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The word bra obviously comes from brassiere, and that comes from French brassiere, but here it gets interesting. In Old French, the etymon of these terms was braciere, and that referred to a protective lining of armor meant to protect the arm (yes, this is related to brace). Further back, the Old French word brace meant "arm", and that comes from Latin brachium, meaning "arm" as well (this is connected to several brachio- words, including bracelet, embrace, brachiosaurus, and, bizarrely, pretzel- we'll have to get into that later). In Greek, brakhion meant "upper arm", but before that, it meant "short", purportedly because the upper arm is shorter than the lower arm. What a strange metonymical switch! Further back, we can trace this to Ancient Greek brakhus, meaning "short" as well, and, through Proto-Hellenic, this derives from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-Europpean root mregus, "short" or "brief". For a short period in the 1940s, the word brassiere has been more commonly used than bra, but the latter form really took off since then, and currently stands at about nine times the usage of brassiere.
Yesterday we learned that the company name Verizon is partially made up by the word horizon, but where does horizon come from? To find out, let's set our horizons as far back as the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction werw, which had meanings of "border", "landmark", or a "demarcation" of any type. This eventually became the Proto-Hellenic root worwos, with about the same meaning, and that morphed into Ancient Greek horos, or "a boundary", more specifically. Horos became horizon in Ancient Greek (by then it had the modern meaning), and that was borrowed into Latin the same way, but here is where it gets really interesting. When the French loaned the word, their accents lopped off the initial h and left us with orizon or even orisaun. That's the way we took it into English, and used it for centuries, but somewhere in the 1600s somebody noticed that it didn't line up with the Latin spelling, and threw the h right back on. So there you go.
As someone who's only ever lived in the twenty-first century, I was surprised that the name for the telecommunications company Verizon predated me by only one year. After the Bell telephone monopoly broke up into seven "baby bells" in 1984, the "Bell Atlantic" wing survived on its own for a couple of decades through mergers and growth into nearby states. After acquiring GTE, however, they were looking to rebrand, so they took on the name "Verizon", which was a strategically chosen to be a portmanteau of the Latin word veritas, meaning "truth", and the English word horizon. Kind of a boilerplate corporate name, really, but still very interesting. Veritas, which can be conjugated to verus (also meaning "real"), comes from the Proto-Italic word weros and the Proto-Indo-European word weh, both with the same meaning. Horizon, meanwhile, will be covered in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
A geisha is a Japanese hostess who entertains men through performing arts and conversation (and, by definition, not a prostitute; those were the similarly-clad oiran). The word was borrowed from Japanese in 1887, where the most literal meaning is perhaps "artisan" (or "art person" if you want to get super technical). This is because geisha is a fusion of gei, meaning "art" or "technique", and sha, meaning "person". Both of these terms come from Middle Chinese, which is not too strange- there's a whole kanji alphabet for that very purpose. Gei comes from a word sounding like ngiei, also meaning "art" or "craft" (earlier on, we can trace this to words meaning "to plant") and sha derives from something sounding more like cha, which served as a suffix relating to people, such as -er or -ist today. I wish I could go more in depth but I'm absolutely terrible at East Asian etymologies. They get very messy. Geisha as a word peaked in usage in the 1960s but has recently been on the rise again.
The poet Thespis revolutionized the early stages of ancient Greek theatre by being the first to introduce one actor standing apart from the chorus, with deeper dialogue and greater development. Then Aeschylus came around and made it two actors, and Sophocles popped in to make it three. The initial and most important of these characters was the protagonist, then the deuteragonist for the secondary character and Sophocles' third character was called the tritagonist. Any or none of these characters could also be the antagonist, which obviously is the bad guy. Now, in those old Athenian times, they would have actors compete to win sort of their equivalent of the Best Actor Tony Award, so the word agonist, meaning "actor", originally could be defined better as "competitor" or "combatant" because they were competing for the theatre laurels. Pro- means that person is the first actor, deu- that they're the second, trit- that they're third, and anti- that they're "against" the other competitors. In Modern English, only protagonist and antagonist remain in use, and their meanings have clearly changed a bit since then.
