The YouTube channel Atlas Pro just released a terrific video called "The Geography of Yohanan", which raises an excellent point. Mohammed is often credited as being the most common name in the world, but there's a hidden name which might have even greater spread. Yohanan is a Hebrew word meaning "God is gracious", and just as Mohammed spread with Islam, Yohanan spread with Christianity to countries all over Europe. It spent the longest time in Greek, where variations such as Yanni and Gianni arose. Then Iohannes was borrowed into Latin, and the name's development skyrocket from there.
...Among many others. At the very least, all these variations of Yohanan are comparable to the extent of Mohammed - and that's not even considering all the last names like Jackson and Johnson. It's crazy how a name none of us recognize today is potentially held by the most people in the world. Onomastics (the study of name origins) is a very interesting subfield of etymology!
The word reply was first used as noun in the middle of the sixteenth century, but it was used as a verb for over 150 years prior to that. Usage peaked in 1850 but has recently started rebounding due to a new Internet-related meaning. The word is taken from French replier, with the same meaning. That comes from Latin replicare, which meant something more like "repeat", because you're sort of repeating communication with the person you're replying to. Replicare is also the etymon of replicate, which makes even more sense when we consider the literal translation of replicare: "fold again". When something is folded, it becomes two, which is both repeated and replicated. Replicare contains the prefix re-, meaning "again", and the root is plicare, "fold". Through Proto-Italic, that derives from Proto-Indo-European plek, "to plait".
Today, we're going to talk about ships. In the olden days, instead of a rudder, sailors would use a single oar in the back of the boat to guide it. When the ship had to dock, the side with the oar on it would face outward. Because you could better see the night sky from that half, it became known as starboard, and the side that faced the docks was known as port, for obvious reasons. Nowadays, however, port specifically refers to the left side of a ship, and starboard to the right. Why? Because the majority of sailors, like most people, were right-handed, and the oar was kept on the right side of the boat. Over time, the definitions shifted to be standardized meanings of "left" and "right". Finally, let me just dispel the myth that the word posh comes from the phrase Port Out, Starboard Home: most popular acronym etymologies like that are false.
If you wanted to bore a hole in the 1700s, you would have to use a hand-cranked drill to perforate the desired surface. Using the revolving tool necessitates a very dull, repetitive motion, which can often cause feelings of ennui or listlessness. Therefore, in 1768 the verb to bore got extended from the action of drilling to the causation of boredom, and it only grew from there. Now an irritating person can also be a bore (coined 1812), and you can feel boredom (1852). Usages of all terms related to boring are down since the initial craze in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they're here to stay. Okay, back to the verb for "drilling", the original bore. That's from Middle English boren, which is from Old English borian, "to pierce". Through Proto-Germanic burona, we can eventually reconstruct that to Proto-Indo-European breh, which meant "to carve". Hope that wasn't boring to you guys.
Imbroglio is a rather beautiful word describing a complicated, often embarrassing situation. That particular meaning was metaphorically applied in 1818, but since the word's first application in 1750 till then, it meant something more like "jumble". The term, as you can see just by looking at it, is Italian, where it meant "tangle". Now that we know that, we can eliminate the prefix -im, which was a generally useful affix that meant "into", "upon", "in", "on", or just denoted derivation for verbs. The root is broglio, meaning "confusion". That's most likely from Middle French brouiller, which is also the etymon of embroil. Due to a connection between confusion and mixing things up, that's reconstructed as coming from a Proto-Germanic root for "broth", brutha, which would be from Proto-Indo-European bhreu, "to boil".
The word Ramadan was borrowed into the English language as the British started having increased contact with Muslims through trade. Today, it refers to the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. This shifts along our Gregorian calendar over time, such that it passes through all the months in 33 years. However, when the word was first coined in Arabic, it appears to definitely have been during the summer, because the name literally translates to "the hot month". That's from ramida, meaning "burnt" or "scorched". Prior to that, it can be traced to irtamada, which meant "to be consumed by grief and sorrow." I'm sure after a month of fasting, I'd be consumed by grief and sorrow too! Usage of the word Ramadan in literature over time has been steadily increasing with increased Islamic exposure in Occidental society.
