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Etymology, the study of the origin of words, can be fascinating.

Since language is constantly evolving, the meaning of many phrases has changed over time, sometimes obfuscating sexist, racist, and violent pasts.

These are seven everyday phrases with surprisingly sinister* origins.

1. Baker’s Dozen

medieval baker making bread

Making perfectly even loaves of bread every time was impossible in medieval England.

In 13th-century Britain, under the reign of Henry III, a statute called the Assize of Bread and Ale stated that bakers could lose their hands for selling their customers “lighter” bread, or loaves of lesser quality.

Because it was hard to make all loaves exactly the same, bakers would throw in a small piece of extra bread when they sold a loaf. If a customer ordered 12 loaves, the baker would add an entire “vantage” loaf to make a “baker’s dozen,” just to make sure he wasn’t accused of “short-weighting” the buyer.

The practice became so common that it was even written into the guild codes of the Worshipful Company of Bakers in London.

2. Blue Blood

Today, anyone from an old or aristocratic family is referred to as a “blue blood.” But the term has a racist past.

Blue blood comes from the Spanish phrase “sangre azul,” or “blue blood.” Aristocratic Castile families coined the term after Spain conquered Moorish lands in 1834 to refer to the fact that they were “uncontaminated” by Moorish or Jewish blood, because their complexions were fair, which caused their blue veins to stand out.

The racist undertones may be gone, but the classist notion persists.

3. As Pleased As Punch

punch and judy puppets


Punch the puppet is a creepy serial killer.

When you tell someone you’re “as pleased as punch,” it usually means you’re satisfied. But this phrase is rather gruesome.

The punch does not refer to a beverage but to the children’s puppets Punch and Judy, whose repertoire included wife beating, baby squashing, and murder.

The puppet shows became a staple in England during the late 1600s. The plot line generally followed the same theme: Something angered Punch and he would go on a killing spree, murdering everyone with his “slapstick.” Usually Punch would kill his child, then his hysterical wife, Judy, then any authority figure — policeman, doctor, concerned citizen — who came to investigate. He would laugh and say “That’s the way to do it!” after each killing.

It’s pretty messed up, but the Brits still aren’t tired of Punch and Judy after nearly 400 years.

4. Wreak Havoc

To wreak havoc” means to create chaos and refers to a whole variety of behaviors. But in its original usage, havoc referred to theft, murder, and rape.

Havoc was an Anglo-Norman battlefield cry that meant soldiers could bring unlimited slaughter, destruction, and plunder upon the land. Under the reign of Richard II, in the 14th century, the cry was outlawed, and those who raised or answered it were sentenced to beheading.

5. Meeting A Deadline

andersonville prison

Mark D L/Flickr

A re-creation of Andersonville Prison. You can see the pigeon roost and wooden “dead-line” fence.

Today, having to “meet a deadline” might evoke dread, but that’s nothing compared to the original meaning of the phrase.

The “dead-line” was the term for a literal line at Andersonville Prison, a Confederate prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War. The prison, which existed for only 14 months, was built to accommodate a maximum of 10,000 people in a stockade surrounded by tall pine logs.

Within that compound was another fence surrounding the prisoners that was called the “dead-line.” It was built 20 feet away from the surrounding walls to stop anyone from climbing over or tunneling under, and sentries were posted in pigeon roosts to shoot any prisoner who crossed or touched the fence.

To make matters worse, there was massive overcrowding, causing nearly a third of all the prisoners who were sent there to die from poor sanitation, malnutrition, disease, overcrowding, and exposure to the elements.

6. A Blockbuster

Today, a “blockbuster” is a massive commercial hit. But the term used to refer to actual “block busters” — bombs that blew up streets during World War II.

British block-buster bombs, or “cookies,” used by the British Royal Air Force were basically huge cylinders (some 4,000 pounds or larger) filled with explosives that could cause massive damage to buildings.

The term took an entertainment tilt almost 10 years after the brutal war, in 1957.

