15 Words We Didn’t Know Literally Refer To The Thing That Inspired Them

Over 100 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of 15 Words We Didn’t Know Literally Refer To The Thing That Inspired Them
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Vote up the most interesting word origins.

Word origins are funny, aren't they? Oftentimes, when people name something, they look at the most literal way of how they could describe it. 

Walruses, for example, originally translate to “whale horses.” (That's pretty on the nose, isn't it?) Other times, the name made sense to the people who coined the name, but it's a bit puzzling to us. 

If you're an etymology fan, read on to see some of the literal definitions behind some of our most commons words today. 

  • Deadline
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    129 VOTES


    Definition: a date or time before which something must be done

    Language of Origin: American English

    Origin Story: “Deadline” is one of the few words on this list that originated in the USA., back during the Civil War. It first was spoken about during the trial of Henry Wirz, the notorious commander of an atrocious Confederate prison. 

    During the trial, it was revealed that Wirz had informed the prison guards of an imaginary line around the perimeter of the prison enclosure. If a prisoner were to walk over this line (which was not marked in most areas) then the prisoner was to be immediately shot. This line became known as the “dead line.”

    129 votes
  • 2
    107 VOTES


    Definition: a pulpy green- to purple-skinned nutty-flavored fruit

    Language of Origin: Aztec

    Origin Story: Well… get ready to never look at an avocado the same again. 

    The favorite toast-topping fruit, and the leading cause of lower rates of homeownership among millennials, gets its name from the Aztec people. Their word for the food was “ahuakatl.” However, “ahuakatl” also had a secondary meaning - “testicle.” 

    107 votes
  • Loopholes
    Photo: Man vyi / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    91 VOTES


    Definition: a means of escape - especially: an ambiguity or omission in the text through which the intent of a statute, contract, or obligation may be evaded

    Language of Origin: Middle English

    Origin Story: We're familiar with loophole in the context of getting around something: “He found a loophole in the contract.” But originally, the term meant getting around a much more serious event. 

    In the 15th century, castles were being attacked throughout Europe. To protect their archers, castles were designed with “loupes," small slit-like windows, which the archers could shoot out of without being open targets. Therefore, “loop holes” began being known for “a means of escape.” 

    91 votes
  • 4
    86 VOTES


    Definition: a conveyance of or lien against property (as for securing a loan) that becomes void upon payment or performance according to stipulated terms

    Language of Origin: Old French

    Origin Story: In today's housing market, a mortgage can sometimes feel like a life sentence. Well, it turns out the term "mortgage" actually comes from “dead pledge.”

    “Mortgage” can trace its roots back to the 13th century, Old French term “morgage” - “mort” meaning “dead” and “gage” meaning “pledge.” Back then, they gave this type of loan this name because “the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when payment fails.” 

    So it's when the deal dies, not when you… you know. Now you can go back to feeling good about your 30-year mortgage. 

    86 votes
  • Quarantine
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    85 VOTES


    Definition: a state of enforced isolation

    Language of Origin: Italian

    Origin Story: Unfortunately, many of us are far more familiar with the term “quarantine” than we were pre-2020. However, the word can be traced back to the great voyaging days of 14th century Venice. 

    When ships would return from distant travels, the Venetian officials wanted to make sure that the sailors didn't spread disease to their local citizens. Therefore, when ships returned from plague-ridden locations, the crew was forced to wait off the Venice port for 40 days, to make sure none of the sailors were infected. From this policy came the Italian term “quaranta giorni” which means “space of forty days.”

    85 votes
  • 6
    75 VOTES


    Definition: a large gregarious marine mammal of arctic waters related to the seals that has limbs modified into webbed flippers, long ivory tusks, a tough wrinkled hide, stiff whiskers, and a thick layer of blubber

    Language of Origin: Old Norse

    Origin Story: A lot of languages had the same idea for naming the animal we know today as “walrus.” In Dutch, it was “walvis.” In Old English, it was “horschwæl.” And in Old Norse, it was “rosmhvalr.”

    But ultimately, these terms all translate to essentially the same meaning: “whale horse.” Which, to be fair, is a pretty accurate description for a walrus. 

    75 votes