50 Facts You Never Knew About the English Language
Posted October 4, 2010
English is a sprawling, messy, and confusing language, chock full of weird rules and quirky usage and words whose origins are lost to history. But everyone knows that already. What you might not know is that the history of the language relied largely on war and invasion; that written English disappeared completely for more than 100 years; and that half the words you use on a regular basis came from people, places, or foreign terms. The range of facts below might be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on a graduate degree in English, or anyone who’s ever gotten lost in depths of Google at work. Even if you feel you know it all, there’s bound to be something on this list that will surprise you.
Spoiler alert: English came from everywhere and includes pretty much everything.
- English came from Germanic roots: When tribes from what is now Germany came to the land that would be England, they brought with them the language that would eventually grow into the dialect we use today.
- There are three basic eras to English formation: Old English, which ran from the 5th through 11th centuries; Middle English, which lasted until the 15th century; and Modern English, which takes us to the present.
- Beowulf, whose author is unknown, is the most well-known remnant of Old English: The epic poem survives in a single manuscript dating to sometime between the 8th and 11th century.
- Half the words we use today have roots in Old English: Although Old and Modern English look incredibly different, words as diverse as “water” and “be” are merely forms of words that came into English use centuries ago.
- English disappeared from written language for a while: The Norman conquest of England in 1066 established Norman French as the upper-class language and relegated English to peasants. Churches keep records in French, and novelists write in that language. Basically, English stops being a written language for more than 100 years.
- English literature didn’t reappear until after 1200: Changing political climates led to the Provisions of Oxford, a constitution-like document written in English in 1258. By 1300, English as a language had taken hold again.
- We owe our language to the Great Vowel Shift: Danish linguist Otto Jespersen coined the term Great Vowel Shift to refer to the period between 1450 and 1750 during which pronunciation rules for English changed drastically. This is when things started to sound the way they do now.
- The Great Vowel Shift is just what it sounds like: The shift wasn’t just a change in thinking, but an actual relocation of vowel creation in people’s mouths and throats. We didn’t just pronounce things differently; we physically made different noises. The GVS was revolutionary.
- “Checkmate” is more literal than you think: The chess term is an alteration of “shah mat,” a Persian phrase that meant “the king is ambushed.”
English is constantly changing and being used in new ways.
- “Set” has more definitions than any other English word: Twenty-five as a transitive verb, 11 as intransitive, 24 as a noun, and seven as an adjective. That doesn’t even count phrases.
- “Irritate” and “aggravate” are different words: “Irritate” means “to annoy”; “aggravate” means “to make worse.” A lot of word pairs are easily mixed up, but most people don’t even know this is an error. But take it from a militant grammarian: it is. Oh, it is.
- There are more than 125 English dialects worldwide: Each dialect uses English in its own way, from pronunciation to construction.
Our speech is filled with special phrases and expressions, but most people don’t know where they originated. Here’s the truth behind some of them. Impress (or irritate) your friends!
- No one knows who came up with “the whole nine yards.”: The most widely cited story to explain the origin of this phrase, which means “completely” or “using everything,” is that soldiers in World War II started using it in reference to firing the entire length of an ammunition belt on an anti-aircraft gun. Yet there are no written instances of the phrase before 1962, and many other stories and theories have been advanced. Everyone knows what it means; no one knows how it got here.
- God, actually, is in the details: The idiom “the devil is in the details” is meant to imply that there’s always a catch to a situation, usually hard to find. But the phrase is actually an inversion of the earlier “God is in the details,” which means that the most important part of any job or project is the details, and that work is worth doing well and thoroughly. No one knows who came up with the original, either; it’s been sourced to Gustave Flaubert and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, though incorrectly.
- “Five by five” isn’t measuring anything: At least, nothing physical. The phrase refers to the two separate five-point scales, one for signal strength and one for clarity, used to refer to radio communications. “Five by five” means you’re getting the best of both, and it’s used to mean you understand someone’s point.
