COPYWRITER ALERT: 10 Words with Some Very Odd Origins


So, you think you’re a “word nerd.” You brag about your disease “logophilia.” You believe “etymology” is something that deserves a CSI spinoff. You can torch anyone in Scrabble and AP-Styleguide update recalls.

We get it; however, there are a few words in the PR lexicon that have some unusual origins. Seems that some words you write almost everyday derived from a dank warehouse in the middle of a meth lab complex…or something like that.

These words?! Not so much, as you will soon see. Get your red Sharpies ready, kids. You may need it to stab your eyes out. 

1. Quarantine (n. / v.) — Given the recent threat of clear and present danger with Ebola, we thought this would be a good one. The word was used many times daily during news alerts, but DYK: the French say qarante, for “40.” Whenever a ship arrived in port that was suspected of being infected, it had to forego contact with the shore for…yup, 40 days. Hey, at least you know that expensive doctor can count, right?

Money-out-of-politics2. Boycott (n. / v.) — This is an eponym: a word or a thing named for a person. It is also something most PR people fear who can be approached with such a thing. In 1880, Captain Charles Boycott (yep) was managing land in Ireland when poor harvests struck. Tenants needed money. They looked for help. They prayed for answers. God delivered when some other guy offered to reduce the rents of his tenants, but Captain Charles thought the offer was unsatisfactory. And so, the tenants revolted by leaving the lands untended. News traveled to England where folk gave him the Heisman there as well. Protest successful!

3. Terabyte (n.) — Those PR techies…always thinking of new words to describe their state-of-the art doodads. Some convoluted terms to characterize what we call the bigger-and-better syndrome. First, the megabyte stunned people searching for space. Then, the gigabyte became the rage, causing people to trash the paltry MBs for one GB. And now, there’s the terabyte. Sounds scary, right? It should because that’s what it means — it’s derived from the Greek word for “monster.” In fact, the word teratism means “a monstrosity.” Happy hunting.

4. Juggernaut (n.) — This is the shiny new toy for some PR pros. If your client were the “600-pound gorilla” in its industry, the juggernaut seems more suitable now. Now, if only your client was a Hindu. You see, this is actually a Sanskrit reference to the Ratha Yatra temple car that carried the god Krishna (Yes, as in “Hari…”). Whenever this ancient Popemobile was in town, legend has it that devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. So, what’s that you were saying about your client throwing you under the bus again?

5. Smart Aleck (n.) — Remember Charles Boycott? Here’s another one. Quick quiz: Think about how many people in your PR agency applies to this term. Can you see them in your mind? Now, think about that person as a career criminal. The phrase “Smart Aleck” refers specifically to an IRL hustler named Alec Hoag, who lived with his wife in New York during the 1840s. His wife would seduce men and bring them home, and Aleck would subsequently sneak into the room to steal their stuff while they were sleeping.

6. Cold Turkey (adj.) — As we have seen in the PRNewserverse, there are addicts among us. Many are jonesin’ for caffeine. Others prefer(ed) the harder stuff. Suffice to say, when PR pros hear someone quit “cold turkey,” it elicits kudos. However, it’s actually an insult — as in, resembling a dead animal about to be mounted on a wall or devoured for Thanksgiving. The term refers to the odd appearance of many addicts’ skin during heroin withdrawal: blood is drawn from the internal organs because the body still creates high demands post-drug use.

7. Mortgage (n.) — Dear real estate PR types, listen up. You are peddling “death pledges.” Yes you are. The word Mortgage comes from the Old French mort (dead) and gage (pledge). Find a journalist who doesn’t think that crap is funny when they find out the terms your client is charging some buyers.

8. Loophole (n.) — Need more irony today? Here’s one for the public affairs pros out there because this is something your clients often hope to find from time-to-time. In the 15th century, archers would stand on the open roof waiting to take aim through a slit in a castle wall. That was the loophole…or the killing hole. Need to get out of trouble, you ne’er-do-well athletes? Loophole. Need to stick it to the public so you can keep your job, politicians? Loophole. When in need, do the deed.

department of redunancy department9. Lukewarm (adj.) — This one is for your stingy PR director — the one who doesn’t dole out the praise too often. Why? Because most of the stuff you turn in for editing provides this cantankerous fart with a “lukewarm” feeling. That person also tells you that your pitch will project that same “lukewarm” feeling on the media. Your pitch needs to be hot to generate synergy. Now think about this every time that word flies out of their face — it’s actually redundant. In the Dark Ages, “Luke” meant warm…so your pitch is literally “warm warm.” But wouldn’t that make it HOT?

10. Noon (n.) — This is the golden hour in any agency. It’s lunch time — a time when everyone tries to file off the chain attached to his/her ankle and experience a little bit of freedom during the day. A time when everyone sees both the long hand and the short hand on that clock stand straight up at attention, as if to salute you on your way out to a salad place (when you know you want a Big Mac). Here’s the problem: You are all leaving at the wrong time. Noon is Latin for “nona hora” or ninth hour. That’s right, kids. Lunchtime should really be around 3 p.m. How is that for a send off today? In a good mood yet? Lunch was only…ah, forget it.

BTW: If you really dig the meanings of words, check out the Online Etymology Dictionary and add this joker to your list.