10 Surprising Origins of Common Words

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The study of etymology can lead to some surprising results. Between English’s mixed Latin, Germanic and French origins, explorers traveling the world and borrowing words, and Britain’s time as a worldwide empire, many English words have bizarre and muddled origins. The journeys of these ten words from their original meaning to their modern definition are especially surprising.

10. The Color Orange Used to be Geoluhread

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Color is an abstract thing. What we think of as one particular color might just look like a combination of two other colors to someone else. For example, the Greeks didn’t have a word for blue.  The way we look at the color spectrum is totally different across every culture. Western culture sees things in terms of the rainbow: yellow, orange, red, etc.  We use the word “orange” in part because of the fruit, but before the fruit became popular English speakers used the word “Geoluhread.” Geoluhread is old English and can be split up into Geoluh (now pronounced in modern English as “yellow”) and Read (now pronounced as “red”). So before we had the fruit we were essentially calling orange “yellowred.”

9. Goodbye is a Contraction of God Be With Ye

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The influence of Christianity is everywhere in western culture. Many of the common first names we use, like Peter, James and John, are names from the Bible. The customs of English speakers and many English words are based on religion, often without most people being aware of the fact. In this vein, our most common phrase to bid someone farewell is “goodbye.” While it seems like a mundane, secular word, goodbye is actually a contraction of the phrase “God be with ye,”  an expression that dates back to the 14th century.

8. Cushy is an Urdu Word

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Cushion comes from the Anglo-French word cussin, which in turn comes from the Latin coxa, or hip. It’s no wonder then that the word cushion originated as somewhere to relax your hip on, and most people assume that the word cushy in turn comes from cushion, because what’s more relaxing that lounging on a cushion?  However, cushy is actually a word English took from Urdu. In the Urdu language, “kusi” translates as easy or comfortable. The British army picked up the word in India, and then spread it during World War I as a word used to describe an easy task. So remember the irony of a word like cushy becoming popular in wartime the next time you use it.

7. WWI made Pipsqueak Famous

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Speaking of World War I, soldiers in the trenches spent a lot of time trying to think of other things than the horrible conditions they found themselves in. In typical dark soldier humor, they gave cute names to the artillery shells that were constantly killing and maiming their friends and comrades. Some of these names, like “whizz-bang” and “plonker” still exist in the English vocabulary, but the one that really took off was “pipsqueak.” It’s hard to imagine any artillery shell being described as a non-threatening runt when it’s zooming in on your location, but there you go.

6. Buffalo Wings Come from Buffalo

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We all know that buffalo wings don’t actually have anything to do with buffalo, but have you ever wondered why? For starters, buffalo itself entered the English language by mistake. The animal we call a buffalo in American English is actually a bison  — a buffalo is a large cow found in Asia and Africa.

As for buffalo wings, they come from Buffalo, New York. They’re a relatively new food on the International stage, as they were largely unknown outside of Buffalo until the Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl an unbelievable four times in a row between 1990 and 1993. The Bills lost every single one, but the media spotlight helped buffalo wings conquer North America.

5. The Venus Fly Trap isn’t From Venus

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The Venus Fly Trap was discovered in the swamps of the South Eastern United States.  It has fascinated people for decades with its seemingly un-plant-like ability to eat any insects that stray too close to its “mouth.” Many assume that this alien quality is why we call it the “Venus” Fly Trap, but the truth is much, much sexier.

The plant, with its soft red juicy petals and hairs that trigger the trap to seal its victims fate, set the off the dirty minds of colonial botanists. They gave it a scientific name, Dionaea Muscipula, which served as an inside joke. Dionaea means daughter of Dione, aka Aphrodite, the Goddess of Sex. You’d think that Muscipula translates as eater of insects, which is what the plant actually does, but “Insect Eater” is actually Muscicapa.  Muscipula means mouse trap. So, the botanists created a name that alludes to the female anatomy by choosing a Latin word that basically means sexy mammal trap. This was then cleaned up a bit to get the name we all use.

