10 English Words with Surprising Chinese Origins

Heinz Ketchup

You might have heard that in recent years that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added several words from Singapore English into their corpus. A few of our favorites include blur or blur-blur, being slow in understanding; lepak, meaning to relax, loaf, or hang out; and shiok, meaning great, delicious, superb.

But how about common English words with Chinese roots? Today we take a look at 10 everyday English words you might not know come from Chinese languages, just in time for the Lunar New Year.


While ketchup may seem as American as the burgers and fries you slather it on, both the word and the condiment have Chinese origins.

The earliest citation for the word ketchup in English is from 1682, says the OED. It began as a kind of “piquant sauce produced in southeast Asia, probably made from fermented soybeans or fish.” The Malay word it might come from is kicap, “fish sauce,” from the Cantonese, kē-chap. Later ketchup referred to a sauce made in imitation of the fish sauce, “typically made from the juice or pulp of a fruit, vegetable, or other foodstuff combined with vinegar or wine and spices.”

In other words, ketchup wasn’t necessarily made with tomatoes, at least not at first. Back in the day, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the “most esteemed kinds” of ketchup were mushroom, walnut, and tomato, which emerged around 1800 in the U.S. and predominated from the early 20th century.

Now how about catsup? It’s just another pronunciation and spelling of the original Asian word, says Mental Floss. The OED says the variation came slightly after ketchup, around 1696, and that perhaps because of “influence from major commercial brands of sauce,” the latter became the dominant term in the mid 20th century.


Have a yen burger and fries now? You’ve got what was once known as a craving for drugs. The word yen probably comes from the Cantonese yan or Mandarin yin, of the same meaning. Yen-yen is U.S. slang for a opium hankering, says the OED.


According to Brainwashing: The science of thought control by Kathleen Taylor, xinao, which translates literally from Chinese as “wash brain,” originally referred to coercive persuasion tactics used under the Maoist government, which began in 1949. The English word, brainwashing, was first used in 1951, says the OED, referring to “the systematic and often forcible elimination from a person’s mind of all established ideas, esp. political ones, so that another set of ideas may take their place.”


This word meaning tip or gratuity comes from the Xiamen (formerly Amoy) Chinese dialect, says the OED. Kam-sia, “grateful thanks,” was apparently an expression of gratitude used by beggars.


While tycoon now means rich and powerful businessperson or magnate, it was once the title for a Japanese shogun. The Japanese taikun comes from the Chinese ta kiun, “great prince.”


A literal and figurative act of servile deference. In Chinese culture, to kowtow, or kòu tóu, refers to the custom of touching one’s forehead to the ground as a form of “respect, submission, or worship,” says the OED. In English kowtow also refers to acting in an obsequious manner or an obsequious act.


The origin of this term for a quick survey is described by the OED as either “a borrowing from Chinese Pidgin English” or “formed within English.” Look-see started as a verb (from 1862: “I went up to ‘look see’, and found that they were working away admirably”) although that usage is now rare. The earliest use as a noun is from 1876.

no can do

This phrase meaning “No go” or “Not possible” might be a transliteration of the Mandarin bùkěyǐ. While no can do first appeared in English in 1868, says the OED, the positive version, can do, is earlier, from 1845. The noun sense is even earlier (1839) while the adjective, often referring to an optimistic attitude, is from 1926.

gung ho

Gung ho meaning enthusiastic and dedicated originated as a motto of “certain U.S. Marine forces in Asia during World War II,” says the American Heritage Dictionary, and comes from the Mandarin gōnghé, “to work together,” an abbreviation of gōngyèhézuòshè, Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society.


Chop-chop!” or “Hurry up!” might be a corruption of the Cantonese term for “rush,” gap gap, or the Mandarin kuai kuai, “quick quick.” This chop is apparently the same as in chopsticks, or kuai zi in Mandarin, “fast ones.” While chop-chop first appeared in English in 1834, says the OED, chopstick was first used much earlier, in 1699.

The language of gossip

Duck Gossip

When we heard about Ear Hustle, we thought it was a great idea for a podcast, but also a great term for gossip. That got us wondering about all the different ways we talk about idle talk, whether in different parts of the U.S., England, and other English-speaking countries. Take a listen at the language of gossip.

