Do you Know the Fascinating Origins of These Ten Slang Words?

Published on February 21, 2024

Credit: Andreas Fickl

Think how boring our vocabularies would be if we didn’t have a more laid-back, informal register on which we could fall back. Most of us don’t even realize how much slang we use in basically every conversation we have. What most of us don’t do is take a moment to look into the origins of those informal terms that we use daily. Well, we decided to research the astonishing beginnings of these ten slang words and phrases. Ever wondered why we decided that besides meaning cow meat, the word "beef" could be used as a synonym for a dispute? Keep on reading and find out!


Cup of Joe

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Let’s start this article the same way that millions of people start their day. Whether it is with a piping hot mug fresh out of your coffee maker, or a quick cup from your favorite barista on your way to work, a nice cup of joe is that magical fuel that helps so many of us go through our day. That being said, doesn’t that nickname seem a little strange to you? Have you ever wondered what’s the connection between a cup of coffee and the shortening of the name Joseph?

There are several different theories concerning this nickname. The most popular one states that it comes from WW1 Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels, who enacted a ban on alcohol consumption on all U.S. Navy ships. According to this theory, enraged sailors started using the "Cup of Joe" expression at that time, since coffee was the strongest drink they could have. Another theory believes that Joe is a shortening of "Jamoke", a 19th-century word for coffee.


Above board

Credit: Michał Parzuchowski

Doing something in an "above board" manner means doing so in a completely honest and open way. Some believe that the phrase might come from the world of sailing since the best hiding place for contraband would be below the ship’s board: being above board could then be understood as the exact opposite. However, the first recorded appearances of "above board" date back to the 17th century, and they seem to suggest it actually references a game table (also known as a board). Keeping your cards above the board would show your companions that you are playing fairly and by the rules.



Credit: Martyn Yakub

We’ll try to go through this entry with the least amount of cheesy puns possible. A little smirk or a quick chuckle after hearing a bad joke from a special someone might prove how cheesygoing you are. Heck, corny jokes aren’t just reserved for your dad: Maybe a cheesy, little pun might turn a date from just gouda into simply brie-lliant.

The origins of this expression are still not completely clear. The earliest usage of cheesy comes from the end of the 19th century, as slang used by U.S. students to describe an ignorant person. Perhaps the meaning we now use might come from the United Kingdom, where cheesy used to mean something showy.



Credit: Jon Tyson

The term "flicks" has always been associated with going to the cinema. We have all referred to an adrenaline-fueled movie as an "action flick" or a bloodcurdling, exciting movie as a "scary flick." In fact, the term is so heavily associated with going to the movies that the minds behind Netflix chose it as inspiration for their company’s name.

Before the term flicks, early films from the 1900s were known as "flickers". Some believe that this name comes from the first Nickelodeon theaters, since their projectors would "flicker" through images while making a distinctive sound. Another origin comes from primitive projectors, which definitively weren’t as good as the modern pieces of equipment we are now used to. These rudimentary machines would sometimes shimmer, which made the images on the screen slightly flicker.


Down to brass tacks

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To get down to brass tacks is an extremely useful phrase if you feel someone is talking in a roundabout way and avoiding the point, since it means ignoring all secondary matters and focusing on the most important parts of an issue. Having said that, we are left to wonder how small pins specifically made of brass reflect the meaning of this term.

While most agree that it originated in the 19th century, linguists debate whether it comes from the world of upholstery (where brass tacks are regularly used), or if maybe it is derived from tacks used by shoemakers, among other possible origins. Another explanation states that it might come from Cockney rhyming, since the words "facts" and "tacks" sound very similar. But, if we get down to brass tacks (see what I did there?), the truth is that the origins of this phrase are still a mystery.


Pushing the envelope

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The origins of this phrase might come as a bit of a surprise. While it means to innovate or to push boundaries, whenever you hear that someone is "pushing the envelope" you might think of shady characters pushing envelopes filled with important documents across the table of a dimly lit room. What’s more interesting is that investigating the origins of this phrase reveals that it doesn’t even refer to a paper envelope at all.

