The verb decide has deadly interesting origins. Though it came through Middle English deciden, Old French decider, and Latin decidere, you can tell that there's the prefix de-, kind of meaning "off". This was in the language as far as etymologists can trace it, and is either from Etruscan or Proto-Indo-European. It's the other part of decide that's surprising: -cide. Yup, as you may have guessed, this is the same -cide present in words like homicide, suicide, regicide, fratricide, genocide, and all those other euphemistic terms for nasty kinds of death. All the roots trace to the Latin verb caedere, meaning "to cut". The death-related words are connected because of the correlation between "cut" and "kill", a side meaning which later evolved from the word, and decide is connected because when you make a choice, you cut out all the other possible choices. So it sort of makes sense, right? Caedere comes from Proto-Italic kaido, from Proto-Indo-European kehid, which meant something more like "strike".
Only a couple of centuries ago, the word surgery coexisted happily with the word chirurgery. They came from the same source, but as you can deduce, surgery won out in popular and medical usage. Chirurgery, however, is more accurate, as it is more rooted in the past. Both come from the Latin word chirurgia, from the Ancient Greek word kheirourgia. Up to this point, all the terms still had the same meaning of an invasive medical procedure, but as we go back further, kheirourgia is split into two words: kheir, meaning "hand", and ergon, meaning "work". The combined definition of "working by hand" obviously describes how surgeons go about the job. Kheir is from Proto-Indo-European ghesr, still meaning "hand", and ergon is from Proto-Indo-European wergom, also still meaning "hand". Both likely took a Proto-Hellenic route. In recent years, since surgery has basically driven out all uses chirurgery, it's had room to expand in growth nigh-exponentially in usage, which it has been doing.
I've grown up always thinking that the ice cream Häagen-Dazs is imported from Germany or some Scandinavian country. Nope! The company was created in the Bronx by Reuben and Rose Mattus, two Polish immigrants. Well, I thought, when I learned that, at least the name means something tasty in some European language, right? Nope! To put it lightly, the name Häagen-Dazs is a linguistic abomination. When Rose suggested it in 1959, it was meant to sound Danish, to entice the customer with what Reuben called an "aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship". Except it's just... wrong: There is no umlaut in Danish (rendering the ä meaningless), and the zs letter combination is nonexistent outside of Hungarian! Gosh flippity darn it. What we have here is a classic advertising technique: the Mattuses made the name sound exotic and foreign, which you cannot deny worked seamlessly. This makes me sad; one of the ice creams I grew up with is a lie.
Whether you remember playing with legos, Legos, LEGOS, LEGOS®, or LEGOS® as a child, you probably never considered why they're named that, and if you did, you probably thought it was an acronym. Well, not really. As you will have noticed, there are a lot of stylistic differences in how to spell it, based on varying degrees of legality, but all that stems back to when Ol Kirk Kristiansen, the Danish CEO of the to-be The LEGO Group, chose LEGO as the brand name. This was all after lengthy experimentation with different names, but eventually the company settled on a play on the Danish phrase leg godt, which meant "play well". So LEGO is not an acronym- more of a contraction, and barely one at that. I thought that was cool. Ironically, none of the creators realized that lego also meant "I put together" in Latin, showing the truly serendipitous nature of language. Leg is from Old Norse leikr, from Proto-Germanic laikaz, with the same meaning. Godt is clearly connected to English good and German gut, and would come from Proto-Germanic godaz, which is reconstructed as being from Proto-Indo-European ghedh, meaning "unite".
A palindrome, as several of you may know, is something that reads the same backwards and forwards (such as Madam, I'm Adam). But where does the word palindrome originate from? Well, in the 1600s, Ben Johnson coined it in one of his plays. Like Shakespeare did with most of his"created" words, Johnson didn't just make it up; rather, he "borrowed" a word from Ancient Greek. Here it was palindromos, which literally meant "running back again", describing the quality of palindromes to read both ways, obviously. This is a portmanteau of two words: palin, which meant both "back" and "again", oddly enough, and drome, that same element in dromedary, hippodrome, and syndrome, which meant "race" or "running". So a palindrome is a "running back". Respectively, the two parts come from the Proto-Indo-European root kwel (meaning "revolve") and the Proto-Indo-European root drem (meaning "run"). Interestingly, palindrome has become the etymon of another word that is just beginning to be recognized, semordnilap, which means something that makes sense written backwards. Kind of like a one-sided palindrome, but not this side. Edis rehto eht.
