14 Surprising Facts About Aaron Burr

It’s fair to say that no Founding Father has attracted more scorn than Aaron Burr, the tragic antagonist of a certain Broadway smash hit. Born on this date in 1756, Burr is mainly remembered for two things: killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and later getting himself tried for treason under President Jefferson. Less attention is paid to Burr’s other major accomplishments. Did you know, for example, that he basically invented modern campaign organizing? Or that he helped Tennessee join the union? Or that he had a remarkably progressive outlook on women’s rights for a man of his time? If you love the Hamilton musical, these 14 facts should give you a whole new outlook on the show’s most compelling character.

1. HE GRADUATED FROM PRINCETON AT AGE 16.

Burr was left an orphan at the age of 2. The toddler and his sister Sally (then nearly 4) were taken in by their maternal uncle, Timothy Edwards. For two years, the youngsters lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before they relocated with Edwards to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. An intelligent, precocious boy, Burr submitted an application to Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) when he was just 11 years old. An examiner barred his admission, but that didn’t stop Burr from reapplying two years later. This time, Burr—now 13—was accepted into the university, which his late father had presided over. Four years younger than most of his classmates, he earned the affectionate nickname “Little Burr,” a reference to both the teen’s age and his short stature. He graduated with distinction in 1772.

2. DURING THE REVOLUTION, HE SERVED UNDER BENEDICT ARNOLD FOR A TIME.

Both of these guys would one day know how it felt to be the most notorious person in America. In 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold led a contingent of patriot soldiers from Massachusetts to Quebec City by way of Maine. Altogether, some 1100 men made the journey; Burr was one of them. En route, the impressed colonel remarked that this future vice president was “a young gentleman of much life and activity [who] has acted with great spirit and resolution on our fatiguing march.” Fatiguing march, indeed: Arnold had severely underestimated the severity of the trek, and around 500 of his men had run off, died, or been captured by the time they reached their destination.

Near the end of this northward trudge, Burr was sent to deliver a message to General Richard Montgomery who, having taken Montreal, was also on his way to Quebec City with his own force of 300 men. Montgomery took an instant liking to Burr and recruited him as his personal aide-de-camp—but their partnership would soon be cut short.

On December 31, in the midst of a snowy winter’s battle, the general was killed by a cannon blast on the outskirts of the city. Some eyewitnesses later reported that Burr tried in vain to retrieve his commander’s body from the battlefield, but historians have their doubts about this story.

3. BURR WILLINGLY LEFT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MILITARY STAFF.

Bust of Aaron Burr
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1776, Burr received an invitation to join Washington’s staff, and that June—after he returned from fighting in Quebec—he met the general in person to accept the position. But he wouldn’t retain it for long; not content to serve as “a practical clerk,” Burr began yearning for a job that would expose him to more combat action. Within a month, he requested and received a transfer to the staff of Major General Israel Putnam. From there, the relationship between Burr and Washington cooled. In 1798, the Virginian threw some shade on his one-time staffer, saying, “By all that I have known and heard, [Burr] is a brave and able officer, but the question is whether he has not equal talents at intrigue?” The tension was two-sided: According to John Adams, Burr once privately remarked that “he despised Washington as a man of no talents and one who could not spell a sentence of common English.”

4. HE ADMIRED MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Burr had feminist leanings. On July 2, 1782, he married his first wife, Theodosia Prevost Bartow. The two had much in common, including a deep admiration for women’s rights essayist Mary Wollstonecraft. (In fact, they even hung her portrait on their mantle.)

The mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft’s best-known writing is, by far, her 1792 manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Considered a watershed document in the history of feminism, it passionately argued that members of both sexes deserve the same fundamental rights, and denounced the educational systems of its era for failing to provide women with the opportunities afforded to men. The Burrs loved it: In 1793, Aaron described Wollstonecraft’s essay as “a work of genius.” To his dismay, however, his peers seemed to overwhelmingly disregard the text. “Is it owing to ignorance or prejudice that I have not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merit of this work?” Burr once asked.

