The word labyrinth was first used in 1387, in reference to the mythological maze in Ancient Greece. At the time, it was spelled laborintus, and other early spellings included laboryncus, loboryntus, labirinthos, labirinthus, and more. It wasn't until the late sixteenth century that it came to be regularly applied to other mazes. The word unsurprisingly comes from Ancient Greek, but beyond that it's a bit of a mystery. One major theory is that it might be from the Lydian word labrys, meaning "double ax", because the weapon was a symbol used to represent the palace of Knossos, where the original labyrinth was thought to be built. Alternatively, it might be from an unknown word in Linear A (a pre-Indo-European language in the area) because of a similar word meaning "cavern" in Linear B. We might never know, but both theories are very interesting!
In case you ever need to know the etymology of an obscure constellation, apus is a small five-star constellation representing a bird-of-paradise visible in the southern hemisphere. Its name was first recorded as Paradysvogel Apis Indica (Dutch for "bird of paradise"), with apis being a typographical error for the Latin word for "bird", avis. Later, it was rewritten as apus, because that meant "without feet" in Ancient Greek and the avians were incorrectly believed to be footless. Apparently, the few times Europeans had encountered it before, the wings and feet had been cut off for decorative purposes and they just assumed that the bird could keep itself in the air because of its incredible feathers. Finally, avis is reconstructed back to the Proto-Indo-European root hewis, also meaning "bird".
I never thought to look up the etymology of lens before, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that its origin was a lot more interesting than I would have expected. The word was first used in a 1693 treatise on solar eclipses, in reference to the part of a telescope. It was borrowed from Medieval Latin lens, but in earlier Latin it had the meaning of "lentil". The connection was apparently that the convex shape of the glass looks similar to the curvature of the legume. As you might have guessed, we also got our word lentil from the Latin noun, through the diminutive lenticula and French lentille. Finally, lens probably comes from a non-Indo-European language, because there are clear cognates in other IE languages that do not follow the normal rules of sound change. That's unsurprising, since it's pretty common for agricultural names to come from the people previously inhabiting the land.
Galatia was a Roman province in central Anatolia, and a general term for the region until Muslims conquered the area in the ninth century. Its name comes from the Greek word for "Gaul" because it was settled by a group of Gauls around 200 BCE. I thought it was really interesting that they had settled that far southeast, but apparently they were doing a lot of migration around that time period, with groups also sacking Rome and pillaging parts of Greece before one tribe got enticed into Asia Minor for some mercenary work and decided to settle. There's also a region called Galicia just north of Portugal; that's named after the Roman province of Gallaecia, which was also named after the Gauls because another tribe had established themselves in the area.
In Norse mythology, the Yggdrasil was a massive tree connecting the nine worlds of the universe. The name is commonly accepted to be from yggr, meaning "terrible", and drasill, meaning "horse". The reason for this is very complicated. Yggr here was actually in reference to the god Odin, who was nicknamed "The Terrible", among many other things. Drasill metaphorically meant "gallows", because there was an Old Norse expression about gallows being the "horse of the hanged". So Yggdrasil was "Odin's gallows", because in one legend he hanged himself from the tree for nine days and nine nights so he could understand the secrets of runes. Finally, I couldn't find anything on the derivation of yggr, but drasill is thought to come from the Proto-Indo-European root der, meaning "to support".
There is a mountain range on the border of Switzerland and France called the Jura, and it's been quite etymologically prolific. In addition to lending its name to a Swiss Canton and a French department, it's the source of the Montes Jura, a mountain range on the surface of the moon. More importantly, it was the source of a lot of important excavations of fossils and rocks dating back to the mid-Mesozoic era, a time period that the French called jurassique and we call Jurassic - that should be familiar. The name Jura comes from the Gaulish word iuris, which meant "wooded mountain" and became a Roman toponym (that explains the i to j spelling change). That probably comes from the Proto-Celtic word for "forest", jor, and would ultimately be from a Proto-Indo-European source.