The Taino language gave us a surprising number of words (in no particular order, this encompasses cannibal, tobacco, savannah, potato, barbecue, canoe, hammock, and Caribbean) for an indigenous language, but today we look at one in particular: hurricane. Until we borrowed this term, there were already existing names for hurricanes: typhoon, cyclone, even tempest. However, clearly we didn't have enough words for the weather pattern, and Spanish colonizers in America soon began adopting a word they transcribed as hurican from the natives of the Greater Antilles. In truth, it may have sounded more like huracan or even juracan depending on the dialect. Beyond that, it's obscure, but in Quechua and Mayan, hurakan and huranken respectively referred to storm gods, so there must be a common ancestor connecting the Arawakan (Taino) word to the rest. There's a lack of records for concrete evidence here, but just the hints are fascinating.
It honestly never occurred to me until this word was requested, but flour is more than a homophone of flower- it's directly related! Sometime in the middle of the 1400s, we adopted the Middle English word flour, meaning "flower", for the white wheaty powder, under the notion that, as a flower is the finest part of the field, so is flour the best part of the meal. Flour meaning "flower" eventually changed in spelling to differentiate it (even though it was there first- no fair!) and flour meaning "flour" stayed the same in that time. Both of these words come from Anglo-French flur, which comes from Latin florem, still meaning "flower" but also doubling as "blossom" (this is connected to flora, as in flora and fauna, through a Roman goddess). In reconstructing the noun, we can trace it to Proto-Italic flos and Proto-Indo-European blehs, with the same definition. Usage of the word flour has mirrored that of flower very closely over the last five hundred years- changing when it changed, although always a little less.
Another word request, although I have to warn you that this one is a bit boring compared to the last one. Every single etymon of done means "do"; as such a simple and essential word it underwent very little semantic change, because it was always needed in that context, and there was no need to replace it or change it, ever. However, because it was so common, it also underwent a lot of orthographic variation, as the sheer number of usages inevitably caused. In Middle English, done took the forms of don, idon, yedon, gedon, and more; in Old English it was don or gedon. Reconstructing it further yields the Proto-Germanic word donaz and, earlier, the Proto-Indo-European word deh, obviously still meaning "to do", but also holding definitions of "to place" or "to put". Usage of both do and done has been relatively constant since the 1720s, and do is used about ten times as often. Okay, I guess you could say that this blog post is done.
I'm getting the best word requests right now! Absquatulate, another obscurity I've encountered very few times, is a verb meaning "to leave abruptly". Interestingly enough, this word was sort of created as a joke, to be a mockery of all those new Latin formations at the time (that being the year 1840). The central component is a blatantly ironic use of the word squat, which comes from Old French esquatir, with the same meaning. This comes from the prefix es-, meaning "out" (from Latin ex-, from PIE eghs, still "out"), and the root quatir, which traces to Latin cogere, "to compel", from PIE roots to do with motion). The first and last parts are meant to evoke abscond and perambulate, so you would abscond your squat to walk and leave abruptly, as it were. However, the affixes actually present in absquatulate are ab-, meaning "away from", and -ulate, implying an action of movement. So absquatulating means "to move away from squatting".
Fun fact: Nintendo was originally founded in 1889, which means it's about to turn 130 years old. Obviously, they weren't selling Switches and The Legend of Zelda; at the time it was just Japanese hanafuda cards, which became really popular and help grow the company into the gaming conglomerate it is today. The reason for naming the company was never made clear, but the original kanji could have two interpretations. The most prominent theory is that it means "leave luck to heaven" (which could be a reference to both the luck you can have in the cards and the luck the creator wanted for his company). In this interpretation, the word would come from Japanese ninkyo, meaning "chivalry", and ten, meaning "heaven". The other school of thought place Nintendo's etymology in the phrase "the temple of free hanafuda". I must stress, however, that neither of these origins are confirmed, due to a lack of primary sources.
