So That's Why We Say That!

Fun facts about the language that’s been confounding speakers for centuries: English

By Brandon Specktor Published May 19, 2023 13:48:56 IST
So That's Why We Say That! illustrations by Richard Borge

As anyone who’s sat through English class can tell you, this globally unifying language is baffling. And yet, somehow, there are currently around 1,71,146 words in use in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Granted, many are of the 'a', 'the' and 'but' variety. Still, few of us know how the words we utter were derived or what they really mean. What follows is a 'hodgepodge' (there’s a good word!) of fun facts about the language that gave us Shakespeare, Hemingway, Angelou and those dolts on Twitter.


The Story Behind the Word

Did you know that the word 'muscle' comes from the Latin musculus, which means ‘­little mouse’? Apparently, the ancient Romans thought that the movement of a muscle, especially a flexed bicep, looked as if a mouse were running under the skin. Now there’s a fun visual. And that’s not even the weirdest example of a word with odd, ancient origins creeping—like mice under our skin—into modern English. Here are a few of our favourites.

Quarantine The first quarantine was in Venice, Italy, while bubonic plague was ravaging the mainland. To help curb the spread of infection, visiting ships had to spend 40 days at anchor before entering the city. (Worst. Cruise. Ever!!!) The word 'quarantine' comes from the Italian phrase quaranta giorni: literally, ‘40 days’.


Thousands of years ago, ancient Greek stargazers looked up at the sky and saw a white river of light arcing overhead. Their reaction? “I could really go for some cookies right now.” The Greeks named that broad band of stars galaxías—which stems from the word gála, meaning ‘milk’. To this day, we call our galaxy the Milky Way.


The word originates from French military field hospitals of the 18th century. This type of mobile medical centre could be easily broken down and moved from place to place, earning it the name hôpital ambulant—literally, ‘walking hospital’. Eventually, the name was shortened to just 'ambulance'. Thankfully, today’s walking hospitals come with wheels.



In ancient Rome, the colour of someone’s toga could indicate that person’s social status. Politicians wore gleaming white robes, probably whitened with powdered chalk, to show the purity of their intentions. This white toga was called toga candida, from the Latin candidare (to whiten). From there, we get the English words 'candidate' (one seeking office) and 'candid' (truthful)—two words rarely uttered in the same sentence.


What’s the opposite of a candidate? An idiot, or idio-te-s in Greek. Coming from the word idios, meaning ‘private’, an idiot was anyone who didn’t hold public office. That later came to mean ‘common man’ and, much later, ‘ignorant person’, which is how it’s used today. (What did the ancient Greeks call a foolish person? Moros, which is the basis for the modern moron.)


The original recipe for fruit punch, as it was mixed in the 1600s, called for five ingredients: sugar, spice, lemon, water and booze. It’s said that the name of the drink comes from the Hindi word paanch, meaning five. (Watch out for that fifth ingredient; it packs a punch.)


The ancient Greeks loved their language more than ouzo and looked down on those who spoke a ‘lesser’ tongue. To Greek ears, anyone prattling on in another language sounded as if they were saying bar-bar, the ancient equivalent of 'blah-blah'. This bar-bar babbling led to the word bárbaros, meaning ‘­foreign and uncouth’. Barbarian came to us from there.


From time immemorial, astrologers have been hunting for ­divine messages in the stars. Coming from the Latin dis, meaning ‘asunder’, and astrum, meaning ‘star’, a disaster means that the stars are against you and that ill fortune is close at hand. Just ask the dinosaurs, who were annihilated by an asteroid (from the Greek word asteroeide-s, meaning ‘star-like’).


Coming from the Arabic word makhzan, meaning ‘storehouse’, the term 'magazine' was originally used in the 1600s to describe books. Why? Because books were storehouses of knowledge. Eventually, the word came to describe printed periodicals.


Why DON’T We Say That?

