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 [more...]

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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 [more...]


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 [more...]

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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 [more...]

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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 [more...]

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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 [more...]

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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 [more...]

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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: [more...]

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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 [more...]

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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 [more...]

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