The etymology of a gossip

The word gossip didn’t always refer to a rumormonger. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated around 1014 to mean a godmother or godfather, and came from the Old English godsibb, which had the same meaning.

By the late 14th century, the word also meant a familiar acquaintance, friend, or chum, and in 1600 referred to “a woman’s female friends invited to be present at a birth.” From Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Sometime lurke I in a gossippes bole, In very likenesse of a rosted crabbe.”

Around the same time or slightly earlier, gossip gained the familiar meaning of someone “of light and trifling character” who “delights in idle talk” while the term came to refer to idle talk itself around 1811.

Regional nicknames for blabbermouths

Another gossipy old word is long tongue. This 16th-century term can refer to talkativeness itself, says the OED, or a talkative someone who’s prone to “revealing secrets.” The earliest citation in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is from 1899 with scattered usage throughout the United States, including Virginia, central Pennsylvania, Utah, Indiana, New York, Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

In Utah you might also hear blathergab while blab-fest, “a gathering of people for talking or gossip,” might be blabbed in Connecticut and Indiana, and blabber-fest in New Jersey. In California, Mississippi, and Ohio, someone who goes poking into other people’s business might be called a nosy Rosy while a meeting of gossipers would be Nosy Rosies.

In Irish English a nosy parker might be called a pant. Short for pantomime, says the OED, it also refers to a prank or caper, in addition to talk or rumors, or the gossiper himself. Caribbean English has macomere, which has a similar etymology as gossip. Coming from French — ma commere translates as “my child’s godmother” — it first referred to the godmother of one’s child or the mother of one’s godchild, and later came to be “a term of affectionate respect for any female friend.” It also has the derogatory meaning of an old woman or gossip as well as an effeminate man.

How we talk about idle talk

Dirt. Buzz. Chatter. Those are all ways you might refer to gossip. But if you’re in California, Georgia, Nebraska, or Texas, you might say hash or pig hash, according to DARE.

Street yarn is an early American English expression for gossip or idle talk. DARE says it’s usually used in the phrase spin street yarn, meaning to gossip, while a street-yarn spinner is someone who gossips. DARE’s earliest citation is from 1782 in the Papers of Robert Morris: “It would be out of my Power to neglect my Business having nothing to divert me from it unless to spin Street Yarn.” The term has recorded usage in Ohio, parts of New York, Kentucky, Connecticut, parts of Vermont, and New England in general.

The Scots are not to be left out of the scuttlebutt conversation (scuttlebutt, by the way, originally referred to the drinking fountain on a ship, around which sailors would gather to chew the rumor-filled fat). The Scots clish-clash is imitative in origin as is clish-ma-claver. In Jamaican English, labrish works as a noun, verb, or adjective. The word might come from blab, says the OED, or the echoic laba, to chatter, or laba-laba, talkative.

In Trinidad and Tabago and hear some old talk? You’re hearing it through the grapevine. The OED says it might be short for “old people talk.” Meanwhile over in South African, hearsay or to engage in hearsay might be referred to as skinder. The word might come from Afrikaans skinder, which has the same meaning, says the OED. That might come from the Dutch schender, “person who corrupts, injures, or damages another person or thing.”

Can we talk?

There are many ways to describe actually engaging in gossip. You might carry a bone, says DARE, at least in Chicago and parts of Indiana and Massachusetts. This might be related with the sayings bone of contention, the subject of a dispute (coming from the idea of two dogs fighting over a bone) and have a bone to pick, meaning to have a complaint or grievance with someone.

In Virginia you might drink one’s milk from a saucer, with the idea of being “catty.” In the South Midland states, you might pack news or tales. In the Ozarks and parts of Tennessee, you could tat, while in the South and South Midland states you might tote.

How do you talk about gossip?

Mutts, Mongrels, and Curs: 12 Regional Slang Terms


We don’t think we’ve met a doggo we didn’t like, but there’s something about mutts and mongrels that tugs extra hard at our heartstrings. We’re not talking designer dog blends but those curs of more mixed or indeterminate breeds.

The names are as varied as the tykes themselves, and often change depending on where you live. The Dictionary of Regional American English (DARE) has captured much of these through their 1,800 field recordings (now freely available online) from across the United States. On this National Dog Day, we bring you 12 of those regional slang terms for mutts, mongrels, and curs.

