Somebody recently requested that I cover the word Klobmentum, which I thought was an interesting project. If you haven't been following the Democratic presidential primary, the term has been adopted by news outlets from the New York Times to channel television stations around the country to refer to Amy Klobuchar's unexpectedly good showings in New Hampshire and Iowa, and the anticipated surge associated with them. It's part of a wider trend among Klobuchar supporters to make portmanteaus such as Klobusurge and Klobucharmy, and (according to Twitter analytics) it emerged in late January and really took off in usage following her delegate win in Iowa. The parsing is curious, and almost seems linguistically unnatural, but, as other linguists noted online, perhaps Klo- alone could not work as a morpheme. It will be entertaining to watch this word develop further as the primary season progresses!
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is an illusion where, once you learn about the existence of something, you can't stop seeing it around (for example, this keeps happening to me with people saying based off of instead of based on, after I found out that was a common mistake). Now, looking at the name of the phenomenon, one would naturally assume that it's after the pair of psychologists or linguists who first documented it, but it actually traces to the Baader Meinhof Group, a left-wing West German terrorist organization active in the 1970s-90s. The connection is from a 1994 comment on the message board of the St. Paul Pioneer Press where the person noted that they heard two references to the gang in the last 24 hours and dubbed it a phenomenon. After that, a lot of other people started using the phrase, and it became an actual psychological term.
In investing, the phrase bull market refers to when the economy doing well and stocks are going well, and bear market describes when it is performing poorly. Curious, I did some investigating, and it turns out the bear was first. According to Merriam-Webster, the term traces to an expression from the late nineteenth century that went something like "don't sell the bear's skin before you catch the bear" (basically a quirkier "don't count your chickens before they're hatched"). Over time, bear emerged to refer to people who bet against the economy, especially with options. Bull came about not long after based on the idea of a bear swipes down and a bull charges upwards to attack, and that could be metaphorically applied to the stock market going down or up, respectively. Usages of both expressions over time peaked in the 1930s and early 2000s.
The word butcher was first used in the year 1325, when it was spelled buccher. After that, it was attested as bocher, buchier, buchere, bochsar, bochour, bochyer, and bowcher; butcher was considered normal by the start of the seventeenth century. It comes from Anglo-French boucher, which had the same definition, and Old French bochier, which meant "slaughterer of goats" particularly. -Ier is an occupational suffix; the root is the word bouc, or "goat". That is either a descendant or cognate of Latin buccus, and most likely traces to the Frankish word bukk, still with the same meaning. Finally, it can ultimately be traced through Proto-Germanic bukkaz to Proto-Indo-European bug, or "ram" (making it a cognate of English buck). The pejorative use of butcher emerged in the early sixteenth century.
The word incarnation was first used in the 1297 Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, when it was spelled incarnacion. Other forms since then have included incarnacioun, incarnacione, and incarnacyon; incarnation was standardized by the end of the sixteenth century, after which it has steadily trended upwards in usage. The term comes from Old French incarnacion, which referred specifically to the Incarnation of Jesus (all future definitions evolved from that). That traces to Latin incarnare, meaning "to make into flesh" - a parallel may be drawn to the phrase "in the flesh". Here we may separate the prefix in- ("in") and find the root caro, meaning "flesh". Through Proto-Italic, that derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ker, or "army". Don't even ask.
Although it seems like it could be a new formation, the word latex has been in use since the 1650s. Back then, the term was exclusively stylized with a capital L and referred to clear bodily fluid. By the 1800s, the spelling was standardized and a new definition of "milky liquid secreted by some plants" emerged. Then, in 1930, neoprene was invented, and that was an etymological game-changer: a new meaning of "synthetic rubber" emerged, named after the latex in rubber trees. Usage of the word latex exploded, peaking in 1935 as it became a household noun. The earliest "clear fluid" definition comes (through Latin) from the Ancient Greek word latax, meaning "drop of wine". That is thought to eventually derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction lat, which meant "swamp"; the reasons for both of the semantic shifts are unknown. Spandex was coined on the model of latex as an anagram for expands.
