WATER TANK SUPPLY UNITS
The word tank in reference to the armored fighting vehicles is unsurprisingly predated by the word tank meaning "large receptacle," but the story connecting them is rather interesting. When the armored tank was invented in 1915, it was provisionally described as a "Caterpillar Machine Gun Destroyer" or "Land Cruiser," but defense officials in the United Kingdom were concerned about the name being leaked to enemy intelligence, so, for secrecy's sake, they were labelled as "Water Tank Supply Units", which was shortened to "tank" because it rolled off the tongue better. The word for "receptacle" came to English in the mid-seventeenth century through Portuguese tanque, which referred to any kind of "liquid container." That was most likely picked up by traders from either the Gujarati word tankh or the Marathi word tanka, both meaning "cistern" or "reservoir." Finally it probably all traces back to the Sanskrit word tadaga-m, meaning "pool," but is also a small faction of linguists who think that the Indian words actually come from tanque, and the Portuguese word is actually from Latin stagnum, meaning "pool" as well.
"EMPIRE" "STATE" BUILDING
When people refer to New York by its nickname, everybody invariably calls it the EMPIRE state, with emphasis on the first word. This is a very normal way to refer to places: we all also say OCEAN state for Rhode Island and PEACH state for Georgia, for instance. However, something really interesting happens when people use the phrase in the name of the famous art deco building on 34th street. If you're from New York, you're much more likely to refer to it as the Empire STATE building, and if you're not, you'll say the EMPIRE state building. This is particularly unusual because, when the word building typically comes after a compound, then the emphasis goes on what would be normally emphasized in the compound (like in New York LIFE insurance building or LEHMAN brothers building). The most plausible explanation for this is that when people from outside the state refer to the building, they think of it in the context of being in the Empire State, while people from New York learn the phrase as a unit and thus say it in a way which enables quicker, easier pronunciation. They don't think about it in relation to the rest of the state; it's just a part of their daily lives. Next time you see your New York friends, ask them about this and see what they think!
KIEV AND KYIV
If you're like me, you may have grown up seeing the name of the capital of Ukraine spelled Kiev, and gotten a little confused when news outlets started referring to it as Kyiv. There are actually a lot of different spellings, including Kyïv, Kyjiv, and Kyyiv, as well as the obsolete Kiou, Kiow, Kiovia, Kiowia, Kiew, Kief, and Kieff. The reason for all this was a lack of standardization on how to transliterate Ukrainian toponyms into English. Kiev was widespread from the 1920s onward because it was under the sovereignty of the Soviet Union and that was the Russian way to write down the city name. However, when Ukraine got independence, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs began a campaign to replace Russian linguistic relics. This started with formally changing the names of cities in the 1990s (this included other cities like Odessa instead of Odesa, Lvov instead of Lviv, and Kharkov instead of Kharkiv) and then lobbying Western media to update their stylizations. This didn't really pick up steam until Ukraine became more relevant on the national stage following the Russian invasion of Crimea and the current war. By this point, most news outlets and state departments have adopted Kyiv and the other spellings as correct. Going back in time, Kyiv has traditionally been thought to be named after its legendary founder Kiy, but similar to the Rome-Romulus situation, this is probably folk etymology. More likely, it's from a local word meaning something like "stick" or "club," but that's uncertain.
The Crimean War bequeathed a slew of linguistic contributions to the English language - including the balaclava being named after the Battle of Balaclava and the phrase thin red line coming from the reports of a Scottish regiment during the war - but today we're going to focus on the cardigan, a kind of sweater that became fashionable during the war. This originally referred specifically to a knitted sleeveless vest, named after James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, who was known for wearing a garment like that when he led the Charge of the Light Brigade. As the story of the event was retold back home in the United Kingdom, that detail caused the clothing item to rise in popularity and the word to be enshrined in the English language. Over time, the term also expanded from being a "sleeveless vest" to knitted sweaters in general, and then it became more associated with long sleeves and women's fashion due to the work of Coco Chanel in the 1940s and 50s, which is how we ended up where we are today. Finally, going backwards in time, the Cardigan General Brudenell governed was a county seat in Wales that was an Anglicization of the Welsh word Ceredigion, meaning "Ceredig's land," which referred to Ceredig ap Cunedda, a king of Wales in the 400s CE.
The Latin noun limes, which meant "path" or "boundary," has had a remarkable impact on the English language. Its accusative form, limitem, travelled into Old French as limite, and in the fourteenth century that became limit. It also spawned the Latin word for "threshold", limen, which developed into words like liminal ("pertaining to thresholds"), sublime ("up to a threshold", meant to evoke lofty concepts), eliminate ("out of the threshold"), and preliminary ("before the threshold"). There's also the word lintel, used to describe horizontal support beams used on doors and windows. Because that's related to thresholds too, it comes from a variant of Old French lintier, which, through Vulgar Latin, also traces to limes. Finally, limes comes from Latin limus ("askew"), which is thought to be from Proto-Indo-European hehl, "to bend." On a tangential but interesting note, there was a similar word, limbus, which also meant "border" and gave us the theological concept of limbo (etymologically unrelated to the game with the bar), but that's completely unrelated, coming from a different Proto-Indo-European root entirely.