7. Bulldozer

1876 presidential election poster rutherford hayes

The 1876 presidential election was highly controversial. The results for four states were disputed, and a final tally of votes showed Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden with approximately 250,000 more popular votes than Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, though Hayes ended up with one more electoral vote. Ultimately, President Hayes was elected.

To bulldoze” someone means to bully or coerce them. And while this isn’t the nicest phrase, it pales in comparison to its origins.

An iteration of the phrase first appeared in 1876. “Bull dose” meant to beat someone in an extremely cruel and brutal way, or to give a “dose” of lashing and whipping like one would whip a bull.

The term was quickly appropriated for racists who violently terrorized African-Americans after the Civil War in the South, particularly Southern Democrats who intimidated black voters from voting Republican during the chaotic 1876 U.S. presidential election. By 1880, bulldoze was being used as a verb.

When a machine was finally invented that used brute force to push over or through any obstacle, it was named a bulldozer.

*BONUS: Sinister

The word “sinister” also has an interesting past. It derives from the Latin word “sinister,” which meant left or on the left side. In many languages — from Bavarian to Irish — the word for left-handed people also meant “crooked,” “deficient,” “weakest,” and so on. In English, the word “left” comes from the  Anglo-Saxon word “ lyft ,” which means “weak” or “broken.”

By the 15th century in England, left-handedness had evolved to mean “evil” and was sometimes seen as a mark of the devil. It was said that witches used their left hands to curse their marks.

Because of its dark meaning, left-handed people were forced to switch hands to avoid the stigma. Of course today, most cultures acknowledge that left-handed people are no more sinister than the rest of us, and in fact some of the world’s greatest thinkers have been left-handed, like Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin.

These Fascinating Maps Show The Origin Of Words We Use All The Time

U.S. playwright Rita Mae Brown said: “Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

That quote comes to mind looking at these fascinating European etymology maps of various commons words posted by reddit user sp07, which provide a kind of cultural commentary on Europe.

The word for “church” shows the influence of ancient Greece: 3c9RMfmh


“Bear” appears to be influenced by Russia, where largest brown bear population in Europe can be found. Notice the dominant word literally means “honey-eater.” HHtHenfh


Another reddit user noted that “pi” is a prefix for “beer” in several European countries while the “pi” in the Mandarin Chinese word for beer,  啤酒 pi jiu, is a loan word from Europe. 50jse3Rh


“Apple” has a lot of diversity: Notice how the word in Finland and Estonia may come from a Indo-Iranian origin. cgZ8KyVh


“Orange” is an interesting one. In the west it comes form Sanskrit while the dominant word in much of eastern and northern Europe comes from a word meaning “apple from China.” NGLjVICh


“Garoful,” the ancient Greek word for “rose,” only remains in northeastern Italy. Zgcj1Ewh


Most of Europe derives “pineapple” from the Guarani language, which is an indigenous language of South America, although the U.K. (and consequently the U.S.) get the word from Latin. Pineapple Map


Tea comes from China, naturally, except for a few Latin holdouts in eastern Europe.  M4vrWr1h


This one is the word for “cucumber,” which may be even more diverse than “apple”: cu6amudh_updated

Go and get the rattoner, now!


English changes all the time, often in subtle ways—so it’s not surprising that we’ve lost many delightful words and phrases along the way. In his wonderful book Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk takes a closer look at the origins and histories of these language relics. Here are a few of our favorite words from the book; for more, check out Kacirk’s website.


The medieval era’s Miss Cleos, these so-called wise men made predictions based on what was happening in the sky.


This word, from the Latin root crapula, arose in the 18th century. According to Kacirk, it “denoted intestinal and cranial distress … arising from intemperance and debauchery.” Put another way: If you get crunk, expect crapulence.


A term describing a servant who who did his duty only lazily except when within sight of his master, “a form of insincerity known as ‘eye-service,'” Kacirk notes. Replace servant with employee and master with boss, and you could probably know a few people to whom this term would apply.


This Old English expression (probably borrowed from German) meant “fleeting weeks,” and refers to what we today call a honeymoon. Flitterwochen is, obviously, a much better word.


Though this term comes from the 18th century, chances are you know a fribbler. He says he’s really into a lady, but just won’t commit. The behavior of a fribbler was called fribbledom, by the way.


