Top 10 English Words With Shameful Pasts

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Words. Some of us interact with them almost every day. They’re inexpensive, portable and let us communicate our feelings rather well. Sure, you could always come up to someone and repeatedly jam your finger through a circle made with your other hand (while furiously raising and lowering your eyebrows) but words are so much more efficient.  Unfortunately, it turns out that some of the words that we thought we could trust were lying to us about who they really are. Just like finding out that the lovable elderly man from down the street used to be a Nazi, so will the origins of these 10 English words surprise the pants off of you:

10. Wife

Wife

There is something inherently wholesome about the word “wife,” isn’t it? It makes you think of love, weddings, and picket fences or perhaps “wife-swapping,” depending on your preferred life style. (You know, the good things in life.) There’s definitely nothing shameful about being a wife. Or is it?

The precise origin of the word is uncertain, though some linguists have suggested that it might come from the root *ghwibh-, which means “shame,” as in “Dear God, look at yourself, woman. You married ME of all people? You should be ashamed of yourself.” Pretty sure that’s exactly how we got the word.

9.  Sidekick

sidekick

From Batman’s Robin to George Washington’s knife-wielding pet chimpanzee, sidekicks have always held a special place in our culture, but where did the word itself come from? Is it because a sidekick is someone you gently kick to the side when the press arrives so you can hog all the glory?

Allegedly, the word goes back to pick-pockets, who used their own secret lingo to identify different types of pockets. The pocket on the side of your pants was called the “kick,” or “side kick,” and it was the most difficult place to steal from. So with time, a “sidekick” became someone or something trustworthy which is always by your side.

8. Gibberish

gibberish

“Gibberish,” for the uninformed, is basically a strain of nonsensical, meaningless talk or writing. Sort of like your biology teacher telling you that unless you put a rubber sleeping bag over your junk you will catch some magical disease that causes you to die from the common cold or something.

What’s the origin of the word? Racism. “Gibberish” probably comes from “jabber” which early on became a word used to describe the language of Gypsies, who sounded totally ridiculous speaking a language other than English. Then one day “Gypsy” and “jabber” kinda got mashed up and got “gibberish” – the nonsensical ramblings of Gypsies. Classy.

7. Decimate

decimate

Unless you’re a WWI commander or the type of kid who got beat up in school A LOT, you probably don’t use the word “decimate” that much, but you probably know what it means (basically). It’s like “to kill” or “destroy,” right? Close. It’s more like “to reduce in great quantity,” as in “During my college days, I decimated my entire weed supply in just a week.”

Surprisingly, the original meaning of the word had nothing to do with large-scale destruction / reduction. Rather, the Ancient Roman “decimatio,” from which “decimate” comes from, meant “the removal of a tenth.” What were the Romans removing? People. Decimation used to be a punishment for cities or armies where one in ten people was picked out in a draw and had to be beaten to death by the remaining 9, aka their friends and family. Why?  Because that’s how the Ancient Romans rolled.

6. Cretin

cretin

Were you alive at any point in history past 1900? Chances are you were called a cretin at least once by the playground kids (alongside Fartface and Penisbutt… Kids can be really cruel and stupid at the same time). Today we’re of course aware that cretinism is a genuine medical condition but how did the word come about?  Christians might have the right answer.

One of the proposed origins for “cretin” is from “christianus” a Vulgar Latin term meaning… a Christian, but more in the sense of “unfortunate person.” You’re free to make any religion joke you want, but personally I am just impressed how apparently easy it is to speak in Latin. Seriously, Christian-christianus? Latin is pretty damn simpleus.

5. Punk

punk

When you hear the word “punk” you almost certainly think of “punk rock” but before Sum 41 invented this genre of music, what did the word mean? What or who was a punk? The answer: whores.

