In 1882, P.T. Barnum purchased what was allegedly the world's largest elephant for his traveling circus show from the London Zoo. This elephant was named Jumbo, as many elephants today are called as well. However, this jumbo is set apart because it was the first to hold that name. It was not named after a word for "big"; a word for "big" was named after it. That's all really cool, but where does the original name come from? Most definitely an African language, but which one, and what did it mean before? There are several theories proffered in response to this query. Some etymologists think that it was the word for "elephant", which would make sense; in the Kongo language, "elephant" is nzamba. Then again, it could be from Swahili jambo, meaning "thing", or Swahili jumbe, meaning "chief", or it could generally mean "clumsy person". And as for the phrase mumbo-jumbo, it seems to have come earlier, being first attested in 1738. It seems that the original mumbo-jumbo was a shaman chant, which got extended to "meaningless babble". However, since that too is most likely African in origin, it cannot be discounted from relation to jumbo. Philologizing non-Indo-European languages, especially ones without writing systems, is exceptionally difficult, so we really can't go much further than that.
The word yodel comes from the German word for the action, jodeln, which comes from yo, an onomatopoeic expression of "joy", or a word literally meaning "joy". But even though it's a word that sounds like "joy" with the same meaning, we can't trace it to the origins of "joy". It's definitely a possibility that it may have been influenced by the latter, but yodel honestly seems like it's imitative in origin. Weird. Anyway, the word joy comes to us from Old French joie, from Latin gaudia. While both meanings could be interpreted to be the same as today, both definitely also had sexual connotations as well. Looking at the infinitive gaudere, this ultimately this is from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like gahu or gau, which had a definition more along the lines of "rejoice". Now, this is beyond the book, but I would not be surprised in the least if yodel also traced to that. The given etymologies we take for granted are always incomplete and sometimes inaccurate, so who knows?
Stephan Ladislaus Endlicher was a bit of a polyglot: an Austrian native, he developed great interests in the studies of everything from coins to linguistics to China to plants. However, it's his curiosity for botany that mattered most, as he decided to categorize a newly discovered tree species as a genus, contrary to the simple species its discoverer (an English botanist) had identified. Endlicher called this a sequoia, and the word has stuck in English to today. However, Endlicher did not leave any reasoning behind the name origin, which is problematic. Perhaps he just wanted to mess with future etymologists. The predominant theory is that he named it after Sequoya, an Amerindian who created a writing system for the Cherokees, which would make sense, taking into account his interests in language. Well, that's literally all we know.
To be savvy is to be wise or intelligent, but that's such a strange and non-Germanic word. Where does it come from? The origin is surprisingly interesting: it is most likely from the French question savez-vous?, which literally means "do you know?". Alternately, it could be from Spanish sabe?, with the same translation. Somebody savvy would be somebody who knows- therefore the word. Either way, this goes back to the Latin root sapere, "to be wise". In Proto-Italic, wisdom had a lot to do with discerning, so as sapio, it meant "discern", however you discern tastes, so before that it meant "taste". This is why, as the Proto-Indo-European root sep, the word also meant "taste". Usage of the word savvy has been exponentially increasing since 1980, and, with that, I can conclude that we now know the way.
The word disaster has such a "star-crossed" etymology. Well, that's literally what it meant as Italian disastro, from whence it came (through Middle French desastre). Here we can separate it into two parts: dis-, the prefix we use for negating words, and astro, which meant "star". Hopefully, now you can see that a disaster only occurs because of negative stars- or so the Italians would have us believe. Astro continues its backward journey as we reach the Ancient Greek word astron, also meaning "star". Through a Proto-Hellenic root probably sounding like aster, this is reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root hehs, meaning "to burn". Yes, this is the same etymology as for the prefix of the word astronaut, which literally means "star sailor" itself.
Somebody from Arizona is an Arizonan, somebody from Montana is called a Montanan, and somebody from Indiana is called a... Hoosier? I mean, Indianan is a word, but perhaps it's not as popular because it sounds redundant, and the word Indian was already taken of course. Reflecting on this, it seems inevitable that a new demonym had to be created, but what does Hoosier even mean? Well, no one seems sure, so let’s delve into a realm of guesswork. We know that it became popular by the 1830s, but before that, it could have been everything from a combination of who’s there? to an Indian word for “corn”. The most possible explanation, however, is that it was a dialectal term for “redneck” or “hillbilly”. This could have been from an earlier word spelled like hoozer and probably pronounced differently, with Anglo-Saxon origins. Nothing is for sure, though, as with all etymologies.