- It’s “hear, hear.” Trust me.: The phrase is short for “hear him, hear him,” meaning you want people to be quiet and pay attention to someone saying something important. It’s not — repeat, not — “here, here.” Everyone knows where you are.
- “Kangaroo courts” have nothing to do with Australia: Despite the linkage with Australia’s most famous animal, the phrase “Kangaroo court” is 100% American. The term sprang up (ha) shortly after the California Gold Rush, referring to sham trials where justice proceeds with giant, kangaroo-like leaps that skip over facts and due process.
- The Devil’s advocate was, well, just that: Although “playing devil’s advocate” now means to take a position just for the sake of argument, the spiritually tinged phrase has its origins in the Roman Catholic Church. When considering someone for sainthood, the Promoter of the Faith, aka the Devil’s Advocate, would take the opposing view and try to poke holes in the case supporting that particular canonization.
Letters and Trivia
The more you research the language, the more you realize just how much of it has been borrowed from other tongues.
- Dozens of nations have English as their official (or co-official) language: These include the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia.
- English is the most widespread language in the world: A higher number of people speak Mandarin, but English covers a great area.
- The letter combination “ough” can be pronounced eight different ways: Here’s a sentence that captures them all: “A rough-coated, dough-faced ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough, coughing and hiccoughing thoughtfully.”
- English has borrowed words from almost 150 languages: Everything from “ivory” to “banjo” and hundreds of other words started out in other languages.
- William Shakespeare made up many of his words: The pre-eminent English writer invented nearly 2,000 words and catch phrases.
- More English speakers reside in the U.S. than anywhere else: More than 250 million Americans speak English (and it’s the first language for 215 million of them), placing it easily at the top of the list. Second place? India, with 125 million.
- The actual number of words in the English language is up for debate: Some dictionaries claim there are 600,000, while others say less than 500,000. Either way, it’s a lot.
- Only one eight-letter word contains just one vowel: It’s “strength.”
- Lots of bears in the Arctic: The Arctic gets its name from the Greek word “arktikos,” which means “northern” or “near the Bear,” and is turn derived from the Greek word “arktos,” which means “bear.” The name refers to the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and Little Bear. The Little Bear contains the North Star.
- There’s a reason typists practice using “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”: It contains every letter in the alphabet, making it ideal for mastering keyboard layout.
- Charles Dickens holds the title for best-selling English-language single-volume author: His A Tale of Two Cities, first published in 1859, has moved more than 200 million copies.
- J.K. Rowling’s no slouch, either: When it comes to multi-volume book series, Rowling’s Harry Potter septet wears the crown for English-language sales, with more than 400 million copies sold. (And that doesn’t even count the ancillary companion books.)
Ever wonder where words come from? Some of these inventions and origins will surprise you.
- “Boycott” was a man: The word “boycott” comes from Charles Boycott, an English army captain in the late 1800s who was financially ostracized when he tried to evict some tenants. The word now refers to the habit of refusing to do business with someone instead of resorting to more drastic measures.
- Twenty-five of the 50 United States derive their state names from languages of Native Americans and other indigenous people: Just for starters: Alabama comes from the Alabama tribe, Kentucky is an Iroquoian word for “on the field,” and Mississippi is from an Algonquin language and means “big river.”
- What’s more, we also get hundreds of everyday words from Native American languages: Caribou, chipmunk, pecan, opossum, raccoon, woodchuck, chocolate, and so many more.
- “Shrapnel” was also a man: Henry Shrapnel was a British officer who designed the first anti-personnel shell designed to spread little fragments of artillery.
- Skating’s most popular term is a tribute to its creator: Although the move — a jump with a forward takeoff — sounds like “axle,” it’s actually “axel,” named for its creator, Axel Paulsen of Norway.
