7 Fascinating Stories Behind 7 Everyday Words

1. Fedora

While this hipster headgear first became popular menswear in the 1870’s, it did not have a consistent name from place to place until 1882 when actress Sarah Bernhardt donned one for her role as the title character of the play Fédora. The play, by Victorien Sardou, centers around a Russian princess who sets out to avenge her fiancé’s murder, only to discover that he was cheating on her. Feminist activists imitated the cross-dressing fashion statement.

2. Laconic

THIS IS SPARTA! Or at least part of it. Laconia was a district in ancient Sparta that Philip of Macedon––father of Alexander the Great––planned to use as his access point to the rest of the city-state. He wrote to the Spartans, “If I enter Laconia, I will raze Sparta to the ground,” to which the Spartans replied, “If.”

3. Serendipity

Coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in reference to “The Three Princes of Serendip,” a Persian fairy tale whose heroes are always stumbling upon great luck. Serendip is ultimately from the Sanskrit Simhaladvipa, “Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island.” Today that island is just called Sri Lanka, apparently Sanskrit for “resplendent island,” which is rather boring by comparison.

4. Ampersand

The symbol & was originally called simply “and,” and was once recited at the end of the alphabet along with the rest of the letters. Children would conclude the alphabet song with “x, y, z and per se and,” “per se” meaning “by itself.” That final four-word phrase eventually morphed into a single name for the symbol.

5. Guy

Those of you who saw V for Vendetta will remember, remember that Guy Fawkes was executed for attempting to murder King James I and destroy the Houses of Parliament. In commemoration of his death, figures of Guy Fawkes are burnt on the anniversary, and from this practice the word “guy” became synonymous with a person who was grotesque or badly dressed. From there it evolved into its current meaning.

6. Sabotage

From a French word meaning, “to walk noisily,” which in turn was from sabot, “a wooden shoe.” Eventually it became associated with unpleasant sounds, particularly badly played music. The current meaning, “to maliciously destroy,” came from a practice of workers in the early 20th century to do their work intentionally badly as a means of protesting unfair treatment instead of quitting. (Bonus: the historically related word “luddite” is from Ned Ludd, who destroyed factory machines in a fit of insanity. Weavers did the same in an attempt to maintain their jobs.)

7. Hysterical

This word (as well as the word “uterus”) is derived from the same root that meant “womb.” Hysterical originally meant things relating to the womb, and then became the term for a woman suffering from a neurotic disorder caused by a diseased or dysfunction. From there it became associated with fits of uncontrollable laughter. TC mark

image – Flickr / greeblie

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