Have you ever wondered why the thirteenth element is spelled aluminum in America but aluminium (extra i) England? It's not because Americans modified it to sound less British (as some would be inclined to think); quite the opposite, in fact. Aluminum was coined in 1812 by the British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy. This was readily accepted by the American populace, however British newspaper editors modified it to seem more in line with all the other elements. Ironically, the proper suffix is -en, because that's what it was in alumen, the word that inspired Humphrey's choice. It meant "bitter salt", and was probably extended to the substance name because of the ionic bonds Aluminum creates. Alumen possibly derives from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like helud and meaning something along the lines of "bitter" as well.
Biblically speaking, a nimrod is a "great hunter". In Genesis 10, he's described as a "mighty hunter before the Lord", and this definition still prevails in some other English-speaking countries. However, in America, a nimrod is an "idiot", a "maladroit". How did this happen? It can all be attributed to Bugs Bunny! In one cartoon, he called Elmer Fudd (the lisping man who's perpetually trying to shoot him) a "nimrod". This was meant ironically at first; Bugs was joking that Fudd was actually a skilled hunter. However, people watching the show in America who weren't well versed in the Bible took it as an obscure insult, and began using it as such. Thus a great shift began; but where does the Biblical word nimrod come from? The truth is that there is no good answers. It has cognates in Aramaic and Arabic, so it's presumably of Proto-Semitic origin, but that's all we can glean.
The word vestigial means a "functionless remnant", and the word vestige means "a remnant" of something rare or extinct, so it's not surprising in the least that the former word derives from the latter. Vestige, which was borrowed into English at the beginning of the seventeenth century from French, traces to the Latin word vestigium, which literally meant "a footprint" but had figurative connotations of a trace left somewhere, which is how we got the word. This does not have a fully understood origin, per se; however, etymologists theorize that it either derives from the Proto-Indo-European root steygh, meaning "to walk", or from PIE wers, which literally meant "drag along the ground" (and would have come through Latin verro, "to sweep"). Ironically, both the words vestige and vestigial have been decreasing dramatically in use since the 1950s, and all we see of them now is a mere vestige.
Most of us who have heard of it only know the bezoar as a tiny antidote stone from Harry Potter. Well, it's an actual thing! An intestinal blockage occurring in the stomachs of goats, and in special cases, humans, a bezoar was believed by alchemists in the Middle Ages to possess curative properties, which is definitely where J.K. Rowling got the idea from. Because of this, it (probably through French) comes from the Arabic word for "antidote", bazahr. This derives from Proto-Indo-European pad-zahr, literally "counter-poison", with pad meaning "against" or "counter" and zahr meaning "poison". The former is from Old Persian pa, which meant "protect" and comes from PIE peh, with the same meaning. The second is from Old Iranian jathra, which meant "to kill" (not that big of a transition), from PIE gwhen, "to strike" or still "kill". So a bezoar means "protecting [from a] kill", and J.K. Rowling knows her Middle Ages superstitions!
In the post about how "pudding" used to mean "sausage", the Latin word botulus was discussed, but it wasn't done enough justice. It comes from Proto-Indo-European gwet, a root which meant "a swelling" and described how sausages tend to bulge, but that's not the fun part. You may have noticed that the word sounds like botulism, a condition with swelling in it (thus the connection) and often leading to paralysis. Botulism is caused by the botulinum toxin, also named because of the swelling it causes. However, in 1987, two scientists accidentally discovered that the botulinum toxin softens your face and diminishes wrinkles. When the rights to this were bought by Allergan, they cleverly combined the words botulinum and toxin to make botox, a staple of the cosmetics industry. So, something we inject in ourselves is actually something that is poisonous, and that which is poisonous is actually just a hot dog. Bon Appétit!
