A yo-yo, the iconic round children's toy, started out from simple origins. The word as we know it today was copyrighted by Donald F. Duncan in 1933 for the "Flores Yo-yo Company". This copyright moved to Papa's Toy Co. Ltd. when it bought out the former in 1965, but it was later determined that the trademark was improperly issued, so it's fine to use the word now. But where did that come from? The yo-yo as we know it was brought to the United States by Pedro Flores, who was born in the Philippines back when it was a U.S. territory. Thus, we can trace both the yo-yo and its name to the Filipino language of Llokano, where it was yoyo, with a special emphasis on the first o. Since basically all etymologists are only interested in Indo-European languages, we know very little about the semantics and history of this word, but one of the Tagalog (the national language of the Philippines) definitions for the cognate means "toy", so we can reasonably assume that the Filipino languages have this in common, and by extent the Austronesian family in general, though I found a claim that it comes from Chinese. It all comes down to wherever the toy was invented, and historians have found possibilities from Greece to Oceania.
Throughout time, the spirit of the word zeitgeist has made many diachronic changes. A word used by pundits to describe pop culture, its definition is "the defining spirit or mood of a time" and it unsurprisingly is also a German word, one from which the English term was borrowed. This, like many long German words, is a portmanteau; in this case of zeit, meaning "time", and geist, meaning "spirit". Whatever the spirit of the time is: it makes sense! However, the "spirit" of geist goes back for more supernatural origins. This comes from the Proto-Germanic word gaistaz, which may sound familiar because it's also the root of yesterday's word, ghost. This, as we already found out, comes from the Proto-Indo-European word for "anger", gheysd. The zeit part really emphasizes the current definition, as it means "time", from the older word zit, which in turn stems from the Proto-Germanic word tidiz, which through a couple reconstructed transliterations, stems from the Proto-Indo-European word for "time", dih. This etymology, as can be traced to "angry time" is really funny when the aforementioned pundits talk about a "xenophobic zeitgeist" or something of the sort.
6,500 years ago, we think that some people were using the word gheis to describe fear and amazement. That origin haunts us today. After gheis, etymologists trace the word to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic term gaistaz, which meant "ghost or spirit", since one shows fear and amazement at seeing a spectral apparition. The Proto-Germanic word then gave way to many other Germanic words (more on this later), including the English word gast. Gast then split and gave us both ghast (of ghastly) and ghost (of ghostly). Now, you may have noticed that a silent h got inserted into both of those words. An amateur etymologist like myself would think that it's an influence of Latin folk etymology, but the change is much simpler than that. It can be attributed to a ghost in the machine: a faulty printer. What a ghastly change!
The origin of zebra may not be just black and white! The exotic z and consonant combination hint at an African language, and that is certainly one of the theories. But it might not be. What we do know for sure is that zebra comes from its Italian cognate of zebra, which comes from its Portuguese cognate zebra. Here is where we start making progress: the Portuguese word apparently goes to Old Portuguese enzebro, which referred to an undomesticated donkey. This probably traces to an even older word, enzebrario. At this point, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most renowned and comprehensive works of etymology) lists the origin as Congolese. This could make sense; the Portuguese occupied the Congo, and the word has an African vibe to it. However, another theory quoted by many is that this goes back to Latin, and the word equiferus, "wild horse". If this is true, finding the origin gets a lot simpler than trawling through unrecorded Central African words; it's clearly a portmanteau of equus ("horse") and ferus ("wild"). Equus traces to Proto-Italic ekwos, from the Proto-Indo-European etymon hekwos, also the ancestor of today's word horse. Ferus (also the direct ancestor of the current word feral, through the later Latin word fera) is commonly acknowledged to be from PIE ghwer, "wild". Conclusively, either a zebra is a "wild horse" or it's a "donkey" from Africa.
The etymology of the (requested!) word trump was a better indicator of the 2016 election results than almost all polling... and it also indicated some of the scandals that followed. The most current use of trump is "to beat", and this verb form traces back to the Old French word triumphe, which, unsurprisingly meant "triumph". This went back to the Latin word triumphus, which was a modified form of the earlier word triumpus. Supposedly, this went through the Etruscan word thriampe (though we don't know for sure), and that comes from the Greek word thriambos, defined as a "hymn to Dionysus", since many hymns to gods are done in triumphant fashions. This is supposed to go further back to Proto-Greek, but nobody's bothered to make any reconstructions yet, so we'll leave it at that. Anyway, what we can glean from this is that (the person) Trump was both etymologically fated to be "triumphant" and to be accused of overtly "Dionysian" acts. This'll be a good time to segue into the surname Trump: it came from German drumpf, which meant "drummer" a long time ago, and that may or may not be connected to triumpus (I vote yay; a semantic connection is clear).