The words "cower" and "coward" are etymologically unrelated, contrary to what I've been thinking for years. Coward was borrowed in the mid-1200s from the French word couard, and that's from Old French coart, with essentially the same definition as today. After eliminating the suffix -ard, denoting the possession of a quality, the root there is coe, meaning "tail" (because a coward runs away with their tail between their legs whenever they can). That's from Latin coda, an alteration of earlier cauda, which eventually derives from Proto-Indo-European kehw, still "tail". Cower, meanwhile, was taken in the mid-1300s from Middle German kuren, meaning "lie in wait" (with the modern connotation, it's waiting for your fears to pass). The etymology for that word is uncertain, but its possible Scandinavian heritage disprove any connection to coward.
To institute something is to establish it or set it up, but an institute is an organizational body. Both definitions come from the Latin word instituere, which meant "to put in place". The way they came about differed, however: the verb is through institutus and the noun from institutum, which meant "ordinance". It wasn't too much of a stretch from "established law" to "established organization", and here we are today with the two meanings. Back to the etymology of instituere - we can remove the prefix in-, meaning "in", giving us statuere, which could be interpreted as "to establish" or "to set up". Statuere is from status, meaning "position" (because positions are established; this is also the etymon of English status), and that's from Proto-Indo-European sta, "to stand".
Usage of the word heathen in the last five centuries peaked dramatically several separate times: in the 1520s, 1590s, 1600s, 1640s, 1750s, and 1840s. Perhaps that's when people were feeling particularly religious. Today, the word refers to any individual(s) outside of the scope of a major religion, but when it was encompassed by the Middle English word hethen, it referred specifically to people who weren't Christians or Jews. Same goes for the Old English word haethen, which was merged with Old Norse heithinn, meaning "pagan", to create the precursor to today's term. Both of those derive from Proto-Germanic haithi, a word meaning "uncultivated soil" (because pagans were "religiously uncultivated"; this is also the etymon of English heathland, "shrublike infertile land"), from Proto-Indo-European skayt, or "clear"
The beginning of William Chester Minor's life was ordinary but successful. Born to Congregationalist missionaries in 1834 Sri Lanka, Minor was later sent to America and studied anatomy at Yale Medical School. After graduating in 1863, he served as an army doctor. Later in life, he became one of the largest contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary (the largest etymological reference book out there) by providing examples of quotations of words throughout history to show how the definitions shifted over time. Minor's research got more and more efficient with time, and he was praised repeatedly by the OED staff for being a major asset to the dictionary's compiling. However, there's something about him that none of the etymologists knew about until 1891 - he was a clinically insane murderer doing everything from his asylum. The wife of the man he killed was sympathetic and brought him books, and he dipped into his own personal library to become a prolific volunteer, but the fact remains that Minor was a paranoid criminal. In 1902, he chopped off his own penis due to his mental problems, then slowly slid into dementia until his eventual death in 1920. It's so intriguing to me that one of the major forces behind the most important etymological tool
of today was a mentally ill felon.
Something mediocre is pretty middle-of-the-road, but etymologically speaking it's more like middle-of-the-mountain. Borrowed in the 1580s from a Middle French word with the same spelling and definition, mediocre derives from the Latin word mediocris, which meant "ordinary" or "moderate" but had a literal meaning of "halfway up the mountain", because something mediocre is neither at the peak nor at the base of a figurative incline. That's a portmanteau of medius, meaning "middle", and ocris, or "mountain". Medius, through Proto-Italic methios, comes from Proto-Indo-European medhyos, "between". Ocris, meanwhile, traced from PIE hokris, meaning "top", possibly by way of Greek. The graph of usage in literature over time for the word mediocre is pretty situationally ironic: after a peak in 1928, it's decreased and settled about halfway between zero percent and the maximum utilization.
The English language actually owes a surprising amount of words to the Aztecs, including coyote, avocado, chili, and chocolate, but today we'll focus on the word tomato. It was first used in 1753, but an alternate form, tomate, was used for more than a century and a half prior to that; it most likely was changed to look more like the word potato. That's taken from Spanish tomate, which is a loanword from the Nahuatl (a language in the Aztec, or Nahuan, family) word tomatl, which still referred to the nutritional vegetable. However, it had a literal meaning of "swelling fruit" (this connotation of juicy, round plumpness later influenced the development of the old-timey slang word for "attractive woman" as well). Eventually, it goes back to Proto-Nahuan, probably to a word along the lines of "to swell".
