12 Interesting Word Origin Stories

Words are curious little creatures: their usage and meanings evolve with the times. Some of the older words that we continue to use today may no longer carry the exact same meaning that they once did in the past.

For instance, you might see the word “troll” or “trolling” often in the comments section on social media. It refers to the act of making offensive or provocative comments with the purpose of eliciting a strong response (usually anger) from someone else.

Go back a few centuries and you will find the word “troll” referring to a giant, usually hideous, almost always bad news, who is also quarrelsome and likes to make life difficult for others. See the connection there?

Here’s a list of more words that carry with them a history all on their own, with a quick look at their present vs past usage.

1. Milestone

What it means now:

It is mostly used nowadays to mean a significant achievement or stage of development. In other words, it denotes a measurement of progress. For example, a baby who has just learned how to crawl is said to have achieved a new milestone in his physical development. A startup that has secured funding to proceed to the next phase of their expansion is also said to have achieved their first milestone.

The word “milestone” can still be used to convey its traditional meaning though, which is to describe location markers (see below).

What it meant then:

The mile was and is a commonly used unit for measuring distance. One mile is equal to 1.609 kilometres, 5280 feet or 1760 yards.

A milestone originally referred to small markers placed along the side of a road (typically a highway) to indicate the interval of a mile. Its purpose is to indicate to a traveller how far more he has to go to reach his destination or to show the total distance that she has already covered. It is also useful for communicating a specific location along a road, for instance, in the event of an accident.

Nowadays, it is more common for kilometre markers to be used for the same purpose due to most countries relying on the metric system. However, it would still be acceptable to refer to them as “milestones”.

2. Footage

What it means now:

When used in the context of motion pictures, film footage normally describes a recording (be it a photograph, video, audio clip, etc) that is used as part of a movie or an edited version of a video. It can also be taken to mean the material (subject matter) that was captured in that recording.

What it meant then:

The term originated from the fact that movies used to be captured onto physical reels of film that would be measured in feet. For example, when using 35mm film, a commonly used film gauge for movie recordings, a foot long film would contain 16 frames and this would translate into one second worth of imagery when played.

3. CC and BCC

What it means now:

These two acronyms relate to email usage. Both are alternative input fields for email addresses (in addition to the conventional To field). CC is commonly known to mean “Carbon Copy” whereas “BCC” is “Blind Carbon Copy”. Names on the CC list will be visible to everyone else on the same list; names on the bcc list will not.

Some may argue that CC stands for “courtesy copy” rather than “carbon copy”. Others say that it just means “copies“, following a convention of using double letters to indicate a plural, such as how “pp” stands for “pages“.

What it meant then:

Carbon copying referred to a process whereby one or more copies of a document could be made using carbon paper which would be sandwiched between the original document and the duplicate copy.

IMAGE: Holger Ellgaard

The carbon paper would then trace the contents written on the original copy onto the duplicate. This was especially useful during the days where handwritten and typewritten documents were the norm.

Carbon copying would be used for writing office memos (where the list of recipients would be printed in a CC list at the tail end of the document) or for filling out forms or receipts. The use of this traditional technique has since declined now that most documents are produced digitally. There are some situations where this method is still in use though. For instance, in handwritten receipt books.

Blind carbon copying apparently also existed back in the days where paper was the primary mode for documentation. An office typist would sometimes need to include additional names in memos sent out, in order to keep the identity of certain recipients confidential.

Their names would be typed onto designated copies of the document after creating all the necessary duplicates, without the use of the carbon paper.

4. Movie trailer

What it means now:

A form of advertising whereby a sneak preview for an upcoming movie is shown to a cinema audience before the beginning of a movie screening. The term is so widely used nowadays that any form of movie preview is generally known as a “trailer”, even those that are shared online.

What it meant then:

From the very beginning, “trailers” had always referred to a preview of a future movie release, but it made more sense back then because they were shown at the end of a movie screening, trailing the actual shown movie, instead of at the start as is the practice today.

By the end of the 1930s, however, film studios realised that trailers would have greater impact if they were screened before a movie rather than afterwards. Consequently, they began showing them in that order instead.

Movie trailers were said to have first emerged around the year 1913, with the first known movie trailer to be advertised in a theatre of a Broadway musical called The Pleasure Seekers.

5. Blueprint

What it means now:

The word is generally used to refer to any layout plan for a room, building or landscape. It is most commonly used to refer to technical drawings in the fields of architecture and engineering. For most of us, a situation where we would likely need to refer to a blueprint of some sort would be when we’re considering real estate to purchase; for instance, a house.

What it meant then:

Back in 1842, Sir John Herschel invented a method of reproducing documents known as cyanotype. An existing plan drawn on translucent tracing paper could be photocopied by placing it on top of another piece of paper that has been coated with a photosensitive chemical solution (ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide). The two layers are exposed to ultraviolet light (the sun) for a few minutes.

Consequently, the bottom sheet will turn blue due to the reaction of the chemicals to the light. However, as light would not be able to penetrate through the parts of the original document where the drawing marks are, those sections would remain white on the bottom sheet.

When the chemical solution is washed off the bottom sheet and the paper dried, a copy of the plan is created.


Other methods of achieving the same effect have emerged since that time and have replaced this practice, but the term “blueprint” continues to be used until today.

6. The press

What it means now:

The phrase is often used interchangeably with the term “media” and refers to the producers of mass media or those in the news industry. It is generally understood as encompassing all forms of news delivery, from printed publications like newspapers and magazines, to TV stations, radio, and online news portals and blogs.