In the Middle Ages, lots of people lived in wooden houses. Quite understandably, they were very concerned about fires breaking out. Thus, at a specified time every night, a bell would be rung in those medieval villages, as a call that it was time to put out the fires and go to sleep. These were known as curfews. The word is a shortening of the Old French word cuevrefeu, which meant "cover-fire", something you would do to put it out (and no, not to support your military unit). In imperative form, this is literally a portmanteau of "cover" (covrir) and "fire" (feu). Covrir is from Latin cooperere, with the same meaning. Then we eliminate the prefix con- to get operere, which still meant the action of covering something (which made the con- sort of redundant, to be honest). This is from Proto-Indo-European hepi, meaning "near", because PIE is weird. Going back to feu, "fire", is a much shorter journey to us, being a shortening of the Latin word focus, meaning "fireplace", for which we have no etymology. It could be everything from Greek to Armenian to PIE again, so here we give up and accept that the real reason firefighters exist is to impose curfews.
In 1759, a French Treasury Chief named Étienne de Silhouette was forced to pass unpopular taxes on basically all classes, so as to help pay for the extremely costly Seven Years' War, which debatably was the first truly global conflict. Naturally, the public was very angry, and expressed it by calling all cheap or miserly things à la Silhouette. This surprisingly stuck long after his death in 1767, all the way to 1798, when darkened profiles of people emerged as the cheapest way to make portraits (this only became popular in the nineteenth century). Thus, since they were inexpensive, the portraits became known as silhouettes, a word that still exists today, obviously. Curiously, Silouette's name was likely Basque in origin, coming from a term sounding like zilhoeta or zilhoeta, with roots in the word zulo, meaning "hole". Today, usage of the word silhouette is most common in the United States and has been steady since about 1930, before when it was steadily increasing (although modern search frequency has been on the rise). So, in summary, there you have it: during the French revolution, a word once meaning "hole" became a new word for a type of painting! Etymology is amazing.
The word muscle came to us in the late fourteenth century from the Middle French word muscle, with basically the same meaning (there were some weird alterations along the way, like muskylle and muscule, but history has canceled those out). This too was borrowed in the fourteenth century, albeit from Latin. In this case, the word in question was musculus, which too meant muscle... figuratively. It carried quite a different literal meaning, that of "little mouse"! The connection occurred because muscles really do sort of look like tiny murine lumps under your skin. Musculus is a diminutive of mus, the normal word for mouse. Through Proto-Italic mus, this is reconstructed as having derived from the Proto-Indo-European word muhs, still meaning "mouse". Curiously, correlations between mice and muscles can also be found in languages from Arabic to Greek to German, as well.
Ambulances as motor vehicles have been around since 1909, but the history of the word ambulance is much older. The word entered English in 1798, with the meaning "mobile hospital", describing entire camps that would move with armies. It's easy to see how the definition was extended, and the connections continue as we go back. In the original French, ambulance was actually hopital ambulant, which meant "walking hospital" (over time the hopital was clipped out). The ambulant part goes back to the Latin word ambulare, which "to walk"- not a large stretch from a camp but a huge one from speeding, screaming automobiles! Through French, this is also the source of our words ambulate and amble, both meaning "to walk" or even "stroll". It is theorized that ambulare derives from the Proto-Indo-European root ambhi, meaning "around", as in "stroll around". Gee, it's a good thing ambulances have sped up...
Lemurs! The innocuous, even playful ring-tailed animals us kids know from the movie Madagascar. Their name was given to them by none other than Carolus Linnaeus in the late eighteenth century, who, in a stroke of whimsy, named them lemures, which literally means "spirits of the dead" in Latin. The name was applied because of their slow gait, nocturnal habits, and generally sketchy looks. Anyway, the etymology of lemures is surprisingly obscure. Philologists can connect it to the Greek word lamia, meaning "monster", but since no other relatives exist, some hypothesize that the lemur actually has its origins in a non-Indo-European language such as Proto-Etruscan or Proto-Anatolian. Both of those are poorly researched, so there's little chance we'll find out soon. At least now you know to keep an eye out for dead spirits next time you visit a zoo.
