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Word Origins Quiz
December 2021

steam engine.jpg

The Scottish inventor James Watt, whose name is behind "watt" as a term for a standard unit of electrical power, is also well known for inventing this word to describe the power of his improved steam engine that was fundamental to the industrial revolution in the late 18th century. Watt wanted a term that could convey to potential customers how his steam engine could replace the work previously done by animals.

The word is:  Horsepower

Word Origins Quiz
November 2021


Based on the Latin fluere, meaning “to flow,” this word from the late 14th century originally referred to a celestial fluid that was believed to flow from the stars and affect how humans behave. Can you guess the word?

The word is:  Influence

Phrase Origins Quiz
October 2021


Ma Perkins, a radio serial drama about a woman who ran a lumberyard in the fictitious town of Rushville Center, was launched in 1933, targeting that era’s plentiful population of housewives. Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) Oxydol laundry detergent sponsorship of the show was so successful that, over time, P&G and its competitors became frequent sponsors (and in some cases, producers) of daytime serials on radio and television. These frequent sponsorships led to serial dramas becoming known by this phrase.

The phrase is:  Soap opera

Phrase Origins Quiz
September 2021

Image by William Moreland

Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, a Norwegian zoologist, is famous for his study of the social dynamics and hierarchy of chickens. He coined this now famous phrase to describe how the dominant chickens get their food first and enforce their positions by striking subservient chickens with their beaks.

What phrase did Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe coin?

The phrase is:  Pecking Order

Phrase Origins Quiz
August 2021

Image by Element5 Digital

To suppress the Black vote post-Reconstruction, some states enacted restrictive voting laws (such as requiring literacy tests and the paying of property tax), but included exemptions in the laws that allowed descendants of people who had voted before 1867 to continue to do so. The exemptions allowed poor and illiterate whites to still vote.

What phrase comes from this practice?

The phrase is:  Grandfather in or Grandfather clause.

Phrase Origins Quiz
July 2021


From the Roman parable dubbed the “Sword of Damocles,” popularized by Cicero in his 45 BC book Tusculan Disputations. Dionysius II was a powerful, tyrannical, unhappy king who feared assassination. When a court sycophant named Damocles remarked how blissful the king’s life must be, Dionysius seated Damocles on a golden couch and gave him a feast and servants. But when Damocles noticed a sword dangling from the ceiling above his head, suspended by only a single strand of horsehair, he was no longer able to enjoy the opulence and asked to leave.


Can you guess the phrase that comes from this parable?

The phrase is:  Hang by a thread.

Word Origins Quiz
June 2021

Image by Tengyart

Scientists in the ancient world and the Middle Ages believed that the world was made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. This adjective is derived from a fifth and superior element added by Aristotle: “ether,” a pure essence he believed filled space and the heavenly bodies beyond the moon.

The word is:  Quintessential.

Phrase Origins Quiz

May 2021


A 17th century Cambridge innkeeper, who was also a licensed mail carrier between Cambridge and London, England, rented his horses to university students when he wasn't using them. To prevent the most popular horses from being overworked, he launched a strict rotation system, requiring each customer to take the most rested horse nearest the stable door. If a customer demurred, the innkeeper would refuse to rent him any of his horses.

The phrase is:  Hobson's choice.

Word Origins Quiz

April 2021

Image by Ravi Pinisetti

In the 14th century, this word meant “windless.” It comes from Old French and Old Italian words meaning “tranquility” and “quiet, fair weather,” respectively. Both words are probably further derived from multiple languages in which they meant something akin to “the heat of the day,” which was considered a time of quiet and stillness. The word’s current, figurative meaning of “peacefulness” is from the 1540s.

The word is:  Calm.

Phrase Origins Quiz

March 2021


In 1908, the Illinois High School Association debuted an annual basketball tournament that grew to a statewide competition with over 900 schools by the late 1930's. The games were often sellouts. Henry V. Porter, an assistant executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association, was so taken by the phenomenon that he wrote a story about it. The phrase used as the title of the story caught on and and was used to describe the contest for decades. In 1982, it became synonymous with the annual NCAA championship basketball tournament when it was used by sportscaster Brent Musberger.

The phrase is:  March Madness.

Words Origins Quiz

February 2021

Image by Matt Briney

From an Urdu (Persian) word meaning “dusty-colored.” In the mid-19th century, the British army was still wearing heavy woolen bright-red uniforms that were easy for opponents to target and uncomfortable in India’s sweltering heat. British officers, observing that their Indian privates wore light cotton garments smeared with soil and tea for camouflage, adapted the more practical uniforms, and their wear spread beyond the military.

The word is:  Khaki.

Words Origins Quiz

January 2021

Cow and Calf

In the late 18th century, English physician Edward Jenner tested the validity of an urban legend that milkmaids who got cowpox didn't get the much more lethal smallpox. His inoculations worked and got named after a Latin word meaning “from cows.”

The word is:  Vaccine.

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