What it meant then:

In the distant past, news was disseminated mostly via printed publications; in other words, newspapers. Hence, the term “the press” was mostly a reference to the newspaper industry, whose pages were created through the use of printing presses.

7. B side

What it means now:

This is a phrase you will often hear with regards to music albums. It normally refers to additional music content that was not part of an official album release. This might refer to a different version or arrangement of a song compared to the same tune on the official album, or tracks that were not included in that album at all.

What it meant then:

Back in the heydays of vinyl records, 78 RPM (revolutions per min) and 48 RPM phonograph/gramophone records could be played on two sides: an “A side” and a “B side”; the latter is sometimes called the “flipside”. It was around the year 1924 that the first of such records were offered for sale in public.

Initially, record companies randomly assigned songs to either side of a record, but later on, it became a convention for “B side” songs to be those that were excluded from the album, weren’t radio-friendly, were alternate versions to the songs on an album or were just tracks that were considered inferior.

With vinyl records being more of a collector’s item nowadays than the main mode of music distribution, the use of the term “B side” isn’t as widespread. However, it still carries some of its earlier meaning in terms of describing music tracks that match the above criteria.

Some quarters have also come to think of the “B” in “B side” as referring to “bonus”, since music content that can be categorised as befitting of a B side is also known as “outtakes”, “exclusive” or “unreleased” tracks.

8. Presentation deck / Slide deck

What it means now:

It is generally used in reference to a collection of slides used for a formal presentation. A Microsoft Powerpoint file which contains a set of slides is an example of a presentation deck. Some also consider the printout of such files as a slide deck.

What it meant then:

While there doesn’t seem to be a definitive authority on the origins of this term, many believe it was a legacy from the days of the 35mm photographic film slides which were displayed during presentations through the use of slide projectors. The slides in a projector tray were said to resemble a deck of cards, hence the name.

9. Horsepower

What it means now:

It is a measurement unit to quantify power, and is typically used in reference to the capability of an engine. In electrical terms, the energy generated for one horsepower is equivalent to 746 Watts.

What it meant then:

The idea of using horses to quantify power came from James Watt, the Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer who is known for his contributions to improving the steam engine. Another unit of measurement for electrical and mechanical power, Watt, was named in honour of him.

During Watt’s time, horses were regarded as the highest power yielding source and they were used in places such as production mills. Horses would be harnessed to a central mill shaft and made to walk in circles to power grindstones and other such equipment. They were considered cheap to acquire and maintain for such purposes.

IMAGE: The Virginia Settlement

Hence, Watt chose to quantify the capabilities of his steam engine in horsepower terms since it was horses that this technology hoped to replace. With the aid of a mathematical equation, he estimated that a mill horse could push around 33,000 pounds in one foot in a minute. That was the power of one horse, i.e. one horsepower

He then went on to market his engines as being able to offer the power of 200 horses at once. His success led other competitors to copy his approach and the term remains to this day.

10. Blockbuster

What it means now:

This term is used to describe popular or successful movies, or other forms of entertainment such as theatre productions, or mobile/PC/console games.

What it meant then:

Back in the 1940s, a blockbuster referred to an aerial bomb that was used in World War II, capable of demolishing entire city streets or blocks of buildings. This phrase eventually turned into an advertising term to depict extraordinary success by the mid to late 1940s.

Blockbusters were generally understood to mean large scale productions which typically involved huge financial budgets. However, some other sources have claimed that the word “blockbuster” was used because it signified extremely well received plays or movies that effectively “busted” other competing production houses and put them out of business.

11. Dial a number

What it means now:

The phrase is normally used in the context of making a phone call. Nowadays, we use keypads (be it a physical or even a virtual one) to type in the phone number or name of the person we’re trying to reach. So why call it dial a number?

What it meant then:

There was once a time where rotary phones were the norm. Such phones featured a dial that had the digits zero to nine arranged in a circular layout.

Each number had a hole on top of it, through which you insert your finger, pulled the disk in a clockwise motion all the way to the end, then release it, before doing the same with the rest of the digits in the phone number. This action was also what you would call “dialing a number”.

12. Mixtape

What it means now:

Generally, it is understood as an audio compilation of songs whereby its compiler’s identity is known. Some use this characteristic of mixtapes to distinguish mixtapes from other kinds of music compilations where the compiler is relatively unknown or not revealed.

A mixtape can consist merely of a collection of its creator’s favourite tunes or may take on a more conceptual or artistic approach in its selection of songs to convey a certain message to its listeners.

What it meant then:

In the 1980s, mixtapes were mostly homemade by music fans using cassette tapes. It grew in popularity along with the use of cassette tape players including the renowned Sony Walkman (RIP).

As cassette tapes were slowly phased out to make way for CDs and eventually, digital music files such as MP3, mixtapes evolved but remain available albeit in newer formats instead.

Meanwhile, in the hip hop music scene, the term “mixtape” carried a slightly different meaning. Back in the 1970s, mixtapes consisted of recordings of performances by DJs that were taped by their listeners. Later on, in the 1980s, DJs themselves started recording their own shows and selling those tapes.

By the year 2000, a hip hop mixtape became a means for rappers to attract the attention of record labels and to connect with fans in a more personal manner. Such mixtapes were usually hosted by a DJ and included rap material that was less radio friendly. Even successful hip hop artistes have released mixtapes containing their original compositions, which are offered to fans for free. These can be mostly found on the Web nowadays.