The word cul-de-sac just means "a dead-end road" to us today, but it means "bottom of the sack" in the original French. This will not come as a surprise to many, but the crazy connection we'll make later will be. First, let's get sac out of the way. Also an English word describing biological bags, it comes (the former through Old French sac, with the same meaning, and the the latter through Old English sacc, "cloth bag") from the Latin word saccus, from Ancient Greek sakkos (meaning "bag" still), which may have Semitic or Phoenician origins. De, from Latin de, just expresses belonging. It gets interesting with the first word, cul. It comes from the older French word cul, which meant "backside". This kind of makes sense with the "end" or "bottom" meaning. However, what you weren't expecting is that cul is also the etymon of tutu, the skirt ballerinas wear. Eventually it was modified to cucu, and the cs got switched to ts. The correlation is clear: a tutu is worn over the backside. Anyway, French cul comes from Latin culus, a rude word for "posterior", which can be reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European zero-grade kuhl, "to cover".
Between 1796 and 1798, English doctor and scientist Edward Jenner noted that people who tended to cows were less likely to contract "cowpox", a brand of smallpox from cattle. From this, the theory of vaccination arose and impacted our culture forevermore. But where did the word vaccination come from? No less than vaccinus, the Latin word for "of or pertaining to cows", a term that derives from vacca (just "cow") and is the etymon of words like Spanish vaca, Romanian vaca, and French vache. While this is officially of uncertain origin, it quite possibly goes back to a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like wokeh and also meaning "cow". So, just because the initial vaccine was based on an observation concerning bovines, we know regularly inject cows in ourselves to ward off diseases. What has society come to?
Almost half of Michigan's county names are completely made up. This is due to the work of Henry Schoolcraft, a geographer in the early- to mid-1800s. When he was off surveying the areas that would eventually become counties, he got to name them, and he got pretty creative. Schoolcraft particularly enjoyed combining elements from several languages. The county names Alcona, Algona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Oscoda, and Tuscola were all splicings of Latin, Arabic, and/or local languages to make it sound as if the area has a rich native history (which it did, but Schoolcraft overdid it). Not to mention Schoolcraft county itself and Leelanau county, after his wife's pen name. So, right now, we have at least ten county names in Michigan which are total gibberish. I feel like he did this only to confuse future etymologists.
The word poppycock doesn't have anything to do with plants or chickens at all. Today meaning "nonsense" and kind of archaic, the word comes to us from Dutch pappekak, which literally meant "doll excrement", a portmanteau of pappe, "food", and kak, "dung". Pappe, which described softer foods given to youngsters and (a cousin to the English word pap, also meaning "baby's food") is connected to a "doll" meaning through the connection of an infant. There are several languages which use sort of a papa sound to describe babies eating, and it's suspective that this is imitative of child-directed speech. Meanwhile, kak came from the Latin word cacere, a verb for "excretion", which in turn derives from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root kakka, bluntly meaning "to poop". Anyway, accusing someone of being poppycock is actually the equivalent of telling them to eat their own dung.
The word tarnation was coined in 1784 in New England, but its use in the Northeast was quickly superseded by that of the South. This is sort of a mutt of words. It’s a bowdlerizing alteration of the word darnation, but it’s sort of influenced by the word eternal, kind of emphasizing eternal darnation, the latter word of which is a euphemism for damnation, so this is sort of a double euphemism. The –ation part is just a suffix, but damn, through French, comes to us from Latin damnum, which meant "loss", as in loss of salvation. Through Proto-Italic dapno, this is from Proto-Indo-European dehp, meaning "to sacrifice" or still "lose". Eternity isn't quite the etymon in tarnation, only affecting its development through influence, so I'll save that for a future post. As a word, tarnation was used most frequently in the 1800s, but there's been a recent increasing period due to its whimsical usage on the Internet.
We all know a buttonhole as the gap in a coat through which you're supposed to push a button. Its etymology seems simple, right? Button and hole? Well, it is simple, but that's incorrect. Buttonhole actually used to be the spelling, and it meant "a looped string through which a button goes". The new name got applied through folk etymology; people associated the loop with a hole, thought hold should actually be spelled hole, and changed it. Buttonhole designs evolved too, giving us our modern prototype of the word. Weird. NOW we etymologize button: possibly through French, it traces to the Proto-Germanic term buttan, from Proto-Indo-European bhau, a word that meant "to thrust" since buttons jut out. Hold, through Middle English holdan, Old English haldan, and Proto-Germanic haldan, ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root kel, which meant "to shepherd" or "drive" under the connection of livestock.
