15 Words That Aren’t As Straightforward As They Look

dizelen/iStock via Getty Images
dizelen/iStock via Getty Images

There’s an etymological old wives’ tale that suggests the “step” in stepmother and stepfather comes from the fact that they're added onto genealogical charts one step away from your biological ones. Unfortunately, it’s completely untrue.

Despite appearances, the “step” in these words stems from an Old English term, steop, which was once used to indicate loss or bereavement. Way back then, “stepchild” or steopcild meant orphan, not just the offspring of a second spouse.

Here are 15 more words whose true origins and meanings aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem.

1. The “quick” in quicksand doesn’t mean fast.

Despite what you might think about the stuff sucking people to their deaths before they have time to escape, this word isn’t a synonym for speedy. It doesn’t mean “fast” in the word quicksilver—an old name for mercury—either. Instead, these adjectives both mean “alive” or “living,” a reference to the moving, animated ground in a patch of quicksand, and to the fact that quicksilver, as a liquid, can move and be poured.

2. The “lolli” in lollipop doesn’t mean lolling.

The old story that the word refers to popsicles and ice-lollies that droop as they melt just isn’t true. In fact, this lolly is an Old English dialect term for the tongue.

3. The “mid” in midwife doesn’t mean middle.

For that matter, the “wife” in midwife doesn’t mean, well, wife. The word wife originally meant “woman,” while mid stood in for “with”—making a midwife a woman who is literally with a woman as she gives birth.

4. The “wilder” in wilderness doesn’t mean wild.

At least not in the sense of the “woods and wilds.” This wilder is a corruption of the Old English wild deor, meaning wild deer or animal—which you will definitely find in the wilderness.

5. The “cut” in cutlet doesn’t mean trimmed.

This prefix has nothing to do with cutlets being “cut” from a larger joint of meat. In this case, cutlet descends from the French word costelette, meaning little rib.

6. The “bel” in belfry doesn’t mean bell.

A belfry isn’t necessarily a bell tower. The original belfry was actually a mobile siege tower that could be wheeled up to castles and town walls by invading armies to gain access from outside. In that sense, the word derives from bercfrit, the old Germanic name for this piece of equipment.

7. The “ham” in hamburger doesn’t mean meat.

The beginning of the word has nothing to do with meat of any kind. You probably know this one already: Hamburgers are people or things that come from Hamburg, Germany. The hamburglar, on the other hand, comes from Des Plaines, Illinois.

8. The “Jerusalem” in Jerusalem artichoke doesn’t refer to the city.

The adjective for this unassuming tuber is a corruption of girasole, the Italian word for sunflower. The Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke—it’s actually a member of the sunflower family. It's also called a sunchoke or sunroot.

9. The “piggy” in piggyback doesn’t mean pig.

Piggyback is believed to be a corruption of pick-a-pack or pick-pack—a 16th-century expression for carrying something on your shoulders. It might derive from the old use of pick to mean “pitch,” and pack, meaning a sack or satchel.

10. The “sand” in sandblind doesn’t refer to the beach.

Sandblind is a 15th-century word, seldom encountered today outside of literature and poetry, for being half-blind. It is often said to allude to the poor visibility experienced during dust storms and sand storms. But it’s simpler than that: sandblind derives from its Old English equivalent samblind, the “sam” of which means the same as “semi” does today.

11. The “curry” in "curry favor" doesn’t mean stew.

There’s an old myth that currying favor with someone alludes to slowly working your way into their social circle, just as the flavors in a curry or stew mingle together as it cooks. Instead, the true story behind this one is even more peculiar. In this case, curry derives from a Middle English word meaning “to groom a horse,” while favor is a corruption of Fauvel, the name of a chestnut-colored horse that appeared in an old French poem and folktale about a horse that wanted to usurp its master and take over his kingdom. In the tale, Fauvel succeeds in his quest and ends the story being fawned over and “curried” by all the obsequious members of his master’s court. Currying favor literally means “sycophantically grooming a chestnut horse.”

12. The “face” in shamefaced doesn’t mean visage.

Shamefaced was originally shamefast, with -fast in this sense meaning fixed or constant, as it does in steadfast or stuck fast. Presumably the word changed over time because the shame of a shamefaced person can be seen in his or her expression.

13. The “chock” in chock-full doesn’t mean a wedge or block.

Being chock-full has nothing to do with being rammed as tightly as a chock is below a door or the wheels of a vehicle. Instead, chock in this context is derived from choke, in the sense of something being suffocatingly crammed or crowded.

14. The “d” in D-day doesn’t stand for disembarkation.

It also doesn’t mean deliverance, Deutschland, doomsday, decision, or any of the other D-words popular history might have you believe. In fact, D doesn’t stand for anything at all: just like (albeit less common) expressions like H-hour, D-Day was just an alliterative placeholder used during the planning of the Normandy landings for the unspecified day on which the operation would take place. As further evidence, the earliest use of the term comes from 1918, a full 26 years before Allied troops stormed the beaches. The French name for D-Day, by the way, is J-Jour.