I've been running this site for about four months, yet I still haven't etymologized nerd. Looking at the hard consonant ending, it could easily be Germanic. The truth is, the word is a figment of a famous imagination. The first mention of the word nerd was in Dr. Seuss's 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo, where the main character voices aloud that he would replace all the lions and tigers with "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too." Nerkle was completely made up, seersucker was from an ancient Hindi word, and Nerd was somewhere in the middle; it was allegedly a modification of the exclamation nerts!, which meant "crazy" and would have originated from the earlier phrase nuts. In any event, the new word Nerd quickly became an American colloquialism for a person who was boring or goofy, and this (dropping its capitalization along the way), transmuted into the description of suspender-wearing superintelligent dorks, since they're both "boring" and "goofy".
Just looking at it, the word bizarre is so bizarre that it might not be Indo-European. In English, it's confirmed to be a loanword from French- it traces to bizarre, meaning "odd and fantastic", very similar to today. This is where etymologists get confused. The word has many indications that it could come from Basque and the word bizar, meaning "beard". This supposedly makes sense because there were many odd beards around in twelfth-century Basque Country. Since Basque isn't IE, the word would come from Proto-Basque bisar, which meant something like "hair"> However, this uber-cool theory has been largely refuted, and the current etymology favors the Italian word bizzarro (which had more of a connotation meaning "freaky"). now since many bursts of anger were freaky, this goes to the word bizza, meaning "tantrum". Strange as this is, bizza would go back to the German word biessen, meaning "to bite", and since babies both bite and throw tantrums, the meaning changed. This, through Old German and Proto-Germanic, goes back to the Proto-Indo-European word bheyd, meaning "split", since "bites" "split" stuff. In any case, it may be concluded that the origin of bizarre is truly bizarre.
A rosemary (a type of shrub) could easily be a combination of two women's names. Today, that is all it amounts to. In Middle English, rosemary used to be rosmarine. The change to the present word was likely influenced by folk etymology; someone somewhere looked at the word and decided that it was wrong, that it clearly was a portmanteau of "rose" and "Mary" and spelled it thus. However, we can already begin to glimpse the true etymology. Rosmarine is from the Latin word rosmarinus, which still meant "rosemary" but also meant "dew of the sea" in a poetic way. This definition was also literal in a semantic way: ros meant "dew" and marinus (with today's word marine descended from it through French marin) meant "of the sea". Marinus is clearly a conjugated form of the word mar ("the sea"), which is further reconstucted as having origins in the Proto-Indo-European word mori, "body of water". Ros, on the other hand, is directly from the PIE root ers, "to be wet". So rosemary really means "wet water". Interesting...!
The word flaw ("imperfection") has contradictory roots. It's the first part which was most confusing: it had a myriad of meanings proposed by all my sources, including a "spark", a "piece of snow", and a "splinter". This is extraordinarily confusing to me at least because I can't figure out how all these fit together. Supposedly, all are imperfect somehow: a single "flake" of snow is out of place by itself, a "spark" is an inconvenience and an annoyance, and a "splinter" is obviously bothersome and detracts from the perfect smooth surface of wood. How these transitioned to become each other is also very strange. Anyway, somehow "splinter" became "slab" as we go further back to the Old Norse word flaga. This traces back to the Proto-Germanic word flago, also meaning "slab", which goes to Proto-Indo-European as plak, meaning "flat", since a slab is flat.
For such a curious word like zenith, it comes as little shock that there are several proposed origins. This word, meaning "apex of power or success", earlier meant "time when a celestial object is directly over an observer". The later definition also persists to today, but less so. This is generally acknowledged to have come from the French word cenith, which comes from the Latin term cenit. Here the origin theories diverge. The more pleasing notion is that from here it directly goes back to Arabic samt, "direction", which would go back to either Aramaic symt or Arabic smt, in any case tracing back to Afro-Asiatic. The second theory is that zenith was only slightly influenced by the Arabic word through folk etymology, and it in fact comes from the earlier Latin word semita, "path", from the Proto-Indo-European root mei, or "to change". As with all etymology, we'll never know for sure until we get a time machine.
