FRENCH AND ITALIAN DISEASES
Syphilis first emerged in the 1490s during the French invasion of Italy. At that point, every country had named it after their enemies: the French called it the "Italian disease" and the Italians called it the "French disease", the Ottomans called it the "Christian disease", the Dutch called it the "Spanish disease", and the Russians called it the "Polish disease". The word syphilis itself was first coined forty years later in a poem by doctor Girolamo Fracastoro, who wrote about a shepherd named Syphilus who was sent by the gods to spread the illness. This quickly spread and became the most common name for it. We're not sure where Fracastoro got Syphilus from; it's thought to either be from Sipylus, a grandson of Tantalus in Roman mythology, or a Latinization of a greek word meaning "pig lover".
The concept of a semester was originally used in German universities, and English borrowed the word for them in the year 1826. It originally comes from Latin semestris, which meant "of six months" (the German system actually is six months long, although most American colleges now use about five). Semestris is composed of two other Latin words: sex, meaning "six", and mensis, meaning "month". This is very similar to the word trimester, which literally means "three months" (extant in pregnancy terminology and another academic term type that is not necessarily three months long anymore). Ultimately, sex comes from the Proto-Indo-European root sweks, which also meant "six", and mensis, through a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "moon", likely traces to the reconstruction meh, "to measure".
WEALTH OF THE ARMY
The word republic was first used by Anglican bishop John Hooper in his 1548 work Declaration of the Ten Holy Commandments. There, he spelled it republick, and that spelling prevailed for a while (along with republique and lesser-used forms like republict, repoblik, and reipublick) until republic became the normal way of writing in the eighteenth century. Via Middle French, the word was borrowed from Latin respublica, which referred more to "the state" in general than a particular type of government. This was originally two words: res, meaning "entity" or "affair", and publia, the feminine form of an adjective meaning "public" (so a republic is an "entity of the public"). Earlier on, res meant "property", and that comes from Proto-Indo-European rehis, meaning "wealth". Publia, meanwhile, derives from Proto-Italic poplos, meaning "army".
WIDOWS AND ORPHANS
Have you ever noticed that, when you're typing something into a document and your paragraph exceeds the page length, two lines drop down to the next page? That's because typographers consider it less readable when there is just one line dangling on a page, due to there being too much white space. The technical terms for those single lines on the top or bottom of a page are widow and orphan, respectively (a mnemonic used to remember this is an orphan has no past, a widow has no future). Some publishers use one of these terms for both instances, or do the opposite, as there is no real consensus. The Oxford English Dictionary shows orphan as being around since the 1980s, and widow being used for almost a century before that, starting as widdy and ultimately having an unknown origin.
TO NOT KNOW
The word incognito was borrowed in the mid-seventeenth century from Italian, where it meant "unknown". The same was true in Latin as incognitus, which was composed of the prefix in-, meaning "not", and cognitus, the past participle of cognoscere, "to get to know" (therefore something incognito was "not known"). Cognoscere also has a prefix, con-, that meant "with", which leaves the root gnoscere, "to know" (also the etymon of noble, connoisseur, and cognition). In- traces to Proto-Indo-European en (also "not"), con- to PIE kom, meaning "along", and gnoscere to the Proto-Indo-European root gno, also "know" (this is the source of gnome, diagnosis, ignorant, and a lot of other cool words). Usage of the word incognito in literature over time has been trending slightly downward, but is generally pretty constant.
When the word bureau was borrowed in the late seventeenth century from French, it meant "writing desk". Because these types of desks were very common in offices, the word also got metonymically applied to them, and that's how the definition "government office" and the word bureaucracy came about. Those desks also had drawers, which is why North Americans additionally use bureau to mean "chest of drawers". Going backwards in time, it gets even more interesting: bureau comes from the Old French word burel, which meant "woolen cloth" because they were frequently draped on top of writing desks as a cover. That's a diminutive of bure, meaning "dark brown cloth", and ultimately derives from either Latin burrus ("red") or burra, which referred to a type of wool garment.
