The Interesting Etymologies of 71 Everyday Words
By Jon Mayer
Etymologies can be hard to establish beyond a doubt—academic disagreements often exist, misinformation is rampant, and sometimes legends are important data points, even if they don’t tell the actual story. Rather than tracing every word in this list back to its ultimate origin point, here’s (at least) one interesting way station each of these common words made on its journey to the present day, whether it’s an analysis of the Latin roots, a hypothesis about a proto-Indo-European origin, or a pivotal change in meaning.
The word vaccine derives indirectly from the Latin for cow, vacca. The story goes that, just before the turn of the 19th century, a British doctor named Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox, or variolae vaccinae, were much less likely to contract smallpox, which could otherwise devastate entire communities. Jenner decided to introduce the pus from a woman’s cowpox lesion into a cut he made on an 8-year-old boy’s arm.
Luckily for Dr. Jenner, the boy, and the human race at large, the cowpox pus provided a strong degree of smallpox protection, and the concept of a smallpox vaccine was born. Note the similarity between the word for vaccine and the word for cow in a number of Romance languages today: vacuna and vaca in Spanish, vaccino and vacca in Italian, and vacina and vaca in Portuguese, for example.
Two centuries and change later, vaccines have eradicated smallpox from the planet, and we continue to take inspiration from Jenner’s coinage when discussing vaccines—even ones that don’t come from cowpox pus.
Later genetic testing revealed that those first vaccines may have actually been using a virus closely related to horsepox, not cowpox. Maybe we should be referring to equination campaigns today, but when it comes to the sprawling way that language develops, it can be hard to get the horse-slash-cow back in the barn.
The word clue is a variant of clew, meaning a “ball of thread or yarn,” according to Merriam-Webster. It comes to us from Middle and Old English, and the ball of yarn in question is a handy method for finding your way out of a labyrinth, as Greek mythology’s Theseus did after killing the Minotaur.
3. Cop Out
Louis Joseph Vance’s 1910 novel The Fortune Hunter includes the following line: “He simply can’t lose, can’t fail to cop out the best-looking girl with the biggest bank-roll in town.” In that context, cop means something like get or grab—a usage that survives today in a phase like “cop a feel,” and which may have roots in the Latin capere—“to take”—or the Old Frisian capia, “to buy.” Old Frisian, by the way, is a West Germanic language that some linguists consider a close relative of Old English.
Anyway, eventually one of the main things people were copping was out of further trouble by entering into something like a plea deal after being caught committing a crime. Today, a cop-out can mean any type of excuse or evasion to avoid trouble or responsibility.
If you’ve ever gotten the tingles while getting your hair washed at a salon, the origin of the word shampoo will make sense to you. It comes from a conjugation of the Hindi verb campna or champna, meaning “to press or knead muscles.” A 1762 account from an officer of the East India Company abroad describes the process of being shampooed, which was a vigorous full-body massage done alongside hair-washing. The word, if not the full custom, was exported to England, where its hair-specific meaning coalesced.
The term nightlife doesn’t require a ton of explanation—it’s life that happens at night—but it is kinda neat to realize that the word’s first known appearance in English was in Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. Melville describes his character, Pierre, looking for a cab late at night. He turns off a side street and “find[s] himself suddenly precipitated into the not-yet-repressed noise and contention, and all the garish night-life of a vast thoroughfare.”
Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” has a character chortle in joy. It seems Carroll combined the words chuckling and snorting to build a new, intuitively understood verb.
John Milton constructed the word pandemonium out of the Greek root Pan-, or “all,” and daemonium, from the Latin for “evil spirit.” The pandemonium in Paradise Lost was a “place for all the demons,” which makes sense as a name for what was basically the capital city of hell. It was the opposite of a pantheon, or place for all of the gods. Pandemonium was used in something more like its modern context in the Cheltenham Chronicle in 1819, when a writer invited his audience to “Let any man, in his senses, take a view of the riot—the confusion—the fury—the pandemonium of hatred, discord, and all bad feeling, let loose in the late contest for Westminster.”
