The ukulele, contrary to popular belief, doesn't even come from Hawaii. It was brought there in the nineteenth century by Portuguese sailors from Madeira and the Azores (North Atlantic Portuguese possessions), and it was originally called a machete. However, as its popularity in Hawaii increased, natives created their own name for it- ukulele, a word meaning "jumping flea" and a portmanteau of uku and lele, which meant "jump" and "flea" respectively. This definition was applied reportedly because of the way a ukulele player's hands would deftly move along the strings; almost like a flea jumping. There are some other theories, such as the possibility that it was named after a man so skilled that he was called the ukulele, but it's unconfirmed and all leads back to the same place anyway. Uku jumped around the Pacific language families a lot, with connections in Proto-Polynesian kutu, Proto-Oceanic kutu, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian kutu, and Proto-Austronesian kucu (it likely came from kucu, through any of the former). Meanwhile, lele has the simple etymology of being from Porto-Malayo-Polynesian lalej, with the same meaning.
The word dark has rather "dull" origins. In Middle English, it was derk, and in Old English, it was deorc, both with the same meanings as today (simple words like this rarely experience a lot of semantic change). Before that, we can reconstruct it to the Proto-Germanic root derkaz, which simply meant "without light", and didn't have all those metaphorical extensions we apply to the word today (more on that later). This is from the Proto-Indo-European root dherg, which was the definition of "dull", a pretty obvious connection to make. Curiously, during all this time, dark as an noun (such as in the dark) didn't exist until the thirteenth century, or during Middle English. Figurative uses of darkness to describe evil also became applied in Middle English, this time during the fourteenth century. It's quite possible that the word was used like this in Old English, but there's no way to be sure. Curiously, usage of the word dark has been increasing since the 1970s, so perhaps we're descending into the dark ages once more.
Today, the word harangue means "to aggressively lecture". But 6,500 years ago, its etymon meant "to bend". You see, in the antediluvian days of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language, its alleged speakers used the root sker for that meaning, also doubling as "to turn". As PIE broke apart, the word evolved into Proto-Germanic hringaz, which meant "something curved" and only vaguely sounds like sker for some reason. The meaning prevailed into Old English, but the word eroded to hring. Eventually, a new meaning began to catch on, that of "ring", and that gave us the word "ring" which we use today. But back to hring. Either it or one of its relatives coming from hringaz morphed even further to yield the Old Italian word aringo, which meant "arena", on the connection that arenas were circular and this word had circular connotations. From a meaning of "arena" to a meaning of "public square" was not that big of a stretch after that, and from a meaning of "public square" to a meaning of "public address" was not that big of a stretch after that. At this point, we've arrived at the Middle French word harangue, which slipped into English with somewhat more negative connotations to give us the word we have today.
In the 1 year and 115 days I've been running this blog so far, I've used the word the 5,509 times, constituting about 6.0% of all my words. You'd think such a large sample size (over 91,000 words) would be an accurate representation of the English language, but, curiously, the is only used about 4.7% of the time in English. I suppose I have greater need for it, as I'm explaining abstract topics or something. Either way, that's pretty cool. However, despite all that usage, I've never given any glory to the word the. Come to think of it, I can't even define it. It seems I'm not the only one with that problem. A quick Google search for the definition of the word "the" yields several contrasting and obfuscating meanings, and, four results down, an article titled Why 'The' is So Difficult to Define. For the most part, it left me more confused than before, until it rather adeptly summed up the whole word as "a combination of the situations where it is appropriate". Oh, you want an etymology now? The word "the" basically sounded the same since Old English, and before that it was pronounced like sa or so. That's all. As a very simple word, it hasn't changed much.
[Edit 1: In the body of this blog post, I used the word the 17 times, constituting 7.9% of all words. This parenthetical obviously not included in analysis.]
[Edit 2: I was mistaken about the usage of the word the. I used Google Ngrams to approximate, and that led to incorrect results. Frequency is actually about 6.9%, closer to my value though a little above now]
Honestly, I write it captcha most of the time. Properly stylized CAPTCHA, this machine-defeating checking mechanism (created in 2000, named in 2003) seems like a portmanteau of "capture" and "gotcha", alluding to its identification of bots online. While that was indeed a major influence on the development of the word, CAPTCHA is actually a loose acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart", a Turing Test being a way of telling apart humans and robots. Obviously the acronym is a bit messed up and fitted to look how the creators wanted it to; if it conformed to standards of capitalization, the CAPTCHA should actually be a CAPTTTCHA. When Google invented a CAPTCHA system in 2007 to simultaneously digitize books and check for bots, they named it the reCAPTCHA, which makes the CAPTCHA a word so old that it is already the etymon of another.
