Weird Words: 5 words and phrases with grim origins

The English language is an infinite source of fascination, irregularity, confusion and downright weirdness. Starting today I’m going to post a monthly “Weird Words” article, looking at the strange and funny ways words and phrases end up becoming part of the language.

Grim reaperThis month’s “Weird Words” has a particularly dark tone. (Who doesn’t love a bit of darkness at Christmas time?)

Here are 5 words and phrases with bleak backstories…

You’re right to feel grim about your “mortgage”

Mortgages are not known for conjuring up happy feelings. So it’s not surprising that the word “mortgage” is derived from the Old French term for “death pledge”!

“Muscles” – what’s that under our skin?

The word “muscle” comes from the Latin “musculus”, which literally means “little mouse”. This came about because people in the Middle Ages believed that the shape and movement of muscles looked like mice crawling about underneath our skin.

At one time a “loophole” could kill you

A “loophole” is any ambiguity in a set of rules that allows you to contravene the intent of the rules. But “loophole” historically refers to the narrow windows in castles used for murdering people with arrows. The shooter was protected by the castle wall and gained an unfair advantage of being able to shoot through the narrow slit without easily being shot back.

A castle full of "loopholes"
A castle full of “loopholes”

So “loophole” was about gaining an unfair advantage. This is why you so often hear about legal “loopholes” that allow savvy lawyers to win cases on technicalities.

“Clutching at straws” refers to someone who’s drowning

Today we “clutch at straws” in a desperate but futile attempt to win an argument. The phrase actually derives from the futility of trying to grab and hold onto a straw or flimsy reed when being swept downstream by a powerful current.

“Bludgeon” bludgeoned its way into the language

Nobody knows where the word “bludgeon” came from. It means “short club” and sprang up suddenly in 1730, but no one knows how or why. Eventually it became a more general verb, and from the 1800s onwards, people were “bludgeoning” each other to death with all kinds of blunt instruments.

More “Weird Words” next month!

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