4. Caesar Salad Has Nothing to do With Julius Caesar

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Julius Caesar is so famous that that his “Caesar” actually means leader in multiple languages — Russian  (Tsar) or German (Kaiser) are just a couple of examples. But of all the things Caesar is famous for, he did not invent or inspire the classic Caesar salad. That honor can be traced to one humble man in Tijuana, Mexico, Caesar Cardini. Cardini owned a restaurant in Tijuana during American Prohibition. Americans in search of liquor would stream over the border to enjoy alcohol in Mexico. During a boozy Independence Day celebration, Cardini’s restaurant ran out of many ingredients, so he threw together a salad with what he had left and sold it with a dramatic table side tossing by his chef.  The dish has since gone from a simple start in Mexico to a meal you can find all over the world.

3. Bear Is a Codeword

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Bears have been regarded with fear and respect wherever they interact with man. The ancestors of the English language were so fearful of them that, like Voldemort in Harry Potter, people refused to use their name out of fear that uttering the word would cause a bear to appear. Instead they used a version of “He who should not be named,” which translates as “the brown one”.  This would evolve into the word we know today, “bear.” The actual original word is lost to history, although we have a pretty good guess. Long story short, today it would be pronounced like ‘wrought’ or ‘rout’.  As in “Don’t go down that path!  There is a wrought in the forest and it might eat you!”

2. Strafe Meant to Punish

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We’re going back to World War I for this one. It’s easy to see why the Great War is the origin of so many words — it was a giant melting pot of races, social classes and cultures. Words that were used in the trenches would spread between armies, and then spread around the world as the soldiers went home. “Gott strafe England!” (“God punish England!”) was a German phrase used in German propaganda. It spread to the Allied armies as slang for punishing, bombarding or reprimanding someone.  With the advent of air warfare it evolved even further, lost its former meaning, and took on the new life of attacking ground forces with a machine gun from a low-flying aircraft.

1. Bless You is a Pagan Sacrificial Phrase

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Just like Christianity, the western world’s pagan roots pervade the English language. Even today the days of our week are named after the old Gods. Tuesday is “Tiw’s Day,” Tiw being another name for Mars. Thursday is actually, “Thor’s Day,” while Wednesday references Woden (Odin).

The term “Bless You” is associated with Christianity, but like Easter and Christmas it has its roots in Pagan tradition. It comes from the phrase “blessen,” which means “mark with blood”. In the Germanic Pagan tradition you made something holy when you sacrificed to it or marked it with blood. So every time you say “Bless You” you’re saying you’ll mark the recipient with blood, which is certainly a twist on the intended message.


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1 Comment

  1. That “Bless You” has anything to do with pagan sacrifices is pure nonsense. An honest mistake though, because these references to suspected pagan roots were extremely common in the last century and are still very popular in the media. I mean: How many times are you told that the Easter Bunny is a pagan fertility symbol – even though it wasn’t very popular befor the 1850s and had to share its job with the Easter Fox, Easter Rooster and other animals.
    No, the roots of the word to bless might lay in the “marking with blood”, but that doesn’t mean that the phrase had anything to do with it. The word marshal originally meant stablehand. Words change their meaning very quickly. Not to mention that in Norse religion blessing with water was much more common.

    Sayings like “bless you” exist in many other language with no reference to any pagan mythology. The German saying “Gesundheit” (lit: health) is one of the most direct approches: Someone has shown an sing of sickness – sneezing – and you wish them good health that they won’t get worse.
    Closer to the English is the Bavarian “Helf Gott” (may God help you). Since the English “Bless you” is just short for “God bless you” it has the same meaning: A short prayer for the person who sneezed that they won’t get sick.
    Maybe a practice like this did exist in pagan religion. But since nobody cared to write it down, we can’t know and just guessing isn’t enough for modern Ethnologists.

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