Kids ask the darndest things. And sometimes for good reason.
The following questions may have annoyed your parents when you were younger, but maybe just because they didn't have answers for you. You can't really blame them -- language is weird and exact linguistic history can be tricky to pinpoint -- but here's our attempt to finally set these bratty curiosities a bit straighter.
1. Why is it called a "hamburger" if there's no ham?
The hamburger is named after Hamburg, Germany, the city where the type of meat (but not the sandwich itself) was first popularized, according to a report by culinary historian Linda Stradley.
Around the 18th century, the Germans adapted a type of meat preparation from a nomadic group called the Tatars (or Tartars), which ended in the creation of the "Hamburg steak." German immigrants introduced their home country's meat to the United States in the 1880s, but it wasn't until years later that the meat was served between two pieces of bread, and later still, two buns. The exact inventor of the traditional American hamburger is unknown as many legends exist, but the first burger chain store, White Castle, was founded in 1921. From there the hamburger has continued to evolve.
2. Why do we park on driveways, but drive on parkways?
The exact linguistic explanation for this is up for dispute, but one theory suggests that before the rise of mass planned suburbias with elaborate community roads, driveways were often much longer than today's standards, as they linked houses to the nearest road. According to the Online Eytmology Dictionary, the word "driveway" came to be in 1884, years before both the Model T and the planned suburbia took off in America.
According to the Chicago Reader's longtime question-and-answer column, "The Straight Dope," parkways don't seem to get their name from the action of "parking," but once again there's a bit of debate as to the exact origin. An explanation from an exhibit in the Special Collections of the D.H. Ramsey Library claims that to be deemed a "parkway," roads may have simply needed to resemble a "park" with extra grass and other foliage planted to make them more aesthetically pleasing. Parkways may have also been the term used to describe roads built specifically for the purpose of "pleasure driving," which were required to run through forested parks.
3. Why is the worst grade an "F," not an "E"?
The absence of an "E" grade in most school systems is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. Brian Palmer, Slate's chief explainer of things, wrote a piece in 2010 about this exact topic and notes that the first grading system to use the letter system in the U.S. was Mount Holyoke College in 1897, where they initially implemented a scale from A to E. The following year, the school added the now-dreaded "F" to the system.
The A-F system took off in schools across America. However, the "E" ended up being dropped over the years, supposedly because people were afraid that "E" could be confused to mean "excellent." Of course, this grading system isn't standard practice for every school in America and even to this day a few schools still use an "E."
4. If a "W" looks like this, why isn't it called a "double-V?"
Well, the letter actually used to be written "uu"!
A number of reports on etymological sites offer this explanation of how the change seemed to go down. In Latin, the letter "v" had a pronunciation close to our contemporary "w" sound, but as the "v" sound changed over time, a new symbol had to be created. Around the seventh or eighth century, scribes began to write "uu" to represent the "w" sound. This practice fell out of favor for a short time and then returned after the Norman conquest in 1066. Over time, the symbol was converted to a "ligatured" form, and the "uu" ended up becoming its own letter, the "w."
5. Why do we say "a pair of pants" if it's only one thing?
This one's a bit inconclusive. One theory for these odd plurals comes from "The Straight Dope," and suggests that pants were originally made in two parts, with fabric being specifically tailored for each leg. According to reports from The Awl and elsewhere, however, Americans may just have considered words related to "legs" to be plural as well, a trend that appears in "shorts, jeans, bloomers, tights, leggings, trousers [and] chaps." Perhaps neither of these explanations fares any better than the ones you got as a kid.
Some other words also get this treatment, such as "glasses," but have a similarly hazy history. According to the same "Straight Dope" explanation, words like "scissors" apparently were called "pairs" because they are made of two parts that would not serve their purpose without the other.
6. Why don't we say "deers" or "fishes?"
Most of these "identical plurals" are related to hunting and domestication, including animals like deer, fish and sheep, and therefore are all words that stretch far back to older languages.
Because these words are so old, finding a concrete explanation for their origin is difficult, but one theory suggests that contemporary English simply did a clunky job of adapting the words from their past languages. By the time the foreign words were integrated into everyday language, they were already irregular to English grammar rules. It is also possible that these words were considered similar to others like "grass," "mud" and "wheat," which are irregular nouns where we consider the individual entities too minuscule to count.
7. Why is it called "football" when the players mostly use their hands?
Along with soccer, American football is a variation of rugby -- which does actually involve quite a bit of kicking.
Multiple versions of the rules were practiced in the early days of contemporary football, played by Ivy League schools and other small clubs in the 1800s. In some variations of the rules, kicking was still a major part and field goals were originally worth more than touchdowns. Over the years, as the sport became more centrally organized and adaptations like the forward pass were made, kicking became a less essential part of the sport. The name has still stuck, however, much to the chagrin of the rest of the world, which largely sees "football" as the sport we call "soccer."
8. Why do we call people from the U.S. "Americans" when there are many nations in both North and South America?
Multiple theories exist, but one of the most prevalent holds that the word "America," to represent the "New World," comes from a variation of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci's name, which was found on a map from 1507. From there, it seems that in the 16th century, "American" referred to the native people found in both North and South America, but over time, the term was used to refer to European settlers as well. According to reports citing books from the late 17th century, this was then further narrowed to mostly refer to those in the British colonies.
When the colonies declared themselves an independent nation, they chose the name, "The United States of America," but originally left emphasis on the "states" and kept the country's name plural. But in his farewell address, George Washington did use the term "Americans" to refer to the citizens of the new country, and this name persisted. As no other countries referred to themselves nationally as Americans, the term became mostly associated with people from the U.S. from this point on.
9. Why are oranges the color "orange" and not something more clever?
Well, the color "orange" is actually named after the fruit. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, earlier versions of the word for the fruit came about around 1300, while it wasn't used as the color until the 1540s.
10. What the heck are "the birds and the bees"?
The origin of the "birds and bees" phrase isn't completely known, but there are some moments in history that could help us understand its origins. References to birds and bees alluding to sex showed up in a couple poems in the 19th century, including Samuel Coleridge's “Work Without Hope” in 1825. A potential catalyst came in 1909, when Dr. Emma Frances Angell Drake wrote a story for a publication called "The Story of Life" that referred to the "birds and bees" as an explanation of reproduction. From there, Cole Porter's song, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love," probably gave the euphemism an extra push: "And that's why birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, let's do it, let's fall in love."
In an episode of "The Simpsons," Bart steps outside with his friend Milhouse and says, "What a day, eh, Milhouse? The sun is out, birds are singing, bees are trying to have sex with them - as is my understanding..." Not quite, Bart. Birds and bees are likely used because their reproductive habits and roles are very widely known and easily understood as a child. The conversation might as well be called "eggs and pollination."
You finally know!
All images Getty unless otherwise noted.
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