These Words Don't Mean What You Think They Do

If you've ever wondered where the phrase “sleight of hand” comes from, you're not alone — and, in fact, it turns out that a lot of words don't mean what we think they do. But hey, don't worry; a new video on YouTuber Arika Okrent's channel has us covered. Called simply, “Words That Aren't What You Think They Are,” it explores… well, words that aren't what you think they are. It's all kinds of fascinating, though, so you're going to want to pay attention.

In a manner similar to that employed by ASAPscience's YouTube videos, this one uses dry erase board and some clever drawings to illustrate what each word or phrase means. What words and phrases? Well, beyond the aforementioned “sleight of hand,” there's also “one fell swoop,” “left in the lurch,” and a whole lot more. I realize that not everyone is an etymology nerd; even if you yourself aren't one, though, everything seen here is still information that will stand you in very good stead. Clear communication is key for… well, just about everything, so making sure you're using specific words and phrases correctly is a skill worth cultivating.

Here are five of my favorites; scroll down to watch the whole video:

1. “Fell”

The phrase “one fell swoop” means for something to happen all at once — but “fell” doesn't derive from “fall” here. In this case, its meaning is closer to “cruel” or “wicked” (think “felony,” which is also related). When Macduff laments in Act IV, scene iii of Macbeth, “All my pretty little children?/ Did you say all? Oh, that bird from hell! All of them?/ What, all my children and their mother dead in one fell swoop?”, the image Shakespeare gives us is of a bird of prey swooping down and killing all Macduff's loved ones. Nasty piece of work, that Macbeth.

2. “Desert”

No, not “dessert.” No, no the verb "to desert," either. And no, certainly not “desert” as in the Sahara. Someone getting their “just deserts” means they're getting what they deserve. In this sense, “desert” is a pretty antiquated word — but I kind of think we should bring it back. Anyone else?

3. “Whet”

To “whet one's appetite” may involve some drooling, but we're not actually talking about “wetting” anything here. You probably know what it is to whet a knife, right? To sharpen one? Well, that's what “whet your appetite” means, too — to sharpen your appetite for the meal that's to come. Wetting your whistle, on the other hand, does require some spit.

4. “Outrage”

This one? This one surprised me. Apparently there's no actual “rage” involved in “outrage.” “Out” goes back to “ultra,” a tag that means something like “extremely very.” In old French, “ultrage” meant “ultraness” — which later became “outrage” in English.

5. “Sleight”

As in, “sleight of hand.” Don't confuse this “sleight” with “slight,” though; it's an old word for “crafty” or “cunning.” Once upon a time, it was the abstract noun for the adjective “sly” (these days, we use “slyness” instead).

Watch the full video below:

Images:; Arika Okrent/YouTube (5)