The Zoroastrian religion was named after its prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra in the original Avestan. A cultural influence from Richard Strauss to Friedrich Nietzsche, Zarathustra's name has been the subject of heated debate from etymologists. The -ustra part (which was pronounced with a sh) has been definitely identified as meaning "camel" (that's from Proto-Indo-Iranian uštrah and Proto-Indo-European uštras, with the same meaning), but the beginning has been interpreted to mean either "drag", "old", "longing", or "yellow". No matter what, it implies that the prophet Zarathustra was a guy who owned and interacted with camels. Finally, Zoroaster is the result of a Greek phonetic transcription of the word where they confused it with their own words for "undiluted" and "star".
BEASTS AND CUBES
Fauvism was a modern art movement in France in the early 1900s characterized by unusual colors and strong brush strokes. Its name comes from art critic Louis Vauxcelles, who went to a Parisian gallery featuring Fauvist paintings, was disgusted by how crude they looked next to a nice Renaissance statue, and apparently pointed to it and said Donatello parmi les fauves, or "Donatello among the wild beasts". The artists embraced the name, and it stuck. A few years later, Vauxcelles went to a gallery featuring some avant-garde pieces by former Fauve Georges Braque and remarked that style consisted of bizarries cubiques, or "cubic oddities". Subsequently, the term cubism was also adopted by like-minded artist to describe themselves, and Vauxcelles earned himself the rare distinction of having named multiple major art movements. Sometimes being judgy pays off, I guess.
When it was brought into English in the late fourteenth century, the word cancel used to literally mean "cross out with a line" and it only took its figurative definition of "nullify" in the mid-1600s. Through Anglo-Norman and French, it comes from the Latin word cancellus, meaning "lattice" (a grid of lines), and that's from the root carcer, meaning "enclosed space" (also present in the word incaration). Finally, carcer derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kar-kro, meaning something like "circular" or "enclosure". It's kind of a cool example of etymology in action to observe cancel continue to evolve today: now, it can be applied to people, through the notion of things like TV shows and professional contracts being cancelled once they are exposed for whatever they did
BEFORE THE TEMPLE
The word profane first entered English in the mid-fifteenth century with the spelling prophane and referred to things that were unholy, unclean, or pagan. It comes from the Latin verb profanare, meaning "desecrate". More literally, though, it meant "out in front of the temple", because people considered profane were not admitted into Roman temples. The roots there are the prefix pro-, meaning "before" (from Proto-Indo-European per, also "before") and the noun fanum, meaning "temple" (also the source of the word fanatic; comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dehs, which could mean either "god" or "sacred place". Meanwhile, the word profanity was coined around the early seventeeth century from profane and only started getting widely used in the nineteenth century.
A DANGEROUS INSTRUMENT
A sackbut was a kind of wonky trombone used from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, and one who plays the sackbut is called a sackbuttist. The word, which has nothing to do with sacks or butts, came into English around the year 1500 from the French noun saqueboute, which used to refer to a type of medieval weapon used to hook mounted soldiers and pull them off their horses - the two were thought to have a visual similarity. That comes from the Old North French verbs saquier, meaning "pull" or "draw", and bouter, meaning "to thrust", two actions required to operate the saqueboute. Finally, those are both relatively more obscure words, so we can't too reliably say where they came from. According to Google NGrams, literary usage of sackbut peaked in the 1610s and has been trending downwards since.
Apparently there is no connection at all between the word poop meaning "excrement" and the word poop meaning "topmost deck of the back of a ship". The first definition emerged in the mid-eighteenth century as a children's euphemism. This may be related to an earlier verb meaning "blast", poupen, but it ultimately is thought to be of imitative origin. The second definition of the word emerged at the turn of the fifteenth century and comes from poupe, the French word for "stern of a ship". That, through Old French pope and Italian poppa, traces to the Latin word puppis, still meaning "stern", and the rest of the etymology is unknown. Other definitions of poop include "stupid person" (probably short for nincompoop), a verb meaning "tired" (emerged in the 1930s due to an comparison between exhaustion and defecation) and a kind of sheet used in the US Army (this was somehow associated with the "excrement" definition).
The nickname for Tchaikovsky's penultimate and perhaps best-known symphony is Symphonie Pathétique, which might sound funny to English speakers because the second word is related to our word pathetic. It's from a French word also meaning "evoking pity", but that's actually a mistranslation of Pateticheskaya, a Russian name meaning "passionate" that was specifically chosen by Tchaikovsky to convey how proud he was of the work he put in to create it. After his death, it was borrowed into French as pathétique, which was similar but overall a different word. Beethoven's eighth piano sonata is also often referred to as Sonata Pathétique. This name was intentionally chosen by his publisher (with Beethoven's approval), who was said to be moved by the piece's "tragic sonorities".
