Use this tag for questions about the history of a term or phrase.

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53
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4answers
8k views

How did Americans greet each other before “Hi”?

I had assumed that "hi" was a somehow abbreviated form of "hello," but though both of these words appear to have originated from a noise to attract attention, hi actually predates hello. These words ...
18
votes
3answers
3k views

“How come” vs “Why?”

What are the differences between the terms "How come ... we eat breakfast?" and "Why ... do we eat breakfast?" The words phrase based in how seems really awkward to me, and I don't understand this ...
16
votes
7answers
18k views

Why is a woman's purse called a “pocketbook”?

It's not a book, and it doesn't fit in anyone's pocket. Why does my brother-in-law insist on calling his wife's purse a pocketbook? I'm interested in the etymology, and in the chronological and ...
11
votes
3answers
3k views

Why (and since when) is prostitution called “the world's oldest profession”? [closed]

According to Wikipedia, the phrase the world's second oldest profession is "spying" and the world's oldest profession is prostitution. I was always raised with the understanding that prostitution was ...
10
votes
4answers
3k views

Why do common swear words have four letters?

As a non-native speaker I always wondered why most (common) swear words have four letters. I know this is shifting and more words are araising and traditional swear words lose their "harshness", but ...
8
votes
2answers
4k views

what is the origin of the phrase “a penny for your thoughts”?

Googling for the origin of "A penny for your thoughts," I have only found the origin of a likely-related phrase "my two cents" and simple dictionary entries for "a penny for your thoughts." What is ...
7
votes
3answers
219 views

“He rolled his toilet things into his housewife”

From C.S. Forester's Hornblower and the Hotspur: [The naval captain] rolled his toilet things into his housewife and tied the tapes. ODO does provide a second definition for housewife which ...
6
votes
1answer
243 views

Jackson = $$son: pun or topical reference

Alfred Bester's short story The Demolished Man (the original version serialized in Galaxy magazine in 1952, not the novel published in 1963) may have been the first instance of SMS-speak, featuring ...
4
votes
2answers
7k views

Where did the slang usages of “cool” come from?

I see and hear two general slang usages of cool - one meaning great (illustrated by a and b below), and one meaning acceptable/okay (illustrated by c and d). The following are Dictionary.com's four ...
4
votes
1answer
917 views

Good and bad - suppletive adjectives

In English, there are three suppletive adjectives: good, bad and far. Their comparative and superlative forms derive from different stems, i.e., we have best instead of *goodest, worse instead of ...
16
votes
3answers
6k views

How does the “be-” prefix change the words to which it is applied? How did it come about?

What does the be- prefix change when applied to adjectives and verbs? There are many such words that seemed to be coined of this process, for example: behold, beget, befallen, beridden, ...
15
votes
4answers
938 views

Are the verbs that are conjugated to end in “-n” in the past related?

There are many words that in English are conjugated in the past tense to end in "-n": grow goes to grown, sew goes to sewn, throw goes to thrown, etc.. I'm guessing it was probably the regular ...
9
votes
1answer
487 views

English Subjunctive: An Imposition from Latin?

Often English grammar (as well as Koinê Greek, e.g "deponent", and probably others), has often been ruled by what I call "totalitarian grammarians" who impose Latin structures on it rather than doing ...
7
votes
2answers
425 views

History of the phrase “olden days”

When and where was the phrase olden days coined?
7
votes
3answers
5k views

What is the history and geographic area of the word “finna?”

In St. Louis, I learned of the word, "finna." I know it is slang/contraction for "fixing to." By asking dozens of people, I've learned that it is used by people of many different races and cultural ...
7
votes
1answer
631 views

How did the “double consonant to shorten vowel” thing come about? (“furry” vs. “fury”)

In English, a doubled consonant most commonly means "shorten the previous vowel", where "shorten" means map phonemes like this: [aɪ] -> [i] [oʊ] -> [ɔ] etc For example, fury is pronounced [fjʊri] ...
5
votes
1answer
1k views

What is the future of English as a lingua franca? [closed]

English may now be the world's lingua franca, but according to a review of Nicholas Ostler's latest book in The Economist the future is uncertain: English is expanding as a lingua-franca but not ...
4
votes
1answer
482 views

Why king and queen rather than king and kingess?

Dukes have duchesses, counts countesses, princes princesses, mayors mayoresses, and even emperors empresses. Yet kings have queens rather than say, kingesses. Why is this so? If this was due to some ...
2
votes
2answers
4k views

When did we stop speaking Old English? [closed]

There is Old English, and there is the English we speak now. When did exactly did the British (or Americans) change from speaking Old English to speaking the current form of English?
25
votes
2answers
3k views

What causes the pronunciation “nucular”

What is the name of the phonetic shift behind the common mispronunciation of the word nuclear (nucular)? Or, if the answer is "none", then I would appreciate learning the origin of the pronunciation.
14
votes
2answers
2k views

Why did 'y' disappear as an internal vowel in English spelling?

Why did the character 'y' disappear in favor of 'i' in English spelling? I've often noticed this replacement when merchants try to sell or advertise something as archaic or old-timey, writing wife as ...
13
votes
5answers
2k views

Was the word “nigger” an expletive in Mark Twain's day?

Was the word "nigger" a deliberately derogatory and offensive word in Mark Twain's time, or was it just a normal word to describe an ethnicity in those days? Background: I'm curious as to whether ...
12
votes
2answers
1k views

{wend, went, went} changed into {go, went, gone}

I have heard that the verb go used to be wend in olden days. I am curious if there is any historical or other explanation why the past form of wend, i.e. went, is still in use while the simple present ...
11
votes
1answer
963 views

Is it true that yeast was once called “Godisgoode”?

