Say What? The Literal Meanings of 30 English Words

November 12, 2014 2:04 PM

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Delving into the origins and etymologies of words often unearths some unexpected stories. Take a word like treadmill, for instance. Depending on what you think of the gym, you might not be too surprised to find that the original treadmill was invented as a hard labor punishment used in Victorian prisons. Inmates would be made to trudge away for hours at a time on a vast revolving mill, like a never-ending staircase, which would grind grain or crush rocks as it turned. Even Oscar Wilde was made to toil on one during his imprisonment in the mid 1890s, recounting in The Ballad of Reading Gaol how "We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns, / And sweated on the mill".

That story might seem surprising, but the word treadmill itself isn't all that unexpected -- after all, the laborious Victorian treadmill was literally nothing more than a "treading-mill". Elsewhere in the language, however, things become much more peculiar when the literal meanings of the words we ...

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