Subscribe to our newsletter
Ever had a self-appointed linguistic expert regale you with word origin stories that seemed a bit off? The following etymologies have spread well beyond Yahoo!Answers and into the education and legal system, as well as into everyday life. But take our word for it: every one of them is utterly, ridiculously wrong.
The Missionary Position
Supposedly, the phrase ‘missionary position’ originated back in the days when Western missionaries to Melanesia tried to impose strict sexual rules on the native populations they were preaching to. According to the newly-arrived missionaries, man-on-top was the only sexual position favored by their God, and everything else was a sin against nature. Natives, used to enjoying a joyful choice of multiple positions in their unspoiled, Avatar-like paradise, coined the nickname as a way of mocking the fuddy-duddy Westerners.
The term was popularized by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in his 1948 collection, The Kinsey Report, inside which Kinsey cites an earlier researcher before retelling the Melanesia story. However, further investigation since then has not dug up any proof of the term being used before 1948, even in the research Kinsey cited. Since Kinsey’s brand of research was not popular with the Church at the time, one might assume that Kinsey was more inclined than most people to believe made-up stories about the people he didn’t get along with very well. He was, for example, also fond of telling audiences that the Roman Catholic Church was in possession of the world’s largest collection of pr0nography. This was probably untrue, although we must keep in mind that this was during the 40’s and 50’s, well before the invention of the Internet.
Why Has the Story Stuck?
Before Kinsey’s time, the most widespread name in use for the act was the ‘male superior’ position. Presumably, many men discovered that suggesting a form of sex that implied their lady’s innate lowliness was not helpful for intimacy, and chose the more neutral-sounding ‘missionary’ instead. Since the name doesn’t really make sense without the colorful back story, everyone just assumed that it was true. Presumably, the Melanesian tourist industry has been booming ever since.
Poisonous foods, horrific diseases and excessive drinking were common in the bad, old days. When these things didn’t kill people at age 25, they would sometimes knock them out for a few days in a state of near-death. Without modern medical technology, it was impossible to tell if these people were actually dead or not. So, to avoid any embarrassing claw-your-way-out-of-your-own-grave-and-eat-your-relatives-in-revenge mishaps, the victim’s family would gather around his corpse for hours or days and keep vigil in case he or she woke up: hence our tradition of a ‘wake’.
According to some versions of this story, today’s tradition of drinking and celebrating at wakes originated from trying to make such a loud noise that the body would ‘wake up’ (surely just yelling next to his ear would have been easier).
The name derives from the Old English word wacu, which means ‘watching or guarding’ as opposed to ‘waking up’. The modern English verb ‘watch’ has its origins in the same word. Back in the day, wakes involved surrounding the body and holding a prayer vigil. This period of mourning allowed relatives and friends to visit and pay their last respects (and, if Irish, drink) before the body was removed to be buried.
Why Has the Story Stuck?
Given the modern meaning of ‘wake’, holding a ceremony with that name right after somebody passes out and dies is always going to be linguistically confusing. Like many linguistic myths, this one is probably popular because it’s so much more interesting than the reality. If there’s one thing people are scared of more than death, it’s being buried alive, so this is a particularly morbid story. It sure beats explaining Old English word origins to people.
20 of the Most Terrifying Things Kids Have Ever Said
Kids say the darndest things, as the old saying goes. They also say some of the most horrifying things, as well. Most of the time it’s just because they don’t know any better...
20 Creepiest Abandoned Hospitals From Around the World
Hospitals can be scary places. They’re sterile and often impersonal, and oh yeah, there are often people dying all around you. And let’s not even get into the fact that...
7 Weird Ways People Try to Get Drunk
People like their booze, and have for centuries upon centuries. It’s not a secret that basically as long as there have been human beings roaming the Earth, there have been human...
8 Ways Science Says Sex Is the Best Medicine
With a few odd exceptions, people love sex. Sex sells, people enjoy watching it, and more importantly, people enjoy having it. That’s because sex makes you feel good, and it...
10 Absolutely Baffling Celebrity Cameos in Music Videos
Believe it or not, music videos are actually things that still exist, despite the fact that channels like MTV would have you believe otherwise. Celebrities popping up in a music...
7 TV and Movie Side Characters That Deserve Their Own Spinoffs
One of the hardest things about writing fiction is coming up with interesting, fully developed side characters. After all, you can’t spend too much time on them because you...
8 Incredible Facts About Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is an absolute juggernaut. There’s no denying it. Along with Walking Dead, you’d be hard pressed to find a television show that gets more online chatter that...
7 Books That Should Would Make Great TV Shows
With the return of the immensely successful and wildly popular Game of Thrones, it’s only natural to look at the bookshelf and imagine what books may have a chance to rival the...
8 Completely Off the Wall Zombie Movies
First things first, let’s not pretend that zombie movies are ever going to be exactly “normal.” After all, we’re talking about movies that center on the conceit that the...