The word casserole was borrowed in the early 1700s from French, where it meant "sauce pan." The -erole part is a lengthened version of the diminutive suffix -ole that was tacked on in the sixteenth century to casse, which just meant "pan," and that traces to the Medieval Latin word cattia, meaning either "pan" or "vessel." Because language is messy, there was probably also some influence from the Provençal noun cassa, which also meant "pan" and probably comes from Latin capsa, meaning "box." However, it's thought that cattia comes from a diminutive of the Greek word kyathos, which was used to describe a special kind of wine vase, similar to a ladle, with a long and looping handle. That's where the trail runs cold, although some think that it could be related to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kewh, meaning "to swell." In the late 1880s, casserole started to be extended to the dishes cooked in it, through phrases like en casserole or à la casserole.
TRIPLE UNION SOCIETY
There are five main definitions of the word triad. In music, it can refer to a chord of three tones; in electronics, it can refer to three phosphor dots on a cathode ray tube; in linguistics, it can be a word with three syllables; and, in general, it can be a group of three things. All four of these just come from the Latin and Greek word for three, trias, which eventually traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction trei, also "three". The fifth definition, referring to organized crime syndicates in east Asia, is also related to the others but it has a much more interesting backstory. The first recorded mention of them in English corpora is from the early nineteenth century, and there are two main theories as to where the name came from. It's been suggested that British authorities in Hong Kong named them after the traditional triangular symbol that they used in a lot of patriotic imagery, but the term is also thought by others to predate British involvement in the area. It could also be a translation of Chinese San Ho Hui, or "triple union society", a secret organization formed to cause the ouster of the Manchu Dynasty - with the name referring to the union of heaven, earth, and man. Either way, throughout the 1800s similar groups proliferated in Chinese and Chinese-influenced areas, retaining the name. Recently, the contemporary usage of the word has also been used by some to refer to Chinese criminal organizations in general, not just ones with that particular tradition.
Yesterday was a landmark day in the New York Times: it was the first time the word "girlbossified" was used in the newspaper. This got me thinking about how I've been seeing girlboss pop up a lot more recently (generally used to describe a "feminist icon", although according to Urban Dictionary this can sometimes have negative connotations), so I did a little dive into the history. Turns out it was coined in 2014 by American businesswoman Sophia Amoruso in the title of her autobiography, #Girlboss. This set off a hashtag trend on social media and a subsequent 2017 Netflix series - by that point it was fairly established. At a certain point around that time, it began being used pejoratively to describe media or advertising situations where were women were portrayed with more attention focused on their gender than their other qualities. In January 2021, the phrase gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss began being used as a parody of live, laugh, love, and that gave the word a kind of meme quality that allowed it to return on a meta-ironic level.
Both definitions of the word maraschino, describing either the type of cherry or the liqueur obtained from distilling cherries, come from a diminutive form of the Italian word marasca, which referred to a specific kind of black cherry. That comes from the word amaro, meaning "bitter" (because the cherries tasted bitter; this is also probably the source of the name of the morello cherry), and amaro traces back to the Latin word amarus, also "bitter". Finally, that's reconstructed back to Proto-Indo-European hem, meaning "raw". Interestingly, the sch combination of letters should have shown up as an sk sound as the Italian word travelled into English, but Americans in the early twentieth century didn't know how to pronounce it correctly, so they said it with an sh and that just kind of stuck, reaching the UK and beyond in the 1970s. Usage peaked in 1932, but it's been trending upwards again in recent decades.
The word earworm, which today describes infectious melodies that get stuck in your head, was first attested in 1598 in reference to the earwig insect, a usage that has since become archaic and is in fact unrelated to the modern meaning. That "catchy tune" definition comes from a 1978 calque of the German phrase Ohr wurm, also translating to "ear worm". The idea was that many pieces of music burrow into your head much like an insect would—an unpleasant thought, I know. Ohr comes from Old High German ora and Proto-Germanic auso, and ultimately traces to Proto-Indo-European hows, also meaning "ear". Wurm, meanwhile, is a relative of the English words worm and wyrm, and it comes from Middle High German wurm. Finally, that comes from Proto-Germanic wurmiz and Proto-Indo-European wrmis, which also meant "worm" and might be from wer, a verb meaning "to turn" or "bend".
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).
AN ITALIAN SONG
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.
THE SABINE -L-
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:
A CURSORY GLANCE
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.
JACKS AND POTS
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".
THE GENERAL IDEA
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.
COMING TOWARD A PORT
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.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior 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.