & Language (142 answers total) 122 users marked this as a favorite
 
I once explained to a very literary, educated woman that "divvy up" comes from "divide" and she was pretty shocked.
posted by amethysts at 9:23 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Mediterranean is in the middle of the (known at the time) land.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:29 AM on May 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


Here is a list of latin cognates you might find useful.
posted by yoyoceramic at 9:32 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Similarly, it took me 46 years to figure out that the "horizon" is horizontal.

The etymology actually goes the other way around: if something's horizontal, it's (more or less) parallel to the horizon.
The word horizon derives from the Greek "ὁρίζων κύκλος" (horizōn kyklos), "separating circle", from the verb "ὁρίζω" (horizō), "to divide, to separate", and that from "ὅρος" (oros), "boundary, landmark".
posted by zamboni at 9:33 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


A pastime is what you do to pass the time.
posted by Bromius at 9:36 AM on May 4, 2010


Do foreign words assimilated into plain English qualify?

I.e. entree - (entry) or "redingote" (riding coat) or "dime" (a tenth, from "dixieme", anglicised to "disme" and then "dime").
posted by MuffinMan at 9:37 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wastebasket: a basket for waste!
posted by Carol Anne at 9:41 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Breakfast: you've been fasting all night and are now breaking it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:46 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


breakfast = to break (your) fast
holiday = holy day
posted by trigger at 9:46 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've had these d'oh moments with brands - it only dawned on me recently that Sunkist, for example, is 'sun-kissed'...
posted by widdershins at 9:48 AM on May 4, 2010


Here are two proper nouns for you:

Nabisco is the National Biscuit Company, from a time when Americans still used biscuit to mean cookie.

The Palmolive brand of soap was (is?) made with palm and olive oil.
posted by anaelith at 9:48 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I realized Fall was named due to the leaves falling when I was about 17 and felt a little silly.

Just recently I wondered about the word sink (the faucet and basin) because it is a sunken area.
posted by soelo at 9:50 AM on May 4, 2010


Fortnight.
posted by holgate at 9:50 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


It took me the longest time to realize that a "fifth" of liquor was a 1/5th of a gallon.
posted by zombiedance at 9:50 AM on May 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


Thanks, these are exactly the sorts of things I was looking for. Keep 'em coming!
posted by alms at 9:53 AM on May 4, 2010


Excellent question!

This one fits with your theme, albeit in a different language. When I was learning French I was told that the word coupable, which means guilty, comes from the verb couper, which means 'to cut.' So if you were worthy of having your head cut off your were cuttable -> coupable -> hence culpable in English.

I just like that one a lot. It would probably make some Frenchmen and -women slap their foreheads.
posted by fso at 9:56 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Damn. I was gonna say "dime." So I'll point out that the U.S. ten-cent piece doesn't actually say "ten cents" anywhere on it. It's officially a dime, and we're just supposed to know that that's a tenth of a dollar and/or ten cents.
posted by Etrigan at 9:59 AM on May 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


No idea if it's too obvious, but of course the province Newfoundland is new found land.
posted by fso at 10:00 AM on May 4, 2010


The author of "The Know-It-All" talks about being astonished that the "square of X" means you could arrange that many items into... wait for it... a square that was X wide and X tall.,

One thought that has been colossally useful in my own life is the idea that "priorities" are what you do first, i.e., PRIOR to everything else
posted by selfmedicating at 10:01 AM on May 4, 2010 [11 favorites]


This one fits with your theme, albeit in a different language. When I was learning French I was told that the word coupable, which means guilty, comes from the verb couper, which means 'to cut.'

That's a cool story, but wrong--it comes from the Latin culpare, to blame, like the English "culpable".

I like that jaded and jade are from the same root, although it's probably a little too obscure to be obvious. ("jade"=an old worn out horse)
posted by phoenixy at 10:03 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


An OVAL is shaped like an egg.
posted by asockpuppet at 10:04 AM on May 4, 2010 [14 favorites]


A reunion is to unite again. A re-union.
posted by fso at 10:04 AM on May 4, 2010


Oh, and the drug Prilosec was the first drug that worked by inhibiting the action of the parietal cells, and its a mashup of "parietal low secretion."
posted by selfmedicating at 10:05 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


The equator is an imaginary line that divides the globe into equal parts. Not sure if these apply, but the words 'canola' and 'nylon' are somewhat acronymic (is that a word?). Canola oil is "Canada oil, low acid" and Nylon simply names the two cities in which said substance was invented (New York, London).
posted by Gilbert at 10:05 AM on May 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh, and "percent!" Literally means "per 100."
posted by Gilbert at 10:07 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I first lived in Branson, I always assumed the name of the lake at the end of main street, Taneycomo, was some sort of traditional american indian name. It was years before I discovered it stands for Taney County Missouri.
posted by nomisxid at 10:07 AM on May 4, 2010


Decimate has come to be used to describe something being totally destroyed or wiped out. But originally it meant killing one tenth of a group, usually mutinous soldiers in ancient Rome, I believe. That would explain the deci-...one tenth.
posted by fso at 10:09 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have a French minor and it took me years to realize that "mayday" is a bastardization of the French m'aider (to help me).

