Cullion is an all-too-often-underused archaic insult with a meaning equivalent to "rascal" or "despicable person". Sadly, after a peak in usage in 1822, it has been fading in popularity and will soon be dead entirely, except for one usage in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew that will surely be thrust upon English classes for years to come. The etymology here is fascinating, so let's dive right in: as the Middle English word coilon, which meant "testicle". Obviously, that took on a pejorative meaning through time, just as many of our modern swear words also refer to genitalia. Coilon comes from the Old French word coillon, with the same meaning, and that in turn comes from Latin coleus, or "scrotum". Go back a couple centuries further, and we've arrived at Ancient Greek koleos, which meant "a sheath" because the scrotum is a sheath for the testes. Finally, it's reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European kel, "cover". What an intriguing word origin!
Somebody just requested the word Bojack, which I can only assume refers to Bojack Horseman, the anthropomorphic protagonist of his eponymous comedic television show. When we try to look at the etymology of his first name, we're faced with an immediate problem: the creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, never issued a statement on this, so everything we're about to cover is pure guesswork. The most viable theory is that Bojack was named after the titular antagonist of the 1993 anime film Dragon Ball Z: Bojack Unbound. Maybe Waksberg was a fan of Japanese sci-fi, and this seems to make the most sense because it's a previous instance of a rather odd name. That name in question would be derived from Japanese bojakubujin, which meant "audacity", so that also sort of makes sense considering Horseman's character. Other theories get increasingly less grounded in reality, from a homage to Hugh Jackman to a traditional horse-naming portmanteau of his parents' names (one suggestion was something like Bonnie and Crackerjack), but those seem to be really grasping and the DBZ explanation is most likely.
Contrary to popular belief, Finland is not part of Scandinavia. It does, however, fall within the classifications of Nordic and Fennoscandian. Scandinavia specifically refers to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. This is more historical than geographical: the Kalmar Union brought together the three kingdoms until 1523, and then Norway made its own unions with both Sweden and Denmark. There were actually a few occasions through time when Finland was grouped in with the name, but what really separated it from the other three was a "Pan-Scandinavian" unification movement in the 1830s, which sadly left out Finland. Scandinavia is a Latin term from the first century CE, initially used by Pliny the Elder in his book Natural History. Before that, it came from Proto-Germanic skadinaujo, which meant "Scadia island". We're not exactly sure what Scadia means, but the aujo part comes from PIE akwa, meaning "water".
Originally, the word average referred to "financial loss from goods being damaged in transit". This might seem very distant from the modern definition, but the connection is that anyone who invested in a ship with lost/damaged goods (or their insurers) had to turn in the average value of the damage. So, for a while, "average" meant "equal sharing of loss", and by 1755 the word took on its current mathematical connotation. Average was borrowed in the late 1400s from French avarie, which referred to ship damage in general. Beyond that, there are many possible explanations for the etymology; in fact, it's one of the most investigated origins, to no avail. It might be from Arabic awar, meaning "defect", Latin habere, meaning "to have", or various other linguistic permutations.
When the word plumber was first borrowed in the late 1300s, there were still over two centuries until the flush toilet was to be invented. At the time, the occupation was very different from today's stereotype, and the job description included working with any kind of lead. Later on, as running water began getting implemented everywhere, the pipes being used were chiefly made out of lead, so plumbers became associated with toilets and piping. The rest is history, but let's zoom backwards in time now. Plumber developed from Old French plomier, which meant "lead-smelter", and that's straight from Latin plumbarius, "worker in lead". The root is plumbum, which meant "lead" and is the reason why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb. Beyond that, things get hazy. There is a cognate in Greek, but it doesn't seem Indo-European. Maybe Etruscan or Iberian? Who knows. Point is, it's an interesting etymology.
Today I learned what kangaroo words are, and they're freaking awesome. The term refers to a word that contains its synonym in alphabetical order hidden inside it. For example, masculine contains the word male, blossom contains bloom, chicken contains hen, fabrication contains fiction, and much, much more. A comprehensive list of these words can be found at this Wikipedia page. A lot of these words are formed because they share an etymological root, so some sticklers mandate that a proper kangaroo word needs not be related to its "joey" word. Yep, it's called a "joey", just like a kangaroo baby is called a"joey"- that metaphor of carrying a smaller version of itself is how the term got applied. Equally interesting, if not more so, are "anti-kangaroo" words, which contain their antonym (such as comunicative, pest, and convent). Language is so awesome!!!
