The word farce was first attested in the English language in a 1390 cookbook, where it was spelled fars and meant "stuffing". Then, by the early sixteenth century, it became a thing in French theatre to insert comic interludes in dramatic plays. This was thought to be a sort of cinematic "stuffing", and eventually those comic interludes took on a life of their own and the word came to refer to any comedic work with crude exaggerations. The word traces to the Old French verb farcir, which meant "to stuff" and was borrowed in the thirteenth century from Latin farcire, also meaning "stuff" or "cram". That, through Proto-Italic farkjo, is eventually derived from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction brek, meaning "cram together" (also thought by some etymologists to be the source of the word frequent, with the connection being the idea of short intervals being crammed together).
A carmagnole is a type of song and street dance popular during the French Revolution, and when I first looked up the word, I was pretty sure it would somehow be related to the Latin word carmen, meaning "song". However, I was very mistaken. The word comes from the title of a specific song, La Carmagnole, first sung by the revolutionary sans-culottes in August 1792. The name was a reference to a type of short jacket that was popular at the time among the lower classes. That comes from the name of an Italian town, Carmagnola, because it was associated with the Piedmontese peasants who brought over the fashion. I couldn't find any more details on the town's toponymy, but there is a well-known sculpture of Roman Emperor Justinian's head in Venice called Carmagnola because the artist was from the city and there's also a strain of industrial hemp from northern Italy called Carmagnola.
The berry part of the word cranberry is obvious, but what in the world is a cran? We can trace the archaic prefix back to the noun's first usage in 1672, when it referred to the North American plant. It seems that the colonists had some German influence, because they named it after a similar plant in central Europe that was called kraanbere in Low German. The kraan part of that meant "crane" like the bird, possibly due to a perceived resemblance between the plant's stamens and the beaks of cranes, although that's unsure. The word, which is a cognate of English crane, derives from Proto-Germanic krano (still "crane") and eventually the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gerh, meaning "to cry hoarsely". Bere, which is likewise related to English berry, probably derives from Proto-Indo-European beh, meaning "shine" or "glisten". Looking at Google Trends, search frequency for cranberry consistently peaks every November, which is unsurprising but still interesting to me.
I recently learned that there is a phenomenon of the letter d in Ancient Greek sometimes becoming l in Latin. Here are some examples of this:
Back before cursors were the moving things on our computer screens, the word referred to a sliding piece of a scientific instrument. Earlier than that, in Latin, it meant "errand boy." This comes from the more literal translation of "runner," since the word comes from the past participle stem of the verb currere, meaning "to run." There are several other English derivations from that stem: the word cursive was borrowed in 1784 to describe a kind of "running" script, the word cursory evolved from a meaning of "rapid" to "superficial" or "careless," and the word course comes from a sense of onward movement. Finally, currere traces, through Proto-Italic korzo, to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kers, also meaning "run." Cursors are also called mouses/mice because of the physical clicking thing's resemblance to an actual mouse, and pointers because they point at things.
The word jackpot traces back to the late nineteenth century, when there were several games involving the words jack and pot. In a now-obsolete sense that emerged in 1881, the term was used in poker to describe antes beginning when no player has a card better than a jack. There were also two variants of the same poker-type game, Jacks or Better and Jack-Pots, wherein players contributed money to a central "pot" and then kept contributing more money until someone had jacks or higher. When slot machines became popular in the 1920s and 1930s, they started using the phrase jackpot for the highest payoffs, which led to the phrase hit the jackpot and the use of jackpot to mean "big prize acquired by chance". Interestingly, jackpot had a negative sense for a while: it sometimes meant "difficult situation" (from the idea that it was difficult to get out of a card game) and it was used in early 1900s criminal slang to mean "arrest".
Recently, I had the realization that the word panorama immediately meant "wide view" to me throughout elementary and middle school, but after that my prototype of the word shifted to be the camera mode on iPhone. It's interesting how our own perceptions of words change with new technology! Anyway, panorama developed from the name of a specific painting of a Scottish landscape on a cylindrical surface by eighteenth-century English artist Robert Barker. He coined the word from the Greek prefix pan-, meaning "everywhere", and horama, meaning "sight", "spectacle", or "that which is seen". The h was dropped because it would be weird to say panhorama, but that later led to confusions such as when the word diorama was coined based on Greek dia- (meaning "through") and panorama. Finally, pan- is from Proto-Indo-European pant, meaning "all", and horama traces to PIE wer, meaning "observe".