That’s right. The original meaning of “punk,” first recorded in the 16th  century, was “harlot” or “prostitute.” Of course words tend to change, and so did “punk.” After a couple of years, it slowly changed its meaning from “hooker” to “homosexual.” In fact, the modern definition of “young criminal” did not surface until about a 100 years ago. This kinda puts the Sex Pistols’ name in perspective, doesn’t it?

4. Jukebox

jukebox

The modern abandonment of the idea that you should pay money for music has forced the good old jukebox out of existence. For those of you too young to remember, a jukebox was something like a big, coin operated iPod. You could find them in bars and clubs all across the country, but if you go by the original meaning of the word, you would think to look for them in whorehouses.

There are a number of theories about the origin of the word “juke,” but the most interesting one traces the word to the West African Gullah language word “juk,” which meant, among other things, “a brothel” (if used in the word “jukehouse.”) And now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you a picture of a robot fornicating with a jukebox because for the first time it actually makes sense in context:

3. Vanilla

vanilla

Vanilla is awesome, isn’t it? It smells nice, tastes nice, and it even looks nice. But despite all that I would sincerely hope that none of you ever felt the urge to… have sex with a vanilla plant. Even though its name does mean “vagina.”

Upon its discovery, vanilla was named “vainilla” which goes all the way back to the Latin “vagina” (and not vaginus as you would logically assume), which itself means “sheath.” Allegedly, the discovering party felt that the vanilla pods were sort of sheath shaped and, hey, they haven’t seen a woman for months and really… who would know, right?

2. Pencil

pencil

To any hack comedian, the word “pencil” is a genuine goldmine of funny because it shares three entire letters and the basic shape with “penis.” The jokes just write themselves. Therefore I am happy to ruin it all by saying that the observation is not clever in the least because “pencil” does basically mean “penis.”

There is a whole boring genealogy of the word to go through, but in the end it all comes down to the Latin word “penis” which meant “tail” cause that’s where the material for the pencil’s predecessor, the brush, came from. Combine that with the fact that pencils are made from wood and you should start panicking over your pencil biting habits in 3, 2, 1…

1. Hysteric

hysteric

Let’s talk about hunting homeless people for sport. You know how you have that one friend, whom you take along on the hunt and who immediately starts panicking right after the deed like “Oh God, what have we done, we’re going to jail, and I won’t survive with this body!” etc.? That’s called being hysteric, or as the origin of the word might tell you, “acting like a woman.”

“Hysteric” comes from the Greek “hysterikos,” which means “belonging to the womb.” So when you’re acting hysterical, it means you’re acting as if you had a womb, or as a woman, with your uncontrolled emotions like women are prone to do, am I right guys? Oh, this black eye? I… walked into a door…

by Rick Raule


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19 Comments

  1. The name for Vanilla didn’t come from the look of the pods, it came from the appearance of the flower on the plant. Vanilla plants are orchids. Orchid flowers looks strikingly vajaja-like.

  2. Hysteria was a medical condition dating back to the hellenistic period, it didnt mean that you were mestruating everywhere, they believed that womb was a roaming organ and if it wasnt kept in check by constant sex it would move up against the stomach which was the seat of the emotions, rather than the brain, and resulted in being ‘over emotional’ hence hysterical.
    It was often prescribed with a wooden or metal phallus, basically a dildo, which was used to subdue the condition, i think you can imagine how.

    • Hilarious, isn’t it? Difficult to imagine that those same doctors would have come up with some round-about, pseudo-scientific explanation for the identical male situation: Dudes, if you don’t whack off occasionally, you’re gonna be an uptight person. Must be those traveling testes!