The verb censor first developed in 1833 from the noun censor, which today means "one who censors" but at the time had a very specific definition referring to a Roman magistrate who administered censuses and oversaw public morals. Obviously, that latter function is what stuck, but the entire meaning is important as we go through Middle French (the term was borrowed sometime in the 1530s) and back to the Latin verb censere, which could mean "judge", "appraise", or "value" - three things Roman censors did. That, through Proto-Italic kenseo, derives from the Proto-Indo-European root kens, which meant "proclaim". And, for those of you who were wondering, censor is indeed related to the word census through the Roman role, because the person in question did both things.
Bourgeoisie is a beautiful word which today describes the capitalist class in Marxism, but originally referred to the wealthier members of the Third Estate in pre-revolution France. The modern definition came about in 1886 from Marx's writings, but the "Third Estate" meaning was first used in English in 1707. At some unknown point, the French word developed from Anglo-Norman burgeis, which meant "town-dweller". That's from Old French borjois, the root being borc, or "town". In Proto-Germanic, that was burgz, meaning "fortress" (and the etymon of the toponym suffix -burg), and in Proto-Indo-European, it was brg, which was used to described fortified areas. Usage of the word bourgeoisie has declined sharply since a peak in 1983, paralleling the fall of communism pretty well.
The word neat was borrowed into English in the 1540s, after which it alternated with the spellings nete, net, and nette until the current form prevailed. Prior to that, neat derives from Anglo-French neit and Middle French net (this could mean "clean" or "pure"), showing that there was still variation. Eventually, this all comes from Latin nitidus, which held more metaphorical meanings of "elegant" or "trim" but literally meant "shining" or "gleaming". This is still semantically pretty similar to the current definition, but we drift ever so slightly from that as we proceed back to nitere, or "to shine". Finally, as Proto-Indo-European nei, it also meant "shine". Usage of the word "neat" over the last two centuries has remained pretty constant, as it's really ingrained in our culture now.
When the word anomaly was first borrowed into English in the 1570s, it meant something more like "unevenness" than its modern definition, but it was an easy extension from there to a connotation of "deviation from the ordinary" that developed in the 1660s. Before then, the word came from Latin anomalia, which came from Greek anomalos, which essentially had the same meaning. Here it gets interesting as we break apart anomalos into two: the prefix an- means "not" and the root homalos means "even", so an anomaly is, etymologically, "uneven". Homalos is from homos, meaning "same" (and the same root as can be found in words like homosexual and homogenous), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sem, which could mean "one" or "together". Quite interesting!
The word avalanche was adopted in 1763 from French, and that comes from a language we have not previously covered - Romansh, which is spoken in Graubünden, a mountainous canton of Switzerland. There, it was avalantze, which could also mean "descent", and that in turn derives from Savoy lavantse, from Provençal lavanca. Beyond that, things get hazy. The -anca suffix implies that it might be Ligurian, a dead language which might not be Indo-European, but there definitely seems to have been some Latin influence there, because labina means "landslide". Either that's related or it was folk etymologized to the point where it's difficult to tell the words apart. Usage of the word avalanche in literature over time has been rising disturbingly quickly. Perhaps it's all about to tumble back down again...
Discord is an online medium of communication that was designed chiefly for video gamers, but has since grown from that to include groups of all kinds. Obviously, the name is meant to imply a cacophonous conversation, much like ones that result on the platform, but there was a lot of thought that went into choosing it. According to creator Jason Citron, Discord was also picked because it wasn't trademarked, seemed like something that could easily be remembered, would work for a website name, and had to do with the product. However, if Citron knew the etymology, maybe he would've thought twice! When the word discord was first borrowed into English in the thirteenth century, it took the form of descorde and meant "unfriendly feeling". Before then, in Old French, it meant "disagreement", and the same was true with Latin discordia. The literal meaning for that, though, was "hearts apart" (the hearts metonymically standing in for people), as we see when we break off the prefix dis-, meaning "apart", and are left with the root cordis, or "heart". Cordis comes from Proto-Indo-European kerd, with the same definition, and dis did not change from PIE at all.
