10 Body Parts Hiding in the Dictionary

psphotogoraph/iStock via Getty Images
psphotogoraph/iStock via Getty Images

If a person capitulates, then they surrender, or cede to another’s opinion. But originally—and, one finds with a bit of etymological digging, quite literally—a capitulation was an agreement drawn up under chapters or headings, and in that sense the word traces its way back to caput, a Latin word meaning head. A chapter, for that matter, means a "little head."

But chapter and capitulate aren’t the only "head" words in the dictionary (so to speak). A capital city refers to a head city. A captain is one who stands at the head of others. If something capsizes, then it sinks head first. Precipices take their name from a Latin word meaning headlong or headfirst. And even though the biceps and triceps muscles might be in the arm, they actually mean two- and three-headed.

And if that last one sounds confusing, there’s a whole jumble of other body parts in the dictionary.

1. Genuine

The word genuine originally referred to things that were natural or innate, rather than acquired or added later. In that sense, one explanation claims that it derives from gignere, a Latin verb meaning to birth or to beget, but a more imaginative (and no less likely) theory is that the word actually comes from genu, the Latin word for knee. According to this theory, a father would acknowledge the paternity of his genuine offspring by placing his child on his knee, and from there, the use of the word to mean authentic or real emerged.

2. Hypochondriac

The hypochondrium is a region of the upper abdomen lying below (hypo) the cartilage of the ribs and breastbone (chondros). Problems affecting the visceral organs inside the hypochondrium—the liver, the gall bladder and the spleen, among others—were once said to cause melancholic feelings or ill health, and ultimately the entire hypochondriac region gave its name to a morbid obsession with ill health.

3. Date

The date you write at the top of a letter comes from the same root as data, and derives from a Latin word meaning "given"—the idea being that a letter would be dated when it was given over to be delivered. The date that you eat, however, is entirely unrelated: Its name comes, via French and Latin, from the Greek word for finger, daktylos, because the date palm’s fruits or leaves are supposedly shaped like human fingers.

4. Gargoyle

There’s a reason why gargoyles are hideous figures with their mouths open: They take their name from the Old French word for throat, gargoule, and their open mouths are used to channel rainwater away from the main structure of a building.

5. Hysteria

The hysterical symptoms or hysterics of someone suffering from hysteria were once wrongly believed to be unique to women. As a result, they were blamed on disorders or imbalances of the uterus. The word hysteria and all its derivatives come from the Greek word for the womb, hystera. Incidentally, the use of hysterical to describe something that sends you into uncontrollable fits of laughter emerged in the mid-1900s.

6. Recalcitrant

If you’re recalcitrant, then you’re extremely obstinate or uncooperative. The adjective derives from an earlier verb, recalcitrate or calcitrate, which originally meant "to kick out angrily," like a stubborn or uncooperative horse—and in that sense the word derives from calx, the Latin name for the heel.

7. Glossary

A glossary is literally a collection of glosses, short annotations or explanatory comments that were once written along or between lines of text to clarify or translate their contents. These glosses take their name, via Latin, from the Greek word glossa, meaning language or tongue.

8. Supercilious

Anatomically, the supercilium is the region of the forehead containing the eyebrows. And because inquisitive eyebrow-raising has been associated with haughty, condescending people, the adjective supercilious came to describe people and behavior precisely like that.

9. Handsome

It may seem obvious, but the term handsome derives from the word hand. Less obvious is precisely why a word meaning good-looking should have anything to do with the hands rather than the face. In fact, when it first appeared in the language in the 15th century, handsome meant "close at hand," or "easy to handle," and from there the word gained all manner of positive connotations, including "entirely fitting or appropriate," generous, magnanimous, courageous, skillful, and eventually—by the mid-1500s—stylish, elegant, and good-looking.

10. Chiropodist

And lastly, two for the price of one: We might use this word to refer to a foot specialist or podiatrist today, but a chiropodist was originally someone who treated disorders of both the hands and the feet. As a result, the word combines the Greek words for hand, kheir, and foot, pous.

This list first appeared in 2017 and was republished in 2019.

