We all know the word automobile, though it mayn’t be the one we now use. But have you looked, really looked, at that word? Auto-mobile. Self-moving. Really? And I thought that was only in the futuristic worlds of the sci-fi writer.
Having time on my hands these past few days I decided to investigate other words of this ilk:
- In Antigua a fig isn’t a fig, but a banana.
- A strawberry isn’t a berry; the berry has its seeds on the inside.
- The English digestive biscuit does not aid digestion.
- The breakfast cereal All Bran isn’t ‘all bran’ but contains 13% other ingredients.
- A French trombone isn’t a musical instrument, but a paperclip.
- Gasoline doesn’t mean gas-anything; it comes from the name of the first person to sell it commercially, John Cassell, he of publishing fame.
- In Dutch wanklank has no connection with solitary pleasures; it means a discordant noise.
- And to be cock-throppled doesn’t mean to be cock-throppled; it means to have an extremely prominent Adam’s apple. But of course, you knew that.
- For the first 100 years of its life the screwdriver wasn’t used to drive screws but to extract nails.
- The wader-bird, oyster-catcher doesn’t catch oysters.
- Chickens don’t have chickenpox (although cows do carry cowpox).
- In Denmark a boghandler doesn’t handle bogs, he sells books.
- In Slavic-speaking countries a bog isn’t a bog or a book; it’s a god.
- The Mute Swan isn’t mute.
- Cat originally meant dog; Latin catulus, a small dog or puppy.
- Seahorses aren’t horses; in fact they have no legs being no more than oddly shaped fish.
- The silkworm is not a worm but the larva or caterpillar of the silkmoth, Bombyx mori.
- And Bugs Bunny is a hare – but everyone knows that.
- To be pixilated doesn’t refer to those jagged digitalised images; it means to be led astray by the pixies.
- A crossword isn’t a cross word, but a word puzzle.
- And a mystery play isn’t a Medieval ‘Who Dunnit’ but a play performed by the craft guilds: Latin mysterium, ‘one who is initiated’ (into a secret craft).
- The Hundred Years War lasted 116 years.
- In the Roman Empire the Equestrians weren’t horse-riders, though they did own horses; they were a class of noblemen, one short of the senatorial class.
- A fetch isn’t a supernatural being who ‘fetches’ the newly dead; it is a family’s (female) guardian spirit. Of Scandinavian origin, in Ireland and Scotland she became the banshee, that wailing foreboder of death.
- In Icelandic, eight is a ‘quarter’ i.e. a place of residence; it’s also the distance the sun travels in 3 hours.
- Always doesn’t mean ‘all ways’ although that is the origin meaning; it now means ‘every time, repeatedly’.
- Fire-dogs aren’t dogs but are a pair of metal stands used to support a log in an open fire; also known as andiron, which word is in no way related to iron but to the Low Latin for ‘frame’, anderia.
- An anthology isn’t the study of flowers; though it comes from anther, the pollen-bearing part of the flower, it is a collection of poems.
- A Jerusalem artichoke isn’t from Jerusalem but is native to North America, and it isn’t an artichoke but the edible tuber of the sunflower Helianthus tuberosus.
- Just as an automobile isn’t a vehicle self-driven, so an autospy is neither self-seeing nor watching oneself.
- Bald doesn’t mean ‘without hair’, but white, as in the white-headed bald eagle.
- But bald as in ‘bald-faced lie’ means ‘bold’.
- The bandicoot isn’t related to the coot (a bird); it’s a rat.
- A belfry might sound like a ‘bell-tower’ but in fact is a watch-tower, the word being derived from the same word as gives us borough.
- Bilbo isn’t a Hobbit but a sword from Bilbao, Spain, renowned for its steel.
- And although blond now means ‘fair haired’ it originally meant ‘grey’.
- A booming noise might be thought of as loud but the word originally meant a ‘hum’, which tends to be quiet and soft.
- buxom was originally applied to a person obedient, obliging, good-humoured, literally ‘bow-some’. I suppose it might also mean bow-fronted.
- Brand-new has nothing to do with ‘brand-names’, but is ‘brands’ as in burns. Burnt- or branded-new.
- Today’s brocade is a cloth woven with raised design, often of silver or gold thread. But in its original form that gold and silver was applied as embroidery after the silken fabric was woven.
- A buccaneer means a pirate, yea? No. The word is Caribbean, and means a place where meat is smoke-dried. The reference is to cannibals using these ‘wooden grids’ to broil their human captives. See Pirates of the Caribbean-2.
- Blind-man’s buff isn’t from ‘buffet’ as in ‘to strike a blow’, nor is it from ‘buffer’ as in ‘to cushion’; it is from buffer, a foolish fellow, a stammerer – one who puffs out his cheeks. The word is allied to buffoon.
- To parboil originally meant to boil thoroughly.
- A bulrush has nothing to do with bulls; the word means ‘a fat-stemmed plant’, the same bul- gives us the ‘bole’ of a tree.
- A bunk isn’t a bed but a ‘heap’, as in Bunkers Hill (Old Norse)
And the list could stretch, as yet, for miles but at ‘bunk’ the phone rang. It was Derek the computer-repair-man. My machine was now working, I could come and collect. I eagerly put away the dictionaries and encyclopaedias with which I had occupied my pc-less days – and the first post since has been this.
I was highly amused the first time I saw the term “fire-dog,” since I naturally imagined what it literally would be.
Let’s also note that the American robin is a thrush, no relation to the English robin.
A turkey doesn’t come from Turkey.
And blackmail only incidentally involves mail or anything black, sometimes.
As ever, you’ve raised a laugh. Yea, as I said, the computer repair-man phoned. Though I have to say, I used to think exactly the same of the fire-dog. As a child I imagined spaniels.