Why do we call it slapstick comedy? Well, when the word was first coined in 1896, it was quite literal. When somebody would fall onstage, they would snap together a contraption of two wooden planks to make a humorous slapping sound, a common stage technique that exaggerated the fall and make it more comedic in general. The word slap is of imitative origin; try slapping yourself in the face, and the sound you make is very similar to the word. This is true for several other Germanic languages as well. The word stick takes a more conventional route; through Middle English stikke, it comes from Old English sticca, which meant something more like "rod". This in turn, through Proto-Germanic stikko, comes from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root "stig", which meant "pointy", through a connection of sharpness associated with the rod in question. So, etymologically speaking, slapstick means slappointy.
In July of 1958, Action Comics #242 was released, with a new Superman comic written by Otto Binder and Al Plastino. In it, a newly introduced evil genius known as Braniac attempted to bottle up and steal all the major cities on Earth. Superman foils the plot, but Braniac escapes unharmed at the end. This helped kicked off the so-called "Silver Age" of Action Comics, with a renewed emphasis on the Superman stuff and less emphasis on everything else. After that, braniac seeped into popular culture to mean an annoying or malicious smart person, eventually dropping the negative connotation. So, kryptonite isn't the only word we get from Superman. That in itself is pretty cool, but how they came up with the name is neat as well. Clearly it was influenced by the word brain, but the secondary influence is, curiously enough, sort of a hybrid of maniac and ENIAC, one of the first computers and an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (the former to emphasize the evil aspect of Braniac and the latter to draw attention to his intelligence).
Thanks to Will Phillips for this blog post idea.
At some unknown point in the fifteenth century, we borrowed the French term jean fustian into English to describe a trendy new cotton-based fabric. Later, the fustian was dropped, as it was cumbersome. So your jeans come to you from jean fustian. What the heck is that, though? Well, fustian is just a word for "fabric", and it's not essential to the formation of the word jeans, so just forget that. But the first part of the term, jean, is a modern spelling of Jannes, which is an Old French spelling of Genoa, the Italian city name. This is because Genoa was one of the cities where the fashion emerged. In fact, the later pluralization of jeans from jean is based on Jannes, that Old French spelling. Yes, language is a mess. But it's serendipitously beautiful too: by pure coincidence, the city name of Genoa comes from the Proto-Indo-European root gnewo, meaning "knee", through Ligurnian (based off geographical position). How weird is it that the kind of pants so many people wear is named after a city named after a knee?
The verb decide has deadly interesting origins. Though it came through Middle English deciden, Old French decider, and Latin decidere, you can tell that there's the prefix de-, kind of meaning "off". This was in the language as far as etymologists can trace it, and is either from Etruscan or Proto-Indo-European. It's the other part of decide that's surprising: -cide. Yup, as you may have guessed, this is the same -cide present in words like homicide, suicide, regicide, fratricide, genocide, and all those other euphemistic terms for nasty kinds of death. All the roots trace to the Latin verb caedere, meaning "to cut". The death-related words are connected because of the correlation between "cut" and "kill", a side meaning which later evolved from the word, and decide is connected because when you make a choice, you cut out all the other possible choices. So it sort of makes sense, right? Caedere comes from Proto-Italic kaido, from Proto-Indo-European kehid, which meant something more like "strike".
WORKING BY HAND
Only a couple of centuries ago, the word surgery coexisted happily with the word chirurgery. They came from the same source, but as you can deduce, surgery won out in popular and medical usage. Chirurgery, however, is more accurate, as it is more rooted in the past. Both come from the Latin word chirurgia, from the Ancient Greek word kheirourgia. Up to this point, all the terms still had the same meaning of an invasive medical procedure, but as we go back further, kheirourgia is split into two words: kheir, meaning "hand", and ergon, meaning "work". The combined definition of "working by hand" obviously describes how surgeons go about the job. Kheir is from Proto-Indo-European ghesr, still meaning "hand", and ergon is from Proto-Indo-European wergom, also still meaning "hand". Both likely took a Proto-Hellenic route. In recent years, since surgery has basically driven out all uses chirurgery, it's had room to expand in growth nigh-exponentially in usage, which it has been doing.
