Jun
23
2014
1

Why, unequivocally, do Italians call a cup of coffee “espresso”?

Expressing espresso (photo by Scott Schiller - CC-BY)An espresso is a shot of coffee made by forcing nearly-boiling water through ground coffee beans, at up to 10 times normal atmospheric pressure. At this pressure, the temperature will be higher than the normal boiling point of water, which causes more of the flavor to be extracted from the coffee grounds. The machine and [&hel[more...]

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Apr
08
2014
0

Is etymology fun?

Etymology of "mother" from "The Story of Mankind" by Hendrik van Loon (PD-EXP)I think etymology, the study of the history of words, is fun. That is probably only because I don’t have to study words. I am just curious about some words, when I suddenly have a question about one. If you are reading this, you probably know the feeling and also probably recognize the similarity of [&hel[more...]

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Sep
24
2013
2

Adultery: what does the word really mean?

Ares and Aphrodite, adulterers (detail from painting by Paolo Veronese - PD-EXP)Of course you know what adultery is. What did you always want to know about adultery, but were afraid to ask? Adultery is what adults do. Cookery is what cooks do; bigotry, what bigots do; thievery, burglary, chandlery (not that many now know what chandlers do), butchery. It’s all about the art, practice or occupation [&hel[more...]

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Nov
30
2012
3

How does the naming of amino acids relate to camel dung?

camel-dungAround 500 types of amino acid are known, but why are they so-named? Amino is the adjective of amine—not to be confused with anime! Amines are compounds (or parts of compounds) built around a nitrogen atom that can spare a couple of valence electrons. Amines are derivatives of ammonia, from which they get their name [&hel[more...]

Feb
27
2011
1

What is the origin of the dunce cap?

dunce-capMost people know what a dunce cap is (also called a fool’s cap): a tall, conical paper cap, usually associated with humiliation of a “learning challenged” school child, the “dunce” of the class—at least on that day. (He probably wasn’t really dumb, just inattentive or hadn’t done his homework.) First, why was he called the [&hel[more...]

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Nov
24
2009
1

What do turkeys have to do with Turkey?

turkeySince the bird we know as the turkey originated in North America, it may seem strange that it has the same name as a country that straddles Europe and Asia. But there is a connection between the words. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary and other sources, the word “turkey” as applied to birds dates [&hel[more...]

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Jun
08
2009
3

What is a mondegreen?

"Streaming Green" by The Wandering Angel. CC-BY.If you’ve ever heard a song on the radio or an album and thought the words said something other than what they really were, you’ve experienced a mondegreen. Although “mondegreen” usually refers to misunderstood song lyrics, it can also refer to any poetry or even statement that’s misunderstood because of words or phrases that sound [&hel[more...]

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Jun
07
2009
3

Is a bilberry different from a blueberry, or a whortleberry, or a wimberry?

Bilberries - tiny - but a big choice of names (Photo by mwri - CC-BY)Bilberries grow wild in Europe. Blueberries look similar but bigger, and are native to North America. That’s the short answer, but the longer truth is that there are quite a few different varieties – all cousins related to one another. It’s usual to call dark blue members of the European branch of the family bilberries, [&hel[more...]

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Apr
07
2009
0

What does the “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday mean?

A man's feet are washed in observance of Maundy Thursday in New York.Many Christians throughout the world observe Maundy Thursday (sometimes called Holy Thursday) three days before Easter, which falls on a Sunday. The observance typically includes Holy Communion, sometimes called the Eucharist, in which worshipers partake of bread and wine (or, in some churches, grape juice) in commemoration of the Last Supper, the final meal that [&hel[more...]

Mar
20
2009
1

What is the difference between a typhoon and a hurricane?

A scene from Gulfport, Miss., during Hurricane Gustav on Sept. 1, 2008.Typhoons and hurricanes are the same type of weather phenomenon — the only difference is where they form. Typhoons are strong tropical cyclones that form in the western Pacific Ocean, while hurricanes are tropical storms that form in the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea (or sometimes in the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean). The [&hel[more...]

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Feb
26
2009
0

Why are jeans called jeans?

Jeans - by Violentz - CC-BYGeane or Gene was once the English name for Genoa, Italy, which was known for producing a particular kind of cloth. Similar everyday fabric woven in 16th century England was named after it; at first called ‘Gene fustian’, but soon known simply as geanes or jean. (Spelling was still very variable!) In 19th century America [&hel[more...]

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Jan
29
2009
1

Why is a blatantly unfair legal proceeding called a kangaroo court?

Picture of kangaroo resting at petting zooAccording to various authorities, including West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, the term “kangaroo court” came from the American frontier of the 19th century. In those days it was common for judges to go from town to town to hold trials, and they gained a reputation of being biased, as their pay sometimes depended on how [&hel[more...]

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Jan
21
2009
0

Where do the names of the months come from?

A modern interpretation of JanusAlthough there have been significant changes, the calendar as we know it dates to the Roman times. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the names of the months have names similar to what the Romans used. January is named after Janus. Appropriately for the first month of the year, Janus was Roman god [&hel[more...]

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Jan
17
2009
0

Why are chicken wings served as finger food known as buffalo wings?

Buffalo wings“Buffalo wings” are named not for the massive mammal of the American Plains but for the city in which they were first made, Buffalo, N.Y., according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Buffalo wings were first made at the Anchor Bar in that city. According to the bar, the first ones were made on a Friday [&hel[more...]

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Jan
17
2009
0

What is the difference between buffalo and bison?

A buffalo with two calves grazes at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Jimbowen0306. CC-BY.Travel to Yellowstone National Park or the Black Hills of South Dakota, and chances are that you’ll run across a herd of hefty mammals known as buffalo — or are they bison? In American English they’re the same species, although some language purists would insist that you refer to the animals as bison alone. Here’s [&hel[more...]

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Jan
14
2009
0

Why is New York City called the Big Apple?

Sunset in Manhattan, New York City. Photo by Aturkus. CC-BYNew York City never has been known for its apple orchards, so why it is called the Big Apple? Although numerous explanations have been given over the years, the name appears to have come from the horse-racing days of the 1920s. But its widespread popularity as a term for the city didn’t occur until about [&hel[more...]

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