Language Deception: Word Pairs You Thought Were Related

Unrelated Words

English has innumerable ways of being deceptive, especially with its family tree. Despite our ability to forge often humorous connections between concepts, many seemingly related words aren’t even extended family.

Today, we’re sharing a series of these surprisingly unrelated words. The word pairs we’ve selected look like they share the same root, but they’re offshoots of separate family trees. For example, you’d think male was in female (purely etymologically speaking), but it’s not. The two don’t come from Mars and Venus, but they have completely different word ancestries!

Face & Shamefaced

Being shamefaced, meaning “bashful” or “embarrassed,” may involve blushing out of shyness, but it doesn’t have to. That’s because the face in shamefaced doesn’t refer to a person’s visage, rosy or otherwise. Hundreds of years ago, fæst meant “firmly fixed or secure”—highly ironic when you think of what “fast” means today. Shamefast literally meant “restrained by shame.”  We still use the Old English meaning of fast when describing steadfast people who ‘hold firm’ to their beliefs. We can only imagine what steadfaced would look like.

Ginger & Gingerly

Even though the letters spelling “ginger” are embedded in gingerly, it’s actually hard to imagine associating the spicy zing of ginger with the daintiness and care evoked by gingerly. Ginger, the spice, comes from an East Indies plant in the Zingiber family. The ginger in gingerly traces back to the Middle French word gensor, meaning “delicate.”

Hang, (Finger)nail, & Hangnail

A hangnail is so aggravating, dangling off your thumb and snagging everything it comes in contact with. This word is a double-whammy of English-language deceit. In Old English angnail (angnægl) was first used to describe “a corn on the foot.” The word literally translates as “angry, painful” (ang) + “spike” (nægl). An “angry, painful spike piercing holes through my clothes and stabbing into the side of my thumb” is exactly what a hangnail is!

House & Penthouse

With careful thought, it makes sense that house isn’t a part of penthouse. How could a house, a residential structure usually built upon the ground, also be a residential structure bestowing wealthy people access to the clouds? Penthouses had humble beginnings; Christian sermons hundreds of years ago describe the birth of Jesus not in a manger but in a penthouse. In 1921, the first usage of penthouse as “a house on the roof of a skyscraper” initiated the word’s association with extravagance—and it hasn’t looked back.

Lock & Wedlock

As much as it may sometimes feel like marriage is life’s biggest deadbolt, wedlock doesn’t signify imprisonment, or even relate to the romantic metaphor of interlocking lives together (“my heart is a lock and you have the key” kind of thing). A wedlock was a spousal “pledging” of vows. The etymology of lock (the deadbolt variety) traces to the Old Norse word loka, “to close.” But don’t think this word was a steely prude. In the 1300s, loken love was a phrase meaning “hidden or clandestine love” (the kind of love behind closed, double-locked doors with the swinging “do not disturb” sign).

Male & Female

There’s perhaps no better description of the chasm between the sexes than the title of the classic relationship guide Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. For logical argument’s sake, that’s obviously false. But in the world of word origins, male is from masculus and female is from fēmella—entirely dissimilar Latin roots that provide factual evidence to support our differences! Not extraterrestrial, but etymological, and that’s enough for us.

Pen & Pencil

If you’re up to speed on writing-implement history (who isn’t these days), you’ll know that the pen appeared long before the pencil. Pen derives from the Latin penna, or “feather.” Ancient Egyptians used pens made from reeds, but the reed eventually gave way to the quill, a large bird feather. Writers used “feather” or quill pens for over a thousand years before the pencil appeared. Naturally, the word pencil must mean “pen-like thing”? Nope. The word pencil stems from another Latin word, pēnicillus, meaning “painter’s brush.”

Rage & Outrage

Think of the erratic, ferocious behavior of a rabid animal and you won’t be surprised that rage traces back to the Latin word rabies, which meant “madness or fury.” If to be enraged is to be “in rage” wouldn’t it make sense that outrage is “outside the rage”? It would if the word rage were involved, but originally, outrage didn’t relate to anger at all. Outrage comes from the Old French ultrage, which transforms the Latin ultra (“beyond”) into something like “beyond-ness.”

Step & Stepmother/father

Perhaps you never thought the “step” in stepparent related to taking literal footsteps forward. But the word also has nothing to do with a new unrelated person “stepping into” the space left by the parent who’s no longer around. In Old English, steppan was the term for “take a step". Steop, on the other hand, was a word evoking “loss” and “bereavement.” It was originally used in the context of orphan children; a steopcild was literally a “bereft child,” deprived of parents.