Due to its characteristic red-and-green colors and an association with the three wise magi, the poinsettia is a staple when it comes to Christmas decorations. But did you know that the poinsettia wasn't introduced into America or English until 1828? It was brought over by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, and botanists took to it right away, creating a genus name by it in 1836, a name used to today. Now, that aforementioned ambassador was named Joel R. Poinsett, so you can probably see where the word comes from. Poinsett as a surname comes from either the Netherlands or northern France. The best sources I could find on this were pretty vague, but this might be from French poinct, which if true, would be connected to English point and, through Latin punctum, go back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root pewg, which meant something like prick".
When researching my post on coddle, I found that something else that's unexpected derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for "heat", kele. I guess you'll just have to read on to find out what! Kele later became the Proto-Italic root kaleo, also "heat", and we venture out of the realm of reconstruction as the history of the word develops on to calere, the verb form of all this, meaning "to be warm". Added to the verb facere ("to do"), this became calefacere, or "to make something warm". After some international mangling, calefacere became chaufer in Old French, still with the same definition. This retained its spelling for a while, until it became chauffeur. More time passed, and then the Industrial Revolution happened. Engines arrived, and the French needed a name for them. They chose chauffeur because engines heat up with use. Soon, chauffeur became metonymically applied to the people who use them. Now with the definition of "motorist", it's not hard to see why chaffeur means what it does today.
We all know estrogen as a chemical and female sex hormone, but did you know it has sexist origins? When etymologizing it, I immediately recognized -gen as that suffix meaning "producing" (as present in nitrogen and oxygen). I was correct; additionally, through French and Greek, -gen traces to the Proto-Indo-European root gene, "to beget". The estrus root, however, is where it gets interesting. It means "frenzied passion", obviously a sexist reference to women and their hormones. This is similar to the story of hysteria, which meant "uterus". Appropriation abounds! Anyway, estrus derives from Latin oestrus, also meaning "frenzy" but in a less pseudo-scientific sense. Then another twist in the plot line makes everything weirder: oestrus is a borrowing from Greek oistrus, which meant "gadfly", an annoying insect which incites frenzy in some animals. It all is from Proto-Indo-European heys, which was a generally emotional word which kinda meant "anger" but was more complex than that for philologists to understand.
Here's another reason to loathe attorneys: the word doom used to mean "law" in Old English. This was as the phoneme dom, which also meant "judgement" and is present in many terms you should know. The Great Survey ordered by William the Conqueror in 1086 was compiled in the Domesday book (Domesday being an obsolete form of doomsday) because everything was being "judged" by the rightful king. The suffix -dom as in kingdom, fiefdom, and Christendom just means "being judged", by your ruler, landlord, and Christ, respectively. All this dom stuff goes back to the Proto-Germanic word domaz, which etymologists concur meant "judgement" as well. This traces to a Proto-Indo-European word which sounded like dhe and meant "to place". The whole reason doom came to mean "terrible fate" is because of the notion that on Judgement Day, or doomsday, God would punish those who were sinful. Or something like that; you get the idea. I'm a linguist, not a theologian.
A fiasco is a disaster, and you certainly don't want one of those. Yet a mere four hundred years ago, foreign artisans were working to create perfect fiascos. It all goes back to Italian fiasco, which meant "a glass". However, post-medieval glassblowers were very temperamental individuals, often throwing fits and glasses alike when the latter didn't come out perfectly. Through French and then English, a fiasco became known as a "dramatic failure", particularly in the theatre industry. Today, the word has generalized a bit, as you may surmise. Anyway, Italian fiasco traces to Latin flasco, the direct root of today's term flask (also meaning "a type of bottle"), is surprisingly from Frankish, in the form of flaska and still with the same definition. This is from Proto-Germanic fleh, or "to weave", from Proto-Indo-European plek, also "weave" (this probably had to do with the non-glass construction of early flasks). So next time you accidentally knock a museum's fourteenth-century, ruby-encrusted Venetian goblet valued in the millions, you can at least tell the security guards that you were exercising etymology.
