bootstrap / boot up

A self-made person is one who lifts or pulls oneself up by one’s bootstraps. The phrase is used unironically nowadays, despite the fact that the laws of physics make it impossible for one actually lift oneself by one’s bootstraps. The phrase was originally ironic, recognizing that such a feat is impossible, but as the myth of the self-made man grew (and it is a myth; no one succeeds in life without help), the phrase became unironic in its application.

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Most of us know a tabby cat is either a female house cat or one with a striped or brindled coat regardless of its sex. But where does the word tabby come from? It has an unusual etymology, coming ultimately from Arabic and the history of Islam, and over the years it has been applied to things other than house cats, such as being used to refer to older, unmarried women.

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neither confirm nor deny / Glomar response

When a US government official neither confirms nor denies the existence of a classified program it is called a Glomar response or a Glomar denial. This label has its origins in one of the most fascinating incidents of the Cold War between the US and the USSR, but the wording neither confirm nor deny is much, much older, dating to at least 1840.

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Glomar Response / neither confirm nor deny

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Uncle Sam

The United States government is often referred to as Uncle Sam, and the most famous image of Uncle Sam is James Montgomery Flagg’s WWI recruiting poster. But Uncle Sam was not the creation of Flagg. The term predates Flagg’s poster by over a century.

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The measles is a potentially fatal disease caused by a Morbillivirus, and it is one of the most highly contagious diseases that infect humans. The disease, once rendered rare in the industrialized world, has made a comeback in recent years, largely due to low rates of vaccination. But the name measles is an odd one with an innocuous connotation that belies how dangerous the disease really is. Where does the name measles come from?

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Tweetzkrieg is an alternative name for what is more commonly called a Twitterstorm, a flurry of activity about a trending topic on the social media platform Twitter. But unlike a Twitterstorm, which can be an unorganized response to a tweet or news item, a Tweetzkrieg is often deliberately generated by a single person or group. Tweetzkrieg is, quite obviously, modeled on blitzkrieg, the German WWII-era strategy of a combined arms assault using infantry, armor, artillery, and airpower. The word isn’t terribly common, but it has been around for over ten years.

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D-Day, H-Hour

D-Day is the name for 6 June 1944, when Allied troops landed on the coast of German-occupied France during World War II. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history, with over 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops landing in Normandy, including 23,000 airborne paratroopers, and involving almost 7,000 ships, boats, and landing craft. But it turns out that the term itself is older, dating to another war, and it is also something of a redundancy.

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H-Hour, D-Day

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Saracen is term for a Muslim that is primarily used historically to refer to Muslims during the medieval period and especially in reference to the Crusades. But it dates to antiquity, long before Islam arose as a religion, and its original sense was much more circumscribed. Its correct etymology isn’t all that interesting, but it does have a fascinating false etymology that circulated widely in Europe during the medieval period.

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