In Ancient Greek, the word ambrosia was used to describe the mythological food of the gods. Literally, it can be translated along the lines of "of the immortals", because it comes from the prefix a-, meaning "not", and the root mbrotos, which is a variant of mortos, meaning "mortal". I've covered a- many times before, but mortos comes from the Proto-Indo-European root mer, which meant "to die". Mer has a really eclectic mix of descendants, from mortal and mortgage to morsal, mortar, nightmare, and remorse. Anyway, ambrosia was borrowed into English in the early sixteenth century through Latin, started being used figuratively for very tasty foods in the early seventeenth century, and came to be applied to a type of fruit salad in the 1860s. It also lent its name to types of beetle, fungus, and pollen, and peaked in usage in 1809.
The word occidental, today used to describe things pertaining to countries in the West, was borrowed into English in the fifteenth century in a mostly astrological sense, describing the direction that the sun sets, and it only got applied to civilizations about a hundred years later. Through Old French, the word traces to the Latin word occidens, the noun version of an adjective meaning "setting". That's from the verb occidere, meaning "to fall down", in reference to the motion of the sun. Finally, occidere comes from the prefix ob-, meaning "down" (from Proto-Indo-European opi, "against"), and the root cadere, "to fall down" (from Proto-Indo-European kad, also "fall"). Occidere is also the etymon of the word occasion, through a sense of causation and opportunity. I thought that was interesting!
The pass of Thermopylae, famous for being the site of a fifth-century BCE battle where the invading Persians were crushed by a coalition of Greeks, has an etymology that's surprisingly easy to pick apart. The thermo- part meant "hot" and is the same as we see in words like thermometer and thermostat. Meanwhile, the pylae part, which should be familiar from the word pylon, is a Latin-influenced variant spelling of the plural of the noun pyle, which meant "gate", "pass", or "entrance". So, together, Thermopylae meant "hot gates". This was in reference to the hot sulfur springs in the area and its function as an entrance into the region of Thessaly. In Greek mythology, it was also believed to be the entrance to the underworld, which gives the name a double meaning.
The name Singapore is an anglicization of the Malay toponym Singapura, which is widely understood to come from Sanskrit Simhapuram, meaning "lion city", from simha ("lion", ultimately from Proto-Indo-European singo) and puram ("city", related to the Greek word polis through PIE plh, meaning "stronghold"). The lion is the national animal of Singapore and has long been associated with the city-state. According to Malay mythology, it was founded by a prince who saw a lion in the area, but that's either apocryphal or erroneous because lions are not native to Southeast Asia. Many think that this creation story to replace the previous city name of Temasek was intentionally fabricated at some point during the fourteenth century to support a claim over the island or build a common identity.
For my final project for my GIS class, I created an interactive etymology map! You can check it out below (click on the country names to see their origins) or see it at any time by going to the "interactive map" tab under my "infographics" page.
In the earliest attestations of the word priest back in Old English, it was spelled preost. As the language developed into Middle English, we started getting forms like preast, prest, preiste, preyste, and more, with the modern spelling becoming the standard sometime in the seventeenth century. The word comes from the Late Latin word presbyter, meaning "elder", and that comes from Ancient Greek presbyteros, the comparative word for "old", presbys. Finally, there are several theories as to where the Greek word comes from. The most accepted explanation is that pres- means "before" or "in front" (from the Proto-Indo-European root per, "forward") and that bys might be from bous, "cow". Either way, as you may have guessed, priest is related to the word presbyterian, which is pretty cool.,
I've recently been getting very into GPT-3, a predictive text AI. It's fun to run my groupchats through it and see how it simulates conversation. For example, this is a conversation between me and my friend Joanna, generated entirely by bot:
Joanna: this is a very good podcast
Adam: I like the different segments
Joanna: I like that they are highlighting the variation and diversity of the araucanian language
Adam: I feel like you have a very good understanding of the araucanians.
Joanna: gotta keep it
Adam: Do you think there were other tribes who spoke it
Joanna: is there an araucanian word for when a bird is chirping?
Adam: I think there were different tribes who spoke it
Joanna: i think i will do some research on this
Joanna: because it's a really cool language and I want to learn more about it
Joanna: and I want to learn more about the people who speak it
Adam: like who
Joanna: the araucanian people
Adam: the araucanians are a people?
Joanna: they are an indigenous group in what is now chile and argentina
Joanna: yeah, they're a people
Adam: do you know what language they spoke
Joanna: that i know of, they spoke araucanian
It's crazy how accurately this mimicks our speech and text patterns. And this tool has so much potential!