Most of my words like this are foreign language cognates. Like clairvoyant, which in French means "to see the light."
posted by Brittanie at 10:10 AM on May 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


I somehow managed to learn the concepts of "variable" and "constant" in their mathematical sense without ever realizing that they're opposites until, years later, I managed to use both terms in a non-math-related sentence.
posted by kimota at 10:13 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


to-day: the day closest to the present time, i.e. the current one
to-night: the night closest to the present time, i.e. the one that will immediately follow to-day
to-morrow: the morning (morrow) closest to the present time, i.e. the one that will follow to-night

The key one here is tomorrow; I didn't know that "morrow" was a separate word which meant morning.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:14 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The latter months of the year are named after Latin numbers: Septemember, October, November, December. It's non-obvious because the roots don't correspond to the current numbering of the months, which is an artifact of the removal of New Year's Day from March 1st to January 1st in 153 BC.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:14 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Unique" -- "uni" means "one," as in, "there is only one like it."
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:15 AM on May 4, 2010


(Actually, to be more precise, I never thought about what the word "variable" meant in its mathematical sense until I contrasted it with constant in a conversation not having to do with math. It was just a term from mathematical discourse before that.)
posted by kimota at 10:18 AM on May 4, 2010


Then there are the words that have drifted from their origins. Like "Decimate" which was originally a loss of 1/10th (a decimal) of a unit (either due to enemy action or punishment) and is now better defined as "near, but not complete, annihilation."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:23 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


which is an artifact of the removal of New Year's Day from March 1st to January 1st in 153 BC.

I was always told the months' names didn't match their numbers because of the addition of July and August by Caesar (Julius and Augustus), hence why the months following (sept, oct...) are all behind by two.

"Liver" is one of my favorites.

Rehearsal (hear again).
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:23 AM on May 4, 2010


Soweto (in S. Africa) stands for South West Townships.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:24 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Soweto (in S. Africa) stands for South West Townships

In that vein, and I know this is common knowledge for NYC people, but Soho is South of Houston, Noho is North of Houston, Nolita is North of Little Italy, Tribeca is the triangle below canal street...
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:27 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Christmas" is a contraction of "Christ's Mass."
"Goodbye," I've always heard, comes from "godbwye" which is itself is a contraction of "God be with ye"
posted by contraption at 10:33 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


How's this for embarrassing? I was literally born and raised in the border town of Calexico, CA, and it wasn't until I was in my teens that I put two and two enough together to realize it was a portmanteau of "California" and "Mexico". That knocked my estimation of my own cleverness down a peg or two, but then again, ditto for the creativity of the town's founders.

Just goes to show you how prone we are to merely inhabit our respective contexts, rather than try to question or analyze them.



"Wait... then that must mean that Mexicali on the other side of the border..."
posted by theDTs at 10:34 AM on May 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


A five-cent piece was made of nickel, hence 'a nickel'. Quarter is quarter dollar -- duh.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:36 AM on May 4, 2010


More on volumes: a pint of water weighs a pound, and it's not hard to imagine that the two words were once one - pint/pound are pretty close to each other, phonetically speaking.
posted by richyoung at 10:38 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, there are a bunch of English family names that I had this revelation about growing up: Sawyers sawed things, Taylors sewed them, Wrights made wheels, Millers milled flour, Smiths were blacksmiths, etc.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:39 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another one I still think is kind of neat, though it's more usage than etymology: when you say "three times two" or "five times eight," the word "times" is not used as a simple verb like "plus" or "minus." The phrases actually mean "two three times" and "eight five times," they're just worded somewhat archaically, the same way you might say, "He was three times married before the age of thirty."

I was always told the months' names didn't match their numbers because of the addition of July and August by Caesar (Julius and Augustus), hence why the months following (sept, oct...) are all behind by two.

I've heard that, too, but July and August were just renamed, not created. Before Caesar they were called "Quintilis" and "Sextilis," in accordance with the other months.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:40 AM on May 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is a little off the beaten path, but still fits I think. Many people are not aware of sound symbolisms in their languages. For example, we recognize that affixes are tied to certain meanings (in-/im-, -ing, -ic, -ity, -ism), but not that individual sounds often form little semantic 'clusters', which are sometimes iconic in and of themselves.

Take the word-initial str- sound combo. str- words tend to fall into one or more of three categories:

1. Long narrow things: street, strip, strap, stripe
2. Repetitive motions/patterns: stroke, strike, strum, stride
3. Descriptions pertaining to length, manner form: straight, strident, stroll

Or, the sn- sound, which is nasal sound, and results in a cluster of words having to do with the nose OR properties surrounding arrogance/lying/trickery OR both: snout, snied, sneak, sneeze, snore, snare, snipe, etc.

