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14 Surprising False Etymologies

Some idioms sound pretty bizarre. Raining cats and dogs, chewing the fat, pulling one’s leg – who in their right mind would come up with those? People would like to believe that behind these and other strange English phrases, there’s a whole list of surprising, imaginative, and entertaining origin stories, even when there is none to be found in the records… This is how so-called "false etymologies" are born, which is a term used to describe assumed or popular word origins that are incorrect. There’s a surprisingly long list of such words and phrases in English. Here are a few of our personal favorites:

“Pulling one's leg”

False Etymologies dandy pickpockets

Definition: Tease or deceive someone.

False etymology: According to the most popular fake origin story for "pulling one's leg," the phrase began from London pickpockets, who tripped unsuspecting victims to make robbing them easier. 

There’s a grimmer explanation too, which suggested that people pulled on the legs of hanged criminals in the English city of Tyburn in order to speed up their deaths. However, this second explanation is completely unrelated to the term’s current meaning, so it’s out of the race from the get-go.

Historical origins: Even though the story about the pickpockets is a good one, etymologists believe that “pulling one’s leg” is actually an American phrase, making the connection with London’s crime scene very unlikely. In 1883, The Newark Daily Advocate newspaper from Ohio lists it as a new idiom. Most likely, the phrase simply refers to the habit of "playfully tripping" a person as a joke.


False Etymologies Gossiping girls

Definition: Rumor or conversation about other people's private affairs.

Fake etymology: This is a fun one! According to a legend, the word began when one politician became curious about what his constituents were saying about him. So he sent out his lackeys across the city taverns to eavesdrop, saying, “Go sip some ale.” Over time, the phrase was shortened to simply “gossip.”

Historical origins: As much as we’d like to believe this theory, this etymology completely overlooks the fact that the word “gossip” was consistently mentioned in literature since the 12th century. So, gossip predates politicians. In fact, the word comes from Old English. "Gossip" is an iteration of the word "godsibb," which referred to a person who sponsored a baptism, e.g. a godparent.

“Dead ringer”

False Etymologies Bell

Definition: A person or object that looks identical to another.

False etymology: These false etymology stories sometimes take a really dark turn. According to this online legend, at one point in history, English cemeteries were running out of burial spaces. Consequently, it became common to retrieve old coffins and reuse grave sites. Upon reopening the coffins, people would notice that many coffin covers had scratch marks on the inside, suggesting that many people had been buried alive.

To prevent this from happening, some people decided to equip coffins with an alarm. The contraption involved tying a string that was tied to the wrist of the diseased on one hand and a bell on the other. The idea was that a person who woke up in the grave would yank at the string, ring the bell, and be saved. Such people would be called "dead ringers."

Historical origins: The human fear of being buried alive was very real. It even led to the installation of alarm systems like those described above. However, all that is completely unrelated to the phrase “dead ringer.” For a long time, the word "ringer" was sports slang for replacing a horse with a lookalike. Initially, the ringer was the one swapping out the animals, but later that name was transferred to the competitor.

What about the adjective "dead"? It’s used in a sense of exact and complete in this phrase, much like in the phrase “dead on” or “dead easy.” So, from the very beginning, this phrase meant something like a "doppelganger" or "exact look-alike" - much like people use it today.

Related article: 15 Mistakes That Changed the English Language Forever

“Graveyard shift”

False Etymologies  Graveyard

Definition: A work shift that begins late at night and lasts until the early hours of the morning.

False etymology: The previous story could make you think, “If the story about the dead ringer was true, who would hear the bell ringing in the graveyard at night?” According to legend, a designated person like that really existed, and the job of watching the cemetery at night would be called - you guessed it - the graveyard shift.

Historical origins: In reality, the term “graveyard shift” has nothing to do with cemeteries. This is another expression from the 19th century that grew in prominence in the early 20th century. For example, sailors had something called a “graveyard watch” on the ship that lasted from midnight until 4 AM.