In the thirteenth century version of English, that purple quartz we know as amethyst was either spelled amatist and ametist. Before that, in Old French (from whence it came), it was ametiste, and before that, it came from Greek amethustos, probably through Latin by one means or another. Oh, yeah, and amethustos translates to mean "not drunk". How could this be? Well, the Ancient Greeks had a peculiar belief that amethysts could prevent intoxication- there were several myths about the god Dionysus interacting with the stone, though some were of questionable origin. The point is, they had this superstition, and it was strong enough to name a rock after a state of sobriety, so there you go. The word amethustos affixes an a- to negate the rest of the word (even in English, it remains as a prefix meaning "not"), and thus methustos means "drunk". This is a formation from methus, which meant "wine" and not some other drug you're all thinking about. Surprisingly, methus is from medu, the Proto-Indo-European root for "honey", which makes wine a pretty sweet thing.
Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa, reportedly is inspired by the computer in Star Trek. Its makers wanted it, too, to be a library of information. And what better library of information is there than the famed, historical library of Alexandria? So the name kind of works. However, that was only a minor factor in choosing the name. Unlike Siri and Cortana, Alexa was not chosen on a whim. After lengthy scientific testing, people at Amazon decided that Alexa was the best name because the central x sound surrounded by soft vowels was distinctive and could most easily be picked up by the machine. Indeed, that worked great, but Alexa was already an extremely popular name prior to Amazon adopting it. Recently, the baby name Alexa has declined, prompting concerns that Amazon has ruined it for the rest of us. Finally, and quite irrelevantly, Alexa is a female variation of Alexander, which means "defender of man" in Greek.
Yesterday we learned that Apple named their voice assistant Siri mainly because it meant nice things in several different languages. Microsoft's Cortana has drastically different origins. Apparently, in Halo, a popular video game developed by a subsidiary of Microsoft Studios set in the twenty-sixth centuries, there is an AI called Cortana who helps humanity but eventually is revealed to have an evil streak. Subsequently, when Microsoft started developing a voice assistant to rival Apple's Siri, they used Cortana as a code name for the project. At the time, it was just a fun thing to call it, but the developers (and fans who had heard about the labeling) clamored for the name to stay, and Microsoft eventually agreed. After all, the trisyllabic name Cor-tan-a is easy for the machine to recognize, and it's different from other names, so there won't be many mistakes (a concept also used in naming Siri). Am I the only one thinking it's disturbing that the assistant on Windows phones is named after a nefarious AI?
I tried asking Siri how she got her name, but all I got was "a really good question". So I went out to do a little investigative etymology. Apparently, when Apple bought the personal assistant, they needed a name to match the female voice which is easy to remember yet distinguishable from other names. And they already had one! Sort of. Dag Kittalaus, the co-creator of the robot, was enamored with the name (so much that his company was called Siri, Inc.) and tried to convince Steve Jobs to use it. However, the CEO wasn't a fan and asked for a replacement name (one of the main problems was that shiri meant "butt" in Japanese). When no better alternative could be found, Jobs was forced to run with Siri. Kittalaus was ecstatic; he had even planned to name his daughter Siri, but had a son instead, so this was his chance to use the name. The meaning behind this is really a combination of factors: in Kittalaus' native Norwegian, Siri literally means "beautiful woman who leads you to victory", in Swahili it means "secret", and in Sinhalese, it means "beauty". So a bunch of nice words coming together, as it were.
The Wingding font exists because it was essentially an early version of emojis: when somebody needed a graphic character inserted into early- and pre-Internet text, they would use fonts like this to do that. At this point, it's little more than an obsolete nuisance, but it's worth exploring where the word Wingding comes from. And to do that, you need to understand something important about the Wingding font: it is a dingbat, the blanket term for that type of pre-emoji font I just discussed. Since it was purchased by Windows, the words were combined to create Wingding. Cool! Now a little more on the dingbat. It's a printing term (later extended to computing, obviously) dating back to the early 1900s and referring to an ornamental letter used in headings, like those fancy Old-English style characters from ancient manuscripts. Nobody knows how that term got applied, nor any of its relatives: dingbat also had meanings such as "muffin", "Chinaman", "money", "woman", "penis", and "fool", among others. It was first attested in 1838, meaning "an alcoholic beverage", and sort of devolved into a jack-of-all-trades sort of word... and its major legacy involves the writing of other words.
