Culture

Surprising Origins of Words and Phrases You've Been Using

Here's an excuse to casually drop in the word "etymology" in a sentence.
IMAGE Columbia Pictures
Comments

If you've seen Call Me By Your Name, you'll remember that scene with the apricot. You know, that one where the professor tests Oliver's knowledge of etymology by claiming that the word has origins in Arabic. Not so, Armie Hammer's Oliver smoothly challenges the professor: the history of "apricot" winds through Arabic, Latin, and Greek, and is somehow related to the word "precocious."

Which just goes to prove: etymology is fun. And sexy. And please don't eat that apricot on the side table.

In the meantime, here are some commonly used phrases with surprising origins, ready for you to use casually the next time you flirt etymologically.

.

.

 

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), a database that records over 2 billion words of modern English, over 38% of all instances of the phrase "free rein" are for the misspelling "free reign." The phrase conjures up images of a monarch doing as she might please, but it actually has far more humble origins. Holding a horse's reins loosely, so as to allow them greater freedom of movement, is to give them "free rein." To keep a tight rein, on the other hand, means to control it closely.

.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

"Gung ho" is an English term that means overzealous, enthusiastic, and loyal—unsurprisingly, it was first used as a training slogan for US Marines going out to fight World War II. If it sounds Chinese, it's because it is: the phrase comes from gongyè hézuòshè, shortened to gong hé, which means "work together." From there, it was Anglicized to "gung ho."

.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

The story goes that con men at the market used to foist cats on unwitting buyers who were expecting a baby pig instead. And when they open the squirming bag, they would instead find a bedraggled and rightfully angry cat instead of a frightened piglet. To be honest, a few people—citing common sense—question the veracity of that story, since you'd have to have never seen either a cat or a piglet to mistake one for the other. Perhaps the phrase just comes from the fun mental image of a cat exploding out of a bag—which, if you've ever attempted to put a cat in a bag, you would know to be very explosive. Still, the other story involving con men is fun to repeat.

 

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

While it now usually refers to a weakness in a law or system, a "loophole" (also spelled loupe-hole; and, according to some sources, also called a "murder hole") used to mean a specially designed window that was narrow out front and wider in the back, through which archers could shoot at their enemies from relative safety. 

.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

Ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins coined this word not too long ago, though he didn't mean it to apply to funny pictures on the internet. In his book The Selfish Gene (1976), he wrote:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'.

 .

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

According to some sources, "checkmate" as a chess term comes from the Persian phrase shah mat, which means, literally, "the King is helpless"; though others argue that, since chess reached Europe via the Islamic world, the word probably comes from the Arabic, where mata means "dead."

.

 

In the 17th-century book Paradise Lost, John Milton used the word to refer to the palace in the middle of Hell. The name, Pandæmonium, came from the Latin pan (meaning "all") and daimon (demon).

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

.

The origin of the word has nothing to do with tomatoes (nor with bananas, while you're at it). Coming from the Amoy dialect, the Chinese word kê-chiap meant "brine of fish"—fish sauce, in other words. The word migrated to Malay, where kecap simply refers to any sauce. From there, it made its way to English, where it was variably spelled "ketchup" and "catsup," and came to refer specifically to the Western condiment made from tomatoes.

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW

 .

 

The exiled First Lady of the Philippines herself acknowledged that her name had become synonymous with extreme extravagance: In a 1995 interview with United Press International, she said, "I try to beautify the country—they call it extravagance, frivolity. They laugh at me and call me 'Imeldific,' meaning extravagant, frivolous and excessive."

ADVERTISEMENT - CONTINUE READING BELOW
.
Americans still use the term "boondocks" to refer to remote rural areas. The expression entered their lexicon through US military men fighting in the Philippine-American war, who heard the Tagalog word "bundok," and started using the term to refer to any remote area, no matter the topography of the place. There's even a 1965 American hit song by Billy Joe Royal titled "Down in the Boondocks," where the singer laments that others look down on him because he is "the boy from down in the boondocks."
Comments
View More Articles About:
Recommended Videos
About The Author
Esquire Philippines
View Other Articles From Esquire PH
Comments
Latest Feed
 
Share
Ten years ago, outsiders made their influence critical in fashion. And then Instagram happened, bringing with it a proliferation of stylish digital creatures. Influencers now rule social media, but the ethically challenged among them are doing it in dubious ways.
 
Share
Check out what went down at the inaugural Alex Blake Charlie Sessions in Singapore.
 
Share
The little trashcan droid has been in all nine movies. His biggest moment is yet to come.
 
Share
The new cast member is already channeling Agent Smith.
 
Share
The best and the not-so-best trends that filled our stomachs and emptied our wallets.
 
Share
Thanks to these men, Philippine textbooks saw its greatest plot twists.
 
Share
These tried-and-tested spots have it all.
 
Share
There's a remarkable amount of work that goes into it.
 
Share
It just keeps getting better and better.
 
Share
We’d all die for Bono, but we won’t sit through Philippine traffic for him.
Load More Articles
Connect With Us