The word beleaguer was first introduced to the English language sometime in the 1580s, when it meant "t0 surround with troops" (basically besiege). Eventually, that type of problem became more metaphorical, giving us the modern definition of "cause repeated problems for". The be- part of beleaguer is an archaic suffix meaning "around" (also present in words like beset and belay) and the leaguer part comes from the Dutch or German verb legeren, meaning "to camp". Literally, that meant "to camp around", which makes sense, given the historical meaning. Legeren is a relative of the word lair and comes from Dutch leger, meaning "bed". Finally, leger comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction legh, which meant "lie" and is also the source of classic words such as lager, ledger, fellow, and law. I've explained be before, but it comes from PIE hepi, meaning "at" or "near".
In elementary school, my third grade teacher told me that the word gist (meaning "main idea") stood for general idea statement. Until recently, I had accepted that as true without thinking about it. However, it's pretty rare for acronym etymologies to be true, and this is no exception. The word originated as part of a legal term of art referring to "the real ground" of an action or indictment. That comes from the Anglo-Norman phrase cest action gist, or "this action lies". The gist part of that is from the verb for "lie", gesir, and gesir traces to Latin iacere, also "to lie". Iacere (which is also the source of words like trajectory, jet, project, adjacent, and more) traces to the Proto-Italic reconstruction jakeo and ultimately Proto-Indo-European yeh, meaning "to throw". According to Google Ngrams, gist has had a very inconsistent pattern of usage with peaks in several centuries and currently makes up 0.00011% of all English words.
The Devanagari script is an abugida used in India to express languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi, and more. The word for the script itself is Sanskrit, and comes from the words deva, meaning "divine", and nagari, meaning "abode" or "city". The idea was that a writing system was something "relating to a city" or based on something "spoken in cities", and this was just a better version of the pre-existing Nagari script. Deva, through Proto-Indo-Iranian daywas, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root dyew, meaning "to be bright" (that's also the source of words such as deity, diva, jovial, adieu, and sojourn). Nagari, meanwhile, possibly comes from the unattested compound nrgara, meaning "gathering of men" and coming from nr, which meant "men", and gara, "gathering". It could also ultimately be Dravidian in origin: it's also been compared to Telugu nagaru, meaning "palace".
In recent years, the word poggers (or pog for short) has emerged among young people as an interjection denoting excitement. The term originated in the Twitch livestreaming community, which had a reaction emote with that name since early 2017. That's based on a humorous portmanteau of PogChamp, another emote depicting an excited man's face, and the Pepe the Frog, who is similarly shown smiling in the poggers emote. The name PogChamp comes from a 2011 video of two men playing the game Pogs, a children's game played using milk or juice caps. One of those juices was a tropical drink called POG, which lent its name to the game and stands for its ingredients Pomegranate, Orange, and Guava. Since its introduction, the word poggers rapidly became a meme, peaking in usage in late 2020 and declining after that. It's weird to me how much that juice name evolved over time.
When the word opportunity was first borrowed into the English language in 1387, it was spelled oportunite, and other forms around the time included oportunyte, oportewnyte, oportunyty, oppertunitie, and more. The noun was taken from Old French, where it also showed up as oportunite. That was borrowed in the thirteenth century from Latin opportunitas, meaning "fitness" or "convenience". Opportunitas is from the adjective opportunas ("fit" or "favorable"), which derived from the phrase ob portum veniens, meaning "coming toward a port". The idea was that a wind blowing toward a harbor was favorable or convenient for ships trying to get to the shore. You might know ob- from words like obscene, oppress, and obstruct: it comes from Proto-Indo-European opi, meaning "against". Finally, portus, the nominative of portum, comes from PIE prtu and veniens traces to PIE gwa, "to go".
The noun peach was borrowed into the English language around the turn of the fifteenth century. At the time, it was mostly spelled peche or peoche, and the current spelling only became the norm around the 1600s (also when peachy as an adjective first started popping up, although it only meant "excellent from 1900 onwards). The word comes from Old French pesche, which was borrowed straight out of Medieval Latin pesca. In classical Latin, pesca was persica, a term that still survives in the scientific name of the "peach". That was a shortening of Latin malum Persicum, meaning "Persian apple". That's a translation of Ancient Greek malon persikon, with the same meaning. I've explored malon before - it's also the source of the words melon and marmalade - and persikon is from the name of the country, Persis. Finally, Persis has an uncertain etymology, but might either be from an ancient warrior tribe called Pars or from Sanskrit parasu, meaning "hatchet" or "axe".
