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Do You Know the Origins of These Words?

Word origins are fascinating. If you’ve never considered studying word origins in your homeschool, you might want to think about it!


Quick quiz: Which of the following phrases came from 1500s Europe, and which are American in origin?

  • graveyard shift
  • dirt poor
  • Keeping up with the Joneses

We use all sorts of phrases that sound like they have interesting back-stories. Some of those back-stories have been lost to history (“the whole nine yards” is one of them: there are dozens of suggestions but none can be backed up), while others have clear etymologies. (“OK” is clearly traced to the late 1830s in Boston)


Understanding what words came from the Vikings versus the words from Latin or Greek, helps when we learn spelling rules (my poor kids really wish the rules made more sense). They can also help us get a feel for what time was like when the words or phrases came about. “Cool,” for example, started in the 1940s and took off in the 1950s, and I always get a picture of James Dean or The Fonz in my head when I think about what being “cool” really looks like. The words both reflected and influenced our culture in ways most of us never consider!


Ready for answers on the top quiz?
None of the phrases are from the 1500s. They all came from America.

At the risk of being a Cliff Clayvin, I’ll give you a few “ehhh actually” stories.

  • Graveyard Shift is from the turn of the 20th century, describing the loneliness and desolation of late-night work.
  • Dirt Poor is from 1937 or slightly earlier, describing the dust bowl and extreme poverty of the Great Depression.
  • Keeping Up with the Joneses comes from 1913 and gained popularity in the 1920s. It started in a comic describing one family, envious of their neighbors, the Joneses. (And I thought comics were purely for fun!)

Hearing “dirt poor” really does give powerful images and makes me so thankful that I didn’t have to live through that time.

The origins of these phrases may not affect your day-to-day life, but I find them another peek into what life really felt like. I hope this has inspired you to study work origins in your homeschool!

Charla is a dance photographer when she’s not homeschooling her kids. She took her passion for American culture and steered it into a curriculum for her kids, and soon she’ll be sharing it with the world. She’s also tackling NaNoWriMo and thinking maybe, just maybe, that’s enough for one month. You can read more from Charla at What Was It Like?

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