  3. very entertaining list and well written..not sure of the factual accuracy..but it was a fun read..very good writing job

  4. Forgive me, but I feel a diatribe coming on.
    Let me just say that this was a good list, and I enjoyed reading it (okay, sum 41 didn’t invent punk, but maybe that was supposed to a joke).
    My problem comes in during your introduction, when you said “some of the words that we thought we could trust were lying to us about who they really are. Just like finding out that the lovable elderly man from down the street used to be a Nazi atheist Tea Partier”.
    While the concept is humorous to me, mostly because of the conflicting ideologies, the implication is that finding out someone you consider to be “lovable” was an atheist somehow makes them less so.
    I am neither a Nazi, nor a Tea Partier, but I AM an atheist, and I just wanted to know what led you to lump atheism in alongside groups that respectively tried to exterminate the Jews, and include Glenn Beck.
    I know this seems like a nitpick, and I’m not trying to say that you hate all atheists or something idiotic like that. I just feel that even the more subtle insults like this need to be responded to. I’m not going to waste my time trying to promote atheism, or demonize you, but maybe through an intellectual discussion, we could better understand each other.
    I’m sorry this post has nothing to do with the actual list itself, but when someone undermines atheists as a group, I feel a bit undermined, so I would encourage you (or anyone, really) to tell me your thoughts regarding my comment.

    P.S. Thank you to anyone who bothered to read this whole thing.

    • Zach, I read it and I read every comment that gets accepted and deleted. I’m guessing that is over 30,000 comments in all, but I digress…

      I am a Christ follower or Christian. I think it is slightly ironic that you would post on this site that your feel undermined when someone undermines atheists as a group. Now remember i have read every comment, and I can tell that Christians are the most attacked and undermined group on this site and it is always an atheist that leads the charge unprovoked. You sound like someone who respects all people so I will assume you are not one of those I am referencing. But most of the attacking comments come from lists that aren’t focused on Christianity but have Jesus or Mary or God or evolution somewhere on the list. Then the whole focus becomes “how stupid Christians are” rather than the list itself.

      And while I pray for every person to come to know Jesus as their savior, I also know that I can’t force my beliefs on anyone and the Bible promotes that same message. I don’t attack atheists. I do see their view point and pray it might be changed, but that is up to them and, my belief, God.

      I am not nitpicking your comment; I wanted to let you know that I understand your concern and I will be deleting that portion of the article. It is not my intent that anyone or any group should feel attacked while reading the lists on my site. Sadly, I don’t think many of the proclaimed atheists on the site would give Christians the same respect.

      And thank you to anyone who bothered to read this whole thing. 😉

      Shell Harris, Toptenz Master

  5. Yeah, I agree with Nick! You’re joking about Sum 41 inventing punk, right? You’re gonna have to go back a couple decades to find the real origins of punk!!

      • to the guy who said “the ramones”…. is that THE only punk band you can think of?? c’mon man, let me guess.. you also know the Clash! haha
        At this point you’re so predictable you might as well think Sum 41 did invent punk

        • No, mhm, I wasn’t trying to list all the punk bands I know. That would be a long list.

          I’ll assume that you are simply mistaken, and not just trolling me.

          The Ramones invented punk music. They were performing thier unique style at CBGBs back in the early to mid ’70’s, at the height of the Disco era.

          The Ramones pre-dated even the Sex Pistols.

          The Clash wasn’t formed until the mid to late 70’s and wasn’t strictly a Punk band. They experimented with a number of sounds, including Ska.

          If you are interested, there is a fairly good documentary called “End of the Century” that chronicles thier rise.

  6. “Sort of like your biology teacher telling you that unless you put a rubber sleeping bag over your junk you will catch some magical disease that causes you to die from the common cold or something.” “Chances are you were called a cretin at least once by the playground kids. Kids can be really cruel and stupid at the same time).” Strange descriptions. Gibberish is more like your teacher saying, “Shy tee in the rettin eye, with a frammerstannin itch.” And by the time I was out of schools that had playgrounds, I’m pretty sure I was the only kid who ever used the word cretin.

  7. I truly enjoy your list, and I found it educational. However, I would like to inform you that Sum 41 did not invent punk music. More like Power Pop, which was another pile of poo. But thank you again for this list.

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