When the word academy was brought into the English language in the middle 1400s, it referred to only one school, specifically, and was not the broad term we use today. In French it was known as the Academie, in Latin as academia, and in Ancient Greek as Akademia: all of these terms referred to the building where the great philosopher Plato taught, famously located in an olive grove dedicated to the goddess Athena. The Akademia got its name from a person! Apparently there was this guy called Akademos who saved the city of Athens from war and received a tract of land in gratitude- a tract of land where Athena's grove and the Academy would be built. It's interesting how fast the word evolved after it was loaned into English; by 1540 it referred to institutions of education, and by 1560 it could be anywhere where something was learned.
The word absurd was borrowed in the 1550s from Middle French absurde, which had the same definition as we know today. As we go back to Latin absurdus, however, the semantics of it shift to mean "out of tune". What's the connection? Two plausible theories exist. It could be a figurative connection, implying that something is "out of harmony" with reality or reason, or it could have something to do with hearing loss, and the bridge definition is more along the lines of "unheard of". Both make sensel the latter is reinforced a bit more by the root in absurdus, surdus, which meant "deaf" or "mute". The prefix ab- just modifies it slightly; it meant "away" or "out" and comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hepo, which could be "off" or "away". Surdus may be reconstructed back to another PIE root, swer, which in this case meant "ringing", because of how ringing could be associated with deafness.
The word defecate was borrowed into the English language in the 1570s, and didn't necessarily have to do with excretion. The original definition was "to purify" (as in, when you defecate, you're purifying your body), and this comes from Latin defaecare, which had the same meaning. This is equivalent to de-, meaning "from", and the root faex, or "impurity" (so a purity comes from impurities). De-, which was sort of a catch-all prefix also meaning "down", "off", and "concerning", comes from a similar Proto-Indo-European root having some of those definitions, as well as "to". Faex (which is the direct etymon of feces, the pluralization of the word which was borrowed in the 1400s) has an intriguingly unknown history; it's proved very difficult to reconstruct or trace back. Faex populi is a phrase referring to the lowest classes of society and feculent means "full of impurities"; both of these terms are related through faex.
One interesting linguistic incongruity I've noticed is the phrase a whole nother, as in it's a whole nother level or in similar situations. When we speak, this rolls off the tongue perfectly, but we never consider how weird the word nother looks when written down. Then again, a whole another somehow seems worse. Some people compromise by writing whole 'nother, but that implies that it's replacing whole another, which really is grammatically incorrect. So what gives? Well, first of all, nother is correct, despite what even some grammar Nazis might tell you. The phrase came about through the process of tmesis, wherein a word is inserted into another word (such as in un-freakin'-believable!). So instead of another, people started saying a-whole-nother, and finally a whole nother. Hopefully that explains it satisfactorily. Another, meanwhile, is an interesting word all by itself, because it's just a merger of the phrase an other!
Pachyderm is a term used to describe all those grey, thick-skinned giant mammals you usually see at the zoo, chiefly the rhinoceros, hippopotamus, and elephant. That quality of having thick skin is going to be important in a moment, so pay attention. We got the word in 1838 from French pachyderme, where it was used as a biological term to classify the animals. This in turn was taken from Greek pakhydermos, which translates to "thick-skinned", which makes sense for the aforementioned reason. Pakhydermos is a portmanteau of pakhys, meaning "large", and derma, that root pertaining to skin that we all recognize from the word dermatologist. Pakhys is reconstructed as coming from the Proto-Indo-European root beng, which could carry connotations of either "thick" or "fat". Derma, meanwhile, came from PIE der, which meant "to split", a definition that was connected to "skin" by an intermediate translation of "flay".