When you start to see it, you see it everywhere, and you wonder why you never noticed it before (because you implicitly rely on it a lot). Words starting with me-, ending with -ze or -ang, or having -ll- in the middle. It goes on and on. Then you start to see it in whole words themselves, and why slogans and mottos are the way they are. We do it all the time and our rationale is, "it sounds good." But there's reasons for that. Words like 'sneakers', 'Verizon', 'Zune', 'Kleenex', 'snark'. Part of the reason they take off and become productive is because people instantly identify with the sound associations they provide and implicitly recognize the iconicity between form and meaning. Many of the words above have this going on to some degree...the etymology is lost, but the sense that the sounds evoke remain.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:42 AM on May 4, 2010 [92 favorites]


Unfortunately the one about nylon is not true.

But, disease, dis-ease, something that makes you not at ease or uncomfortable. (I definitely felt dense after figuring that one out.)
posted by anaelith at 10:46 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


It took me ages to work out that the petrol station chain "Q8" were named after the country Kuwait...
posted by teraspawn at 10:48 AM on May 4, 2010


From Latin: when people first started needing to divide units of time into smaller parts, they broke hours into 'minute' parts (pronounced 'my-noot', not 'min-uht'). When further divisions were required, they broke those minute parts into 'second minute parts'... hence 'minutes' and 'seconds'.
posted by foobario at 10:49 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've heard that, too, but July and August were just renamed, not created. Before Caesar they were called "Quintilis" and "Sextilis," in accordance with the other months.

Fascinating. Thanks for clearing that up.

In the quarter vein, all the music notes work this way (you'd be surprised the sort of revelation my piano students have when they finally figure this out). Notes are so-called because of how much of a measure they take up in 4/4 time - e.g. a quarter note is 1/4, half note, whole note, eighth note...
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:49 AM on May 4, 2010


The days of the week are fun: Sunday and Monday are literally "Sun Day" and "Moon Day".

In some of the romance languages name the rest of the days after Greco-Roman deities. In English we have Saturday ("Saturn's Day") however for the rest of them we inherited some kick-ass Norse (well, Germanic) mythology. Can you guess which days came from "Odin's Day" and "Thor's Day"?

I'm not too familiar with Tyr (Old-English "Tiw") and Freyja ("Frige") but they're in there too.
posted by theDTs at 10:53 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was always told the months' names didn't match their numbers because of the addition of July and August by Caesar (Julius and Augustus)

I've heard that, too, but July and August were just renamed, not created. Before Caesar they were called "Quintilis" and "Sextilis," in accordance with the other months.

Yeah, July and August were merely renamed, not inserted, but there's some truth to the month-adding story, too. The calendar of pre-Republican Rome (hundreds of years before Caesar) had 10 months; January and February were added in the 8th century BC. That explains the offset between the months' names and positions in the year.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 11:07 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Esso is a phonetic spelling of "SO". S.O. is an acronym for Standard Oil, pre-1911.
posted by mattdidthat at 11:07 AM on May 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Going on the math theme, "of" means "times" I have two yards of fabric. How many? two times a yard. This gets interesting when fractions are involved: three quarters of the class is sick. There are 32 students. How many are sick? 3/4 x 32 (three quarters of the class).

Per is the same way with division. so 25 per cent of the class is well is (25 / 100) times 32 students are well.

Mr. Zielinski taught us how to translate "math" to "English" in algebra in middle school. Thanks, Mr. Z!


Here's one for the cyclist crowd with a foreign word derivation that I just learned this week: Lance Armstrong (frequent Tour de France bike race winner) has a bike shop in Austin called Mellow Johnny's.

During Lance's original pro career he was obviously doing quite well at the Tour de France. The leader of the race wears the yellow jersey and being a multiple winner - he was often wearing yellow. In French, "yellow jersey" translates to ""maillot jaune", and so the fans would watch Lance start to spin it up off the front to make his move and (presumably) they all went, "Aah.. there goes the maillot jaune'". With seven wins, "maillot jaune" and "Lance" became pretty much the same thing, so Lance was getting referred to as "maillot jaune", which, if you slur the words some sounds a little like "mellow john".

Apparently - Lance is anything BUT Mellow.. so it an apt nickname. Hence - Mellow Johnny = Lance, and a nice name for his store too.


Time- A minute (min ut) is a "little" unit of time. It is minute (mai nyoot). But when you divide that small unit into even smaller "secondary" units, you get.... seconds. And when you hear of minutiae, it refers to the "little" things.


Then there are the varies regions in England, all named by the Romans. They are various "sections" (which was shorted to "sex"). So the West Section is Wessex, the South Section is Sussex, the East Section is Essex and the Middle Section is Middlesex.


