Lesson # 34: There is a story behind everything.

Have you ever had a conversation with a child that left you wondering why things are they way they are? Recently I have had a few conversations with my son about the origin of words. We had fun talking about puns, metaphors, and the stories behind certain words, or at least I had fun. I think I lost him somewhere in the middle of explaining the difference between literal and figurative, but I know some of it sunk in as he has really stepped up his usage of the word “literally”. They were thought provoking conversations though, kind of like “why is the sky blue” or “of what use is a belly button”. I was reminded that there is an unlimited amount of information out there just waiting to be discovered and the who, what, when, where, how, and why’s are worth exploring regardless of how random or seemingly pointless they may be. Will your life be better because you know the Dutch derivative of the word booze or the reason why we say, “that’s a doozy”? Maybe not, but you will be a hit at parties and it could get you one step closer to your dream of being on Jeopardy. In order to spread the cheer and to hopefully make your friends jealous with your expansive knowledge of arbitrary information, I have listed a few words and their stories.

Polka dot– A fashion trend that is not to mixed with stripes, the Polka dot got its name in the 1840’s when the Polka became a big dance craze. Manufacturers jumped on that bandwagon and started attaching the word Polka to their fares in order to increase sales. Ladies could purchase Polka hats, wounds could be bound with Polka gauze, or one might tie back their drapes with Polka curtain bands. Oddly enough, only the term Polka dot remains in use today.

Sideburns– Originally burnsides, this term refers to the whiskers that adorned the face of Union general A.E. Burnside. He may not have contributed much to the war, but he did have a glorious mustache and “muttonchops” that men sought to copy, claiming that their whiskers were of the Burnside type. The syllables were eventually reversed to emphasize that they were on the side of the face.


Buck– A slang word for dollar was seen as early as 1824. The buck, a shortened form of buckskin, was used as a unit of commerce at that time in the American frontier. Considering what else they used as money (beaver skins, guns, tobacco) I guess “buck” isn’t so bad.

Let the cat out of the bagcat-in-a-bag1

Meaning to reveal something secret, this phrase dates back to the 1760’s and refers to a scam that predates it by a century. The hoax involves surreptitiously replacing a piglet with a cat by hiding the cat in the bag and hoping that it will not be opened until the purchaser is far away from the market. I’m wondering why they are putting animals in bags in the first place, let alone a cat that is more volatile than a pig and would surely put up a fight before the buyer was ten steps away from the scammer. They should have used sloths.

Moonstruck– Most commonly used to describe a person who is in love, it originally meant one who was insane. The idea behind this was that the phases of the moon could spark mental illness (I actually believe this). It wasn’t until 1850 when Charles Dickens described his character David Copperfield as “ the moon-struck slave of Dora” that the term was used to portray love.


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