Uremia is a rather nasty condition characterized by high contents of urea in your blood. The name for it was borrowed in 1857 from a Latinized form of the Ancient Greek root words, those being ouron, meaning "urine", and haima, meaning "blood" (so the meaning is "urine blood", and that makes a lot of sense, considering the nature of the disease). Probably through Proto-Hellenic, ouron traces to Proto-Indo-European, but which root? It could be ur, meaning "urine", hwers, meaning "to rain", or wehr, meaning "liquid". Overall, though, this doesn't matter, because it's thought that all of those reconstructions are related somehow. Going back to haima (also the first element in words like hemoglobin and hemhorrhoid), it also is a little bit uncertain in etymology, but linguists think it may hail from Proto-Indo-European sai, which referred to any kind of thick liquid. Usage of uremia in literature has been dramatically decreasing since a local maximum in the 1980s and a high in the 1910s.
I've always noticed an orthographic similarity between the Spanish word uvas, meaning "grapes", and the English word uvula, meaning "that dangly thing in the back of your mouth". Turns out this is no coincidence! In the 1300s CE, uvula was borrowed from the Latin word uvola, meaning "small bunch of grapes", because of an apparent similarity between the physical characteristics of the fruit and what the uvula actually looks like. Uvola is a diminutive of the earlier word uva, which referred to a singular grape and is the direct etymon of the aforementioned Spanish word, and its Italian and Portuguese cognates. There are two theories after this: uva could be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction weg, meaning "wet", or another PIE root, og, which meant "berry". Usage of the word uvula in literature was seven times more frequent around 1800 than today, but Spanish uva has been relatively constant in that time.
Turbulent has had quite the turbulent etymology! It was borrowed into English in the early fourteen hundreds, and referred more to people being disorderly than anything more abstract. It had the same spelling and definition in Middle French, but as Latin turbulentus it could mean anything from "stormy" to "confused"- describing a state of unrest in general. Here we can eliminate the suffix -ulentus, meaning "full of", which leaves us with the root turba, which could mean "turbulent" or "crowd". Although it's uncertain, turba could be from the Ancient Greek word turbe, still meaning "turmoil". This would be reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root stwer, meaning "to rotate" because something rotating is in turmoil). Usage of both the words turbulent and turbulence has been decreasing since a peak around the year 1800- I suppose even that is turbulent.
Fun fact: before the Protestant Reformation, the words Catholic and Christian were essentially synonyms, and the capitalization to Catholic wasn't added until they needed a way to differentiate themselves from the other branches. Catholic comes from Old French catholique, which comes from catholicus, which comes from Ancient Greek katholikos. Going from katholikos to present day, the definition was consistently the same, but that's where we experience a split. Katholikos also meant "universal" in Ancient Greek; it sort of makes sense, when you consider the inclusivity of everything in their belief system. We can break this down into the words kata, meaning "about", and holos, meaning "whole" (so according, to the Greeks, a universe is "about the whole"). Kata might be from Proto-Indo-European kom, meaning "beside", and holos is reconstructed as deriving from a PIE root sounding like solh and meaning "whole" as well.
The word software gets more interesting the more you think about it. There's clearly nothing soft about it, but that's because it was modeled off the pre-existing word hardware when developers in the early 1960s needed a word for the programs and operating systems they would install on their computers. Hardware as a word dates all the way back to 1789, but it didn't refer to computer bits until 1947. Before that, it only referred to practical odds and ends- the stuff you would find in a hardware store. Ware in these cases is a relatively less-used term for "manufactured good" and the same element as in warehouses and plain old wares. It comes from Old English waru, which meant something like that as well but originally carried the definition of "protection", because the manufactured goods were protected in the custody of the producer. Before that, as Proto-Germanic waraz, it was "cautious", and as Proto-Indo-European wer, it meant "to watch out for", similarly. Hard- never changed definition as it came from Old English heard, Proto-Germanic hardu, and PIE kar. Soft- in Middle and Old English was softe. In Proto-Germanic it was samftijaz, meaning "smooth", and in PIE it was sem, "whole".
