Category Archives: Language

Why the Mass Avoidance of Some Business is Called “Boycotting”

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This term was named after a nineteenth century Englishman, Captain Charles C. Boycott (who originally had the surname “Boycatt,” but the family changed the spelling when he was nine years old). If you guessed that at a certain point Captain Boycott became quite unpopular with the masses, you’re correct. Shortly before Boycott would find himself boycotted, the situation in Ireland […]

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

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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

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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?

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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”

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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”

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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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