- The inventor of the leotard was, well, Leotard: French acrobat Jules Leotard — who also inspired the tune “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” — was notable for wearing a one-piece, skin-tight uniform while performing. It now bears his name.
- Bloomer’s bloomers: An advocate of women’s rights (yay!) and temperance (boo), Amelia Bloomer was such a fan of these loose pants that her name became permanently linked to them.
- Sideburns, Burnside, etc.: Ambrose Burnside, a Union general in the Civil War, sported some truly epic facial hair. It was such a distinctive look that people began referring to the style as “burnsides,” which eventually slid around to become “sideburns.”
- Elbridge Gerry rigged everything but his own word: Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry did some extreme redistricting in 1812 to benefit the Democratic-Republican Party, so much so that one of the new districts was said to look like a salamander. Very likely someone said it should instead be called a “gerrymander” after the sneaky governor, and the term stuck. Today it refers to the practice of redrawing the boundaries of political districts for deliberate and unfair electoral purposes.
- “Zamboni” is not, in fact, an obscure Italian word: The word comes from Frank Zamboni, a California business man who invented the modern machine in 1949. Even though the word is a trademark, it’s entered into general use, and pretty much everyone refers to ice resurfacing machines used at skating and hockey rinks as zambonies.
- A Crapper invented the crapper, but not the word for, well, you know: British plumber Thomas Crapper didn’t come up with the idea for the flush toilet, but he did make remarkable design improvements that helped popularize water closets. As a result, his name became a noun synonymous with toilets. However, the word “crap” did not come from his name, but was of Middle English origin and first appeared in the OED when Thomas was just 10 years old. The fact that he got into plumbing was just a weird, albeit awesome, coincidence.
- Pullover? No, it’s a Cardigan.: James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, liked to bundle up when got chilly, and he favored sweaters with buttons down the middle over those you have to pull over your head to wear. As a result, such sweaters became known as cardigans.
- If you were a “guy,” you were a killer: Guy Fawkes was arrested in 1605 for attempting to blow up Parliament, an act which did not exactly endear him to law enforcement. The planned destruction date, November 5, came to be called Guy Fawkes Day, marked by celebrations in which effigies of Fawkes were burned. These shortly came to be known as “guys,” and the word morphed to mean any effigy, then any person in unusual dress, and finally, when the word crossed the pond, men in general.
- “Hooker” had many patrons: People started referring to prostitutes as “hookers” in the mid-1800s for multiple reasons. For starters, prostitutes were heavily concentrated in the Corlear’s Hook area of Manhattan, which gave rise to the term, but the word also got a boost from a popular legend that Union Gen. Joseph Hooker kept his men supplied with working girls. It’s not entirely true, but it didn’t hurt the word’s popularity.
- Honchos aren’t who you think they are: The word “honcho,” meaning boss or big shot, entered English in the mid-20th century as an altered form of the Japanese word “hancho,” which means “squad leader.”
The history and creation of the books that define our language.
- English dictionaries are older than you think: The first English dictionaries included words in other languages with their corresponding English meaning. Richard Mulcaster’s Elemantarie, a nonalphabetical list of 8,000 words (sounds, uh, helpful), showed up in 1592.
- The first purely English dictionary appeared in 1604: It was called A Table Alphabeticall [sic], and it was written by a schoolteacher named Robert Cawdrey. It was far from a complete guide to the language, and it would take a century and a half for the next step to be made.
- The first major dictionary showed up in 1755: Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was nine years in the making and remained the most popular and trusted dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary arrived 175 years later.
- Noah Webster got started in 1806: That was the year his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. In addition to having the guts to call itself “compendious,” it introduced Americanized spellings of words that would become linguistic law on this side of the pond, like “center” instead of “centre” and “program” instead of “programme.”
- The first major thesaurus arrived in 1852: Peter Mark Roget created his now-famous reference guide in 1805 but didn’t release it to the public until 50 years later. The first edition contained 15,000 words.