Words suggest one thing, but their histories tell us another.
  1. Pen and pencil
    Pencil originally referred to a paintbrush with a fine, tapered end, and can be traced back to the Latin penicillus, for paintbrush. Pen, on the other hand, goes back to Latin penna, for feather, which is what the original pens were.
  2. Male and female
    Where male goes back to Latin masculus, female comes through French femelle from Latin femella. The eventual overlap in pronunciation was accidental.
  3. Fish and crayfish
    In Middle English, crayfish was crevice/-visse, related to French écrevisse, related to the German Krebs, for crab. The visse was close enough in pronunciation to fish that some confusion led to a spelling change.
  4. Hang and hangnail
    Though a hangnail seems to be a piece of skin that “hangs” off your nail area, it’s actually an “angry” nail. Ang-, meaning troubling or distressing in Latin, also meant painful in Old English.
  5. House and penthouse
    There is no house in penthouse. It came from Anglo-Norman pentiz, which was an outbuilding, or “appendage” to a main building.
  6. Ginger and gingerly
    The ginger in gingerly is not related to the spice identified by the genus Zingiber but to Old French gensor, which is related to gent, as in “well-born.” It referred to small, elegant steps, like those a gentleman would make.
  7. Step- and stepmother/stepfather
    The step- in words for step family members comes not from the word for taking a step with the foot, nor the related metaphor for being removed by one unit, but to an old root stéop-, related to the concept of bereavement. The earliest use of this prefix was in an Old English word for orphan, stéopcild, or stepchild.
  8. Lock and Wedlock
    Wedlock comes from Old English wedlác, where lác was a suffix that formed an action noun out of another noun. Other suffixed words were brýdlác (nuptials), réaflác (robbery), and feohtlác (warfare). Wedlock is the only one we still use today.
  9. Bomb and bombast
    Bombastic talk can be explosive and in-your-face, but the word traces back to the soft, downy, French bombace, the name for raw cotton. It was used as stuffing or padding in clothing and in that way took on the meaning of talk that enlarges, pads out, or inflates.
  10. Rage and outrage
    Etymologically speaking, outrage is not a type of rage. While rage traces back to the Latin for rabies, outrage comes from Old French ultrage, where the ult- is that of ultra, meaning beyond and the -age is the suffix found in plumage, steerage, usage, etc. Outrage is “ultra-age” or beyond-ness. It originally referred to a serious transgression or insult.
  11. Man and human
    Man comes from a Germanic root, and in all the Germanic languages has had both senses of “person” and “adult male person.” Human comes from a Latin root, humanus, meaning that having to do with people (rather than animals or gods).