A writer is also responsible for the word robot, but in this case the word was coined not in an epic poem but in a play. In Karel Čapek’s 1920 hit RUR, or “Rossum’s Universal Robots” in translation, Capek needed a word for the mechanical beings who go on to world domination in his story. After originally toying with the idea of using the Latin labori, or labor, as a departure point for labeling his soulless workers, Čapek’s brother pointed him to the word robota, a term that, in Czech, is used in regards to serfdom. And it’s actually in regard to the Central European system of serfdom that English had picked up the word robot decades earlier. That explains this wonderful line from a discourse about politics in 1855, long before the word was applied to mechanical beings: “The Austrian government has suppressed the robot.”
Today, factoid is often used to mean a short, somewhat trivial fact—the kind of thing a website devoted to curiosity and fun facts often shares. When Norman Mailer coined the term, though, he explained it as “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper … not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”
If you’re interested in just the facts, you may want to know that the word fact comes to us from a verb meaning “to do.” The past participle of the Latin verb facere is factus , meaning “done.” As a noun that becomes factum, or “an event, occurrence, deed, achievement.” The modern meaning of fact, something known to be true, implicitly contrasts things that are only claimed to have happened with “something that has actually occurred.”
This next word has a pretty well-known etymology, but it’s too good to omit from this list. Whiskey, the cause of (and solution to) at least some of life’s problems, comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, or water of life.
When ships arrived in Venice during the 14th century, they were sometimes required to spend 40 days in port to suss out any possible cases of plague. In Italian, 40 days is quaranta giorni, requiring just a short linguistic hop to the English quarantine.
Italians may have been on the right track with quarantine, but they sort of missed the mark with malaria. The term can be literally translated as “bad air,” reflecting the onetime belief that the disease was caused by dangerous fumes from swamps. Though to be fair, air that’s beset by parasite-carrying mosquitoes definitely qualifies as bad air of some kind.
Mortgage comes from the Old French morgage, the roots of which, in literal translation, mean something like a “dead pledge.” But despite what you might have read online, that’s probably not because you’ll be paying off your mortgage the rest of your life. Sir Edward Coke may have gotten closer to the mark in his Institutes of the Lawes of England back in 1628. Coke understands a mortgage as a sort of standoff, destined to end either when the borrower fails to pay, thus rendering the property “dead to him,” or when payment is delivered in full, in which case the agreement is dead to the lender.
You might read that checkmate comes from the Arabic al-shāh māta, meaning “the king died,” but if you play chess you’d recognize that this doesn’t totally track—the king doesn’t exactly die at the end of a game of chess, does he? A more plausible explanation for the word was offered, back in 1938, by M.E. Moghadam in the Journal of the American Oriental Society. Moghadam explained that the Persian shāh-māt, meaning something like “the king is left (without a way to escape),” seems a better reflection of both chess gameplay and the historical tradition of capturing a warring monarch rather than killing him as soon as possible.
16., 17., and 18. Sinister, Dexterity, and Ambidextrous
Sinister comes from a Latin word that means “on the left side,” a remnant of an outdated association between left-handed people and wickedness or other unsavory traits. That somewhat confusing anti-lefty bias may have roots in pure percentages—most of the population was, then as now, right-handed. Christianity might have also played a role. The Book of Matthew says that Jesus will divide the nations like a shepherd divides his sheep from his goats, with the (presumably pious) sheep sent to the Kingdom of Heaven on the right, and the cursed goats to the left.
The righty/lefty divide shows up in other etymologies: dexterity, or a skillfulness with one’s hands, comes from the latin dexter, meaning “on the right side.”
The right-handed bias was so strong that when Sir Thomas Browne coined the term ambidextrous, referring to a person who can use their left and right hands equally well, he used the same Latin dexter with the prefix ambi-, meaning “both,” basically describing someone as “right-handed on both sides.”
We know roughly when and where the word assassin originally comes from, but there’s some disagreement on the why. Hassan-i Sabbah lived from around 1050 to 1124. He called his secret religious order of Nizari followers Asāsiyyūn, or “the faithful.” And these followers did carry out what we would today call assassinations, targeted killings for political or religious reasons. But many sources, including Marco Polo, suggest that the word assassin had something to do with the word hashashin, or hash eaters. Polo spun a yarn about devotees being drugged with some kind of hash-infused liquid and then convinced to carry out killings. It doesn’t seem the most plausible explanation, but even in modern times there doesn’t seem to be unanimous acceptance of any one origin story.
