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7 English Words With Shameful Pasts

Words are  inexpensive, portable and are the medium of communicating our feelings rather well. Unfortunately, it turns out that some of the words that we thought we could trust were lying to us about who
PTI December 15, 2012 6:56 IST
PTI
Words are  inexpensive, portable and are the medium of communicating our feelings rather well. Unfortunately, it turns out that some of the words that we thought we could trust were lying to us about who they really are. Here are seven English words with shameful past:

1. Vanilla

Vanilla is awesome, isn't it? It smells nice, tastes nice, and it even looks nice. But despite all that I would sincerely hope that none of you ever felt the urge to… have sex with a vanilla plant. Even though its name does mean “vagina.”

Upon its discovery, vanilla was named “vainilla” which goes all the way back to the Latin “vagina” (and not vaginus as you would logically assume), which itself means “sheath.” Allegedly, the discovering party felt that the vanilla pods were sort of sheath shaped and, hey, they haven't seen a woman for months and really… who would know, right?

2. Wife

It makes you think of love, weddings, and picket fences or perhaps “wife-swapping,” depending on your preferred life style. There is something inherently wholesome about the word “wife,” isn't it? There's definitely nothing shameful about being a wife. Or is it?

The precise origin of the word is uncertain, though some linguists have suggested that it might come from the root *ghwibh-, which means “shame,” as in “Dear God, look at yourself, woman. You married ME of all people? You should be ashamed of yourself.” Pretty sure that's exactly how we got the word.

3. Decimate

Unless you're a WWI commander or the type of kid who got beat up in school A LOT, you probably don't use the word “decimate” that much, but you probably know what it means (basically). It's like “to kill” or “destroy,” right? Close. It's more like “to reduce in great quantity,” as in “During my college days, I decimated my entire weed supply in just a week.”

Surprisingly, the original meaning of the word had nothing to do with large-scale destruction / reduction. Rather, the Ancient Roman “decimatio,” from which “decimate” comes from, meant “the removal of a tenth.” What were the Romans removing? People. Decimation used to be a punishment for cities or armies where one in ten people was picked out in a draw and had to be beaten to death by the remaining 9, aka their friends and family. Why?  Because that's how the Ancient Romans rolled.

4. Sidekick

From Batman's Robin to George Washington's knife-wielding pet chimpanzee, sidekicks have always held a special place in our culture, but where did the word itself come from? Is it because a sidekick is someone you gently kick to the side when the press arrives so you can hog all the glory?

Allegedly, the word goes back to pick-pockets, who used their own secret lingo to identify different types of pockets. The pocket on the side of your pants was called the “kick,” or “side kick,” and it was the most difficult place to steal from. So with time, a “sidekick” became someone or something trustworthy which is always by your side.

5. Jukebox

The modern abandonment of the idea that you should pay money for music has forced the good old jukebox out of existence. For those of you too young to remember, a jukebox was something like a big, coin operated iPod. You could find them in bars and clubs all across the country, but if you go by the original meaning of the word, you would think to look for them in whorehouses.

There are a number of theories about the origin of the word “juke,” but the most interesting one traces the word to the West African Gullah language word “juk,” which meant, among other things, “a brothel” (if used in the word “jukehouse.”) And now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you a picture of a robot fornicating with a jukebox because for the first time it actually makes sense in context:

6. Gibberish

“Gibberish,” for the uninformed, is basically a strain of nonsensical, meaningless talk or writing. Sort of like your biology teacher telling you that unless you put a rubber sleeping bag over your junk you will catch some magical disease that causes you to die from the common cold or something.

What's the origin of the word? Racism. “Gibberish” probably comes from “jabber” which early on became a word used to describe the language of Gypsies, who sounded totally ridiculous speaking a language other than English. Then one day “Gypsy” and “jabber” kinda got mashed up and got “gibberish” – the nonsensical ramblings of Gypsies. Classy.

7. Cretin

Were you alive at any point in history past 1900? Chances are you were called a cretin at least once by the playground kids (alongside Fartface and Penisbutt… Kids can be really cruel and stupid at the same time). Today we're of course aware that cretinism is a genuine medical condition but how did the word come about?  Christians might have the right answer.

One of the proposed origins for “cretin” is from “christianus” a Vulgar Latin term meaning… a Christian, but more in the sense of “unfortunate person.” You're free to make any religion joke you want, but personally I am just impressed how apparently easy it is to speak in Latin. Seriously, Christian-christianus? Latin is pretty damn simpleus.