When I first got the word Mlechchha in my etymology requests folder, I honestly thought I was being spammed or something. That doesn't look like a word! The double ch just looks absurd to me as an English speaker, but turns out that it is a legitimate name for a dynasty in the Kamarupa region of India that ruled from 650 to 900 CE. More commonly spelled Mleccha and occasionally also taking the form of Maleccha, the middle sound is just kind of a guttural k. Now, etymologizing this word is very tricky. No Vedic texts give any hint as to its origin, and the earliest citation we have of it is in a context pointing out what a weird word it is. In any form, however, it seems pretty clear that Mleccha comes from Sanskrit, meaning "barbarian" for a while, and some think it's so hard to find because it's regionally rooted. Another theory is that the apellation comes from Sanskrit mili, meaning "speech", and that would be from the (non-IE) Dravidian family. Just some possibilities. Interesting word; my thanks to whoever suggested it!
Through Old French, the word perplex comes from the Latin word perplexus, which could still mean "confusing" but also had side definitions of "entangled" or "intricate". Here we can chop off the prefix per-, which meant "through" (and is reconstructed as coming from the Proto-Indo-European root per, meaning "before"), leaving us with plexus, from the verb plectere, meaning "to weave". You can see there that the "entangled" etymology was most prominent going back. Plectere, through Proto-Italic plekto, may be derived from Proto-Indo-European plek, meaning "weave" or, alternatively, "to fold". So, furthest back, perplex means "before folding". Usages of perplex in every context have been decreasing since the nineteenth century, but perplexed tops the list as the most utilized form of the word. The same pattern is echoed in both Google Trends and NGrams.
The word waltz was directly borrowed sometime in the late eighteenth century from German Walzer, which they adopted as the name for the Bohemian dance . Walzer comes from the verb walzen, which meant "to dance", and that comes from the Old High German word walzan, which meant "to turn" (there certainly is a lot of twirling present in waltzes). In Proto-Germanic, this may be reconstructed to walt, with the same meaning, and in Proto-Indo-European, it's wel, also with the same definition. Other words derived from this PIE root include devolve, evolve, revolve, wallet, vulva, vault, and helicopter, among others. The verb welter (meaning "to move turbulently") also comes from the Old High German word walzan, so a lot of cognates there. Waltz as a verb was coined in 1862, off the noun. Anthimeria strikes again! Usage of the word waltz peaked in the interwar and World War II years.
On the eastern side of New Zealand's North Island, there is a hill that the locals refer to as Taumata. This, however, is not its real name. It's an abbreviation for a much longer and much harder to pronounce name: Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. No joke. If you google that right now, you'll see 4.3 stars out of 5 and a twenty-foot-long road sign. Clocking in at 85 characters, there are actually even longer forms. Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaurehaeaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu has 92 and I'm not even going to bother listing the 105-letter one. The New Zealand Geographic Placenames Database uses a 57 character form and Guinness World Records recognizes the 85 character version as the longest place name, but I digress. Onto meaning! The official translation of this from the original Maori, according to Wikipedia, is "The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one" (Tamatea was a figure present in many Maori folk tales). The Maori language is Tahitic, which is Polynesian, meaning that all of these lengthy words come from the Austronesian proto-language. And now you know.
