The verb to catfish is surprisingly a product of this decade. The term for "lure someone into an online relationship under false pretenses" was first used in the 2010 documentary Catfish, the eponymous story from the film being a metaphor comparing those relationships to the fishing practice of throwing a catfish into a vat of cod to keep the other fish more active. After the documentary, MTV started a television series, also called Catfish, and it was then that the word truly took off in its current sense. Let's trace back the fishy etymology: a catfish was so named because of its cat-like whiskers. Cat comes from Old English catt, from Proto-Germanic kattuz, from Latin cattus, which could be Afro-Asiatic. Fish is from Old English fisc, from Proto-Germanic fiskaz, from Proto-Indo-European pisk. Meanings remained constant, as these were relatively simple words and didn't have to change definition through time.
Tetanus is a type of infection that's most distinguishable by the muscular spasm symptoms. Turns out the etymology has a lot to do with that! The word was borrowed in the late fourteenth century from Latin, and even further back hails from Ancient Greek tetanos, which meant "muscular spasm" (obviously the connection is because of the effect tetanus has) but earlier on it also carried the definition of "a stretching" (not too much of a stretch, heh). That comes from the verb teinein, meaning "to stretch", and, through Proto-Hellenic, we can finally derive this from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ten, same meaning. Teinein is also present in "tone" and "hypotenuse" (we'll cover tone in a future post; hypotenuse is already done), and usage of the word tetanus in literature over time has been decreasing since 1924
The word chemistry has a debatable origin, but all of the possibilities are fascinating. The more recent parts are still universally accepted: we all agree that in the 1600s, the noun was synonymous with alchemy, and the scientific definition wasn't until the 1780s and beyond. Everybody also concurs that both words come from Latin alchemista, meaning "alchemist". That's from Arabic al-kimiya, from Ancient Greek khemeia, which meant "liquid" (because a lot of alchemy involved changing one type of liquid into another). However, here it gets fuzzy, and the origin is unknown. It could be from khemia, which referred to Egypt and meant "land of black earth" (alchemy was often associated with Egypt and was thought by some to be a "black art"). Alternatively, khemeia could derive from khymatos, a word used in association with pouring thing, or khyma, which meant "fluid". It's lost to the ages, much like alchemical secrets allegedly are.
Frolic is a beautiful term that somehow captures the essence of what frolicking feels like. The meaning of "playfully prance around" is from the 1580s; before that, it was actually an adjective describing someone as "full of joy". However, that wasn't around for long; the word was borrowed in the 1530s from Dutch vrolik, also "cheerful". This underwent quite a bit of alterations as we travel back to Old Dutch; some attested variations included vrolijk, vrolijc, frolik, and vrolyc. The common things in all these words (despite the continued definition) are the two Dutch roots: vro, meaning "merry", and lyc, meaning "like". Vro is reconstructed as coming from Proto-Indo-European preu, or "hop", which makes the act of frolicking an etymological jumping for joy.
In the Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil, Mick Jagger sings "and I laid traps for troubadours / Who get killed before they reach Bombay". This is quite the bizarre lyric, and it's far from obvious what it's supposed to allude to. Apparently, it's a reference to the dangers of the "Hippie Trail", a counterculture journey taken by Western hippies across Asia in the 1960s and '70s. A lot of the tourists were tricked and sometimes killed by drug dealers along the route, and the Rolling Stones are implying that the Devil was present there. But what the heck is a troubadour? Today, it can mean "poet" of any kind, but originally it only referred a type of French poet in the Middle Ages, and that's still a persisting definition. The earliest recorded use of the word was in an 1100s Occitan text, and before that everything is speculatory. There's a good chance that it might trace from Latin tropus, meaning "song", though, and that would be from Ancient Greek tropos, which meant "style" and is the etymon of trope. Fascinating stuff!