Vermicelli, a thin, long type of pasta, has a less-than-appetizing word origin. There are varying standards of what qualifies as vermicelli; the Italians mandate that the diameter must be between 2.08 and 2.30 mm, but internationally those definitions can get a little looser. No matter what the meaning, it's inevitably a loanword from Italian, where it's a plural of vermicello, a term meaning "little worm". While initially shocking, this makes sense considering the shape of the pasta. Vermicello is a diminutive of verme ("worm"), which you can immediately tell is a cognate of the modern-day word worm. That's through Latin vermis, which eventually derives from Proto-Indo-European wrmis , with the same denotation. Usage of the word vermicelli has been decreasing since a peak in the 1780s, when it was apparently abnormally popular.
Historically, a charade was a type of French riddle where separate parts of a word were hinted at and you had to guess the whole thing. That concept of figuring out a word is important, because in the 1840s a new variant of the game named "dumb charades" emerged, wherein people had to act out the word, instead of working with riddles. This got insanely popular in England, to the point where the dumb was dropped entirely and we arrived here with our modern word charade. Zooming back about four hundred years, we can trace charade to the Provençal word charrado, which meant "chatter", something that is linguistically connected to it all because of the wordplay involved in early charades. That's from the Occitan word charrar, which meant "to talk" and is listed as onomatopoeic, but could be connected to words like Spanish charlar and Italian ciarlare. I think it's rather ironic that a silent game's name has such talkative origins.
Cullion is an all-too-often-underused archaic insult with a meaning equivalent to "rascal" or "despicable person". Sadly, after a peak in usage in 1822, it has been fading in popularity and will soon be dead entirely, except for one usage in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew that will surely be thrust upon English classes for years to come. The etymology here is fascinating, so let's dive right in: as the Middle English word coilon, which meant "testicle". Obviously, that took on a pejorative meaning through time, just as many of our modern swear words also refer to genitalia. Coilon comes from the Old French word coillon, with the same meaning, and that in turn comes from Latin coleus, or "scrotum". Go back a couple centuries further, and we've arrived at Ancient Greek koleos, which meant "a sheath" because the scrotum is a sheath for the testes. Finally, it's reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European kel, "cover". What an intriguing word origin!
Somebody just requested the word Bojack, which I can only assume refers to Bojack Horseman, the anthropomorphic protagonist of his eponymous comedic television show. When we try to look at the etymology of his first name, we're faced with an immediate problem: the creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, never issued a statement on this, so everything we're about to cover is pure guesswork. The most viable theory is that Bojack was named after the titular antagonist of the 1993 anime film Dragon Ball Z: Bojack Unbound. Maybe Waksberg was a fan of Japanese sci-fi, and this seems to make the most sense because it's a previous instance of a rather odd name. That name in question would be derived from Japanese bojakubujin, which meant "audacity", so that also sort of makes sense considering Horseman's character. Other theories get increasingly less grounded in reality, from a homage to Hugh Jackman to a traditional horse-naming portmanteau of his parents' names (one suggestion was something like Bonnie and Crackerjack), but those seem to be really grasping and the DBZ explanation is most likely.
Contrary to popular belief, Finland is not part of Scandinavia. It does, however, fall within the classifications of Nordic and Fennoscandian. Scandinavia specifically refers to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. This is more historical than geographical: the Kalmar Union brought together the three kingdoms until 1523, and then Norway made its own unions with both Sweden and Denmark. There were actually a few occasions through time when Finland was grouped in with the name, but what really separated it from the other three was a "Pan-Scandinavian" unification movement in the 1830s, which sadly left out Finland. Scandinavia is a Latin term from the first century CE, initially used by Pliny the Elder in his book Natural History. Before that, it came from Proto-Germanic skadinaujo, which meant "Scadia island". We're not exactly sure what Scadia means, but the aujo part comes from PIE akwa, meaning "water".
Originally, the word average referred to "financial loss from goods being damaged in transit". This might seem very distant from the modern definition, but the connection is that anyone who invested in a ship with lost/damaged goods (or their insurers) had to turn in the average value of the damage. So, for a while, "average" meant "equal sharing of loss", and by 1755 the word took on its current mathematical connotation. Average was borrowed in the late 1400s from French avarie, which referred to ship damage in general. Beyond that, there are many possible explanations for the etymology; in fact, it's one of the most investigated origins, to no avail. It might be from Arabic awar, meaning "defect", Latin habere, meaning "to have", or various other linguistic permutations.
