Category Archives: Language

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”

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?

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

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”?

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!”

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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Why Do We Say Someone is “In Cahoots”?

Mark K. asks: Why do we say someone is in cahoots? What is a cahoot? Meaning alternately companions, confederates, partners and/or conspirators, in cahoots is a phrase used to describe a situation where people are working together, often on an illegal, immoral, secret and/or unethical scheme. As for the word “cahoot” itself, it is defined as a “partnership, league.” The […]

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

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?

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 a Final Performance is Called a “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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