Some Strange and Unusual Words in the English Language
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Some Strange and Unusual Words in the English Language

Some unusual words in the English and other Languages, their origins and etymology ...

The Strange Words in English That We Use

Many common words in our language have strange or unusual sources or just sound bizarre. Here are just a few.

Disgruntled

Have you ever thought about some of the weird words in our language? Take "disgruntled" for instance. It means to be put into a bad mood. So what were you beforehand, ungruntled? Gruntled, perhaps? Were you ever gruntled in the first place? It doesn't really sound very attractive or alluring does it? It sort of sounds like a bodily function of waste elimination if you know what I mean.

Dumbledore (Bumblebee)

bumble bee, a.k.a. 'dumbledore' bee

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While immediately everyone thinks of that character from J.K. Rowling's series of "Harry Potter" books, a "dumbledore" is a very old name for a type of bee, a bumblebee I believe. Buzz!

Hoodlum

In Herbert Asbury's book "The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld" he cites that the word refers to a street gang called "huddle 'em" and any bad things of mischief were purported to be of their doing. Unemployed Irish workers out of prejudice regularly assaulted Chinese immigrants and the newspapers of San Francisco just referred to the assaults as being committed 'by hoodlums.'

That's his spin on the matter. I recall reading once that a more organized gang called the "Muldoon Gang" was responsible for coercing protection money and would assault shop-owners for refusing the deal that cannot be refused. There would be 'accidents' or fires of mysterious origin. Anything to interfere with the normal operation of their shop or to induce clientele to avoid doing business with them until they reconsidered the 'protection' offer.

Newspapers were afraid of openly accusing the Muldoon Gang of these assaults. The police could not convict without eyewitness testimony and the Chinese were intimidated into silence. For the lack of ability of the police to safeguard the shopkeepers' property and lack of actual testimony to convict the criminals meant that the gang had open reign over the city. But one brave and clever newspaper reporter decided to sneak it out there--even if obfuscated--into publication. He spelled "Muldoon" backwards and changed the letter “n” to “h” and coined a new slang.

Any misdeed could easily be credited to have been done by ‘hoodlums.’ Nobody thinks of themselves as being a “hoodlum” not even the wise guys of the Muldoon gang were the wiser for it.

Hobo

There are several etymologies of this noun with everything ranging from the returning soldier-turned migratory laborer to homeless farm-boy. Possibly this word derives from a contraction of “homeward bound” to the equally likely delineation of the migrant farm worker with a hoe, a “hoe boy.” Unlike a bum or tramp who did not work nor seek anything except handouts for the next bottle of whiskey, the hobo was not the same. The latter were workers; even if they did take rather extended vacations, they did eventually seek to become hired, even if just seasonally.

Pull Out All the Stops

pipe organ

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Pull out all the stops” refers to musical pipe organs. In the 1500s and 1600s, pipe organs had devices called “stops” that held control of the volume of air that would enter the sound chamber of the organ, and thus control the volume. Fewer stops means more air could enter, creating louder volume. In a cathedral that is packed to capacity you’d want the pipe organ to be really loud for all to hear so the organist would ‘have all the stops pulled out.’ It came to mean ‘giving it all you’ve got.’

The Whole Nine Yards

old WW II airplanes at an airshow

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The most quoted attribution for this phrase also means essentially "giving it all you've got" comes from reports of WW II aircraft machine-gunners. The ammunition belts were 27 feet in length. -That is nine yards long.

A gunner having been so perfectly aligned in a dive-bombing assault on an enemy target might successfully exhaust the entire 9-yard long belt of machine-gun munition. You can't give them any more than that without reloading. The plane would have to pull-up and circle around, providing the gunner time to re-load. He had 'given them the whole nine yards!

Another possibility is a slightly more modern albeit cantonal citation from the year 1961, when athlete Ralph Boston set a new world record with a 27-feet long jump. While no general news actually used this coined phrase or referenced this feat with “the whole nine yards,” I bet that Ralph Boston did. He surely gave it all he had.

Beef Jerky / Jerked Beef

beef jerky, jerked beef

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Sliced low-fat whole-muscle meat, typically beef or venison but any meat can be used, that is preserved by smoking, seasoning and especially by salting, derives its name from the South American native people Quechua’s term “Charqui” which means “to burn (meat).”

Jerky typically has fat trimmed away as this part does not dry well and has the potential for spoilage. Modern processed jerky products are a lot higher in fat and water content and thus, require artificial and chemical preservatives to reduce or prevent spoilage.

Java (coffee beverage)

An Americanized term, “Java” is generally a slang for coffee. The evergreen plant that produces ‘coffee cherries’ is the source. ‘Coffee tree’ plants are common items in the plant section of big box stores and plant nurseries these days although it is unlikely that they would produce the quintessential fruit. They are for ornamental purposes only.