If you break down the word sinecure, you can pretty easily discover what it means etymologically. It never was a single word until English (today it means "an easy but well-paid job"); in Latin it was a phrase, beneficium sine cura (somehow the former word got lost in translation), meaning "benefice without care", basically today's definition. Just the sine cura means "without care", reflecting the simplicity of the task. Sine, which we see in sin- ("without"), goes back to Proto-Indo-European swe, "self", and it developed on the sense of "stand alone". Cura you may recognize as being similar to the word cure. This is for good reason; it is the direct etymon of that word; the shared definition is "concern", which makes sense for both venues. This is from Proto-Indo-European kwes, or "to heed". So, if you're truly without caring, in the future you'll call a sinecure "heeding yourself".
The word word has a boring, predictable etymology but it still must be accounted for, if only for posterity's sake! It comes from Proto-Germanic wurda, which meant "word", and that comes from Proto-Indo-European were, which meant "to say". And that's it! Well, not quite. Were also gave way to a development in another language family: the Latin term verbum, which also meant "word" but later meant "verb", and, through Old French verbe, found its way into English in the fourteenth century as -you guessed it- verb. So word and verb are connected! It's weird that they come from different families; verbum mostly left descendents in Italic, and wurda in all the Germanic languages, so the overlap we have in English is pretty rare. Word is much more prevalent that verb in usage over time, but neither have particularly outlandish search interest on Google.
When we hear the word coddle, we think of spoiling child brats, or something along those prototypical lines. But the word's origins go far beyond that; in Middle English it took the form of caudle, meaning "a hot beverage given to disabled people". It changed bit by bit over time to take the current form, along the basis of assisting someone helpless. Caudle before Middle English was a cross-English Channel mutt used in the general Normandy-southern England area, caudel, from Latin calidium, or "warm drink". The root of this, naturally, is calidus, "warm", from whence derived Spanish caliente. Calidus is from Proto-Italic kaleo, from Proto-Indo-European kele, meaning "warm" as well. The point is that most coddled people are kept warm? Whatever. The word coddle has 3,500,000 results on Google and peaked in usage around 1920.
Forget the Breathalyzer: police suspecting people of drunkenness should check eyeliner levels! The word alcohol comes from the Latin term alcohol, which meant "powdered antimony sulfide", describing makeup with the composition of Sb2S3 (which is strange, considering modern alcohols contain OH, but it's all about to make more sense). Later, this sense of "cosmetics" began to mean "any pure substance". Our modern definition of alcohol as in "the drink" first emerged in 1753, and since this contained OH, it was extended in a chemical sense later. These definitions eventually went on to eclipse the "makeup" meaning, because the latter had too many synonyms as it was. Anyway, going back to Latin alcohol, it probably comes from Arabic al-kuhul, or "the kohl", kohl being that type of eyeliner the Egyptians famously utilized. This is from the Semitic root khl, which meant something like "paint" and still had vague connections to antimony.
Occasionally it'll take the form friggatriskaidekaphobia, but that's rarer. Here, we analyze the term paraskavedekatriaphobia, or "the fear of Friday the 13th". The first element, paraskavei, is the Greek term for "Friday" and in Ancient Greek literally meant "day of preparation" as paraskeue. This in turn is a portmanteau of para-, meaning "half", and skeue, meaning "dress". After all, while you're preparing, you're only half-dressed. The second element, dekatreis, is Greek for "thirteen", and is composed of deka-, or "ten" (from Proto-Indo-European dekm, which may be connected to komt, "hand"), and tris, or "three" (also PIE). Finally, phobia is from phobos ("fear"), from phebomai ("to flee"; makes sense), from PIE bhegw, "to run". So, what today means "fear of Friday the Thirteenth" can be broken up into five Greek words meanining "half-dressed three-hand running"!
It's clear just by looking at the word kebab that it's not of Indo-European origin. As with many foodstuffs, the etymology of the word follows a similar geographic path as the history of the product's diffusion. So here, we get kebab from Turkish kebap (from whence siskebap, the precursor of shish kebab). This may have passed through an Iranian but Indo-European language in Urdu or Persian, but ultimately traces to Arabic kabab. Here, the noun becomes a verb as we travel further back in time to Aramaic, where kabab sounded like kbb and meant "the action of roasting meat", which most of the time is done on a stick. The Aramaic word is then from a completely hypothesized Afro-Asiatic root kab, meaning "to burn", or possibly just "burnt". It's pretty cool here how kebab travels through three separate language families to get where it is right now.
