11/12/2014 09:04 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

Say What? The Literal Meanings of 30 English Words

Delving into the origins and etymologies of words often unearths some unexpected stories. Take a word like treadmill, for instance. Depending on what you think of the gym, you might not be too surprised to find that the original treadmill was invented as a hard labor punishment used in Victorian prisons. Inmates would be made to trudge away for hours at a time on a vast revolving mill, like a never-ending staircase, which would grind grain or crush rocks as it turned. Even Oscar Wilde was made to toil on one during his imprisonment in the mid 1890s, recounting in The Ballad of Reading Gaol how "We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns, / And sweated on the mill".

That story might seem surprising, but the word treadmill itself isn't all that unexpected -- after all, the laborious Victorian treadmill was literally nothing more than a "treading-mill". Elsewhere in the language, however, things become much more peculiar when the literal meanings of the words we use everyday are taken into consideration. Suddenly gymnasiums become "places of nudity". Ladies become "bread-kneaders". Casinos are nothing more than "little houses". And it wasn't an iceberg that sunk the Titanic, but an "ice mountain". The literal meanings of 30 English words like these -- and the stories behind their origins -- are explored here.

AMETHYST literally means "not drunk." Because the stones were once believed to help prevent drunkenness, the name amethyst comes from a Greek word, methyskein, meaning "to make drunk" (which is itself a derivative of the Greek for 'wine', methys).

ANEMONE means "daughter of the wind." Sea anemones are named for the anemone flower, which was supposed by the Ancient Greeks to only open when the wind blew.

BANKRUPT means "broken bench." A 16th century corruption of the Italian banca cotta, meaning "broken" or "wrecked bench." According to Samuel Johnson, Italian moneylenders would supposedly break the bench at which they carried out their work to show that they had gone out of business.

CALAMARI means "pen-like." The name calamari originally referred to cuttlefish not squid, and it was probably the cuttlefish's tough, quill-shaped shell (and the fact that it seemed to be full of ink) that led to its name being adopted from calamus, a Latin word for "pen".

CASINO means "little house." A casino was originally a music hall or dance hall, where all kinds of different entertainments would be performed. It was a popular gamblers' card game called cassino (spelled with two Ss) that helped to alter its meaning in the early 1700s.

CONSPIRE means "to breathe together." The -spire of words like conspire, transpire, perspire and inspire is the Latin spirare, meaning "to blow" or "breathe." To conflate, incidentally, means "to blow together," while to conscript means "to write together."

CUL-DE-SAC means "bottom of the bag." Originally an anatomical term for a tube or sac open only at one end. Its use in reference to a dead end or to a road with no exit dates from the early 1800s.

CURFEW means "fire-cover." In Medieval France, rules were put in place to ensure that all candles, torches and stoves were extinguished at a certain time each night to prevent fires breaking out while everyone was asleep. In the sense of a daily directive brought into operation at a designated time, these rules - originally known as couvres-feux - ultimately became curfews in English.

GYMNASIUM means "place to train naked." Athletes in Ancient Greece trained in the nude, so words like gymnasium and gymnastics were taken from gymnos, the Greek word for "naked." Gymnophobia, incidentally, is a fear of being nude.

ICEBERG means "ice mountain." The Dutch word ijsberg was borrowed into English in the mid 1700s. Before then, icebergs had been known as icemounts.

IMPEDE means "to shackle the feet." The -pede is the same as in pedicure and pedometer.

INNUENDO means "giving a nod to." Derived from the Latin innuere, meaning "to nod", innuendo originally referred to any remark made parenthetically or tangentially.

KALEIDOSCOPE means "viewer of beautiful things." So named by its inventor, the Scottish physicist and mathematician Sir David Brewster, in 1817.

LADY means "bread-maker." Lady is a derivative of the Old English word hlæfdige, which is itself a compound of hlaf, meaning "bread" or "dough", and dæge, an Old English word for a housemaid or servant. It probably originally referred to the female head of a household, whose task it would once have been to prepare the day's bread.

MANGA means "wandering pictures." Manga was coined by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai as far back as the early 1800s to describe a spontaneous and free-flowing style of drawing.

MEDIOCRE means "halfway up a mountain." In Latin, mediocris meant "of ordinary stature or standing". Its literal meaning (derived from okris, a Latin word for a rugged mountaintop) was probably figurative, in the sense of something being neither one thing nor another.

ORANGUTAN means "man of the forest." The name is Malay. It's possible that it was originally used by local tribes to describe other tribesmen who lived in the forest, but was mistakenly taken to refer to the great apes of the forest by European explorers in the late 1600s.

PANDEMONIUM - "place of all demons." Milton coined the word pandemonium as the name of the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost.

PRECOCIOUS means "ripening early." Hence it's used to refer to a child who seems bolder or more articulate than their age suggests.

PREPOSTEROUS means "before-behind." The preposterousness of preposterous comes from the fact that it combines two oxymoronic roots: the Latin prae, meaning "before", and posterus, meaning "after" or "subsequent to".

PREVARICATE means "to walk awkwardly." It comes from the Latin varicare, which was variously used to mean "to straddle", "to stretch the legs", or "to bend outwards". In English, prevaricate originally meant "to deviate from" or "to go transgress", and hence "to dawdle".

RANSACK means "search the house." Dating back to the mid 1200s at least, ransack is a compound of the Old Norse words for "house", rann, and "search", saka.

REDUNDANT means "full to overflowing." In the sense that trying to fill a container that is already full is literally redundant. The root of the word is the Latin verb undare, meaning "to rise and fall like waves".

REHEARSE means "to replow a field." The -hearse of rehearse is an old French word for a harrow, a pronged plow that turns the soil over as it is dragged across the surface.

SCHMALTZ means "melted fat." Borrowed into English from Yiddish, schmaltz is a derivative of an old German word, smalzen, meaning "to melt".

TELEPATHY means "feeling from afar." It was coined by the English psychologist Frederic Myers in 1882. The prefix tele- (as in telephone and television) implies distance, while the suffix -pathy implies a feeling or sensation (as in pathos and sympathy).

ULTRAMARINE means "beyond the sea." It originally specifically referred to the blue color of lapis lazuli stones, which were imported into Europe across the Mediterranean Sea from Asia.

VIDEO means "I see." If you know Latin, then you'll know that video is the first person singular present indicative of the verb videre, meaning "to see". Audio, incidentally, is the same conjugation of audire, meaning "to hear" or "listen".

VODKA means "little water."
It was borrowed into English from Russian in the early 1800s.

WINDOW means "eye of the wind." Adopted in English from Scandinavia in the 13th century, window is a compound of the Norse words vindr, meaning "wind", and agua, meaning "eye."


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