The word spruce was first borrowed into Middle English in 1378 with the spelling sprwys. Back then, it meant "of or pertaining to Prussia", because the tree was traditionally associated with the country. That's an alteration of Prus, the Old French name for for Prussia, but nobody is completely certain why the s got added the the beginning of the word. The only theory I see out there is that it got conflated with spruse, a generic term for commodities traded by Hanseatic merchants that also existed around the time. It's no coincidence that the word Prussia sounds like Russia; both it and Prus come from the Proto-Slavic root Po-Rus, meaning "before the Rus" people who went on to found Russia. Beyond that, there are no Indo-European reconstructions; seems like everything about this word is shrouded in intriguing obscurity.
The word pistol was borrowed in the 1560s from Middle French pistole, which is thought to derive from the Czech word pištala, which described a specific type of hand-cannon that they used in the 1400s. Pištala could also mean "tube" or "pipe", but it most literally translates to "whistle", because the objects were thought to have a similar shape (as a speaker of Serbo-Croatian, I notice that the verb for "whistling", pištanje, is also related). That derives from Proto-Slavic piskati, meaning "squeak" or "whistle", and ultimately is onomatopoeic of the sound of whistling. Since reaching widespread usage in the late eighteenth century, usage of the word pistol has been fairly constant. The verb pistol-whip was first recorded in 1942 and pistol-butt is from 1914.
The Galil is a type of automatic rifle developed in the 1960s for the Israeli military. It was invented by a man named Yisrael Balashnikov, and the gun was almost named the Balashnikov after him, but people didn't like that because it sounded too close to the infamous Russian Kalashnikov. So Yisrael, who wanted a name that would reflect his Jewish identity anyway, legally changed his name to Galili and then named the gun after himself. Galili is a reference to the Galilee region of Israel, which can literally translate to "district" or "cylinder" in Hebrew, ultimately deriving from the verb galil, meaning "encircle". Literary usage of the word Galil greatly increased in the 1980s, but began to decline when the rifle was phased out in the late 1990s.
The word easel (meaning "wooden frame") was borrowed around the turn of the seventeenth century from the Dutch word ezel, meaning "donkey". The definition came about because of a historical association with donkeys carrying a burden and the painting being loaded onto a stand. Ezel is from Middle Dutch esel and Proto-Germanic asil; that traces to Latin asellus, a variant of asinus that had the same definition and was also the source of the English words ass and asinine. Beyond that, linguists are stumped, but the current theories are that asinus either derives from Proto-Indo-European agros ("field") or a non-IE loanword. Literary usage of the word easel has been relatively constant since the 1800s, and Google searches for it peak every year in December.
The Sahel is a semi-arid transitionary region between the Sahara desert and southern Africa. The word, which seems to have been borrowed in the late eighteenth century, derives from Arabic sahil, which meant "coast" or "shore". Originally, the term referred exclusively to the coastal area in present-day Mauritania and Senegal, but gradually it came to be extended to the entire area in Africa with a similar geographic makeup. Sahil, which has cognates in everything from Azerbaijani to Urdu, is also used in the Arabic name for the "Ivory Coast", sahil al-aj, and the word Swahili, which originally described the "coast-dwellers" of East Africa. It probably ultimately derives from a Proto-Semitic root like s-h-l, with a similar definition. According to Google NGrams, literary usage of the word Sahel rapidly increased in the 1970s before coming to a peak in 1983.
The word victual (often seen in plural form) refers to food or other provisions necessary for survival. It's pronounced vittle, which seems really bizarre at first, but none of the original spellings (such as the Middle English attestations vitail, vittle, vytall, vituale, vitall) had a c in them. The letter was added in the sixteenth century to make the word look more like the Latin root, but the pronunciation remained the same. Victual was borrowed in the early 1300s from Old French vitaille, and that's from Latin victualia, with the same definition. That traces to the word victus, meaning "that which sustains life", and victus is a past participle of vivere, "to live". Finally, it's all reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root gwei, also "to live". Literary usage of victual has been steadily declining since the 1620s, and many now consider it archaic.