I'll just hijack this post to point out that the plural of attorney general is attorneys general, not attorney generals like most non-lawyers and journalists think. Okay, on to our feature presentation: the etymology of attorney. The word was borrowed in the middle of the thirteenth century with the looser definition of "one appointed to act in place of another". This was a term in English Common Law for a while, until it took on a pejorative sense and in 1873 the term was officially replaced with barrister so as to lose the negative connotations. It was too late for the Americans, however, who had already picked up the term by then. Anyway, attorney comes from the Old French verb atorner, meaning "to assign", as in a lawyer is "assigned" to represent someone. Here we can break off the prefix a-, meaning "to", and we're left with tourner, "turn". Tourner comes from Latin tornare, which carries the more specific meaning of "to turn with a lathe" and is a conjugation of tornus, simply meaning "lathe". This in turn comes from Greek tornos, which meant "drafting compass" (that thing used to make circles), from Proto-Indo-European tere, "to turn".
The word maverick can mean two things. In the world of pundits and politics, it describes a person who operates independently and in an unorthodox manner (this can be either an adjective or a noun). Alternatively, in the world of ranching, it can mean an unbranded calf. So a maverick maverick is an unorthodox, unbranded, young cow. Surprisingly, both of these words come from the same place, and neatly tie together. They're named after Samuel Augustus Maverick, a Texan lawyer and landowner who was too lazy to brand his cattle. Everybody thought this controversially pioneering decision was awfully courageous, and soon afterwards his last name came to be applied to both independently minded people and cows like his. A maverick can also mean a starting hand of a jack and a queen in the poker variant Texas Hold 'Em, and that was named after the TV show Maverick, about a poker player called Bret Maverick. His last name probably had something to do with the "unorthodox" definition, so we've come full circle.
The etymology of "California" is so interesting it gets its own Wikipedia page, something I've only seen for OK before now. When California was discovered in 1542, it was thought to be the mythical island predicted by the 1510 Spanish novel Las Sergas de Esplandián, a wildly popular fantasy book in which there was a paradise isle east of Asia covered with fierce and strong native women. By the time the conquistadors realized that what we call Baja California is a peninsula and not an island, it was too late and the name had stuck. But where did the name in the book come from? It's thought that the author created the toponym from the Arabic word khalifa, meaning "caliph" (so California literally means "land of the Caliph". This comes from khalif, "successor", from the verb khalafa, "to succeed", from the root k-l-f, having to do with transition. This in turn is of Proto-Semitic origin- possibly from the reconstruction halap, meaning "to go beyond".
We borrowed the word toxic from French toxique in the late seventeenth century. Toxique comes from Latin toxicus, which meant "poisoned", not unlike today's definition. This in turn comes from Ancient Greek toxikon, which had the very specific meaning of "poison meant to be used on arrows". There was actually a more ubiquitous word for "poison" in general, ion, but the io- sound was considered "too weak" so, for scientific purposes, toxikon was repurposed instead. Now, the word toxikon can be conjugated to toxikos, meaning "of or pertaining to bows", from toxon, "bow" (you can see here the metonymic shift, through association of poison on the bows). Finding the etymon of taxon is difficult, as nothing is confirmed about it. Linguists think that there is a connection to the Latin word taxus, which had a definition of "javelin", and that both words either come from a Scythian origin or the Iranian word taxsa, meaning "bow".
The Evenki language is one of the Tungusic family, a group of tongues spoken by people-groups across Russia and thought to possibly be part of the tentatively hypothesized Altaic family. As far as I can tell from my research, Evenki only gave one word to the English language: shaman, that spiritual priest in native cultures in Asia and American. This was borrowed into English in the 1690s by route of Russia through Germany, where the words were shaman and schamane, respectively. Russian picked it up from the greater Tungus language, where it was saman, and that's essentially the same as the Evenki word. Beyond, that etymologists can only guess at the proper origin, but some think it could be from Chinese sha men, meaning "Buddhist monk", or from sramanas, meaning "Buddhist ascetic". These reconstructions, however, can only be guessed at. We do, however, know that usage of the word shaman has steadily been increasing since its initial adoption.