The word cybernetics first showed up as the title of a 1948 book about self-regulating mechanisms, written by American mathematician Norbert Wiener. Wiener took the word from a Latinized form of the Ancient Greek word kybernetes, meaning "steerman", along with the suffix -ics. This new sense was probably influenced by the French word cybernetique, or "the practice of governing", on the notion of a control device being something like a computer governor. Kybernetes comes from the verb kybernan, "to pilot", and that has an unknown origin. The prefix cyber- that we use to refer to computer-related things first started showing up in the 1980s, and is a mistaken rebracketing of the original word. The noun cyber as shorthand for "virtual sex" was first attested in 1995.
The word gnome first showed up in English in Alexander Pope's 1714 narrative poem The Rape of the Lock, where it had pretty much the same definition as today. It comes from a French word with the same meaning and spelling, and that was borrowed in the sixteenth century from the writings of the Swiss polymath Paracelsus, who used it as a synonym of pygmy, which at the time described a fictional race of people in eastern Africa and southern India who could move underground completely unencumbered. Beyond that, gnome doesn't show up anywhere, and there's a pretty good chance that Paracelsus made up the word. It could be from Greek genomos, meaning "earth-dweller", but that would require him to randomly drop an e. It could be from the Ancient Greek, or from a Greek word meaning "wisdom", but the Oxford English Dictionary regards that as "unlikely". Nope, folks, this was probably a typo.
The word Rococo first started showing up in English in the 1830s, in reference to the art style that emerged in France about a century earlier. In French, the word seems to have been a humorous alteration of rocaille, meaning "shellwork", based on the Portuguese word for Baroque, barroco. This is in reference to how Rococo art looks like Baroque art but with a bunch of lavish ornamentation that often incorporates or resembles seashells. The word rocaille, which originally described a method of decoration that frequently used shells, pebbles, and cement, comes from roc, meaning "rock", and both it and the English word come from a Medieval Latin noun with the same definition. The etymology of barroco is unknown, but it's considered to be related to a Spanish word for "wart", so that's interesting.
In Ancient Greek architecture, the attic was the façade on the top of a building, just above the columns and below the roof. Throughout the centuries, these were employed for decorative purposes, or to just make the edifice look taller, but during the Renaissance there began to be entire stories behind those façades, and by the eighteenth century, the definition had shifted to refer to the space behind that wall. The term attic comes from the Attic style of architecture, which was named after Attica, the region surrounding the city of Athens (the Greek version, Attikos, literally means "of Athens"). Finally, the toponym Athens has been traditionally derived from the name of its patron goddess Athena, but it is also possible that it might be from some Pre-Greek word that has long been forgotten.
Apparently the word torpedo has two definitions: in addition to the underwater missile, the term can also refer to a type of electric ray fish. The newer sense of the word was coined by American inventor Robert Fulton when he first thought of creating floating explosive charges in the early nineteenth century. For a while, it referred only to rudimentary naval mines, but that got extended to fancier technologies like the self-propelled weapon when they was invented. The fish name comes from the Latin verb torpere, meaning "to be numb", because one effect of being stung by the ray's electric discharge is that you feel numb in the affected area. Finally, that comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ster, meaning "stiff" (also the root of words like stark, startle, torpid, and stern).
Recently, I've noticed a lot of people my age using a new kind of slang that comes from the social media app TikTok. Examples of this include:
There's a British Overseas Territory named South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and both parts of that have interesting stories. South Georgia was first spotted in 1675 by English merchant Anthony de la Roché, and it was referred to as Roche Island on early maps. Then James Cook landed on it in 1775 and named it the Isle of Georgia after King George III, and that name stuck for whatever reason (the South was added to differentiate from the state of Georgia). The South Sandwich Islands were also discovered and named by Cook in 1775, who named them Sandwich Land after John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich and the guy the sandwich was named after. The South was added to differentiate the islands from another archipelago called the Sandwich Islands, which is now known as Hawaii. So there are no longer any North Sandwich Islands!
The US territory of Wake Island was first discovered in 1792 by William Wake, the captain of a British trading schooner called the Prince William Henry. One would think, based on that information, that the island would be named after him, but everybody kind of forgot about the dinky little atoll for a few years until it was rediscovered by the Prince William Henry in 1796, this time helmed by Wake's relative, Samuel Wake. Without leaving the deck of his ship, the latter Wake did a quick survey of the island, named it after himself, and moved on. Later in that same year, a new ship called The Halcyon came across the island and its captain, Charles Barkley, named it after the boat. However, it was too late; Samuel's name had already made it onto maps. Unsurprisingly, there was a large peak in usage of the island name during World War II. What an interesting history!