The grains (also called “beans”) of the coffee cherry are dried, sometimes roasted before being crushed and/or pulverized into powder and next, hot water is strained through it. The resulting liquid is the drink. The origin of some coffee is Indonesia and their phrase for it is “Kopi Jawa.” This name cites both the origin and of a specifically strong, black and very sweet concoction of the drink which often has powdered remnants of the coffee beans in the drink.

Historically, in Africa and Yemen coffee was used in religious ceremonies and was even banned by the Ethiopian Church for some time. Coffee consumption was also banned in Turkey during the 17th century Ottoman for purely political reasons; namely that is was associated with rebellious political activities in Europe. Probably taboos such as freedom of expression, etc.

-I'd be more than a little rebellious if not for that first steamy cup of hot, black coffee in the morning. How about you?

hotta doggu

Japanese shop

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Japanese baseball offers an inexpensive escape for citizens and tourists and they have adopted the game quite successfully. The play good baseball. The game is highly prized by many Japanese and some social anthropologists cite parallels between Japanese culture and society at large and the playing of the game. As with all things Japanese, it is probably very formal and respectful with platitudes that probably will escape most western fans of the game.

After the game, just as in western ballparks, traditional ballpark food and drink may be in order. The normally reserved and hard-working Japanese baseball fan is said to really have a change of personality at a baseball event. The cheer and jump up and down; they are quite ‘fannish.’

After a Japanese baseball game you may enjoy some Japanese foods instead of the traditional western baseball game fare, hot dogs, which may in fact actually be part of their itinerary. Their love of baseball might even include the traditional ‘American’ penchant for the hot dog. I have heard that “hot dogs” are called “hotta doggu” in Japanese but cannot find quantitative affirmation for this factoid.

Taxi (Taxicab)

yellow taxi in the city

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We all know what a taxi it; a vehicle for hire. The vehicle for hire derives it’s proper vernacular name from “taximeter cabriolet.” The first word “taximeter” describes the metering device that determines the rider’s fare based upon time spent in the taxi. It is a word adapted from the French “taximètre,” which comes from the German equivalent “taxameter,” which in turn derives from the medieval Latin “taxa.” “Taxa” means ‘tax/charge.’ The “meter” part comes from Greek “metron” meaning ‘measure.’ So, ‘measured charge/fee’ is roughly what ‘taximeter’ means. “Cabriolet” refers originally to a horse-drawn cart for hire but later the horseless carriage for hire.

So all together, the noun “taximeter cabriolet” is the full, proper name for the ubiquitous vehicle-for-hire. Harry Nathaniel Allen of the New York Taxicab Company coined the shorter word “taxicab” which would be later shortened even more to just “taxi.” He is also credited for painting his fleet of New York city taxis the bright yellow color because it would make them easier to see at a greater distance.

Muscovy Ducks

Muscovy duck closeup view

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Some might associate the Muscovy dusk with Moscow, Russia, ("Moscow" is “Moskva” in Russian) from the suggestively similar spelling and pronunciation of the name. “Moscow duck” sounds very appetizing, don’t you agree?

But the large duck is really a native to South and Central America, Mexico and the southern United States along the Rio Grande River Valley. This tropical specie of waterfowl domesticates easily and has spread successfully to colder climates as far north as Canada. There are even feral populations of Muscovy Ducks in Europe.

Despite being from a tropical region, Muscovy ducks have adapted to the cold of the north with ease. They are a very common farmyard animal and often seen in parks and lakes where they often return to feral existence just as easily as they did prior to domestication.

Lead Pencil

a handful of lead pencils

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The graphite used in pencils is of course, not the element lead. It is a hard graphite and clay mixture. Chemistry was still new in the day and the substance looked like a form of the element lead and therefor was called “plumbago” (Latin for “lead ore”) and the name stuck. The word in German for “pencil” is “bleistift” which means literally “lead stick.”

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Comments (10)

Interesting article. A good choice of 'odd words'.

very interesting and amusing article.

In the lines of "disgruntled" my husband asks about the word "refrigeration" what is frigeration? As an unrelated note, Muscovy Ducks always kinda freak me out, I like Wood Ducks, Mandarin Ducks and call ducks though.

Fascinating! "[Dis]gruntled" is one of a number of "lost positives," like "[un]kempt," "[in]eptitude," [de]ceptive," etc. I'm not sure if there's much to do with them that hasn't been done before, so I'm sure glad you had other ideas!

Superb article and superb images! - how did you put in those orange-colored breaks - they are a good way of allowing features to stand out I think.

Okay, now that's an interesting article!

NICE....interesting stuff!!

Nice one, stickman! My granddaughter is 'Bee'... I think she will find dumbledore amusing. =D

great article :) very well written and good choice of words :)

Where in the world you get this knowledge! Really great man!

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