The word proxy was borrowed in the early 1400s from Anglo-Norman procuracie, which meant "the office of the procurator", a procurator being a lawyer representing others (and that's why proxy means "something that represents something else"). In between that time, it obviously underwent quite a bit of alteration, taking on forms like prokecye and proccy before settling on the current word. Now, back to procuracie! It comes from the Old French verb procurare, which meant "take care of". In Latin, this had the same spelling and definition, but here we can break it down into its roots: pro meant "on behalf of" and curere was "care for". Pro- is from Proto-Indo-European per, which we've already seen tons of times as meaning "before". Curere, meanwhile, came to us (through the Latin noun cura) from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction keys, which meant "to heed". It seems that the IT term proxy server was coined sometime in the mid-1980s.
Polka has a surprisingly contested word origin. We know that it was first written down in English in 1844, but we don't know whether that was borrowed from French or German. We know that, either way, the word derives from Czech polka, which referred to the dance, but we aren't a hundred percent sure where that came from. The most plausible explanation is that it traces to Polak, the demonym used to describe Polish people, because they were the people who came up with the tradition. This would be from Proto-Slavic poljaninak, which meant "field dweller", ultimately with roots in Proto-Indo-European pleh, or "flat" (because fields are flat). The second possibility, which still seems pretty credible, is that polka comes from the Czech word pulka, meaning "half" (ostensibly in reference to the short half-steps found in polka). Pulka would also have Proto-Slavic and then PIE reconstructions.
Essentially, quintessential has a quintessentially interesting etymology. When it was first borrowed around the year 1600, it meant something more like "purest" rather than its current meaning of "exemplification". Through Middle French, this comes the Medieval Latin phrase quinta essentia, which meant "fifth essence"- the equivalent of the "fifth element" that we know so well from pop culture. This is because, in addition to earth, air, fire, and water, there was thought to be a fifth element which was purer than all the rest, and, therefore, quintessential. Quinta comes from quinque, which meant "five" and in turn derived from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction penke, which also meant "five" but was probably related to words meaning "fist" and/or "fingers". Meanwhile, essentia was created off the verb esse, "to be". This is thought to be from PIE es, with the same definition. A nice, interesting etymology... until the Fire Nation attacked.
Persnickety is a wonderfully whimsical adjective that implies someone is obsessing over detail too much, often over a trivial matter. Now let's obsess over the details of its etymology! There are multiple accounts of its origins, and none of them are backed up too well. All etymologists agree that it was first coined in 1889, likely from the previous form pernickety, which held the same meaning and probably came into English circa 1800. One theory traces this to a Scots word, pernicky, but that could just be a cognate. Another school of thought is that pernickety is just a child's way of saying particular, and that a persnickety is just very particular over minutiae. Others say that -nick could be from knick-knack or that per- could be from a Latin prefix meaning "thoroughly", but no one is sure at all. It's all very mysterious. Persnickety is at its highest usage ever, but attestations of pernickety have been dropping since its peak in the mid-1900s.
Our word berserk comes from the beserkers of the Ancient Norse, who were reputed to go into a wild frenzy during battle and, without battle, cut down everything in their path. In English, the word berserker was introduced by Sir Walter Scott in his 1822 novel The Pirate. Scott borrowed this directly from Old Norse berserkr, which is probably a portmanteau of bjorn, meaning "bear", and serkr, meaning "coat". This "bear coat" meaning is a bit contested; some think that it was the equivalent of bare shirt, but because of similar words with connotations of wolves and boars, this has been largely discredited. It really is just to imply the raw savagery of these warriors. Bjorn, through Proto-Germanic bernuz, comes from Proto-Indo-European bruhn, which meant "grey" or "brown". Serkr, through Proto-Germanic sarkiz, comes from PIE ser, which meant "to string" or "attach". So, even further back, a berserker is a "brown attachment".