The periodic table of the elements contains a hint about the origins of the word plumber. That Pb comes from the Latin for lead, plumbum, which also eventually gave us the word plumber. It originally referred to someone working with lead in a number of contexts, without its modern focus on the pipes that move water in and out of buildings. But since pipes were long made of lead, plumbers eventually became known as the people to call when your sink or toilet needs professional expertise.
There are still plenty of butchers around the world who will sell you goat meat, but in the United States and other English-speaking countries, you might also expect to find beef, chicken, or pork. The word butcher does seem to trace its origins through words like the Old French bochier, though, literally meaning “slaughterer of goats.” It seems an easy enough transition from there to any person who prepares and sells meat, goat or otherwise.
A midwife isn’t halfway towards becoming your wife when she assists in your spouse’s childbirth. The word instead combines the prefix mid-, which probably comes from the Middle English for “together with,” and an older use of the word wife referring not just to a female spouse but to any woman. A midwife is, indeed, with a woman when carrying out her job, even if that doesn’t tell the full story of what they are doing to help.
A similarly passive role is suggested by the etymology for obstetric, which comes from the Latin obstetrīx, basically a midwife. The Latin verb obstāre means “to stand in front of,” as in standing in front of the birthing baby, which does accurately capture one facet of a midwife’s responsibilities. Today, obstetric is an adjective describing any number of things relating to childbirth.
The approval rating of pundits, as a profession, is probably on par with telemarketers and tummy tea peddlers. The word’s origin, though, points to the rarified air professional opinion-givers are meant to occupy. Pundit comes to us from a Sanskrit word that has been transliterated as pundit, pandit, or pandita (पण्डित). It originally referred to someone who had committed to memory a significant amount of the Hindu religious texts known as the Vedas. It came to refer more generally to something like “a learned man” or “philosopher” by the 19th century, and today that meaning has expanded to include people who like to yell at one another on cable news.
The word astronaut actually predates the real-life profession. It was used to refer to a spaceship, not a person, in Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac back in 1880. When referring to a person who explores space, a similar word in French, astronautique, was coined by science fiction writer Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (whose pseudonym was J.-H. Rosny aîné) in 1927. The word’s Greek roots give it the literal, if still quite poetic, meaning of something like “star sailor.”
You might think juggernaut has a similar Greek root, but it actually derives from Hindi. Jagat for “world” plus nātha for “lord or protector” gave us jagannāth, roughly “lord of the world,” a Hindu deity. One story for how that specific usage led to our current understanding of the word involves the annual chariot festival that took place at the Jagannāth Temple in Puri, India. Reports of pilgrims being crushed under the procession of chariots may have given rise to juggernaut’s meaning as “a massive inexorable force,” though those reports may have been the product of a biased perspective from Western sources, rather than an accurate accounting of events.
Tycoon comes to the United States via the Japanese taikun, a word whose Chinese roots mean “great ruler.” When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in the 1850s, he wanted to meet with “a dignitary of the highest rank in the empire.” Perry seemed to think that meant the emperor, but in fact the shogun wielded more power in Japan at the time. Japanese officials used the title taikun to reflect the primacy of the shogun’s power. The word caught on stateside and began to expand in meaning with usages like the one found in the New Orleans Daily Crescent on May 28, 1860. Critiquing then-Senator William Henry Seward’s approach to anti-slavery efforts, the paper claimed he “appropriated to himself … the position of master and ‘Tycoon’ of the Black Republicans.” (“Black Republicans” was a pejorative for white politicians who wanted to do things like abolish slavery.) The word even found fans amongst Abraham Lincoln’s aides during his presidency—they took to calling him “the Tycoon” in letters and diary entries.
Around the same time as Honest Abe’s honest aides were writing about the Tycoon, an African elephant was being exhibited at France’s Jardin des Plantes that would eventually become known as Jumbo. And though Jumbo’s tumultuous life as a celebrity pachyderm may well have popularized the word jumbo to mean anything very large, it’s not necessarily where the word originally comes from. It was used to describe someone or something clumsy as early as 1823, and its use as slang likely predates that written record.