In American English, fanny is a relatively innocent word for "buttocks", but in British English, it can serve as a much more offensive slang term for "vagina" (or, metonymically, women in general). It's gotten to the point where some movies and television shows from the US have to be censored on the other side of the Atlantic. The American meaning evolved from the British one in the 1920s for unclear reasons associating the two body parts, and the British meaning probably comes from the name of the protagonist of a controversial mid-eighteenth century novel, Fanny Hill, where the main character Frances (nicknamed with the diminutive Fanny) has numerous sexual encounters and thus got associated with the vagina. Finally, the name Frances traces to the Latin demonym Francisus, meaning "Frankish".
The word bankrupt was first attested in English in 1533 as two words, banke rupte. That comes (through Middle French bancque roupte) from the Italian phrase banca rotta, which literally meant "broken bench". Apparently, back in the old days in northern Italy, moneylenders worked from benches in special stalls and physically broke those benches in two when they went insolvent to signal that they no longer were in business. Banca, which is not the source of bank but a relative, traces to the Proto-Germanic word bankiz and eventually Proto-Indo-European beg, meaning "to bend". Rotta, meanwhile, comes from Latin ruptus, the perfect passive participle of rumpere, "to break". That derives from the reconstructed root hrewp, which meant "to tear up" and is also the source of words like erupt, abrupt, bereave, and rout.
The earliest attestation we have of the word celebrate is from a mid-fifteenth century translation of a Latin book on agriculture. At the time, it was spelled the same way (although celebrat was used in a few later instances), but it was used as a past participle meaning something more along the lines of "praised" or "esteemed". Then there was a period where it could refer to a demonstration of emotion in general, be it sadness or happiness, and by the seventeenth century it meant "celebration of joy". The word comes from Latin celebratus, which could mean "famous" or "populous" - the former sense also became our word celebrity - and that has an unknown etymology. Before the Latin term was introduced, the Old English word for "celebrate" was freolsian, which roughly translates to "free from labor".
TO SHOW UPON
When the word epiphany was first used in English in the middle of the fourteenth century, it specifically referred to a festival in early January commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (at the time, it was always capitalized, and occasionally spelled Epyphany, Epiphanie, or Epiphanye). This had the same meaning as Old French epiphanie and Latin epiphania, and traces to the Ancient Greek word for "divine manifestation", epiphaneia. Eventually, around the 1660s, English started using that older definition to refer to manifestations of any deity, and it was eventually figuratively extended to mean "realization". Finally, epiphaneia contains the prefix epi-, meaning "upon", and the root phainein, meaning "show" or "shine".
INFIXES STANDING IN
You've familiar with prefixes and suffixes, but a lesser-known "affix" is the infix, which involves the insertion of a sound into the middle of a word. These show up pretty rarely in English, but back in Proto-Indo-European, the sound -ne- was pretty frequently inserted before the last consonant of roots to create a present active verb. This was called a nasal infix, and it mostly passed into Latin, Lithuanian, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and various Slavic languages. You can see some great examples of this phenomenon in pairs of Latin-derived words:
The word capricious (meaning "apt to suddenly change mood or behavior") was first used in the 1590s, when it meant "whimsical", and the modern definition emerged about a decade afterwards. It comes from the French word capricieux, meaning "whimsical", and that's from Italian cappricio, which could translate to "whim", "shivering", "tantrum", "or sudden start" (you may recognize it as a musical term, and the source of caprice). Interestingly, cappricio is from the words capo, meaning "head", and riccio, meaning "curly" or "frizzled". The reason for this is uncertain, but the two main theories I could find are that shivering people were thought to have frizzled hair or that there was a historical association with capricious people and curly hair. I've written about the etymology of capo extensively in the past: it is related to cabbage, capitol, precipitate, chef, cattle, recap, and many more words. Riccio, however, is new to me. It comes from the Latin word for "hedgehog", ericius, and that ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European gher, also "hedgehog".
