Weird Word Origins That Will Make Your Family Laugh

As a hodgepodge of German, French, Latin, Greek, and other languages, English is always full of surprises.

It has funny-sounding words like cattywampus, sure. But, there are also lots words with wacky beginnings. Take fizzle, “to make a hissing or sputtering sound, especially one that dies out weakly.” You know what the word originally meant? “To pass gas,” probably in that manner where you’re trying to stifle it. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what we mean.)

As a bonus (on top of the laughs you’ll get just by reading them), these delightful little origin stories are great for showing off your vocab knowledge at your next family get-together. English isn’t just fun. It’s also funny!

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The walrus is an undeniably funny-looking animal. It’s got a droopy, hangdog kind of face, grumpy-old-man whiskers, and two ludicrous-looking tusks. (No offense to any walruses who may be reading this.)

So, it seems fitting that walrus also has a funny origin story: it may literally mean “whale-horse.” Well, maybe.

The origins of the word walrus are debated. In fact, the writer of the famous Lord of the Rings books, J. R. R. Tolkien, came up with no fewer than six different possible origins of the word.

Anyway, even if it’s not strictly true, the story goes that walrus comes from Dutch. Walvis means “whale” and ros means “horse.” Put it together and a walrus is a “whale-horse.” Which, if you look at this absurd animal, seems like a fitting name for it.


Another funny-looking animal with a funny origin story is the ostrich. When you look at an ostrich, with its teeny-tiny head, big, long legs, and large, fluffy body, the first thing that comes to mind is the tiny, adorable sparrow, right? Wait, what?

Well, that’s what the ancient Greeks thought, apparently. The word ostrich ultimately comes from the Greek word strouthion, which comes from their expression for “big sparrow.” That’s right, it seems the Greeks thought the ostrich was just a really big, weird sparrow.

Hilariously, the ancient Greeks also called the ostrich strouthokamelos, which means “camel-sparrow,” because the bird has a long neck like a camel. We almost wish that name had stuck instead.


Phony is a word that means “fake” or “made up.” But we aren’t making up this unusual origin story for the word. Although the exact origins of phony are unknown, it’s likely the word comes from an old con known as the fawney rig. Fawney is from an Irish word for “finger ring,” and rig, an old term for a “trick” or “swindle.”

Here’s how it worked: the swindler would “accidentally” drop a piece of cheap jewelry in front of their mark, or target. Then, they would pick it up while expressing relief that they hadn’t lost such a valuable ring, pretending it was worth a lot (as if made of gold). If they were lucky, they’d sell it to the mark for much more than it was worth.

By the 20th century, the spelling of the word was eventually modified from fawney to phony and came to refer to anything fake or counterfeit.


WATCH: The Scary History Behind The Word "Nightmare"

Nightmares are scary and unpleasant. But, if it’s any comfort, the fascinating origin of the word nightmare makes clear humans have been having them for centuries.

In Old English, a mare was a kind of evil or cursed spirit. Mares appear in all kinds of folklore, including German and Slavic stories. Mares were said to ride on people’s chests at night, causing suffocation and bad dreams. These mares, often female, were known as nightmares (because they came at night).

By the 1500s, nightmare came to refer to a sensation of suffocation or anxiety during sleep, now a bad dream. While nightmares are frightening, there is a silver lining to this story: at least most of us don’t worry about suffocating in our sleep from evil spirits anymore.


On the hit TV show Friends, the character Chandler Bing can never help himself from making a sarcastic comment. But, maybe he would feel differently about that if he knew the origins of the word sarcasm.

Sarcasm is defined as a “sneering or cutting remark.” That definition is fitting, because the word sarcasm comes from the ancient Greek word sarkazein, which meant “to tear flesh.” That verb became a metaphor for “speaking bitterly.”

So, while sticks and stones can’t break our bones, even the ancient Greeks recognized that sarcasm feels like someone is digging into you.

muscle | mussels

OK, take a look at your muscles. Do you think they look like … mice? This might seem like a strange question, but to the ancient Romans, it would have made perfect sense.

That’s because the word muscle comes from musculus, which literally means “little mouse” (mus means and is related to “mouse”).

Apparently, the ancient Romans thought that the movement of a muscle, especially when you flexed your bicep, looked like a mouse was running under your skin. Which, if you kind of squint and exercise your brain muscles, kind of makes sense.

Speaking of mice, the ancient Romans also thought that mussels, the shellfish, looked like little mice. That’s where the name mussels came from (that same Latin noun, musculus).


A mortgage is a long-term loan that you take out on a house or other property. The word mortgage comes from the Old French expression meaning “dead pledge.” A pledge, in this context, refers to the contract.

If you’re morbid, you might think that the “dead pledge” refers to the fact that you’ll be paying your mortgage off until you die. And while that is a darkly funny reading of this unusual expression, that’s not quite right.

In Old French, the pledge was considered “dead” when either it was paid off by the tenant or when the tenant failed to pay, resulting in the land being taken back.

The takeaway from all of this? Mortgages have stunk for hundreds of years.


Bonkers is a funny-sounding word. It’s a humorous, softer, informal way to say “crazy” or “nuts.”

Its origins aren’t clear, but bonkers is first recorded as British naval slang for “a bit drunk” in the 1940s—perhaps acting as if someone has bonked, or hit, them on the head.

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Word of the Day

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