by Marc Anderson

16 Questions to Get You Chuckling about Words

A small boy playing

“Each language you learn is another [fun] opportunity.”- Skylar Harrington

Why is/are there …

Foods

  1. No ham in hamburger?Hamburgers actually get their name from Hamburg, Germany, home of a cut of beef called the Hamburg steak that evolved into the hamburger that you know of today. The hamburger’s popularity has extended to most countries of the world.  You can buy cookbooks that feature over hundred different types of hamburgers, etc. and explore the different varieties. In 1802, the Oxford English Dictionary defined Hamburg steak as salt beef. It had little resemblance to the hamburger we know today. It was a hard slab of salted minced beef, often slightly smoked, mixed with onions and breadcrumbs. The emphasis was more on durability than taste. – What’s Cooking America
  2. No egg in eggplant?Eggplants are native to the India and parts of eastern and southern Asia.  They were introduced to the Western world in the middle ages.  Large quantities are now grown throughout China, Japan, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, the Philippines, Italy and Spain. Eggplant is a fruit closely related to the tomato and potato.  The most common variety is the long, dark-purpled skinned eggplant with the light green flesh and small seeds. There is no mention to the origin of the word. But I am certain it has nothing to do with an “egg”.
  3. English muffins but they did not originate in England?Take one mother’s tea cake recipe, add in an English baker (Samuel Thomas) living 100 years ago in America, and you get the first flat, chewy muffins known as English muffins. Today, you can find the Thomas’ English Muffins, quick breads baked on a griddle made without yeast but leavened with egg and baking powder, on store shelves across the globe.  It is this English muffin that is referred to in the English nursery rhyme “The Muffin Man”. And, believe it or not, you can find English muffins imported in England today, and sold throughout their stores.
  4. Neither apple nor pine in pineapple?Historians trace the pineapple to Brazil and then note it was imported to Europe and cultivated in hot houses. At first, members of the royal families and the elite only afforded the pineapple. Then James Dole made the pineapple popular to everyone through his Hawaiian plantations and the price was reduced.  His goal of offering convenient canned pineapple in most stores throughout America came true. The word “pineapple” was first recorded in 1398 when it described the reproductive organs of pine cones. Credit the European explorers (in 1664) to calling this tropical fruit “pineapple” because of their resemblance to the pine cone.
  5. The name French fries when they don’t come from France?It is unclear who introduced the French fry but there are many theories to suggest either the Belgians with their “French potatoes” or the Spanish in Columbia who called the fried potatoes “truffles”.  The Belgians in the 17th century fried up small fish as a staple to their meals and when the rivers froze and they could no longer catch fish, they cut up potatoes in long, thin slices and fried them the same way as the fish. Some historians believe the Spanish brought the potatoes to Europe.  They also believe that the French spread the fries to America and Britain, and it was the Americas who made the French fry popular in fast food chains.  Now, with the spread of fast food restaurants to other areas of the world, French fries are thought to be “American fries”. They have become a popular food choice the world over. Salted or peppered, curly or crinkled, fat or thin, plain or served with sauces the French fry is one type of potato offering eaten mostly as part of a meal or a snack.