In The United States, at least, few people want to be called a “nimrod.” But once upon a time, it meant you were a hunter in the vein of the Old Testament’s Nimrod. Even today, Nimrod is a fairly common name in Israel. How it came to be a synonym for doofus in English is unclear. It could be through irony, or perhaps because the biblical figure Nimrod is sometimes (though not in Genesis) said to be associated with the ill-fated attempt to build the Tower of Babel. Whatever the origin, it’s often stated that Bugs Bunny helped popularize the derogatory meaning of the word when he lobbed it at everyone’s favorite hapless hunter, Elmer Fudd. But no one ever actually mentions which ‘toon that was in; we found that Daffy actually calls Elmer “nimrod” in 1948’s What Makes Daffy Duck. Bugs used it in reference to Yosemite Sam three years later in Rabbit Every Monday.
Bugs wasn’t talking shades of red when he accused Elmer of being a maroon, and he wasn’t calling him a chestnut, either. That is where we get the word maroon from, though—from the French couleur marron, referring to a marron, or chestnut.
31. and 32. Crimson and Chartreuse
Many other colors take their names from objects in the world. Crimson, for example, can possibly be traced to the proto-Indo-European krmis, or worm, reflecting the fact that the color was once produced by crushing a specific type of worm.
Chartreuse owes its existence as a color to a liqueur of the same name made by Carthusian monks.
And orange comes from, well … oranges. Its predecessors include the Middle French orange and the Sanskrit naranga-s, but what’s really interesting to note is that English didn’t really have a word for this color for centuries. Geoffrey Chaucer, describing a fox in “Nun’s Priest's Tale,” went with the phrase “bitwixe yelow and reed.” Giolureade, or yellow-red, was a somewhat clumsy Old English construction that basically served the linguistic function of today’s orange for almost a millennium, as David Scott Kastan and Stephen Farthing point out in an essay on LitHub. Only once the fruit became widely available in Europe did the color start to infiltrate the continent’s languages.
34. and 35. Dolphin and Porpoise
Dolphins are mammals, so it makes sense that the word dolphin comes from the ancient Greek delphys, or womb. But it’s not 100 percent clear that the name dolphin came about because it seemed like a fish with a womb. Some believe that dolphins are actually shaped like a human womb, and other explanations suggest that the womb in question refers to a special bond between humans and dolphins, who did seem especially esteemed in ancient Greek culture.
Porpoise, by the way, basically means “pig-fish” (from porc, meaning “pig,” and, peis, meaning “fish”).
Orangutan, on the other hand, goes back to the Malay orang utan, literally “man of the woods.”
There are a number of words that derive from specific individuals. A dunce was once a descriptor for an acolyte of the Scottish theologian John Duns Scotus. As Duns’s ideas fell out of favor, the word came to its present-day pejorative meaning—as Merriam-Webster describes it, “a slow-witted or stupid person.”
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political districts in an attempt to advantage a certain political party or constituency. The word comes to us from Governor Elbridge Gerry and a salamander. Or, more accurately, from the misshapen district that appeared in Massachusetts while Gerry was governor, which some claimed looked like a salamander. One origin story for the word says that poet Richard Alsop coined it at a dinner party in 1812. That’s hard to confirm, but there is a record of Alsop’s sometimes-collaborator Elkanah Tisdale drawing “The Gerry-Mander” as a satirical comic in an 1812 issue of the Boston Gazette.
You can boycott a company whose principles you disagree with by refusing to offer them your business, but the original boycott may have been a bit more like a boycott/strike hybrid. Retired British Army officer Captain Charles Boycott was managing the property of an absentee landlord in late 19th century Ireland. A rent dispute between Boycott and the farmers tending to the land led the tenants to stop working the fields and to shun the Englishman en masse. Local businesses followed suit, and Boycott—rich in status but poor in access to useful resources like food—was driven out of town.
The saxophone takes its name from its inventor, Adolphe Sax, but it isn’t the only musical instrument he put his name to: He also created the saxotromba, saxhorn, and saxtuba.
Nicotine, the addictive poison in tobacco, owes its name to the French diplomat Jean Nicot, who is traditionally credited with bringing tobacco plants to France.