In recent weeks, I've been inundated with a sizeable influx of word requests, so I just want to take a moment to note that if I haven't addressed your submission in a post, it might have already been covered (which you can check by going to the Word Archives)- or there is no etymology to give, and that's what I want to discuss with the rest of this post. I often pick more glamorous origins to explain - ones with backstories and fun facts I can entertain you with. The truth is that the majority of the most simple words you rely on every day (the, no, and, it, small, how, etc.) have always been needed as humans use language. Thus, they have been present without much change in spelling or meaning throughout the eons. I'll illustrate this with a recently requested word, dog. It comes from the Old English word dogca, which referred to a specific breed of dog, and that, through Proto-Germanic, is from Proto-Indo-European kwon, also meaning "dog". It's just a word that's always been there, and because there hasn't been any major alteration over time, it doesn't merit a full blog post. So, just know that I'm not ignoring your request - in fact, I greatly appreciate it. Perhaps it was already done, or perhaps it's simply too simple. Still an interesting concept to cover, though!
When Alfred Nobel registered the patent for dynamite in 1867, he originally called it dynamit and drew on the Ancient Greek word dynamis, which meant "power", for the coinage. Eventually, when the word was standardized and taken into English, the e at the end was added. Nobel's decision may have been influenced by the pre-existing word dynamic, but the Greek root was definitely the source, and it all comes from the same place, anyway- the verb dynasthai, which could mean "to be able" or "to wield power". That in turn has an unknown origin but could be from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European term dewh, meaning "fit". Dynamite as a verb was first used in 1878 and the usage in literature over time is fascinating- it separately peaked twice during the world wars and is now declining in utilization.
The word property got spelled out a ton of times in the days of Middle English, so it makes sense that there were a lot of alterations to the word. At various times, one could find propertee, properte, propirte, and proprete, and in Old French it was propriete. Back then, it had a secondary definition of "individual quality", as well, because a property could be metaphorical too. That's not really important in tracing the etymology, though: just a curious detour. The Old French word comes from Latin proprietas, which meant either "a possession" or "a quality", and that's from the earlier adjective proprius, which meant "one's own" or "special". All of it, through Proto-Italic prijos, eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction preiwo, or "individual". Usage of the word property in literature over time since the turn of the nineteenth century.
In the television show and book series A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Daily Punctilio is an inaccurate newspaper causing trouble for the Baudelaire orphans. That's caught my attention multiple times, because there really aren't any other papers that use the same peculiar noun in their name. Turns out, a punctilio is a petty or insignificant point in proceedings. While that's normally more associated with courts, I can sorta see why the author, Lemony Snicket, chose the word for his paper. Punctilio was borrowed in the 1590s with a meaning of "point" from either Spanish puntillo or Italian puntiglio (from whence punctilious, "showing attention to detail", also derives). Either of those would be from Latin punctus, also "point", which as the verb pungere meant "to prick". Finally, we reconstruct it all to Proto-Indo-European peuk, with the same definition. You get the point.
Yesterday I mentioned that abstemious is one of only two words where all vowels appear in alphabetical order. It's a rarely used term, making up only 0.000016% of words used, basically meaning "not self-indulgent", often to do with food or drink (it's probably used less often because synonyms such as temperate or moderate can work just as well). The word was borrowed circa 1600 from Latin, where we can immediately chop off the ab- prefix (meaning "away from") and the -ous suffix, which denotes the presence of a quality. What's left is a mangled version of the root temetum, which in Latin was used to denote particularly strong drink, normally really powerful mead or wine. Etymologists are not absolutely certain what led up to that, but temetum could derive from Proto-Indo-European temh, meaning "dark", because the strong beverages in question were often quite dark.
I learned a fun fact from my Princeton college interviewer today! Apparently facetious is one of only two words in the English language to have all the vowels in alphabetical order (the other being abstemious, and, as a bonus, both can take the -ly suffix to fit the "sometimes y" rule). This beautiful word for "unserious" (often at inopportune occasions) came from French facetieux in the 1590s, the root being facetie, or "joke". This in turn derives from the Latin adjective facetus, which could mean anything from "witty" to "elegant", but mostly similar to the modern definition. Where that comes from is actually a bit of a mystery. The going theory is that it's somehow related to the Latin word for "torch", facis, through the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gehk, "to shine", but that's really sort of a stretch.
Most people know that Valentine's Day is named after St. Valentine, but the rest isn't discussed too often. The Latinized version of the name is Valentinus, the root being valentia, or "strong" (also the etymon of the chemical term valence). Valentia is the present participle of the verb valere ("to be strong") and that, through Proto-Italic waleo, eventually derives from Proto-Indo-European hwelh, which could either mean "to rule" or "to be strong". As you can see, the saint's name really has nothing to do with love, and neither did the saint himself... until the High Middle Ages, that is, when it became a custom in English and French courts to choose a sweetheart around that time of year when birds choose their mates. By the 1450s, the concepts of Valentine's Day and love were inextricably linked, and we've never looked back.