Going away from English: When I went to Germany I did pretty good reading signs. But then again, it makes sense: Flug looks a little like flight, and hafen sounds like haven. It's not hard to put that together to figure out that a flughaven is a flight haven, or airport. English speakers tend to pick up on the Greek and Latin roots of words, but those Saxon roots are apparent when you start looking at German words.
posted by Doohickie at 11:07 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


various, not varies... duh.
posted by Doohickie at 11:09 AM on May 4, 2010


A view from above is a "bird's eye view"; a view from below is a "worm's eye view."
posted by mattdidthat at 11:11 AM on May 4, 2010


"Infinite" and "definite" both contain the word "finite," and are a few of many words that have the Latin word fin ("end") as their root.

This is especially useful to know if you're prone to the common misspelling "definately."
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:14 AM on May 4, 2010


Oh, there are a bunch of English family names that I had this revelation about growing up: Sawyers sawed things, Taylors sewed them, Wrights made wheels, Millers milled flour, Smiths were blacksmiths, etc.

You see that in other languages as well. Schmidt is the German word for Smith, if I'm not mistaken. Mueller is a miller I think (some correct me if I'm wrong; I'm not German). The other name family that's kind of cool is Newman (which would also be like Newbie). Going back to the Latin root for new, you have nova (you know something that's novel is new, right?) Anyway, Novak is a new guy in Germany. Unless he's Polish, then he's Nowak.
posted by Doohickie at 11:18 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


German speaker here. Actually Newman is Neumann in German, and I would have guessed that both Novak and Nowak are Polish or something similar.
posted by amf at 11:37 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Painstaking" work is work that you take pains to do well, which took YEARS to occur to me.
posted by emumimic at 11:48 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've always been fascinated by "recreation" -- re-create -- which comes to its present meaning by way of previous meanings: refresh; restore to health; ie, create anew. It gives a little more depth of meaning to the importance of playtime.

what a cool thread! I used to play this game with myself all the time when I was younger and then I'd look up the etymologies to see if I'd got it right.
posted by frobozz at 11:57 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, there are a bunch of English family names that I had this revelation about growing up

...also all the -sons: son of Tom, son of Jack (Thompson, Jackson...and on and on). Too obvious?
posted by frobozz at 12:02 PM on May 4, 2010


I feel like I've had a lot of "doh" moments with words like these, but all I can think of right now is "triangle" - a shape composed of three (tri) angles.
posted by radiomayonnaise at 12:10 PM on May 4, 2010


"Painstaking" work is work that you take pains to do well, which took YEARS to occur to me. Sounds like a painstaking process!

Following on the brand name thread, I noticed the nautical wordplay in "Chips Ahoy!" pretty late in the game. Get it?
posted by telegraph at 12:13 PM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


It was pointed out to me by an ambitious church youth group director that "Jeez" and "Golly" still qualify as taking the Lord's name in vain, as they are abbreviations of "Jesus" and "God Almighty", respectively.
posted by aimedwander at 12:16 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]




Many Western European surnames tend to be patronymic, such as Johnson, Olafsson, Stevenson, Sorenson, etc. But a number of them are actually hard-to-spot matronymics that combine the mother's first name with the word "kin" or "kind", for the child's surname. This format was especially popular amongst Ashkenazi Jews, who generally did not acquire fixed surnames until the time period between the 1780's and 1830's, depending on where they lived.

Examples: Belkin (Beila/Bella's child), Dworkin (Dwoira/Deborah's child), Malkin (Malka's child), Maskin (Masha's child), Mirkin (Miriam's child), Rivkin (Rivka/Rebecca's child), Sorkin (Sora/Sara's child), Zipkin (Tziporah's child), Ziskin (Zisia's child), etc.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:49 PM on May 4, 2010 [21 favorites]


"creature" = part of God's creation.
posted by selfmedicating at 1:02 PM on May 4, 2010


Like widdershins, I had a brand-related insight recently. It struck me that Goldfish crackers most likely started as a play on oyster crackers, which they very much resemble in everything but shape.
posted by MsMolly at 1:08 PM on May 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'd be interested in seeing a reference for that- I was under the impression that they're Saxons, not sections.

By golly, Wiki thinks you're right! I seem to remember coming to the realization linking it to Section as opposed to Saxon when I was reading a Jack Whyte novel.... whether he used the incorrect derivation or I jumped to the conclusion I don't recall.


Funny, too, because I was thinking of talking about the Sachsenhausen (Saxon Houses) neighborhood in Frankfort as well.....
posted by Doohickie at 1:58 PM on May 4, 2010


Frankfurt.

Dang it.
posted by Doohickie at 1:58 PM on May 4, 2010


A wardrobe protects your clothes. I didn't figure that out until I learned that in French it can be translated as 'garde-robe'.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 2:07 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Gamut" is a contraction of the words "gamma" and "ut."
Used to represent the first or lowest tone (G) in the medieval scale + ut (later do); the notes of the scale (ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si) being named from a Latin hymn to St. John the Baptist: Ut queant laxis resonare fibris. Mira gestorum famuli tuorum, Solve polluti labii reatum, Sancte Iohannes
It first referred to the range of notes in a musical scale, and later was used to refer to the entire range of anything.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:27 PM on May 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


I was in an introductory French class in college going over the alphabet. We got to V, pronounced "ve" and then W, pronounced "duble-ve." I thought about that for a second, and then said out loud "Oh, double V, how clever. It looks like two Vs next to each other." The girl sitting next to me turned and said, "Duh. English has that too!"