As you follow the word car backwards in time, you can also be privy to a history of transportation. Since cars weren't invented until the late nineteenth century, and the word appeared in the fourteenth century, it's obvious that it originally meant "any vehicle with wheels". This stems from the French etymon of carre, which came from a local French dialect, still as carre, where the word goes back to the Latin word carra ("baggage wagon"), a development of a conjugation for the earlier word carrus, which meant "war chariot". In one theory, this goes through Gaulish to the Proto-Celtic word karros, back to meaning "wagon", which traces to the Proto-Indo-European word kers, meaning "to run". While this is a wistfully whimsical theory, another suggests that the Latin word goes to Proto-Germanic karzijana, from PIE gers, both of which meant "turn". Both theories are plausible, and surprisingly neither goes through the Proto-Italic family after its stint in Latin. In any case, car, as many people think, is not a shortening of the word carriage.
Etymologically speaking, the stupefying source of sad is very satisfying! The word traces back to Old English saed, which meant "fulfilled or satisfied". As weird as this seems, it actually kind of makes sense. One who is satisfied, say by food, will enjoy that comfortable feeling of drowsiness after a good meal. Thus sad started to mean "weary and tired", and since people with depression or great sadness often feel weary, the word came to be applied to the emotion they were experiencing. This is a rare and scintillating instance of a complete about-face in etymology, something pretty scarce in the field. Anyway, saed is generally acknowledged to trace back to the Proto-Germanic word sathaz (or sadaz; this d to th distinction is common in Germanic tongues, and is represented by the symbol ð, which I will avoid to prevent confusion). Sathaz traces to its reconstructed etymon from Proto-Indo-European, seh, both of which meant "satisfied". Seh , incidentally is also the root of Latin satis, which gave today's word, satisfied. This is why linguistics are amazing! You'll never expect these completely shocking origins!
I've heard a lot of people over the years utter the same misconception; that woman is a combination of womb and man. This is in fact incorrect. Woman does not have sexist undertones; the origins are in fact platonic. The word originally was wimman, which meant "adult female". Going further back, this was the infamous word wifman, also the direct origin of the word "wife", after a dropping of -man. Wifman is a combination of two words; that being wif, "female" and man, meaning "human". Yes, man used to be a gender neutral word meaning "person" and still exists today in reference to all of humankind, and also as a male, a term which developed later. Man is from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word manwaz, which stems from the Proto-Indo-European root man, also referring to "people". As such a ubiquitous term, man has altered very little over time. Wif as a prefix for wifman also traces back to Proto-Germanic and the word wiban, still referring to a female. Though the origin for this is uncertain, but it has been theorized to come from several (theorized) PIE words, the two most common theories being that it came from a word meaning "female genitalia" and that it came from an early word for "shame". If the latter is true, the word is sexist, but not in the way most people think. Really, woman means "female human".
The roots of gambling don't exactly conform to most religious thought. We've previously found that hazard has origins meaning "gambling", associating risk with the act, but this is basically the exact opposite. Gamble went through a bunch of spelling alterations over its stint in English; there was gamel, gamlen, gamelen, gamenen, gaemnian, gamenian, and gamen. Throughout this hodgepodge of a transition, the semantics changed even more than the spelling. Originally, the Old English word gamen meant "entertainment" or "pleasure through entertainment". One way of obtaining pleasure through entertainment back in the Middle Ages was by gambling, and the word metynomically came to be associated purely with that. From gamen we move into the Germanic languages, almost all of which had the word gaman, meaning "sport", and that, like most Germanic, stems from Proto-Germanic, this from the prefix ga (sort of like "together") conspiring along with the root mann (more on mann later), meaning "person". This kind of translated as "people together", and since bringing "people together" normally leads to "fun", and one kind of "fun" is gambling, gamble developed. Mann comes from the PIE word man, which is obviously the origin of today's word and meant "person".
By comparing the real estate value and populations of New York City and Copenhagen, I'm estimating the value of the latter's real estate at above $500 million. That's certainly not cheap, right? Well, etymologically speaking, it is. Copenhagen in English comes from the German translation of the Danish word Kobenhavn. This portmanteau, originally meaning "cheap harbor", is a combination of the word kober ("merchant") and havn ("port"). Kober stems from kobmand, itself an amalgamation, this of kobe ("buy") and mand ("man"). Kobe, through Norse kaupa and Proto-Germanic kaupoz, consistently meant "trade" in its known existence. Further back, it is theorized to have come from the Latin word caupo, meaning "tradesman". If this is true, its origins reach as far as the Proto-Indo-European word kwreyh, or "to buy". Mand is a cognate of the English word man, and can also be traced through Norse and Proto-Germanic to PIE, in this case to manu, meaning "person". Going back to the original word, the havn part of Kobenhavn also comes from (surprise!) Norse and Germanic, a recurring theme in Danish, apparently. The whole time it could be defined as "harbor" or "haven". This traces farthest back to the PIE word kehp, which meant "to hold", since a "port" "holds" ships. A lot of Proto-Indo-European words trace back to things like "grasp" and "hold"; there are whole linguistic theories about it. Anyway, Copenhagen is a great name to keep away the pirates.