I've grown up always thinking that the ice cream Häagen-Dazs is imported from Germany or some Scandinavian country. Nope! The company was created in the Bronx by Reuben and Rose Mattus, two Polish immigrants. Well, I thought, when I learned that, at least the name means something tasty in some European language, right? Nope! To put it lightly, the name Häagen-Dazs is a linguistic abomination. When Rose suggested it in 1959, it was meant to sound Danish, to entice the customer with what Reuben called an "aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship". Except it's just... wrong: There is no umlaut in Danish (rendering the ä meaningless), and the zs letter combination is nonexistent outside of Hungarian! Gosh flippity darn it. What we have here is a classic advertising technique: the Mattuses made the name sound exotic and foreign, which you cannot deny worked seamlessly. This makes me sad; one of the ice creams I grew up with is a lie.
LEGGO MY LEGOS
Whether you remember playing with legos, Legos, LEGOS, LEGOS®, or LEGOS® as a child, you probably never considered why they're named that, and if you did, you probably thought it was an acronym. Well, not really. As you will have noticed, there are a lot of stylistic differences in how to spell it, based on varying degrees of legality, but all that stems back to when Ol Kirk Kristiansen, the Danish CEO of the to-be The LEGO Group, chose LEGO as the brand name. This was all after lengthy experimentation with different names, but eventually the company settled on a play on the Danish phrase leg godt, which meant "play well". So LEGO is not an acronym- more of a contraction, and barely one at that. I thought that was cool. Ironically, none of the creators realized that lego also meant "I put together" in Latin, showing the truly serendipitous nature of language. Leg is from Old Norse leikr, from Proto-Germanic laikaz, with the same meaning. Godt is clearly connected to English good and German gut, and would come from Proto-Germanic godaz, which is reconstructed as being from Proto-Indo-European ghedh, meaning "unite".
A palindrome, as several of you may know, is something that reads the same backwards and forwards (such as Madam, I'm Adam). But where does the word palindrome originate from? Well, in the 1600s, Ben Johnson coined it in one of his plays. Like Shakespeare did with most of his"created" words, Johnson didn't just make it up; rather, he "borrowed" a word from Ancient Greek. Here it was palindromos, which literally meant "running back again", describing the quality of palindromes to read both ways, obviously. This is a portmanteau of two words: palin, which meant both "back" and "again", oddly enough, and drome, that same element in dromedary, hippodrome, and syndrome, which meant "race" or "running". So a palindrome is a "running back". Respectively, the two parts come from the Proto-Indo-European root kwel (meaning "revolve") and the Proto-Indo-European root drem (meaning "run"). Interestingly, palindrome has become the etymon of another word that is just beginning to be recognized, semordnilap, which means something that makes sense written backwards. Kind of like a one-sided palindrome, but not this side. Edis rehto eht.
In the thirteenth century version of English, that purple quartz we know as amethyst was either spelled amatist and ametist. Before that, in Old French (from whence it came), it was ametiste, and before that, it came from Greek amethustos, probably through Latin by one means or another. Oh, yeah, and amethustos translates to mean "not drunk". How could this be? Well, the Ancient Greeks had a peculiar belief that amethysts could prevent intoxication- there were several myths about the god Dionysus interacting with the stone, though some were of questionable origin. The point is, they had this superstition, and it was strong enough to name a rock after a state of sobriety, so there you go. The word amethustos affixes an a- to negate the rest of the word (even in English, it remains as a prefix meaning "not"), and thus methustos means "drunk". This is a formation from methus, which meant "wine" and not some other drug you're all thinking about. Surprisingly, methus is from medu, the Proto-Indo-European root for "honey", which makes wine a pretty sweet thing.
Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa, reportedly is inspired by the computer in Star Trek. Its makers wanted it, too, to be a library of information. And what better library of information is there than the famed, historical library of Alexandria? So the name kind of works. However, that was only a minor factor in choosing the name. Unlike Siri and Cortana, Alexa was not chosen on a whim. After lengthy scientific testing, people at Amazon decided that Alexa was the best name because the central x sound surrounded by soft vowels was distinctive and could most easily be picked up by the machine. Indeed, that worked great, but Alexa was already an extremely popular name prior to Amazon adopting it. Recently, the baby name Alexa has declined, prompting concerns that Amazon has ruined it for the rest of us. Finally, and quite irrelevantly, Alexa is a female variation of Alexander, which means "defender of man" in Greek.
