There’s an etymological old wives’ tale that suggests the “step” in stepmother and stepfather comes from the fact that they’re added onto genealogical charts one step away from your biological ones. Unfortunately, it’s completely untrue.
Despite appearances, the “step” in these words stems from an Old English term, steop, which was once used to indicate loss or bereavement. Way back then, stepchild or steopcild meant orphan, not just the offspring of a second spouse.
Here are 15 more words whose true origins and meanings aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem.
1. The “quick” in quicksand doesn’t mean “fast.”
Despite what you might think about the stuff sucking people to their deaths before they have time to escape, this word isn’t a synonym for speedy. It doesn’t mean “fast” in the word quicksilver—an old name for mercury—either. Instead, these adjectives both mean “alive” or “living,” a reference to the moving, animated ground in a patch of quicksand, and to the fact that quicksilver, as a liquid, can move and be poured.
2. The “lolli” in lollipop doesn’t mean “lolling.”
3. The “mid” in midwife doesn’t mean “middle.”
For that matter, the “wife” in midwife doesn’t mean, well, wife. The word wife originally meant “woman,” while mid stood in for “with”—making a midwife a woman who is literally with a woman as she gives birth.
4. The “wilder” in wilderness doesn’t mean “wild.”
At least not in the sense of the “woods and wilds.” This wilder is a corruption of the Old English wild deor, meaning “wild deer” or “animal”—which you will definitely find in the wilderness.
5. The “cut” in cutlet doesn’t mean “trimmed.”
This prefix has nothing to do with cutlets being “cut” from a larger joint of meat. In this case, cutlet descends from the French word costelette, meaning “little rib.”
6. The “bel” in belfry doesn’t mean “bell.”
A belfry isn’t necessarily a bell tower. The original belfry was actually a mobile siege tower that could be wheeled up to castles and town walls by invading armies to gain access from outside. In that sense, the word derives from bercfrit, the old Germanic name for this piece of equipment.
7. The “ham” in hamburger doesn’t mean “meat.”
The beginning of the word has nothing to do with meat of any kind. You probably know this one already: Hamburgers are people or things that come from Hamburg, Germany. The hamburglar, on the other hand, comes from Des Plaines, Illinois.
8. The “Jerusalem” in Jerusalem artichoke doesn’t refer to the city.
The adjective for this unassuming tuber is a corruption of girasole, the Italian word for sunflower. The Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke—it’s actually a member of the sunflower family. It’s also called a sunchoke or sunroot.
9. The “piggy” in piggyback doesn’t mean “pig.”
Piggyback is believed to be a corruption of pick-a-pack or pick-pack—a 16th-century expression for carrying something on your shoulders. It might derive from the old use of pick to mean “pitch,” and pack, meaning “a sack or satchel.”
10. The “sand” in sandblind doesn’t refer to the beach.
Sandblind is a 15th-century word, seldom encountered today outside of literature and poetry, for being half-blind. It is often said to allude to the poor visibility experienced during dust storms and sand storms. But it’s simpler than that: Sandblind derives from its Old English equivalent samblind, the “sam” of which means the same as “semi” does today.
11. The “curry” in curry favor doesn’t mean “stew.”
There’s an old myth that currying favor with someone alludes to slowly working your way into their social circle, just as the flavors in a curry or stew mingle together as it cooks. Instead, the true story behind this one is even more peculiar. In this case, curry derives from a Middle English word meaning “to groom a horse,” while favor is a corruption of Fauvel, the name of a chestnut-colored horse that appeared in an old French poem and folktale about a horse that wanted to usurp its master and take over his kingdom. In the tale, Fauvel succeeds in his quest and ends the story being fawned over and “curried” by all the obsequious members of his master’s court. Currying favor literally means “sycophantically grooming a chestnut horse.”
12. The “face” in shamefaced doesn’t mean “visage.”
Shamefaced was originally shamefast, with -fast in this sense meaning “fixed” or “constant,” as it does in steadfast or stuck fast. Presumably, the word changed over time because the shame of a shamefaced person can be seen in his or her expression.
13. The “chock” in chock-full doesn’t mean “a wedge or block.”
Being chock-full has nothing to do with being rammed as tightly as a chock is below a door or the wheels of a vehicle. Instead, chock in this context is derived from choke, in the sense of something being suffocatingly crammed or crowded.
14. The D in D-day doesn’t stand for “disembarkation.”
It also doesn’t mean deliverance, Deutschland, doomsday, decision, or any of the other d words popular history might have you believe. In fact, the D doesn’t stand for anything at all: Just like (albeit less common) expressions like H-hour, D-Day was just an alliterative placeholder used during the planning of the Normandy landings for the unspecified day on which the operation would take place. As further evidence, the earliest use of the term comes from 1918, a full 26 years before Allied troops stormed the beaches. The French name for D-Day, by the way, is J-Jour.
15. The “good” in goodbye doesn’t mean “good.”
Goodbye is a contraction of “God be with you,” an expression of departure or best wishes in use in English from the medieval period. As the phrase simplified over time, God drifted toward good in other similar expressions like good day and good morning. By the late 16th century, we were left with the word we use today.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.