Mexico is taking away our cars! No, really. Some of you may know the word jalopy, which means a broken-down or generally dilapidated automobile. Officially, the origin is obscure, but the best theory so far takes us to the Mexican town of Jalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz and where old American automobiles were sent to scrap in the early 1900s. Alternatively spelled Xalapa, this proper noun comes to us from Nahuatl Xalapan, which meant "sand by the water", a portmanteau of xalli, meaning "sand", all, meaning "water", and pan, meaning "place". All words have Uto-Aztecan roots. That's cool and all, but let's go back to the city of Jalapa. Its residents are called Jalapeños... as are special peppers that were traditionally cultivated in the region, and subsequently became popular among American exotic food-lovers. Yes, the word for an old car is connected to a word for a kind of spicy pepper. I love etymology.
The word tibia has unsure origins, but in either scenario, it's pretty interesting. It was borrowed into English in 1726 from the Latin word tibia, also meaning "the shinbone". However, there was another meaning for Latin tibia: it also described a type of pipe or flute made from reeds. Now, the uncertainty is whether the "bone" meaning or the "flute" meaning came first. One one hand, many early flutes were constructed out of bones, but on the other, the tibia kind of looks like a flute. If it's the former, then there is no known cognate and it is likely from a non-Proto-Indo-European source, and if it's the latter, then there is one known cognate, Greek siphon, meaning "tube", and the resulting reconstruction means that it is likely from a non-Proto-Indo-European source. Usage of the phrase tibia has been decreasing since the late 1800s, although it is still seen fifty times more often in literature than shinbone.
When the country of Bolivia was founded in 1825, they named it in honor of Simon Bolivar, a courageous soldier who fought in multiple Latin American independence wars. That's all fine and dandy, but it's interesting where the surname Bolivar comes from. Linguists trace all people with that last name back to a village in central-north Spain called La Puebla de Bolivar. The Bolivar part of that used to be written Bolibar, which is a blend of the words bolu, which was just another surname, and ibar, which meant "river". This in turn comes from the Proto-Basque word ibar, meaning "river". Yup! Basque! That weird enclave language with no other relatives, spoken in central-north Spain? Ha! And you thought it was Spanish this whole time! Nope, I never said a language; it was Basque. The truth is, the name for a Spanish-speaking country comes from a tiny European town from a linguistic oddity. Sorry, but that word really deserved a gloating surprise ending. Oh, the Bolivar is also the Venezuelan currency.
I made a new infographic today on the abbreviations of chemical elements, and there's one origin everybody is surely scratching their heads about. I'd love to go more in depth, anyway. The symbol for Tungsten is W. That stands for Wolfram, which is really unsurprising, considering that wolfram was the archaic term for "tungsten" before that fancy new Swedish word came along (this is. Here, however, it gets interesting. The prevailing theory is that this comes from a German portmanteau combining the words wolf, meaning "wolf", and rahm, meaning "cream". This is (a calque) modeled on the Latin phrase lupi spuma, which meant "wolf foam" and also described that metal for some reason. However, wolf is what we're looking at. Obviously from the same source as English wolf, it, through Middle and High German, comes from Proto-Germanic wulfaz, from Proto-Indo-European wlkwos, meaning "dangerous". At the same time as this was developing, rahm was also coming through Middle and High German from Proto-Germanic, in this case from raumaz (still meaning "cream") and ultimately deriving from Proto-Indo-European ru, meaning "skim". Though it is debated that rahm might have actually come from a word for "soot" or just a surname, if true, this would make the Wolfram|Alpha computational search engine have a name meaning "alpha dangerous skim".
It has come in many forms- baba ghanoush, baba ganoush, baba ghanouj, among many more. It seems that there are only three things people do agree on about this word: the spelling of baba, the fact that it's a type of Middle Eastern eggplant dish, and that the phrase originally meant "pampered father". We know this because that's the literal translation in Arabic, and there are three competing theories to explain the connection. First, there's the old folk tale about a toothless father who had to be fed pre-masticated food, something that no doubt looked like eggplant puree. Then, there's the suggestion that this was invented by a concubine in one of the historical sultans' harems for her master. This would make the sultan the "pampered father". Finally, there's the simple idea that this was cooked for less-than-deserving dads in general. I wish I could trace the words further, but the trail runs cold there.