Here's the recording of a talk I hosted with Paul Frommer, creator of the Na'vi language in Avatar:
Here's the recording of a talk I hosted with Dr. Frank Jackson, creator of the "Mary's Room" thought experiment:
Here's the recording of a talk I hosted with Marc Okrand, the creator of the Klingon language:
The modern-day city-state of Monaco was first settled by Phoenician sailors, and then by Greek colonists in the sixth century BCE. While the Phoenicians regarded it as a sacred city of their god Melqart, the Greeks believed that the city was significant because Hercules passed through it while going about his adventures. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, a temple of Heracles Monoikos was established there. Monoikos here translates to "single house" in Ancient Greek, and what exactly was meant by that is subject to some debate. Some believe the "house" part may be regarded as meaning "one" and that "single one" was an epithet of Hercules, while others think that it might have been a reference to the temple, or just the fact that the city was relatively isolated. Either way, the temple lent its name to that of the city, which later changed into the spelling we know today. There's also a prominent port in Monaco called Port Hercules, which is a cool remnant of this story.
The island of Madagascar was first encountered by Europeans when the Portuguese explorer Diego Diaz found it and named it St. Lawrence in the year 1500. Three decades later, French navigators Jean and Raoul Parmentier also came across it and, unaware of Diaz's name, decided that it was the same island as one Marco Polo called Madeigascar in his travelogues. Polo, however, was likely writing about the Comoros archipelago, and got that name because he mistranslated a label on an Arabic map that was actually referring to Mogadishu, a city on the coast of Somalia. Prior to Diaz and the Parmentiers, there was no indigenous name for the island, and Madeigascar ended up being the one that stuck (just changing to have all a's, of course). Finally, Mogadishu comes from an Arabic word meaning "holy" or "seat of the Shah".
The definition I immediately associate with the word default is "preselected option", but this is actually a really new meaning! In fact, when the word first started showing up in English in the thirteenth century, it meant "transgression" or "sin". This spawned a new sense of "doing something incorrectly", which evolved into "failure to do something one was supposed to do" - the reason one defaults on a mortgage and the reason a sports team can win a game by default if the other team doesn't show up. In the 1960s, computer scientists needed a name for the value that was output when there was no input, and so they called this the default setting, which is how we got that definition. The word comes from Old French defaulte, meaning "deceit", and that's from the Latin prefix de- ("away") and the root fallere, meaning "to cheat" or "deceive". That also gave us words like false, fail, fault, and fallacy, and is ultimately of unknown origin.
The word mystery was first used in a 1350 poem by William of Shoreham, with the spelling mysterye. Other forms around that time included misteri, misteria, mystere, mystri, misterye, and dozens more; our modern spelling didn't get standardized until the seventeenth century. The noun comes from Anglo-Norman misterie and Old French mistere, which had pretty much the same definition but were used more often in the context of religious concepts that humans couldn't understand. Those come from Latin mysterium and Ancient Greek mysterion, which referrred to secret rites and sacraments, and the root there is mystes, meaning "initiated one". Going further back, mystes is from the verb myein, meaning "to close", possibly in reference to the eyes or lips of those initiated into secret religious organizations. Indeed, we've seen both meanings develop from it: myein also gave us mute, which involves a closed mouth, and myopia, which was associated with closed eyes.
I've written about the word atlas before, but not about its numerous other applications. In anatomy, the C1 vertebra (the topmost bone of the spine) is often referred to as the atlas vertebra. This is a reference to the titan Atlas in Greek mythology, since the bone was thought to hold up the head just as Atlas held up the celestial heavens. There is also a mountain range called the Atlas Mountains. Although there are other theories, one major explanation for its etymology lies in the myth that Perseus showed the head of Medusa to Atlas, turning him to stone. According to that legend, the Atlas mountains are the remnants of the Titan's petrified body. Finally, Atlas was also the name for a family of intercontinental ballistic missiles used by the Air Force and, later, NASA. This term didn't have as much thought go into it. They just named something big and powerful after a mythological figure that was also big and powerful. It's cool to see the same classical influence present in these three very different things!
Back in the days of Ancient Rome, each of the seven known heavenly bodies was associated with a metal: the sun with gold, the moon with silver, Venus with copper, Mars with iron, Jupiter with tin, Saturn with lead, and Mercury with, well, mercury. The normally liquid element was associated with the planet and the god it was named after because all three had an association with being mobile and quickly changing (this is also how we got the word mercurial). The god's name probably comes from the Latin word merx, meaning "merchandise", because Mercury was the god of tradesmen. The Greek word for the element, hydrargyros, is the reason that it's represented with an Hg on the Periodic Table. That name comes from hydor, the word for "water", and argyros, the word for "silver" (so, together, mercury was "silver water").
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a sophomore studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.