For a word as mundane as mundane, mundane sure has nice origins! This word, now mostly defined as "boring" or "tedious", used to mean "of this world" in early modern English. The transition occurred because nothing going on in our plane of existence is nearly as interesting as the happenings of heaven or hell. Moving into other languages, mundane can be traced back to French mondain, "worldly", which further stems from the Latin word mundus, "universe or world", a term that is also present in the Spanish word for "earth", mundo, and the modern word map. This is where the etymology gets really fascinating: there are two proposed origins of mundus, each as unlikely as the next. The first theory is that is traces back to Etruscan muth, or "pit". The second notion is that it comes from the Proto-Indo-European word meuh, meaning "to wet" and is related to another PIE word meaning "elegant". I couldn't find out why these theories are so; the philological research on this was difficult to find. However, I'm inclined to think the origin is the latter, as many PIE words are etymons of Latin.
When you say spick-and-span, face it: you have no clue what you're saying. This word, which basically means "clean", just seems like a combination of gobbledygook which sounds like it should be clean, but its origins are far more convoluted than that. Spick-and-span comes from a sixteenth century phrase; spick-and-span-new, which was a witty little catchphrase meaning "as new as new woodchips" (eventually the new was dropped over time as it became cumbersome and redundant). Now to the fun part: spick was an Old English word which today is present in the form spike; it meant "nail" and came from the Latin word spica, which meant "ear of grain" and became metynomically associated with spick since a spick churns the spica. This came from the Proto-Indo-European word spei, which meant "sharp point". There are also theories that spick took a Germanic route through Proto-Germanic as spikaz, but it all traces to the PIE word. Span, on the other hand, has nothing to do with "the full extent of something" like the unrelated modern word does, but it did mean "chip". This definitely took the Germanic path, through Norse spannyr, and back to the Proto-Germanic word spenu, meaning "chip or sliver of wood". This in turn comes from PIE as well, going back to the root spe, which referred to a type of wood. Thus, spick-and-span really means nail-and-chip, which is metaphorically clean and has nothing to do with hangnails.
A requested word! Deception may not be what it appears (hee hee hee). The word comes from French decepcion, with the same definition. This, as many French borrowings in English, comes from Latin. Through some conjugations, this can be traced back to the Latin word decipere, which meant "to cheat or trick someone", very similar to deception. Decipere was a portmanteau of de-, "from" and capere, which meant "to take" and is also the root of everything from forceps to intercept. The connection between "take" and "trick" is hard to etymologize; at a glance it doesn't seem to make sense. I researched it a bit further, and some scholars out there believe that there is a philosophical connection between the two because one who decieves is one who "takes" a mind and twists it around to their will. Capere traces to Proto-Italic kapio, and that is reconstructed further to Proto-Indo-European kahp, which could loosely be defined as "grasp", since when you "grasp" something you "take" it. The point of all this is, etymologies can be deceptive.
The word spam in modern day society mainly refers to repetitive and often inappropriate or entreating messages on the Internet. Another definition, less used at this point, is a registered trademark of Hormel Foods and a type of processed meat and is written in all caps. The former came from the latter, and it was all because of the wonders of Monty Python, the British comedy show. In the twelfth episode of the second series, a group of Vikings obnoxiously sing the word spam over and over again as a patron claims he doesn't like the meat. More than anything, this shows the pervasiveness of popular media in neologisms, and is proof that most modern words develop like spam did. But what did the original, trademarked SPAM mean? It was an abbreviation of "spiced" and "ham"; something that, unlike the new spam, doesn't exemplify most words, many of which have false abbreviation etymologies.
