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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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
25
2012
0

What is the oldest audio recording of an expletive?

mary-little-lambDuring the 1800s, inventors were frantically working to develop reliable methods of recording sound. The first sound ever recorded, in 1860, comprised a few bars of the French traditional song Au clair de la lune. The singer never heard her recording—because at that time only a recording device had been developed—but thanks to the wonders [&hel[more...]

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Feb
10
2012
1

Why are there so many words for “toilet”?

dunniesThe numerous words for “toilet” arise because: There are various types of toilet, many of which have distinct names, Some people don’t like to allude to bodily functions by referring to a toilet by name, so many euphemisms have been devised, and The colloquial names for toilets are often regional, so different places use different [&hel[more...]

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Feb
13
2011
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Why are large powerful things called mammoth, behemoth, leviathan, gargantuan, juggernaut?

behemoth-leviathanWhen we hear or read one of these words—mammoth, behemoth, leviathan, gargantuan, juggernaut—most of us understand them to  mean something enormous and hence powerful, but perhaps only from the context. Most people know, of course, that a mammoth was a large, prehistoric ancestor of the elephant. Why was it called a mammoth? The word comes [&hel[more...]

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Dec
05
2010
0

Why are there so many “Bad” places in Germany (and are there any good ones)?

bad-emsThere are a surprising number of placenames in Germany with the prefix “Bad”: Bad Kreuznach, Bad Orb, Bad Ems, Bad Godesberg to name just a few; also since 1991, Bad Wildbad (previously just Wildbad), which would seem to be bad coming and going. More surprising is that the residents of these Bad places are rather [&hel[more...]

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Sep
07
2010
0

What’s the difference between sarcasm and irony?

ironic-signSarcasm and irony are interesting words. They are particularly interesting because they are used with different meanings by different people. Sarcasm is easier to pin down. Sarcasm is when we say something where the intended meaning is different from the literal meaning of the words. If a politician makes a claim and someone says “We [&hel[more...]

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Aug
06
2010
0

What are the other animal words like “canine” and “feline”?

asinine-donkeyMost people are familiar with the words canine (relating to dogs) and feline (relating to cats), but many other animals or animal groups get their own adjective. These are called collateral adjectives, and are generally derived from the genitive form of the Latin genus name. Here is a list of collateral adjectives. Ant: myrmecine. Bear: [&hel[more...]

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Jun
15
2010
0

What is a lathi, a godown, a lakh, a crore?

lakh-croreA lathi, a godown, a lakh (or lac), a crore—these are words that can be found almost every day in an English language newspaper in India, obviously words from one or another of the languages native to India. A lathi is the sturdy bamboo staff carried by Indian (and also Pakistani) policemen, so it is [&hel[more...]

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May
05
2010
1

What is paraphernalia?

paraphernaliaEven if you can’t spell the word (I couldn’t, either) you know what paraphernalia is. It’s all the equipment you need for a hobby, sport, or profession: the stuff your spouse (most likely a wife) complains about when the photo equipment, diving gear, golf clubs, dirty shoes, hunting or fishing gear, etc., are not stored [&hel[more...]

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Mar
19
2010
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What is a vomitorium?

vomitoriumWell, yes, a vomitorium may also refer to what comes to mind, but originally it was an exit from a Roman theater to allow the crowd to spew out. Many people like to believe that the Romans also had a room or basin called a vomitorium for people to relieve themselves after overindulgence, but this [&hel[more...]

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Mar
03
2010
1

What's wrong with describing someone as “sinister, but adroit or dexterous”?

left-right-humanIn the modern meaning of “sinister but adroit or dexterous”, there is nothing wrong, beyond the fact that wicked persons who are also clever should possibly be avoided. For lexicographers and others who remember their Latin, however, the question brings a snort and a smile or frown. Sinister and dexterous come directly from Latin. Adroit [&hel[more...]

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Jan
18
2010
0

Were “oranges” once called “noranges”?

Photo by audreyjm529 - CC-BYA frequently-repeated etymology of the fruit that we call an “orange” goes like this: The fruit was not grown in England, and when the dock-hands unloaded the cargo ships they heard the fruit referred to by its Spanish name: naranja. From this it became known as “a norange”, but over time this became “an orange” [&hel[more...]

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Nov
08
2009
2

I say pop, you say soda, what does everyone else say?

Geographic distribution of terms for carbonated soft drinks.Growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I always referred to carbonated soft drinks as “pop,” or maybe “soda pop.” So I became confused sometime later when I moved briefly to California and was surprised to hear cans or bottles of pop referred to as “sodas” — to me, a soda is [&hel[more...]

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Oct
19
2009
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What is a Pangram?

Photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom - CC-BYA pangram is a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet. If no letters are repeated, the sentence is a perfect pangram. Perfect pangrams can be rather unsatisfying, because they need to make use of obscure words, abbreviations, slang or proper nouns. Here are a few perfect pangrams: Cwm fjord bank glyphs vext [&hel[more...]

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Sep
23
2009
0

What African and Afrikaans words have made their way into South African English?

Sosatie (photo by chee.hong - CC-BY)If you visit South Africa, you’ll find that English is now the main language for signage, education and tourism. But South African English, as well as being spoken with a distinctive accent, has adopted many words from the Afrikaans language, and from various African languages including Zulu and Xhosa. Here are some of the words [&hel[more...]

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Aug
01
2009
2

Are there any new euphemisms for “You’re fired!”?

You're Fired! (Photo by czh, CC-BY)Difficult economic times bring waves of employees getting fired. Frequently, the message is blunted by the use of official flowery prose and politically correct corporate euphemisms. On the other hand, employees losing their jobs tend to use short and punchy colloquial expressions when talking about what happened to them. Some terms tend to be used [&hel[more...]

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Jun
08
2009
2

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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May
07
2009
4

What the frack are the best “fake swear words”?

Holy Mackerel! (photo manipulation by Lamerie - CC-BY)The impact of an expletive comes from the timing and the tone of voice. It’s possible to achieve much the same effect with words that, in themselves, are bland enough for a superbowl commercial. Fake swearing is apparently also known as minced oaths or pseudo-profanity. Back at high school I knew a guy who could [&hel[more...]

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Feb
09
2009
3

What is meant by “Life Imitates Art”?

Life Imitates Art (photo by chascow - CC-BY)The curious notion of life imitating art was expressed by Oscar Wilde as “Life imitates art, more than art imitates life“. It’s a turnaround from the usual situation in which the artist creates art inspired by the life and world around them. When life imitates art, reality reflects what had previously been expressed in art [&hel[more...]

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