And it dawned on me, suddenly, that W is double U!
posted by Hoenikker at 2:39 PM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


My favorite is the NEWS

NEW plus S.

The new stuff that is going on.

I, too, never noticed this until learning "les nouvelles" (same meaning on both counts) in French class.
posted by TheClonusHorror at 2:46 PM on May 4, 2010


[folks can we sort of keep this on topic and not "what's something cool you know about language?" please?]
posted by jessamyn at 2:47 PM on May 4, 2010


Ridiculous = worthy of ridicule. (Not "diculous again," as I can't help thinking when people spell it as "rediculous.")

The quarters thing applies in sports, too. A friend of mine once had an a-ha moment when she asked how many quarters were in a (US) football game, and everyone laughed.
posted by vytae at 2:52 PM on May 4, 2010


Atonement = at-one-ment
posted by Durin's Bane at 3:09 PM on May 4, 2010


"If I had my druthers" - the 'druthers' comes from "I'd rather."
posted by ORthey at 3:27 PM on May 4, 2010


Vertical angles share a vertex.
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:29 PM on May 4, 2010


I've got a good one, courtesy of QI:

The common English phrases 'Bog Standard' (meaning basic) and 'The Dog's Bollocks' (meaning the best) derive from the two types of Meccano set they originally sold: 'Box Standard' and 'Box Deluxe'.
posted by Acey at 3:32 PM on May 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I knew that 'denim' and 'jeans' came from France but I wasn't sure of how it came about; check out what Wikipedia says about denim and jeans:

"Denim has been in American usage since the late eighteenth century.[1] The word comes from the name of a sturdy fabric called serge, originally made in Nîmes, France, by the Andre family. Originally called serge de Nîmes, the name was soon shortened to denim.[2] Denim was traditionally colored blue with indigo dye to make blue "jeans," though "jean" then denoted a different, lighter cotton textile; the contemporary use of jean comes from the French word for Genoa, Italy (Gênes), where the first denim trousers were made."
posted by dancestoblue at 3:53 PM on May 4, 2010


Aimedwander's answer reminded me that "zounds!" = "God's wounds!" and "strewth"="God's truth"
posted by phoenixy at 4:09 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


It makes me wince when people use "couple" to mean an amount that's greater than two. It's right there in the name!
posted by greenland at 5:25 PM on May 4, 2010


The common English phrases 'Bog Standard' (meaning basic) and 'The Dog's Bollocks' (meaning the best) derive from the two types of Meccano set they originally sold: 'Box Standard' and 'Box Deluxe'.

Doubtful.
posted by mendel at 5:43 PM on May 4, 2010


The word "critter" derives from the word "creature."
posted by jabberjaw at 6:04 PM on May 4, 2010


I very recently realized that 'selfish' is called that because you are concerned with your self. I never saw the 'self' in there before.
posted by amicamentis at 6:05 PM on May 4, 2010


I have a couple, by way of Italian.

"Ferrari" means "blacksmith". After "ferrous", for iron.

"Panera" means "bakery", after "pan / pain" which means "bread" in several languages.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 6:18 PM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


My mother was amazed to realize 'disintegrate' means, well, 'dis-integrate'.
posted by mllrstvn at 6:29 PM on May 4, 2010


This probably reflects terribly on me, but I had a moment just like this recently when I realized that "deuce" (in its slang usage; as in, "to take a deuce") is derived from the euphemism "number two".
posted by caaaaaam at 6:38 PM on May 4, 2010


Also, knots = nautical miles per hour.
posted by caaaaaam at 7:08 PM on May 4, 2010


Harpo Productions--Oprah Winfrey's company--is "Oprah" spelled backwards.

"Arby's" is a phonetic spelling of "R.B."--the initials of the founding Raffel Brothers, and Roast Beef.

"Ambien"--the sleeping medication--is built from "A.M." (morning) and "Bien" (good): "Good morning."

"Dachshund" is German for "Badger Dog."

And, of course, acronyms:

"Gestapo" Geheime Staatspolizei (secret state police)
"Interpol" International Police
"Fiat" = Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino
"JPEG" = Joint Photographic Experts Group
"Cointelpro" = Counter Intelligence Program
"Scuba" = Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
"Radar" = Radio Detection And Ranging
"Sonar" = Sound Navigation And Ranging
posted by mattdidthat at 7:19 PM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


posted by caaaaaam Also, knots = nautical miles per hour.

That's not entirely accurate.
posted by mattdidthat at 7:22 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Laboratory comes from laboratorium: labor = workshop.
posted by mattdidthat at 7:34 PM on May 4, 2010


...also all the -sons: son of Tom, son of Jack (Thompson, Jackson...and on and on). Too obvious?