Examples of etymology in action are so fascinating! You know, watching slang words develop. One such instance of this is the term cray-cray, which means "crazy". Not standardized, this can also be written cray cray or simply cray. Interestingly enough, this most likely comes from a misunderstanding about a 2011 Jay-Z rap lyric. In the family-friendly version, he said "that ish cray", and most people believed this to be an abbreviation of crazy that worked with the rhyme scheme, thought it was cool, and started using it. However, this is not a shortening of crazy. It was later admitted that the lyric referred to Ronald and Reginald Kray, powerful and schizophrenic mafiosos from the East End of London in the 1960s. A large number of people doubt this, but it seems credible enough to be true, and if so, this is my favorite etymology of the 2010s.
In James Cook's 1777 book A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, he detailed the Tongan custom of declaring immoral things taboo. This mainly included menstruation, but also other "unclean" things. There are two possible origins of this. The first is that it's from ta-bu, which meant "sacred" and is a portmanteau of ta, meaning "mark", and bu, meaning "especially" (emphasizing the importance of the mark in question). The more likely theory (since it actually has cognates in other Polynesian languages) is tapu, a word also with a similar definition of "sacred" but able to be reconstructed to a Proto-Polynesian word tapu, "prohibited". Whatever the case, finding out the truth is difficult due to a lack of evidence, but it is nonetheless clear that what is taboo to us is blasphemy to the ancient people of the South Pacific.
Ancient Indians in the Gupta Empire invented the sine and other trigonometric functions. They called this the jaya, which meant "chord". Once the Gupta declined and the Muslims emerged as the leading intellectuals of the world, they borrowed the sine, and with it, the Sanskrit word for "sine". However, they only kept the phoneme, which was phonetically transcribed to jiba. This meant that the word had no real meaning, but was assigned to the sine function nonetheless. Later still, when Europeans wanted to borrow the word, they messed things up and confused jiba with jaib, the Arabic word for "bosom". So, while intending to borrow a term for a mathematical function, they mistranslated it, and ended up using sinus, which was the Latin word for "bosom". This easily became "sine" when it was borrowed into English in the 1590s. Sinus, which has nothing to do with the nose, is of unknown Proto-Indo-European origin. The co- in cosine was correctly translated from kotiya as meaning "complementary", so a cosine is a "complementary sine" or "complementary bosom".
Another term for groundhog is woodchuck, but the -chuck part used to refer to a different animal: the marlin, or fisher, is a carnivorous mustelid that sort of shares a resemblance to the woodchuck, which is merely a version of a chuck associated with wood. So, where does chuck come from? Algonquian Native American languages. It is theorized that it either comes from the Cree word otchek or the Ojibwa word otchig, both still meaning "marlin". The wood- part of woodchuck is pretty obvious and boring, but here goes: through Old English widu, meaning "forest", this comes from the Proto-Germanic word widu, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root widhu, still with the same definition. Also, let me spoil things for you and tell you that chuck, meaning "throw", comes from French choquer, meaning "to strike", and the word could comes from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like gno and meaning "to know", so the question how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood can be rewritten as how much widhu gno a widhuotcheck choquer if a widhuotcheck gno choquer widhu and translated to "how much forest know a forestmarlin strike if a forestmarlin know strike forest". Language is so malleable! Happy Groundhog Day!
Somebody asked me today where the word shindig comes from, and the answer is quite engrossing. Meaning "a lively party", this term emerged in the 1870s with mysterious origins. It's possible that it comes from the Scottish word shinty, describing a game similar to hockey, which has a commotion similar to parties. Alternatively, it could be from Gaelic sinteag, meaning "to leap", from Irish shindy, meaning "a spree", or even shinny, another word for hockey. All of these possible origins have one thing in common: they are not Germanic. Rather, they derive from Celtic, which is one of the reasons for their collective obscurity- it is a poorly documented and reconstructed language. Interestingly, usage of the word "shin-dig" is higher than ever; you would think, as an old-timey term, it would have been most used in prior years; however, there's been a recent boom in frequency of shindig. Whether a leap, a spree, or hockey, this word is weird.