A book of naval terms and slang by Gershom Bradford titled A Glossary of Sea Terms (1927) explains the reasoning behind the phrase. According to Bradford, it was called a graveyard watch “because of the number of disasters that occur at this time.”

“Chew the fat”

False Etymologies dalmatian chewing on a bone

Definition: Gossip, small talk, or a long and friendly conversation with someone.

False etymology: The mythical origins of the idiom place its origins in a weird 16th-century custom. According to the legend, it referred to a social tradition wherein the host would share small pieces of bacon and share the meat with guests. Together, they would sit and “chew the fat.”

Historical origins: While this legend is quite imaginative and comical, it completely ignores the meaning of the idiom. In reality, “chew the fat” has nothing in common with food. The real explanation can be found in its synonym, the idiom “chew the rag.” Both phrases mean "to reiterate an old grievance, argue, or simply talk or chat."

“Paying through the nose”

False Etymologies chipmunk and boy touching noses
Definition: Pay an exorbitant or excessive amount.
Fake etymology: Here’s another creepy etymological story. According to this tale, Vikings would cut the noses of villagers that refused or could not pay during the raid. So, they were literally "paying through the nose."
Historical origins: As is often the case with these idioms, “paying through the nose” actually originated centuries after the times of the Vikings. Linguistics researcher Anatoly Liberman explains that the phrase actually comes from a poll tax, which is also known as a "nose tax." This poll tax was imposed per person during the Danish conquest of Ireland. So, if we omit the unnecessarily-gruesome details, the fake etymology tale wasn’t so far off this time!

“Raining cats and dogs”

False Etymologies cat and dog

Definition: Particularly heavy rain.

False etymology: In Medieval times, houses had thatched roofs made of straw covering a wooden frame. Supposedly, the roof was the only place where pets and other critters like mice could stay warm in the winter. And when the rain was especially heavy and the straw turned slippery, animals slipped and fell off the roof.

Historical origins: This phrase dates back to the 17th century, not the Middle Ages. And there are several etymological theories related to this phrase, but none include the popular legend from above. The first theory presupposes that the phrase alludes to the infamous hostility between cats and dogs. The weather is so furious, the proverb suggests, that it’s comparable to the legendary enmity between the two animals.

Liberman suggests an interpretation of his own. According to his theory, the cats and dogs in the phrase are not animals at all, but "dogboltes" and "catboltes," which were old English words used to denote iron bars used to close a door, and bolts for fastening timber, respectively. The linguist believes that the version of the idiom “raining cats and dogs, and pitchforks with their points downward,” is proof of his theory. In this case, the idiom supposedly compares the sounds of heavy rain to metal instruments falling onto the roof.

There’s no consensus as to which theory is more plausible, so it’s up to you and what you believe.

“Bring home the bacon”

False Etymologies bacon

Definition: to provide and earn good money for one’s family.

False etymology: According to a popular origin story of this phrase, the idiom harkens back to the 1500s, a time when pork was a luxury few families could afford. Hence, being able to earn enough money to buy bacon was a point of pride. So much so that the family would hang bacon as a status symbol for all visitors to see.

Historical origins: There are many proposed etymologies for this word. One theory even states that the phrase references an old English custom of awarding bacon to married men who haven’t regretted their marriage for an entire year and 1 day.

This would be nice, but the actual idiom “bring home the bacon” was most likely an American invention altogether. The first mention of the phrase appeared in the sports section of a New York newspaper in 1906. So sadly, neither of these two elaborate theories seems to be right.

“Dirt poor”

False Etymologies planting

Definition: Extremely poor.

False etymology: Legend has it that this phrase reminds us of the days when floors were made of dirt, and only wealthy people could afford wooden or tile floors.

Historical origins: “Dirt poor” is another one of those ancient-sounding phrases that are actually deceptively recent. Linguists trace it back to 19th-century America. Here’s one prominent example from an 1885 edition of a North Carolina newspaper: “the eastern merchants’ capital is being invested in real estate and they are becoming dirt poor.” At first, the phrase was more closely related to property, but it eventually became a synonym for poverty in general.

