Category Archives: Language

Where Did the Saying “I’ll Eat My Hat” Come From?

eat-hat

Jeremiah C. asks: Did people actually used to eat their hats? If not, where did the expression come from? “I’ll eat my hat” is an utterance commonly used when a person is absolutely certain that something will not happen. But where did this unusual phrase first originate and have there ever been any recorded instances of people actually eating their […]

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What “Mrs.” is Short For

gloria_steinem

Today I found out what “Mrs.” is short for. You may have wondered, if you’ve ever thought about it, why there is an “r” in “Mrs.” when it’s generally spoken as “missus” (also sometimes spelled “missis”). “Mrs.” first popped up as an abbreviation for “mistress” in the late 16th century. At the time, “mistress” didn’t popularly have the negative connotation […]

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Why Things That Are Haphazardly Built Are Called “Jury-Rigged”

duct-tape

David N. asks: Who was the Jerry in the expression Jerry-rigged? Although many describe shoddy workmanship or a hasty, temporary repair as jerry-rigged, in its original incarnation, the term was actually jury-rigged. While jury as a noun meaning a group of peers that decide the outcome of a legal proceeding has been in use English since the early 14th century, […]

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Did English Speakers Really Not Use Contractions in the 19th Century as Depicted in True Grit?

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Karl A. asks: In the movie True Grit, they don’t use contractions. Is it true that people back then didn’t use them? Won’t, don’t, wouldn’t, isn’t and even ain’t- where would we be without our contractions? Prevalent in spoken English and increasingly accepted in written pieces, contractions enable brevity and make written works more accessible and friendly. Contractions in some […]

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Why are Carved Pumpkins Called “Jack O’ Lanterns”?

carved-pumpkin

Scott T. asks: Why are carved pumpkins called “Jack O’ Lanterns”? The name “Jack O’ Lantern” was originally one of the numerous names given to ignis fatuus (Medieval Latin for “foolish fire”), another of which is “Will O’ the Wisps”, basically the odd light that can occasionally be seen over marshes, swamps, and the like. “Jack O’ Lantern” first popped […]

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The Curious Case of the American Accent

The following is an article from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Hey, youz! Whah do ‘mericuns have all differnt aks-ay-ents? It’s, like, totally confusing and somewhat bizzahh, dontcha know. TALK THIS WAY An accent is “a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular individual, location, or nation.” That’s not to be confused with a dialect, which is a specific form of […]

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Why We Call Certain Types of Threats “Blackmail”, and The Origin of the Lesser Known “Buttockmail”

blackmail

Karl M. asks: Why is it called blackmail when you threaten to reveal something about someone if they don’t give you money? “Blackmail” has its roots in the early 16th century, first used by English farmers living on the England/Scotland border. It derives from the Middle English word “male” which itself is thought to derive from the Old English word […]

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The Surprisingly Reasonable Answer to the Age Old Question- Why Do We Drive on Parkways and Park on Driveways?

the-blue-ridge-parkway

Eric J. asks: I know it’s an old joke, but seriously, why do we drive on parkways but park on our driveways? There has to be a good reason we say it this way, right? To most people the fact that we drive on parkways and park on driveways is rarely pondered upon. This only comes to mind when pointed […]

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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?

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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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