In keeping with Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, the Burrs saw to it that their daughter, also named Theodosia, received a top-notch education—the kind normally reserved for boys.

5. BURR FOUNDED WHAT LATER BECAME J.P. MORGAN CHASE & CO.

Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Philip Schuyler strolling on Wall Street, New York 1790
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after the war wrapped up, Burr established himself as one of New York City’s hottest lawyers—and its most prominent Democratic-Republican. For many years, his party found itself at a major disadvantage in the Big Apple. In the early 1790s, the city’s banks were all run by rich Federalists, and none of these establishments would lend money to Democratic-Republicans. So in 1798, Burr hatched a plot to get around this.

Taking advantage of a recent yellow fever epidemic, Burr asked the Federalist-controlled state legislature to give him a charter for what he called The Manhattan Company, a private organization that would provide New Yorkers with fresh, clean water. One of the most passionate supporters of Burr’s plan was none other than Mr. Federalist himself, Alexander Hamilton—though he would soon regret coming to his rival’s aid. In 1799, the legislature gave Burr that charter, which included a clause that allowed the Manhattan Company to employ “surplus capital” in any “monied transactions or operations not inconsistent with the constitution and laws of this state or of the United States.” Using this major loophole, Burr turned the Manhattan Company into a Democratic-Republican bank. It barely delivered water at all (although to keep the charter, a bank employee would ceremoniously pump water until 1923). Hamilton—along with the entire New York legislature—had been duped into helping Burr break the Federalist monopoly on banking in the city.

The Manhattan Company has since evolved into JP Morgan Chase & Co., one of the largest banking institutions in the world. It now owns the pistols that were used in the Burr-Hamilton duel.

6. IN THE SENATE, HE HELPED TENNESSEE ACHIEVE STATEHOOD.

Backed by New York Governor George Clinton and his family, Burr became a senator for the state of New York in 1791. Five years later, Senator Burr played a key role in Tennessee’s admission to the Union. Early in 1796, when the future state was still considered a federal territory, Governor William Blount spearheaded a constitutional convention at its voters’ behest. A constitution was drafted in Knoxville and then presented to both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

Upon reviewing the document, the House, with its Democratic-Republican majority, voted to grant Tennessee its statehood. However, the Senate was dominated by Federalists, who stalled—and a partisan gridlock ensued. As a manager of the bipartisan Senate committee that had been created to deal with this problem, Burr rallied most of his colleagues to Tennessee’s cause. In the end, the committee came out in favor of the territory’s bid for admission into the Union. Shortly thereafter, the Senate voted to give Tennessee statehood status. It officially became America’s 16th state on June 1, 1796.

Burr’s actions earned him the gratitude of many a prominent Tennessean. “I pronounce positively that Mr. Burr ... may be ranked among [Tennessee’s] very warmest friends,” Governor Blount declared. And when Burr visited the Volunteer State in 1805, Andrew Jackson entertained him as his personal houseguest in Nashville. At one point, Old Hickory even suggested that Burr relocate to Tennessee—where both men were quite popular—and seek public office there.

7. HE ONCE KEPT ALEXANDER HAMILTON OUT OF A DUEL.

Alexander Hamilton
NYPL, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The man on the $10 bill nearly traded gunfire with America’s fifth president. Here’s what happened: In 1792, then-senator James Monroe and two of his fellow Democratic-Republicans had accused Hamilton of illegally giving government money to a man named James Reynolds, who was in prison for committing forgery. When they confronted him, Hamilton revealed that he was having an affair with Reynolds’s wife; Reynolds had demanded payment to keep quiet and to allow the affair to continue.

The investigation wrapped up shortly thereafter, but Hamilton wasn’t out of the woods yet: In 1797, muckraking journalist James Callender publicly exposed the affair. Convinced that Monroe must have leaked the story, Hamilton went to confront his longtime opponent. Angrily, the two politicians waged a shouting match. “Do you say I represented falsely? You are a scoundrel,” Monroe barked. “I will meet you like a gentleman,” Hamilton said. “I am ready,” Monroe replied, “get your pistols.”

