The word rescue was first used in English in an early fourteenth century legend about a knight who had to do a bunch of noble deeds to win the hand of his love interest. Back then, it was spelled a variety of ways, including resceve, reschewe, reschow, reskeve, reschue, reskaw, and much more. That all derives from the Old French verb rescorre, which meant "protect" and further comes from the Latin prefix re-, meaning "again" (from Proto-Indo-European wert, "to turn") and the root excutere, meaning "shake off" or "drive away"; presumably a big part of rescuing was thought to be driving away bad things multiple times. Excutere is composed of another prefix, ex- (from Proto-Indo-European eghs, "out"), and the verb quatere, "to shake". Finally, quatere, also the source of quash, comes from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like kes and meaning "cut".
The state of Wisconsin (originally recorded as Meskousing and Ouisconsin), was organized as a territory in 1836 and officially founded in 1848, but the name was in use for the area for centuries before that. It's an English spelling of a French spelling of a Native American word that referred to the modern-day Wisconsin River. The exact meaning and origin of that word is debated, and there are several theories to look at. It might be from the Menominee toponym Weskohsek-Sepew, meaning "a good place to live", or, as the Miami word Meskonsing, it could have meant "river running through a red place", which would have something to do with the red sandstone along its banks. Alternatively, a number of translations in Ojibwa have been proposed, including "red stone place", "where the waters gather", and "great rock". We'll probably never now for sure, but there are a lot of interesting options!
Today I'd like to talk about the Latin verb ferre, which has been extremely influential in English. It meant "to bear" or "carry", comes from the Proto-Indo-European verb bereti, and was used as a root in many other words:
When the word cult was borrowed into English in the early seventeenth century, it specifically referred to the act of worshipping a god, without the negative connotation of today. It comes from the Latin word cultus, which translates to "cultivate", as in cultivating the temple of a god, an act of worship in ancient Roman culture (Cicero famously defined religion as cultus deorum, "the cultivation of the gods"). That comes from the verb colere, which could mean "to till", "to inhabit", or "to protect", and ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European kel, "to turn around". The modern, negative definition of cult emerged in the late twentieth century due to an increased notion of obsessive devotion. Cult following was used in 1898 and phrases like cult status and cult classic are from the mid-1900s.
The phrase brownie points, describing imaginary rewards given to those who do good deeds, has a hotly debated etymology. The first recorded mention of it was in a 1963 entry to the American Speech journal published quarterly by the American Dialect Society, but it was certainly in use for quite a while before then. Some commonly held theories are that the phrase is a reference to the badges awarded to the group of Girl Scouts, that it's named after a railroad superintendent who introduced a system of merits and demerits, or that it's related to brown vouchers or stamps given out by various organizations. While these explanations cannot be discounted, the story that the most etymologists agree with is that it comes from the term brown-noser, which describes people who so flatter others that it's like they have their nose up the other's rear. Usage of the phrase brownie points was popularized in the 1990s and peaked in 2014.
The phrase hip, hip, hooray emerged in English in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as an exclamation for making a toast. Hooray comes from hurrah, which has, along with huzzah, long been a battle-cry used by European armies with no specific definition. Hip is a bit more interesting. Historically, it's been attested as an interjection used to get someone's attention, and it's unclear to what extent that influenced the duplication. A major theory is that it could be related to hep, hep, which was a traditional anti-Semitic rallying cry popularized through the Hep-Hep riots in Germany, where many Jews were killed and their property damaged. There are many fake etymologies swirling around the internet about this one, but it most likely comes from a herding call for shepherds in the area.
The word cologne emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a shortening of the term cologne water, which was a loan-translation of French eau de cologne, which literally means "water from Cologne", the city in Germany where it was first produced. Cologne has a really interesting etymology itself: it was originally named Oppidum Ubiorum ("town of the Ubius tribe") when it was founded in 38 BCE, but in 50 CE Roman emperor Claudius's wife Agrippina the Younger (who was born there) asked for it to be made a colony and it was renamed Colinia Agrippina in her honor. Later, the Agrippina part was dropped and Colognia morphed into the toponym we know today. Colonia traces to the Latin verb colere, meaning "cultivate", and that derives from Proto-Indo-European kel, "to move".
