Tiramisu, that delicious coffee-dipped sponge cake, originated in brothels in Treviso, Italy. It was considered an aphrodisiac by locals, and was served right before sex as a little pick-me-up. That's why the word literally translates to "pick-me-up" in Italian; tira could mean "pick", "pull", or "cheer" in this context, mi was a reflexive pronoun, and su meant up. Tira is a conjugation of the verb tirare, which had a plethora of definitions such as "to pull", "to throw", "to utter", "to draw", and more. This jack-of-all-trades came through Latin from the Proto-Germanic reconstruction terana, meaning "to tear", and that in turn is from Proto-Indo-European der, "to split". Mi never changed much through time, going back to PIE me, with the same meaning. Su derives from Latin subversus, which meant "overthrown" and is composed of the prefix sub-, mainly meaning "under" (from PIE upo) and the root versus, meaning "revolve" (traces to PIE wert, "to turn").
When the word prolific was first used in the English language by historian Thomas May, it was spelled prolifique and had to do with fertility and producing lots of offspring. Later on, that expanded to include more figurative definitions, after which usage over time remained relatively constant. Prolifique is glaringly French, crossing the channel in the 1630s and taken from Latin prolificus in the 1500s. The Latin word combines two others: proles, meaning "offspring" and facere, "to make" (so to be prolific is to make offspring). Proles can be traced back to two Proto-Indo-European roots, pro (meaning "forth") and al ("to grow"), and I've covered facere on multiple occasions; it derives from PIE dhe, "to put". So much development over time - I guess you could say this was quite a prolific etymology.
I’ve read George Orwell’s seminal masterpiece 1984 twice, and it remains my favorite dystopic novel of all time to this day. One the most interesting points the book raises is that language is extremely malleable and can be distorted for political purposes, as we can see from the State imposing “Newspeak” on its people to limit their ability to express negative thoughts about their government. I'm particularly fond of one concept, that 2+2 could equal 5. This makes no mathematical sense to us, but it could make linguistic sense. Definitions are inherently subjective and contingent on the vox populi. If everybody agrees that a false statement is true, who's to say that it is false? The meanings we attribute to the numbers 2 or 5 could shift, and then the equation would be correct. Orwell's math is a constant reminder to me that all of language is arbitrary and could be changed. This idea, though, predates 1984 by quite a while: it was actually Descartes who first posited that an equation like 2+2=4 has no reality outside of our minds, and 2+2=5 has been around as classic falsehood since 1728. Orwell had also expressed the notion prior to 1984, using it to explain how Nazi propaganda influenced subjective truths in his 1943 essay Looking Back on the Spanish War. Ah! What a fascinating topic!
The word ginger was around in Old English for a while, taking on forms like gingifer, gingiber, giniure, and gingifra. By Middle English, the spellings of gingere and gingevere were most prominent, and by the fifteenth century, the word had been standardized as ginger. At the time, this still referred exclusively to the spice, but the definition soon began to shift, as well. By 1785, ginger could be applied to the color of chickens, and the color word itself was extrapolated from that in the mid-1800s. During that time, it also was extended to describe people, cats, horses, other animals in general, and ginger-ale, peaking in usage around the year 2000. The Old English word comes from Latin zingiberi under the influence of Old French, and that in turn is from Ancient Greek zingiberis. Just like the plant itself, the word was borrowed from speakers of Sanskrit, who said srngaveram, which roughly translates to "horn body", describing the shape of the root. Finally, that most likely comes from a Dravidian language, since the southern Indians were the first to come into contact with ginger when it was brought over by Austronesian sailors.
It took me eighteen years to learn that a fiancé is different from a fiancée; apparently the one with one e refers to men and the one with two refers to women. The words were borrowed in the middle of the nineteenth century from French, both going back to the Old French verb fiancer, meaning "to betroth". The root of that is fier, meaning "to trust", and -ance was just a suffix to form nouns. Earlier, in Latin, fier took the form of fidus, which could also mean "faithful" or "loyal", and that's reconstructed as deriving from a Proto-Italic word, feithos, which would be from Proto-Indo-European beyd, also "trust". Usages of both the words fiance and fiancee in English literature over time reveals that they peaked in utilization in the late 1990s for some reason and that most people spell them without the diacritics.