Within a month, both founders were preparing themselves in earnest for a duel. But the showdown never came—and it was Burr who put an end it. Monroe picked Burr as his “second,” a designated go-between charged with negotiating the terms of this impending clash. For his part, Burr figured that both Hamilton and Monroe were being “childish,” and he did everything in his power to prevent them from squaring off. Eventually, he was able to calm both parties down: Thanks to Burr’s diplomacy, the duel went unfought.

8. HE LOVED CIGARS.

In Fallen Founder: the Life of Aaron Burr, historian Nancy Isenberg writes that John Greenwood, who served as Burr’s law clerk from 1814 to 1820, “knew Burr … as a constant cigar smoker, for instance—he had extra long cigars made especially for him.” Often, the law clerk would find his boss cloaked in a haze of tobacco smoke. During Burr’s travels in Europe, he’d sometimes burn through as many as six cigars a day. He also discovered that the choicer ones paired well with rancio wines, which he said “[recall] the spiciness of tobacco, and they are the ideal accompaniment for cigars, often complementing them better than brandies.”

9. HE’S ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FIGURES IN THE HISTORY OF TAMMANY HALL.

To quote Gore Vidal, “Aaron Burr … professionalized politics in the United States.” Just look at Tammany Hall. Founded in 1788, this organization started out as the “Society of Saint Tammany,” a non-political New York City social club that appealed to immigrant and working families. But by the mid-19th century, it had been transformed into Gotham’s strongest political faction—and it was Burr who triggered the change.

During the election of 1800, Burr made it his mission to win New York’s 12 electoral votes for the Democratic-Republican party. To help him do so, he enlisted the Society of Saint Tammany. Though Burr never belonged to the club, he easily capitalized on the anti-Federalist sentiments of its immigrant members, who loathed the party of John Adams and his Alien & Sedition Acts. Under Burr’s leadership, Tammany volunteers campaigned door-to-door and raised money from local donors. All their hard work paid off in dividends when Thomas Jefferson and Burr carried New York en route to winning the White House.

10. AFTER BURR KILLED HAMILTON IN THAT DUEL, TWO DIFFERENT STATES INDICTED HIM FOR MURDER.

Like Washington, Jefferson eventually grew wary of Burr. Believing that the New Yorker had schemed to seize the presidency for himself in 1800, Jefferson resolved to drop his V.P. from the Democratic-Republican ticket in 1804. Realizing that he’d soon be out of the job, Burr made a bid to re-enter the arena of New York politics. In the spring of 1804, he ran for governor, but was roundly defeated by fellow Democratic-Republican Morgan Lewis.

It was during this campaign that Hamilton made the remarks that sealed his fate. While the race was going on, Hamilton vocally denounced Burr at a dinner party. Among those in attendance was Charles Cooper, a Democratic-Republican who sent off a letter to a friend describing Hamilton’s comments. Somehow, bits and pieces of the letter began appearing in local newspapers, prompting a stern denial from Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler. An angry Cooper wrote a letter to Schuyler saying that Schuyler should be happy he had been “unusually cautious” and that “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr.” This letter too wound up in the press, and in June the relevant paper was sent to Burr, who wasted no time in contacting Hamilton. “You must perceive, Sir,” he wrote, “the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expressions which could warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper.” Thus began an exchange of letters that culminated in the infamous duel of July 11, 1804.

As anyone who’s listened to the Hamilton soundtrack knows, Burr won. But what the show leaves out is the incident’s legal aftermath. That August, a New York coroner’s jury indicted him for murder. The following October, New Jersey—where the duel had been fought—did likewise. In a letter to his daughter, Burr explained his predicament thusly: “There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey. The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President. You shall have due notice of time and place.”

But Burr didn't hang. At the urging of Burr’s Democratic-Republican friends in the U.S. Senate, New Jersey dismissed its indictment against him in 1807; New York also dropped the murder charges.