Ironically, it's almost as if the etymology of the word obscenity was censored; there are conflicting accounts once we pass the Latin word obscenus. My personal favorite of the lot is that it could be from the Greek phrase ob skene, meaning "off stage", because some parts of Ancient Greek theatre was so obscene that it had to be implied that they took place away from the audience. If this is the case, ob would be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hepi, meaning "near", and skene would derive from a Semitic source meaning "dwelling". If not, another possible etymology would be that obscenus comes from the Latin phrase ob caenum, meaning "in front of filth". Ob, you'll notice, is different in this context; it was quite a multipurpose word in Latin and Greek. Caenum would be from Proto-Indo-European kweyn, meaning "soil". Those are just two possibilities, but they are the most likely.
Ever since I was young, my mother told me not to drink soda because of the artificial sweetener aspartame in it, and to eat my asparagus because it was healthy. Little did I know about the etymological conundrum this put me in. Turns out that aspartame comes from asparatic acid, which is synthethically created from asperagine, which is a compound found naturally in asparagus and similar plants (hence the name). The -ame suffix indicates an amide, and the -ine in asperagine is a multipurpose suffix for chemical compounds. Now onto asparagus! It was borrowed in the second half of the fourteenth century from Latin, where it came from the Ancient Greek word asparagos, still describing the plant. This, however, is of uncertain origin, but might be from Proto-Indo-European sperg, meaning "to spring up". Usage of both the words asparagus and aspartame has been on the rise since the 1960s.
There is a surprisingly common misconception out there that Nylon is a portmanteau of New York and London, the two cities in which it was supposedly invented. However, that is quite incorrect. Firstly, it was created in a DuPont laboratory in Delaware, and, secondly, it's not really a portmanteau. Nylon was originally called No-Run, because the material wasn't supposed to unravel easily, but DuPont wanted to legally avoid making such an unjustified claim. So the guy who discovered it, Wallace Carothers, kept making small changes to the name until the company approved it. Nuron was suggested, but that was too close to a nerve tonic, so Carothers floated nilon, but that could be pronounced two ways, so he suggested nylon, and the company approved that. Sadly, Carothers committed suicide in that last waiting period, so he never got to see his product officially named. The suffix -on was modeled after cotton and rayon.
Strozzapreti is a kind of hand-rolled pasta with a fascinating origin. The word comes from Italian, of course, but there it had an entirely different meaning: "priest-choker" or "priest-strangler". This is a very strange connection with no certain explanation, but there are several theories that explain the etymology. One school of thought is that the pasta was very popular among priests in southern Italy, who would eat it so ravenously that they choked themselves. Alternatively, in making the pasta, you would metaphorically "choke" the dough with enough anger to kill a priest, or it was a way to pay tithes to undeserving priests who deserved a choking, or the pasta resembled the type of collar worn by vicars. In short, we have no clue but many possibilities. Now we can break this up into two words: strozza, meaning "choke", and preti, meaning "priests". Strozza is specifically from the region of Lombardy, where it meant "throat", and preti comes from Latin presbyter- more on that and presbytarian in a future post.
What do caterpillars have to do with either cats or pillars? Turns out, nothing with the latter but a lot with the former. The word was borrowed in the sixteenth century as catyrpel (alternatively catirpel or catirpeller) from the Old French word caterpilose, which meant "hairy cat". This was sort of along the lines of how we call that specific kind of caterpillar a "woolly mammoth". They really can look like fluffy animals. This term was loaned directly from Latin catta pilosa, with the same definition. Catta, though Proto-Germanic kattuz, which is surprisingly of Afro-Asiatic origin (but, in retrospect, that makes sense as the first cats were domesticated in Egypt). Pilosa, meaning "hairy", is a conjugation of pilus, "hair", and that comes from the Proto-Indo-European pil, which referred to one strand of hair. The word caterpillar peaked in usage in the 1860s and has since remained relatively constant in our language.
Adam Aleksic, a leading contender for valedictorian of his high school, is a 211-month-old boy with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, and law. Adam would like to one day visit Tajikistan and probably isn't spying for the Kyrgyz government.
The Etymology Nerd