It’s generally agreed that the word silhouette comes from the French author and politician Étienne de Silhouette, but how that man lent his name to a particular style of image is a bit hard to say. On his website Word Histories, the French teacher and linguistics enthusiast Pascal Tréguer lays out a number of theories, and finds himself most convinced by the version offered by an 1869 edition of the Journal Officiel de l’Empire Français: that Étienne de Silhouette, himself, pioneered the technique of drawing portraits in the silhouette style. This account claims that de Silhouette covered rooms of his castle with silhouette drawings, but as the castle was destroyed by a fire in 1871 it is unfortunately unverifiable today.
In 1824, Frenchman Louis Braille—then just a teenager—took a pre-existing code and used it to develop the original braille system for reading and writing, inspired by his own needs as a Blind person. (He lost his vision in an accident in his father’s tool shop when he was 3 years old.) Braille, a talented musician, later adapted the system so it could be used for musical notation as well.
44. and 45. Diesel and Uzi
German inventor Rudolf Diesel developed the diesel engine and Israeli Major Uziel Gal designed the Uzi submachine gun.
Chronology comes to us from the Greek khronos, or “time.” Chronus (who is not necessarily synonymous with the leader of the Titans, Cronus), was the Greek personification of time.
We all know what an echo is, and the story of the nymph Echo points to that meaning. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Jupiter’s wife Juno condemned Echo to only speak the last words spoken to her.
Echo was scorned by the hunter Narcissus, who famously fell in love with his own reflection. This story provided inspiration to German physiatrist Paul Näcke to coin the term that would, in English, become narcissism. Näcke used the word to describe a person who treated their “own body as if it were a sexual object, in lieu of having sexual desires for other people,” in the words of PsychologyToday.com. In the ensuing years the meaning of the word expanded through its use by figures like Sigmund Freud. Today, it can be used in reference to anyone with excessive egoism or a tendency to megalomania.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes it’s a cicada—at least according to one of the more popular theories about cigar’s etymology. The Spanish word for cigar, cigarro, is a lot like the Spanish word for cicada: cigarra. This has led some to speculate that cigars were named for their rough resemblance to the cylindrical bug. Another explanation is that cigar comes from the Mayan word sikar, meaning “to smoke.”
If you call your cigar a stogie, you have the township of Conestoga, Pennsylvania, to thank. Some say that’s because an early cigar factory was built in the area, but more sources seem to think it has to do with the smoking habits of the men who drove so-called Conestoga wagons.
The Oxford English Dictionary says that the Greek ancestor of the word oregano—origanos—is “probably a loanword,” as the plant itself comes from Africa. But Greek speakers came up with a pretty convincing folk etymology for the word based on its sounds. Orei means “mountain” in Greek and ganos means “brightness or joy,” giving the word a perhaps-apocryphal but still evocative meaning as something like “joy of the mountain.”
The word tulip comes to us through a “latinized version of the Turkish word for turban, Tülbend,” according to the Amsterdam Tulip Museum, presumably because the shape of the flower resembles some versions of the headwear.
Daisy comes from the Old English phrase dægesege, or “day’s eye,” a nod to the flower’s habit of closing up at dusk and opening at dawn.
Orchids may be beautiful, but their etymology isn’t quite so poetic. The word comes from the Greek orkhis, for testicle, thought to reflect the shape of the plant’s underground storage organs. In Middle English, in fact, the plant was known as ballockwort.
What’s the origin of the universe? Linguistically speaking, that is. In John D. Barrow’s Book of Universes, he traces the word to the Latin universum, composed of the roots unus, or one, and versus, a conjugation of a verb meaning “to turn, rotate, roll or change.” That gives us a literal meaning of something like “rolled into one.” That could just reflect that the universe is everything kind of rolled up into one all-encompassing thing, or a specific cosmological belief from antiquity, when it was thought that “the outer crystalline sphere of the heavens rotated and thereby communicated change and movement to the planetary spheres inside it.”
Sometime between the Big Bang and today, someone got the bright idea to start a school. It might surprise teenagers to know that the word’s antecedent, the Greek scholí, actually meant something like “leisure or spare time.” In ancient Athens and Rome, a favorite use of spare time was to engage in learned discussion, at least among a certain subset of the population.