11. BURR WAS FAMOUSLY TRIED FOR (AND ACQUITTED OF) TREASON.

Correctly assessing that the New York City area was no longer a safe place for him, Vice President Burr ran away to Georgia in August 1804, where he briefly stayed at the plantation of Major Pierce Butler. But as the sitting V.P., he couldn’t stay away from Capitol Hill for long. By November 4, he was back in Washington to preside over the impeachment trial of Samuel Chase, a Federalist Supreme Court Justice. The trial wrapped up on March 1, 1805 and Chase was acquitted. One day later, Burr gave a stirring farewell address to the Senate and took his leave. Soon, he would be replaced as Jefferson’s vice president by George Clinton. And yet, the administration hadn’t seen the last of Aaron Burr. Not by a long shot.

The word filibuster had a different meaning in the early 19th century. Back then, it was defined as “one who engages in unauthorized and irregular warfare against foreign states.” With his prospects on the east coast looking bleak, Burr headed westward to establish one in 1805. He attracted around 60 men to his cause and began arousing plenty of suspicion. His modern defenders argue that the former vice president was convinced there’d soon be a war between the U.S. and Mexico, and that he may have been planning to bide his time in the American south until said war broke out, at which point he’d lead his men into Spanish-controlled territory. But there were those who believed Burr wanted nothing less than to conquer America’s western holdings and create his own nation there.

President Jefferson assumed the worst. In 1806, the commander-in-chief called for Burr’s arrest. He got his wish on February 19, 1807, when Burr was apprehended in present-day Alabama. Burr was subsequently charged with treason and taken to the United States Court for the Fifth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia. Presiding over the case was John Marshall, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who said that the prosecution failed to provide sufficient evidence with which to convict Burr—and he was acquitted. Once again, though, Burr sensed that public opinion had turned sharply against him. In 1808, the disgraced politician set sail for Europe and didn’t return to the States until 1812.

12. WHEN BURR’S SECOND WIFE LEFT HIM, SHE HIRED ALEXANDER HAMILTON JR. AS HER DIVORCE ATTORNEY.

Talk about courtroom drama! Burr’s first wife had passed away in 1794, a victim of stomach cancer. He didn’t remarry until 1833, when he exchanged “I dos” with a rich widow named Eliza Jumel. (In the interim, his beloved daughter, Theodosia, vanished forever at sea.) After two turbulent years, Jumel accused Burr of committing adultery and of trying to liquidate her fortune, and sued for divorce. Her attorney during the proceedings was Alexander Hamilton Jr. Yes, the son of the man Aaron Burr had shot in 1804 represented his estranged second wife in a highly-publicized divorce case that was derided by haughty Whig newspapers. Burr died on September 14, 1846—the day this divorce was made final.

13. MARTIN VAN BUREN WAS RUMORED TO BE BURR’S ILLEGITIMATE SON.

They shared a knack for growing sideburns, but no genes. “Old Kinderhook,” as Van Buren was sometimes known, first met Burr in 1803. The two became reacquainted after Jefferson’s former V.P. came back from his self-imposed European exile and resumed his New York law practice. Together, they ended up collaborating on a handful of legal cases. This gave rise to the absurd rumor—as recorded by John Quincy Adams in his diary—that Van Buren was Burr’s bastard child.

14. A WORK OF AARON BURR EROTICA WAS ANONYMOUSLY PUBLISHED IN 1861.

No really, this exists. Burr’s enemies—including Hamilton—were known to accuse him of rampant womanizing. Such rumors help explain what is quite possibly the strangest work in American literature: 1861’s The Amorous Intrigues and Adventures of Aaron Burr.

Presented as a novelized biography, the book (whose author is unknown) retells everything from Burr’s birth in 1756 to his death 80 years later. But it also includes lurid descriptions of fictitious sexual conquests in several different states, with virgins, young widows, and unhappy wives constantly throwing themselves at our protagonist. For those who might be looking for a less racy novel about Jefferson’s first vice president, there’s Gore Vidal’s 1973 bestseller, Burr.

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
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Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
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There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
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The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
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The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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