Zach Selwyn: 5 Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases

By Zach Selwyn September 24, 2013 View all posts (1)
Slang does not really get misused—but the origins of slang words and phrases in the American language come from some interesting places. So when you think a slang term stems from a definition you may have heard over the years, you use it thinking it means what you were told—(eventually it takes on this type of meaning ) but here are 5 great examples that we featured on my TV show, “America’s Secret Slang,” on H2.

5 Blockbuster

Image Credit: Trebomb

This has nothing to do with the video store or a movie that is so popular the line goes around the block. It comes from World War II, when new bombs were unveiled that could destroy entire city blocks. The term evolved to mean anything that is so popular it breaks records and people everywhere respond to it.

4 Full of Baloney

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Does not mean you are foolish and “full of weird made up materials or ideas” as related to the meat bologna, although it has evolved to mean that today. The word for mouth in Gaelic is beal and the word for foolish is ogna—combine the two and you get bealogna which meant “foolish mouth.”

3 Cry Uncle

Image Credit: Jason Lam

It is not because your uncle was beating you up because they were abusive back in the day. It comes from the Irish word for “mercy” which is “anacal.” So when you used the old Gaelic word anacal you were crying mercy… or giving up. Americans heard “uncle.”

2 Ten Gallon Hat

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Not about the size of a guy’s huge hat or a hat being able to hold 10 gallons of water… Comes from the Spanish word “Galan” which means handsome—describing the tall handsome vaqueros who wore these hats… But some say it also comes from the Spanish word “Galon” which means “braid.” Some vaqueros wore as many as ten braided hatbands on their sombreros, and those were called “ten galón hats.” English speakers heard “gallon.”

1 Redneck

Image Credit: Aaron E. Silvers

This does not refer to a farmer in the field with a red neck. It originally comes from Scotland in the 1640s. The Covenanters rejected rule by bishops and wore red cloth around their neck to signify their position, and were called rednecks by the Scottish ruling class to denote that they were the rebels in what came to be known as The Bishop’s War. When the Scots-Irish people settled in the southern United States the term came with them and has evolved over the years.

Keep up with Zach and his adventures in the evolution of language at his website.

Slang isn’t the only thing we’ve been getting wrong. Check out these 5 Common Misquotes!

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