Category Archives: Language

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?

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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