Yesterday we learned that Apple named their voice assistant Siri mainly because it meant nice things in several different languages. Microsoft's Cortana has drastically different origins. Apparently, in Halo, a popular video game developed by a subsidiary of Microsoft Studios set in the twenty-sixth centuries, there is an AI called Cortana who helps humanity but eventually is revealed to have an evil streak. Subsequently, when Microsoft started developing a voice assistant to rival Apple's Siri, they used Cortana as a code name for the project. At the time, it was just a fun thing to call it, but the developers (and fans who had heard about the labeling) clamored for the name to stay, and Microsoft eventually agreed. After all, the trisyllabic name Cor-tan-a is easy for the machine to recognize, and it's different from other names, so there won't be many mistakes (a concept also used in naming Siri). Am I the only one thinking it's disturbing that the assistant on Windows phones is named after a nefarious AI?
I tried asking Siri how she got her name, but all I got was "a really good question". So I went out to do a little investigative etymology. Apparently, when Apple bought the personal assistant, they needed a name to match the female voice which is easy to remember yet distinguishable from other names. And they already had one! Sort of. Dag Kittalaus, the co-creator of the robot, was enamored with the name (so much that his company was called Siri, Inc.) and tried to convince Steve Jobs to use it. However, the CEO wasn't a fan and asked for a replacement name (one of the main problems was that shiri meant "butt" in Japanese). When no better alternative could be found, Jobs was forced to run with Siri. Kittalaus was ecstatic; he had even planned to name his daughter Siri, but had a son instead, so this was his chance to use the name. The meaning behind this is really a combination of factors: in Kittalaus' native Norwegian, Siri literally means "beautiful woman who leads you to victory", in Swahili it means "secret", and in Sinhalese, it means "beauty". So a bunch of nice words coming together, as it were.
The Wingding font exists because it was essentially an early version of emojis: when somebody needed a graphic character inserted into early- and pre-Internet text, they would use fonts like this to do that. At this point, it's little more than an obsolete nuisance, but it's worth exploring where the word Wingding comes from. And to do that, you need to understand something important about the Wingding font: it is a dingbat, the blanket term for that type of pre-emoji font I just discussed. Since it was purchased by Windows, the words were combined to create Wingding. Cool! Now a little more on the dingbat. It's a printing term (later extended to computing, obviously) dating back to the early 1900s and referring to an ornamental letter used in headings, like those fancy Old-English style characters from ancient manuscripts. Nobody knows how that term got applied, nor any of its relatives: dingbat also had meanings such as "muffin", "Chinaman", "money", "woman", "penis", and "fool", among others. It was first attested in 1838, meaning "an alcoholic beverage", and sort of devolved into a jack-of-all-trades sort of word... and its major legacy involves the writing of other words.
Mexico is taking away our cars! No, really. Some of you may know the word jalopy, which means a broken-down or generally dilapidated automobile. Officially, the origin is obscure, but the best theory so far takes us to the Mexican town of Jalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz and where old American automobiles were sent to scrap in the early 1900s. Alternatively spelled Xalapa, this proper noun comes to us from Nahuatl Xalapan, which meant "sand by the water", a portmanteau of xalli, meaning "sand", all, meaning "water", and pan, meaning "place". All words have Uto-Aztecan roots. That's cool and all, but let's go back to the city of Jalapa. Its residents are called Jalapeños... as are special peppers that were traditionally cultivated in the region, and subsequently became popular among American exotic food-lovers. Yes, the word for an old car is connected to a word for a kind of spicy pepper. I love etymology.
The word tibia has unsure origins, but in either scenario, it's pretty interesting. It was borrowed into English in 1726 from the Latin word tibia, also meaning "the shinbone". However, there was another meaning for Latin tibia: it also described a type of pipe or flute made from reeds. Now, the uncertainty is whether the "bone" meaning or the "flute" meaning came first. One one hand, many early flutes were constructed out of bones, but on the other, the tibia kind of looks like a flute. If it's the former, then there is no known cognate and it is likely from a non-Proto-Indo-European source, and if it's the latter, then there is one known cognate, Greek siphon, meaning "tube", and the resulting reconstruction means that it is likely from a non-Proto-Indo-European source. Usage of the phrase tibia has been decreasing since the late 1800s, although it is still seen fifty times more often in literature than shinbone.