Along these lines: names likes Fitzwilliam. Fitz means "son of" - later it was used for bastards of royalty.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:30 PM on May 4, 2010


"Bucks" came from a time when deerskin used to be one of the many items used for currency in the North American continent some 200-300 years ago.
posted by Student of Man at 9:08 PM on May 4, 2010


Lots of interesting info here, but with common misconceptions like "nylon," it can be a bit difficult to know which are factually correct.

Not sure if this counts, but when Mad Men was first becoming popular, all I knew about it was that it was about men in advertising, so I figured the title must've been a play on "ad men," then realized it's actually a play on "Madison Avenue" (along with, well, "slightly crazy").

In poker, a three of a kind is sometimes referred to as "trips," and it took years until it hit me that it's short for "triple" ("trips" sounded just as arbitrary as the other common term, "a set"). It's more obvious when you consider four of a kind is called "quads."

I assume that "ante" is called such because they're placed before the action begins.

And there's gotta be a ton of sports terms that would fit this thread. Only one I can think of is in baseball, pinch hitters/runners are called such because they're ready to play "in a pinch."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:03 PM on May 4, 2010


"deuce" (in its slang usage; as in, "to take a deuce") is derived from the euphemism "number two".

I'd never really heard "deuce" used in that context, but I only recently realized the connection, and was reminded of Michael Scott's line in The Office, when he talks about taking "two queens" to Casino Night and how he was gonna "drop a deuce on everybody." So yeah, that's just a joke that took four years to get.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:15 PM on May 4, 2010


Movie. It's so lame. It's like calling a car a rollie. I'm amazed we still use it, like thingie. Now I can use the word "film" without feeling snotty.

The book "Metaphors We Live By" is full of these: I'm feeling "up" today, "Pay" attention.

Bicycle - 2 circles

I, too, love this thread, but it's kinda weirding me out - some of the meanings seem so obvious, have never been hidden to me, but I'm sure there are words hidden to me that aren't hidden to others. Wondering which those are....

Woah, now I'm weirded out in the other direction - how can we use words whose meanings aren't in plain sight? Owen Barfield's work comes to mind, and his concepts of "figuration" and "participation". Here's an accessible intro the these ideas: http://www.netfuture.org/fdnc/appa.html
posted by at at 11:34 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Champagne comes from Champagne France.
Parmesan cheese comes from Parma France.
Ditto Dijon, Burgundy. (The color of which is named after the wine.)

Frankfurter -> Frankfurt Germany.

And many many more.


(Bonus: Foods named after people. Mr. Salsbury's Steak is a winner.)


Oh and Spam really is Spiced Ham.
posted by Ookseer at 11:37 PM on May 4, 2010


The pennyfarthing bicycle — named because the relative sizes of the wheels correspond to the relative sizes of the penny and farthing coins in circulation at the time. Blew my mind.
posted by Lazlo at 12:39 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bicycle - 2 circles

The etymology might be better rendered as "two wheels," since in Ancient Greek, kyklos could mean either "wheel" or "circle." Compare it with chakra, which comes from the same root and means "wheel" in Sanskrit. The various meanings of the word in Indic religions and medicine and stuff derive from the "wheel" meaning.

In fact, that root (*kwel- in Proto-Indo-European) shows up in all sorts of unexpected places -- in certain circumstances, for instance, the Proto-Indo-European sound [kw] turned into [p], allowing *kwel- to give rise to Greek words like palin, meaning "again," and carrying a sense of oscillation, revolution, or repetition. Palin shows up in words like palindrome!

The great thing about etymology is that nearly every word is loaded with these head-slapping moments if you're prepared to see them.

Another one of my favorites involves the Proto-Indo-European root *ker-, meaning "horn" or "head." It gave rise to the Latin word cornu, which means "horn" in both the anatomical and musical sense (Since the earliest musical horns were fashioned from the horns of animals, of course.) In modern English, it shows up in words like unicorn. (one + horn)

The Germanic languages, such as English, underwent a sound change that converted all [k] sounds into [h] sounds, leading to our word horn. But this change applies only to those words present in the language when the change occurred, of course, meaning that many later borrowings from other language families don't exhibit this characteristic. Among these borrowings include the word carrot, a 16th-century loanword from French, which also ultimately derives from the ancient *ker- root. The vegetable was named for its horn-like shape.

So there you go! Carrot and horn come from the same source! Also consider keratin, the protein of which hair, horns, and fingernails are made, and cerebrum, which was originally the Latin word for "brain." (It helps to remember that in Latin, "c" was really pronounced like a "k" and not like an "s" as we do today.)

Some other fun ones involve the PIE root *bha-, meaning "to say." Latin turned old [bh] sounds into [f]s, leading to words like fabulare ("speak" or "talk", and related to modern English fable and, thence, fabulous) and fama, meaning "reputation" and the source of our word fame. Greek, however, turned [bh] into [ph], leading to words like phone, which of course shows up in our telephone, microphone, and so forth.

