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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.

America. 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.

Ant. 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.

Blacklead is a compound of carbon and iron.

Blind-worms are no more blind than moles are; they have very quick and brilliant eyes, though somewhat small.

Brazilian grass 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 argenteʹa), and is chiefly imported from Cuba.

Bridegroom has nothing to do with groom. It is the old English guma, a man, bryd-guma.

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.

Canopy, 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.

Catgut is not the gut of cats, but of sheep.

Celandine 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.)

China, as a name for porcelain, gives rise to the contradictory expressions British china, Sèvres china, Dresden china, Dutch china, Chelsea china, etc.; like wooden milestones, iron milestones, brass shoe-horns, iron pens, etc.

Cinerary, 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.

Cleopatra’s Needles were not erected by Cleopatra, or in honour of that queen, but by Thothmes III.

Crawfish for cravis (Latin carabus, a lobster, French écrevisse).

Cullander, 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.

Down 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.”

Dutch clocks 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 five-sou piece), used at one time in France for card-counters. One of them, given “for the rub,” was called la fiche de consolation.

Foxglove is not the glove of the fox, but of the fays, called folk—the little folk’s glove; or else from fosco, red.

Frontispiece. A vile corruption of frontispice (Latin frontispicium, a view on the front page). The “piece” is speeium. Frontispiece is an awful hybrid.

Fusiliers. These foot-soldiers 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 acid.

German silver 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.

Gothic architecture is not the architecture of the Goths, but the ecclesiastical style employed in England and France before the Renaissance.

Guineapig. 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.

Honey soap 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.

Greyhound has no connection with the colour grey. It is the grayhound, or hound which hunts the gray or badger

Humble pie, 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 in it.

Indians (American). 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.

Iron-mask was made of velvet.

Japan lacquer 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.

Kid gloves 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 Liège, 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.)

Lunar caustic is not a substance from the moon, but is simply nitrate of silver, and silver is the astrological symbol of the moon.

Lunatics 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.

Mosaic gold 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 pearl.

Natives. Oysters raised in artificial beds. Surely oysters in their own natural beds ought to be called the natives.

Oxygen 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.

Pen means a feather. (Latin, penna, a wing.) A steel pen is not a very choice expression.

Philippe VI. of France was calledLe 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.”

Pompey’s Pillar, in Alexandria, was erected neither by nor to Pompey. It was set up by the Emperor Diocletian, according to its inscription.

Prussian blue does not come from Prussia, but is the precipitate of the salt of protoxide of iron with red prussiate of potass.

Rice paper 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.

Salt 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 quadroxalate.

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.

Sand-blind is a mere corruption of sam (half) blind.

Scuttle, 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 cinnabar.

Shrew-mouse is no mouse (must), 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, superāre; French, souvrain). It has no connection with “reign” (Latin, regnāre).

Sperm oil 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.

Titmouse (plur. titmice) is no mouse, but a bird. (Anglo-Saxon, tite-máse, little hedge-sparrow.)

Toadflaô 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. dʹInde or coq dʹInde, a term equally incorrect.

Turkey rhubarb neither grows in Turkey, nor is it imported from Turkey. It grows in the great mountain chain between Tartary and Siberia and is a Russian monopoly.

Turkish baths are not of Turkish origin, nor are they baths, but hot-air rooms or thermæ.

Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks

In Vallombrosa.”

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.

Ventriloquism 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.

Wolf’s-bane. 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 paleyellow - 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 wordbane,” but retained the corrupt word lukos (a wolf), and hence we get the name wolf’s-bane for white aconite. (H. Fox Talbot.)

Wormwood has nothing to do with worms or wood; it is the Anglo-Saxon wer mod, man-inspiriting, being a strong tonic.


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Entry taken from Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. and revised in 1895.

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