Category Archives: Language

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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Why Books are Called Books


Jon asks: Why are books called that? “A portable volume consisting of a series of written, printed, or illustrated pages bound together,” the word for book (or variously booke, bokis, boke and boc) has been around for as long as the English language. Early Origins According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED),[1] the Old English word boc was cognate with […]

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Why Are Continental Breakfasts Called That?


Austin asks: Why are continental breakfasts called that? Many hotels offer guests a free breakfast consisting of muffin, coffee, cereal and milk, toast, juice, bagel, and, at some, even scrambled eggs and make-your-own waffles. Born in the Gilded Age, today’s continental breakfasts reflect the West’s transition from a mostly agrarian culture to an industrial (and today, service) society. Luckily, however, […]

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The Origin of the Phrase “Pulling Your Leg”


Diane M. asks: Where did the expression “pulling my leg” come from? For those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, when someone says, “You must be pulling my leg!” they usually mean, “You must be joking/teasing/making something up.” Extremely popular in the 20th century, the origin of this phrase is still something of an enigma to etymologists. There are two […]

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The Origin of the Term “Brownie Points”


Andrew M. asks: Why do we say “You just earned some brownie points.” What were brownie points originally for? There are many, many origin theories for this one. One of the most often repeated and widely accepted theories is that “brownie points”—imaginary points earned by someone for doing a good deed, and lost by doing something unfavourable—stem from the Brownies, […]

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The Origin of the Phrase “Mind Your Own Beeswax”


Today I found out the origin of the phrase “mind your own beeswax.” “Mind your own beeswax” and “it’s none of your beeswax” are common phrases you might hear being shouted by six-year-olds on the school playground. For the uninitiated, they basically mean “mind your own business” or “it’s none of your business,” but some people think it’s more complicated […]

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The Origins of Kitty-corner, Catawampus, and other Cat Words


Today I found out the origins of the words “kitty-corner,” “catawampus,” and other “cat” words. The word “kitty-corner” has many different variations: catty-corner, caddy-corner, cat-a-corner, or kit-a-corner. They all mean the same thing: something that is directionally diagonal from a certain point. Interestingly, despite all of the “cats” and “kits,” the word has nothing to do with domesticated felines. Rather, […]

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What Is the Origin of Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior?


Ian K. asks: Why are students called freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors? Rather than referring to a student’s year of study, in U.S. high schools and colleges, first year students are freshmen, second years are sophomores, third year students are juniors, and the most experienced are seniors. Yet although this practice seems uniquely American, its origins date back several centuries […]

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