We don't say this much today, but the word dew has been around for a while as a euphemism for booze. As far back as the sixteenth century, people were using Bacchus dewe to refer to wine and chemistry textbooks were using Dew of Vitriol for alcohol. In the nineteenth century, it became a thing to make moonshine in the Appalachian back-country, and they called this mountain dew. Fast forward to the 1930s, when brothers Ally and Barney Harman set up a distillery in Knoxville, Tennessee. They had just moved from Georgia and nobody was selling their favorite mixer, so they got creative with the ingredients they had. Eventually, they settled on a combination of carbonated lemon-lime juice and liquor that they called mountain dew from that slang term for moonshine. Sensing the potential, they made a non-alcohol version, which was picked up by PepsiCo and rebranded into the beverage we know today.
The word maze has amazing origins! Literally. It comes from the Middle English word mase, which was an alternate spelling of masen, meaning "perplex" or "bewilder". That comes from Old English amasen, which had the same definition and is also the source of the word amazing. Officially, amasen has an uncertain etymology, but there are a lot of random Norse words that are thought to possible be cognates, such as Icelandic masa ("chatter"), Norwegian mas ("exhausting labor" or "nagging"), and Swedish masa ("to be slow"), so it's thought to possibnly be from a Proto-Germanic root sounding something like masona and meaning "to confound" or "to be weary". Finally, that's reconstructed back to the Proto-Indo-European root sme, meaning "to rub". According to Google NGram Viewer, usage of the word maze peaked in 2014 for some reason.
The word rhubarb was borrowed into English as Rubarbe in the late fourteenth century. Other spellings around that time included reubarbe, rubarb, reubard, reuballe, and more. Through Old French rubarbe, the word comes from Medieval Latin reubarbum and Ancient Greek rha barbaron, which meant "foreign rhubarb" (a wonderfully recursive etymology). You'll notice that the h appears in Greek but is only a recent readdition to English: the letter was inserted throughout Middle English and then standardized in the eighteenth century because of influence of the rheum plant genus. The rha part of rha barbaron is an ancient Scythian name of the Volga River, from whence the vegetable was commonly important, and the barbaron is the same element as in the word barbarian - it was basically use as a negative term for anybody who was not Greek. Finally, barbaron is onomatopoeic of what unintelligible foreign speech sounded like to the Greeks.
The word nutmeg was first used in English in the 1380s, when it was spelled nutimenge. Other forms around that time included nootmoge, notemoge, netmug, notemygge, notmyge, and more. The current iteration became the standard around the early seventeenth century and then peaked in usage in the 1780s. The word comes from an incorrect partial translation of the Old French phrase nois muscade, meaning "nut smelling like musk". That comes from Latin nux muscata, with the same meaning. Nux comes from the Proto-Indo-European kneu, which also meant "nut" and is the source of words like nougat and nucleus. Muscata, meanwhile, comes from the Sanskrit word for "testicle" which I've written about before when blogging about the etymology of "musk". Eventually, it's all thought to trace to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction muhs, meaning "mouse" (there was a perceived resemblance in shape).
The earliest English attestation of the word cocoa in its current sense (describing the seeds used to make chocolate, or the powder produced from them) is from French explorer François Froger's 1698 account of his voyages in Africa and the Americas. Before that, however, the word was in use for several decades to refer to the cacao tree, which produces those seeds. The noun actually comes from cacao, but it was corrupted by influence from the word coco, meaning "coconut palm". This mistake was then adopted by the time Samuel Johnson's highly influential Dictionary of the English Language came out in 1755., and then it could never be undone. Cacao comes from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl and is reconstructed to Proto-Nahuan kakawatl, with the same definition. Coco, if you were interested, comes from a Spanish and Portuguese word meaning "grinning face", because apparently that's what they thought coconuts looked like.
One cool dialectal variation that I always ask people about is their use of the phrases kitty-corner and catty-corner. Although I never heard them growing up, apparently they mean "diagonally across from someone or something", with kitty being more used in the north and west (and said slightly more overall) and catty being a Southern thing. Anyway, while I was researching the etymology of cadre the other day, I stumbled across the fact that the initial element in both words comes from the same Latin word - quattuor, meaning "four". That developed into French quatre, which spawned the now-archaic word cater, initially meaning "cut into fourths" and later "diagonal". Around the 1830s, it became a thing in American English to say cater-corner for something diagonally across from a corner, and the current forms developed because of a folk etymological association with cats.