“Throw the baby out with the bath water”

False Etymologies Throw the baby out with the bath water

Definition: If you throw the baby out with the bath water, you lose the favorable aspects of something along with the less desirable parts.

False etymology: Legend has it that this phrase comes from a 16th-century bathing tradition where family members would bathe in the same tub filled with water one after another. According to family hierarchy, kids and babies would be last in line. The water was so dirty at that point that you could easily lose a baby in it.

Historical origins: In reality, most people at the time didn’t take regular baths. Changing their linens and washing the visible parts of the body was the peak of hygiene. Hence, the original theory is implausible. Instead, etymologists trace this phrase to a German proverb that entered English in the 19th century. The saying was first used satirically in Thomas Murner’s book Appeal to Fools. It’s nice to know that no babies were harmed in the creation of this phrase.

“Trench mouth”

False Etymologies woman closing mouth with hands

Definition: an infection that causes inflammation and ulcers in the gums.

False etymology: The false etymology of this work links the medical term with trenchers, which were square or round pieces of wood with a divet in the middle. These contraptions were used for serving food. In some cases, trenchers were made out of hardened stale bread instead of wood. Since these makeshift bowls were never cleaned, they would grow germs and mold. If someone ate off an infected trencher, they would develop "trench mouth."

Historical origins: Believe it or not, most of this tale is true. Wooden trenchers were very popular in the Middle Ages, as they allowed serving and cutting food at the same time. It’s also true that slices of bread were sometimes used instead of a bowl or plate. However, this old kitchenware has nothing to do with the term trench mouth.

The medical term dates back to World War I. As described in the 1917 edition of the journal Progressive Medicine, trench mouth was caused by the unsanitary conditions and sharing water bottles and kitchenware among soldiers in trench warfare.

“Upper crust”

False Etymologies baguettes

Definition: Aristocracy or the high class.

False etymology: According to this story, a loaf of bread was supposedly divided into three layers: the burnt bottom for the workers, the soft middle for the family, and the “upper crust” for the guests. Some sources even refer to an old book on household management called Boke of Nurture (c. 1460) written by one John Russell as the source.

Historical origins: The first suspicions regarding the false etymology of this phrase cropped up when scholars noticed that the phrase “upper crust” was never used in the sense of "high class” until the 19th century. Prior to that, it either appeared in cookbooks or as a reference to the earth’s surface. A more likely etymology of the phrase is that it’s simply a metaphor for the top part of an object, or sometimes the head or hat. An 1826 reference from The Sporting Magazine even uses it in that sense here: “Tom completely tinkered his antagonist’s upper-crust.”

“Whole nine yards”

False Etymologies man measuring wood

Definition: Everything you can want, have, or do.

False etymology: You’ll often hear people explain the origins of the phrase “the whole nine yards” as a technical measure like the length of fabric or machine gun belts. All of the stories are very unlikely to be true.

Historical origins: Sadly, linguists weren’t able to trace the exact origins of the phrase, but they know that the above-listed theories are untrue because they can confidently say that the early version of the phrase was actually "the whole six yards." They also point out that this American idiom is traced back to as early as 1907, whereas many of the purported explanations are more recent inventions.


False Etymologies SOS

Definition: A naval rescue call.

False etymology: You may have heard that SOS is an acronym for “save our souls” or “save our ship.” As you may have guessed, neither of those stories got the actual origins of SOS right…

Historical origins: SOS was introduced into the English vocabulary in 1910. At that time, Morse code was the primary mode of communication among ships. There was a need for a sequence that was easy to remember and type in Morse, and SOS was chosen precisely for those qualities.

Before that, the default distress call was CQD (“CQ” meant alert, and “D” denoted danger). I wonder if they didn’t change the code for SOS, if someone would come up with a clever etymology for CQD too, like “Come Quickly, Darn it!”

References: Mental Floss, Insider, Merriam-Webster
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