English has no shortage of idioms that might sound batty to foreign ears. (It was raining cats and dogs? Really? How many umbrellas did you go through?) Here are a few colourful turns of phrase and their international origins that imports we should consider adopting in common English, pronto.

Ever think of the perfect witty comeback a moment too late for anyone to hear it? In France, you’ve got the esprit de l’escalier—’wit of the staircase’ (because by the time the idea comes to you, you’ve already left the party).

When someone is daydreaming in Spain, they are pensando en la inmortalidad del cangrejo—literally, ‘pondering the immortality of the crab’.

Similarly, when someone’s mind wanders in Poland, they are said to be ‘thinking about blue almonds’ (myslec o niebieskich migdałach).

If you find yourself in a pickle in Sweden, you aren’t caught with your pants down, you’re sitta med skägget i brevlådan—‘sitting with your beard in the mailbox’.

In English, a rare occurrence happens once in a blue moon. In Italian, it happens ogni morte di Papa—on ‘every death of a Pope’.

Travelling in Israel? If you ask for directions to a town located in the middle of nowhere, you might get this less-than-helpful response: Sof ha’olam, smolah. (‘At the end of the world, turn left’.)

Uh-oh, did Grandpa forget the point of another story? In English, he’s lost the plot; in Mandarin Chinese, he’s ‘adding legs to a snake’ (huà shé tia-nzú).

Had enough of this international inanity? Then buzz off! Or, as they say in Farsi, Gooreto gom kon!—‘Go lose your grave!’


So That’s Why We Call That That

In 1997, two smarty-pants, needing a name for their new data-index website, came up with ‘googol’, which is the number one followed by a hundred zeroes. Perfect! But as they typed Googol into a domain-name search engine, they committed a critical typo. And the mistake stuck. Don’t believe us? Google it. Meanwhile, here are the stories behind other brand names. 


Triscuit is short for ‘electricity biscuit’, because the first ones were proudly produced with hydroelectric power.


Adidas is an abbreviation of ‘Adi Dassler’, one of two feuding Dassler brothers from Germany who founded rival shoe empires after World War II (Adi’s brother Rudi founded Puma).


Häagen-Dazs (?????)

Häagen-Dazs is short for … absolutely nothing. Reuben Mattus, who moved to Brooklyn from Poland, created the ice cream company in 1959. A Jew, he wanted to give his company a Danish-sounding name in ­tribute to Denmark’s reputation for saving Jews during World War II and settled on this nonsense phrase.


Nike was named for the Greek goddess of victory. Allegedly, the shoe company’s famous ‘swoosh’ logo represents the fleet-footed goddess’s wings.


Lego is a contraction of the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning ‘play well’.


Words We Gotta Bring Back. No, Really, Now!

Language is full of twists and turns—or, as our silver-tongued ancestors might say, it’s full of crinkum-­crankum. Words that were once common become obsolete, or downright ridiculous, just a few generations later. Take these 19th-­century slang words that we desperately need to bring back. Can you figure out what they mean in the story below?

The day after my bachelor party, I woke up with the worst katzen­jammer of my life. My head felt full of slumgullion, and collywobbles battered my gut. I looked around the room, utterly bumfuzzled. The whole apartment was cattywampus, with gubbins of chips and pizza crusts strewn across the floor. Light shone slantindicular through the window. What time was it, anyway? When I looked at the wall clock, it was moving widdershins! I closed my eyes to shut out all the flummadiddle—then I realized: I don’t own a wall clock! Had I been hornswoggled, or did I somehow stumble into the wrong house??? I rose shakily to my feet and absquatulated as fast as I could. I’ve never felt so crapulous in my life!