If you trade sandwiches with your classmate at lunch time, you can call them your “companion.” The word comes from the Latin com, or “together with,” and panis, for “bread or food.” That makes the word’s original meaning something like “one who you break bread with.”
Window comes from the Old Norse vindauga, or “wind eye.” It originally referred to a hole in the roof, but over the years made the jump down to glazed glass usually found on a wall.
While we’re talking architectural origins, I’ll point out that eavesdrop comes, a bit indirectly, from the Old English yfesdrype, the "place around a house where the rainwater drips off the roof,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. An eavesdropper thus became someone who “stands at walls or windows to overhear what’s going on,” which may have been back-formed into the verb eavesdrop.
A gossip was originally a godsibb in Old English, and it was basically a godparent—someone who acted as a sponsor at a baptism. By the 14th century the word could encompass any familiar acquaintance, especially women who were invited to a friend’s birth. Through a long line of loose talkers or perhaps some old-fashioned sexism, the word evolved to mean anyone engaged in idle talk, and eventually gossip took on its modern meaning as baseless rumor or trifling talk.
Sixty words in, and we finally have an etymology Rebecca Black can get behind. Friday was, in Old English, Frigedæg, named for a Germanic goddess of love.
An amateur does something not for pay, but simply because they love it. It makes sense, then, that its Latin root is amare, “to love.”
63. and 64. Flower and Flour
Flower comes from the French fleur, and so does flour. The part of a plant used to make flour—the kind that you mill—was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part.
Anthology has its own floral origin. The Greek anthos, or “flower,” and logia, meaning “a collection,” gave us anthologia, literally something like “a collection of flowers,” but with an early meaning describing a collection of poems.
Bouquet was probably introduced to English by Lady Mary Montague from the French word of the same spelling. Montague, by the way, also familiarized English readers with the “language of flowers” based on her experiences abroad—the idea that a lily symbolizes purity, for example. Bouquet can be traced back to the Medieval Latin boscus, or grove, as in a group of trees. The word bouquet originally meant something like “little wood.”
Walruses have their own interesting etymology, though it too is a bit hard to pin down definitively. In fact, a onetime employee of the Oxford English Dictionary hand-wrote a number of versions of the word’s origins—six of which survive in the archives. That OED employee was one J.R.R. Tolkien, and his favored explanation went back through Dutch to the Old Norse word rosmhvalr.
Tolkien went on to coin or redefine a number of words in building out his fantasy worlds, but one of his most famous creations may not have been entirely his. The author himself said he coined the word hobbit in a moment of inspiration, and his son Michael recalled hearing his father use the word in stories he invented for his children.
Later in life, though, Tolkien expressed a degree of doubt—after all, it would have been easy to have once seen or heard the word and then unconsciously incorporate it into his personal vocabulary. Pre-Tolkien uses of hobbit were eventually discovered, including in The Denham Tracts, a compendium of British folklore collected in the mid-1800s, in which they were listed as a type of supernatural creature. Whether this was a case of parallel thinking or unintended influence may be impossible to say, but—befitting a philologist such as Tolkien—the author eventually created his own retroactive etymology for hobbit, deciding that it derived from holbytla, from Old English roots meaning “hole-dweller.”
Nice once meant “foolish,” from the Old French nice, or “ignorant,” from the Latin nescius. Over the centuries nice went through a dizzying array of meanings, with stops at “timid or faint-hearted,” “fussy or fastidious,” and “dainty or delicate,” before arriving at “pleasant or agreeable” by the 19th century.
Canaries are, strangely enough, named after dogs. Kind of. They’re actually named after the Canary Islands, where they were found. The islands, in turn, take their name from the Latin for dog, canis, though it’s not entirely clear why. Some accounts say this is because people who visited the Islands found them populated with dogs, and perhaps even residents who venerated their four-legged friends. Others believe the dogs in question were actually monk seals, which are sometimes called “sea dogs.”
The Latin word nescius comes from the prefix ne-, for not, and a form of the Latin verb scire, “to know.” That verb also eventually gave us science, which even today isn’t far from its mid-14th century meaning, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary: “What is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information.”
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