Many tangerines (round orange fruits) are sweet but tangy (piquant flavor or smell), and the beginnings of the words are so similar that they must be etymological twins, right? Wrong. The word tangerine came from the French name for the Moroccan city Tangiers. It is debated whether this comes from Latin or Semitic, but most of my sources claim the latter; that the aforementioned derives from Tigisis. No research has been done further on this, but tigisis probably traces to Afro-Asiatic. Tangy, on the other hand, is an 1875 word from the root tang, which is still in use today as a term meaning "having a strong taste or smell". This might sound somewhat Oriental, but it in fact originates from Middle English and same word, tang, with a different definition; "snake's tongue". This came from Old Norse tangi, "piece of land jutting out" (while metaphorically meaning "tooth" the whole time), which through Proto-Germanic can be traced back to the ultimate etymon, the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word denk, "to bite" (also the source of tongs, tough, and, surprisingly, zinc).
The phrase earth-scratching sounds like an archaic word for "canyon", but etymologically speaking it means geography. Geography as we know it derives from French geographie, which derives from Latin geographia, which derives from its Greek cognate. This makes sense because geography is widely considered to have been invented by a Greek thinker, Eratosthenes. This man combined two existing words for his new science, that being geo- "earth or land", and graphia, "a description". Therefore, geography is "a description of the earth", which almost exactly corroborates its current definition. The prefix geo- comes from the same root as that of the famous earth goddess, Gaia, that being the Ionic word ge, which is not labeled as Indo-European, but rather comes from some obscure, older proto-language. The suffix graphia comes from the word graphein, which meant "to write", and developed because, metynomically, you write a description. Graphein itself can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European and the word gerbh, which meant "to carve" (since initial writings were really carvings). Ironically, this is also the etymon of the current word carve. This is a good time to issue a warning to beware false etymologies; there are some absurd online myths about it being named after some French mapmaker called Geograph.
Class divisions are bad, but the source of hierarchy ("division of society") is really unfair, etymologically speaking. In Middle English, the original spellings alternated between jerarchie and ierarchie. This came from Old French ierarchie, which generally meant "rule". Going back further, the word took a reactionary and religious turn, with the Latin word hierarchia. This meant "division of angels" and was the first time the word implied "echelons" and the last time it meant something to do with the Church. This in turn traces back to Greek hierarkhes, "priest", a combination of hieros, meaning "sacred", and arkhein, meaning "to rule". Hieros comes from the root of ire, the Proto-Indo-European root eis, which generally meant "religious passion", while arkhein's origin is unknown. In any case, a hierarchy can be traced back to mean a "sacred rule" by the upper class, showing just how deep societal schisms run.
The word bikini has surprisingly radioactive origins. The English word came from French, since the French invented the bikini, and the French word came from an English name for a Pacific atoll that was the site of several nuclear tests. this is kind of a joke: the bikini was where the US "split the atom", and an atome was a single-piece French bathing suit. Anyway, the bikini part of bikini atoll came from the Marshallese appellation pikini. This is likely a combination of pik, meaning "surface" and ni, meaning "coconut". Further research on this is hard to find, because etymologists favor Indo-European languages over supposedly insignificant native tongues, but this probably came from the Proto-Micronesian language, which in turn comes from Proto-Austronesian. Funnily enough, the bi- part of bikini was later on mistaken for a prefix, and caused the creations of the words monokini and trikini.
Most non-musicians don't know the word syncopate. It means "to change the beats in music" and is not very crucial to daily life. However, its etymology is fascinating. Originally, it only referred to words, and the stressing of syllables, but later on the musical definition originated. Before even that, syncopate came through Medieval Latin as syncopatus and regular Latin as syncope, "contraction of a word". Here it gets interesting: as the word traces back to Greek (synkoptein, "to cut up") it breaks up into two smaller words: the prefix syn- "together" and the root koptein, "cut off" (also the root of the word comma). Syn- comes from the Proto-Indo-European term ksun, or "with" and koptein traces back to the PIE word for "strike", kop. The definition of syncopate therefore hasn't changed much over time; its roots of "with strike" still make sense. I later found out that Serbian has a word sinkopa; this is connected to syncopate through Latin.
It was the year 1650, and a new game was sweeping England. Far from the mundane reaches of tiddlywinks, this new game, called hand in cap, grew popular very quickly. It was named such because of what it entailed: people would put items in hats to trade, and a judge would make the cheapskate donor throw in extra money into the cap. Since in Shakespearean times, people adored putting apostrophes in weird places, this became known as hand i' cap. Eventually people forgot an n was supposed to be there in the first place and called it handicap. Since in the game, one person was put at a disadvantage, the handicap name came to be associated with disadvantages, and, metynomically, people with disabilities. This is sort of the antimatter version of a basket case: something innocuous coming to be associated with a physical affliction.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.