We Don't Think These Words Mean What You Think They Mean
The words we assign to the things we encounter as we drunkenly stumble across this big blue ball of ours are often self-explanatory. The White House is a house that is white. A housefly flies around your house. Chad in accounting works in accounting and is also an unbearable douche. However, that's not always the case, because the bit of the human brain responsible for naming things tends to revert to its nine-year-old stage at the slightest provocation, resulting in an astonishing number of places, animals, and things named after boobs, poop, and penises.
"Butterfly" Is A Shortening Of A Dutch Word For "Butter-Shitter"
Yes, "butter-shitter." How this came about will take some explaining. Mankind has held a fascination for butterflies since long before the members of Crazy Town decided to get together and sell albums to middle-schoolers. The ancient Greek name for the insect was psyche, the same as their word for "soul." Modern Greek, on the other hand, has dubbed them petalouda, in reference to a petal or leaf. And other languages have followed suit, with fluttery words like the French papillon and the Italian farfalla -- better known to the average American as bow-tie pasta, because the only way for an American to truly retain information is if it's somehow related to massive carbohydrate intake.
Facts are easier to digest when cooked and covered in cream sauce.
And then there's "butterfly," which doesn't seem to fit in with the other names at all. How did such a delicate creature -- one which in no way resembles a flapping stick of butter -- get such a name? (See "we name things after food," above.) Well, one clue lies in the fact that Germany calls them schmetterlings (a word derived from "cream"), stemming from the old-timey folk belief that butterflies were secretly witches in disguise, out on the prowl to steal people's fucking milk, because Germany is insane. More directly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name finds its roots in the Old Dutch word boterschijte. Guess what it means.
The Silly Origin:
We know it looks like a mouthful, but try to sound it out. Boterschijte. Chew on it for a moment. Did the jumbled mess that poured out of your mouth sound an awful lot like "butter-shitter"? If so, congratulations! You are now an expert in Old Dutch.
As you may or may not be aware (and if you are, we really must question your choice in hobbies), butterfly poop bears a striking resemblance to butter.
I Can't Believe It's Not Insect Poop! was somehow rejected during product name meeting.
Europeans living during the early Middle Ages took some time away from catching the plague to notice this, and thus the name boterschijte was born, later to be replaced by botervlieg (butterfly). Regrettably, the trend of naming creatures after what their poop looks like did not catch on. Otherwise, the world would be a much more entertaining place.
The Grand Tetons -- "Big Tit Mountain"
Imagine you're an explorer. You're taming the vast wilderness of Wyoming, armed with little more than your wits and a native guide to prevent you from eating the wrong berries and scream-shitting your liver out. One day, you're welcomed by this magnificent sight:
You are at once humbled by the newfound mountainous landscape's majesty and thoughts of, "Oh man, now I have to get around that thing?" But you must quickly pull yourself together, because as an explorer, it's your duty to name the things you find (the fact that all of these things already have names is of no concern to you, a white man). So what do you name them?
If you're John Colter, the first white dude to see the Teton Range, you hand that duty off to French-Canadian trappers, who named them the "Grand Tetons." And the name stuck; today, Grand Teton is the crown jewel of the Teton Range, which is in turn the crown jewel of Grand Teton National Park. And the name literally means "big titties."
"Look, we didn't have internet porn then, OK?" -- John Colter
The Silly Origin:
Well, to put it politely, teton means "breast." To put it less politely, Grand Teton is "Big Tit." We can only assume that this has resulted in scores of utterly disappointing Google Image searches by native French speakers throughout the years.
Lewis and Clark damn near turned back once they realized Colter was being figurative about what awaited them.
And the thing is, this is far from an isolated incident. You see, wilderness exploring was typically done by men, and these men would be away from civilization (read: women) for months or years at a time. And there was no internet porn, or even dirty magazines, for them to look at, so after a while, every vaguely roundish mound began to look like boobs. For example, there are at least seven geological formations named Mollie's Nipple in the United States, most of them in Utah (which, for some reason, is entirely unsurprising).
Aliens exist, but they only got this far before retreating to their ship's sleep area with a pile of tissues.
It's unclear whether the Mollie in question was the wife of early pioneer John Kitchen or an archaic slang term for a prostitute, but one thing's for certain: Exploring was a lonely, lonely business.
"Mistletoe" Comes From A Word Meaning "Shit-Stick," For A Horrifying Reason
It's long been a Christmas tradition to wrangle your true love and/or a random co-worker beneath a branch of mistletoe for a kiss, because apparently that plant is a permission slip for minor sexual assault. We've spoken before about how the plant ended up with its romantic significance -- namely, the sticky secretions from its fruit resemble human ejaculate, and what better place to smooch your sweetheart than beneath a sprig of bukakke berry? But where did the word "mistletoe" come from in the first place? It sounds vaguely dirty, like what would result from Wernher von Braun wearing his underwear one size too small.
"All the better to show off my rocket."
And as a matter of fact, it is dirty ... but not in the way you're thinking. Though its origins are somewhat clouded by the mists of time, one popular theory is that the term originated from two Anglo-Saxon words: mistel for "dung" and tan for "twig." So basically, it's poop on a stick. And that's the non-gross part.