Vicissitude is a rather euphonious word describing a negative development of any type. It was borrowed in the 1560s from Middle French and became very popular until it really dropped in usage after 1900. The Middle French word was borrowed from Latin vicissitudinem, which meant "alteration", and the root of that is vicis, "change" (this is also the etymon of the Spanish and French words for "time", vez and fois, respectively). Vicis is thought to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstrction weik, which was a verb with a general meaning of "bend", through a connection of "turning". Weik spawned a whole litany of other terms, like the vice in vice versa or vice president and villa, among others. Such interesting developments and none of them negative- I guess you could say the etymology of vicissitude is far from vicissitudinous!
The word toggle was first attested in 1769, with the specialized nautical meaning of "a pin passed through the eye of a rope". Nobody's a hundred percent sure where that come from, but some etymologists theorize that it might be connected to the word tug. What's far more interesting than that, though, is how the word developed after it was adopted. Toggle bolt is another sailing term referring to a fastener that spreads out the weight of an item- that was coined in 1794. By 1836, a verb form developed, meaning "to secure with a toggle or toggle bolt". In 1934, we finally move onto land, as toggle was attested in a context meaning "wall fastener" of any kind, and history was made in 1936 when toggle switch (the up-and-down kind) was coined. This development, which came about because the switch looked a lot like a toggle, was important because it influenced all the future meanings. In 1979, toggle was first used in reference to computers, for a key which turns something on and off, and in 1982, it came to mean "alternate between actions". Usage of the word toggle today is almost three times what it was a hundred years ago- and it's all because of the development of computing.
In my first language of Serbian and in Russian, we use the word семафор for "traffic light". When spoken aloud, this sounds like sehmah-for. Yesterday in traffic I had an epiphany concerning this: in English, we also have the word semaphore (pronounced the exact same way) as a noun for the communication system using colored flags to send messages. You can see the connection: both use colors to signal something to you. It seems like the words from both languages come from French semafore, which literally meant "bearer of symbols". This has two parts: Ancient Greek sema, meaning "sign", and phoros, meaning "bearer". Sema, a root in semantic and polysemy, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root dyeh, meaning "to notice". Phoros, which is present in phosphorous and Christopher, comes from Proto-Indo-European bher, "carry". Surprisingly, usage of the word semaphore in literature over time increased all the way up to the 1990s, but has been on the downturn since.
The word voluptuous is a rather suggestive yet beautiful-sounding word meaning "sexually attractive", but earlier on it had a different definition of "sexual desire". The word was borrowed in the late 1300s along with many other words from the Old French language, where it took the forms of either volumptueuse or voluptueux and had a general meaning of "desire" of any type. As we move back in time to Latin, we lose a lot of unnecessary vowels with the word voluptas, meaning "pleasure", "satisfaction", "enjoyment", and more along those lines. Voluptas was a conjugation of the adverbial form volup, "pleasurably", which was volupe in Old Latin. Most likely, volupe can be derived from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wel, meaning "to wish" or "to will", because somebody would wish for a will pleasurable things to occur. Usage of the word voluptuous in literature over time has been decreasing dramatically since a peak in the 1780s.
Somebody just requested the word despacito, so why not? It seems to have entered the American vernacular at this point. In Spanish, the word means "slowly", and the song is named that because the singer wants to savor his relationship slowly. The -ito, though, is sort of a diminutive, and the real word for "slowly" is despacio. Now we can eliminate the prefix de-, which meant "of" or "from" and comes from the same Latin root that gives us the de- in defrost, defuse, debilitate, et cetera. The root is espacio, which meant "space", in this case referring to a period of time. So, "of a period of time", something is going slowly. Espacio is from Latin spatium, which is the etymon of the English word space and very similar in application. That in turn traces to a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction, speh, which meant "to pull" (as in you're creating a space by pulling something apart). Observing Google Trends for the keyword despacito is, like finding the etymology, quite entertaining: there's a giant spike in June 2017 and has recently stabilized, decreasing more slowly... or should I say more despacito?
