7 Common Words With Terrifying Origins, Because "Flaky" Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does
English can be a really beautiful, poetic language, with words and phrases inspired and created by great authors and poets like Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Sylvia Plath. But English has a dark underbelly, too, and there exist many common words that have terrifying origins. These words have not-so-romantic etymologies ranging from the spooky and ghostly to the dreadful and downright ghastly. And the creepiest part of it all? Upon hearing them for the first time, you'll probably realize that you had no idea what they all originally meant. In fact, they may even have become a staple part of your vocabulary.
In my opinion, some words with terrifying histories do actually sound like they might come from a spooky place. Take the word "aghast," for example. Kind of sounds like "a ghost," doesn't it? According to Mental Floss, the word literally means "terrified by a ghost"; it comes from the old English word gæsten, which means "to terrify." Gæsten itself comes from gæst, the old English word for ghost, and from there, we get even more derivatives, like "flabbergast."
But then there also exist a whole host of words with terrifying roots that don't sound spooky or suspicious at all. Take, for example, these seven words which you'll never look at the same way again.
Nowadays, we use the word "flaky" to describe people who are non-committal and don't follow through with plans — you might hear it used in ways like, "I wouldn't count on her to come to the party; she's super flaky." But in the 1920s, the word was used to describe someone addicted to cocaine — or to describe someone who was acting like they were addicted to cocaine — since "flake" literally meant cocaine addict. In the 1950s the word made its way into baseball slang to mean "eccentric": If you did something strange on the field before the game, you were just being a flaky goofball. In 1964, to solidify the definition of the slang word The New York Times explained, "it does not mean anything so crude as 'crazy,' but it's well beyond 'screwball' and far off to the side of 'eccentric.'" Basically though, no matter what time period you're from, being flaky isn't usually a positive thing.
Sure, it has the word "dead" in it, but the word "deadline" isn't a particularly blood-curdling word — well, unless you have an important deadline you know you're not going to meet. But the origin of the word is far more serious than turning in your project late: In the years after the Civil War, there were prisoner-of-war camps scattered throughout both the Union and the Confederate states. One of these POW camps which detained 45,000 Union soldiers was called Andersonville Prison, where the word deadline was used to describe part a 17-foot-tall fence surrounded by guards and used to keep the prisoners from escaping. What makes the word so eerie? The guards established what they called a deadline 12 feet from the inside of the fence, where they intended for everyone to starve to death. If anyone tried to cross this deadline, they would immediately be shot. The phrase become popular in POW prisons; it didn't get the meaning of "time limit" until the 1920s, when American newsrooms started using it that way.
The word "blatant" now basically means that something lacks subtlety or is very obvious — for example, "Liz blatantly disliked Kenneth and his antics." But in the late 1500s, a "blatant" was actually a thousand-tongued beast from hell as described in “The Faerie Queene,” a fantasy poem by Edmund Spenser. In Britain in the 1600s, the word began to mean someone who was vulgar. The really interesting thing about "blatant," though, is that it's most likely derived from the Latin blatire, which means "to babble." I imagine that a thousand-tongued beast from hell would certainly be a babbler; similarly, someone who speaks or expresses opinions blatantly could also be considered a babbler by those who like to beat around the bush a little more.
We all know lemurs to be adorable primates from both the country Madagascar and the hit animated movie Madagascar, but to the good people of Ancient Rome, they were quite another thing. Apparently the Romans used the word "lemur" to describe the "skeletal, zombie-like ghosts of murder victims, executed criminals, sailors lost at sea, and anyone else who had died leaving unfinished business behind them on Earth." Yikes. Basically, they were spirits of the dead — so when Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish Botanist and Zoologist stumbled upon these human-like creatures wandering around the forest in the dead of the night during the 18th century, he decided to call them exactly what he thought they were.
Loopholes are fun because when you find one, you can basically get out of quandaries or other minor troubles. But the way the word "loophole" was originally used is not so fun: It referred to the slits or holes in castle walls through which archers would shoot their arrows and murder people. The word was altered from "hiding-hole," which was used in the early 1600s. Either way, you didn't want to be near a loophole back when people still lived in castles.
In contrast to today's meaning, "geek" used to be a circus sideshow freak; the word is believed to have been derived from the 1500s Dutch geck, which meant "a fool, dupe, [or] simpleton." According to Cracked, geeks weren't just regular circus freaks; unfortunately they were the ones forced to decapitate, bite off, or eat the heads of live animals like rats, snakes, or birds.
Today, "mindboggling" means "wildly confusing," "overwhelming" or "startling"; however, it comes from the old Middle English word bugge, meaning "invisible ghost or monster." Supposedly a bugge could only be seen by animals, so when an animal started acting strangely or behaving in a way unfamiliar to its owner, it was said to have seen a bugge. It all makes sense, though, because I'm sure seeing a bugge is mindboggling for many animals.
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