13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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10 Old English Words You Need to Be Using

The Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' written in Old English
The Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' written in Old English
The 'Southwick Codex' (including Old English adaptations of Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Prose Dialogues of Saturn and Solomon, homily on St Quintin); 'the Nowell Codex' (including a homily on St Christopher, Marvels of the East; Beowulf and Judith), British Library // Public Domain

If you learn just 10 Old English words today, let them be these from Mark Forsyth's The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language.

1. Uhtceare

“There is a single Old English word meaning ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying.’ Uhtceare is not a well-known word even by Old English standards, which were pretty damn low. In fact, there is only one recorded instance of it actually being used."

2. Expergefactor

"An expergefactor is anything that wakes you up. This may simply be your alarm clock, in which case it is time to hit the snooze button. But it may be a dustman or a milkman or a delivery van, in which case it is time to lean out of your window and shriek: 'Damn you all, you expergefactors!' This ought to keep them quiet until one of them has at least found a good dictionary."

3. and 4. Pantofle and Staddle

“Once your toes are snugly pantofled, you can stagger off to the bathroom, pausing only to look at the little depression that you have left in your bed, the dip where you have been lying all night. This is known as a staddle.”

5. Grubbling

"It’s time to check whether you’ve got your keys and your phone and your purse or wallet. This is done by grubbling in your pockets. Grubbling is like groping, except less organized. It is a verb that usually refers to pockets, but can also be used for feeling around in desk drawers that are filled with knick-knacks and whatnot."

6. Mugwump

Mugwump is a derogatory word for somebody in charge who affects to be above petty squabbles and factions. So when your boss tries to make peace at the meeting table like an impartial angel, he is being a mugwump.” (The Mugwumps were also a group of rebellious Republicans who broke with their party to support the Democratic candidate in the 1884 U.S. presidential election. —Ed.)

7. Rawgabbit

"A rawgabbit, just in case you were wondering, is somebody who speaks in strictest confidence about a subject of which they know nothing. A rawgabbit is the person who pulls you aside and reveals in a careful whisper that the head of compliance is having an affair with the new recruit in IT, which you know to be utterly untrue because the head of compliance is having an affair with you, and the new recruit in IT hasn’t started yet."

8. Vinomadefied

“Once you are properly vinomadefied, all sorts of intriguing things start to happen. Vinomadefied, by the way, does not mean ‘made mad by wine,’ but merely ‘dampened by it.’”

9. Lanspresado

"A lanspresado is (according to a 1736 dictionary of thieves’ slang) 'He that comes into company with but two-pence in his pocket.' Lanspresados are everywhere. They have usually forgotten their wallets or can’t find [an ATM] or some intensely complicated thing has happened with their rent, which means that they’re skint until Thursday."

10. Vomitorium

“A vomitorium is not a room in which ancient Romans would throw up halfway through a banquet in order to make room for the next course. That’s a myth. A vomitorium is simply a passage by which you can exit a building, usually a theater.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Pandemic vs. Epidemic: What’s the Difference?

If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
doble-d/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the words epidemic and pandemic are showing up in news reports more often than they usually do. While the terms are closely related, they don’t refer to the same thing.

As the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) explains on its website, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.” Usually, what precedes an epidemic is an outbreak, or “a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.” An outbreak can affect a single community or several countries, but it’s on a much smaller scale than an epidemic.

If an epidemic can’t be contained and keeps expanding its reach, public health officials might start calling it a pandemic, which means it’s affected enough people in different areas of the world to be considered a global outbreak. In short, a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. It infects more people, causes more deaths, and can also have widespread social and economic repercussions. The spread of the Spanish influenza from 1918 to 1919, which killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world, was a pandemic; more recently, the H1N1 influenza created a pandemic in 2009.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There’s no cut-and-dried classification system for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Based on the definitions above, it might seem like the current coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, falls into the pandemic category already—according to a map from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 34 countries, and nearly 2700 people have died from the disease. It’s also beginning to impact travel, stock markets, and the global economy as a whole. But WHO maintains that although the situation has the potential to become a pandemic, it’s still an epidemic for now.

“It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month. “I think you could have people arguing each end of it. Pandemics mean different things to different people.”

[h/t APIC.org]

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