The Silly Origin:
You see, our ancient ancestors weren't confused, or high, or randomly naming things "shit-stick" for no reason but to delight subsequent generations. The name directly refers to mistletoe's parasitic nature. In order to thrive, mistletoe must burrow into an existing tree's branches like some leafy vampire, and it accomplishes this via good old-fashioned smuggling. Those sticky berries we mentioned? They're sticky for a reason.
Birds -- aka nature's unknowing drug mules -- eat the mistletoe's berries, then eventually fly to another tree and drop a massive, sticky deuce all over its branches. Then, before you know it, baby mistletoe plants start sprouting up like a freaking pestilence, and the great Circle of Life begins anew.
You'll probably want to kiss with your mouth closed.
An untold number of years ago, some unnamed naturalist must have watched this procedure and, when it came time to name the resulting plant, chose to select a moniker describing its spectacularly disgusting method of procreation. Thus, poop on a stick. Merry Christmas!
Partridges Were So Named Because They Sound Like Farts
Depending upon your age and/or your familiarity with Nick at Nite, the term "partridge" brings to mind either Keith Partridge, the angel-voiced leader of TV's favorite child-labor enthusiasts the Partridge family, or a shitty gift at the end of that one Christmas song. Traditionally, however, a partridge is a medium-sized game bird hunted for sport throughout Europe and North America. It's named after farts.
It's your true love's way of telling you to invest in a bottle of Beano.
The Silly Origin:
"Partridge" finds its roots in perdesthai, the ancient Greek word for "to break wind," or "to shatter the calm of an afternoon with turd steam belched from your anus." It seems that some anonymous discoverer, name forever lost to history, heard the ruffle of this little bird's wings and thought it sounded exactly like a fart, and decided to name the bird after this distinctive sound. People clearly had much gentler farts back then, because the only animal in nature 21st-Century Americans would ever mistake for a fart is a masturbating elephant seal. Maybe it's all the partridges we've been eating for the past few centuries.
So it would seem we can thank the Greeks for more than math and civilization. They also gave us fart birds, as well as a whole appreciation for shows about musical families.
The inside of that bus is dinner at the Klumps.
"Assassin" Comes From An Arabic Word For Doped-Up Murderers
The word "assassin" can describe anyone from a ninja to a crazed loner to Javier Bardem with a pageboy haircut -- it's a person whose primary trade is the killing of other human beings. But that's an odd word, when you think about it. "Assassin." That's just two asses and an in. What does that have to do with killing people?
At first glance, not much -- the word comes from the Arabic term hashishiyyin, or "hashish user." Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to get us any closer to the term's origin, because the absolute last quality you look for in an effective assassin is the tendency to stray from their target in search of Cheetos and, like, a gallon of Orange Crush. At what point in history did the ability to infiltrate security and neutralize political targets mean the same thing as a person who smokes hash all day long?
"Sorry I missed killing the emperor, but the neighbors were playing the gnarliest mizwad solo, and it just spoke to me."
The Silly Origin:
Well, hashishiyyin referred specifically to a Crusades-era caste of Persian warriors who would get all hopped up on hashish before running out to eliminate their enemies' leaders, in a scene straight out of a bullshit after-school special where the football team all gets high after practice and then flips out and murders the rival team's coach.
The makers of Reefer Madness were right all along -- they simply picked on the wrong time period.
Fast-forward to the early 16th Century. The Crusades were over, European colonialism was on the rise, and those Europeans were only too happy to share stories about how awesome the Crusades were. Much like that one friend of yours who can't seem to say Aziz Ansari's name without sounding as if they're having a stroke, white people gradually fucked up the pronunciation of hashishiyyin while recalling the terrifying Persian warriors, and gave the world "assassin."
"Porcelain" Means "Pig Vagina"
When Marco Polo lugged a small porcelain vase all the way from China to Europe in the late 13th Century, it marked the beginning of the West's long love affair with the ceramic material. Valued for its strength and fine texture, and coveted for its translucent beauty, we've since used it for everything from pots to piss in to strengthening our kitchen floors to sculpting the faces of terrifying dolls sold exclusively to your grandmother.
The leading cause of insomnia in grandchildren.
The Silly Origin:
While the process of making porcelain comes from China, the word "porcelain" originated in Italy, where the term porcellana was used to refer to cowrie shells, which sort of look like porcelain. Apart from being the fashion accessory of choice of every barista headed out to Coachella, cowrie shells were historically used as currency throughout Asia and Africa. Also, if you sort of turn your head sideways, they begin to look like ... something else. Can you guess what it is?
Is it ... unemployment?
If you guessed "vaginas," you're close. But we're looking for a more specific answer in this instance, and that specific answer is "pig vaginas."
Here, let Mr. Pig point it out for you.
That's right. Someone in Renaissance-era Italy -- known for its Davids and its Sistine Chapels and its tireless thirst for knowledge -- picked up a cowrie shell one day and said, "Gaw dern, this looks like a pig's vagina." If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that even the most refined thinkers revert to a goddamned child the very instant they are presented with anything even remotely resembling genitalia.
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