The Origins of Everyday Words and Phrases That You Didn’t Know About

Most people think of language as a static set of rules that we all must learn to communicate with each other. That’s only half true, to communicate, we all need to have a grasp of a language, but that language is far from static.

While classed as a Germanic language, English takes influence from many other branches of the language tree. Native Celtic languages, Latin, Greek, Norman, Spanish, Italian, and French have all had a significant impact on the words we use today. This is why you often find similarities in words and phrases when you translate text from one language to another.

Sometimes though, the words we use come from sources other than foreign languages. Here are some interesting origins of everyday words you probably didn’t know about.


OK is a word that’s everywhere. You click on it to dismiss dialogue boxes that appear on your computer. You say it to show you’ve understood something. And you see it when a system is telling you it is running normally.

It’s an odd word. We pronounce it as an abbreviation or an acronym, rather than a normal word. It would feel weird to read it as “ock” instead of “okay”.

OK appears in almost every language from Russian’s “окей” to Mantu’s “waw-kay”. But its origins may surprise you.

OK is actually an abbreviation for “all correct” or “all clear”, despite the obvious reason why that seems wrong. Some believe it started as a joke in an 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post, while others link it to a slogan used by President Van Buren in his reelection campaign.

It’s typically agreed that it was originally a joke, with OK being the abbreviation of the misspelling “orl korrect”. By the 20th century, the joke had been forgotten and the entire world had accepted it as a universal word.

Kick Off

Many words and phrases that we use today have come from sport. We use phrases like “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” to suggest someone should slow down and take it easy, while we use “having someone in your corner” to imply that a person is supportive of you or your position.

“Kick off” is another one of these phrases. It originally comes from football (or soccer if you’re in North America) as the action of starting the game, with fans commonly referring to the time that a game starts as “kick off time”.

This made its way into the common vernacular, with “kick off” used to describe the time that any event begins.

It’s gone much further though. Something or someone “kicking off” is used to describe someone getting angry all of a sudden, as well as to mean if someone gets ejected from certain positions like a board of directors or a training course.


We use “scot-free” to describe someone who gets away with something without punishment. Given the first half of the word, it would be easy to assume it has something to do with Scotland or the first male name “Scott”.  But neither are the true meanings.

In fact, the word comes from Scandinavia. In most languages in the region, the word “skat” refers to a form of tax or payment. Over time, this evolved into “scot” and the phrase “scot-free” came to refer to someone that got out of paying any tax for one reason or another.

It’s then been adopted by English speakers who have, over time, liberalised its use to refer to any form of punishment or obligation.


Mortgage is a word that describes a very long-term loan that’s usually used to buy property. They’re something most people find tedious and boring, but if you’re a homeowner, you almost certainly have (or have had) a mortgage at some point.

Few people, however, realise that it’s actually an amalgamation of two words. Specifically, the Old French words of “mort” and “gage”. When you translate these into English, you get “death pledge”.

Although it sounds quite morbid, it isn’t referring to the death of the debtor, but rather the debt. Mortgage essentially means that you are pledging to keep repaying your debt until it is cleared (and therefore “killed”).

This article has been written by Fabrice

Economist, linguist and investor, Fabrice is the co-founder of Cultures Connection, where he holds the position of Operations Director.