10 Common Words With Bizarre Origins
We live in a world where new slang is created every day, so we often arenât surprised by silly stories behind words like âratchetâ and âtwerk.â There are, however, a number of common words that have entertainingly bizarre explanations behind them.
Almost everyone is familiar with the mullet, the âbusiness in the front, party in the backâ hairstyle that most people hoped would die with the career of Billy Ray Cyrus. What most people donât know, though, is that our most common use of the word is actually the invention of The Beastie Boys.
Previously, “mullet” had been a 15th-century term for a type of fish with spiny fins, and the word is still used today to describe a fish whose head is large and flat. It wasnât until The Beastie Boys released a song called âMullet Headâ that modern culture had a name for the hairstyle described in the lyrics as âNumber one on the side and donât touch the back / Number six on the top and donât cut it wack.â We can add âmasters of languageâ to the many contributions The Beastie Boys have made to society.
“Snob” is another word that has had something of a backward history. Everyone is familiar with the modern meaning, which is a person who believes they are too good to associate with certain groups or buy certain products. Long before you were decrying the beer snob in your group of friends, though, the original âsnobsâ were simply trying to get by.
The original meaning of âsnobâ was simply âshoemakerâ or âapprentice shoemaker,â and it was used as slang by snooty Cambridge students in the early 18th century to describe non-students, much like modern students might call residents of their college town âtownies.â By the 19th century, though, the intellectual ranks of Cambridgeâs nobility were having to slum it up with the sons of wealthy merchants, and the term came to refer to these would-be social climbers. Eventually, it lost its classist connotation and became a word for anyone who acts superior regarding their position or tastes.
In a post-Freudian world, our view of nightmares is pretty tame. We think of them simply as a jumble of wacky images caused by random neurological misfires. While some, like Freud, might ascribe importance to those subconscious rumblings, we are still comforted with the knowledge that these bad dreams are far apart from the real world.
Of course, that wasnât always the case. As early as the 13th century, the âmareâ in “nightmare” referred to a goblin that was thought to come in the night and suffocate sleepers with evil thoughts. Three centuries later, the word no longer popularly referred to the goblin but to the suffocation itself. The word’s first known use as a reference to any unfortunate dreams wasn’t until 1829. Its first recorded use as a metaphor for any sufficiently distressing event or experience came two years later.
As a general rule, âtawdryâ is a low word. After all, we use it to refer to gaudy clothing that seeks to look more important than it really is—essentially, the fashion of the modern snob on a budget who is putting on airs. However, this low word has high origins: a saint and the judgment of God.
St. Audrey was once the Queen of Northumbria, but she died in 679 from a tumor in her throat. She considered this to be a kind of karmic punishment for the many stylish necklaces she wore when she was younger, believing that God gave her the tumor to absolve her of her former frivolity. After she died, she was remembered by the sale of St. Audreyâs laces. These were eventually referred to simply as âtawdry lacesâ in the 16th century until âtawdryâ became a description for anything overly ostentatious in the late 17th century.
As a word, âbarbarianâ has a number of connotations, most of which are negative. Very few people wish to be considered uncivilized and âbarbaric.â Some are positive, including connotations of strength that owe much to Arnold Schwarzeneggerâs Conan the Barbarian movies. In all cases, though, it is used to refer to outsiders who donât fit into the proper and civilized world. This goes all the way back to the origin of the word, which was coined just to make fun of foreigners.
The word can be traced back to the Greek barbarous, which specifically meant foreign, strange, and ignorant. The root word barbar came from the Greeks’ mocking interpretation of foreigners’ speech, which they claimed sounded like nothing more than âbar bar bar.â This basic meaning of âsomeone who doesnât speak our languageâ remained intact until the early 17th century, when the word was first used to refer to someone ârudeâ and âwild.â
âEscapeâ functions as both noun and verb, and we tend to use it metaphorically as much as we do literally, describing vacations, for instance, as an âescape from reality.â However, its original definition is much more physical, and much more fun. It is appropriate that âescape,â a word associated with so many stories of heroes and villains avoiding punishment, is connected to the idea of leaving only a cape behind.
Whether they know it or not, most people are familiar with the Latin ex, meaning âout of,â since we still use it in so many modern words. As a verb, âescapeâ comes to us by way of the 12th-century vulgar Latin excappre, which means to leave someone holding only your cape. Someone who has made an escape, then, is now âex-cape.â It wasnât until 1400 that the word became a noun and not until the 19th century was it used in the metaphorical sense of an escape from mental or emotional distress.
At first glance, it seems like âgoodbyeâ is a relatively simple combination of âgoodâ and âbye.â However, this is another word that has a surprisingly religious origin. The speaker is actually wishing Godâs luck to their parting friend, giving previously casual interactions a whole new spiritual dimension.
âGoodbyeâ has its roots in the old prayer âGod be with youâ and ended up condensed primarily through the use of slang. âGod be with youâ as four separate and distinct words eventually became âGod bâwây,â which itself was eventually shortened to âGodbwye.â As separate phrases, people were already saying âgood nightâ and âgood day,â and it eventually made sense to say âgood byeâ to the person you had greeted with a âgood day,â taking God out of the equation.
Jeans have often been seen as casual clothes, but they have a long history of being functional as well. To many, they represent comfort, especially for those who are working. Interestingly enough, it has always represented comfort, all the way back to the 15th-century Italian sailors who first wore them.
These sailors hailed from Genoa, a city in Italy that was the first to make denim pants. This has often been the subject of historical debate, because denim itself is a French word that comes from the phrase serge di Nimes, a reference to the city of Nimes where it was also made. While France got to claim the fabric itself, Italy got to claim the actual pants, since âjeanâ (later pluralized to âjeansâ) was named after the French word for Genoa, Genes. Casual Friday now gives you a chance to participate in this rich part of international history.
âFiascoâ is another word that has passed through many countries to achieve its modern form. The modern word originated in 1855 as slang for failed theatrical performances, but as early as 1862, it referred to non-theatrical disasters as well. âFiascoâ comes from the French fiare fiasco, which translates to âturn out a failure.â The French phrase is itself derived from the Italian far fiasco, which originally meant âmake a bottle.â
If you’re confused about what bottle-making has to do with disasters, you’re not alone. There are two prevailing theories about the connection between the phrases. One is that glass crafters in Venice periodically discarded pieces that werenât perfect. The only thing they were good for was to âmake a bottle,â which is why âfiascoâ took on its meaning as a reference to failure. Another theory claims that the Italian phrase fare il fiasco referred to the loser of a game who had to buy the next drink, who was said to âmake a bottleâ appear.
Fans of both Shakespeare and John Green know about the classic idea of âthe fault in our stars,â which is the notion of fate being written in the heavens and dictating the actions of characters such as star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. The common word “disaster” comes from this medieval idea.
âDisasterâ is a combination of the word âdis,â which typically means âunfortunateâ or âlacking,â and âastro,â which refers to either a star or planet. This conveys astrological connotations of something bad happening because of the position of a certain star or planet. While âdisasterâ has long since come to mean any large calamity, it is interesting how the ideas behind the original meaning persist, from the ongoing popularity of horoscopes to the song âBorn Under a Bad Sign.â
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