List posts can be all sorts of things. As a writer, I decided to pursue a language-related list. I wonder what my fellow blog hoppers are listing.
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Language changes over time. The meanings of words change. Thanks to the twists and turns of language and the convoluted history of English some words end up quite different from their original meanings. as the following bizarre etymological stories illustrate.
A blockbuster was originally a bomb
The original meaning of a word might be hiding in plain sight, and this is one of them. Originally, a “blockbuster” literally meant a bomb large enough to destroy an entire block of buildings. The first blockbusters were produced by the Royal Air Force during World War 2. The earliest one, weighing an impressive 4,000 lb (2 tons) was dropped on the German city of Emden during an air raid in March 1941. The wartime press was quick to pounce on the nickname “blockbuster”, and soon it was being used figuratively to describe anything and everything that had an impressive or devastating effect. The military connotations gradually disappeared after the war, leaving us with the word we use today.
Girl was originally a girl or boy
When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of the “young girls of the diocese” in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales (late 1300s) he wasn’t just talking about young women. In the Middle English period, “girl” meant “child”, regardless of the gender of the child under discussion. That beban to change in the early 15th century, when the word “boy” – thought to be a “borrow” word from French into English around a century earlier to mean mean “slave” or a man of lowly birth – began to be used more generally for any young man. As “boy” began to change its definition, “girl” also migrated its meaning.
Under the same class of gender-bending words, “bimbo” also experienced a sex change over time. Italian immigrants to America had a word “bambino” that meant “baby boy.” As American English often does, the word “bimbo” emerged around the dawn of the 20th century to mean a menacing, brutish bully or a dolt. In 1920 a Broadway song entitled “My Little Bimbo Down On The Bamboo Isle” referred not to a brutish man, but to a beautiful, voluptuous woman. Nobody really knows what instigated the change, although one theory suggests that both muscle-bound heavies and voluptuous women both risk being admired more for their appearance than anything else. Uh, yeah … that sounds unlikely. No matter what inspired it, the term “bimbo” came to be all but exclusively attached to women, to the extent that an exclusively male equivalent, himbo, had to be invented in the late 80s to redress the balance. Yeah, we don’t use that word much.
Alcohol was originally eyeshadow
Okay, this requires the Way Back Machine. The ancient Egyptians made their distinctive jet-black eyeshadow out of the mineral stibnite, which was crushed and heated to produce a fine dust that could then be mixed with animal grease to make a cosmetic paste called al-kohl, from an ancient Arabic word “the stain” or “the paint”. Alchemists and scientists of the European Middle Ages then picked up this term from Arabic-origin textbooks, and began applying it to all kinds of other substances that could be produced through similar means – which included the distillation of wine to form its purest essence, ultimately given the name “alcohol”.
A cloud was originally a rock
The Old English word back of our modern word “cloud” was clud. It didn’t mean “cloud” back in the day. It meant “rock” or “mountain”. Think about mud “clods” and it makes sense. Enormous grey rainclouds can appear (albeit with a little imagination) like enormous grey masses of stone. It’s thought that these two meanings became confused, and eventually the meteorological sense of the word won out to give us the word we use today. Uh, yeah, that makes about as much sense as anything else.
A cupboard was originally a table
A cupboard, quite literally, was originally just a board on which to place your cups, or basically a table. In the early 16th century, the older meaning began to disappear from the language and a cupboard was no longer a tabletop on which to display one’s crockery, but a covered recess in which to store it. By the 17th century, people were beginning to store food in cupboards, while the author Wilkie Collins was the first to find a “skeleton in his cupboard” in 1859.
A handicap was originally a fair exchange
There’s a pernicious old myth that claims the word “handicap” refers to beggars, wounded by war and so unable to work, relying on begging with their upturned caps in their hands just to make ends meet, but the true origin of the word is much more bizarre. Originally, it referred to a means of securing a fair deal once popular among medieval traders. Two parties offering goods for exchange would call upon a neutral third party to oversee the deal. The trade umpire would assess the value of the goods involved, and give the owner of the less valuable goods a cash figure that they would have to add to the deal to make it fair.
Both traders would then take a small gratuity or a token amount of cash in their hands, and go to place their hand inside the umpire’s cap. If both agreed to the deal, they would drop the cash into the cap, which the umpire would get to keep as his fee for securing a fair deal and the deal would be done. If only one or neither trader agreed, the umpire would get nothing and no deal would go ahead. It was from this image of the value of individual items being assessed and compared that the first handicapped horse races were introduced. The notion of the better horses in a handicapped race being intentionally weighted down meant the word “handicap” eventually came to mean a hindrance or disability.
A meerkat was originally a monkey
We all remember the cute little meerkat in the Lion King. The name “meerkat” probably has its origins in markata, a Sanskrit word meaning “ape”. This word was then picked up from central Asia by European explorers and traders in the early Middle Ages who altered it to meerkat, a Dutch-inspired word essentially meaning “sea-cat”. In this sense, the word probably became little more than a placeholder for any four-legged animal that originated overseas, and was ultimately first used in print in 1598 by a Dutch merchant sailor to refer to a South American monkey, rather than an endearing African mongoose.
A moment was once precisely 90 seconds
“Moment” has its origins in the Latin word for movement, momentum. In our time, it means a short period of time. Oddly, the word “moment” wasn’t always so general. In the Medieval period, the 24 hours of the day were each divided into four 15-minute segments known as points, which were further divided into 10 shorter segments known as “moments”. A “moment” is precisely one-fortieth of an hour – or exactly 90 seconds.
A treadmill was originally a prison punishment
Yeah, there is a connection between between gym equipment and the hard labor punishments doled out in Victorian prisons. The original “treadmill” was an enormous man-powered mill used for crushing rocks and grinding grain.
Invented by a 19th-century engineer named Sir William Cubitt, the original “treadmill” was essentially a never-ending staircase (I’ve seen this horror at Planet Fitness) – a wheel of steps encircling a vast cylinder attached to a millstone, on which convicts could be gainfully employed for many hours a day. Oscar Wilde was made to toil away on the “treadmill” during his imprisonment in Reading jail in 1895. Prison reform after the turn of 20th century made Cubitt’s “treadmill” a thing of the penal past, but the term was resurrected in the 50s during the post-war vogue for health and fitness, and became applied to an item of gym equipment likewise comprised of a (seemingly endless) foot-powered belt.
Language is always changing and evolving. Remember when “sick” meant you weren’t feeling well. When my son says he just “solved sick problems” today it actually means that he climbed at the rock gym and he managed to conquer a number of challenging routes.
While we may be surprised to find out how the definitions of these common words and phrases started out as something completely different, it really shouldn’t surprise us because language is a very malleable thing. A person uses a word wrong or deliberately changes the use and in a generation or two, the meaning completely changes.
It’s pretty awesome, actually.