In the late 1880s, something scandalous occurred in the village of Tuxedo Park, New York- some young hooligans started wearing tailcoats without the tails! This was to get around the strict dress codes at the swanky country clubs while still looking formal. The fashion caught on quickly, and within years, much of the American elite began wearing tuxedos. All this was despite a strict conservative backlash by people who feared the decline of tailed coats. Fascinating stuff. Anyway, onward! The tuxedo part of Tuxedo Park is definitely native American in origin, from the Algonquian family. However, different theories have been proposed. Some believe it to be from Munsee p'tuksepo, meaning "crooked river", others espouse the Lenape word tucseto, meaning "place of the bear", and still more draw connections to "wolves" and "flowing water". To this day, the tuxedo is controversial, it appears!
The word warm comes from the Middle English word werm, which comes from the Old English word wearm, which comes from the Proto-Germanic warmaz, with still the same meaning. Some think that warmaz is from the Proto-Indo-European root ghwer, meaning "heat", but that's unconfirmed. None of this is surprising; in fact, it's one of the most prosaic etymologies I've ever encountered. It's the word lukewarm which is interesting: what does luke mean? How did the 29th most common name in the US get in front of a noun? Well, it has nothing to do with the name; it's an old word also meaning "warm"! The compound was made in Middle English, when luke was already archaic. This is from Old English hleow, which had an additional definition of "sunny". Through Proto-Germanic khlewaz, this is said to trace to the Proto-Indo-European root kele, still meaning "warm". So, yeah. Warm-warm.
At first glance, you can tell that the word icicle has the term ice in it, but what is the -icle part? Well, first we need to go back to the Middle English word isykle. Is- is indeed the precursor of ice, from Old English is. Ultimately, it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root heyh, "frost" (through Proto-Germanic isa). A dull etymology, but now we look at -ykle! Surprisingly, it too meant "ice", which means that icicle actually is a tautology secretly meaning "ice ice"! -Ykle is from Old English gicel, from Proto-Germanic jeko (which meant something more like "clump of ice"), which in turn derives from the now-familiar Proto-Indo-European term heyh, as well. When the word icicle was first attested in the fourteenth century, it seems that the latter part of the word was already becoming archaic, and this one remnant has survived. The word popsicle, which obviously is rooted in icicle, is actually a registered trademark of Unilever, so take care not to infringe that.
The word potpourri in French was pot pourri, which literally means "rotten pot"! This is because the original potpourri was a stew with random things thrown in (thus its definition of "miscellaneous collection"), and in many instances this was not, shall we say, the most delicious meal. Pot pourri is a calque (a translation of a phrase into native words) of the Spanish term olla podrida, with the same meaning. Pot itself, through Middle and Old French, derives from the Latin word pottus, which in turn is from Proto-Germanic puttaz, the etymon of the English word pot, and another word meaning "jar" or "pot". Finally, pot traces to Proto-Indo-European budn, "vessel". This is only one theorized origin; there are some other hypotheses as well. Now to pourri: like putrid, it comes from Latin putrere, which meant "to decay". That in turn is thought to be from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like pu, with the definition "stink", because of Sanskrit cognates. So, together, beyond just the "rotten pot" definition, potpourri means "stink vessel" as well.
Mancala is arguably the oldest game in the world; archaeological remains in Jordan of it predate the development of agriculture in many areas. Apparently, the game was first written about by the Abbasids in the tenth century CE. They used the word manqala, which meant "to move", which is quite appropriate, since the whole point of the game is moving marbles. This word spread everywhere from Jordan to Malawi, but it notably entered the English language in the seventeenth century as mancala, the word we have today. Going back to the word manqala, we have no records on its origins (as is sadly the case with so many non-Indo-European terms), but I can tell you that it probably comes from a Proto-Semitic word, in turn from a root in the hypothesized Afro-Asiatic language. Due to recent commercialization, usage of the word mancala increased dramatically between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, but now it appears to be decreasing again.
