The Stories Behind Common Words And Phrases We Learned In 2021

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Vote up the words and phrases with the most fascinating backstories.

The English language is an ever-evolving thing influenced by events past and present. Many of the words and phrases we use every day have an interesting backstory and draw upon a wide array of influences. Some are byproducts of the Greco-Roman world, while others gained influence because of World War I.

This collection features the most interesting stories behind everyday words and phrases that we learned about in 2021. 


  • Sniper
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    784 VOTES

    Sniper

    Definition: A person who shoots from a hiding place, especially accurately and at long range.

    Origin Story: Sniper is an 18th-century term from British soldiers stationed in India. A snipe is a small and easily startled bird that was notoriously difficult for hunters to hit. A sniper was a person who achieved the difficult feat of bagging a snipe on a hunt. 

    The word's military connotation came in World War I to describe the deadly sharpshooters who picked off soldiers in the trenches at great distances. In response to the deadly efficiency of German marksmen, a British officer named Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard formed a sniper school in 1915 to counter the threat. He wrote a postwar account in 1920, Sniping in France, which effectively codified the term in military parlance. 

  • Three Sheets To The Wind
    Photo: Johannes Christiaan Schotel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    576 VOTES

    Three Sheets To The Wind

    Meaning: Extremely inebriated.

    Historical Context: "Three sheets to the wind" comes from sailing lingo but surprisingly doesn't originate with drunken sailors nor the sails themselves (which look, to many of us, like sheets). The sheets are actually ropes that hold the lower corners of the sails on a ship in place. If one is unfortunate enough to have three sheets loose and flailing in the wind, the sails and the boat will also flail about, much like someone who's had one too many at the bar.

    In the 1800s, sailors might refer to someone as anywhere from one to three sheets to the wind, depending on how drunk they were.

  • Chat, To Have A
    Photo: László Mednyánszky / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    369 VOTES

    Chat, To Have A

    Definition: To talk in a friendly and informal way.

    Origin Story: During World War I, chats were another word for lice, and the largely futile practice of picking lice off one's uniform was called chatting.

    Soldiers would pass the tedium of the trenches by "having a chat." Over time the meaning became synonymous with the conversations that accompanied the sessions rather than the delousing itself. 

  • Souvenir
    Photo: Ernest Brooks / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    265 VOTES

    Souvenir

    Definition: A thing kept as a reminder of a person, place, or event.

    Origin Story: Souvenir comes from the French word for "remember." Before World War I, a souvenir was considered a token of remembrance that was given as a gift, rather than acquired. Keepsake was the more typically used phrase until 1914. 

    During WWI, when British troops were stationed in France for years at a time, a few French words crept into their vernacular, and souvenir was one. Soldiers regularly took little pieces of the battlefield with them as mementos. They regularly collected so-called war souvenirs, ranging from helmets and flags to far more grisly trophies. By the end of the conflict, the subtle change in meaning was complete. 

  • Steal Someone's Thunder
    Photo: Laurent Pêcheux / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    377 VOTES

    Steal Someone's Thunder

    The phrase "stealing thunder" is attributed to the plight of playwright John Dennis. When Dennis's play, Appius and Virginia, opened in 1704, it featured the use of a thunder machine (the specifics of it are unclear).

    The play failed, but when a production of Macbeth had a comparable device soon after, Dennis reportedly said the play had stolen his thunderMacbeth apparently used it more effectively and successfully.

  • Mum's The Word
    Photo: AJ Mason / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    204 VOTES

    Mum's The Word

    Meaning: Telling someone to keep quiet about something; it is not to be shared.

    Historical Context: "Mum" was actually a word back in the 14th century, originating from the "mmm" humming sound one makes with a closed mouth. Thus, "mum" referred to someone unwilling or unable to speak. But the term wasn't just an old English word; it was also an old English Christmas tradition.

    In the Middle Ages, mumming was a holiday activity, sort of like caroling but with silence. Mummers would show up in disguises at people's homes, where they were invited in to dance or play games. The only catch was they couldn't say anything other than "mmm." If this sounds at all familiar, mumming was sometimes referred to as "miming."

    Because they were disguised, mummers took on a mischievous role, getting away with things they couldn't while unmasked. The church and the monarchy were not fans of mumming, and Henry V went so far as to threaten potential mummers with imprisonment in 1418. But mummers were gonna mum, and the practice continued through the 17th century, when it became more of a public performance than a private in-home show. 

    The phrase "mum's the word," as it's used today, didn't come into play until the 1700s, though a notable variant can be found in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2, written in 1592. The line is, "Seal up your lips and give no words but mum."