Key:katzenjammer: a hangoverslumgullion: meat stewcollywobbles: abdominal painsbumfuzzled: confusedcattywampus: askewgubbins: scrapsslantindicular: oblique; a portmanteau of “slanted” and “perpendicular.” widdershins: counterclockwiseflummadiddle: something nonsensical or worthlesshornswoggle: to trick or deceiveabsquatulate: depart suddenlycrapulous: sick from excessive drinking


AHIPS! (Acronyms Hidden in Plain Sight)

From a casual LOL (Laugh Out Loud) to your bank card PIN (Personal Identification Number), acronyms infuse our lives now more than ever. Sometimes, you might not even realize you’re using one. For example:

  • Did you know that laser is the lazy way of saying Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation?
  • Scuba diving? Hope your Self-­Contained Underwater Breathing ­Apparatus is working.
  • Lube a greasy wheel with ­WD-40—that’s Water Displacement, 40th formula—a name straight out of the lab book of the chemist who invented the stuff in 1953, after 39 failed attempts.


  • Taser might shock you even more. That’s the Tom A. Swift Electric ­Rifle, named after a 1911 young adult adventure novel that was much beloved by NASA researcher Jack Cover, who invented the Taser in 1974.
  • Shop at IKEA? Thank founder Ingvar Kamprad, who grew up on the farm of Elmtaryd near Agunnaryd, a town in Sweden.
  • When in Sweden, listen to plenty of ABBA. The famous pop quartet was named after its members: Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid.


The Power of a Single Word

One needn’t be a blabbermouth to get a point across. When a Macedonian general threatened to attack Sparta in the fourth century BC, he warned the Spartan generals, “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army on your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city.” The Spartans replied with one word: “If.”

Whoa! The Macedonians suddenly remembered they had to wash their hair that day and never attacked.

Similarly, in 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, German troops surrounded Americans at Bastogne and ordered them to surrender or face being wiped out. Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe sent back this pithy reply: “Nuts!” And, no, he wasn’t requesting snacks for his troops. Today, we’d use something a little spicier and almost as short, but the point got across and the Americans eventually fought their way out.

Another benefit of brevity? It saves you on telegram fees. French author Victor Hugo understood this in 1862 when asking his publishers how sales of his new book, Les Misérables, were going. Too low on francs to send a lengthy message, he instead telegraphed a single question mark. Having sold all 7,000 copies of the book’s first printing in less than 24 hours, Hugo’s publishers responded in kind—with a single exclamation point.

Sometimes even masters of brevity need to employ a second word to make their point. Take America’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge—a man so tight-lipped that his friends nicknamed him Silent Cal. A popular story told by his wife, Grace, recalls Cal sitting next to a young woman at a Capitol Hill dinner party. The woman turned to Cal and said, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” His reply? “You lose.”


We Can’t Stress This Enough

Take a moment to admire this sentence: “She told him that she loved him.” It’s a simple, straightforward profession of adoration. Or is it? It doesn’t take much to change its meaning. Just place the word only anywhere in the sentence. Similarly, the sentence “I didn’t say she stole my money” is uncomplicated, until you realize it has seven meanings depending on which word is emphasized.


A Trip to the Word Buffet

Synesthesia is a fancy name for experiencing one of our senses through another of our senses. For example, someone might hear the word chair and see the colour green. James Wannerton, on the other hand, tastes words.

As he told the BBC, “The word ‘college’ tastes like sausage. ‘Karen’ tastes like yogurt. ‘Yogurt’ tastes, foully, of hairspray. ‘Most’ tastes like crisp, cold toast with hardly any butter on it.” Scientists aren’t sure what causes synesthesia, though the genomes of synesthetes (those who have it) seem different from typical genomes. The result for Wannerton is that reading and writing can be an adventure, what with his taste buds in overdrive with every sentence. But sometimes, it’s not so bad. “I get ­tremendous joy,” he says, “out of writing the blandest email.”


Now, That’s Better!

This gem, which we found on, has been attributed to both Mark Twain and to a letter written to the journal The Economist. It’s called “A plan for the improvement of the English language,” and it just may resolve many of the issues we have regarding our fickle language:

“In Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y, replasing it with i, and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6 to 12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y, and x—bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez—tu ­riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a ­lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe ­Ingliy-spiking werld."

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