When the country of Bolivia was founded in 1825, they named it in honor of Simon Bolivar, a courageous soldier who fought in multiple Latin American independence wars. That's all fine and dandy, but it's interesting where the surname Bolivar comes from. Linguists trace all people with that last name back to a village in central-north Spain called La Puebla de Bolivar. The Bolivar part of that used to be written Bolibar, which is a blend of the words bolu, which was just another surname, and ibar, which meant "river". This in turn comes from the Proto-Basque word ibar, meaning "river". Yup! Basque! That weird enclave language with no other relatives, spoken in central-north Spain? Ha! And you thought it was Spanish this whole time! Nope, I never said a language; it was Basque. The truth is, the name for a Spanish-speaking country comes from a tiny European town from a linguistic oddity. Sorry, but that word really deserved a gloating surprise ending. Oh, the Bolivar is also the Venezuelan currency.
I made a new infographic today on the abbreviations of chemical elements, and there's one origin everybody is surely scratching their heads about. I'd love to go more in depth, anyway. The symbol for Tungsten is W. That stands for Wolfram, which is really unsurprising, considering that wolfram was the archaic term for "tungsten" before that fancy new Swedish word came along (this is. Here, however, it gets interesting. The prevailing theory is that this comes from a German portmanteau combining the words wolf, meaning "wolf", and rahm, meaning "cream". This is (a calque) modeled on the Latin phrase lupi spuma, which meant "wolf foam" and also described that metal for some reason. However, wolf is what we're looking at. Obviously from the same source as English wolf, it, through Middle and High German, comes from Proto-Germanic wulfaz, from Proto-Indo-European wlkwos, meaning "dangerous". At the same time as this was developing, rahm was also coming through Middle and High German from Proto-Germanic, in this case from raumaz (still meaning "cream") and ultimately deriving from Proto-Indo-European ru, meaning "skim". Though it is debated that rahm might have actually come from a word for "soot" or just a surname, if true, this would make the Wolfram|Alpha computational search engine have a name meaning "alpha dangerous skim".
It has come in many forms- baba ghanoush, baba ganoush, baba ghanouj, among many more. It seems that there are only three things people do agree on about this word: the spelling of baba, the fact that it's a type of Middle Eastern eggplant dish, and that the phrase originally meant "pampered father". We know this because that's the literal translation in Arabic, and there are three competing theories to explain the connection. First, there's the old folk tale about a toothless father who had to be fed pre-masticated food, something that no doubt looked like eggplant puree. Then, there's the suggestion that this was invented by a concubine in one of the historical sultans' harems for her master. This would make the sultan the "pampered father". Finally, there's the simple idea that this was cooked for less-than-deserving dads in general. I wish I could trace the words further, but the trail runs cold there.
Examples of etymology in action are so fascinating! You know, watching slang words develop. One such instance of this is the term cray-cray, which means "crazy". Not standardized, this can also be written cray cray or simply cray. Interestingly enough, this most likely comes from a misunderstanding about a 2011 Jay-Z rap lyric. In the family-friendly version, he said "that ish cray", and most people believed this to be an abbreviation of crazy that worked with the rhyme scheme, thought it was cool, and started using it. However, this is not a shortening of crazy. It was later admitted that the lyric referred to Ronald and Reginald Kray, powerful and schizophrenic mafiosos from the East End of London in the 1960s. A large number of people doubt this, but it seems credible enough to be true, and if so, this is my favorite etymology of the 2010s.
In James Cook's 1777 book A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, he detailed the Tongan custom of declaring immoral things taboo. This mainly included menstruation, but also other "unclean" things. There are two possible origins of this. The first is that it's from ta-bu, which meant "sacred" and is a portmanteau of ta, meaning "mark", and bu, meaning "especially" (emphasizing the importance of the mark in question). The more likely theory (since it actually has cognates in other Polynesian languages) is tapu, a word also with a similar definition of "sacred" but able to be reconstructed to a Proto-Polynesian word tapu, "prohibited". Whatever the case, finding out the truth is difficult due to a lack of evidence, but it is nonetheless clear that what is taboo to us is blasphemy to the ancient people of the South Pacific.
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.