You can go on and on and on with stuff like this -- language is full of all sorts of buried treasure.
posted by magnificent frigatebird at 1:06 AM on May 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


The terms hamburger, wiener, and frankfurter all come from place names: Hamburg, Wien (which is Vienna in German), and Frankfurt. This is why it makes sense to call something a hamburger when there is no ham in it. And think of how you would spell Vienna when you're trying to remember how to spell wiener -- it is i before e in this case.
posted by pracowity at 2:21 AM on May 5, 2010


Late to the party here, but I don't think this one's been mentioned yet: Survive, from the French "sur vive", literally "on top of life".
posted by anagrama at 4:10 AM on May 5, 2010


Stupidly, and recently, I was reading 'Mary, Mary, quite contrary', and managed to explain that 'contrary' means she will do whatever is against your wishes, or contrary to them.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 4:59 AM on May 5, 2010


The proton pump inhibitor Prevacid, pronounced prehv-ah-sid, I pronounced prev-acid, which stunned a friend taking it; he hadn't realized, it, well, prevents acid, because the "correct" pronunciation skips around the etymology.
posted by talldean at 5:24 AM on May 5, 2010


Parmesan cheese comes from Parma France.

Um, no. That would be Italy.
posted by cronholio at 5:50 AM on May 5, 2010


An obvious one that took me a long time: alphabet comes from 'alpha, beta, etc'.
For the longest time I also didn't realize that 'misled' is not 'misle-d'.
posted by of strange foe at 10:04 AM on May 5, 2010


Ampersand is wonderfully recursive.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:39 AM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The game Moot is full of all sorts of excellent and interesting facts about etymology. I highly recommend it if this sort of stuff interests you. I never knew that the word 'pansy' comes from the French 'penser'; that 'aftermath' originally referred to a second crop of grass of a season and that the 'math' in there is derived from a word meaning 'mowing' (which is related to 'meadow'); that Velcro is short for 'velours croché' (hooked velvet); that 'preposterous' is preposterous because 'pre-' and 'post-' are opposites; etc.

It's an especially well-designed game. Unlike most trivia games, you probably won't know most answers off the bat, but because the answers are hidden "in plain sight," as you put it, you can usually suss them out by thinking about them for long enough.
posted by painquale at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


You might also enjoy Says You.
posted by mattdidthat at 12:33 PM on May 5, 2010


Cooperation = co-operation. Thanks, Thoreau!
posted by lhall at 1:06 PM on May 5, 2010


Um, no. That would be Italy.

Thanks for catching that. (It's always embarrassing to make word mistakes in questions about words, but it seem inevitable.)
posted by Ookseer at 1:51 PM on May 5, 2010


Piggybacking on iamkimian's comment, I've noticed words that start with gl- are often about light: glow, glitter, gleam, gloaming, glisten, &c.
posted by Mendl at 4:27 PM on May 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not quite an English word, but Lexus cars = Luxury EXport United States.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 9:19 AM on May 6, 2010


I seriously just figured out yesterday that the drug brand Aleve is from "Alleviate."

Also, cigarettes = cigar-ettes = "small cigars." This blew my mind.
posted by castlebravo at 9:59 AM on May 6, 2010


I've used these words as units for many many years, and for no reason they decided to reveal themselves to me one fine day. You'll appreciate this if you've worked with electronics or computers.

Bit, Nibble, Byte. They are such a cool progression. Start with a little bit, put four of them together for a nibble, and then take a full bite!

"bit" itself was contracted from binary digit. And they just changed the "i" to "y" to make bite into byte -- and that made all the difference!

The MegaBites and GigaBites are pretty obvious extensions for scale.
posted by thewildgreen at 5:25 PM on May 6, 2010


Thanks for all these great answers! I especially like

Oval (egg-shaped)

Matronymics (names ending in "kin")

Wardrobe (protect your robes)

Cooperation (operate together. duh.)
posted by alms at 5:43 PM on May 6, 2010


It's like calling a car a rollie.

How about calling it a Volvo -- Latin for "I roll"?
posted by mendel at 7:17 PM on May 6, 2010


The office supplies chain is called Staples not because it sells staplers, but because it sells staple items.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 7:51 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Uneeda Biscuit, don't you?
posted by alms at 8:56 PM on May 6, 2010


There's a stretch of desert in the south of Australia called the Nullabor (pronounced generally nulla-bor). For those of you fascinated with Australian indigenous placenames like Woolloongabba, Indooropilly, Bong Bong, Narrabundah etc, it seems almost obvious that it's an Aboriginal word, but it's not. AS Wikipedia says, The word Nullarbor is derived from the Latin nullus, "no", and arbor, "tree". Therefore not nulla-bor, but null-arbor.
posted by b33j at 6:24 AM on May 7, 2010


"Beatles" is a pun on the word "beat".
posted by archagon at 12:14 AM on May 9, 2010


I just realized this morning that one is productive when they are creating a product.
posted by amicamentis at 6:54 AM on May 9, 2010


"Varmint" is an American variant of the word "vermin," only applied to people.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:41 PM on May 9, 2010


"Varmint" is an American variant of the word "vermin," only applied to people.