Adjectives

  1. Sand called quicksand, but it works slowly?Although I have never seen quicksand in real life, I imagine it to be sand that loses its capacity to support particles and then becomes more of a liquid. I hear it is found mostly at the mouth of a river or along a stretch of stream/beach area where there are pools of water partially fill with sand and an underlying layer of stiff clay or other dense material that prevents proper drainage.  A little research tells me that quicksand is a mixture of sand, mud and vegetation in bogs.  When stepping in quicksand, the sand structure is loosened and your foot sinks. Despite old western television shows showing horses and their riders sinking into quicksand and never surfacing again, the body can’t sink below the surface of the water because of the sand-water suspension density.  However, quicksand slowly engulfs an animal or human body and it may be difficult to get out. This could lead to a loss of balance and possible drowning in your struggle to “quickly” get back on solid ground.
  2. Square boxing rings?In the late 1800s, a circle or ring was painted on the dirt or drawn on the dirt to be used as an area for fighting.  An audience would gather to form a barrier and the two “boxers” would stay in the circle and fight. When knocked out of the circle, they would be pushed back into the circle to continue fighting. Eventually, there were posts and ropes added so the spectators would not touch the fighters, probably for reasons of liability and for the assurance that the fight was legitimate and not “rigged”.  The name “boxing ring” stuck despite the ring becoming a 24 feet (7.3 m) square.
  3. Guinea pigs, but they aren’t from Guinea nor are they pigs?The guinea pig is native to South America.  There is a good hunch that the name “guinea pig” came from the ships that traded between England, Guinea and South America. The boats were called “Guinea-men” and commonly carried this animal known as a “guinea pig” back to trade.  The term guinea pig was first recorded in 1920 to mean “a common experimental subject”. Other sources suggest that the guinea pig was indeed used for biological experimentation since the 17th century through the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, other rodents (rats and mice) are used more commonly for lab experiments as they can be bred more quickly.Biological experimentation on guinea pigs has been carried out since the 17th century. The animals were frequently used as a model organism in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in the epithet “guinea pig” for a test subject, but have since been largely replaced by other rodents such as mice and rats. Interesting to note is that the antitoxin for diphtheria was discovered using guinea pigs in the research in 1890, and as a result the many children’s lives have been saved. The guinea pig’s wide varieties of hair types and colors have been used to study genetics and heredity. An all-white guinea pig called Duncan-Hartley was bred specifically for laboratory work.
  4. Wise men, yet the expression “wise guys” means something completely different?Wise men are thought to use knowledge well.  They are discerning, gnostic, insightful, and perceptive. Yet when we say “wise guys” this combination of words means someone who “goofs off” and he is often conceited and a smart aleck. The first expression (wise men) means those who are admired and respected and sought out for advice; the other expression (wise guys) means those individuals you don’t really choose to emulate nor entrust with giving out any advice.

Prepositions and Verbs

  1. An alarm that goes “off” when it is “on”?Yes, when an alarm clock or alarm on your watch or phone “goes off” for any number of reasons, then the alarm is “on”.  In this case, “off” is “on”.
  2. Reciting at plays and playing at recitals?As an author of children’s plays, I write the scripts for the narrator and other characters to “recite”. And when I attend my own children’s music recitals, they play selected songs. In this case, “plays have reciting” and “recitals have playing”.
  3. A nose that runs and feet that smell?It’s interesting if you think about it. Noses can run and smell, and feet can smell and run! But to those learning English, it might be difficult to explain as a nose is more associated with the sense of  “smell” and feet is more associated with the verb “run”.
  4. A house burning up when it’s burning down?Well, a house can “burn up” and it can “burn down”, and both expressions mean the same thing. But if you have a fever, you can say “I’m burning up”, not “I’m burning down”.
  5. Forms filled out by filling them in?Any form that is “filled out” is “filled in”. And if the form is “filled in”, it is “filled out”. I don’t know if there are any other expressions where “out” and “in” mean the same thing. But it is something to think about.

Plurals

  1. The plural of geese “goose”, but the plural of moose not meese?Plurals in the English language have many irregularities. Viewed as “half empty”, you might say they are difficult to learn.  Viewed as “half full”, you might say they are interesting. There is one goose on the lake right now, but there were two geese yesterday. I saw a moose in the zoo on Monday, but there were not 2 moose.  There simply is not a generalized pattern for all of the nouns that are spelled with double vowels. You need to memorize each set for accuracy.
  2. The plural of tooth “teeth”, but the plural of booth not beeth?(See #15 above.) I have a lose tooth and will have my teeth cleaned next week. I voted in the voting booth or our family sat in the restaurant booth.  There were many booths to vote in.  There were two open booths at the restaurant.  Again, there is no generalized pattern for nouns that are spelled with double vowels. You need to memorize each set for accuracy.

Perhaps you have been questioning some additional English words.  I would love to hear them and share a chuckle. Write to me using the comments section below. And remember, “Each language you learn is another [fun] opportunity!”

 

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.