Heinz dog

Heinz dog is used throughout the U.S., says DARE. In addition to a dog of mixed or indeterminate breed, it’s a joking or uncomplimentary word for a dog in general. The term has a kennel of variants, including Heinz, Heinz 57, Heinz fifty-seven dog, fifty-seven varieties dog, Heinz mixture, Heinz terrier, and Heinzee hound.

The name comes from the Heinz Company’s advertising of its ketchup, which “somewhat mysteriously brags about the company’s ‘57 Varieties,’” says FastCo Design. However, there have never been 57 varieties of Heinz products. Company founder Henry J. Heinz was inspired by an ad for a company that made “21 varieties” of shoes, and came up with 57 by using his favorite number, five, and his wife’s, seven.

poi dog

Hailing from the Aloha State, this mongrel moniker once referred to a native Hawaiian breed that’s now extinct. It’s also a slur for someone of native Hawaiian ancestry. The DARE interviewees offer a few different theories for the origin. One is that the native breed was either “fattened on poi and served at feasts,” or served at said feasts along with poi. Another is that “poi is a mixture just like a mongrel is.”

sofkee dog

Got a mutt in Florida or Oklahoma? You’ve got a sofkee dog. Also sofkey, sofki, and sophky. The word sofkee comes from Muskogee (Creek) Nation safki and refers to a soup or gruel whose main ingredient is boiled corn, also known in some parts as hominy. Hominy comes from the Virginia Algonquian uskatahomen.

soup hound

All a soup hound’s fit to do is eat, says an Alabama resident. Might also be heard in parts of California, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Washington. The nickname might have to do with the idea of soup being mixed and having a variety of ingredients.


This saying for a hound, usually of mixed breed, or any nondescript dog, is from the Gulf States, which includes Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, and eastern Texas. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it’s also a Caribbean term, and in North America once referred to a contemptible person. Someone who’s pot-licking is an obsequious brown noser.


Have a mixed pooch in Louisiana and you have a kyoodle, also spelled cayoodle, kiyutle, and kiyoodle. The OED says this expression means to make a loud noise, or to bark or yap, and is imitative in origin.

But which came first, kyoodle the dog or kyoodle the woof? The former it seems. The OED’s earliest citation is from John Steinbeck’s 1935 novel, Tortilla Flat: “The dogs..sought out a rabbit and went kyoodling after it.” DARE’s is from the 1906 My Old Bailiwick by Owen Kildare: “So you was going to have me arrested for finishing that kyoodle o’ your’n?”


If you’re an outlaw in southeast Alabama or south-central Louisiana, you’re a fugitive or a farrago or a fido. Another animal definition includes a horse that is unmanageable, chiefly uttered in the West.


While English and Irish setters were “originally trained to indicate the presence of game by crouching in a set position,” the only setting this cur in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio might do is on the edge of the road.

In addition to stones that make up a curb, curbstone also refers to someone untrained or unsophisticated, and by extension could refer to a mangy mutt. This sense might come from curbstone broker, which, according to the OED, means a broker who’s not a member of the stock exchange but who “transacts business in the streets.”


A small potpourri pup might be called a feist in the South and South Midland states. The term has many variations, including fais(t), faus(t), fife, and fist(e), and is a shortening of fisting-hound or foisting-hound, which ultimately comes from fist meaning to break wind. By extension, says DARE, it can also refer to  “a person or animal that is irascible, touchy, or bad-tempered.”

hound dog

“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” sang Elvis. So it might not be surprising that this mongrel expression is popular in the Lower Mississippi Valley, which includes parts of Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as Texas and the South Atlantic states.

hush puppy

In addition to deep-fried cornmeal and the brand name of a soft, lightweight shoe, a hush puppy might refer to a mongrel hunting dog in Alabama.

soon(er) dog

A sooner or sooner man is a lazy, good-for-nothing person, says DARE, ironically playing on sooner meaning the opposite, a quick or clever person. By extension is the South and South Midland sooner dog, as describes an east Tennessee resident: “I’ve got a sooner dog. He’d sooner lay in the house as out in the yard.”

Another meaning of sooner is someone “who settled homestead land in the western United States before it was officially made available, in order to have first choice of location,” and perhaps by extension, a resident of Oklahoma.