Finally, an etymology that isn't contested! Except it is: the word contest didn't become a noun until the 1640s. Before that, it had much more militaristic meaning, often in reference to armies clashing rather than frivolous competitions. The verb came from French contester, which meant "to dispute". and that came from the Latin phrase contestari litem, which had the rather interesting definition of "call to witness". This is because, in the days of Rome, the first step to have a legal one-on-one fight was to get somebody to act as a witness to the battle. Contestari is composed of two parts: the prefix con- (alternatively, com-, meaning "with") and the root testis, meaning "witness" (and, as we've seen with testify, surprisingly connected to the word testicle). Con- comes from Proto-Indo-European kon, "next to", and testis comes from Proto-Indo-European thrisths, meaning "third party" (as in witnesses are third parties). Cool stuff!
The word caravan (which we've been seeing a lot in the media lately) meaning "group of travelers" was borrowed in the late sixteenth century from the Middle French word caravane, with the same meaning. In Old French, this spelling alternated with that of carevane, and, even further back, it was caravana in Medieval Latin. This was picked up during the Crusades from Arabic qairawan, and we can trace the through the Moors to North Africa to the Middle East to Persia, where it was karwan, which specifically referred to groups that traversed deserts. Etymology gets sketchy right around here, but karwan might metonymically come from Sanskrit karabhah, which meant "camel". Let's fast forward back to the present again: in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, caravan can also refer to a vehicular trailer or RV, and the first attestation of the word meaning "covered trailer" was in the 1670s, under a connection of Roma individuals traveling in groups with those wagons. Despite a similarity in meaning and spelling to the word van, there is no connection.
Aglet is one of the more specific words in the English language, and it's wonderful that we have it. Defined as "that metal or plastic thing on the ends of your shoelaces", aglet actually maintained the same meaning since its debut in the mid-1400s, but spelling varied a little; it occasionally took the form of aiglet. Either spelling comes from the Middle French word aiguillette, which is a diminutive of aiguille or aguille, a term for "needle" (because aglets act as needles for threading through the shoelace-holes). As many French words do, this comes from Latin, in this case from the noun acucla or acucula, both of which are diminutives of acus, which still meant "needle". This comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ak, or "to be sharp". Interesting definition, double diminutive, secret meaning: aglet checks all of the etymological boxes!\
It would seem weird to use the word mnesia in English, but when we attach a one-letter prefix meaning "not" in front of it, it's suddenly normal. That's exactly what's happening on an etymological level here: our word amnesia, which comes from Ancient Greek amnesia, is composed of that prefix, a-, and the root mnesia, meaning "to remember" (so, together, amnesia means "not remembering"). A-, through Proto-Hellenic, comes from Proto-Indo-European n (yes, just the letter), which meant "not". Mnesia, of course, isn't too complex, either; it can be conjugated to mnasthai ("recall"), which, also through Proto-Hellenic, comes from Proto-Indo-European. In this case, the reconstruction is men, meaning "to think". Usage of the word amnesia, which was first attested in 1786, has skyrocketed in recent years as its meaning becomes less medical and more used in popular culture. What was I talking about again?
Something that is moot is disputable, irrelevant, or unsolvable, but going back it time we can see it take on quite a different meaning. First, we get the usual slew of alterations in Middle English due to the lack of more rigorous conventions: forms such as mot and gemot were rampant as well as our current word. Gemot was also the word for moot in Old English (the ge- got dropped later), where it meant "assembly" or "meeting" (Game of Thrones fans might recognize the usage of moot in a context of "congregation", where a Kingsmoot is a method of choosing a ruler of the Iron Islands). The connection is rather curious: law students back in the day would gather in meetings to practice hypothetical trials. These mock trials led to a meaning of "hypothetical", which was later extended to the current definitions. Anyway, gemot comes from Proto-Germanic mota, meaning "an encounter", and that in turn is derived as being from Proto-Indo-European mehd, or "to come".