Loosely defined, a Schwarzschild radius is a point where a sphere is forced to become a black hole. The term Schwarschild is a portmanteau of two German words: Schwarz, meaning "black", and schild, meaning "shield", which makes sense. Schwarz, through Middle German swarz, Old High German swarz, and Proto-Germanic swartaz, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root swordo, meaning "black". Very little semantic change for that term. Schild, through Middle German schilt and Old High German scilt, comes from the Proto-Germanic word skelduz, which also meant "shield" and is the etymon of the English word shield, by way of the Old English word scild. Skelduz is from Proto-Indo-European skel, which meant "to cut", under the connection that you cut wood to make a shield. So, now we know how Schwarzschild came to mean "black shield". HOWEVER, that was all just the last name of Karl Schwarzschild, a German physicist who first theorized the radius. This may be the single most incredible coincidence in all of scientific etymology and is amazing
You know how the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, appointed his wife to be vice president last February? No? Well, anyway, that was an example of nepotism, the act of favoring friends or relatives with political positions. However, in the olden days, it was just family, and before that it was just nephews (so Aliyev never really was nepotistic). This is because of the word's interesting etymology: through French nepotisme and Italian nepotismo, the word derives from Latin nepos, meaning "nephew". This is because the popes of the Middle Ages (situated in Italy, of course) commonly appointed their own nephews to serve as cardinals, most notably Paul III and Callixtus III. Anyway, nepos (also the source of nephew, through French neveu) derives from the Proto-Italic root nepots, from Proto-Indo-European nepots, which carried a double meaning of "nephew" and "grandson". I wonder if this would hold up as a legal loophole...
A comptoller, a type of elected financial officer, pretty obviously comes from the word controller. The catch here is that it's a mistake: folk etymology altered the title from controller (which in the old times, was always financial) to comptroller under the influence of the French word compte, which meant "account", the kind of thing comptrollers deal with. They changed this because they thought it to be correct, never stopping to think of the root control in the word, which means that it was idiotically and accidentally altered. Now, the verb control comes from the Old French term contrerole, which meant "register", because of that's where your assets that are controlled by the bank are held. Before that, it derived from Latin contrarotula, literally meaning "against wheel" because those registers would have a little wheel in them. Contra ("against") is ironically from com-, which meant "with", from the PIE root kom, meaning "beside". Rotula ("wheel" or occasionally "roll") is from the simpler form rota, from Proto-Indo-European hret, which meant "to roll", as a verb. Make sure comptrollers don't control your rolls of money, or we'll be in an etymological cycle with no way to escape.
Your whole life, you've probably been wondering why the word colonel sounds like kernel, but have been too afraid to question it. That's basically the story of how we got the word. We used to have a term, coronel, which was pronounced as you might think. This was slurred to omit the second o later, but that happens to words all the time. The clincher here is that the word's spelling spelling naturally evolved, but people didn't change the pronunciation in fear that it would be wrong. And now it is. However, earlier on, this came from the Middle French word coronnel, which quite ironically traces to the Old Italian word colonello, giving us a loop back to the l spelling which is quite unnecessary. Colonello is from Latin columna, which meant "pillar", under the correlation that a military commander organizes his soldiers into a column, and another word for column is "pillar". Through Proto-Italic kolamen, this goes to the Proto-Indo-European root kelh, which meant "to rise" (since pillars rise). Side note: the French have since modified coronnel to colonel as well, but the French were wise enough to change the pronunciation too, so they have an l in it and we don't. In Spanish, coronel is pronounced as you may think and is a remnant from the Middle French variation.