The phrase hot dog was first recorded in an 1884 edition of the Evansville, Indiana Daily Courier. The hot part just referred to the temperature, but the dog part had meant "sausage" for several decades before that, probably echoing a suspicion that many sausages were created with dog meat. The moniker became very popular with the youth of the day, and there were several early attestations from college newspapers. It was especially popularized by use in cartoonist Tad Dorgan's popular comic strip in the New York Sun (Dorgan also helped phrases like for crying out loud, the cat's pajamas, and several others reach the mainstream), and was widespread by the 1930s. The use of hot dog! as an exclamation of enthusiasm emerged in 1906 and was made famous through frequent use by Mickey Mouse.
When a friend asked me where the word sketch comes from, my first reaction was to guess a Scandinavian origin, since a lot of sk- words tend to ultimately derive from Old Norse. However (through Dutch schets), it came to us in the seventeenth century from the Italian noun schizzo, with the same definition. That's reconstructed to the Latin word schedius, which came from Ancient Greek skhedios, meaning "temporary" or "made suddenly". This is related to English scheme and synechia, as all three words trace to the verb ekhein, meaning "to hold". Finally, ekhein comes from the Proto-Indo-European root seg, which also meant "hold". The word sketchy emerged in 1805 for anything "relating to a sketch", and the modern meaning emerged in 1878 on the notion that sketches are flimsy or unfinished.
In 1937, the Nazi German government formed a state-owned automobile company that they called Gesellschaft zur Vorbeitung des Deutschen Volkswagen, or "Company for the Preparation of the German People's Car". They must've realized this was a mouthful, so a little over a year later, they renamed it to Volkswagenwerk, or "People's Car Factory" - a name meant to evoke a sense of nationalism and pride in Germany's vehicles. After World War II, the company was essentially defunct, but because of the Marshall Plan, the Allies were able to get it back in business with the name Volkswagen, and the rest is history (the nickname VW is from 1958, and usage of the name peaked in 1981). The Volk- part, meaning "people", traces to Old High German folc and Proto-Germanic fulka. Fulka, also the etymon of the English word folk, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pleh, meaning "fill". The -wagen part, obviously a cognate of English wagon, goes back to Old High German wagan, Proto-Germanic wagnaz, and eventually Proto-Indo-European weg, "to transport".
The phrase you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs originated in French in the eighteenth century as ne saurait faire d'omelette sans casser des œufs. The exact origin is a little hazy, although it's commonly attributed to politician François de Charette, who used it to justify the fact that he killed a bunch of people in the Vendée counter-revolution. The idiom first cropped up in English in 1796 but only really started getting used in the late 1800s, primarily still in a context of justifying deaths. It was notably used (and possibly popularized) in World War II by Gestapo founder Hermann Goring, who said that "if people say that here and there someone has been taken away and maltreated, I can only reply: you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." Usage really started taking off in the 1990s, and peaked in 2013.
The noun loot was first attested in a 1788 English-Hindi dictionary, with the same definition as today. It wasn't used in the context of actual English until the mid-nineteenth century, but was quickly picked up after that. As Hindi lut, it pretty much meant the same thing, and that comes from the Sanskrit verb lunt, meaning "to rob", so still very similar. Finally, it's thought that lunt derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction reup, meaning "snatch". If you search literary usage of loot over time, you'll see that loot was in use well before 1788; that's because, in certain English dialects, loot has also referred to a type of ladle (this sense has a completely different etymology, coming from Dutch loet) and served as a slang word for lieutenant. The verb form first appeared in 1842.
Today, the word spiel means "persuasive speech", but it comes from a German word meaning "performance" or "game", possibly by way of Yiddish shpil, which meant "game" or "fun". That traces to the Old High German and Proto-West Germanic words spil, with the same definition. Finally, spil has an uncertain etymology, and tenuous connections have been made to a Latvian word for "pinch". Spiel can also serve as a verb meaning "to gamble" or "play music", with both of those meanings also tracing to the German noun, and, in Scottish English, it can mean "curling match" - that's an unrelated shortening of the (ultimately Dutch) word bonspiel, which referred to matches in games or sports in general. Literary usage of spiel has been steadily increasing over time, with a peak in 2014.