Remember back in the unicorn post, where I proved that cornus is Latin for "horn"? Well, you might notice that the same root is present in cornucopia. It literally comes from Latin cornu copiae, or "horn of plenty". This mythologically referred to the goat horn that the baby god Jupiter ate out of. As we've already seen, cornu goes back to Proto-Germanic hurnaz, from Proto-Indo-European ker, meaning "horn" or sometimes "head". Copiae, the latter component of the word (which you may recognize as being related to copious; it is, through copiosus, "plentiful"), has different etymologies proffered at my different sources; it could be from com, "with" (from PIE kom, "beside"), or the prefix co- added to the root opis, meaning "wealth" (from PIE hep, "to work", because you work to earn wealth). The second theory makes more sense, I think, but etymology rarely makes sense, so it might as well be the first.
In 1817, the Scottish optical scientist David Brewster submitted a patent for a kaleidoscope, a word he invented. It went on to great success within only a few years, spreading the word far and wide. But where did Brewster get the word from? He created it from joining two Greek words: kalos, meaning "beautiful", and eidos, meaning "shape", obviously so named because of the pretty patterns formed when one looks through a kaleidoscope (additionally, -scope is just a suffix, influenced by telescope, meaning "examine"). Kalos sounded something like kalwos in what was most likely Proto-Hellenic, and in Proto-Indo-European it took the form of kal, also defined as "beautiful". Meanwhile, eidos derives from the reconstructed PIE root weydos, meaning "to see" (this developed from "shape" to "image" over time before ultimately settling on that).
Someone who was feisty in a Middle English context would find it hard to be feisty today. It’s actually quite interesting what happened: we got our current definition in 1896, from feist, which meant “a small dog”. It’s not too hard to draw a parallel to “spunkiness”, for small dogs are unusually manic for their size, and feisty in particular alludes to this one enthusiastic dog breed. But then again, many dogs smell, so it’s also not a surprise when we trace feist to a word meaning “stink”. And you know what stinks? Farts. So, in Middle English, feist meant “fart”. Through Old English, this goes all the way back to fistiz (also “fart”), which probably traces to a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like perd and still meaning “fart”. Of course, the transitions were more nuanced than I'm describing here; for periods in between meanings of feist people were using it for more than one definition, and things generally got confusing.
The word lynch was coined in 1835, and that was an alteration of the legal term lynch law, which referred to justice in any form and didn't necessarily have anything to do with hanging people. This, etymologists concur, was definitely named after someone, but etymologists can't concur who. Some think it was William Lynch, who was some guy from Virginia during the Revolutionary War. Other hypothesize it was Charles Lynch, who was some guy from Virginia during the Revolutionary War. Yes, that's right, but let's get serious. It could've been William because he led some posses against the British, but it also could've been Charles, because he was more famous, yet had less of a violent role, holding court sessions against Loyalists. Whoever it was, Lynch is a corruption of an Irish name, O'Loingsigh, which, if you go far back enough, means "seafarer".
Happy 100-year anniversary of the October Revolution! The word revolution, from Old French revolucion, traces to Latin revolver, which literally meant "to revolve", or more figuratively, a "turning over" of power. The term was first used to describe the Glorious Revolution in 1688, where power was turned over peacefully, but that was soon extended to violent overthrows and coups, which later could also mean "dramatic change" (e.g. the Industrial Revolution). Continuing where we left off, revolver is a combination of the prefix re- ("again"), and volvere, or "to roll". Re- comes from a Proto-Indo-European word that sounded very similar and meant about the same thing, and volvere is from PIE wel, also carrying a connotation of "revolve". Looking at the usages of revolution over time is pretty interesting; the word, of course, peaks when there's an ongoing revolt.
Thank you, whoever requested this word, because I learned a new term because of you! A gretchenfrage is a blunt, direct question that cuts to the point, often in a theological sense. And its etymology is fascinating! It goes back to Goethe's quintessential play, Faust, where the eponymous antihero is asked by his lover, "what is your take on religion?". This was a relevant question for many reasons. First, as several know already, Faust had a bargain with the devil. Second, the lover's name was Gretchen, and the word for "question" in German is frage. So this tough, often religious question of gretchenfrage really means "Gretchen's question". Gretchen is a nickname for Margaret, which, through Latin and French, eventually traces to a Greek word meaning "pearl" (from Iranian). Frage is from Middle High German vragen, from Old High German frahen. This is from Proto-Germanic fregnana, and the definition finally changes as we go further back to Proto-Indo-European prek, which carried a double meaning of "to woo". So, in response to the gretchenfrage on gretchenfrage, it means "wooing pearls".
