These Words Were Invented by Mistake

Tuesday, April 272 min read

English is notorious for adopting words from other languages, leading to plenty of mistranslations or miscommunications. Rather than acknowledging the mistake, English speakers tend to double down and embrace the it, creating new words all on their own. Below are nine such words that were invented by mistake.


Often used in reference to computing, an algorithm is a set mathematical process with clear steps in order to arrive at the right answer. But the word algorithm is a mistranslation of the name of ninth-century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. It was Latinized into “Algoritmi.” That’s right — one of the fundamental terms in the field of mathematics comes from a mispronunciation of a name.


The Old English word fnesan means "to snort." Styles of writing and penmanship  changed, and there was confusion between the letter “s” and the letter “f.” Fnesan turned into snesan, and there you have the origins of "sneeze." Gesundheit!


A tornado is a flurry of winds, maybe blowing so loudly that people couldn’t hear the correct words. The etymology of this word is unclear, but it’s close enough to the Spanish words tronada, which means "thunder," and tornar, which means "to turn." The combination of the two, and perhaps not quite hearing the difference between the two, created the English word "tornado."


Throughout the Middle Ages, the language of law was French. This particular word may have been created as a misinterpretation of a common abbreviation in legal documents, "cul.prist." The full phrase was "prest d'averrer notre bille," or "we’re ready to prove your indictment." The abbreviation "cul.prist" was used to indicate a "guilty" verdict. As the years went on and English became more common, "culprit" was created by confusing it for the word "guilty."


The word "pea" is a backformation, or a word created from an already existing and usually longer word. The original form of the green legume was “pease,” with the plural “pesen.” However, “pease” was mistaken for the plural, and people quickly became used to calling the singular “pea.” The mistake stuck around, and now “peas” is the plural of “pea.”


"Ammunition," like "culprit," is from French, one of the more dominant languages throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The word la munition, which means "weapon," was heard incorrectly by English speakers as "ammunition," and the word has maintained its firing power today.


"Sherry "is a type of wine from Spain — sometimes sweet and always strong. The name is commonly believed to be a misinterpretation of the Spanish vino de Xeres.


Chassé is a French ballet term, meaning "to move across the floor and then to jump and bring your feet together." Then English ears heard it and wrote down "sashay," which means "a sassy, dance-like walk."


While the term "varsity" is now strictly used in the high school sports sense, the word actually comes from "university." It’s a shortening and misspelling of the word, based on an archaic pronunciation.

What lessons have we learned here? In English, no mistake is really a mistake. Just hold your ground and say something long enough, and loud enough, and it will become a word.

Photo Credit: artisteer/ iStock

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