In its early days, the word portfolio was sometimes spelled port-folio or portefolio, but when it was first attested in a 1713 collection of stories, it was Porto Folio. This hints at the noun's origin in Italian portafoglio, which meant "case for carrying papers" much like one of the definitions today. That's composed of the verb portare, or "to carry", and the word foglio, "sheet" - the connection should be obvious. Portare, through Latin, ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root per, meaning "traverse", and foglio traces to the Latin word for "leaf", folium (this is the etymon of foliage, frond, foil, and other such words). That in turn is from Proto-Indo-European bleh, which could be defined as "blossom" or "flower". So, if you go really far back, a portfolio is a "blossom traverse" - as if "carry sheet" wasn't cool enough already.
The United States Senate was specifically named after the Roman Senate (senatus) because it was designed to be similar in many regards. The word senate had existed in English for over five hundred centuries before that, though, mostly in reference to Rome but also meaning "legislative body" in general. The Latin term senatus literally meant "council of elders", because it was intended to be composed of retired magistrates who tended to be on the older side. Senatus stems from senex, which just meant "elderly" or "old man"; that, through Proto-Italic, traces to the Proto-Indo-European root sen, meaning "old". This makes senate a cognate of words like seneschal, senior, and senile. Usage of the word senate in literature has been strongly declining over time, but peaks in searches during every election cycle.
Today, the verb marshal serves as either a verb meaning "muster troops" or as a noun referring to a specific high-ranking military officer. The former came from the latter, and that traces to an earlier meaning of "court officer". As Old French mareschal, it meant "commander of a household", and as the even earlier Medieval Latin word mariscalcus, the title was given to the commander of a lord's stables. This traces to Old High German marahscalc, which meant "horse servant". The first part of that is basically the Proto-Germanic word for "horse", marhaz (also the etymon of mare; from Proto-Indo-European markos) and the second bit derives from PIE kelh, "to cleave". The given name Marshall is from the noun marshal and usage of the word has steadily been declining over time.
When the word session was first borrowed into the English language in the fifteenth century, it meant "a place for sitting". This definition quickly died out, but the word soon came to refer to a gathering of people for legislative or business matters particularly. Not long after, this got applied to everything else, and our the modern senses of the term (from recording music to meetings of the court) were born. Through Old French, it comes from Latin sessionem, which meant "the act of sitting". Sessionem traces to the verb sedere, or "to sit", and that (by way of Proto-Italic) in turn derives from Proto-Indo-European sed, also "sit". After becoming popularized in the mid-sixteenth century, usage of the word session stagnated over time, today making up about 0.00256% of all written English.
Psephology is the subfield of political science concerned with the scientific study of elections. The term was coined by Oxford historian R.B. McCallum, who was really annoyed at people saying electionology (he didn't like how it combined Greek and Latin components) and wanted something to replace it. For this, McCallum turned to the Ancient Greek word psephizein, which meant "to vote". This in turn comes from psephos, a noun meaning "pebble"; the connection is that the Greeks voted by using pebbles as ballots. Psephos comes from psao, a verb for "to crumble", and that might trace to a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like bas and meaning something similar. Usage of the word psephology in literature over time peaked in the year 1969 and has been decreasing since then.
The word cringe has been around for a while. The first modern use of the noun was in the 1570s and, as a verb, in the thirteenth century, but it had a lot of different definitions and spellings before that. Throughout Middle and Old English, it was attested as crinchen, crenchen, crengen, crencan, crencgan, crengan, and crenge, and meant "bend", "bow", "turn", and "cause to fall". It traces to the Proto-Germanic reconstruction kenk, or "curl up", and ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European greng, "to turn". Recently, cringe has been adopted in meme culture to indicate disgust toward something, usually a fandom of some sort. This shift began in 2013, and has resulted in both renewed usage of the word in literature over time and increased Google search frequency for it.
Somebody recently requested that I cover the word Klobmentum, which I thought was an interesting project. If you haven't been following the Democratic presidential primary, the term has been adopted by news outlets from the New York Times to channel television stations around the country to refer to Amy Klobuchar's unexpectedly good showings in New Hampshire and Iowa, and the anticipated surge associated with them. It's part of a wider trend among Klobuchar supporters to make portmanteaus such as Klobusurge and Klobucharmy, and (according to Twitter analytics) it emerged in late January and really took off in usage following her delegate win in Iowa. The parsing is curious, and almost seems linguistically unnatural, but, as other linguists noted online, perhaps Klo- alone could not work as a morpheme. It will be entertaining to watch this word develop further as the primary season progresses!