The language of sneakers


Adidas or Reeboks. Pumas or Jordans. Keds or Vans. Whatever kind you wear, they all have one thing in common. They’re called sneakers.

Or are they? Just as there are innumerable sneaker brands and styles, there are a plethora of names for that casual, rubber-soled shoe. Here we take a look at some of them from across the United States and around the globe.

“Sneaker” or “tennis shoe”?

Sneaker and tennis shoe are neck and neck for most popular term in the U.S. According to the Harvard Dialect Survey, 45.5% of Americans say sneaker while 41.34% say tennis shoe.

The use of sneaker, says the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), is widespread but somewhat more frequent in the Northeast and North Central states. Meanwhile, tennis shoe is less frequent in the Northeast.

While sneaker is slightly more popular than tennis shoe, the latter is about eight years older. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from Rudyard Kipling’s 1887 short story, “The Bisara of Pooree“: “It was his wizenedness and worthlessness that made him fall so hopelessly in love with Miss Hollis, who was good and sweet, and five-foot-seven in her tennis-shoes.”

Some sneaky (and tennie) variations

While sneaker and tennis shoe dominate U.S. vernacular, you might hear some variations thereof.

In the Northeast, someone might say sneaks for sneakers. In western Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region, tennis shoes might be called tenners. Scattered throughout the country but chiefly in the western Great Lakes, Iowa, and the West (but not the Northwest), you might get tennie, while in the Northwest the preferred term seems to be tennie-runner. In the Southern region, you might hear tennie-pump, tennies, or simply tennis.

More U.S. sneaker slang

Regional variations don’t stop at these alterations. Back in the day, you might have heard ball shoe in the South Midland states. Going for a run in southern Louisiana? You’ll need your decks, short for the sneaker-esque deck shoe. In Montana, Ohio, and Mississippi, your tennies might be known as quick starts while in the Gulf States and South Carolina, you might take a walk in your easy walkers.

Highs and lows

Sneakers are referred to by their style. Low-top meaning any low-topped shoe or boot originated in 1892, says the OED, and came to refer specifically to sneakers in the late 1980s. As for high-top, the OED’s first mention is from 1895, again meaning a regular shoe or boot, while the sneaker meaning is from 1985.

So that’s how sneaker slang runs in the U.S. How about across the pond?

Running shoes, training shoes, and runners

The oldest term for a rubber-soled athletic shoe in British English seems to be running shoe, which originated around 1666, says the OED. (According to the Harvard Dialect Survey, about 1.42% of Americans refer to their Nikes as such.) Almost 200 years later, training shoe came about, and another 130 years later, the shortened trainer, which is also used in Glasgow, Scotland, says lexicographer Susie Dent in her book How to Talk Like a Local: From Cockney to Geordie, a national companion. The Australian English runner is from 1970.


First appearing in print in 1885, according to the OED, the now genericized brand name was suggested in 1876 by “an energetic sales representative” of the Liverpool Rubber Company “for the new canvas rubber shoes or sand shoes then becoming fashionable for wear on seaside beaches.” The shoes’ rubber band reminded the sales rep of the Plimsoll Line, which marks “the limit of safety to which merchant ships can be loaded.” Similarly, the shoes’ own “water-band” marked how far they could be immersed in water and still remain “water-tight.”

Variations include plimmies and plimsoles, influenced by sole, the underside of a shoe or foot, and used by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake: “Their blankets and materny mufflers and plimsoles.”

For even more on plimsolls and sneaker speak, check out this great post from Fritinancy.

Pump(s) up the jam

Like Dent says, the word pump has been used to describe a variety of shoes since 1555, including a “close-fitting, low-heeled shoe,” slippers, and a shoe for acrobats and dancers. It seems to be around 1897, says the OED, that pumps also referred to sneakers. From the Sears, Roebuck catalog: “Men’s gymnasium shoes… Men’s low cut canvas pumps, canvas sole, [etc.].” Now pump is a regional term, which, says Dent, “dominates the North and Midlands.”

Track shoes and daps

About a decade after pump came track-shoe, followed in 1924 by dap, which might come from the verb sense of the same word meaning to dip lightly, or to skip or bounce.

Sannies, gutties, and tackies (oh my)

According to Dent, sandshoes or sannies have been around since the mid-19th century, and are standard terms in Scotland as well as “the North-East as far south as Hull.”