No, no, no. "Varmint" is a (Southern/Western?) -ism for vermin, and is usually used for the same. It's fairly rare for it to be used for people. "Vermin" is probably applied to people more often, although I'm not sure if it's used that way in the areas where "varmint" is. Probably more common in the upper East Coast.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:05 PM on May 9, 2010


Are you sure, CHT? I've heard it used for both people and animals, but more often for people (esp. in popular media.) And the Online Etymology Dictionary thinks that the first uses were to describe people.

(Not being argumentative)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:09 PM on May 9, 2010


Here's one very, very late one, which thus presented is appropriate:

The Romans used their roads for communication. Not just going from one place to another in terms of people or things, but for dissemination of information. At may of the places were the road branched off in a Y intersection, where there were three ways to go, they would post official notices and news. By the time the news got there, and by the time other people read it, it was often out of date and therefore interesting, but useless, information. We have a word for that kind of information in English. It comes directly from the Latin, a word literally meaning three ways: tri via. You know.... trivia.

Isn't that interesting, but useless, information? ;- )
posted by Doohickie at 6:22 AM on May 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Are you sure, CHT?

No, not really. That's my understanding of current usage from transplanted peoples, so there may be some selection bias there.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:51 AM on May 10, 2010


At may of the places were the road branched off in a Y intersection, where there were three ways to go, they would post official notices and news. By the time the news got there, and by the time other people read it, it was often out of date and therefore interesting, but useless, information

A trivial search indicates that this isn't quite accurate.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:17 AM on May 10, 2010


"Business" - the stuff busy people do.
posted by contraption at 1:06 PM on May 10, 2010


"Bus is a derivation of Omnibus Vehicle, meaning "vehicle for all," where omnibus means "for all" in Latin (omnes meaning "all"), reflecting its early use for public transport."

...and I guess "auto-mobile" counts, too.

And zoo is shorthand for Zoological Garden. Obvious when you think about it.

All these examples courtesy of my just having read "The Man Who Was Thursday" (1908).
posted by lhall at 11:19 PM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Really, really late on this one but I was teaching English when a student asked me where the word television came from. All of a sudden it hit me - tele = from a distance.
eg.
Tele + port = from a distance + move
Tele + phone = from a distance + sound
posted by Wantok at 8:30 PM on May 31, 2010


Icing and frosting, the difference between how Australians and Americans make their cakes more tasty, and yet - should you water your yard on a cold morning, same result on the grass - icing and frosting - which seem to have nothing to do with sugar and cocoa.
posted by b33j at 9:34 PM on May 31, 2010


Slightly off topic, but it took me 10 years to realize the pun in Bender.
posted by Lifeson at 11:45 AM on June 1, 2010


I'm late to the party, but I just learned that "sitcom" comes from "situational comedy".
posted by alligatorman at 8:59 AM on June 5, 2010


Available: something of which one is able to avail oneself.
posted by fso at 5:49 PM on June 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Nectarine, i.e. imbued with nectar.
posted by alms at 8:06 PM on July 7, 2010


I had an epiphany about "organize" when I cleaned out my big mom-purse. I'd put things into little canvas bags by function - diaper bag, makeup bag, kiddie busy bag, etc. Then I threw all the little bags into the big purse. Reaching into the purse was like rummaging around in the viscera of some giant beast. That's when the connection between "organ" and "organize" hit me - something that is "ORGAN-ized" is grouped into different functional organs. Like a body.

If you are in despair, you are "desperate." (This one I got from a Nero Wolfe book, "In The Best Families.")

The word "compromise" means "promise together." I got this one from a class on language in college - but I also noticed last week that the sign in the bathroom at Chic-fil-A said "Our Promise to You" in English and something like "Compromiso Con Usted" in Spanish.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:17 AM on July 8, 2010


Phrases, rather than words. "Nit picking" and "going over with a fine toothed comb" both have to do with examining a person's scalp in search of lice and lice eggs, nits.

>> ... the Latin word cornu, which means "horn" in both ...

So cornucopia is quite literally Latin for horn of plenty, cornu + copious.
posted by Bruce H. at 7:08 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Import - Bring in through a port
Export - Send out from a port
Transport - Move from one port to another
Deport - Expel via a port
posted by contraption at 2:14 PM on July 9, 2010


A basement is at the base of your house.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:11 AM on September 2, 2010


Luzianne (the tea company) is a phonetic spelling of the way someone with a heavy southern accent would pronounce Louisiana. I realized this out of the blue one day and was shocked that it hadn't occurred to me earlier in life.

"Dookie" is a mispronunciation of "Deuce", whose bathroom-related meaning was explained earlier.
posted by scose at 1:18 AM on September 4, 2010


A window keeps the wind out.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:09 PM on October 1, 2010


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