In the 1860s, there was an Englishman named John Cassell marketing a kind of petroleum for powering lamps, named cazeline after himself. Much to his chagrin, a guy in Dublin, named John Boyd, was also selling cazeline, and when Cassell accused him of this, he denied it, going through his stock and changing every c to a g, creating the word gazeline. Cassell took him to court, and won, but it was too late: the name had stuck. Eventually, the z got switched to an s, and the e to an o. Curiously, in Jamaica and Australia, many have also started spelling it gasolene. Going in depth a bit further, back when Cassell sold his petroleum, he used an existing suffix -elene, which meant "oil" and comes from Greek elaia, "olive" (which might have Proto-Hellenic and Pre-Mediterranean sources). Later, gasoline was shortened to gas, which means that the word for what powers your car and the word for the state of helium at STP are theoretically unconnected (though the former definitely was, in part, influenced by the latter). Whoa.
Most of us know of the Ouija game, that macabre activity where children supposedly communicate with the dead. Annoyingly pronounced "wee-jee", it is actually a trademark of Hasbro, and it has a glaringly obvious etymology I never realized until now. Two words constitute it: oui, the French word for "yes", and ja, the German word for "yes". In effect, the Ouija board actually translate to a "yes-yes" board. This is possibly because of the "yes" tile on the board, or simply because it sounds mystical. Anyway, French oui is from Old French oil (pronounced oy-eel), which in turn is probably a mush of the Latin phrase hoc ille, meaning "so he" literally, but "yes" figuratively. Ja had no change through Middle German, Old High German, and Proto-Germanic, but in Proto-Indo-European it was ye, meaning "already". Of course, this is connected to our word "yes". There are other theories as to the origin of Ouija, such as that the inventors of the board first spelled out that word, and that it's Egyptian for "good luck", but those hypotheses are unfounded.
I like to call my site a lexophile's sanctum. The first word is archaic and most dictionaries deny its existence, but it means "word lover" and sounds much better than logophile, in my opinion. The second word is commonly known, meaning a private or sacred place. As you can guess from the title, and length of this blog post, there are a whole lot of words connected to it. Sanctum has one of the simplest origins: it comes from Latin sanctus, meaning "holy", a conjugation of the root sancire, "to consecrate" (declaring something holy), which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European root sehk, with the same definition. Now, one of the first things you may have thought about is how similar the word sanctum is to the word sanctuary. This is not without a good reason; they are each other's closest relatives, perhaps, with sanctuary coming to us from the root sanctus as well (through Latin sanctuariam, "shrine", then Old French saintuaire). Additionally from sanctus, there is the word saint, which took the route of the Old French word seinte. Now we move back to the earlier Latin root and predecessor of sanctus, sancire, which, as a reminder, meant "consecrate". This gave us the word sanction (through Latin sanctionem), because the meaning of a "holy decree" got shifted over time to a "legal decree". Finally, the remaining relatives of sanctum can be found branching off from PIE sehk, through Latin: the words sacred and sacrament come to us through Latin sacer, which also meant "holy" (through Old French sacrer and sacrament, respectively; the latter also had a meaning of "mysterious" for a while). Also related are terms like sacrifice, sacrilege, sacristy, sacrosanct, Sacramento, sacrum, sanctitude, and sanctimony, but, quite honestly, I've proven my point that Latin holiness has pervaded our culture, they would take too long to explain, and I need to save something for future blog posts!
You can be raring to go, enjoy your meat rare, or have a rare crustacean collection. Is there a common root, or do they all have their own rare origins? Ironically, the latter. First, the one with a definition of "scarce": it comes from the Old French word rere, with the same meaning, from Latin rarus, meaning "spaced apart", since things that are spaced apart are rarer than those that are not, and that in turn is from Proto-Indo-European ere, which could have meant something like "separate" or "thin"- two definitions that can easily be connected to the prior meaning. Now onto the origins of your rare meat: the word is from Old English hrere, "lightly cooked", from hreran, "to agitate" (probably something to do with the cooking process). Prior to that, we can reconstruct it to Proto-Germanic hrorjan, "stir", and ultimately to PIE kera, "to mix". Last but not least, the word raring is an archaic form of rare, a dialectical way to say rear, the verb meaning "to raise", as in what you hopefully do to your child. Rear, through Old English and Proto-Germanic synonyms raeran and raizijana, originated from the Proto-Indo-European hrey, which meant something more like "to rise" than "to raise". Just thought that was whimsical and interesting...