When the Normans conquered England in the late eleventh century, they brought their code of laws with them, using an archaic form of French, which has greatly influenced our legal system. One example of this impact is the word culprit, which is actually a contraction of the phrase Culpable: prest d'averrer nostre bille, which would translate to English as "Culpable: ready to aver our indictment" or, without the jargon, "Guilty: ready to state charges". This was originally a phrase used by prosecuters to indicate that they believed the defendant was actually not innocent as they claimed and were prepared to move forward with the trial and prove that. Onto etymology! The root in the word culpable traces to Latin culpa, which meant "crime", "blame", "guilt", or "error" (also the source of mea culpa, "my bad"). Culpa, through Proto-Italic, comes from a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sounding like kolpeh and meaning "turn" because of a connection of taking a wrong turn.
The word peacock was coined at the start of the fourteenth century, but there was a lot of variation in Middle English: we saw forms like pecok, pekok, pocok, pacok, and poucock rise and fall in usage. You can sort of see here that peas have nothing to do with it, despite how the modern word might look. The elements involved here are probably po-, pertaining to birds also found in peafowl and peahen, and coc, meaning "hen" and precursor to both the modern words for chickens and penises (the connection being the concept of fertility). Po in all likelihood is from Old English pawa, which is from Latin pavo (the etymon of the Spanish word for "turkey"), which could be from an Ancient Greek word for "peacock", and that could be from Tamil, which would be interesting, but it's all speculative at that point. Coc is from Proto-Germanic kukkaz (same meaning), of imitative origin. Usage of the word peacock has been decreasing in literature since a peak in the late nineteenth century, and has been pretty constant in Google Trends since 2004.
Four centuries ago, the word janitor meant "door-keeper", and only later did it have anything to do with cleaning rooms, the connection being that both tasks were encompassed by the role of general caretaker. The word was borrowed in the 1580s from the Latin word ianitor, also "door-keeper", and that comes from the word for "door", ianus. Ianus is a very interesting word for several reasons: it also held the definitions of "covered passageway", "gate", or "arch", and is the etymon of Janus, the name for the two-faced Roman god of decisions and doorways. It is thought to further derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hey, meaning "to go". Etymologists aren't a hundred percent sure on that, though, so let's pivot to the synchronic aspect of the word. Janitor has been decreasing in usage since the 1920s, as other terms like custodian became more preferred by the public.
It's been spelled Taekwondo, Taekwon-Do, Tae Kwon Do, and TaeKwon Do, but, essentially, the word for the martial art boils down to three parts in the original Korean: tae, meaning "to kick" or otherwise cause damage with your foot, gwon, meaning "to punch", and do, meaning "the way". Together, this is interpreted as meaning "the way of kicking and punching". Asian etymologies are really hard for me to do, because they combine parts of characters and can't really be traced the way English ones can, so I won't comment further on something I don't know much about. However, let's talk about form. Of all the capitalizations and spellings since the word's introduction in the 1960s, the different capitalizations of taekwondo and Taekwondo are about tied for usages, in both literature and Google searches. The other terms exist but are less frequent.
The word competence was first borrowed into the English language in the 1590s, and then it held several definitions until they died out and gave way to the modern meaning. For a bit, it meant "adequate supply", because that made you competent enough to get by. Briefly, it also held the meaning of "rivalry", but that had more to do with the related word competition, and eventually a new denotation of "ability to be efficient" emerged. This and the first definition hail from Latin competentia, "agreement", under a connection of sufficiency and harmony. Competentia derives from the verb competere, which meant "come together", something that makes sense considering its descendants' meanings. However, it might be a little confusing to discover that competere is also the etymon of competition, ostensibly because competing involves bringing together people to vie for the same prize alongside each other. Competere includes the prefix cum-, meaning "together" (from Proto-Indo-European kom, "next to") and the root petere, or "strive" (from Proto-Indo-European petheti, "fly"). I hope I was competent at explaining that.
