Zach Selwyn: 5 Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases

Slang does not really get misused—but the origins of slang words and phrases in the American language come from some interesting places. So when you think a slang term stems from a definition you may have heard over the years, you use it thinking it means what you were told—(eventually it takes on this type of meaning ) but here are 5 great examples that we featured on my TV show, “America’s Secret Slang,” on H2.

5 Blockbuster

Image Credit: Trebomb

This has nothing to do with the video store or a movie that is so popular the line goes around the block. It comes from World War II, when new bombs were unveiled that could destroy entire city blocks. The term evolved to mean anything that is so popular it breaks records and people everywhere respond to it.

4 Full of Baloney

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Does not mean you are foolish and “full of weird made up materials or ideas” as related to the meat bologna, although it has evolved to mean that today. The word for mouth in Gaelic is beal and the word for foolish is ogna—combine the two and you get bealogna which meant “foolish mouth.”

3 Cry Uncle

Image Credit: Jason Lam

It is not because your uncle was beating you up because they were abusive back in the day. It comes from the Irish word for “mercy” which is “anacal.” So when you used the old Gaelic word anacal you were crying mercy… or giving up. Americans heard “uncle.”

2 Ten Gallon Hat

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Not about the size of a guy’s huge hat or a hat being able to hold 10 gallons of water… Comes from the Spanish word “Galan” which means handsome—describing the tall handsome vaqueros who wore these hats… But some say it also comes from the Spanish word “Galon” which means “braid.” Some vaqueros wore as many as ten braided hatbands on their sombreros, and those were called “ten galón hats.” English speakers heard “gallon.”

1 Redneck

Image Credit: Aaron E. Silvers

This does not refer to a farmer in the field with a red neck. It originally comes from Scotland in the 1640s. The Covenanters rejected rule by bishops and wore red cloth around their neck to signify their position, and were called rednecks by the Scottish ruling class to denote that they were the rebels in what came to be known as The Bishop’s War. When the Scots-Irish people settled in the southern United States the term came with them and has evolved over the years.

Keep up with Zach and his adventures in the evolution of language at his website.

Slang isn’t the only thing we’ve been getting wrong. Check out these 5 Common Misquotes!

Have you ever wondered what the Top 5 Longest Things Ever Written were?

Zack Selwyn is the host of "America's Secret Slang" on H2. He has traveled extensively doing diligent research into the origins of particular slang words and phrases. He also hosts "Guinness World Records: Unleashed" on TruTV and has been featured in dozens of film and TV roles as a host and actor. He fronts a country rock band as well called Zachariah & the Lobos Riders.

0 thoughts on “Zach Selwyn: 5 Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases”

  1. Out of the five words above, two of them are completely and definitely wrong. There is no evidence of anacal being used like this in Irish and indeed, the phrase “Cry Uncle” isnt used in Ireland. Surely if it came from Irish, it would be found in Hiberno-English?This claim was first made by a lunatic called Daniel Cassidy, who also claimed that baloney comes from a phrase béal ónna (I dont know where your incompetent researchers got beal ogna from.) Beal ónna is also fake Irish and has never existed in the language. Most of the claims made in your programme concerning Irish are from Cassidys book and therefore rubbish.There are various theories about the origin of ten-gallon hat and your claim is no more likely than the others. This is an example of what is called certainty creep, where a possible gets transformed into a probable and then a certainty. The same goes for Rednecks. The claim about Scotland is correct but there is no evidence that this is really the origin of the American term, which is just as likely to come from the idea of them having scorched necks from working in the fields all day. So that one is somewhere between not-proven and unlikely.Blockbuster is right. So, one out of five, then. Not much to be proud of there. Lets hope it doesnt reflect the overall quality of the research in your programme. Unfortunately, I think it probably does.

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