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The Strange Origin of Four Words

Did you know that, when eating a sandwich, you should be thanking the (possibly) gambling Fourth Earl of Sandwich? Or that the origin of the word “nightmare” is quite spooky? Here are the origins of four words which we often use.

Nisha Ramakrishnan


More than 300 million sandwiches are eaten by Americans every single day! And this popular item of food also has a very interesting origin story. The word “sandwich” stems from the 4rth Earl of Sandwich, James Montagu. According to a French travel writer, he spent “twenty four hours at a gaming house” and so had to consume his beef in between slices of bread to prevent his hands from getting covered in oil as he was too “absorbed” in his gambling to stop for his meal. Lord Sandwich’s friends soon caught on, and started calling for “the same as Sandwich”, and the food item grew in popularity until the phrase was shortened to only “a Sandwich”. However, this tale has been refuted by other historians who believe that the sandwich was born because it was the Earl’s desk and duties that he was reluctant to leave instead of his gambling.


This word originates from the word “fawney”, an Irish word for a ring worn on a finger. But how is jewellery connected to the word “phony”, which is used to describe something fake or fraudulent?

The Fawney Rig is a fraud wherein someone deliberately dropped a ring made of brass, covered thinly in gold and sold it to people in the nearby vicinity claiming that it was a highly precious gold ring. The buyers would believe the ring was being sold for far less than its true value, while in reality the ring had been purchased for a higher price. From this trick, the word “phoney”, and later, “phony”, emerged.


The word shambles, which means “in a mess”, originally had a very mundane meaning: a stool or small bench. Over time, the word was used to describe a very particular type of stool, one on which meat was exhibited for sale, and later, a slaughterhouse. Thus, people started to use “shambles” figuratively to describe a place of butchery or massacre. Eventually this word started being used with its present-day meaning: to talk about something in disorder and disarray.

In fact, the word “omnishambles”, invented in a British political satire, which means “a situation that has been completely mishandled'', was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2012.


The “mare” from nightmare has roots in German folklore and refers to female goblin-like malevolent creatures which sit on, suffocate and tangle the hair of sleeping people. It must truly be a nightmare to brush your hair the next morning after an attack by one of these evil spirits!

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