Epiphanies about the meanings of words and phrases

I only today, at 28 years of age, realized what the word “chain-smoking” means. I’ve been aware of the word for at least twenty years, and I’ve always thought it simply meant “smoking a lot”. A couple of hours ago, I read a passage in Alex Garland’s The Beach saying how his main character “chain-smoked two and a half cigarettes” while waiting, and it dawned on me that of course it means smoking several cigarettes in direct sequence. It’s so obvious now that I can’t believe I’ve missed it.

Another example is from a Mad Magazine cartoon I read as a kid. I’m not a native English speaker, and this cartoon was published in English with translation for those who didn’t get it; I guess as an educational dealio. It was about two kids fighting over a swimming pool and their mother chiding them for fighting and telling them to simply divide the pool between them. One of the kids answered “fine by me, I’ll take the top half”. This was translated as “the best half”, which, I guess, “the top half” could mean… under a completely different set of circumstances.

Anyway, I didn’t speak much English at the time so I of course believed the translator, even though I didn’t think the joke was very funny. Years went by, I learned English, I got good enough at it that I could have easily correctly translated that cartoon, I got better at it than that, I got fluentish, but I still didn’t question the translator’s word. Until a couple of years ago, when it suddenly hit me from nowhere. Of course he meant the actual top half! It makes sense, the joke is funny, conflict resolved. But it took me years and years to figure it out.

Any examples of your own?

I’ve posted about my own idiocy a few times. English is my first language, so I have no excuse.

For years, I thought “condone” meant to be against something.

I was schocked my church doesn’t “condone” abortion. You think they’d be against it!

I still think I had some logic on this one. “Con” means against!

Lighting one cigarette with the butt of another is how I think of chain smoking.

I realized one day that incredible literally means “unbelievable” or not-credible, and its meaning gradually changed to just “amazing.”

I was in the 6th grade when I learned that “complex” wasn’t a synonym for simple :smack:

OTOH, I could do math with fractions (like from the stock market pages when things were in eighths and quarters and so forth) when I was 4.

And yes, English is the only language of which I have any working knowledge.

Go figure.

It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I learned that “spic” was a racial epithet. I thought it meant someone who’s compulsively clean as in “Spic & Span.”

I have a dog who has anxiety problems. Searching on the 'net to find ways to help him, I learned that “submissive urination” has another meaning completely unrelated to canines.

I also never knew that “down to stems and seeds” was drug slang. I thought it referred to produce, like grapes or something.

When growing up, my family always called the unpopped kernels of popcorn, “old maids.” It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s that I actually thought it through and realized it was because “they hadn’t been popped.” :eek:

Why parents would teach that to their children, I have no idea. Maybe they didn’t get it either…

For many years, when I saw or heard the word “painstaking,” I thought “pain staking.” When I finally realized that it’s “pains taking,” I had a Homer Simpsonesque “D’oh” moment with the forehead-slamming and the eye-rolling.

Well, it refers to a kind of produce…

For years, I thought “opaque” meant “transparent.” Not sure why.

Reading the Horatio Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin serieses (I don’t care if that’s not a word) taught me constantly how many phrases we don’t really think about have a nautical origin.

Well, I’m still trying to understand how horrible can go with horrific, but terrible is terrific.

The mind boggles.

You have a point. If one is facing the Pacific Ocean, then Portland, Oregon is on the left side of the Columbia River. Brilliant!


This wasn’t my personal epiphany, but I remember working on a lengthy government contract trial in which a small businessman’s machining company had been defaulted, blacklisted, and nearly been driven into bankruptcy all because of the government engineer’s insistence that the requirement to heat-treat metal parts that required microscopic tolerances had to happen prior to machining because the contract specified “heat treat subsequent to,” after all! :smack: Sometimes it’s just a brain fart; sometimes it’s ruining a man’s life.

OMG – I just saw this someplace else this week (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, maybe?) and for some reason, while I knew that’s what they are called, I had NO clue that’s what it actually meant… and, uhm, I’m 53 :o

Don’t you feel so much better now? :smiley:

I was most of the way through college before I realized that a “rimshot” was that ba-Dum-tssch sound that the drummer does after a cheezy joke. I knew that the word meant a joke like that, but I never connected that it was the rim of the drum.

It was less than a year ago when it finally occured to me that the phrase “Not on my watch!” isn’t referring to a wristwatch. When I think about it now, my previous interpretation of the phrase doesn’t really make sense.

I still get the words “niece” and “nephew” confused. Whenever I hear or read either one, I have to stop and remind myself which gender the person is. Fortunately, I don’t have any nieces or nephews.

:eek: I just got that!


Yes, thank you. I always prefer to be accompanied in my stupidity!

[pedant]Except that sailors reckon the “left” and “right” of a navigable channel by reference to the rising tide, so the port-hand marks would be as you go up the Columbia River. Does this mean Portland ought to be Starboardland? :smiley: [/pedant]