It’s March 4, Grammar Day. Why we’re all living in the Upside Down when it comes to English

You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

On National Grammar Day, here are some weird English word connections and origins that make me chuckle (and a bit dizzy).




Down means Up

Okay, down means hills.  In England, there’s a range of hills called the Sussex Downs.  Which means you can fall off a down.

Down, as in fall down, originally meant off-down, meaning off-the-hill.  So if an English gentleman fell off the hill he would fall off-down.  Then lazy English gentlemen started to drop the word off.  Rather than saying they were going off-down, they just started going down.

So downs are up above you and going downhill is really going downdown.


Black and White

The Oxford English Dictionary itself admits: “In Middle English it is often doubtful whether blac, blak, blacke, means “black, dark” or “pale, colourless, wan, livid” .”

There are 2 possible explanations.

  • The Old German work for burnt meant black.  The Old Germanics couldn’t decide what colour burning was.  Some said that when things were buring they were bright and shiny, and others said that when things were burnt they turned black.  The English were left with black which could mean either pale or dark, but slowly settled on one usage.
  • There was an old German word black which meant bare, void and empty.  What do you have if you don’t have any colours?  With this theory, blankness is the original sense and the two colours – black and white – and different interpretations of what blank means.

Letting The Cat Out of The Bag

Has to do with pigs, naturally.  In medieval markets, pigs were sold in sacks so the farmer could carry them home more easily.  This was a pig in a poke.  A standard con at the time was to switch a valuable piglet for a cat or dog.  You were being sold a dog, or, if you discovered the trick, you would let the cat out of the bag.


Smells Feisty

A 19th-century dictionary describes a fice as:

A small, windy escape backwards, more obvious to the nose than the ears; frequently by old ladies charged [blamed] on their lapdogs

Fice itself comes from the Old English fist, which likewise meant fart.  In Elizabethan times, a farting dog was called a fisting cur, and by the 18th century any little dog was called a feist, and that’s where the get the word feisty from.  Little dogs are so prone to bark at anything that an uppity girl was called feisty.


The partridge farts

The word partridge comes from the Old french pertis which comes from the latin perdix which comes from the Greek verb perdesthai, which means fart.  Because that’s what it sounds like when a partridge flies.  The loud, low beating of the wings sounds like the clapping of the buttocks when the inner gale is liberated.

Nice, dummy

“Nice,” when it appeared in English in the 13th century, meant, not “pleasant” or “polite,” but “stupid,” derived from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant.” Over time, it progressed in stages to meaning “timid,” “fussy,” “delicate,” “precise” (still used in phrases such as “nice and tidy”), “agreeable,” and finally “kind.”


Naughty for nothing

“Naughty” comes from the Old English “nawiht,” meaning “nothing” (literally “not a whit”). The form “naught” is still used, as I did in the first paragraph of this answer, to mean “nothing at all.” The form “naughty” originally meant, in the early 15th century, “having nothing,” i.e., poor. For the ensuing two centuries, “naughty” was used, when applied to persons, to mean “wicked or immoral.” By the early 17th century, however, the word had softened considerably and was applied mainly to disobedient children.

Christians are Cretins

All Christians are cretins, and cretins are all Christian.  The original cretins were deformed and mentally deficient dwarves found only in a few remote valleys in the Alps.  The Swiss knew that though these people had a problem, they were still human beings and fellow Christians.  So they called them Cretins, which means Christians.

It was like calling them fellow human, but bullies quickly took it up and Cretins acquired a derogatory sense.

The word idiot is first mentioned in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.  St. Peter and St. John are called idiots simply because they are laymen.  They had no qualifications and were, therefore, their own men, rather than belonging to some professional class.



After invading Greece and receiving the submission of other key city-states, Philip II of Macedon sent a message to Sparta: “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartan ephors replied with a single word: “If”.

Subsequently, neither Philip II nor his son Alexander the Great attempted to capture the city.   So Laconic, it’s Spartan.


Game of Chicken

The French played the game of chicken or poule, which was where you threw things at a chicken for a prize.  In England, it was called  cock-squailing, or sometimes cock-throwing.

At card games, the pot of money in the middle of the table became known as the poule.  English gamblers changed the spelling to pool.  When Billiards became a popular sport, people gambled on it, and this variation became known as pool, hence shooting pool.


This was a mere sampler from the wonderful The Etymologicon.  Happy Grammar Day!















Leave a Reply