As a student of Spanish, it's always weird to me to see the word molestar, which means "to annoy". My English-oriented brain always jumps to the word molest, which obviously is much worse. As you may expect, the two words are related, in this case through the Latin word molestare, which also had a meaning of "annoy". The connection to the modern word may be found in Old French molester, which meant something more like "torment" or "harass" and eventually shifted in meaning to give us the sexual abuse definition. The adjectival form of molestare, molestus, meant something like "burdensome" and links us to the noun form, moles, meaning "mass" or "boulder" (the idea being that a large rock was burdensome to travelling). That, finally, derives from Proto-Indo-European meh, "to exert".
The word vernacular is one I use a lot on this site, but never went into detail on before now. It describes the dialect spoken by a group of ordinary people in a particular region, and it has a fascinating etymology. Vernacular entered our vernacular in 1601 and was first used by a bishop named William Barlow in some papers defending the Anglican church. Before then, it was used in Latin as vernaculus, which meant "native", sometimes specifically in reference to servants and slaves. This came to be associated with language over time because the Romans used the phrase vernacula vocabula to describe local dialects, and the vocabula part was dropped when the word entered English. The root of vernaculus is verna, which meant "locally born slave", and that could either be Etruscan or from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "house"
The word emancipate was first used by Francis Bacon in his influential 1605 book The Advancement of Learning. In using it, he was discussing intellectual freedom, but by the late 1600s it began to refer to freedom from religious persecution, and in 1776 it was attested as meaning "a government action freeing slaves". Emancipate was taken from Latin emancipatus, a conjugation of the verb emancipare, which generally meant "to give up authority" but could also have to do with setting a child free. The prefix ex- (meaning "out"; from PIE eghs) is lurking just out of sight, but once that's chipped away we are left with the root manceps, which held a definition of "transfer". The literal meaning of that, "to take in hand", is revealed when we separate manceps into manus, meaning "hand", and capere, meaning "take". Manus comes from Proto-Indo-European man (also "hand") and capere is from PIE kap, "to grasp".
Fun fact: the singular of confetti is confetto. When the word confetti was borrowed into English in 1815, it actually referred to a kind of almond with a hard candy coating that Italians would throw at each other when celebrating (especially for weddings). To save money, commoners in England started using lime pellets instead, until they realized scraps of paper were cheaper and just as romantic - and that's how we ended up where we are today. Confetto comes from the Latin word confectus, which meant "prepared" or "produced" (as in the coated nuts were prepared) and is the etymon of the words comfit and confection. The verb form of confectus is conficiere, which is composed of the prefix con-, meaning "together" (through Proto-Italic, tracing from Proto-Indo-European kom, "next to"), and the root facere, "to make" (this is reconstructed to PIE deh, meaning "set").
The word persecution was first recorded in English around 1350 CE in a new translation of the Book of Revelation. Back then, it was spelled persecucioun, which reflects its origins in the Old French word persecucion. That came from Latin persecutionem, a noun meaning "follow through" or "pursue", the idea being that the persecutor pursues discrimination against the persecuted - an active campaign against them. The verb form of persecutionem is persequor, which is composed of the prefix per-, meaning "through", and the root sequor, meaning "follow". Per- comes from Proto-Indo-European per, meaning "forward", and sequor traces to Proto-INdo-European sekw, "to follow". Usages of the word persecution over time have been thankfully declining sharply.
The word fracas is quite a pulchritudinous noun that's basically a synonym of "chaos" or "ruckus". It was introduced to the English language in 1727 by Lady Mary Montagu, a well-traveled poet and vaccination enthusiast. Thereafter, the word rapidly grew more popular, reaching widespread usage in the late eighteenth century. Montagu borrowed it from French, where it especially denoted loud noises or crashes. That came in the 1400s from Italian fracassare, which is a weird word because it combined and shortened Latin infra- ("below"; from Proto-Indo-European hndi, "under") and Italian cassare, "to smash". Combining those two parts from different eras of lingual evolution, infracassare meant "to smash into pieces". Cassare is from Latin quassare, which meant "to shake" and comes from PIE keht, with the same meaning.
Acolyte is a really pretty word synonymous with "follower" or "assistant", especially in a religious connotation. That makes sense; when the word was first borrowed in the fourteenth century, it had to do with people who helped out priests in the Catholic Church. That Middle English word came either from Old French or Medieval Latin, where it took the forms of acolite and acolytus, respectively. Either way, it goes back to Ancient Greek akolouthos, which still had the general definition of "follower". The literal meaning, however, meant "together with [someone on] a journey", the prefix a- in this case meaning "together with" and the root keleuthos meaning "path". The etymology of that is unknown, but it probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like kel and containing a similar denotation.