Garn is an (occasionally sarcastic) interjection used in Cockney slang and some other English dialects to express incredulity. It's a contraction of the phrase go on, but the locals rhoticized and slurred together the words until it became an entirely new term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first recorded in an 1886 dictionary of London slang in cant words, but it's not unusual for words like this to be used colloquially for many decades before they're written down. In other parts of England, garn can mean "yarn"; this is because, in Middle English, the word was spelled ȝarn, which used a yogh sound halfway between a y and a g, so it just developed both ways. That traces to Proto-Germanic garna and Proto-Indo-European ger, meaning "gut" or "intestine".
The noun ecstasy was first used by John Wycliffe in a 1384 Bible translation. He spelled it exstasie; later forms included exstacye, extascie, estasie, exstasy, and extasy, and the modern spelling was standardized in the eighteenth century. Wycliffe borrowed the term from Latin exstasis, which had the same definition and comes from Ancient Greek ekstasis, literally meaning "displacement" (the idea was that someone who feels ecstatic is displaced from the present moment). Ekstasis is composed of the prefix ek-, or "out" (from Proto-Indo-European eghs, also "out"), and the root histanai, which could mean "to place" or "to stand". Finally, that derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction steh, with the same meaning. The nickname for the drug MDMA is from the 1980s; for a while, it was also called Adam, but that name died out.
The word caliber has two possible origins. It was definitely borrowed in the late sixteenth century from French calibre, which described the measurement of internal diameter of a gun's barrel. This was primarily used in English to figuratively describe "measurements" of personal quality or ability, hence the modern definition. Calibre is from a Spanish word spelled the same way, which is also the source of the English noun calliper (a tool used for measuring internal or external dimensions). Here's the split: some linguists say the origin of that is Arabic qalib, meaning "casting mold" (that would trace to Ancient Greek kalapous, which had to do with shoemaking), but others say there's poor evidence for that and it's actually from Latin qua libra, meaning "of what weight". Either way, a very interesting story!
The word sartorial (meaning "pertaining to tailoring") was borrowed into the English language in 1823, likely from the Late Latin word sartor, meaning "tailor". That traces to the verb sarcire, meaning "patch" or "mend", and sarcire is from the Proto-Indo-European root serk, "to make whole". Serk is also the source of the Latin word for "package", sarcina, and the English noun sark, which describes a type of linen or cotton garment. The sartorius muscle in the leg is apparently named because it's used to cross the legs to sit like a tailor would, whatever that means. After being popularized in the early half of the twentieth century, the word sartorial is currently experiencing higher usage than ever before, although, according to Google Trends, searches for it peaked in 2014.
John Duns Scotus was a Scottish Catholic theologian in the thirteenth century with an extremely unfortunate legacy. At the time, he was a highly respected academic on par with Thomas Aquinas, and accumulated legions of followers called Dunses or Scotists who were largely in control of European universities until the Renaissance. However, humanist reformers soon came into conflict with the more conservative Dunses, and they began using the word duns as an insult, referring to anyone who opposed progress, and, later, dull-witted people in general. Over time, the spelling changed to dunce, and once dunce caps were used as a disciplinary measure in Western schools, the word became ingrained in our culture. After peaking in 1645, usage of the word dunce has been steadily declining over time.
Tiddlywinks is a game where small chips called winks are flicked into a receptacle. The game was traditionally associated with children, so it's appeared in a number of expressions implying that the pursuit is frivolous or straightforward. The name, which was originally trademarked as Tiddledy-Winks, has an uncertain etymology, although there are several contending origin stories. In the late nineteenth century, the singular word tidley-wink meant "unlicensed liquor store", and tiddley was a synonym for the noun "drunk", so tiddlywinks might have originated as a drinking game. These words would have an obscure dialectal origin. Alternatively, it has been proposed that tiddledy-winks was just baby-talk for "little", and that it's an arbitrary spelling of childish babbling, which could explain the large number of spelling variations.
A javelina is a relative of the wild boar native to parts of Central and South America. The word was borrowed into English in the 1830s from the Spanish word jabalina (the b to v switch happened because most Spanish dialects use a bilabial fricative that sounds halfway between the letters). That's a diminutive of jabalí, which means "wild pig" in general and traces to an Arabic dialect in southern Spain. Ultimately, it's thought to derive from the word jabal, meaning "mountain", since javelinas were traditionally associated with mountains (and jabal is from the Proto-Semitic root j-b-l, with the same definition). Javelinas are also sometimes called "skunk pigs" or "peccaries" in the Americas; the latter name is from the Carib word pakira, with no further research telling us about its etymology.
