10 More Interesting Words & Phrases Facts

Noreen December 20, 2011 3

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1. What the “Bee” in “Spelling Bee” Means

While no one knows exactly where the word derives from, the “bee” in “spelling bee” simply means something to the effect of “gathering” or “get together”.  The earliest documented case of this word appearing with this meaning was in 1769, referring to a “spinning bee”, where people would gather to protest purchasing goods from Britain due to the high taxes on those items.

Other gatherings that were commonly labeled with “bee” were: apple bee, logging bee, quilting bee, barn bee, hanging bee, sewing bee, field bee, and corn husking bee, among others.  Basically, any sort of major competition or work gathering, with a specific task in mind, tended to get the “bee” label added on the end.  With many of these bees being tedious work events, it was also customary to serve refreshments and provide entertainment at the end of the task.

The first documented case of a spelling bee called such was in 1825.  However, it is likely that there were spelling bees before this date.  This was simply the first time someone seems to have written down in print that has survived to today “spelling bee”.

2. The Bluetooth Standard is Named After a 10th Century Scandinavian King

The man was Harald I of Denmark.  “Bluetooth” is the English translation of “Blåtand”, which was an epithet of Harald I (Harald Blåtand Gormsson).  Legend has it, he received this name due to being extremely fond of blueberries and consuming them so regularly and in such volume that they stained his teeth blue.

The Bluetooth standard was originally developed by Jaap Haartsen and Sven Mattisson in 1994, working at Ericcson in Sweden.  Because Bluetooth was meant to offer a set unified standard, replacing a variety of competing protocols, particularly the somewhat antiquated RS-232, they decided to name it after the 10th century king, Harald Blåtand Gormsson, who completed his father’s work of unifying the various Danish tribes into one Danish kingdom around 970. Although, he was only able to maintain this unification for a few years.

The name Bluetooth wasn’t originally necessarily meant to be the final name of the standard.  When they first named it thus, it was just a code name for the technology.  It ultimately ended up sticking though and became the official name of the standard.

3. The Origin of the Term “Going Postal”

It seems to be common knowledge that if you have a co-worker who appears they might take out a 9mm handgun and play target practice with all the panicking office help, you would say, “he’s about to go postal!” It also seems like common sense then, that this could be because postal workers are a little on edge, that they will fly off the handle and kill everyone in sight if they don’t get their 15 min. smoke break. It turns out, that’s not really the case, but who’s to let facts get in the way of a good established term and public perception?

The stereotype is undoubtedly due to several incidents involving postal workers from 1986 to 1993. On August 20, 1986 postman Patrick Sherrill walked into his workplace, shot and killed 14 co-workers and injured 6 more before shooting himself in the head. On October 10, 1991 a former US postal worker, Joseph Harris, killed two employees at a post office in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Then, on November 14th of that same year, after being fired, Thomas Mcilvane killed 4 people and then himself at a Royal Oak, Michigan post office. In a terrible coincidence, on May 6th 1993, two separate shootings took place.  The first one was at a post office in Dearborn, Michigan, where Lawrence Jasion killed one person and wounded three before killing himself. Within a few hours of that, in Dana Point, California, Mark Richard Hilbun killed his mother, and then shot two postal workers.

It isn’t hard to see from these shootings where the public might get the idea that the postal service had some issues; the media was sure to follow.

4. How the “I’m Going to Disneyland” Saying Got Started

In January of 1987, CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, and his wife were having dinner with Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager.  Rutan and Yeager shortly before became the first to fly an aircraft around the world without re-fueling or stopping.  At a certain point in the dinner, Eisner’s wife, Jane, asked Rutan and Yeager what they were going to do now that they’d achieved this momentous milestone.  The response she got was “well, we’re going to Disneyland.”

Jane Eisner thought this would make a great slogan in an advertising campaign and suggested it to her husband, Michael.  Michael Eisner liked it and decided that Disney would use this slogan in a commercial following Super Bowl XXI, in 1987 in which the New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos 39-20.

The athlete they got to star in this commercial was the quarterback for the Giants, Phil Simms. Simms was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXI and offered $75,000 by Disney to appear in their commercial, with his part filmed directly after the game. During this he was to say “I’m gonna go to Disney World!” with alternate takes having him say “Disneyland” instead of “Disney World”.

Disney then followed this up with making three more such commercials in 1987, following other major sporting championships.  These included hiring: yachtsman Dennis Conner, after winning the America’s Cup; NBA star Magic Johnson, after the Lakers won the NBA Finals, and MLB player Frank Viola, after the Twins won the World Series that year.

5. A Group of Cats is Called a ‘Clowder’

The correct term for referring to a group of cats is ‘clowder’.  Interestingly, there are also two other valid ways to refer to a group of cats, other than just saying “group of cats” or “cats”.  Those other two terms are ‘clutter’ and ‘glaring’.

In addition to this, if one wants to refer to a group of wild cats, the correct terms are ‘dowt’ and ‘destruction’.   A male cat, when neutered, is called a “gib”, when not, is called a “tom”.  Female cats are known as “molly”.

The word “cat” itself derives from the Old English “catt”.  Catt has its source in the Late Latin “catus”, meaning: “domestic cat”.  This Late Latin word probably derives from an Afro-Asiatic word: “kaddîska”, meaning “wild cat”.

