40 Facts About Words That Will Make You Say “OMG”
Can you pronounce the term that's 190,000 letters long?
You use words every day—in casual conversations with friends and formal correspondences for work, to get from one place to another, to shop or to handle basic tasks around the house. Words are the building blocks of communication.
Still, there’s a lot you don’t know about them. Even the most common words in the lexicon have surprising histories or hidden meanings. At the same time, the English language is loaded with words that perfectly describe common things—that you’ve probably never heard of. Here are 40 wild word facts that can flavor your next conversation and (maybe even lead to you victory next trivia night).
An Infinity Sign Is Called a “Lemniscate”
The term refers to a plane curve in which two loops meet at a central point, creating what we might call a sideways figure-eight. The term is Latin for “decorated with ribbons.”
The Longest English Word Is Nearly 190,000 Letters Long
That would be the chemical name of titin, the largest known protein. It begins, “Methionylthreonylthreonylglutaminylalanylprolylthreonylphenylalanylthreonylglutaminylprolylleucylglutaminylserylvalylvalylvalylleucylglutamylglycylserylthreonylalanylthreonylphenylalanylglutamylalanylhistidylisoleucylserylglycylphenylalanylprolylvalylprolylglutamylvalylseryltryptophylphenylalanylarginylaspartylglycylglutaminylvalylisoleucylserylthreonylserylthreonylleucylpro” and goes on for tens of thousands of letters. (You can read the whole thing yourself here.)
Here’s another fun fact: If you were to pronounce it at a normal speaking speed, it would take more than an hour to spit it out. Just make sure to enunciate—you wouldn’t want anyone to pull an “I’m sorry, one more time” at that!
“Bankrupt” Originally Meant “Broken Bench”
The word describing being broke financially grew out of an Italian phrase that literally referred to breaking something. The word originated as banca rotta, meaning “broken bench,” in which the “banca,” or “bench,” is a money-dealer’s table. Banca would become the term to refer to banking, while rotta would be adapted to other financial terms in English including “go broke” and “break the bank.”
Cobalt Means “Goblin Ore”
German miners who encountered cobalt were no fans of the metallic element. Maybe that was because, when it was heated, it would fill the mine with smoke and kill them—or at least cause permanent health issues. (Cobalt often combines with arsenic and will release the poison if heated.) When the metal was confirmed as a distinct element in 1780, it was given the appropriately malicious name of “kobold,” the German word for “goblin.”
There’s a Word for All Things Breakfast
Pancakes, corn flakes, coffee, orange juice—they are all “jentacular.” Impress your friends (or more likely lose friends) next time you’re at brunch by declaring, “These scrambled eggs are jentacular!” Oh, and it also comes in verb form: To have breakfast is to “jentaculate.”
“Alive” Used to Be “On Life”
The word “alive” is kind of strange when you think about it. We have “life,” “living,” lifelong,” and the like. So why does this one version of the word have an “a” at the beginning? It actually evolved from the term “on life,” which in Old English essentially meant “living.” This phrase was in use into the 19th century, but over time, the “n” was dropped and the “o” became easier to pronounce as an “a,” with the two words being compressed into “alive.”
The Same Thing Happened to “Asleep,” “Abroad,” and More
As John Kelly explains in the OED blog, “In Old English, a could function on its own as a reduced form of on or act as a prefix indicating onward movement. It survives in a host of common words besides alive. Asleep, above, abroad, afloat, ahead, aloud, among, ashore, aside, and away: the a- in all of these go back to on in one way or another,” he writes. “About is a fascinating specimen, as it is a jumble of three prepositions if we dig down deep enough: on, by, and out.”
“Schoolmaster” Is an Anagram of “The Classroom”
Think that’s cool? Here are some other awesome ones:
Western Union = No Wire Unsent
Clint Eastwood = Old West Action
Astronomers = Moon starers = No more stars
The Morse code = Here come dots
Clothespins = So let’s pinch
“Walrus” May Mean “Whale-Horse”
Some who theorize on the origins of words believe that the word for the big tusked mammal grew from a corruption of the Old Norse word for “horse-whale,” hrossvalr, which was inverted by the Dutch as walros. Whether this is the full explanation or not, “whale horse” is a pretty good descriptor for such an odd animal.
“Algorithm” Didn’t Originate as a Computer Term
Though the word is almost exclusively Silicon Valley lingo, “algorithm” actually dates back to the 9th century. Persian mathematician Mohamed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi coined it in a treatise on mathematical equations, as a term to describe the process for solving a specific problem. This grew to broadly describe a set of rules to follow in making calculations. (Incidentally, the same guy is also credited with helping invent algebra, with the word growing from the title of this same treatise, which included the word al-Jabr.)
“Adultery” Has Nothing to Do With the Word “Adult”
It would seem obvious that these two words would share some kind of common ancestor, but in fact, they grow from two completely different roots: “Adult” comes from the Latin verb adolescere, or “to grow up,” while “adultery” grows from the Latin verb adulterare, or “to corrupt.” Though, as Dictionary.com points out, “a real-life definition of adult is the condition of being responsible for our choices, and that the choice of whom to love and honor is probably the most adult decision of all.”