The noun addict comes from the verb addict, and the verb addict used to mean "to devote", which is interesting but not that strange. This meaning also carried a connotation of "to give oneself over to", which is important as we move back to Latin addictus, meaning "surrender" (or still "devote"). Prisoners of war surrender, and surrendered POWs in Roman times became slaves, so addictus also carried the meaning of "slave" for a while! Before this, we can clearly break up addict into ad-, the prefix for "towards", and dicere, which meant "to say or declare", as in "to declare devotion", supposedly. Dicere, through Proto-Italic deiko, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root deykti, meaning "to point". Ad- merely comes from PIE ad, with more of a meaning of "near". So, throughout history, addiction has had definitions of "devotion", "slavery", "towards declarations" and "pointing near". I'm so addicted to etymology!
We call the country of the Finns Finland, but they call it Suomi. What's curious here is that neither of those words has a certain origin- both of their etymologies are obscure. The Fin- part of Finland apparently derives from the Old Norse appellation finnr, with an older meaning of something like "dwarf", but that's all we know about that. As for suomi, it's been theorized to come from Proto-Balto-Slavic zeme, meaning "ground", but that's uncertain, since Finnish is a Uralic language. Another possible explanation brings it back to Proto-Indo-European dheghom, or "earth", but this is a mere reconstruction and it's probable that never existed as a word at all. As word origins in European languages go, both of these are suspiciously lacking in substance. The gist of it all is that the origins of the Finns escapes us, in both their language and ours. Does this indicate that Finland doesn't actually exist? It's up to YOU to decide.
Today, foreigners call anybody living in the U.S. a Yankee. During the Civil War, it was specifically people in the Northeast who received that appellation, and in the early eighteenth century it referred to anybody living in Connecticut. Through all this time, it always had an underlying pejorative sense. This is all because of the Dutch influence in the New York colony, back when it was under their control, as New Netherlands: seeing the English, Puritan colonists as awfully boring and plain, they called them by a generic name: Jan Kaas, or "John Cheese". A fantastic insult for an American, no? It was meant to sound generic, and it accomplished that beautifully. Jan is a Biblical name: through Greek and then Latin Ionannes, it derives from the Hebrew name Yohanan, which probably means something like "God is gracious". Kaas, through Latin caseus, then Proto-Germanic caseus, originates from the Proto-Indo-European root kwat, meaning "to ferment". So, ultimately, Yankee means "God is gracious ferment". Yay!
I just got a very interesting question submitted: why is the plural of ox not oxes, but oxen (as contrasted to examples such as foxes, boxes, or poxes)? There are a couple other surviving -en words, like children, as the submitter pointed out, but for the most part our plurals are with an s. The reason lies in the competing influences from Anglo-Saxon and Proto-Germanic in the Middle English language. The Romantic, French, Anglo-Saxon plural was to add on an s, and the Germanic way was to add an n onto the ends of words. For a time, these suffixes coexisted peacefully, but eventually the s ending began to be more fashionable, and almost every word used it. However, language isn't uniform, and that's how we got these aberrations. It also helps that, in Old English, ox was spelled oxa, and it simply sounded better to keep on the n from the previous Proto-Germanic word ukhson (ultimately from Proto-Indo-Europan uksen, meaning "any male animal" in general)
The etymology of the word merry underwent a myriad of changes in Middle and Old English, undergoing alterations such as merrie, mery, merie, mirie, myrie, murie, merige, myrige, mirige, myrege, and... you get the idea. Clearly the word was used a lot back then; indeed, N-grams show it being most commonly used in the 1600s. Anyway, through all this time, it still meant "jolly" or "pleasant", but as we move further back to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic root murguz, it meant something more like "brief" or "short". This transition highlights the quality of happy moments to be fleeting, or of merry moments to be short. The final root to be reconstructed is that of the Proto-Indo-European mreg, meaning "short", the root of words from brevity to mirth. Going further back than that is impossible, but on a more recent and unsurprising note, Google search interest for the word "merry" skyrockets every December.
Adam Aleksic, a leading contender for valedictorian of his high school, is a 204-month-old boy with an almost disturbing interest in etymology, vexillology, geography, and law. Adam would like to one day visit Tajikistan and does not have illegal monetary relations with any foreign governments.