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These English words have strange but interesting history


Ever wondered why a non-drinker is called teetotaller in English language? Or why do we use the term ‘white elephant’ for defining something useless yet costly? And what do you mean by ‘egg someone on’? Does it mean throwing eggs at a person? Well, these and many such words have interesting stories behind their origin. Read on to find out…

1) Why do we call someone who doesn’t drink a teetotaller?

In earlier days, many virtuous people claimed ‘total abstinence’ from alcohol but behaved contrary. Thus, a need was felt for a word that did justice to those who were truly steadfast in their rejection of all forms of alcohol. To meet this requirement, England native Dick Turner coined the word ‘teetotal,’ emphasising on the initial constant of total. Many say ‘tee’ in the word actually stands for ‘tea’ for Turner recommended people to have tea as a substitute for alcohol in times of temptation. So pleased was Turner with this discovery that when he died, he had instructed his loved ones to inscribe this invention on his teetombstone.

2) White elephant

White elephants were considered good luck omen in Siam. It is believed that the King of Siam would punish his courtiers, who annoyed him, by gifting them a white elephant. The courtier was then burdened with something which was useless, unwanted, would cost him a fortune but had to be taken care of if he loved his life.

3) Why does sub rosa mean secret?

This is a Latin expression which means ‘under the rose’. It is said that in order to hide the goings-on of Venus, Cupid bribed the God of Silence (Harpocrates) with the first ever created rose. Also, medieval dining halls usually had a rose carved in the ceiling. This was to remind the guests that whatever conversation takes place at the table should not be repeated anywhere else.

4) What do you mean by ‘egg someone on’? 

It certainly does not mean to throw eggs at someone. ‘Egg someone on’ means to incite a person until he goes into some course of action, which is usually a rash and regrettable one.

5) Why do we refer to elite as the upper crust?

Canadian humourist Thomas Haliburton first used these words in this sense in Sam Slick of Slickville (1835). While some say was trying to describe the hard exterior of aristocrats or their insolence, others think the term was coined because the upper crust of a loaf of bread was considered the most desirable.

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