Absalom means a Father's Peace, a fatal name for David's
rebellious son. Acid (sour) applied in chemistry to a class of
bodies to which sourness is only accidental and by no means a universal
character- thus, rock-crystal, quartz, flint, etc., are chemical
acids, though no particle of acidity belongs to them.
So called from Amerigo Vespucci, a naval astronomer of Florence. He
wrote an account of his discoveries, which were very popular in
Germany, but certainly he did not discover the New World.
Go to the ant, thou sluggard.
(See Ants, Honeycomb.)
Antelope is a hopeless
absurdity for the Greek anthos-ops, beautiful eye. Arabic
figures were not invented by the Arabs, but by the Indians.
Baffin's Bay is no bay at all.
is a compound of carbon and iron.
are no more blind than moles are; they have very quick and
brilliant eyes, though somewhat small.
does not come from Brazil, or even grow in Brazil, nor is it a
grass at all. It consists of strips of a palm-leaf (Chamærops
argente'a), and is chiefly imported from Cuba.
has nothing to do with groom. It is the old English guma, a
Burgundy pitch is not pitch, nor is it
manufactured or exported from Burgundy. The best is a resinous
substance prepared from common frankincense, and brought from Hamburg;
but by far the larger quantity is a mixture of rosin and palm-oil.
as if from Canopus (the star in the southern hemisphere), is the
Greek konopeion (from konops, a gnat), and means a cloth
to keep off gnats.
is not the gut of cats, but of sheep.
should be chelidon, Greek and Latin for a swallow; so called
because it was at one time supposed that swallows cured with it the
blindness of their young. (Pliny, xxv. 50.)
as a name for porcelain, gives rise to the contradictory
expressions British china, Séres china, Dresden china, Dutch china,
Chelsea china, etc.; like wooden milestones, iron milestones, brass
shoe-horns, iron pens, etc.
for a cemetery, should be “Cinery.” Cinerarius is a woman's tailor. Cuttle-bone is not bone at all, but a structure of pure chalk
embedded loosely in the substance of a species of cuttlefish. It is
enclosed in a membranous sac, within the body of the “fish,” and drops
out when the sac is opened, but it has no connection whatever with the
sac or the cuttlefish.
were not erected by Cleopatra, or in honour of that queen, but by
Crawfish for cravis (Latin carabus, a lobster, French écrevisse).
a strainer, should be “colanter” (Latin colans, colantis, straining).
Custard, the food, is from the Welsh for curded
milk; but “custard,” for a slap on the hand, should be custid, from the Latin custis, a club.
for adown (the preposition) is a strange instance of
caprice, in which the omission of the negative (a) utterly
perverts the meaning. The Saxon dun is an upland or hill, and a-dun is its
opposite —i.e. a lowland or descent. Going down stairs really means “going upstairs,” of ascending; and for descending we ought to say “going a down.”
are not of Dutch but German (Deutsch) manufacture. Elements. Fire, air, earth, and water, called the four elements,
are not elements at all. Fish, a counter, should be fiche (a fivesou piece), used at one time in France for card-counters. One
of them, given “for the rub,” was called la fiche de consolation.
is not the glove of the fox, but of the fays, called folk—
the little folk's glove; or else from fosco, red.
A vile corruption of frontispice (Latin frontispicium, a view on the front page). The “piece” is speeium. Frontispiece
is an awful hybird.
These foot-soliders now carry Enfield rifles, and not fusils.
Galvanised iron is not galvanised. It is simply iron coated with
zinc, and this is done by dipping it in a zinc bath containing muriatic
is not silver at all, nor was the metallic mixture invented by a
German, but has been in use in China time out of mind.
is not the architecture of the Goths, but the ecclesiastical style
employed in England and
France before the Renaissance.
A blunder for Guiana, South America. Not a pig but a rodent. Honeydew is neither honey nor dew, but an animal
substance given off by certain insects, especially when hunted by ants.
contains no honey, nor is honey in any way employed in its
manufacture. It is a mixture of
palm-oil soap and olive soap, each one part, with three parts of
curd soap or yellow soap, scented.
has no connection with the colour grey. It is the grayhound, or
hound which hunts the gray or badger
for umbil pie. The umbils of venison were served to inferior
retainers and servants.
Hydrophobia (Greek, dread of water applied to mad dogs is incorrect, as they will lap water and even swim
A blunder of geography on the part of the early discoverers of the
New World, who set their faces westward from Europe to find India, and
believed they had done so when they discovered Cat's Island, off the
south coast of America.
A dish that is unknown in Ireland.
Iron-mask was made of
contains no lac at all, but is made from the resin of a kind of
nut-tree called Anacardiaceæ.
Jerusalem artichoke has no
connection with Jerusalem, but with the sunflower, girasole, which it resembles.
Kensington Palace is not in Kensington at
all, but in the parish of St. Margaret, Westminster.
are not kid at all, but are made of lamb-skin or sheep-skin.
Laudanum should be ladanum, originally made from the leaves
of the lada. (Pliny, xxvi. 47.)