Only Five Words in English Consist Only of Vowels
Memorize this list next time you’re about to play Scrabble: aa, ae, ai, oe, and eau.
There’s a Word for “the Day Before Yesterday”
When it’s Thursday and we’re trying to remind someone of something that happened on Tuesday, we’re more than likely going to go with the clunky phrase, “the day before yesterday.” But guess what? There’s a simple one-word way of describing that: “Nudiustertian.”
For example: “I ran into Tim nudiustertian and he looked great!” Of course, the time it will take you to explain to your friends what that word means, it might have been easier to just say, “the day before yesterday.”
“Ambulance” Refers to Walking
The word “ambulance” is rooted in the Latin word ambulare, meaning “to walk.” It might seem counterintuitive (don’t you need an ambulance when you can’t walk to where you can get emergency assistance?), but it originally referred to the legs of the ambulance itself. You see, in the early 19th century, Napoleon came upon the idea of retrieving those injured on the battlefield with a cart on which the French soldiers loaded their injured compatriots and ran them out of the enemy’s range. This was called a hopitals ambulant or “walking hospital.”
“Funk” Originated in Elizabethan England
James Brown may have invented funk (the music), but the word was around long before. Specifically, the word “funk” originated in 16th century Europe to describe the unpleasant or musty smell of tobacco familiar to most households in the era. It likely grew from the Old French word funkier, meaning “to blow smoke on.”
“Bogus” Was Once a Noun
While we usually think of “bogus” as an adjective, describing something fake or, if you’re a surfer dude, brah, something disappointing, the word actually began as the name of a type of machine. A “bogus” was a machine that would produce counterfeit coins and came to be referred to as a “bogus press.” Over time, “bogus” came to serve as shorthand for “counterfeit” itself.
There’s a Word for the Opposite of Déjà Vu
We’re all familiar with the concept of déjà vu—the feeling that we’ve experienced something before, even though it’s the first time we’ve experienced it. The French also have a term for the opposite situation, when something feels totally new but is actually quite familiar: jamais-vu. Translating to “never seen,” it’s a phenomenon that can be caused by epileptic seizures (and, uh, drinking way too much).
“Bellwether” Is About Sheep
When something is an indicator of a future pattern, it’s like a sheep leading the pack. At least that’s what the person who first coined the word “bellwether” was trying to say. Centuries ago, a shepherd hung a bell around the oldest, castrated ram (then called a “wether”) in the flock, and the rest of the sheep would then follow the animal wherever the ringing bell took them.
Only One Word in English Has the Letters X, Y, and Z in Order
That would be “Hydroxyzine,” and it refers to a type of medicine that prevents sneezing and anxiety.
The Word “Pandemonium” Was Coined as the Name of Hell’s Capital
In his epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton invented the word “Pandemonium” (or “Pandæmonium” in some versions) as the name for the capital of the underworld. Stemming from the Greek words for “all” and “little spirit/demon” the term roughly translates to something like “place for all demons.” When we use the word today, it usually refers to a kind of lighthearted chaos, but Milton invented the word to describe a truly unpleasant sounding place, with a hill “where grisly top/belched fire and rolling smoke” and Satan and his minions are running the show.
“Penguin” Means “White Head”
The name of this flightless bird comes from the Welsh words for “head” (pen) and “white” (gwyn). It originally referred to the now-extinct great auk bird, but was eventually applied to these adorable Arctic-dwelling creatures—even though their heads are usually black and their bellies white.
The First “Blacklist” Was From the 17th Century
The term “blacklist” first came to use in the 1600s as Charles II was restored to throne after his father was deposed and executed 11 years earlier. He created a list of the 58 judges and others responsible for his father’s unpleasant fate—to punish them. In his state papers, he wrote, “If any innocent soul be found in this black list, let him not be offended at me, but consider whether some mistaken principle or interest may not have misled him to vote.” He sent 13 of the men on his list to death and sentenced 25 others to life in prison.
“Book” Came From a Tree
While the paper that makes up a book’s pages literally comes from trees, the word for “book” also came from a tree. Specifically, the beech trees that Anglo-Saxons sourced bark from, on which they’d write names and early documents. Called boc trees, the word was also applied to the bark it produced and eventually morphed into “book.”
“Apron,” “Umpire,” and “Adder” All Used to Begin With “N”
“Apron” traces back to the Latin word “mappa,” meaning tablecloth and map (since both were often spread out on a table), becoming “napron” by Middle English. But over time, through a process called “misdivision” or “rebracketing,” the phrase “a napron” become “an apron.” Same thing happened to the name for the water snake (previously known as “a nadder,” now called “an adder”) or the guy who calls the shots in a ball game (which began as “a noumpere,” referring to a higher-status person with “no peer” who could make legal decisions, and became “an umpire”).
“Newt” and “Nickname” Didn’t Used to Begin With “N”
“Nickname” was originally “ekename,” rooted in the Old English word “eke,” meaning “also,” or “addition.” Likewise “an ewt” once referred to the peculiar-looking amphibian before it became “a newt.”