After I posted my recent car brand etymologies infographic, someone pointed out in a comment that I used the phrase based off instead of based on (which is considered correct). This mortified me; I normally don't make grammatical mistakes like that. However, as I looked around, I noticed that a lot of my friends, classmates, and random people on the internet were saying it. Intrigued, I did some research, and it seems like the new usage seems to be increasingly replacing the old one, and in a few decades it may be the norm - Google NGrams shows based off becoming very popular in the 1990s and Google Trends has shown that it has just continued to rise meteorically since then. Apparently, people are confusing their prepositions as the phrase becomes more and more dissociated from the concept of an argument being built on something and instead likened to expressions such as going off. Fascinating.
Update: a day after I wrote this, I attended a debate at the Harvard Institute of Politics where one of the speakers used the phrase. It's everywhere, and it's infectious.
Denouement is a rather beautiful literary term describing the final part of a story. The word was first borrowed in 1752 from French dénouement, which meant "untying". That has the suffix -ment, which was used to form nouns, and the verb dénouer, which was composed of the negating prefix des- and the root nouer, meaning "tie" or "knot". Des-, through Latin dis, derives from the Proto-Indo-European root dis, which meant "apart". Nouer traces to Latin nodus, which is the etymon of node and meant "knot" (ultimately coming from Proto-Indo-European ned, "to bind" or "to tie"). After it was popularized in the nineteenth century, use of the word denouement in literature over time has continually trended upwards, peaking in the 1920s. Interestingly, Google searches for the word spike every September, presumably when language classes assign it for memorization.
Racket and racquet are two spellings of the same word, both with the same definition. Both come from Middle French racquette; the only difference is that the latter is often used in a fancier context and was only popularized because people wanted to make racket look more like the original French. Racquette has an hotly debated origin, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists it as coming from the Arabic word raha, meaning "palm of the hand" (that would be from the Proto-Semitic root r-w-h, "leisure"). By 1785, a new meaning of "fraudulent activity" had emerged for the word racket, quite probably through another definition of "game" that is connected to the other words. Racket meaning "loud noise" is onomatopoeic and unrelated and the word racketeer was coined in 1928.
The word office was first used around the turn of the fourteenth century, when it was spelled offiz. Other spellings since then have included offys, offes, officis, offis, offyce, and ofice, but office has been widely accepted since the 1700s. The word comes from Old French ofice, which meant "position" rather than "workplace" (a definition that emerged later). That's from Latin officium, which had a lot of different definitions, such as "moral duty", "official position", "religious service" (from whence we get the verb officiate), "ceremony", and "business". Officium is a contraction of opificium, which was composed of the words for "work", opus, and "do", facere (so holding an office is literally "doing work"). Box office was coined in 1786, through a sense of money being kept in a box, and the phrase office hours was first attested in 1841.
Originally, an imbecile was a category used by psychiatrists to describe people with an IQ between 26 and 50, higher than an idiot but lower than a moron. This was a legitimate description used in courts to prove insanity, but it eventually grew to be pejorative, along with those other terms. The word, like most medical terminology, was taken from Latin, in this case from imbecillus, which meant "weak". That's composed of the prefix in-, meaning "not" (the n changes to an m before a b or p due to place assimilation) and the root baculum, meaning "stick". Nobody is really sure how to explain that connection; it might involve a convoluted link between being "unsupported" and not having a walking stick. Baculum comes from Proto-Indo-European bak, also meaning "stick".
There are four countries with the word Guinea in their names - why? It all traces to a 15th-century Portuguese nickname for the area roughly around where southern Senegal is today (that's from a local self-appellation thought to trace to the Berber word aginaw, meaning "black"). Eventually the definition expanded to include all of the west African coastline, which was then partitioned by the colonial powers into French Guinea, British Guinea, and so on. Finally, many of those countries kept those names when they achieved independence, giving us the states of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea. Papua New Guinea got its name from a Spanish explorer in 1545 who likened the skin color of the natives there to that of West Africans, the word guinea meaning "gold coin" was also named after the region in Africa because it was made out of gold extracted from the area, and the guinea pig was named after Guyana, which has a separate origin.