6. Saying ‘Ahoy-Hoy’ was at One Time the Preferred Way to Answer the Phone

The very brief popularity of this telephone greeting stemmed from the fact the “ahoy-hoy” was Alexander Graham Bell’s preferred way to answer the phone.  Ahoy-hoy derives from the term “ahoy”, which is generally associated with being a nautical term used for hailing ships.  However, there is also significant evidence that it was popularly used as a way to more or less say “hello” in non-nautical situations.  Further, “hoy” was commonly used as far back as the 14th century as a call to use while driving cattle.  This precedes the first known instance of it being used in the nautical sense, attached with a leading ‘a’ sound (“a-hoy”).

The exact origins of the word “ahoy” aren’t known beyond that it stems from the Middle English exclamation “hoy!”  The most popular theory as to the origin of “hoy” is that it derives from the Dutch word “hoi”, meaning “hello”.  An alternate widely accepted theory states that it came from the Czech word “Ahoj”, also meaning something to the effect of “hello”.  Yet another theory, albeit slightly less widely accepted, is that it stems from the Old Norse “heill”, which eventually gave rise to the Middle English “hail” and perhaps “hoy”.

“Ahoy-hoy” quickly got beat out in the U.S. and many other English speaking countries by “hello”, which was Thomas Edison’s favorite thing to say when answering the phone.

7. The French Word for “Paperclip” is “Trombone”

The word trombone originally comes from the Italian “tromba”, which comes from the same Latin word, “tromba”, both retaining the same meaning: trumpet.  In this case, the ending with the added “one” (tromb-one), indicates “large”.  So, essentially, trombone means “large trumpet”.  This has been the name of the instrument in Italy likely since its creation, which is probably around the early 15th century.

“Clip”, on the other hand, comes from the Old English “clyppan” meaning: to embrace.  Obviously this, combined with “paper” from the Latin “papyrus” (made from papyrus stalks), gave birth to the word paperclip.

8. There is Nothing That Comes After Once, Twice, Thrice

Interestingly, even though these words are roughly equivalent, differing only in the numeric value they refer to, it is now considered poor English to use “thrice” instead of the equivalent “three times”.  At the same time, it is considered poor English to use “one time” instead of “once”, which seems odd given “thrice” is now taboo.  Just as odd, “twice” is currently considered equally as proper as “two times” in modern English.

So what we now have here is “once” being proper to use; twice being acceptable, but not necessarily preferred over its equivalent “two times”; “thrice” being a no-no; and then nothing beyond that.  English!

9. Where the Ampersand Symbol and Name Came From

The symbol for “&” comes from combination of letters in the Latin for “and”, “et”.  Specifically, in Old Roman cursive, it became common to combine e’s and t’s, which produced something like this:  Over the next six centuries the ampersand gradually became more elaborate until we get the form of the symbol that is used today:

The name for the symbol, “ampersand”, didn’t commonly come into use until the 19th century, from “and per se and”, meaning more or less: “and [the symbol] by itself is and”.  Classically, when the English alphabet was spoken, “per se” commonly preceded any letter of the alphabet that could be used as a word by itself, such as “A” and “I”, as well “O”, which at one point could be used as a standalone word.  Further, the ampersand symbol used to appear at the end of the English alphabet: … X, Y, Z, &. Hence, when spoken: “… X, Y, Z, and per se and”.

By the mid-19th century, this led to the symbol itself officially appearing in English dictionaries as “ampersand”.  The one exception to this being among Scottish people who traditionally call it “epershand”, which derives from “et per se and”, using the original Latin “et” to refer to the symbol when spoken, instead of the English “and”.

10. The Symbol (#) on a Telephone is Also Called An Octothorpe

The origins of this term date back to the 1960s and 1970s in Bell Labs with the first documented place this word showed up being in a U.S. patent filed by Bell Labs in 1973.  The exact etymology of this word isn’t known as the two “eye witness” accounts are contradictory.  However, what is known is that it was a term engineers at Bell Labs started using as early as the 1960s when Bell Labs was working on interfacing techniques between computers and telephones.

It was during this time that Bell Labs came up with the now ubiquitous “touch tone dialing”, which added two additional keys to handsets, the “*” key and the “#” key.  It is clear the “octo” part was thought up because of the eight points on the symbol.  The origins of the “thorpe” (sometimes written “thorp”) are not so clear.

Ralph Carlsen of Bell Labs wrote a memorandum on this symbol upon his retirement in 1995 where he states that Don Macpherson came up with the name when he went out to instruct their first client of the new telephone system, the Mayo Clinic.  He thought Bell Labs needed an unambiguous name for the # symbol, which had many names, so came up with “octothorpe”.  The latter “thorpe” was in reference to the incredible Native American athlete “Jim Thorpe”.

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3 Comments »

  1. Sean December 20, 2011 at 4:30 am - Reply

    You might want to edit the inforgraphic. I haven’t read through the whole thing, but I noticed that the “S” in Scandinavian wasn’t bolded like the rest of the word.

  2. Rick Bub December 20, 2011 at 6:15 am - Reply

    Now I get why the Commodores never sang “Once, twice, thrice a lady”!

  3. Shah December 6, 2013 at 4:44 am - Reply

    I didn’t really care that the # is called an octothorpe. What I’m FAR more interested in is why it’s called a “pound” sign by Americans. As far as I’m concerned, £ is the pound sign. I grew up in a British English environment where # was always called a “hash” sign – and it’s now coming back to it’s roots, so to speak in the form of “hashtag” in Twitter.

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