Longitude and latitude, the great dimension and little or broad dimension of the
earth. According to the ancient notion, the world was bounded on the
west by the Atlantic, but extended an indefinite length eastward. It
was similarly terminated on the south by the Tropic of Cancer, whence
it extended northwards, but this extent being much less than that east
and west, was called the breadth or latitude.
Louis de Bourbon,
Bishop of Liége, is made by Sir Walter Scott, in Quentin
Durward, an “old man,” whereas he was only eighteen, and a scholar
at Louvain. He made his entry into his see in a scarlet jerkin and cap
set jauntily on one side. (A. Dumas: Charles the Bold.)
is not a substance from the moon, but is simply nitrate of silver,
and silver is the astrological symbol of the moon.
are not affected by the changes of the moon more than other
invalids. No doubt their disorder has its periodicities, but it is not
affected by the moon.
has no connection with Moses or the metal gold. It is an alloy of
copper and zinc, used in the ancient musivum or tesselated work.
Mother of pearl
is the inner layer of several sorts of shell. It is not the mother
of pearls, as the name indicates, but in some cases the matrix of the
Oysters raised in artificial beds. Surely oysters in their
own natural beds ought to be called the natives.
means the generator of acids, but there are acids of which it is
not the base, as hydrochloric acid. Indeed, chemists now restrict the
term acid to compounds into which hydrogen enters, and
oxy-acids are termed salts.
means a feather. (Latin, penna, a wing.) A steel pen is not
a very choice expression.
Philippe VI. of France was called “Le bien fortuné,” but never was name more inappropriate. He was
defeated at Sluys [Slu-iz], and again at Cressy; he lost
Calais; and a fourth of all his subjects were carried off by the plague
called the “Black Death.”
in Alexandria, was erected neither by nor to Pompey. It was set up
by the Emperor Diocletian, according to its inscription.
does not come from Prussia, but is the precipitate of the salt of
protoxide of iron with red prussiate of potass.
is not made from rice, but from the pith of Tung-tsau, or
hollow-plant, so called because it is
hollow when the pith has been pushed out.
is not salt at all, and has long been wholly excluded from the
class of bodies denominated salts. Table-salt is “chloride of sodium.”
Salt of lemon
is in reality a binoxalate of potash, with a little of the
Salts. The substance of which junk bottles, French
mirrors, window-panes, and opera-glasses are made is placed among the salts, but is no salt at all.
is a mere corruption of sam (half) blind.
to open a hole in a ship, means really to bolt or bar. (See Scuttle.)
Sealing-wax is not wax at all, nor does it contain a
single particle of wax. It is made of shellac, Venice turpentine, and
is no mouse (mus), but belongs to the genus sorex. Slave means noble, illustrious (slavi), but is now applied to the most
ignoble and debased. (See Baron.) Sovereign. The last
syllable of this word is incorrect. The word should be soverain
(Latin, superare; French, souvrain). It has no connection
with “reign” (Latin, regnare).
properly means “seed oil,” from the notion that it was the spawn or
melt of a whale. It is chiefly taken from the head, not the
spawn, of the “spermaceti” whale.
(plur. titmice) is no mouse, but a bird. (Anglo-Saxon, tite-máse, little hedge-sparrow.)
Toadflax has nothing at
all to do with toads. It is tod flax, i.e. flax with tods
or clusters. Tonquin beans. A geographical blunder for tonka
beans, from Tonka, in Guinea, not Tonquin, in Asia. Turkeys do not come from Turkey, but North America, through Spain, or India.
The French call them “dindon,” i.e. d'Inde or coq d'lnde, a term equally incorrect.
neither grows in Turkey, nor is it imported from Turkey. It grows
in the great mountain chain between Tartary and Siberia, and is a
are not of Turkish origin, nor are they baths, but hot-air rooms
or &thermae;. Vallombrosa. Milton says:
Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks
Paradise Lost, i. 302.
But the trees of Vallombrosa, being pines, do not shed thickly in
autumn, and the brooks are not strewed with their leaves.
is not voice from the stomach at all, but from the mouth.
Well-beloved. Louis XIII. A most inappropriate title for this most
detestable and detested of all kings. Whalebone is no bone at
all, nor does it possess any properties of bone. It is a substance
attached to the upper jaw of the whale, and serves to strain the water
which the creature takes up in large mouthfuls.
A strange corruption. Bane is the Teutonic word for all poisonous
herbs. The Greeks, mistaking banes for beans, translated it kuamos, as they did hen-bane (huos-kuamos). Now wolf's-bane is an
aconite, with a pale yellow-flower, and therefore called white-bane to distinguish it from the blue aconite. The
Greek for white is leukos, hence “leukos-kuamos;” but lukos is the Greek for wolf, and by a blunder leukos-kuamos (white-bean) got muddled into lukos-kuamos (wolf-bean).
Botanists, seeing the absurdity of calling aconite a bean, restored the original word “bane,” but retained the corrupt word lukos (a wolf), and hence we get the name wolf's-bane for white
aconite. (H. Fox Talbot.)
has nothing to do with worms or wood; it is the Anglo-Saxon wer
mod, man-inspiriting, being a strong tonic.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894