The verb sneeze was first written down sometime in the fifteenth century, but it had a lot of different forms throughout history. Around that same time, the words snese, sneese, scniese, and sneez were all recorded, among others. Even earlier, in Middle English, it was spelled fnesen, and the story of how that first letter changed is actually quite interesting. Back then, people sometimes used the long s, an archaic way of spelling the letter that looked sort of like an f (ſ), and since fn- words are so infrequent in the English language, people just assumed that spelling was incorrect and changed it to have a long s instead. Fnesen (which still had the same meaning) comes from Old English fneosan and Proto-Germanic fneu, ultimately deriving from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pneu, meaning "to breathe".
The word molar was first used in the year 1350 by the Anglo-Norman crusader and poet Walter of Bibbesworth. After its introduction, it took a few hundred years to become mainstream, then it peaked in usage in 1951 and has been decreasing since. Walter borrowed molar from the Latin phrase molaris dens, which meant "grinding tooth". Dens, the word for "tooth", is the same root as in dental, and molaris ("grinding") is present in English words like mola, mill, molasses, and immolate, among others. It comes from mola, meaning "millstone", and that in turn derives from a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction that etymologists think sounded like melh and meant "to crush". For some reason, people in Massachusetts search for the word molar more than people in any other state.
Around the turn of the fourteenth century, the word polle was brought into English. It meant "scalp" and could also be spelled pol, poll, pole, pow, and powe. This quickly died out, but before it did the term was metonymically applied to "people", and then to "counting people" in the seventeenth century. That's the story of how we got our word poll, which has remained relatively constant in usage to this day. But it gets better! Polle also spawned another noun, poleax, because the weapon was supposed to be used for cutting open heads. The word comes from Middle Dutch pole, meaning "top" or "summit", which in turn derives from Proto-Germanic pullaz, "rounded object". Finally, it's reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like bolno and meaning "orb".
The word supercilious (meaning "haughty") was first used in a 1528 book of poetic verse. It comes from Latin supercilium, which could be interpreted as "arrogance", but had an original definition of "eyebrow". The connection there is that haughty people raise their eyebrows pretentiously. Breaking it down, we can identify the prefix super-, meaning "above", and the noun cilium, meaning "eyelid". Super derives from the Proto-Indo-European roots hegs, meaning "out of", and upo, "above"; cilium, through Proto-Italic, eventually traces to Proto-Indo-European kel, "to cover". After it was popularized in the sixteenth century, supercilious has decreased in usage more than a hundred times over, now only making up about 0.000035% of words used in English writings.
The chipotle pepper was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in the fifteenth century. After he brought it back to Spain, it rapidly picked up popularity in Europe, but it didn't really get big in America until the fast food chain was founded in 1993 (we can see this from word frequency graphs). The term, along with many others ending in -tl, comes from Nahuatl, in this case from the word chillipoctli, meaning "smoke pepper" (because a chipotle is a smoked jalapeño ). That was composed of chilli, which you should recognize as the etymon for the synonym of "pepper", and poctli, which meant "smoke" and was pronounced with a voiceless alveolar lateral affricate, which is pretty fun. Finally, the nouns are thought to derive from Proto-Nahuan and Proto-Uto-Aztecan, but there is no scholarship reconstructing them.
The word bursar, which refers to the treasurer of a university, was introduced in the late sixteenth century as burser. It was occasionally spelled bursor or bourser, but bursar became the standard in the late eighteenth century and usage has remained constant since. The term comes from Latin bursa, which meant "purse" and is also the root of our English words purse, bourse (a type of stock exchange), and bursitis (a type of joint inflammation; the connection is that it makes giant purse-like stacks swell up). That comes from an Ancient Greek sounding the same and meaning "hide", because that's what early purses were made of. One interesting note I have is that Google search frequency of the word bursar spikes every August and January - when people pay for college enrollment, I suppose.
The word rendezvous was first used in 1556, when it was spelled ranndevouse. Other orthographic variations since then have included rende vow, rendeuous, randevous, rende vous, rendevowes, rendevous, randivouze, and rendevou; the modern form was standardized in the mid-seventeeth century. The term was borrowed from the Middle French phrase rendez vous, which meant "present yourselves". The first word there, rendez, is a conjugation of an Old French word that could also mean "yield" and is the etymon of render, rendition, and surrender. It comes from Latin reddere, meaning "to give back", and that in turn may eventually be traced to Proto-Indo-European roots meaning "to turn" and "to give". Vous, through Latin vos, derives from Proto-Indo-European wos, also "you".
