I love a good back story, and I love words. Lucky, then, that the terms we sling about every day bubbled up from some very strange (and sometimes dark) places. Below are some of my favourites.


Surely jiffy sounds too weird to be an actual word? Well it’s not just a word, but one with scientific roots. “Back in a jiffy!” is used to indicate a moment or two, but it’s actually a specific unit of time coined by 19th century scientist Gilbert Newton Lewis. He defined a jiffy as 33.3564 picoseconds (which is very fast indeed, considering that a picosecond is a trillionth of a second). 

Pirate fans might know this one, but if you wake up feeling groggy, it’s probably because you partied too hearty last night. Grog was the slang term for an alcoholic mixture of rum, water and lemon, a favourite tipple of British Navy seamen. Sounds like something that’d get you tipsy in a jiffy.


A good one, this: a figure of Greek myth, Tantalus was a son of Zeus, punished in the afterlife for some offence or other in the worst way possible.

Shackled chin-high in a river, he was placed under branches laden with fruit. When he tried to slake his hunger or thirst, the river and branches would shy away, remaining just out of reach from the doomed victim. 

It’s a derogatory term for crazy people, but why? The "luna" part (Latin for "moon") is a clue — it was thought that the silvery light of a full moon drove mere mortals insane. Hence why Shakespeare writes in Othello:

“It is the very error of the moon. She comes near the earth than she was wont. And makes men mad.”

Today we think of this as a mild expression of surprise. But it’s actually a corruption of "God’s hooks!" And in the late 17th century, it was a curse that would make your granny go pale with shock. Why? The phrase referred to the nails that crucified Jesus Christ.

Likewise, Brits still use the phrase "Blimey!" to express amazement, yet the word has just as dark a past. It’s short for "God blind me!", and carried similar blasphemous weight.


You’ll know thralls as indentured servants in the world of Game of Thrones. Fitting, as the word dates back to 12th century Viking times, when thralls were slaves or servants.

Maybe steer clear of using this un-PC term the next time you feel cheated or swindled — the word derives from ‘gypsy’.  

The only country named after a chemical element, Argentina takes its moniker from argentum, latin for silver — a nod to its rich metal deposits. Very bling.

Photo credit: L.Szanto


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Blimey! 8 Words with Weird History

BY Daniel Seifert

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