You read that title right, and probably guessed its significance. The word Cajun comes from the word Acadian. The demonym for a multicultural people group in Louisiana comes from a word describing a woodsy region in eastern Canada. How? To explain, let's use history! When the British colonized the Acadian region in 1710, the people there were already loyal to France, so when the French and Indian War came about, Great Britain deported Acadian residents en masse to the thirteen colonies so as to neutralize a war threat. Those Acadian migrants eventually traveled further south to French-friendly territory and found themselves in French Louisiana. Subsequently, they settled down to create that characteristic culture we know today. The name changed because the French called Acadians Cadians, and the Acadian accent slurs ds into more of a j sound, so we ended up with Cajuns. Now, Acadia as a region gets its name from Italian Arcadia, a latinization of the Greek region arkadia, which is named after Arkas, the mythical descendent of Zeus who founded the place. If we are to go even further, my research indicates (though it is likely that this is erroneous) that Arkas is likely a Turkish name, Arkadas, which is a portmanteau of arka, meaning "back", and das, meaning "fellow". These are Proto-Turkic in origin, but tracing it even more just gets redundant and obfuscating. Now, though, you have a great idea of how convoluted good etymologies can get!
You might've heard of Silesia, that area in central Europe that's questionably German, or Czech, or Polish, depending on who you ask. It was important during the 1700s, at least. Anyway, that region's name is the origin of the word sleazy! They were making cheap and flimsy clothing which merely imitated high-quality textiles and exporting it all across Europe. Subsequently, Silesia was modified to sleazy, and the "flimsy" meaning naturally evolved to be more like "amoral". Going backwards now, Silesia is probably from a German word sounding like Schliesen, a name of a local mountain, from Silingi, the appellation for a Vandalic people-group who lived near that mountain. Since those people were Germanic, and the word sounds Germanic, I'm guessing that word comes from Proto-Germanic, though we don't really know for sure.
The word fail comes to us through Middle English failen, through Anglo-Norman failir, from the Old French word falir, which meant "to make a mistake". This is not too big of a change from today, but is important as we trace the term further to Latin fallere, which meant "to trip", since tripping is a mistake. Earlier, that meant "to cause to fall", and it's from the Proto-Indo-European root bhal, "to deceive". This makes sense as deception can also lead to tripping, which causes falls. All right, rewind for a second. You might have noticed that fallere sounds the word "fall" and also means "fall". Is there a connection? Nope! Fall, through Old English feallan and Proto-Germanic fallana, traces to a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like pol and actually meaning "fall" for real this time (also the root of the synonym for "autumn"). Not a fail.
We work with manila folders and manila paper all the time, but have we ever considered why the name of these office supplies sounds like the capital of the Philippines? Turns out that is in fact where it comes from! You see, that characteristic buff, stiff paper comes from manila hemp, from the abacá plant native to Luzon. Thus your manila envelopes were directly named after the capital of the Philippines. But where does Manila, the city name, come from? The answer is the Togalog name Maynila, also describing the metropolis. This in turn is a portmanteau of may (meaning "there is") and nilad (meaning a type of indigo plant, though some discredit this as a myth). Together, this means "there is indigo". Nobody's really sure about nilad, but both words probably come from Proto-Philippine, and, by extension, Austronesian, poorly researched Asian languages that they were.
Golly, my flag infographic didn't do the chevron justice, so I simply had to expand upon it here. Currently describing a V-shaped pattern, often used in military or heraldic applications, the chevron in Middle French meant "rafter", because of the angle in roofing which is similar to the chevron. This, even more shockingly, comes from the Latin word caper, meaning "goat" (normally a male), a transition that occurred allegedly because the bent hind leg of a goat was similar in angle to a rafter. More likely than not, caper traces through Proto-Italic to the Proto-Indo-European root kapros, meaning "male goat" again. All of this just goes to show that etymology can take quite interesting and illogical turns whenever it feels like it, spanning completely contrary and bizarre definitions to itself. The word chevron has been steadily decreasing in usage since the late eighteenth century.
If we were to go back in time about 6,500 years ago, we would encounter the Proto-Indo-European root ne, which meant "not", and another root, wiht, which meant "creature". Fast forward 5,000 years, and these two terms diffused through the Germanic tongues to become the Old English word nawiht, literally meaning "not a creature", or "nothing". This went into Middle English as naht, nought, and naught, all of which meant "nothing" as well. However, it's the last term which interests us most, as it is actually a word today (meaning "zero") and the origin of naughty. In the late 1300s, a -y suffix was attached to naught, but instead of "mischievous", its first definition was "poor, having nothing", an easier connection to make from "nothing" in the first place. Later, rich and snobby people changed the definition to something more like "lawless" or even "malignant", because of the perceived connection between poverty and crime (similar to how villain once meant "farmer"). Over time, the meaning mellowed a bit, and that's how we have the word naughty today. A major addition to our culture would occur when Monty Python coined the term "naughty bits", as well. Anyway, this connection between poverty and naughtiness finally proves that Santa targets low-income neighborhoods!