Gutties is another sneaker saying from Scotland. According to the Herald Scotland, guttie comes from gutta-percha, “a rubbery substance derived from the latex” of certain tropical trees, and “used as an electrical insulator, as a waterproofing compound, and in golf balls” (A gutta or gutty is a golf ball made of such material.) Gutta-percha is Malay in origin, where getah means “sap” and perca, “strip of cloth.”

Tackies is said in South Africa, but the word is “apparently not Afrikaans,” says the OED. It might come from tacky meaning slight sticky or gummy to the touch.

What are you wearing? Mutton dummy.

The curious and wonderful mutton dummy is a Northern Irish term. According to the Oxford Living Dictionaries, it might have originated in the 1930s, “possibly from mutton cloth, ‘a type of cotton cloth used to wrap meat’ (from the resemblance to the material from which the shoes are made),” and dummy, “with reference to the lack of noise they make.”

Puss boot is from Jamaican English, and probably represents “a humorous folk reference to the soft tread of a person in such shoes,” says the OED.

What do you call sneakers?



Our Favorite Eponyms: 10 Common Words Named After People


It’s Bowdler’s Day, which, while not exactly a day to celebrate (it’s the birthday of Thomas Bowdler, an English physician best known for publishing a censored edition of Shakespeare), does give us an excuse to write about eponyms like bowdlerize, or to remove or change parts of a text considered offensive or vulgar. Here are 10 more common words you might not know come from the names of people.


“He [sc. Mr Savelle] advised the people to ‘Boycott’ any man who betrayed them by taking such land.”

Glasgow Herald, November 1, 1880

Long before it was Twitter hashtag and call to action, boycott was the name of one Charles C. Boycott, an English land agent in Ireland. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Boycott refused to lower the rent for his tenant farmers, resulting in ostracism by the Irish Land League as well as the prompt adoption of his name to mean to abstain from using, buying, or dealing with as a form of protest.


“The Bee says the daughter of Dr. Hanson, of this city, appeared in the Bloomer suit … last week.”

Boston Evening Transcript, May 27, 1851

Perhaps you thought these old-timey women’s trousers were named for the way they seem to bloom from waist to knee, but they were actually in honor of women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer, who promoted and wore them herself instead of the long skirts and confining corsets of the time.


“Norris and Warner want to be fashionable. They are cultivating side-burns.”

Indianapolis People, April 8, 1876

Hipsters everywhere can thank Civil War Union general A.E. Burnside for this facial hair fad. Burnside refers specifically to a style of beard with a mustache, whiskers on the cheeks, and a clean-shaven chin. Sideburn, just the hair from temple down, is an alteration of the burnside and perhaps influenced by side-whisker.


Leotards … are used by acrobats and aerial performers.”

J.W. Mansfield, Letter, January 1920

French acrobat and aerialist Jules Léotard gave us a lot. He developed the art of trapeze and inspired the song, “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” He also popularized and gave his name to the stretchy one-piece garment favored by dancers, gymnasts, and aerobics enthusiasts.


“Of nicotin. This substance exists in the leaves of the nicotiana latifolia, or tobacco, and gives that plant its peculiar properties.”

Thomas Thomson, A System of Chemistry, In Four Volumes, 1817

This “colorless, poisonous alkaloid” is “used as an insecticide.” It’s also the addictive substance in tobacco. Jean Nicot was a 16th-century French ambassador and lexicographer, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). When he returned from Portugal, he brought back tobacco, which was an instant hit in the royal court.

The word nicotian, named after Nicot, first referred to the tobacco plant itself. By the early 19th century, nicotine referred to the substance in tobacco.


“Carr would almost have forgotten her existence, had it not been for those eyes which mesmerised him every now and then, in spite of himself.”

Hamilton Aïdé, Carr of Carrlyon, 1862

You might be mesmerized to know the word mesmerize comes from the name of an Austrian physician. Friedrich Anton Mesmer was a proponent of mesmerism, a kind of hypnotism that involves animal magnetism, a special power one holds over others. Later, the term came to mean magnetic charm or sex appeal in general.


“We … will crush radicals, greenbackers and all other foes of democracy, especially those independent gentlemen, those political mavericks.”

