28 Days

Why does February have 28 days when all the other months have 30 or 31? The question may not seem to have much to do with word origins, but when you start digging into the answer you uncover a trove of word origins relating the calendar.

The first is the origin of the word calendar itself. In the Roman system of reckoning dates the kalendae, or kalends, was the first day of the month. (The singular form kalend or calend is sometimes found English, but in Latin the word is always plural.) Kalendae literally means accounts, and debts were due on the first day of the month, hence the name.

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rabbit test / the rabbit died

The term rabbit test dates to 1949 and is a reference to an early form or pregnancy test. In the 1920s, researchers discovered a hormone dubbed human chorionic gonadotropin or HCG found in the urine of pregnant women. Unable to test for this hormone directly, they discovered in 1927 that if a female rabbit was injected with urine containing HCG (don’t ask me who first thought of doing this, I don’t think I want to know), the rabbit’s ovaries would display distinct changes after a few days. Hence, the term rabbit test was born, first appearing in the index of De Lee’s Safeguarding Motherhood. Speert’s 1958 Obstetric and Gynecologic Milestones has this:

The urine of pregnant women contains a gonadotrophic substance simulating the secretion of the anterior pituitary in its effect on the mouse ovary. Applying this observation to the rabbit, Friedman proceeded to develop the pregnancy test known by his name, popularly as the “rabbit test.”

A common misconception is that that the rabbit died if the woman was pregnant. Actually, the rabbit always died as the laboratory had to kill the animal to examine the ovaries (later on techniques were developed to spare the life of the rabbit—after which the rabbit never died). But because of this misconception the phrase the rabbit died entered the vocabulary as a euphemism for a positive pregnancy test.

Modern pregnancy tests still operate on the same principle, testing for HCG. But the use of a rabbit is no longer required.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


The word quiz is of unknown origin. There are several different senses of quiz, which may or may not be etymologically related.

The oldest sense is that of a strange or eccentric person. It’s pretty much archaic today, but survives in the adjective quizzical. This sense dates to 1782 when it appears in The Early Diary of Frances Burney for 24 June of that year:

He’s a droll quiz, and I rather like him.

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q.t., on the

On the q.t. is slang for quietly. q.t.. is an abbreviation for quiet. The phrase dates to at least 1884 when it appears in George Moore’s A Mummer’s Wife:

It will be possible to have one spree on the strict q.t.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


This self-referential American term is of uncertain origin. The most likely source of the word is the Dutch nickname Janke, a diminutive of Jan (John).  Although it must be said that this is not the only possible explanation.

Use as a nickname for a person is attested to from the 1680s. The Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, an archive of British government documents, has this from 1683:

They sailed from Bonaco..; chief commanders, Vanhorn, Laurens, and Yankey Duch.

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world war

One question that pops up on this site’s discussion forum from time to time is when did World War I get its number? When did people start to refer to that war as the first (as opposed to only)?

The term world war appears in the Westminster Gazette of 8 April 1909, in reference to a hypothetical future war involving the great nations of Europe:

This...is the type of dirigible by which in a world-war...360,000 German troops could be transported from Calais to Dover in half an hour.

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Like many other etymologies contained in these pages, this pejorative American Slang term for an Italian is not certain, although most authorities agree on the likely origin. It probably derives from the Italian dialectal guappo, or thug. This in turn derives from the Spanish guapo, meaning a dashing braggart or bully, and which eventually derives from the Latin vappa, meaning flat wine or scoundrel.

The earliest usage, spelled wap, in the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1912 and is in Arthur Train’s Courts, Criminals, and the Camorra:

There is a society of criminal young men in New York City...They are known by the euphonious name of “Waps” or “Jacks.” These are young Italian-Americans who allow themselves to be supported by one or two women...They form one variety of the many gangs that infest the city.

The more familiar spelling appears by 1914 in Jackson and Hellyer’s A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang:

Wop, noun. Used principally in the east. An ignorant person; a foreigner; an impossible character...Example: “You couldn’t find a jitney with a search warrant in this bunch of wops.”

Like wog, wop is often mistakenly thought to be an acronym. In this case, standing for With Out Passport, supposedly used on Ellis Island to designate immigrants without proper papers.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)


Wog is a chiefly British word is a holdover from the days of the Empire and is a disparaging term for a non-European, especially someone from India, an Arab, or any other Asian. The origin is not known for certain, but it is widely thought to be a clipping golliwog, the name of a black-faced doll in Bertha Upton’s 1895 book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog:

Then all look round, as well they may
To see a horrid sight!
The blackest gnome
Stands there alone,
They scatter in their fright.

With kindly smile he nearer draws;
Begs them to feel no fear.
“What is your name?”
Cries Sarah Jane;
“The ‘Golliwogg’ my dear.”

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with a grain of salt

This catchphrase is a translation from Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, written c. 77 A.D.. The Latin is often quoted as cum grano salis, but this is incorrect. Pliny actually wrote addito salis grano. The full passage, from Book 23, section 149, is:

In sancutariis Mithridatis, maximi regis, devicit Cn. Pompeius invenit in peculiari commentario ipsius manu conpositionem antidoti e II nucibus siccis, item ficis totidem et rutae foliis XX simul tritis, addito salis grano: ei, qui hoc ieiunus sumat, nullum venenum nociturum illo die.
(After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.)

So to take something with a grain of salt is to guard against its noxious effects.

Use of the phrase in English dates to 1647 when it appears in John Trapp’s Commentary on Revelation of John:

This is to be taken with a grain of salt.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Yale Book of Quotations; Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University)

Windy City, the

Chicago is known as the Windy City, but where does this nickname come from? Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. The nickname is a reference to the winds off Lake Michigan, with perhaps a bit of a double entendre referencing Chicago’s self-promotion as a bunch of hot air.

The nickname has been around for nearly 150 years, with the earliest known appearance of the name Windy City in a headline in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel on 4 July 1860:

We are proud of Milwaukee because she is not overrun with a lazy police force as is Chicago—because her morals are better, he [sic] criminals fewer, her credit better; and her taxes lighter in proportion to her valuation than Chicago, the windy city of the West.

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