Trivia Collection: Michael Forsyth, The Etymologicon

Below is a collection of trivia I’ve found in Michael Forsyth, The Etymologicon

Scary hotdog etymology

In nineteenth-century America, the belief that sausages were usually made out of dog meat was so widespread that they started to be called hotdogs, a word that survived to this day.

Bows and Arrows Law

In 1363, Edward III passed a law that required all men over the age o 14 and under the age of 60 to practice archery at least once a week. His law has never actually been repealed.


Pantophobia means a morbid fear of absolutely everything.

Satan and All His Friends

Pandiabolism is the name given to the belief that the Devil runs the world.

Now, Today and What Soon Really Means

Originally, “soon” was the Anglo-Saxon word from “now”. It took a thousand years of people saying “I’ll do that soon”, for it to end up meaning what it means today.

The British Museum and Notorious De Sade

In the 1930s, a historian named Geoffrey Gorer who was researching the marquis de Sade, went to the British Museum to look at some of his works stored there. He was then told by the museum authorities that as a rule, people were only allowed access to de Sade’s books “in the presence of the Archbishop of Cantebury and two other trustees”.

Bottling Champagne

You may not have known it, but bottling is the trickiest part of the champagne making process.

A champagne bottle needs to contain 6 atmospheres of pressure. Even now, the caverns of Moet and Chandon lose every 60th bottle to explosion. The bubbly drink bottling process was in fact perfected by the English, who needed special, stronger bottles for their fizzy cider. Later on, the French adopted the same technology for bottling their champagne.

Little Venice

Amerigo Vespucci named part of South America Little Venice, or in Spanish, Venezuela, because the local tribesmen lived in houses built into the water supported by stilts, as in a miniature Venice.

Curse of the Gypsy Tribe

Legend says that the Roma people were cursed to wander the Earth because when Joseph, Mary and Jesus were fleeing to Egypt, a local tribe had denied them food and shelter. The gypsy are believed to be descendants of this tribe, and are thus condemned to suffer the same fate for all eternity.

Fluttering Happily in the Afterlife

In many distinct and unconnected cultures like those of the Maori or the Aztec people, the butterfly is imagined to be a human soul happily fluttering through its afterlife.

Depravity, Extravagance, Enjoyable and Other Words Milton Invented

impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, cooking, wording, awe-struck, stunning, terrific, debauchery, depravity, extravagance, enjoyable, unintended, silver lining

People Greeting Habits and Hello Etymology

The invention of the telephone made the previously obscure greeting “hello” wildly popular. Before the telephone, people had wished each other good mornings, days and nights. But as the person on the other end of the line might not deserve a “good day”, people needed an alternative.

It’s said that Alexander Bell insisted on beginning phone calls with the nautical term “ahoy”, but that didn’t catch on and “hello” became the standard english greeting.

Venetian Gazeta and the Birth of Newspapers

Newspapers were introduced in mid-sixteenth century Venice. They were little sheets of paper describing trade, war and prices. They were very cheap and were known as a “halfpenny worth of news”, or in the Venetian dialect, a “gazeta de la novita”, gazeta being the name of a Venetian coin of very little value.

Climb Up and Down

In England there’s a range of hills called the Sussex Downs. Which basically means you can climb up a down.

Hitler and Bavarian Paddy

Hitler was head of the catchily named Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitpartei (National Socialist German Worker’s Party). Unfortunately, he hadn’t thought out the name properly, because soon enough, his opponents realised that you could shorten Nationalsozialistische to Nazi. Why was that bad for Hitler? Because Nazi was already and had been for years a term of abuse.

Every culture has a butt for its jokes. Americans have the Polish, the English have the Irish, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, the standard butt of German jokes were Bavarian peasants. And just as the Irish jokes involve a man called Paddy, the Bavarian jokes involved a peasant called Nazi, a shortening of the very common Bavarian name Ignatius.

You can imagine Hitler and his fascists were not very happy with people basically calling them Bavarian hicks. At first, they hated the word, then tried to reclaim it, but once they got to power they simply persecuted all their opponents and forced them to flee the country. So German refugees started turning up elsewhere complaining about the Nazis, and the non-Germans of course assumed that was the official name of the party. Meanwhile, all the Germans in Gerany obediently called them Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitpartei. At least when the police were listening.

Edison and the Story of Debugging

There’s a story that one of Thomas Edison’s inventions kept going wrong and he couldn’t figure out why. He had repeatedly checked all the parts, made sure there were no design flaws, yet the machine failed to function. Several days later, he went back to check it one last time and discovered that a small insect had been crawling around over his delicate mechanisms and had been the cause of all the problems. This, so the story goes, is the origin of bug in the sense of a technical failing.

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