The first attested use of the word scumbag is from the 1967 edition of the Dictionary of American Slang, but it was probably in use for a while before that: it's thought to have originated around the 1930s. At the time, it meant "condom", on the notion that they were "bags" for "scum". The modern insult for "terrible person" emerged in the early 1970s from that earlier definition, and since then usage has grown exponentially until a peak in 2017. Scum comes from the Middle Dutch word schume, meaning "foam" or "froth", and that, through Proto-Germanic skuma, derives from the Proto-Indo-European root skew, meaning "cover", since foam covers water. Bag, meanwhile, traces to the Old Norse noun baggi, meaning "bundle", and that possibly traces to Proto-Indo-European bask, also "bundle".
Cordon bleu is a kind of meat and cheese dish, and Le Cordon Bleu is a network of French culinary schools. In French, the name means "blue ribbon", and it originally referred to an order of knighthood established in 1578 that went around wearing crosses hanging from blue ribands. Becoming a blue ribbon knight was the highest distinction in chivalry, so the term became associated with excellence in general, especially cooking. The word cordon is a diminutive of the Old French word for "cord", corde, which is also the source of our words cord and corduroy. Corde comes from Latin chorda, Greek khorde (this had more of a definition of "string"), and eventually Proto-Indo-European ghere, meaning "intestine". Bleu, meanwhile, is a close relative of our word blue, which goes back to Old French blo, Proto-Germanic blæwaz, and Proto-Indo-European bhel, meaning "shine".
LOBSTER HEAT GIFT
The name of the French dish Lobster Thermidor has a fascinating history. It was created in 1891 at Chez Marie, a restaurant in Paris that was close to a well-known theatre, the Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin. Earlier that year, the theatre had released a four-act dramatic play set during the French Revolution called Thermidor, and Chez Marie named the food in honor of that. The play's title comes from a month in the French Republican Calendar best known for the Thermidorian Reaction, which is when revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre was deposed, ending the Reign of Terror. Finally, Thermidor was named after the Greek words therme, meaning "heat", and doron, meaning "gift", which reflects the month's position between July and August, the hottest time of the year.
Ninety percent of English words starting with the letters eu- come from an Ancient Greek word for "good", and euphemism is no exception. The term, first attested in English in a 1656 dictionary, was regularly used by the Greeks to describe the practice of replacing unlucky or distasteful words with a more favorable one. Often, these "euphemisms" even had an eu- in them, like with euonumos ("good name") referring to the "left" and eumenides ("good spirits) referring to the mythological Furies, because those were considered superstitious topics back in the day. The phemism part of the word comes from pheme, which meant "voice" (so, together, euphemism means "good voice"), and that is ultimately reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root bha, meaning "to speak".
When the word campaign was first used in Thomas Hobbes' 1628 translation of The Peloponnesian War, it meant "plain", "field", or "tract of open land". By the 1640s, a sense of "military operation in the field" came about, and around the 1770s it first came to be figuratively applied to organized actions similar to military campaigns, which is how we got the political definition (and the verb is from 1701). The word was borrowed from French campagne, meaning "countryside". That, through either Italian campagne or Old French champagne, derives from Latin campania, with the same meaning. Earlier on, that was campus (a root that shows up in scamper, champion, camp, champagne, Camembert, and, yes, campus) and it's thought to ultimately derive from the Proto-Indo-European root khemp, meaning "bend" or "curve".
The English horn is a musical instrument that is neither English, nor shaped like a horn. So what gives? The woodwind was invented in the 1720s in Silesia, when it was curved like other orchestral horns. At the time, it was called engellisches horn, which meant "angelic horn" in Middle High German, because it was thought to resemble the horns played by angels in religious imagery. However, when the instrument first started getting popular in the rest of Europe around the middle of the eighteenth century, the French misunderstood the name to be englisch horn, so they called it the cor anglais, meaning "English horn". Finally, we translated the phrase (this kind of borrowing is called a calque) into English to get the modern term. Over time, English horns gradually became less curved and more oboe-shaped, which explains the second part of the misnomer. What a cool story!
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic. This year, I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Government and Linguistics. There, I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society and wrote a thesis on Serbo-Croatian language policy, magna cum laude. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.