In Revelation 13:18, the Bible (depending on the version) says "let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six." In modern culture, this became associated with the devil because of confusion with his beast. But what was the original meaning behind the number? The leading theory is that it was a hidden insult against Roman emperor Nero. In Hebrew, letters are also used to represent numbers, and the numbers that added up to 666 in the translation could also spell out NRON QSR (there are no vowels) or "Neron Kesar", the Hebrew way to write Nero Caesar. The timeline would check out, too: the Book of Revelation is thought to have been written about 30 years after Nero's death, a time when there was a widespread belief that Nero would return to life.
The phrase we stan is an increasingly prominent slang word among Gen Z and Millenial people used to indicate strong agreement or approval of something (e.g. we stan this band). It's thought to trace to a 2000 hip hong song by Eminem called Stan, which was about an extremely obsessive fan called Stan. The next recorded usage is from a 2001 diss track by rapper Nas, where he used it as a synonym of words like "phony" and "fake". For a while, the proper noun was negative and associated with overzealous people, but eventually it came to be viewed in a better light. It was first recorded on Urban Dictionary in 2006, first used as a verb in a 2008 verb, and, according to Google Trends, has been steadily increasing in usage since. The plural form emerged to imply that many people support the viewpoint.
I've never given any thought to the phrase parting shot - I guess I just assumed that it was a shot made right before you depart - so I was shocked to learn that it's actually a folk etymologization of the phrase Parthian shot! That term referred to a particularly difficult military tactic used by the Parthinian people of Ancient Persia wherein retreating archers on horseback would turn around on the horse and shoot behind them. This came to be a metaphor in English around the nineteenth century, and was corrupted into the modern form relatively quickly. Parthinian is the endonym for Parthia, which comes from the Old Persian root p-r-th-n, which also referred to the general region. According to Google NGrams, literary usage of parting shot peaked in 2015 and has been declining since.
Back in Middle English, the word scabbard could be spelled a number of ways, including scauberc, scaberke, skabrek, scabarge, skabarge, scaubert, and more (the modern form was popularized around the middle of the eighteenth century). It comes from the Anglo-Norman word escauberc, which had the modern definition but also an auxiliary meaning of "vagina". That may have come through Frankish or another Germanic language, but it definitely traces to the Proto-Germanic roots skeriz, meaning "blade", and bergaz, meaning "protection". Skeriz comes from the verb skerana ("to shear", from Proto-Indo-European sker, meaning "cut") and bergaz, which also composes all or parts of harbor, belfry, barrow, berg, and harbinger, comes from Proto-Indo-European berg, meaning "high".
In the 1992 film Wayne's World, singer-songwriter Alice Cooper explains that the name Milwaukee comes from the Algonquian word millioke, meaning "the good land". However, that's only one theory, and most etymologists consider the origin uncertain (the other major explanation is that it comes from the Potawatomi word minwaking, meaning "gathering place"). The word was first attested in the late seventeenth century, and the spelling at the time was all over the place: early attestations included Melloki, Milwogue, Miskoumina, Melecki, Wilakie, Waillawaky, Milwacky, Milwaukie, and Milwauke. Throughout the 1800s, Milwaukie and Milwaukee were still used at about equal frequency, and it only got standardized when the city was officially established in 1846. The demonym Milwaukeean emerged around the same time, originally with the spelling Milwaukiean.
Today I found myself wondering about how alfredo sauce got its name. I thought that it might be similar to how al dente pasta is "to the tooth", but I was really confused about what fredo could mean. Turns out that's because the whole thing is literally some guy's name. The fettucine dish was invented by Alfredo di Lelio in Rome in the early twentieth century, and his particular style of making it was so popular that it was named after him. The name Alfredo comes from the Old English roots aelf, meaning "elf", and raed, meaning "advice". Aelf, which is also the etymon of the English word elf, derives from the Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European roots albiz and helbos, meaning "white". Raed traces to Proto-Germanic redaz and is eventually reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European hrehd, meaning "think".