The phrase out of wedlock refers to someone who was born to unmarried parents, but what is wedlock? The term simply means "marriage", but is so archaic that many people now think that it refers to when women get pregnant outside of marriage, due to association with the much more frequent phrase. In Middle English, the word was spelled wedlok or wedlocke and traces to Old English wedlac, still with the same definition. This has nothing to do with locks (it was folk etymologized); it's composed of the word wed that we know and the suffix -lac, a noun denoting actions that traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction leyg, meaning "bounce". Wed, through Proto-Germanic wadja, ultimately derives from a Proto-Indo-European word for "bind", with a similar pronunciation.
The word bastard was borrowed at some point during the mid-fourteenth century from Old French, when it had the very specific meaning of "recognized illegitimate child of a nobleman". Later on, it referred to any kid born out of wedlock, and that eventually took on a pejorative sense, giving us the even more frequently used definitions of "terrible person" or "mongrel". Interestingly, a weakened connotation of "male friend" also emerged in the twentieth century, to be used in phrases such as lucky bastard and poor bastard. The Old French noun most likely originated from the phrase fils de bast, which meant "packsaddle son" (a "packsaddle" being a kind of traveling bed that bastards were thought to be conceived on), and the suffix -ard. Bast might trace to a Latin word meaning "carry".
In her new book Because Internet, linguist Gretchen McCulloch gives a very interesting explanation of how the hashtag (#) came to be. The symbol emerged as a shorthand scribble for the Latin abbreviation lb, standing for libra pondo, or "pound by weight". These pound signs became associated with numbers, and were later added to early Bell push-button telephones as symbols to complete certain functions over calls. In the late twentieth century, that same sign was used in internet chatrooms to filter images and other content, and shortly after Twitter came out, user @chrismessina called for using the pound sign to group things on the platform. The site didn't comply immediately, but users really liked the idea, so they kept using the symbols until they caved. Hashtags were then picked up by other sites like Pinterest and Instagram, and are now so prevalent that people use the word in real-life conversation.
To me, the word kiosk implies a small booth, along the lines of one-window newsstands, information centers, or small touchscreen stations. That's the implication in most Anglophone countries (except in Australia, where the term refers to take-out places), but many other places use the original definition of "open pavilion" that could refer to much larger structures; the connection was a perceived resemblance in shape. Kiosk was borrowed in the early sixteen hundreds from French kiosque, and the concept in turn was taken from the Ottomans, who called it koshk. That traces to Persian kushk, which meant "palace" and has an unknown origin. Thanks to the adoption of the modern definition, usage of the word kiosk in literature skyrocketed during the 1980s.
After a friend used the word galvanize earlier today to mean "urge into action", I had a realization that I was able to make thanks to my AP Chem days. The verb can also mean "coat a metal using electricity", and the newer definition emerged because of the notion of something being sparked into movement. We got the word at the start of the nineteenth century from the French noun galvanisme, which was named after Luigi Galvani, an Italian polymath who (along with his wife Lucia) did the first research into bioelectricity. He wanted to call it animal electricity, but it was named after the pair on the suggestion of Alessandro Volta, the scientist whom volts are named after. Interestingly, the surname Galvani comes from the first name Gavin, which may trace to a Celtic word meaning "hawk".
The word parchment was first recorded in the early fourteenth-century romantic epic Beves of Hamtoun, when it was spelled parchemin. Other alternations throughout the ages included parchmen, parchemyne, parchmine, parchemet, parchement, and parchemyn until parchment was standardized during the fifteenth century. The word is not related to parch nor the noun-forming suffix -ment (although the t got added through folk etymological confusion with the latter); through Old French, it actually traces to the Latin word pergamena and the Ancient Greek term Pergamon, which described a city in western Anatolia where the papyrus substitute material is thought to have been invented. That's supposedly named after Pergamus, a mythological warrior who founded the city.
Adam Aleksic, a freshman 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, and law.