Desire has a surprisingly poignant etymology for such a simple-seeming word. Borrowed in the 1200s from the Old French verb desirrer (meaning "to wish for"), it can be traced to the Latin word desiderare, which could mean "demand" or "express" but had a much prettier literal meaning: "to await what the stars will bring". Obviously, this etymology is heavily steeped in astrology and the Romans' beliefs that the heavens influenced all the happenings on Earth. More than wishing for something, they wished that the heavens would give them something. Anyway, desiderare is composed of two parts: the prefix de-, meaning "of" or "from", and sidus, meaning "star" or "constellation". De- just comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "of" and sounding about the same, and sidus, most likely through Proto-Italic, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sweyd, meaning "sweat". It appears that desire to use the word desire has decreased throughout the ages: it was far more prevalent in seventeenth century English than today.
The letter b wasn't always in doubt. In Middle English, it was most often spelled douten or duten and also had meanings of "to dread" or "fear", and in Old French it was doter. It isn't until we trace the word back to Latin that we see the b reappear in dubitare, a word with a very similar meaning as today. The reason both the spelling and definition are closer to Latin is that, as Latin grew more influential in English following the Renaissance, scholars tried to push many words back to their roots, and this was one of the victims. The verb dubitare comes from the noun dubius (which, yes, is the direct etymon of dubious). This has a particularly interesting origin: it's composed of the words duo, meaning "two", and habere, meaning "to hold". If you put those together, you're holding two ideas or beliefs, and that's how it's connected to doubt. Duo, through Proto-Italic, is from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dwoh, meaning "two". Habere, also through Proto-Italic, hails from PIE gehb, "to grab".
In modern contexts, the word Bohemian describes someone who lives an unconventional lifestyle. These people, particularly artists, espoused free love, voluntary poverty, and resistance of the government. In a nutshell, hippies. This term originated in French as bohemien, meaning "gypsy", because the Roma people were traditionally associated with the unorthodoxy of those artists. It gets even more interesting after this: Bohemiens were named after the region of Bohemia in the western Czech Republic, because when they first came to France, there was some unsubstantiated urban legend that they came from that area. Bohemia, likely through Latin or French, ultimately comes from the Proto-Germanic words haimaz, meaning "home" and Boio, the self-appellation for the Celtic Boii tribe. Haimaz hails from Proto-Indo-European koymos, "village", and the origin of Boio is unknown but might have something to do with cattle.
The word abstract was borrowed into Middle English in the fourteenth century from the Latin word abstractus, meaning "drawn away" (you can sort of see the connection to a nonexistent concept; it's "drawn away" from reality). This is from the verb abstrahere, implying the pulling away of something. Abstrahere is composed of ab-, meaning "off" and trahere, "pull" or "draw". Ab- comes from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like hepo and containing the same definition. Trahere, meanwhile, is reconstructed as deriving from another Proto-Indo-European root; in this case it is from tregh, which likewise matched its Latin meaning almost exactly. The term abstract in reference to art hails from the 1920s, but was really popularized in the '50s. According to Google NGrams, usage of the word abstract in literature is now higher than it's ever been, constituting about 0.0026% of all words used.
Shaft has some delightfully incongruous definitions. It can range in meaning from "a long passageway" to "the body of an arrow or column", and you can also get shafted by taking a bad deal. Well, the last one comes from a 1958 connection of "being impaled", with inapporpriate undertones. We're now left with two elongated, narrow spaces, one full of air and the other of material. Both of these interpretations are connected through that cylindrical similarity and trace to the Old English word sceaft, which meant "long, slender rod". This is generally acknowledged to be from the Proto-Germanic reconstruction skaftaz, with the same meaning; that, in turn, has an unknown origin but is hypothesized to derive from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like skapos and meaning "stem" or "stalk". The first vulgar noun usage of shaft is from the early eighteenth century, through the meaning of "column".
Adam Aleksic, a leading contender for valedictorian of his high school, is a 214-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 Uzbek government.
The Etymology Nerd