The noun cadre (describing a small group of people, often united by a political purpose) comes directly from the French word cadre, which meant "framework". The meaning had shifted to "organizational framework", particularly for military groups, and eventually came to be applied to all sorts organized groups, from communists to scientists. The French word was also not pronounced with the e at the end, but Americans started saying it because they assumed that the word came directly from Italian or Spanish, where the final vowels are pronounced. Going back further, it does in fact derive from Italian quadro, meaning "square" (the connection was the idea of a military formation). That's from Latin quadrum, which is related to quattuor, the word for "four". Finally, it all derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kweter, meaning "four" (also the source of everything from quarrel to squad and farthing).
When the word detergent was first used at the start of the seventeenth century, it was an adjective meaning "cleansing" or "purging", and around the 1670s it also became a noun referring to cleaning agent. This was originally meant in a medical sense, but it started being used for household cleaning products in the 1930s. The word comes from Latin detergentem, the accusative of the present participle of the verb detergere, meaning "wipe away". That contains the prefix de-, meaning "off" or "away" (probably ultimately of Etruscan origin), and the verb tergere, "to wipe". Tergere, which is also the source of the word terse (which evolved from connotations of cleanliness to conciseness), is listed in several places as being of uncertain origin, but there's alsoa. theory that it may have developed from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction terh, meaning "to rub".
Originally, the word cabal was pronounced with a stress on the first syllable (kind of like Kabul), and it meant "small private gathering" without any negative connotations. The term got popularized with the new pronunciation and a more sinister definition in England during the early 1670s, when King Charles II's ministry was composed of politicians called Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale. Together, they were called the "Cabal ministry" and they were seen as a dangerous and powerful organized group, hence the association. Going back, cabal comes from French, where it could either mean "gathering" or refer to the mystical Jewish interpretation of the Bible we know know as Kabbalah. Since it was a small group with esoteric practices, the definition broadened to mean any small group, and then narrowed again. Finally, through Latin cabbala, the word traces to Hebrew kabala, literally meaning "something received".
When the noun innuendo was first used in English in the early sixteenth century, it was a legal term used to introduce a parenthetical explanation of a reference. Around the 1670s, it started to mean "indirect suggestion" in general, and right around that time it was also used in an inappropriate sense. The word comes directly from Latin, which literally meant "by nodding", because nodding is like referencing something. That's the ablative of innuendum, which was the gerund of the verb innuere, meaning "to nod to" (or "signify"). Taking it apart, we can identify the prefix in-, here meaning "towards", and the hypothesized Latin verb nuere, which would mean "nod". This is unattested, but almost definitely existed, and is thought to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction new, also "nod". Interestingly enough, the English word nod is probably unrelated to nuere - it's thought to be from Proto-Germanic hnudan, which doesn't have anything to do with the PIE root.
Most people who know the word gamergate would associate it with a 2014 right-wing online harassment campaign targeting women in the video game industry, but it has another meaning, mostly known by entomologists. Apparently, it's also a type of egg-laying worker ant! The word, which was coined by geneticist William Brown in 1983, has nothing to do with gamers or gates, and derives from the Greek word gamos, meaning "marriage", plus ergates, "worker" (so, together, a gamergate is a "married worker ant"). Gamos, also the root of a lot of words ending in -gamy in them, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root gem, also "to marry". Ergates, meanwhile, comes from Greek ergon, meaning "work" (also present in a lot of recognizeable words, like ergonomic, metallurgy, and surgeon). Finally, that's from Proto-Hellenic ergon and Proto-Germanic ergom, also "work".
The adjective contrite ("expressing remorse") was first borrowed into English in the mid-fourteenth century to describe a "crushed" soul. Through Old French contrit, the word comes from Latin contritus, which meant "worn out" or "ground to pieces". More specifically, it's "to rub with", because it comes from the prefix con-, meaning "with" (from Proto-Indo-European kom, "beside" or also "with") and the verb terere, "to rub". Terere, which also makes up part of other wearing-out words like detriment, termite, and attrition, comes from Proto-Indo-European terh, meaning "twist". Contrite's sister word, trite, also comes from terere and got its meaning of "hackneyed" through the idea of an idea being worn out to the point of being unoriginal and boring.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a junior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.