The Galveston Daily News, August 19, 1884

If you’re a maverick, you might be a dissenter or independent thinker. Or you might be an unbranded calf. Either way you might also be named for Samuel A. Maverick, a Texas lawyer who refused to brand his cattle.


“He was wounded on the mouth and ankle by a piece of shrapnel.”

Highland Light Infantry Chronicle, October 1914

The word shrapnel is named for General Henry Shrapnel, a British army officer who “invented a type of exploding, fragmenting shell” consisting of “a hollow cannon ball, filled with shot, which burst in mid-air.” The general’s less catchy moniker for his invention was “spherical case ammunition.”


“But now in our age it is growne to be a common prouerbe in derision, to call such a person as is senselesse or without learning a Duns, which is as much as a foole.”

Francis Thynne, Holinshed’s Chronicles, 1587

The word dunce hasn’t always meant, well, dunce. Named for Scottish scholastic theologian John Duns Scotus, it first referred to a follower of Duns’s teachings, says the OED. Then it gained the derisive meaning of “a hair-splitting reasoner,” due to later philosophers who ridiculed his work, as well as “a dull pedant” and finally someone dull-witted.

Dunce cap might have first been used by Charles Dickens in his novel, The Old Curiosity Shop: “Displayed on hooks upon the wall in all their terrors, were the cane and ruler; and near them, on a small shelf of its own, the dunce’s cap, made of old newspapers and decorated with glaring wafers of the largest size.”


“The following are live-bearing tropicals: … Guppy (Lebistes reticulatus). Males small and brilliantly colored.”

Aquatic Life, November 1925

This small, brightly-colored fish is named for Robert John Lechmere Guppy, the British-born naturalist “who sent the first recorded specimen to the British Museum,” according to the OED.

Of course this is all just the tip of the eponymic iceberg. Check out this list for a lot more common words derived from names, as well as toponyms (words from place names) and genericized trademarks.

What are some of your favorite eponyms?

The language of colors

One of our favorite “buzzworthy” words so far this year is the Japanese mizu. Translating as “water,” mizu isn’t just a shade of blue but a light blue its own color, as GOOD puts it. That got us wondering about other colorful untranslatables.

Kind of blues

What color is this?


Pink, right? Not “light red” (and certainly not Millennial Pink). Just as English speakers automatically differentiate between pink and red, speakers of other languages do the same for what we call light blue and dark blue. (In Chinese, by the way, pink, fěn hóng or “powder red,” is considered a shade of red.)

Modern Hebrew has Tchelet for light blue and Kachol for dark. Turkish considers navy blue, or lacivert, separate from light blue, what they call mavi, with lacivert coming from the Persian word for “lapis lazuli” and mavi coming from the Arabic word for “water.” Russian speakers do the same with light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy).

Now you might think that regardless of color words, we must all perceive color the same way, right? Researchers at MIT would say wrong. A study from 2007 found that native Russian speakers were quicker to distinguish light from dark blues than native English speakers.

No blues

It might be hard to imagine a world without blue. It’s the favorite color of the majority of Americans (at least according to a few different surveys). Crayola has about 35 shades of it (not including their newest one which you can help name). Then there’s that damned dress.

But some ancient cultures may not have had the color, or at least didn’t make the distinction from others. Business Insider (by way of Science Alert) says several ancient texts don’t contain the word “blue.” For instance, “in the Odyssey, Homer describes the ocean as ‘wine-dark’ and other strange hues, but he never uses the word ‘blue’.” A philologist analyzed “ancient Icelandic, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew texts, to find no mention of the word blue.” The Egyptians, the only culture at the time to make blue dyes, seem to be the first to have a word for that particular hue.

It’s not easy being blue/green

Some modern languages also don’t make the distinction between blue and green. Pashto, a language in Iran, uses the same word, shīn. To make the distinction, a Pashto speaker might say “shīn like the sky” or “shīn like the grass.” Vietnamese is similar, using xanh for both and specifying “like the sky” or “like the leaves.”

The Yukatek Maya language uses yax while the Yebamasa of the Rio Piraparana region in Colombia say sumese. Bantu languages Zulu, Xhosa, and Tswana also use the same word for both colors. Zulu and Xhosa employ the suffix -luhlaza while Tswana uses tala.

