WOTD: balaclava and other confusing words…

For some reason our British cousins have adopted this word, which according to Bill Bryson (author and keen observer of all things British from an American perspective), is a “truly bad word.” The American term is the decidedly less poetic but much clearer ski mask. Its “badness” lies in the fact that it really doesn’t sound like what it is:

“[It] could be almost anything – an obscure root vegetable, a type of geological formation peculiar to the Tibetian steppe, the basic unit of currenty in Albania, the sound of a large load of rocks coming out of the back of a dump truck, almost anything at all. It certainly doesn’t sound like something you would want to put on your head. No, the word you want for a kind of pull-down hat is haggis.”
Excerpt from I’m a Stranger Here Myself

He then goes on to explain that “haggis” has a warm and furry sound to it and that it doesn’t sound at all like a food. Furthermore, anyone who has ever tried it will attest that it doesn’t taste much like a food either.

This got me thinking about how many other words there are in the English language that don’t sound at all like what they are, and how confusing this can be for learners of it as a second language.

For example, why do we drive on the parkway, and park in the driveway?

Why do we say we’re getting ON or OFF the bus/train/plane when we’re really getting IN or OUT of it?

A pineapple is nothing like a pine nor like an apple. It doesn’t even come from a pine tree. How the hell did it get named that? And what about a grapefruit?

I’m sure there are many examples of weird words in Swedish as well, and the one I can think of at the moment is smörgås (sandwich) which translated literally into English means “butter goose.”

Finally, and with apologies for the indelicacy of the following language, why do we say we’re taking a shit when we’re actually LEAVING it?

Feel free to post your own examples of weird or inaccurate words in comments. Until next time…

4 thoughts on “WOTD: balaclava and other confusing words…

    • Well, sandwich is a word. And it does sound odd. According to legend, it’s named after the Earl of Sandwich. There’s even a chain of Sandwich Islands somewhere…

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