Nostalgia today is associated with warm memories and happy recollections, but it used to have a much harsher meaning. When the word was first brought into 1770, it described an intense ache to return home. The etymology of nostalgia (which was first coined by a Swiss student in 1688) reflects that earlier definition. Nost-, the initial part of the word, comes from Ancient Greek nostos, meaning "homecoming", and -algia is from Greek algos, "pain". Nostos comes from a Proto-Indo-European word, nes, with the same denotation; -tos is just an adjectival suffix here. Algos, meanwhile, developed from the verb algein, which meant "to feel pain" and has an uncertain etymology. Usage of the word nostalgia rapidly took off in the twentieth century and peaked in the 1990s.
The word myrtle was first brought into the English language around the year 1400 in reference to the plant's berries, but usage didn't really take off until the eighteenth century, and it wasn't applied to the tree type until 1562. This came from the Old French word mirtile, the y being influenced by an even older ancestor, the Latin word myrtillus or myrtus in its non-diminutive form. That in turn developed from the Ancient Greek term myrtos, which still described the families of vine-like plants and shrubs we know today. The Ancient Greek word is as far back as we can trace without getting hypothetical, but myrtos has been connected to the word myrrh as coming from a Semitic word, possibly tracing to Proto-Afro-Asiatic. There wasn't much semantic change there, but Myrtle as a proper noun first started to get popular during the Victoria Era and has recently fallen out of the top 1000 female names.
In 1556, the word ensurance was first borrowed into the English language, meaning "betrothal" or "engagement". Soon it expanded in definition to cover assurances and pledges of all kinds (the etymon of our word ensure), then the leading e became and i, and finally a meaning of "financial security against loss" emerged by 1651, giving us our modern word insurance. Before all that, esurance was the Old French word enseurance, which could also refer to an assurance of any type. Here we can chop off the prefix en-, which meant "make", and the suffix -ance, denoting an action, which leaves us with the root sur, meaning "safe". Sur is a relative of English sure, coming from the Latin word securus, or "free from care" (the direct ancestor of "secure"). Now another prefix, se-, can be eliminated, meaning "apart", leaving cura, "care". Finally, it's all reconstructed to PIE keys, "to heed". My takeaway here is that insurance means to "make something safe" and has a ton of relatives, from ensure to cure. Fascinating stuff!
The etymology of conundrum is quite the conundrum! Nobody really quite knows its origins, but there are some theories. The word was first attested in 1596 to denote "a pedantic person", but then that meaning died out. A few more definitions emerged throughout the seventeenth century, including "pun" and "whim". It's uncertain if any of those usages are even related to the modern meaning, which emerged as Oxford University slang in 1645. Apparently, they might have coined it as a joke: it was considered humorous at the time to create words that looked Latin but actually weren't. After that, conundrum (which was also spelled quonundrum for a while) seeped into the popular culture, and the rest is history. Other etymological theories include having conundrum actually come from Latin or being named after an order of Jesuits.
In his seminal satirical masterpiece Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift wrote about a fictional land inhabited by giants that protagonist Lemuel Gulliver visits after his second shipwreck. This land was named Brobdingnag, but in the preface to that section of the novel, Gulliver complains that the correct spelling is actually Brobdingrag and that the publisher messed up in editing the word. This adds a bit of verisimilitude to the narration and makes it seem more like an actual account. The word seems to have been randomly chosen to just sound sort of big. The book was published in 1726, and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Brobdingnagian developed as an adjective meaning by 1731 (noticeably without the "correct" r). It peaked in usage in the 1930s and has generally levelled off since.
The word confess was borrowed from Old French in the late 1300s as the Middle English word confessen. Across the English Channel, it took the form of confesser, with the same definition. That comes from the Latin word confessare, which is composed of the prefix con-, meaning "with", and fessare, or "to admit". So a confession is a discussion "with admission" of guilt. Con-, through Proto-Italic kom, derives from Proto-Indo-European kom, which could mean many things, including "next to", "at", and "with". Fessare, meanwhile, also came from Proto-Italic and PIE, going back to the reconstruction beh, meaning "speak". Usage of the word confess in literature over time peaked in the late seventeenth century and has been decreasing since then, perhaps parallelism society's increasing secularism.
Parentheses have been used since right before the fifteenth century as a method to insert more information in a text, but the word for those brackets wasn't first attested until the 1540s, when it was taken from Latin parenthesis. This actually referred to the addition of only one letter to a syllable at the time of the Romans, but was repurposed for the new linguistic invention. The Latin word comes from Greek, where para meant "beside", en meant "in", and thesis was related to a verb meaning "to put". Together, a parenthesis "put something in beside" some writing. Para is from Proto-Indo-European per ("before"), en has always kind of looked like that, and thesis derives from the reconstuction deh, which could also mean "to place" (I'm just going to put this parenthetical in beside this blog post).