Just a few hues

The Himba people of Namibia not only call blue and green by the same name, they have only four color terms total (other languages have 11 or 12). Buru refers to particular shades of green and blue; dambu to red, brown, and other shades of green; zuzu to dark shades of blue, red, green, and purple; and vapa to white and some shades of yellow.

So if having two different words for light and dark blue affects native Russian speakers’ perception of color, how does having fewer color words affect Himba people’s perception? Jules Davidoff of Goldsmiths University of London conducted a study with some Himba members and found they had a difficult time distinguishing blue from green. However, they were able to detect very subtle differences between shades of green.

Red-green, you’re being impossible

Then there are what are called impossible or forbidden colors — that is, colors the human eye can’t see.

As How Stuff Works explains it, color-sensing cells called cones are what make us able to see certain colors. Other cells called opponent neurons process electrical signals from the cones. The two types of opponent neurons — red-green and blue-yellow — signal, respectively, either red or green and either blue or yellow, but not both. Which is why the human eye can’t detect blue-yellow or red-green. (Keep in mind blue-yellow and red-green are colors on their own, not a mixture of two.)

However, some experiments have shown it’s possible to see impossible hues. You can even train yourself to see them.

Colors of invention

Now how about those colors that only exist in fictional worlds? As you can imagine, there are a lot. Here are a few of our favorites.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, hooloovoo is highly intelligent, sentient shade of blue. The Doctor of Doctor Who mentions seeing one in the episode, The Rings of Akhaten: “There go some Panbabylonians. A Lugal-Irra-Kush. Some Lucanians. A Hooloovoo.”

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, octarine, a kind of fluorescent greenish-yellow purple, is the color of magic. Also referred to as the eighth color (in addition to red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), it can only be seen by cats and wizards. The prefix octa- means eight while the suffix -ine means “of or relating to.”

In The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, fuligin is a color that’s described as “darker than black” and “the color of soot.” The term fuligin might come from fūlīgō, the Latin word for soot. Real-life blacker than black colors include super black, which NASA developed to absorb light across multiple wavelength bands, and Vantablack, a kind of super black material which absorbs “all but 0.035 percent of visible light.”

What are some of your favorite color words?

Words from Walt Whitman: More Than Barbaric Yawps


While best known for his “barbaric yawp,” poet and journalist Walt Whitman was also the creator of words, several of which we still use today. On his birthday, we take a look at six words and phrases Whitman coined or popularized.

open road

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road!”

Song of the Open Road,” 1857

The term open road originally referred to a country road, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “outside the urban areas, where unimpeded driving is possible.” The figurative sense of “freedom of movement” was first used by Whitman in a poem in his collection, Leaves of Grass.


“Besides the hospitals, I also go occasionally on long tours through the camps, talking with the men, &c. Sometimes at night among the groups around the fires, in their shebang enclosures of bushes.”

Specimen Days,” The Complete Prose Works of Walt Whitman, 1862

Before shebang became the whole shebang, Whitman used it to mean a shanty or temporary living quarters. He might have picked it up from Civil War soldiers who, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, popularized the phrase. The word might be an alteration of shebeen, meaning an unlicensed drinking establishment, but the tavern sense of shebang came after the Civil War.

Shebang came to mean any situation or matter of concern around 1869 or earlier, says the OED, which lists Mark Twain’s as the earliest recorded usage: “I like the book, I like you and your style and your business vim, and believe the chebang will be a success.”


Trib: of July 4 to Rob’t Buchanan, Oban S.”

Daybook, 1878

Whitman may have been the first to nickname a U.S. newspaper with “tribune” in its title (e.g., the Chicago Tribune) the Trib.


“There shall be countless linked hands—namely, the Northeasterner‘s, and the Northwesterner’s, and the Southwesterner’s, and those of the interior.”

Leaves of Grass, 1860

If you call yourself a northeasterner, you have Whitman to thank. He was also the first to use native state words Kansian, Oregonese, and Utahan.


“When the fire-flashing guns have fully alerted me.”

A Broadway Pageant,” 1860

Before the 20th century, using alert as a verb was rare, says the OED. Whitman’s is the earliest recorded usage.


“Some three or four hundred more escapees from the confederate army came up on the boat.”

Specimen Days,” 1875–1876

While Whitman’s recorded usage is from the 1870s, the Online Etymology Dictionary says escapee came about in American English around 1865, perhaps, like shebang, in association with Civil War soldiers.