The word quisling is a humorous synonym for traitor, especially in reference to someone who collaborates with an invading army. The term is named after an actual person, Vidkun Quisling, who was a key collaborator in Nazi Germany's puppet government in Norway. It was first used in an April 1940 article in the London Times titled "Quislings Everywhere", which said that" to writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor... they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Aurally it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous." And the word caught on! Since then, it's been used in everything from Looney Tunes cartoons to Irish nationalist songs, and it's even been back-formed to the verb quisle. Quisling's name means "one from Kvislemark", a small town in Denmark.
Recently, while reading the Wikipedia page on feminist language reform, I stumbled across a fascinating instance in Swedish. Apparently, prior to the 2000s, there were no casual yet appropriate words for vagina in the language; all previous names for it were either vulgar or extremely formal medical terms. People just referred to female private parts by alluding to them, preferring to not discuss such matters if it could be helped. At the turn of the century, however, social worker Anna Kosztovics introduced the word snippa, which was a feminine version of the existing word snopp (roughly translating to "willy"), meant to sound more innocent and less sexual or inappropriate. She promoted it by visiting different nurseries, and it took off, reaching widespread usage, especially after going viral in an educational Swedish cartoon about genitalia. In 2008, snippa was officially added to the dictionary by the Swedish Academy, cementing its place as one of the most successful examples of anti-misogynistic language change.
The word cloak was borrowed into English around the turn of the thirteenth century with the spelling cloke. Throughout Middle English, it also took the forms of clooke, clocke, cloik, clok, cloak, and cloake until cloak was standardized in the 1700s. It comes from the Old North French word cloque, which still meant "cloak", and that's from Medieval Latin clocca, or "bell". The connection was that cloaks back then were thought to have bell-like shapes (this also makes it a relative of the word clock). Beyond that, the etymology is unknown, but it's thought that it could ultimately be a Celtic word spread by Irish missionaries, and it would ultimately be onomatopoeic in origin. The phrase cloak and dagger is an 1848 calque of a French phrase and the verb to cloak emerged from the noun in the early sixteenth century.
The phrase dead to rights is basically synonymous with red-handed, but it's a far weirder expression. It was first recorded in 1859 in George Matsell's Vocabulum, which compiled a list of New York criminal slang at the time. Matsell noted that a lot of their vocabulary was beginning to seep into public usage through newspapers, and this one certainly did - by the mid-1870s, it was widespread. In this, both the words dead and rights have different definitions than usual: dead means "full" or "complete", as in dead stop or dead silence, and to rights was an old prepositional phrase meaning "in proper order". Together, to have someone dead to rights is to have someone fully and properly caught. Search and literary frequency of dead to rights has steadily been increasing, possibly because of its use in crime dramas.
The word Latinx (a gender-neutral construction meant to be more inclusive of nonbinary people of Latin American descent) is having something of a moment. Its use is widespread on college campuses, Elizabeth Warren said it in a primary debate, and Google Trends shows searches for it spiking because of increased awareness from the recent protests. The term first appeared in 2004 and began to experience widespread usage in the mid-2010s. Pronunciations vary (although I've only heard latin-eks), and it's been criticized by prescriptivists for breaking with the normal two-gendered Spanish grammar. Other forms of this have Latine and Latin@, and some English-speaking activists have similarly tried to popularize Mx. as an alternative to the honorifics Mr. and Ms. It'll be interesting to see how this attempted language reform continues developing in the future.
Today, the noun mall is primarily used to refer to those large buildings with lots of stores inside, but enclosed shopping malls have only been around since the 1950s. Before that, the word meant "shaded promenade" (just like the National Mall in Washington). The definition changed in the 1960s on the notion that such promenades frequently had stores lining them, and this was just an indoor version of that. The word mall comes from the name of a particular tree-lined street in London called the Pall Mall (coincidentally, also the source of the eponymous brand of cigarettes). That, bizarrely enough, is in turn named after a croquet-like lawn game that was played on the street, and it ultimately comes from the Italian words for "ball", palla, and "mallet", maglio. Such a weird history for a seemingly innocuous word.