Boston has had subways since 1901, making it the sixth oldest subway system in the world. The network is nicknamed the "T" because the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority uses an encircled T for Transportation as its logo. What's really interesting about the T, though, is its color-coding system. The four main subway branches were assigned hues in 1965, and each color had significance. The northwest-to-southeast route became the Red Line because it runs through Harvard and their school color is crimson. The west-to-north route became the Green Line due to the Emerald Necklace parks it passes through. The southwest-to-north was called the Orange Line because it goes under a road formally named Orange Street. Last but not least, the northeasterly Blue Line is called that because it travels under Boston Harbor. This is really fascinating to me for some reason; I suppose it's because I didn't expect subway line colors to have etymologies.
The word clap comes from Old English claeppan, which meant "to beat" or "throb", has some Germanic relatives, and is probably onomatopoeic in nature. That's simple and relatively uninteresting, but some fascinating slang words have derived from the word. Starting all the way back in the 1580s, gonorrhea began to be referred to as the clap, which was probably partially influenced by the "throb" meaning (due to the painful feelings associated with the STD) and the Old French word clapoire, meaning "brothel". In recent years, getting clapped has also started to emerge in teenage argot as meaning "to be defeated" in both a literal and metaphorical sense, which is probably influenced by the more physical connotations of the word, and clapping can have a definition of "having sex", for similar reasons.
The term jackpot was first attested in an 1881 edition of the Harvard Lampoon, where it was stylized Jack Pots and described a type of poker game where players needed a Jack card or better to be ante, and a large amount would accrue right before the end. Therefore, the name got applied to a large sum of money; by 1932 it could refer to slot machine winnings and by 1944 it had to do with lotteries too. "Hit the jackpot" was first coined in 1938. Now to break apart the word Jack Pots: the name of the card type Jack comes from Middle English jakke, which only meant "guy", and that goes back to the name John, which I've covered in a previous post. Pot is quite boring: in Old French, it was pot, and earlier in Latin it was pottus. Before that, the etymology is uncertain.
When the word chaos was borrowed into English from Old French in the late 1300s, it specifically referred to Tartarus, the prison of the underworld in Greek mythology. As such a niche term, it didn't get much usage until the seventeenth century, when a resurgence in interest in Greek and Roman culture led to more widespread adaptation of the word, and, subsequently, change to what it is today. The Old French word chaos comes from the Latin word chaos, which comes from Ancient Greek khaos, which still had the same meaning. That in turn has an uncertain etymology, but some linguists have found links to the words khaskho, meaning "gape", and khaino, "to yawn". If that theory is correct, and the word is in reference to the size of the hole of Tartarus, it can be derived back to Proto-Indo-European ghieh, "to be wide open".
A coxswain is a person in charge of steering and navigating a ship. In crew, it's the person sitting backwards in the boat, tasked with rudder control and command. The word was borrowed in the early 1300s as cockswain (at one point, cokswain was also an accepted spelling). That comes from the words cock, meaning "boat", and swain, meaning "boy". "Boat boy" makes a lot of sense. Cock has nothing to do with the definitions meaning "rooster", "penis", or "tilt": it developed on its own from Old French coque, meaning "canoe". That comes from coco, a word for "egg" (apparently because boats look like shells), which has an uncertain origin. Swain, meanwhile, also meant "servant" and could also be spelled swayn, swain, sweyn, and swein, eventually tracing back to Old English swegen, possibly from PIE swe, "oneself".
Most people can figure out where the word photosynthesis comes from, but it's still a very interesting origin to cover. Photo- is a prefix meaning "light" present in a lot of scientific words. That's from the Ancient Greek word phos, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction bha, which means "to shine" and is present in thousands of other words. Synthesis is also something we should recognize: it exists today as a word meaning "to make", and that's exactly its function in this word. Through Latin, it came from Ancient Greek, where it had the same spelling and definition. Now we can eliminate the prefix syn-, which meant "together" or "with" (traces to Mycenaean Greek), which leaves the verb tithenai, "to place" (so synthesis is placing together), ultimately from PIE deh, "to put". The etymology of photosynthesis almost suggests that you're placing light together, but as we know it's meant to evoke placing together molecules in the presence of light.
Adam Aleksic is a 220-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard University in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd