Category Archives: Language

Where the Term “Bootlegging” Came From

bootleggers

Mark Y. asks: Why were people who made alcohol during prohibition called bootleggers? Although Prohibition officially began on January 16, 1920, the impetus for banning the production, sale, importation and transportation (though not the consumption) of alcohol had been brewing for decades before. Part of a string of reforms introduced by Progressives, Protestants and other activists to cure all of […]

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Why are Breasts Called “Boobs”?

two-oranges

Jared M. asks: Why are breasts called boobs? There’s an oft repeated and decidedly untrue claim that Eskimos have hundreds of words for “snow”. (Beyond the fact that there is no single “Eskimo language”, when talking about the wider Eskimo-Aleut language family, these actually have roughly the same number of root-words for snow as English.) The false claim that they […]

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The Origin of the Expression “Guess what? Chicken Butt!”

chicken-butts

Mark R. asks: Where did the whole kids thing of saying “Guess what?” and answering with “chicken butt!” come from? An appropriate response to nearly any rhetorical playground question from “What’s up?” to “Guess what?”, “chicken butt” has been an important part of the childish lexicon for many decades. The retort’s origins are usually speculated to have come from a […]

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How the Phrase “Red Herring” Came to Mean Something That is Misleading

herring

Nori K. asks: Where did the phrase red herring come from? Meaning a distraction or false trail, the expression “red herring” has been relatively commonly used for the last two centuries, and its origins do, in fact, begin with a rust-colored fish. However, until quite recently, the accepted origins of red herring were themselves a false trail. The literal sense […]

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When Did People Start Using Punctuation?

question-mark

Grey L. asks: When did people start using punctuation and who invented the common marks we use? INTHEBEGINNINGTHEREWASNOPUNCTUATIONLOWERCASELETTERSOREVENSPACESBETWEENWORDSTHEREALSOWASNOGRAMMATICALWAYOFDISTINGUISHINGWHENANIDEAHADFINISHEDANDANEWONEBEGUNITDIDNTHELPTHATTHEIDEAOFSTANDARDIZEDSPELLINGWASALSONOTATHINGATLEASTNOTASWEWOULDTHINKOFITREADERSWERELEFTTOMUDDLETHEIRWAYTHROUGHANYTEXTASBESTTHEYCOULDUNSURPRISINGLYUNDERSTANDINGWHATAPARTICULARWORKWASACTUALLYSAYINGONTHEFIRSTREADTHROUGHWASPRETTYWELLUNHEARDOFATTHISTIME The earliest writings, which were syllabic and/or logographic (think Mayan and Chinese), had no need for either spacing or punctuation, as each word was typically self-contained in the symbol. However, as previously demonstrated, the lack of punctuation and spacing in alphabetic writing […]

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Why “Mac” and “Mc” Surnames Often Contain a Second Capital Letter

scottish

David asks: Why is the second “C” capitalized in names like “MacCleod”? The short story is that “Mc” and “Mac” are prefixes that mean “son of.” Early inconsistencies in records are what led to having both Mc and Mac prefixes. Mc is just an abbreviation of Mac, and both can actually be abbreviated further to the much less common M’. […]

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Why a Final Performance is Called a “Swan Song”

swan-song

Gideon S. asks: Why is a final performance called a swansong? When someone performs for the last time, we often refer to it as a “swan song” which seems odd given that swans aren’t particularly known for their stage presence… So where exactly did this phrase come from? This expression is generally thought to have its genesis in the over […]

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Who is the Fat Lady, and Why is It Over When She Sings?

fat-lady-sings

Charlie K. asks: Where did the expression “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” come from? You might think the expression, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” derives from some stereotypical “fat lady” singing to close out operas. In particular, some have theorized that the expression in question derives from the last part of Richard Wagner’s […]

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Almost Everyone Pronounces “Ye” as in “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” Incorrectly

ye-olde-curiousity-shoppe

Today I found out the “ye” as in “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” should be pronounced “the”. The “Ye” here is not the “ye” as in “Judge not, that ye (you) be not judged”, but is rather a remnant of the letter “thorn” or “þorn” (Þ, þ). The letter thorn was used in Old Norse, Old English-Middle English, Gothic, and Icelandic […]

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