Horse and Cart

English Words That Don't Make Sense (Anymore)

In today’s podcast, I’m going through some common words that we used in everyday English that seem a bit random, but when we look into the recent past, we can see where these words came from. Some of these ideas might be totally new, for the younger learners in particular. Let me know if it’s the case for you.

I find that learning a bit of the context and history behind a word is a fantastic way to remember it. It allows you to make connections from that word to other words, rather than just expecting the new word to sit alone in your brain and stay there. When we can look back to the past and see how these words came to be, we have a greater appreciation for them.

Words that Reflect their History

To Film

“Film” is a word we use a lot these days, particularly as a verb, but rarely thing about its original meaning referring to the film used in old-timey cameras.

Camera Film


Today, “footage” refers to any recordings of video. If you have an .mp4 file on your computer, that’s video footage of something you took before. This originally came from the length of film that was used in a video. We measure in feet in the UK (1 foot = 30cm) and so ‘footage’ meant how many feet of film used.

Roll up / down a window

I find myself saying this one a lot without thinking of how the action itself has disappeared. On older models of cars, we would roll around a handle to raise or lower the window. These days it’s all electric, so the phrasal verb makes less sense now.

Roll Car


This word has come a long way. The original meaning referred to a piece of wood (a board) that stopped mud spraying back at the driver of a carriage, caused by the horse running. As carts evolved into cars, the word remained. The dashboard of a car is the front part that has all the buttons and speedometers. It’s also progressed further, now referring to a homepage of a website that has a lot of controls. 

Cart Dashboard

Turn down a notch

This is a common phrase meaning: lower the volume a little bit. The term ‘notch’ actually refers to the lines on a volume dial. Of course, some things still have dials and notches, like electric equipment for musicians and guitars, but generally volume adjustments are all buttons now.

volume dial

To rewind

This is a common word used to go back to a previous point of a video or on TV. Do you know why we use the word ‘wind’? Many learners born before the year 2000 might know! We can wind up rope or tape. If you’re climbing, you have to wind up the rope to pack it in the car again and go home. In VCRs, videos used tape to project into the TV. In order to go back, you had to rewind the tape.


UPPERCASE & lowercase

This was a new one for me! In olden-day printing shops, they used stamps for the letters and these stamps were stored in different boxes depending on the type. Another word for these boxes were ‘cases’. There was a case for ‘upper’ letters and a case for ‘lower’ letters. These terms have continued to the days of computers and typing.



Freelance now means someone who works for themselves – like a self-employed person. They choose their hours and jobs. This comes from an older word that referred to mercenaries in the middle ages. They weren’t loyal to any king and did tasks (sometimes deadly ones…) for money. They were a ‘free lance’ – a soldier who is free to do what they want. The meaning has changed quite a bit! 

Can you think of anymore outdated words?

Scroll to Top