Word, Saying & Phrase Origins

Word, Saying & Phrase Origins


Words, in any language, are the heartbeat of civilization. They are how we communicate simple or complex emotions, thoughts, feelings and ideas to one another. Sometimes words or sayings become a part of a culture and sometimes cross-culture and the birth of those words or sayings becomes lost in time. We hope to clear up some of the origins for you in this article!

Word/Phrase Origin

Adolescent It comes from the Latin word adolescere which means to "to grow up".

Adultery It comes from the Latin word adulterare which means to "defile or corrupt". To commit adultery means have extramarital relations which was viewed as defiling or corrupting the marriage vows.

Allure It comes from the French verb aleurrer which means "to bait". Someone who is alluring "baits" others into finding them attractive.

Aloof It comes from the sea-faring word luff which meant to steer the ship with the wind and away from shore. In context the captain would order to steer the ship aluff meaning to give distance between the ship and the shore. Now aloof means distance in a less literal and more emotional or mental sense.

Ambulance It comes from the Latin word ambulare which means "to walk". In times of war those who fell were left on the battlefield until they could safely be moved in cloak of night. They would walk carts or make-shift stretchers onto the battlefield and remove the wounded. The French coined the term hopital ambulant which means "walking hospital" and the British transformed the hopita ambulant to just ambulance.

Assassin It comes from the Arabic word hashishiyun which meant someone who is a frequent user of the drug hashish. This stems from the man Omar Khayyam who was the leader of a group of men who committed assassinations of political, religious and social status. He and his band of murderers were known to become heavily drugged with hashish before going out to kill one of their targets... hashishiyun became assassin in English-speaking cultures.

Baker's Dozen It stems from British law most commonly remembered under King Henry III which was known as an Assize of Bread and Ale. It regulated the price of bread. If a baker tried to scam customers by selling them an underweight loaf for the price of an average loaf there were harsh consequences. So to be sure that they were not accused and punished they would add a little extra to your order; if you ordered one loaf they would include an extra portion, if you ordered a dozen loaves they would include an entire loaf extra. This behavior became known as the baker's dozen, meaning thirteen.

Bankrupt, to go broke, break the bank It comes from the Italian word banca rotta which means "broken bench". The bench symbolizing the money lender's table and banca is the origin of our word bank. A broken bench meant: the bank was broke, the customer broke their relationship with the bank and/or the customer was broke.

Bellwether It comes from the actions of shepherds. A sheep was known as a wether at one time and a shepherd would hang a bell from the eldest sheep in the flock so younger, less experienced sheep would follow the experienced wether. Since the eldest sheep was the leader bellwether became a term used to signify anyone who started a trend others followed.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea It is a nautical term which means to be in a difficult position with two, bad sides. The seams of planks that were difficult to reach were called by sailors the devils. Therefore, to be the unfortunate sailor who has to caulk these seams while on the voyage were between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Bigwig It originates from the fashion trend of the 18th century. The size of your wig signified your social position, if you had a "big wig" you were someone of importance. This took on a whole, new meaning when king Louis XIV of France sported enormous and long wigs to compensate... for something... and therefore the term "big wig" found a permanent place in cultural slang.

Blacklist, blacklisted It has grave origins with king Charles II. When king Charles came into power he made a list of all the names of those in power who had his father, Charles I, executed. King Charles II had 13 put to death, 25 sentenced to life and 20 escaped. Black is color that typically represents death, therefore to be on Charles II's blacklist meant you had his displeasure, since that time to be blacklisted or put on a blacklist means you are in disapproval.

Blackmail Its origin is in Scotland when the word mail was used to mean rent. Farmers were expected to pay the chieftains with silver which was known as white money. However, chieftains became greedy demanding protection payments from farmers on top of their usual mail or else, and therefore these payments became known as blackmail.

Bogus It is a word used to describe something untrue or fake. A machine used to print counterfeit money was a bogus or a bogus press, eventually the noun became an adjective to describe someone or something that was fake.

Book In Anglo-Saxon times those who were scribes would write on bark of the beech tree, they called beech trees boc. Boc eventually mean writings on the beech wood bark and then boc became book.

Bootlegger In times not that far away (the 18th century to late 19th century) the fashion for men were boots that were knee-high, the tall part of the book was known as the bootleg. These tall boots were the perfect tool to use for smuggling alochol that was illegal in the United States to transport and sell. Therefore anyone smuggling these bottles in their boots was known as a bootlegger.

Boycott The origin of this word is actually someone's name, Charles Cunningham Boycott. He was the manager for Earl of Erne collecting for the Earl the money owed by the tenant farmers on the Earl's property. Charles Parnell organized the Irish Land League as a stand against the unfair practices of the social elite against the under-priviledged. Parnell gathered supporters and organized an effort against the rich, land owners who sought to oppress the farmers with evictions from their land. Boycott refused to take the League seriously and he soon found out the power of the working men; Boycott found himself refused service by the local bar, his mail was not delivered and he was ostracized by the public. The Times of London made the word stick as a meaning to stand up against something you don't believe in and refuse to provide support for it (or them) when they prnted an article that used the name as a word to describe how the local people were treating Mr. Charles.

Bridal The word originates from the term bride-ale. The word ale used to signify an event and in those days ale was the drink of choice to celebrate with. Therefore there were events such as church-ales, dirge-ales and such. Of course a bride-ale meant a party where you were celebrating the bride in marriage.

Buff We know the word in its context of movie-buff or trivia-buff, the word actually started as a description of a coat worn by firefighters. In the early 1900s firemen in New York City would wear buffalo coats and it was shortened to buff coats and eventually firefighters were known as buffs. However the word made a further evolution to describe not the firefighters but the people who admired fightfighters, they were known as buffs. It then when on to take a more general tone to mean anyone who was an avid admirer of something.

Bungalow It comes from the Hindi word bangla which means "one-story house". It went through a series of transitions through the English-speaking cultures as bangla, bungale, bungalo and then bungalow.

Cakewalk, to take the cake This was an activity of African AMericans involving couples who would compete against one another to see which pair could walk with the most elegance. If you were the winning couple you would win a cake. It was originally hyphenated as cake-walk but the hyphen was dropped when people started using the term as a way of describing something easy, meaning you'd rather be cake-walking because it's easier than whatever you are doing. It is also where the phrase "take the cake" found its birth.

Callous It comes from the Latin word callum meaning "hard, tough skin". If someone is impenetrable by emotion, sympathy or empathy they have an emotional hard skin.

Cat got your tongue? A phrase everyone has used and no one knows the real origin of. It is not quite 100 years in use just yet, the earliest known history of the phrase being in 1911. It is speculated that the phrase was born because cats like to grab and capture things, therefore if you cannot speak perhaps a cat captured your tongue.

Catch-22 The phrase is used to describe a situation where you cannot get what you want because the solution to the problems works against the desired outcome. This phrase is even younger than "cat got your tongue". The phrase was born of author Joseph Heller in his book Catch-22 whose content was about bomber pilots in World War II. He used the phrase to describe their hardships and impossible decisions.

Jump on the Bandwagon Before television and radio politicians would gain public notoriety by traveling through the main streets in local towns on a wagon that had a musical band playing music to bring people to the streets. Any public figure who wanted to publicly show their support for the political candidate would jump onto the bandwagon.
Tags: Saying & Phrase Origins, Word
Last update:
2011-09-25 23:45
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