American author Tom Wolfe brought this phrase into the spotlight with "The Right Stuff", his 1979 book about the space program. Wolfe kept hearing this phrase among scientists and engineers who were describing something that was performing exceedingly well. The envelope they were referring to, however, was not a container of letters, but rather a mathematical envelope. When calculating curves on graphing paper, the shape made by the drawn lines is fairly similar to an envelope: therefore, something that pushes the envelope would be something that is challenging the margins of what is expected.


Heard it through the grapevine

Credit: Dan Meyers

Besides being the title of an excellent Marvin Gaye song, the phrase "I heard it through the grapevine" is basically the more mature, sophisticated version of "A Little Birdie Told Me", used by every parent dealing with lying children. While the image of a grapevine invokes whispers secretly heard between branches and leaves, it actually comes from the first messages sent through telegraphs. Since the miles of telegraph lines set in the 1800s resembled grapevine lines, people started to say "heard it through the grapevine" to mean something that arrived through the telegraph.



Credit: Ryan Song

Sadly, having beef with someone doesn’t always mean sitting down with a friend to enjoy a lovely barbeque. This common slang term is used to describe a dispute or disagreement between two or more people. You might even remember a series of hilarious ads run in the 80s by Wendy’s, in which they disparaged their competition’s products with the phrase "Where’s the Beef?"

The first usage of beef as a derogatory term comes from the 19th century, when it was used as a synonym for complaint or grievance. It is believed that its origins can be traced back to a British expression for alarm, where beef is used as a rhyming slang for the word "thief."

Credit: Unsplash


Humble pie


Alongside "beef", having a big slice of humble pie is not as delicious as it sounds. This expression is used whenever someone has to embarrassingly admit their mistakes and apologize for them. And while you might think that the "humble" in this pie comes from the modesty of admitting our mistakes, the actual origins of this idiom are slightly more disgusting. Humble comes from the 14th-century word "numbles", which is a term used to describe the heart, liver, and other entrails of animals, particularly deer. A humble pie was, as you might have guessed, a pie filled with these entrails, usually eaten by servants or hunters.



Credit: Nick Fewings

We end this list in a sort of meta way. We all know that "slang" is used for vocabulary used in an informal register, but have you ever stopped to think about why we call these words and phrases "slang"? While it does seem fitting that such an odd-sounding word is used to describe these pieces of unconventional vocabulary, tracing back the etymology of this word might be tricky.

Slang was used in the Scots dialect of the 19th century to describe gossip or idle chat, while it meant impertinence in the Northern English regions. The exact origin of the word can’t be traced, but some believe that it might be derived from the Scandinavian word sling, which means to throw. Some linguists believe that slang might be derived from this, since the quick and unconcerned way in which we use slang might resemble "throwing" words.


The 10 Funniest Mistakes, Typos, And Misprints In History

Published on February 21, 2024

Credit: Natalia Y.

Everyone makes mistakes, that’s a given. But sometimes, even the smallest slip-ups can lead to catastrophic outcomes, no matter how unintentional. These grammatical gaffes stand as a testament to the power of language, reminding us to always proofread before making history.

From political slip-ups to literary lapses, here are ten instances where, er… let’s call them unexpected linguistic detours, induced everything from laughter to financial ruin.


Dan Quayle’s spelling nightmare

Credit: Lars Blankers

In 1992, during a visit to a New Jersey elementary school, then Vice President Dan Quayle put himself in an embarrassing situation when he tried to correct what he thought was a spelling mistake. After a 12-year-old student correctly spelled the word "potato", he promptly added an e to the end of the word, creating an awkward moment as he insisted that "potatoe" was the correct spelling.