Back in the day, husbands didn’t just hold their wives’ hands during childbirth—they gave them the medieval version of an epidural: Cheese. Groaning-cheese was said to soothe a lady in labor, and so husbands paired it with groaning-cake and groaning-drink.


A word from the 18th century for the dilation of blood vessels—caused by long-term overconsumption of the drink—in an alcoholic’s nose.


A medical device (which Kacirk says resembles a hair net) that was used in the 16th and 17th centuries. After the patient’s head was shaved, the cap was filled with herbs and placed on his head, supposedly curing him of ailments like headaches and insomnia.


This Middle English word originally meant “an incorrigible, dogmatic old pedant,” but eventually came to refer to an incorrect opinion that someone clung to. According to Kacirk, the word originated with an illiterate 15th century clergyman, who incorrectly copied the Latin word sumpsimus and read it in mass.


If people living from medieval times up until the 19th century had a bad dream, they could blame it on a night-hag. This female demon’s M.O. was to kidnap people at night on horseback, and give them nightmares by “producing a feeling of suffocation,” according to Kacirk. There were a number of strategies for keeping a night-hag at bay, including: placing bread blessed at the local parish under a child’s pillow; arranging shoes under the bed with the toes pointing out; and hanging flint chips—aka hag-stones—around the bedposts.


A 17th century term for a surgeon who specialized in curing pox or the clap.


This Anglo-Saxon word, taken from Old French, refers to animal intestines and internal organs, which were eaten by peasants in a dish called garbage pye. Yum!


From the the 16th to 19th centuries, people would have called lawyers like Breaking Bad‘s Saul Goodman petty-foggers. “For a fee, these attorneys were willing to quibble over insignificant legal points … or use unethical practices in order to win a case,” Kacirk writes.


Chaucer coined this term (which, according to Kacirk, comes from the phrase “pig’s eye”) for a sweetheart. Use it next Valentine’s Day and see what happens.


A 16th century word for a bald head, which apparently resembled peeled garlic.


Nobody wants to say that the exterminator is coming over. Use this 14th century term—taken from the Old French word raton and the Medieval Latin word ratonis, which both refer to rats, according to Kacirk—instead.


Courtesy Erin McCarthy



Get to School!

The Serial Comma


stalking horse

Definition of stalking horse


  • a person or thing that is used to conceal someone’s real intentions: you have used me simply as a stalking horse for some of your more outrageous views
  • a candidate in an election for the leadership of a political party who stands only in order to provoke the election and thus allow a stronger candidate to come forward: [as modifier]:a stalking-horse challenge
  • screen traditionally made in the shape of a horse behind which a hunter may stay concealed when stalking prey.


Early 16th century: from the former practice of using a horse trained to allow a fowler to hide behind it, or under its coverings, until within easy range of prey.

Oxford Dictionaries


Meaning in falconry

Derived meaning

In a bate Bating: trying to fly off when tethered In a panic
With bated breath Bated: tethered, unable to fly free Restrained and focused by expectation
Fed up Of a hawk, with its crop full and so not wanting to hunt No longer interested in something
Hawked it up The sound of a hawk expelling the indigestible parts of a meal Clearing phlegm from the throat
Haggard Of a hawk, caught from the wild when adult Looking exhausted and unwell, in poor condition; wild or untamed
Under his/her thumb the hawk’s feet when pinned by the thumb Tightly under control
Wrapped round his/her little finger Of the hawk’s leash when wrapped round the little finger Tightly under control
Lure Originally a device used to recall hawks. The hawks, when young, were trained to associate the device (usually a bunch of feathers) with food. To tempt with a promise/reward/bait
Rouse To shake one’s feathers Stir or awaken
Pounce Referring to a hawk’s claws, later derived to refer to birds springing or swooping to catch prey Jump forward to seize or attack something
To turn tail
Fly away To turn and run away







Editing marks, sort of

Daylight Savings Conspiracy

From Australia where they know it all


Four years of college, lots of money and plenty of knowledge have earned me this useless degree.


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