Koumpounophobia is the irrational fear of buttons. That's all you need to know about that; on to the etymology! The root appears to be koumpono, which is Greek for "button". As most Greek words do, koumpono traces to Ancient Greek, but people in Ancient Greece wore tunics and did not have buttons. Instead, the modern Greeks decided that their newfangled clothing item looked like a bean, so they borrowed the Ancient Greek word kuamos, which meant "bean". Further origins of this get hazier and hazier, so to avoid inaccuracy, let's just digress to the suffix -phobia, which is well known (Wikipedia lists 187; there are countless beyond that). This is from Greek phobos, which meant "fear" and was also the god of fear, from Proto-Hellenic phegwomai, from Proto-Indo-European bhegw, which meant "run", under the connection that you run from fear. So koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons, really is just running from beans.
When they first discovered that Australian curiosity of a mammal, scientists wanted platypus to be its genus name, but that was already taken up by a kind of boring beetle, so they kept platypus as a colloquial name and used ornithorhyncus for the genus name instead. Both the beetle and the mammal name mean "flat footed" and derive from the Ancient Greek word platupous, which itself is a portmanteau of platys, a word meaning "flat", and pous, a word meaning "foot". The former can be traced to the Proto-Indo-European root pele or pelh or plat or pleh (I have seen it in so many variations at this point, for it is quite a common root), all of which also meant "flat", and pous is a formation from ped, "foot", itself deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root pod, which also meant "foot". So, even if we haven't seen much semantic change, we at least now known that platypodes can't serve in the army. Oh, yeah, platypodes, not platypuses, or, God forbid, platypi.
When you're playing off some sheet music on a piano, and it tells you to play piano, any musician can tell you that it means quietly, not (quite redundantly) on the instrument you're already using. So it would be a logical conjecture to conclude that the piano instrument comes from the level of volume piano, right? Well, kind of. It actually comes from the Italian word pianoforte, which meant "soft yet strong", because of the large range of sounds a piano can make. The "soft" meaning is indeed in the prefix part, piano, but now it is evident that that is not where the word comes from directly. Through Latin planus, "even", piano traces to the Proto-Indo-European term pele, "flat", which is also surprising, but makes sense when you consider that the term just got more figurative over time. Meanwhile, forte, another measure of sound in music, meant "loud" or "strong", also got more figurative through the ages, developing from Latin fortis, which meant "fortress", from PIE bergh, "to rise". So pianoforte, and by extension, a piano, really means "rising flat" or "even fortress". Music is so complicated.
Right now, the word quagmire means "a boggy area". However, it's developing a definition of "complex or messy situation" that will probably overtake the former in definition pretty soon. The exodus has already begun. Despite all that etymology in action, at its most literal, quagmire is a tautology, literally meaning "marsh marsh" in Old English. How? Well, quag is an obsolete word that meant "bog", from Middle English quabbe, "marsh", ultimately from Old English cwabba, which meant "to tremble", like mushy ground does underfoot. Further origins are unknown. Meanwhile, mire is a slightly less obsolete word meaning "muddy area", From Middle English mire, meaning "swamp", from Old Norse myrr, also describing something like a "swamp" and deriving from Proto-Germanic miuzijo, which can eventually be reconstructed as a derivative of Proto-Indo-European meus, which meant "damp", an obvious connection. So, if we neglect the redundancy of this pointlessly stacked word, we can fully trace quagmire as meaning "damp tremble".
Adam Aleksic, a leading contender for valedictorian of his high school, is a 203-month-old boy with an almost disturbing interest in etymology, vexillology, geography, and law. Adam would like to one day visit Tajikistan and is currently hoping that we keep our net neutrality.