Holy blunders

Credit: Priscilla Du Preez

A 1631 edition of the Bible became infamous as it contains a number of mistakes that substantially distort the intended message of the sacred text. Known as the "Wicked Bible", among its most egregious blunders is the omission of the word "not" from one of the Ten Commandments, transforming the original sentence into the scandalous directive, "Thou shalt commit adultery." However, some argue that this was not a product of lazy proofreading, but rather sabotage from a competitor.


Dogberryisms aplenty

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Constable Dogberry, a character in one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies Much Ado About Nothing, became the namesake for malapropisms, as he consistently ends up uttering absurd phrases while attempting to sound intelligent. Some of the most popular "dogberryisms" include confusing suspect with respect , ex-communication with communication , comprehend with apprehend , and even redemption with damnation !


NASA’s most expensive typo

Credit: SpaceX

How expensive can a typo be? Well, as NASA found out, almost 80 million dollars. In 1962, a missing mathematical symbol in Mariner I’s code led to the spacecraft blowing up in a million pieces over the Atlantic. How could this happen? Apparently, an engineer missed an overbar (a mathematical figure that indicates the mean of a set) while transcribing the calculations by hand. This caused the spacecraft to overcorrect its trajectory, eventually throwing it off course.

The takeaway from this story is simple: always proofread. After all, even the most brilliant people are not immune to making mistakes.


How to profit from a comma

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Talking about expensive typos, a misplaced comma in the 13th Tariff Act cost the United States over 40 million dollars in 1872. The Act included a list of items exempt from taxation upon entry to the country, and included in the list was an item that read "fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation."

According to the government, the comma was meant to be a hyphen, meaning fruit-bearing plants , but the correct grammatical interpretation suggested that all fruit were included in the exemption. It took almost two years to fix the mistake, but it was already too late.


Yogi Bear’s last laugh

Credit: Janko Ferlič

Don’t worry kids, Yogi Bear is totally fine. But for a moment in 2015, Associated Press declared the cherished bear dead, when someone published Yankees’ legend Yogi Berra’s obituary under a hysterical title: "Yogi Bear has died. He was 90." While this was likely the mix-up of an underslept intern, Berra was known for his amusing unintentional witticisms and malapropisms, remembered for gems like "It ain't over 'til it's over," "It's déjà vu all over again," and "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."



Credit: AbsolutVision

In a peculiar incident in December 2017, a Cambridge newspaper unintentionally became viral when a placeholder reading "100PT SPLASH HEADING HERE" found its way into the headlines. Meant for internal use during layout, the cryptic text unexpectedly amused readers and sparked online speculation, with some even joking about the headline being a warning of an incoming tsunami wave. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief later apologized profusely for the amusing mishap, which was allegedly caused by a technical issue.


A successful literacy program

Credit: Michał Parzuchowski

Around 2010, an article from an unknown local newspaper went viral for misspelling "Mississippi" as "Missippi." You might argue that they simplified it, but the funniest part is that the article was about the purported success of a literacy program in the state. Maybe the program needed to focus on newspapers too.


Guardians of grammar

Credit: Peter Lawrence

The Guardian, one of the UK's most renowned newspapers, earned an unintentional reputation for its numerous typos. In a memorable blunder, it once printed its own name as "Gaurdian," prompting satirical magazine Private Eye to nickname them "Grauniad." Overall, the newspaper took it in good stride, and the nickname is still playfully used, even among its journalists, to refer to the media outlet with a touch of humor.


Come in

Credit: Daria Kraplak

Unbeknownst to most, James Joyce’s famous novel Finnegans Wake hides an easter egg of sorts. When it comes to an author famous for his experimental and gibberish-like writing, what can possibly be considered a mistake or a typo? Well, it seems the author used to dictate parts of his work to his friend Samuel Beckett, and during one of these sessions, someone knocked at the door, with Joyce immediately saying "Come in." Without thinking twice, Beckett wrote that along with the rest of Joyce’s dictation. It is likely that Joyce noticed the gaffe, but decided to leave it there just to mess with the readers.

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