In English, a large number of our etymologies involve affixation, wherein a word element is attached to an existing word to make a new word. We often see terms with prefixes and suffixes, which involve parts being added before and after the root, respectively, but nobody ever talks about infixes, which involve an affix being inserted into the middle of a word, rather than on the ends. This is very rare in our language, and is only really found with chemical compounds (like how pipecoline was formed from picoline) or with the infix ma (like how edumacation was created to sound quasi-intellectual). Infixation should not be confused with tmesis, the insertion of an entire word, which we've seen with a whole nother, the diddly in scrum-diddly-um-ptious, un-freaking-believable, and a few more expletives. Both are very cool processes that don't get enough recognition!
I've always liked the word pecuniary ("of, or pertaining to, money"), and I like it even more now that I know its scintillating origin. The term was borrowed at the turn of the sixteenth century from Latin pecuniarius, which basically had the same definition. The root is pecunia, meaning "wealth", and that is from pecu, meaning "cattle". That might seem like a leap first, but makes more sense when you consider that livestock was a way to measure wealth in old times, so we went from "cattle" to "wealth in cattle" to "wealth". Pecu, probably through Proto-Italic, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction peku, also "cattle". Usage of the word pecuniary in literature over time peaked in 1840 and has been decreasing since then, but it is still a beautiful word with a beautiful etymology.
The name Beijing combines the Chinese words bei, meaning "north", and jing, meaning "capital", for an overall meaning of "northern capital". This name was coined by the Ming emperor Zhu Di so as to contrast to Nanjing, the "southern capital". Together, Beijing and Nanjing served as the two administrative cities of the Chinese empire... until a series of political changes left us with just the northern capital being the actual capital. Something similar was happening in Japan: Kyoto used to be the capital, so its name literally means "capital" (kyo) "city" (to). However, when Tokyo was chosen to replace it, they named it "eastern" (to) "capital" (kyo). The two tos mean different things. My final secretly redundant capital is that of Kazakhstan- the city of Astana has a name literally meaning "capital city" as well, deriving from a Persian word for "threshold". Fascinating!
There are 21 cities and towns named Rochester in 17 American states, Canada, and Australia. All of these are named after Rochester, a city in Kent, England. But where does that name come from? Let's start with the suffix -chester, which you've certainly seen in many city names. That and -cester always come from the Old English word ceaster, which means "Roman camp", so all cities with names like Leicester, Westchester, Worcester, and so on (just some examples I could think of) were either colonized by the Romans or are named after cities colonized by the Romans. Meanwhile, the stem of the word comes from the Old English word Hrofes, which is the possessive of the name Hrofi. So Rochester means "Hrofi's Roman camp"... except it doesn't. Turns out that the scribe who copied down the name into English, St. Bede the Venerable, mistranslated the Latin word Durobrivae, which was supposed to be "fort by the bridge". Instead of "bridge", we got Hrofi, which became the Ro- in the 22 international Rochesters.
How did the letters x and o come to represent hugs and kisses? Let's start with x: the practice of using this letter goes back to the Middle Ages, when it was used by illiterate people to sign documents. X was probably so common due to its simplicity and resemblance to the Christian cross (it was associated with Jesus for a long time before that). After signing, many of those people would kiss the signature to emphasize the importance and religious aspect of the mark, and thus the association got formed. The o part of it is a bit more obscure. It might have something to do with Jewish immigrants to the United States, who signed it with an o to not use the cross, or with shopkeepers who signed that way. It could've been formed as a contrast to the x, or adopted because of an aesthetic similarity to what a hug looks like, or just taken from tic-tac-toe. A lot of that is speculative, but any one of those origins would be fascinating if correct.
The word slogan was first attested sometime in the 1670s, but it was around since the 1510s in the form of slogorne. These terms come from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, which meant "battle cry". This is rather surprising, but makes sense if you consider the context: slogans used picked up by political factions, which ranged from violent to peaceful. By 1704, the word adopted a secondary definition of "distinctive phrase", something that was later applied to companies as well. Sluagh is from the Old Irish word slog, also "army", and that (through Proto-Celtic slougos) eventually is from Proto-Indo-European slowgo, or "entourage". Ghairm, meanwhile, hails from Old Irish gairm, "cry", which (through Proto-Celtic garman) eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ghr, also meaning something like "shout". I just think that's an awesome and unexpected etymology!
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.