11 Words with Unexpected Origins

Think that all English words have perfectly rational origins? Think again!

In this blog, we’ll explore 11 English words with unexpected origins. In fact, some are so unexpected they could be considered downright bizarre. 

Whatever your opinion, the origin of these 11 words are so strange that each one makes for an excellent conversation topic – whether you’re eating a sandwich or washing your hair…


Sarcasm can feel viscous and hurtful – and when you know the origin of the word, you’ll understand why. 

The word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek word “sarkazein” which originally meant to “tear flesh like dogs”. With these biting, teeth-related origins, it slowly started to mean “gnash the teeth” and, as communication became more sophisticated “to speak bitterly”. 


Mortgage is a French word which comes from “mort” – meaning “dead”, and “gage” – mean “pledge”. 

If a “death pledge” sounds more like something from a Stephen King horror novel, don’t worry – it has a more literal meaning. A loan taken to buy a property was considered a pledge – one that was brought to an end when the debt ‘died’ – or, in today’s terms, was paid off.  


When we fire up a barbeque today, we place our food on a wire grill. However, back in the 15th Century in the Caribbean, a frame of sticks was used in place of metal. Back then, the word for “frame of sticks” was “barbacoa”. 


Ketchup on a hotdog sounds might appealing today – but one possible origin of the word is likely to sound a lot less appetizing. 

Thought to come from the Chinese “kôe-chiap” – the word originally meant a blend of spices and pickled fish. Interestingly, when the word was first translated to English, it was spelled “Catchup”. 


We use the word “nightmare” today to describe any bad dream. With this in mind, the “night” portion of the word is pretty easy to figure out – but “mare” is less obvious.

While “mare” means a female horse today – it has also previously been used as a word for a female demon or goblin. 

Said female goblin was thought to visit you in the night, sit on your chest, then suffocate you while you sleep by wrapping her hair around your throat – inspiring thoughts of terror. 

If that’s not enough to inspire a nightmare, then nothing is.


If you use Grammarly, you’ll often find that the word “nice” is flagged as being overused – and it’s a message that’s been the same from English teachers through the years. 

English teachers and Grammarly might have a point though. You might like the word “nice” – but its origin is actually at odds with what it means today.

It’s thought that the English “nice” comes from the Old French word “nice”- from the Latin “necius”. If you described someone with this word, you’d be suggesting that they’re overdressed, to the point of looking ludicrous. The connection with being over-dressed eventually meant that the word transformed to mean that someone who well presented – hence its use today.


To understand the origin of “clue” we need to look at an ancient Greek word that describes a ball of string – “clew”. So, how did a ball of string come to represent a piece of information that a detective might follow to crack a case? 

Well, the story of Theseus sees the titular hero enter the Labyrinth (a vast maze) to kill the Minotaur, a mythical bull-headed beast. He unravelled a “clew” as he went into the maze and let it trail behind him – so he’d have a way of finding his way back out afterwards. Hence today, we might follow a clue to get to the bottom of a mystery or find our way through tricky information.


Sandwich is a strange word, right? Who could have possibly thought that the word sandwich could ever mean two slices of bread with a filling between them?

Apparently, the word comes from a particular English Earl and his taste for both gambling and food. Rather than leave the gambling table to eat at a table, he’d ask for his favorite foods to be delivered to him between two slices of bread. His title? The 4th Earl of Sandwich. 

People close to the Earl claimed that his love of convenience food came from the fact that he never wanted to leave his desk, allowing him to deal with the important matters of the day – but, whatever his reason, the sandwich lives on to this day – handy for gamblers and politicians alike. 


The word “hooligan” is often used in relation to rowdy sports fans. In fact, it’s common in British English as a word that’s used to describe violent soccer fans – but the origin of the word may relate directly to one family with an especially bad reputation.

An old song from the 1890s talks about an Irish family called the “Houlihans” who were considered to be especially talented at causing trouble and being rowdy. The pronunciation has changed a little, but the family’s legacy lives on in violent soccer fans around the world. 


Ever wondered how an Indian flatbread and your hair-care regimen are related?! The answer is probably a solid “no!” – but that’s about to change!

A “chapati” is a type of bread traditionally eaten with curries. The word relates to how the bread is kneaded or massaged – a motion that’s similar to the massaging motion used to wash your hair. This “massaging” meaning meant the word “chapati” eventually evolved into “shampoo” – the technique used to wash hair – then later into the name for the product we now use to clean our hair.


Next time you smash your avocados for a breakfast full of healthy fats, you might wince a little. This is because “avocado” comes from the Aztec word “ahuacatl” which literally translates to “testicles”. 

This unusual origin – dating back over 2500 years – is partly due to the fact that avocados hung from the plant they grow on in pairs. It’s also likely that the word was used because the ancient Aztecs considered the fruit to be an aphrodisiac – closely related to virility and sexual prowess!