In this article discussing beer, it is said that in medieval times yeast (possibly only brewer's yeast) was called godisgoode. Is that the case? (Searching on Google sheds very little light on the ...
11
votes
3answers
508 views

What is the first recorded appearance of the mistranslation “Red Square”?

Does anybody know when the mistranslation "Red Square" made its first recorded appearance? Have there been any noteworthy attempts at establishing the correct translation "Beautiful Square" at some ...
9
votes
2answers
606 views

Where and why were capital letters first used in headlines?

The words in headlines are capitalized. I'm interested in the history of this. Where and why were capital letters first used in headlines? Where is this practice of capitalization of words in English ...
9
votes
1answer
2k views

Why is “gauge” spelled with a 'u'?

I was rather old before I realized "gauge" is pronounced (and sometimes spelt) "gage". The etymology doesn't reveal too much: mid-15c., from Anglo-Fr. gauge (mid-14c.), from O.N.Fr. gauger, from ...
8
votes
2answers
557 views

Why is “poison” in English pronounced so differently from French “poison”?

Why is poison in English pronounced so astonishingly differently than the French pronunciation of poison? Considering that they have exactly the same origin. Is it just randomness or is it on purpose ...
8
votes
2answers
1k views

Researching the real origin of SNAFU

I know the wiki origin puts SNAFU as appearing during WWII as the first in a long line of military slang, BUT, years ago I recollect reading in an electronics magazine, likely 'Wireless World' from ...
8
votes
2answers
519 views

Are there or were there any other conjoined pronoun-verb combinations like “methinks” in English?

And why was this ever considered grammatically correct? Why not "Ithinks"? Edit: When I ask "why," I'm wondering for example, whether or not "me" has always been the first-person objective case in ...
8
votes
1answer
1k views

How did an apostrophe plus the letter “s” come to indicate possession? [duplicate]

Possible Duplicate: Origins of possessive pronouns How did English come to use "apostrophe s" to indicate possession, when it seems to me that few (if any!) other languages do (or do ...
7
votes
2answers
3k views

How did pirates really talk?

In this question we learned that pirates did not really talk how they are commonly portrayed. Given that they were professional sailors, they probably had a wide store of nautical jargon; but what ...
6
votes
3answers
522 views

Did “et cetera” gain its popularity from “The King and I”?

Is it possible that et cetera gained its popularity thanks to the 1956 movie The King and I? Since I wasn't around before 1956, I'm not sure how common "et cetera" was in day to day speech. Or was it ...
6
votes
2answers
4k views

What is the origin of the phrase, “Put two and two together?”

I used the phrase, "She put two and two together..." the other day and, shortly after saying, wondered about its origin. My understanding is that it means to "connect the dots" or to figure the answer ...
6
votes
1answer
681 views

Interjection “et voilà”

I know et voilà is a French interjection and means there it is. It is very much used in the US. Why is the use of et voilà so popular in the US? Which historical fact has made it so popular?
5
votes
1answer
522 views

History of “Asian American” / “African American” nomenclature

Why are some Americans named to indicate their ancestry? It is not common to say, German Americans, or Russian Americans; however, African American, and Asian American are accepted nomenclatures. Even ...
4
votes
2answers
2k views

Etymological origin of “deosil” and “widdershins”

I've been hearing the words "deosil" used for clockwise and "widdershins" for anticlockwise, but where do they come from? I'm told that "widdershins" is from a Scottish term meaning "against the ...
4
votes
3answers
531 views

Is the term “antagonym” widely used to describe a word that is its own antonym?

There are several words which have contradictory meanings. They may have one meaning now, and have had a different meaning in the past. For example, the current definition of peruse is: to look ...
3
votes
2answers
626 views

Genetic Relatives

In the vein of historical linguistics, what languages (modern or dead) are considered genetically related to English? Also what differences mark a language as a genetic relative vs a language that had ...
2
votes
5answers
570 views

Why do some non-English words become English words?

Why do some non-English words become English words even though there is already are English words meaning the same thing that are more universally understandable? For example, He received kudos ...
2
votes
1answer
580 views

Describing Historical Events

When we describe historical events, like events related to the Roman empires, Persian empires, etc., what is the best way to describe peoples' thought with a connection to the present? People ...
2
votes
3answers
2k views

Different ways to pronounce “augh”

In the word laugh, it is pronounced "aff". In the word naught, it is pronounced "aw". Are there any other ways to pronounce "augh"? Bonus points for etymology explaining from where these ...
1
vote
1answer
227 views

Reference request: the pronunciation of Law French?

Would anyone happen to know of a systematic account of the English pronunciation of legal and parliamentary terms and phrases of Anglo-Norman French origin, or more generally, of Law French? When it ...
1
vote
0answers
1k views

What is the oldest still-in-use English word? [closed]

I recently looked up the origin of "mooch", and the root of the word is apparently very, very old: Whatever the distant origin of mooch, the verb *mycan and its cognates have been part of European ...
0
votes
1answer
353 views

Reform of English writing?

As is commonly known, English is quite notorious for having a writing system that is far removed from the actual way it is most commonly pronounced. I understand that there are important historical ...
-6
votes
2answers
626 views

Masculine/feminine nouns in English [closed]

Have there been any significant tendencies to distinguish nouns for male and female in English? Let's say in the past 100 - 200 years? E.g. you have only a bunch of them: actor/actress hero/heroine ...