There are a ton of different explanations for how the Bloody Mary cocktail got its name, and nobody is absolutely certain about its etymology. The bloody part clearly refers to the tomato juice used in the beverage, but the Mary is disputed. It could be an allusion to Mary I of England, who had that nickname because she was known for executing a lot of Protestants. However, there are also stories that its creator, Ferdinand Petoit, was inspired to name it after a film actress called Mary Pickford, or after a waitress in The Bucket of Blood, a Chicago bar. To confuse matters even more, the drink first started getting popular at the same time as the musical "South Pacific", which had a character named Bloody Mary. Usage of the phrase Bloody Mary has been on a steady increase over the last six decades.
A mandolin can be a type of kitchen utensil used for slicing, or a lute-like musical instrument. The former definition came from the latter; there are some myths about it being named after a woman called Mandy, but it's more likely from the similarity of the wrist motion or the taut strings. The name for the instrument was borrowed in the early eighteenth century from French mandoline and Italian mandolino. That's a diminutive of the earlier word mandola, which describes a similar instrument with lower pitches than the mandolin we know today. Going even further back, the word for that comes from Late Latin pandura and Ancient Greek pandoura, referring to a type of three-stringed lute. Pandoura has uncertain origins: some linguists suggest a pre-Greek origin, and others identify possible cognates in Armenian and Georgian, which would make it foreign.
Today, the word overt refers to something done in a transparent manner, but in Middle English, it had more literal definitions of "open" or "uncovered". The adjective is borrowed from Middle French ouvert - which is still extant in Modern French as meaning "open" - and that comes from Old French uvert and Latin aperire, a verb for "open" that is also the source of words like overture, aperture, and aperitif. Finally, that derives from Proto-Italic hepo and the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hwer, meaning "to cover" or "shut" (this turned into its antonym through a connotation of "uncover". Descendants include discover, curfew, garage, warrant, guarantee, and more). According to Google NGrams, usage of the word overt peaked in 1974 and has been on a steady decline since then.
The word agony was first used in English in a late fourteenth-century translation of the Bible by theologian John Wycliffe, with the spelling agonye. It seems that Wycliffe borrowed the word directly from Latin agonia, which had the same definition. That comes from an Ancient Greek noun also sounding like agonia but meaning "struggle" or "competition" (the connection was that agony was considered a kind of mental struggle). The root in agonia is agon, meaning "competition" (also the etymon of protagonist and antagonist) and ultimately deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root ag, "to draw out" or "move". Usage of the word agony in literature over time has been steadily declining since a peak in the late 1860s.
The word sanguine means "optimistic" and the word sanguinary means "involving a lot of bloodshed". How could these possibly be related? It traces to the idea of bodily humors - in the olden days, people believed that an excess of blood resulted in a cheery disposition. Going further back, both words were borrowed at some point during the fourteenth century from the Latin noun sanguinarius, meaning "of or pertaining to blood". Through Proto-Italic, that ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kreue, which referred to blood outside the body (the PIE speakers distinguished between whether it was on the interior or exterior). In heraldry, the word sanguine can also refer to a type of blood-red tincture used in flags like Latvia's.
The Cupertino Effect is that phenomenon when a spell-checker mistakenly replaces a correct word that's not in its dictionary with a different word. The name for the phrase stems from a weird quirk in old spellcheckers that didn't recognize the unhyphenated version of the word co-operation. Whenever people typed cooperation, instead of "correcting" it to co-operation, the machines changed it to Cupertino, causing a lot of funny mistakes in diplomatic papers - according to the Oxford University Press, there are dozens of documents from the UN, NATO, and other international organizations accidentally using the word Cupertino. Similar to this is the so-called Scunthorpe problem, which is when normal words are blocked by obscenity filters (this is named after the English town of Scunthorpe, which has been censored from the Internet multiple times because of the expletive contained in its name).
Adam Aleksic, a rising sophomore studying linguistics and government at Harvard University, has been described as the internet's sixth most famous etymologist. He also has disturbing interests in politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.