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

5 Benefits of Sarcasm, According to Science

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AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images

Writing of her future demise, author and humorist Dorothy Parker once observed that her epitaph might read, “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

Celebrated for her scathing wit and wordplay, the late Parker might agree that sarcasm held tangible benefits. Doled out with care, ironic remarks—usually defined as communication that humorously conveys your intent through language that appears to be the opposite of what you mean—can amuse friends, lighten the mood, or broadcast your wit. But there’s more to sarcasm than simply eliciting a laugh. It turns out that the perks of your caustic muttering might have some scientific support. Take a look at a few peer-reviewed consequences to your snappy comebacks.

1. Sarcasm and humor might make you appear more confident, particularly at work.

In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers evaluated adults on their responses to some candid remarks about fictional pet food and travel companies, among other subjects. Those with zingers were perceived as having more competence and confidence. “The successful use of humor—telling jokes that are funny and appropriate—can raise your status because it makes you appear more confident and more competent,” says co-author Thomas Bitterly, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “Confidence and competence are two of the key traits that determine whether we give someone status. The reason for this is because we want the individuals who have influence in a group to be those who are capable of leading it.”

Humor and sarcasm work to reinforce these traits, Bitterly tells Mental Floss, because humor itself is a risk. “Before we tell a joke, especially to people we do not know well, it’s difficult to know with certainty if our audience will find it funny and appropriate. If they find it unfunny and inappropriate, they will think that we lack competence and we will lose status. Given that humor is risky, telling a joke signals confidence,” he says.

2. Sarcasm can improve creativity.

In a 2015 paper [PDF] published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers (including those at Harvard and Columbia business schools) made the case for sarcasm facilitating creative thinking. In a series of experiments, participants gave or received positive, neutral, or sarcastic responses with a partner. Those in the sarcastic groups performed better at creative tasks—like problem-solving on paper—after the fact.

"This is because both sarcasm construction and sarcasm interpretation are conducive to abstract thinking, a key cognitive precursor to creative thinking," lead author Li Huang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, tells Mental Floss. Huang points to a common sarcastic comment aimed at someone wasting time in the workplace: "Don't work too hard." The intended meaning is likely to "work harder." Both the speaker and recipient benefit, Huang says, because both need to process the underlying message. The speaker must translate the admonishment to sarcasm, and the recipient has to consider what the speaker really meant. That abstraction fosters creative thinking because creativity is needed to discern the truth and not the literal meaning of the statement.

"In this way, to construct or interpret sarcasm is to traverse the psychological distance between the stated and the intended meaning through abstract thinking," Huang says.

There is one word of caution: Sarcasm tends to have this effect when it’s lobbed between two parties who know and trust one another. With strangers, it might simply come off as rude or confusing.

3. Sarcasm can make criticism seem almost pleasant.

Want to offer some constructive commentary without feeling like a jerk? In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, co-author Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, examined how adults and children interpreted sarcastic commentary. The generally agreeable reactions by adults to criticism indicates it can be wrapped in an amusing remark that reduces the chance for the listener to feel offended.

“The use of indirect language allows the speaker to criticize the addressee indirectly which is perceived as more polite than a direct, literal insult,” Glenwright tells Mental Floss. "Speakers may use sarcasm to deliver insults in professional or social settings where they want to criticize another person in a less-harsh manner.”

4. Sarcasm can make for better social bonding.

When we pass along a humorous observation and someone agrees with it, we’re strengthening our bond with that individual, according to Glenwright. “[Sarcasm] improves social bonding between the speaker and the addressee,” she says. “Sarcasm can also be used to convey humor and jocularity which can improve mood both in the speaker and addressee.”

5. Sarcasm might make you appear more intelligent.

Sarcasm and humor alike share a common trait: They require creative thinking that’s rapidly deployed to analyze a situation. Depending on the company, Bitterly says that a clever retort could potentially have people thinking more highly of you. “Saying something that is funny and appropriate is difficult,” he says. “It requires being able to recognize an opportunity for humor—'did someone just say something I know a funny response for'—[and] being able to quickly generate or recall a funny response and being able to predict how the audience is going to respond. On top of those things, delivery and timing also matter …. We tend to view people who manage to successfully pull off all of these things as being more intelligent, and we see that reflected in the way we refer to them.”

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