The mastodon was named in 1813 by Georges Cuvier, who clearly had his mind on one thing. To create this new genus name, Cuvier combined the Greek word mastos, meaning "breast", and "dontos", meaning "tooth". The word itself literally had the denotation of "breast-tooth", and was meant to describe how mastodon teeth have tiny nubs on their teeth, not altogether un-mammary-esque. Mastos (which in Greek was particular to the female breast, and you may recognize it from mastectomy) comes from the Proto-Indo-European word mad, or "dripping", a connection to milk. Meanwhile, dontos is directly from the Proto-Indo-European root dent, which meant "teeth", plural. You may recognize it from orthodontics and other such terms. Usage of the word mastodon is on the decline since the early twentieth century.
Despite the façade of a simple Germanic word, the term cheap has undergone some serious alterations. In Middle English it took the forms of cheep, chepe, chepen, ceapien, chep, and chapien. Meanwhile, the semantics were changing as well. Moving backward, it went from meaning “low-priced goods” to “a bargain” to “purchasing” in general to a “market”, where purchases were made. So, etymologically speaking, if you were to purchase cheap goods at a market, you could cheap cheap cheap at a cheap. Eventually, this hodgepodge came from Old English ceapian (“to buy”, worsening the mess), and that derives from Proto-Germanic kaupona, also “to buy”. Then, things get linguistically confusing also. Most Proto-Germanic words just go straight back to Proto-Indo-European, but this one is from Latin caupus, an “innkeeper”, which maybe from Pre-Mediterranean.
I chose this word in honor of the recent referendums in Kurdistan and Catalonia. Secede came to English in 1702, not as a word describing countries breaking away, but on a more personal level, meaning something more like "leaving your friends". However, especially later that century, with the Austrian Secession and Revolutionary War, the word gained traction as meaning "leaving your country" on a whole. Before English, secede derives from Latin secedere, or "to separate". This is an affixation of se- (from the general Proto-Indo-European modifier sed), a prefix meaning "apart" and cedere, the root and verb, which meant "to go" and, through Proto-Italic kezdo, comes from Proto-Indo-European ked, "to go away". Usage of secede seems to be decreasing these days, and of course the highest spike in mentions was in the 1860s (history made its impact).
It's not just a Beatles record! White Album is also a tautology! Album, you see, traces all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European root helbos, meaning "white". How did this happen? Well, after a muddle in Proto-Italic, helbos became the Latin word albus, which also meant "white" (and you may recognize it as Dumbledore's first name). This became the Latin word album, or "white writing tablet", which, when paper was brought to Europe, transitioned into album, "list of paper", since paper was white and you wrote on it, I suppose. Eventually, it came to mean "a collection", of writings and (by the mid-nineteenth century) photos, still a modern definition. Not too far of a stretch. Finally, when the gramophone records started coming out post-World War II, people decided to name them albums, an instance of metonymy, since the sleeves those records came in were white sheaths reminiscent of those on more old-fashioned albums. Funny how things work out in etymology!
Cretin is a word used today as "idiot", but cretinism also refers to people with the medical condition of hypothyroidism, caused by iodine deficiency. This was the earlier definition. In the Middle Ages, people who lived in the Alps tended to be low in iodine. Thus, cretins were born, named crestin in the Franco-Italian region. The word crestin, surprisingly, came from Vulgar Latin christianus, which meant "Christian"! This was for a very inclusive and nice reason: in a surprising show of tolerance, people realized that, despite looking different, cretins were good humans too, and since good humans are Christians, why not label them as such? Christianus traces to Christus, the name for Jesus, and you can get the etymology of that if you look at the post for Christmas. Speeding up to today, a nice, inclusive display by Middle Age denizens of the Alps turned into an insult, just because cretins looked different. Who knows? Perhaps we're getting more barbaric.
Adam Aleksic, a leading contender for valedictorian of his high school, is a 201-month-old boy with an almost disturbing interest in etymology, geography, and law. Adam would like to one day visit Tajikistan and is currently hoping that you check out his infographics.