There’s a Word For the First Person You See After Leaving the House
If you walk out of the house and run into your weird neighbor, feel free to call them a “qualtagh.” Though that might sound like an insult, it actually just means the first person you see after leaving your house (alternately, it can refer to the first person to cross your threshold, especially after New Year’s Day).
“Bigwig” Actually Refers to Hair
Calling someone with power or high up on the social hierarchy a “bigwig” is something of a lighthearted, old-fashioned-sounding needling. But originally, the term (which came about in the 17th century) actually did refer to the size of a person’s wig, as it was fashionable for people to shave their heads and wear wigs; the taller and more elaborate the wig, the clearer sign that the wearer had money and power. (The hair, which came from lower-class people, used to make the wigs was not cheaply acquired.)
Treadmills Were Once a Punishment
The exercise equipment that’s a standard part of every gym today once served as punishment for Victorian prisoners. In the early 1800s, convicts viewed as being lazy or stubborn would go for a routine on the “tread-wheel,” a large added wheel with 24 spokes that would crush grain as the prisoner walked. Some would be required to walk on the contraption for eight hours a day, with prison guard James Hardie writing in 1824 that its “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity … constitutes its terror.” Though the purpose of the machine would change over the next decades, it continued to be called a “mill” in reference to its original grain-grinding work.
“Dumbbells Don’t Have Anything to do With Intelligence
The word “dumbbell” came from the fact that the equipment, originally ropes attached to metal weights, closely resembled church bells that made no sound (or were “unable to talk“—the original meaning of “dumb”).
Samuel Johnson Had a Funny Definition for “Lunch”
Samuel Johnson, celebrated writer and pioneer of the English dictionary, was also famous for his appetite. Part of the reason he grew to be such a big guy may have had to do with how he viewed meals. His definition of “lunch” had nothing to do with the time of day, but the amount of food eaten—specifically, “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”
He Also Had a Funny Definition for “Lizard”
Not one to use a lot of technical jargon for something that could more simply be stated, Johnson called these reptiles, “an animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.”
Alligator Grew from the Spanish Word “EL Lagarto”
In the 13th century, the Spanish referred to what we now know as an alligator as “el lagarto.” Translating to “the lizard,” the phrase got blurred together over time with repetition, eventually becoming one vaguely Spanish-sounding word.
“Punk” Was Once a Military Term
The mohawk hairstyles and rebellious attitude of punk rock seems about as far from military discipline as one can imagine, but it turns out the word “punk” was actually first used in the army.
As Elyse Graham explains on the OED blog, “In the 1940s, members of the U.S. military used punk as a friendly but derogatory term for someone doing clerical scutwork. The 1942 book Army Talk: A Familiar Dictionary of Soldier Speech, which promised to help families understand the slang of fathers, brothers, and sons serving in the Second World War, states, in part, that punk was ‘used as a familiar, and not always welcome, title for the company clerk, in the army and in the Marine Corps too, although this is not as common a sobriquet for him as “company monkey”.’”
“Tl;dr” Is Officially a Word
Merriam-Webster added this acronym for “too long; didn’t read” to its dictionary in 2018.
“Marg” Is Also an Official Word
As in, “margarita,” first known usage traced back to 1990 (who knows what Jimmy Buffet fans in a hurry would say before that).
The First Reference to “Baseball” Was in Jane Austen
We might not think of the social critiques of Jane Austen as a place where we’d find pioneering sports coverage, but it turns out the celebrated author was one of the first to use the word “baseball.” Her novel Northanger Abbey, published in 1818 after her death, is one of the earliest mentions of the word, written as part of the introduction of heroine Catherine Morland, about whom Austen wrote, “It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.”
One-Tenth of the English Language Is the Letter “E”
At least that was the case in 1995, when an analysis of entries in the Concise Oxford Dictionary found that 11.1607% of the letters in the entries were the letter “e.” The second-most common letter was “a,” accounting for 8.4966% of all letters. The letter “q” accounted for the smallest amount—just 0.1962% of the words.
The Longest Word Found in a Major Dictionary Is 45 Letters Long
The word, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, technically refers to a type of lung disease caused by silica dust. But it was actually coined in the 1930s by Everett M. Smith, the president of the National Puzzlers League, for the express purpose of becoming the longest word in the English language, so it’s a bit of a cheat.
“Ammonia” Refers to a Primordial God
Another chemistry word with mythological roots is the gas ammonia, which refers to the Egyptian god Amun, called Ammon in Greek and represented as a man with a ram’s head. Near his temple, people would heat camel dung and sea salt as a tribute (the ancients had very different ideas than us about what makes good gifts) and this became known as sal ammoniac. When a Swedish chemist combined this sal ammoniac with alkali in the 1780s, he dubbed the new gas “ammonia.”
There’s a Word for the Plastic Coating at the End of a Shoelace
It’s called an “aglet,” and comes from the Old French word for “needle” (aguillette). And for more hidden truths about the things you use day in and day out, check out these 50 Amazing Facts About Everyday Items.
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