The word mandible was first used in an early fifteenth century surgical guide, and was directly taken from the Latin word mandibula, meaning "jaw". That comes from the verb mandere, meaning "to chew", and finally derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction mendh, also meaning "chew". This same root also went into Ancient Greek as mastax, or "jaw", into Medieval Greek as moustakion, into Italian as mostaccio, and became the word moustache that we use today (this is mostly spelled mustache in American English because of Merriam Webster and other dictionaries propagating a less French-looking spelling). At the same time, mendh additionally developed into another Latin verb for "chew", masticare, which eventually made its way into English as masticate. It's so cool that these words all share the same origin!
The word usher was borrowed into the English language in 1386, when it was spelled ussher. Through Anglo-Norman, it traces to the Old French noun ussier, which had definitions of "porter" or "doorman" - still pretty similar to today. That's from Vulgar Latin ustiarius and Latin ostiarus, which both also meant "doorman". The root of ostiarus is ostium, or "door", and it all eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction os, meaning "mouth" (the idea was that both are entrances or openings of a sort). Os also gave us the words oral, Oslo ("river mouth" in Old Norse), oscitant, orifice, orator, and many other terms that have to do with gaps and mouths in general. According to Google NGrams, literary usage of the word usher was highest in the 1500s and has been trending downwards since.
The word gasket (describing a type of mechanical seal) was borrowed in the early seventeenth century from the Middle French noun gaskette, with the same definition. There's a lot of uncertainty about where that comes from, but the leading theory is that it's from garcette, meaning "little girl", perhaps through a figurative nautical sense of "plaited coil". That would be a diminutive of garce, which referred to young women, harlots, or concubines, and garce was a feminine version of garcon, which still means "boy". Finally, that traces to the Frankish reconstruction wrakjo ("servant" or "boy"), to Proto-Germanic wrakjon ("exile") and Proto-Indo-European wreg ("track" or "hunt"). The expression to blow a gasket emerged in the 1940s, when gaskets used to seal pressure in car engines were known to occasionally degrade and pop.
I've seen a lot of people misspell the word harbinger as harbringer, or ask me if the word is somehow related to bring. At a glance, this seems like it could make sense: after all, a harbinger brings news or change. However, the word used to refer to a "person sent ahead to arrange lodgings", usually for a travelling group of soldiers or nobility, and before that it meant "innkeeper" in general. Back then, it was primarily spelled herberger; the -n- was added because of association with words like messenger. Through Old French, herberger comes from the Frankish noun heriberga, meaning "lodging" or "inn", and that finally traces to the Proto-Germanic roots harjaz ("army"; from Proto-Indo-European koryos, "war") and bergo ("protection"; from Proto-Indo-European bhergh, "to hide"). These same roots later developed into the word harbor, which is pretty cool.
You know that feeling when you get goosebumps from listening to a really powerful piece of music? That's called frisson, and there's a whole Wikipedia article on the phenomenon. The word was borrowed into English in 1777 by British politician Horace Walpole, who used it with more of a general "emotional thrill" sense. He took it from the French word frisson, which could mean "fever" or "shiver" and was in turn borrowed in the twelfth century from the Latin verb frigere, meaning "to be cold" (this was also the source of frigid). Finally, that's thought to derive from the Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European reconstructions srigos and srig, both meaning "cold". Because of the new definition emerging, usage of the word frisson started dramatically increasing during the late 1900s and peaked in 2014.
On a surface level, it seems like the noun disinformation is just the prefix dis- attached to the word information, but there's a lot more to it than just that. It's actually a 1950s borrowing modeled on the Russian word dezinformatsiya, which was coined by Joseph Stalin in 1923 to describe the Soviet spy tactic of spreading false information in foreign countries to confuse and deceive the public. The term was used as the name of a KGB "black propaganda" department, and was only really popularized in the United States around the mid-1980s, when it was revealed that the Reagan administration used disinformation tactics to interfere in Libya. Funnily enough, the very use of disinformation is a product of disinformation: Stalin introduced the French-based dezinformatsiya to replace the previous word for the strategy, maskirovka, to make it seem like it was originally a Western European practice.
Adam Aleksic is a sophomore studying linguistics and government at Harvard University. He also has disturbing interests in politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.