Clue as a verb (normally suffixed by in) was only adopted relatively recently, in 1934, but the noun for something which hints at something else has been around since the 1590s. In the olden days, this was spelled clew, a word which still exists today as a term for "hammock cord" and originally meant "ball of thread or yarn". What caused this string-like connection? It all traces to Greek mythology! We can derive the meaning from the tale of the Minotaur, where Ariadne gave a clew of thread to Theseus so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth after killing it- thus the connection. In Middle English, clew could also be spelled clewe, and in Old English it was cleowen or cliewen. In Proto-Germanic, it's reconstructed as deriving from a word sounding like klewo and meaning "ball", and in Proto-Indo-European it was glew, which meant "conglomerate", because things can conglomerate into a balls. It's pretty whimsical that philologists found all this out by examining linguistic clues!
Many Americans might be surprised to learn that the board game Clue goes by the name Cluedo outside of the United States. It all traces to World War II, when inventor Anthony Pratt allegedly thought to make a murder-mystery game during a Nazi bombing in England. In 1944, he filed a patent for this, intending to name the game Murder!, but when it was bought out by the publisher Waddingtons, it was renamed to Cluedo, which is a clever amalgam combining the English word clue with the Latin word ludo, meaning "I play". However, when Parker Brothers brought the game to the United States, they felt that the name was too abstract and clipped it to just Clue, alongside other changes like eliminating some extra rooms. The game's slogan also changed throughout the years, from "The Great Detective Game" at the 1949 launch to "The Great New Sherlock Holmes Game" to "The Parker Brothers Detective Game" and finally "The Classic Detective Game" around the turn of the century.
Leslie Scott was a British game designer born in the then-colony of Tanzania and then brought up in various African countries. She later moved to Oxford and started making a new children's activity based off the concept of stacking wooden blocks, which she debuted in 1983 at the London Toy Fair. This game she called Jenga, and it went on to be an iconic part of our childhoods. But why Jenga? What does that name even mean? It all goes back to Scott's aforementioned upbringing in Africa. She and her siblings used hardwood blocks to stack them as high as they could without falling, and that's the underlying notion behind her game, too. Since Africa inspired her, Scott wanted to use an African word for its name, and she settled on the Swahili word jenga, meaning "to build" or "to construct". When the American version came out, owner Hasbro changed the slogan "the perpetual challenge" to "the ultimate challenge" because they were afraid Americans wouldn't know what perpetual meant, and they wanted to change the name as well, but Scott wouldn't let them and that was that.
The word enthusiasm was first coined in 1603 from the Middle French word enthousiasme, and that came from the Latin term enthusiasmus, all with the same meaning. However, definition begins to change as the word is traced back to Ancient Greek enthousiasmos, which literally meant "possessed by gods". In the context of this phrase, somebody could be so motivated or energetic about something that it's like they were possessed by the gods themselves. The word grew a little weaker in meaning over time, but that's the origin. Since en- is a prefix meaning "in", the root thous has to do with theos, "god", and the rest is a useless suffix, by the definition of enthousiasmos there is literally a "god in" you. En is from a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction with the same intonations and denotations, and theos comes from PIE dhes, which generally had to do with religious words. Usage of the word enthusiasm has been declining since an 1899 peak in literature; maybe godly possessions are declining.
Roman de Fauvel is a satirical French poem about a horse who rises to power in the French royal court. That horse's name, Fauvel, is teeming with easter eggs. First of all, fauvel could describe a muddy beige color which matched his fur coat. Secondly, fau vel in Middle French meant "false veil", and, thirdly, if it's turned into an acronym, apparently it represents six vices or something of the sort. You may be wondering why I'm telling you this. Before the grand unveil, there's one more piece to put into place. The word curry has an obscure second definition, that of "to groom a horse with a comb", and in the poem, Fauvel's admirers traveled to court to curry his fur. They curried Fauvel. This phrase was borrowed into English to describe somebody acting obsequiously or sucking up to someone else, just like the nobility did to Fauvel by cleaning him. However, some wise English scholars decided that this seemed rather wrong, and the phrase curry favor made more sense. Thus, folk etymology got the better of the tale and the Roman de Fauvel has been lost to obscurity.