15. The “good” in goodbye doesn’t mean good.

Goodbye is a contraction of “God be with you,” an expression of departure or best wishes in use in English from the medieval period. As the phrase simplified over time, “God” drifted toward “good” in other similar expression likes good day and good morning. By the late 16th century, we were left with the word we use today.

This piece first ran in 2017 and was republished in 2019.

What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

5 Benefits of Sarcasm, According to Science

AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images
AntonioGuillem/iStock via Getty Images

Writing of her future demise, author and humorist Dorothy Parker once observed that her epitaph might read, “Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”

Celebrated for her scathing wit and wordplay, the late Parker might agree that sarcasm held tangible benefits. Doled out with care, ironic remarks—usually defined as communication that humorously conveys your intent through language that appears to be the opposite of what you mean—can amuse friends, lighten the mood, or broadcast your wit. But there’s more to sarcasm than simply eliciting a laugh. It turns out that the perks of your caustic muttering might have some scientific support. Take a look at a few peer-reviewed consequences to your snappy comebacks.

1. Sarcasm and humor might make you appear more confident, particularly at work.

In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers evaluated adults on their responses to some candid remarks about fictional pet food and travel companies, among other subjects. Those with zingers were perceived as having more competence and confidence. “The successful use of humor—telling jokes that are funny and appropriate—can raise your status because it makes you appear more confident and more competent,” says co-author Thomas Bitterly, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. “Confidence and competence are two of the key traits that determine whether we give someone status. The reason for this is because we want the individuals who have influence in a group to be those who are capable of leading it.”

Humor and sarcasm work to reinforce these traits, Bitterly tells Mental Floss, because humor itself is a risk. “Before we tell a joke, especially to people we do not know well, it’s difficult to know with certainty if our audience will find it funny and appropriate. If they find it unfunny and inappropriate, they will think that we lack competence and we will lose status. Given that humor is risky, telling a joke signals confidence,” he says.

2. Sarcasm can improve creativity.

In a 2015 paper [PDF] published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, researchers (including those at Harvard and Columbia business schools) made the case for sarcasm facilitating creative thinking. In a series of experiments, participants gave or received positive, neutral, or sarcastic responses with a partner. Those in the sarcastic groups performed better at creative tasks—like problem-solving on paper—after the fact.

"This is because both sarcasm construction and sarcasm interpretation are conducive to abstract thinking, a key cognitive precursor to creative thinking," lead author Li Huang, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, tells Mental Floss. Huang points to a common sarcastic comment aimed at someone wasting time in the workplace: "Don't work too hard." The intended meaning is likely to "work harder." Both the speaker and recipient benefit, Huang says, because both need to process the underlying message. The speaker must translate the admonishment to sarcasm, and the recipient has to consider what the speaker really meant. That abstraction fosters creative thinking because creativity is needed to discern the truth and not the literal meaning of the statement.

"In this way, to construct or interpret sarcasm is to traverse the psychological distance between the stated and the intended meaning through abstract thinking," Huang says.

There is one word of caution: Sarcasm tends to have this effect when it’s lobbed between two parties who know and trust one another. With strangers, it might simply come off as rude or confusing.

3. Sarcasm can make criticism seem almost pleasant.

Want to offer some constructive commentary without feeling like a jerk? In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, co-author Melanie Glenwright, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, examined how adults and children interpreted sarcastic commentary. The generally agreeable reactions by adults to criticism indicates it can be wrapped in an amusing remark that reduces the chance for the listener to feel offended.

“The use of indirect language allows the speaker to criticize the addressee indirectly which is perceived as more polite than a direct, literal insult,” Glenwright tells Mental Floss. "Speakers may use sarcasm to deliver insults in professional or social settings where they want to criticize another person in a less-harsh manner.”

4. Sarcasm can make for better social bonding.

When we pass along a humorous observation and someone agrees with it, we’re strengthening our bond with that individual, according to Glenwright. “[Sarcasm] improves social bonding between the speaker and the addressee,” she says. “Sarcasm can also be used to convey humor and jocularity which can improve mood both in the speaker and addressee.”

5. Sarcasm might make you appear more intelligent.

Sarcasm and humor alike share a common trait: They require creative thinking that’s rapidly deployed to analyze a situation. Depending on the company, Bitterly says that a clever retort could potentially have people thinking more highly of you. “Saying something that is funny and appropriate is difficult,” he says. “It requires being able to recognize an opportunity for humor—'did someone just say something I know a funny response for'—[and] being able to quickly generate or recall a funny response and being able to predict how the audience is going to respond. On top of those things, delivery and timing also matter …. We tend to view people who manage to successfully pull off all of these things as being more intelligent, and we see that reflected in the way we refer to them.”

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