When the word plumber was first borrowed in the late 1300s, there were still over two centuries until the flush toilet was to be invented. At the time, the occupation was very different from today's stereotype, and the job description included working with any kind of lead. Later on, as running water began getting implemented everywhere, the pipes being used were chiefly made out of lead, so plumbers became associated with toilets and piping. The rest is history, but let's zoom backwards in time now. Plumber developed from Old French plomier, which meant "lead-smelter", and that's straight from Latin plumbarius, "worker in lead". The root is plumbum, which meant "lead" and is the reason why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb. Beyond that, things get hazy. There is a cognate in Greek, but it doesn't seem Indo-European. Maybe Etruscan or Iberian? Who knows. Point is, it's an interesting etymology.
Today I learned what kangaroo words are, and they're freaking awesome. The term refers to a word that contains its synonym in alphabetical order hidden inside it. For example, masculine contains the word male, blossom contains bloom, chicken contains hen, fabrication contains fiction, and much, much more. A comprehensive list of these words can be found at this Wikipedia page. A lot of these words are formed because they share an etymological root, so some sticklers mandate that a proper kangaroo word needs not be related to its "joey" word. Yep, it's called a "joey", just like a kangaroo baby is called a"joey"- that metaphor of carrying a smaller version of itself is how the term got applied. Equally interesting, if not more so, are "anti-kangaroo" words, which contain their antonym (such as comunicative, pest, and convent). Language is so awesome!!!
The verb censor first developed in 1833 from the noun censor, which today means "one who censors" but at the time had a very specific definition referring to a Roman magistrate who administered censuses and oversaw public morals. Obviously, that latter function is what stuck, but the entire meaning is important as we go through Middle French (the term was borrowed sometime in the 1530s) and back to the Latin verb censere, which could mean "judge", "appraise", or "value" - three things Roman censors did. That, through Proto-Italic kenseo, derives from the Proto-Indo-European root kens, which meant "proclaim". And, for those of you who were wondering, censor is indeed related to the word census through the Roman role, because the person in question did both things.
Bourgeoisie is a beautiful word which today describes the capitalist class in Marxism, but originally referred to the wealthier members of the Third Estate in pre-revolution France. The modern definition came about in 1886 from Marx's writings, but the "Third Estate" meaning was first used in English in 1707. At some unknown point, the French word developed from Anglo-Norman burgeis, which meant "town-dweller". That's from Old French borjois, the root being borc, or "town". In Proto-Germanic, that was burgz, meaning "fortress" (and the etymon of the toponym suffix -burg), and in Proto-Indo-European, it was brg, which was used to described fortified areas. Usage of the word bourgeoisie has declined sharply since a peak in 1983, paralleling the fall of communism pretty well.
The word neat was borrowed into English in the 1540s, after which it alternated with the spellings nete, net, and nette until the current form prevailed. Prior to that, neat derives from Anglo-French neit and Middle French net (this could mean "clean" or "pure"), showing that there was still variation. Eventually, this all comes from Latin nitidus, which held more metaphorical meanings of "elegant" or "trim" but literally meant "shining" or "gleaming". This is still semantically pretty similar to the current definition, but we drift ever so slightly from that as we proceed back to nitere, or "to shine". Finally, as Proto-Indo-European nei, it also meant "shine". Usage of the word "neat" over the last two centuries has remained pretty constant, as it's really ingrained in our culture now.
When the word anomaly was first borrowed into English in the 1570s, it meant something more like "unevenness" than its modern definition, but it was an easy extension from there to a connotation of "deviation from the ordinary" that developed in the 1660s. Before then, the word came from Latin anomalia, which came from Greek anomalos, which essentially had the same meaning. Here it gets interesting as we break apart anomalos into two: the prefix an- means "not" and the root homalos means "even", so an anomaly is, etymologically, "uneven". Homalos is from homos, meaning "same" (and the same root as can be found in words like homosexual and homogenous), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sem, which could mean "one" or "together". Quite interesting!
The word avalanche was adopted in 1763 from French, and that comes from a language we have not previously covered - Romansh, which is spoken in Graubünden, a mountainous canton of Switzerland. There, it was avalantze, which could also mean "descent", and that in turn derives from Savoy lavantse, from Provençal lavanca. Beyond that, things get hazy. The -anca suffix implies that it might be Ligurian, a dead language which might not be Indo-European, but there definitely seems to have been some Latin influence there, because labina means "landslide". Either that's related or it was folk etymologized to the point where it's difficult to tell the words apart. Usage of the word avalanche in literature over time has been rising disturbingly quickly. Perhaps it's all about to tumble back down again...
Adam Aleksic is a 218-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam is anxiously awaiting his college rejections and loves writing about himself in the third person.
The Etymology Nerd