The adjective emaciated was adopted in the 1660s, and comes from the verb emaciate, which has been around since the 1620s. Emaciated, however, is much more popular with the d than without, as it shows up more than a hundredfold as often as emaciate, and Google autocorrects you if you try to type emaciate. A pity. Anyway, this comes from Latin emaciatus, a past participle of emaciare, a verb meaning "to cause to waste away" much like today. Here, we can eliminate the prefix ex-, meaning "out", leaving us with the root macies, meaning "lean" (as in emaciation brings the leanness out). Macies derives from the verb macer, "to thin", which is from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction mak, which meant "long" (as in thin things are often long too). Considering that ex- comes from PIE eghs, also "out", if you go as far back as you can, emaciate means "long out"
Laconic has one of the sassiest etymologies out there! Today a term meaning "concise", the word was borrowed in the 1580s from Ancient Greek Lakonikos, a toponym for a region of the Peloponnese peninsula. What's so special about this area? It was ruled by the Spartans, who were famous for their short replies. One famous and often-quoted example of this is when Phillip II of Macedonia asked whether he should come to Sparta as a friend or an enemy. They sent back just the word "neither". Ticked off at the lack of respect, he replied that if he does come to Laconia, he will kill everybody there and burn everything to the ground. The Spartans replied with another single word: "if". The Macedonians never tried to come. That level of toughness and terseness can't be encompassed by just one example, but you get the idea why the connection to laconic exists. The stem of Lakonikos is Lakon, the name for the people of Laconia, and that's a word that's been around forever, tracing to a Mediterranean Pre-Greek language.
In English today, an apparatus can refer to a piece of equipment, a structure, or a part of a whole, but when it was first borrowed into English in the 1620s, it particularly meant "a collection of tools or equipment". This was taken from Latin apparatus, which held a variety of definitions, including "tools", "preparation", "implementation", and "equipment". The "prepare" meaning is most important as we go back in time, since apparatus came from the verb apparare, which meant "to prepare" and was composed of the prefix ad-, "to", and the root parare, "make ready". Therefore, an apparatus makes something ready, or prepares it. Ad- comes from a Proto-Indo-European root with the same definition, and parare is reconstructed as deriving from PIE per, meaning "produce". Usage of the word apparatus spiked during World War I and has been on the decline since, but Google searches for the term have remained relatively constant over the years.
The word ubiquitous was coined more than two hundred years after ubiquity; it's far from unusual to see nouns be there first. Through Modern Latin, uibiquity traces to the Latin word ubique, meaning "everywhere" (you can see the connection to the current definition). This was composed of two parts: ubi, meaning "where", and que, which held many definitions, including "and", "any", and "also", but in this case stood in as the "every". Ubi- is reconstructed as having derived from the Proto-Indo-European root kwe, which was an important part of many pronouns and ironically ubiquitous, making up parts of the words why, which, where, who, how, either, neuter, quantity, quote, quibble, quality, and quotient. My favorite descendant of the root, though, is the Latin word que, which makes up the second part of ubiquity. That's right: ubiquity comes from a PIE root so ubiquitous that it composes both halves of the word. Etymology is awesome.
The holiday of Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Black Panther activist Maulana Karenga as a way to bring together the African American community. To do this, he examined various African harvest celebrations and tried to make sort of an amalgam of those cultural holidays. Karenga called this combo-holiday kwanza, a word taken from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits" in Swahili. He then tacked on an extra a so the word could have seven letters, each representing one of the Seven Principles of Blackness. Now, in that phrase, kwanza was the part meaning "first", so it's really not that surprising that it's the infinitive of a word meaning "to begin", anza. Further etymology is unknown, but, being from a Bantu language, anza could likely trace to a Niger-Congolese ancestor. Usage of the word Kwanzaa peaked in the late 90s, and Google searches for the term always have a seasonal uptick in December.
Adam Aleksic is a 216-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, and law. Adam is anxiously awaiting his rejections from 11 colleges and loves writing about himself in the third person.
The Etymology Nerd