According to both Google Trends and my observations of the world, the word emoticon has been decreasing in usage of late, in favor of emoji. Both describe a small digital picture often used on the Internet, and both sound similar, but the roots are different, etymologically speaking. Additionally, a schism in definition caused "emoticon" to mainly mean characters created out of text, and "emoji" to be ready-made images. Emoticon, which was coined by 1994, is a portmanteau of the words emotion and icon, which is pretty self-explanatory. Emoji is much cleverer. Shigetaka Kurita, the man who invented the modern pictorial variation, named them that as a sort of play on words: it sounded like both emoticon and kanji, a Japanese system of writing, but actually combined the words e, meaning "picture", and moji, meaning "character". Best pun since Shakespeare, in my opinion. E is very simple and therefore has a very simple etymology. It probably comes from a Chinese word meaning "drawing" and sounding like huay, which always sounded like that and meant that. Moji, meanwhile, is thought to be from Middle Chinese midzi, meaning "writing-character", also without much change before that. So an emoji carries the hidden meaning of "drawing-writing-character"!
Somebody suggested to me today that the word shampoo means "fake excrement". Sham poo. Well, that was definitely wrong. When the word shampoo was first brought to England in the 1760s by merchants who picked it up from Hindi champo, it meant "massage". This, however, was a special type of Hindu massage where they would slather your body in foam first, and gradually the "foam" meaning emerged to prevail, mainly due to Victorian hesitation about embracing those seemingly promiscuous massages. Anyway, champo comes from capo, which meant "to press"- an obvious connection, because you need to press on the back in a massage. This has unconfirmed and hypothesized origins, but the main theory is that it comes from the old Sanskrit term capayati, which meant something like "knead". If this is correct, this would further derive from the Old Indo-Aryan root canp, with about the same definition.
Both the xebec and the sambuk are relatively similar types of ships, and both have weird names that are relatively similar in construction. Sadly, they aren't confirmed to be related in origin. The xebec, the main focus of today, is a small and speedy kind of boat used to navigate the Mediterranean in the olden days. It is evident from a glance that this word is foreign, and anything foreign involved with Mediterranean trade must have come from the Arabs. This glance proved to be accurate, because, through French chebec and Italian sciabecco, and under Spanish influence, xebec comes from Arabic shabbak, with the meaning "small warship", only a slight deviation from today. This is from the Proto-Semitic root s-b-k, which meant something like "net", because wood had to be intertwined like a net to make the ships. Meanwhile, sambuk came from Middle Persian and most of the etymology is obscure to us. Note the letters s, b, and k, and the unconfirmed origin. Perhaps there's the slightest chance...
Catsup is just another way of writing ketchup (to make it sound more Anglo-American), which was originally spelled catchup. The origin for this is not known for sure, but there are several interesting theories. We know it was borrowed in 1690 from trade routes, and there is a Malay word, kichap, to describe a very similar condiment, but even that is likely borrowed from sea trade as well. There are cognates all around the South China Sea, indicating that the word might derive from that region. There's the Indonesian word ket-jap, meaning "soy sauce", there's the Malay word kicap, with the same meaning, and there's the Min Nan dialect of Chinese word koechiap, meaning "fish brine". The predominant theory is that all others derive from this latter one; if so, you can also see the evolution of the liquid from sour to sweet and tangy, and from fishy to tomatoey. I thought that was cool.
The word gypped comes from gypsy, but gypsum does not. Gypsy, considered a slur by the Roma people, has an origin that reflects the uneducated bias against them. In Middle English, it had alterations ranging from gipsy to gypcyan to gipcyan. All of this derives from the Old French word gyptien, which was a shortening of egyptien, meaning "Egyptian". This is a misnomer; people incorrectly believed that the often-darker-skinned traveling groups came from Egypt. The clipping process of losing the e is quite common in English, and there are many similar examples. Egyptien derives from the Latin aegyptius, from the Greek aiguptios, which, unsurprisingly, is likely Egyptian in origin. It is believed that the word traces to hwt ka pth, a phrase meaning "the temple of Ptah's soul", but that's unconfirmed. If so, the roots are clearly Semitic and come from another unintelligible spelling, for sure.
Adam Aleksic, a leading contender for valedictorian of his high school, is a 206-month-old boy with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, and law. Adam would like to one day visit Tajikistan and totally just fractured his tibial plateau.
The Etymology Nerd