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is an illusion where, once you learn about the existence of something, you can't stop seeing it around (for example, this keeps happening to me with people saying based off of instead of based on, after I found out that was a common mistake). Now, looking at the name of the phenomenon, one would naturally assume that it's after the pair of psychologists or linguists who first documented it, but it actually traces to the Baader Meinhof Group, a left-wing West German terrorist organization active in the 1970s-90s. The connection is from a 1994 comment on the message board of the St. Paul Pioneer Press where the person noted that they heard two references to the gang in the last 24 hours and dubbed it a phenomenon. After that, a lot of other people started using the phrase, and it became an actual psychological term.
BULLS AND BEARS
In investing, the phrase bull market refers to when the economy doing well and stocks are going well, and bear market describes when it is performing poorly. Curious, I did some investigating, and it turns out the bear was first. According to Merriam-Webster, the term traces to an expression from the late nineteenth century that went something like "don't sell the bear's skin before you catch the bear" (basically a quirkier "don't count your chickens before they're hatched"). Over time, bear emerged to refer to people who bet against the economy, especially with options. Bull came about not long after based on the idea of a bear swipes down and a bull charges upwards to attack, and that could be metaphorically applied to the stock market going down or up, respectively. Usages of both expressions over time peaked in the 1930s and early 2000s.
The word butcher was first used in the year 1325, when it was spelled buccher. After that, it was attested as bocher, buchier, buchere, bochsar, bochour, bochyer, and bowcher; butcher was considered normal by the start of the seventeenth century. It comes from Anglo-French boucher, which had the same definition, and Old French bochier, which meant "slaughterer of goats" particularly. -Ier is an occupational suffix; the root is the word bouc, or "goat". That is either a descendant or cognate of Latin buccus, and most likely traces to the Frankish word bukk, still with the same meaning. Finally, it can ultimately be traced through Proto-Germanic bukkaz to Proto-Indo-European bug, or "ram" (making it a cognate of English buck). The pejorative use of butcher emerged in the early sixteenth century.
JESUS, IN THE FLESH!
The word incarnation was first used in the 1297 Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, when it was spelled incarnacion. Other forms since then have included incarnacioun, incarnacione, and incarnacyon; incarnation was standardized by the end of the sixteenth century, after which it has steadily trended upwards in usage. The term comes from Old French incarnacion, which referred specifically to the Incarnation of Jesus (all future definitions evolved from that). That traces to Latin incarnare, meaning "to make into flesh" - a parallel may be drawn to the phrase "in the flesh". Here we may separate the prefix in- ("in") and find the root caro, meaning "flesh". Through Proto-Italic, that derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ker, or "army". Don't even ask.
Although it seems like it could be a new formation, the word latex has been in use since the 1650s. Back then, the term was exclusively stylized with a capital L and referred to clear bodily fluid. By the 1800s, the spelling was standardized and a new definition of "milky liquid secreted by some plants" emerged. Then, in 1930, neoprene was invented, and that was an etymological game-changer: a new meaning of "synthetic rubber" emerged, named after the latex in rubber trees. Usage of the word latex exploded, peaking in 1935 as it became a household noun. The earliest "clear fluid" definition comes (through Latin) from the Ancient Greek word latax, meaning "drop of wine". That is thought to eventually derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction lat, which meant "swamp"; the reasons for both of the semantic shifts are unknown. Spandex was coined on the model of latex as an anagram for expands.
BASED OFF MY RESEARCH
After I posted my recent car brand etymologies infographic, someone pointed out in a comment that I used the phrase based off instead of based on (which is considered correct). This mortified me; I normally don't make grammatical mistakes like that. However, as I looked around, I noticed that a lot of my friends, classmates, and random people on the internet were saying it. Intrigued, I did some research, and it seems like the new usage seems to be increasingly replacing the old one, and in a few decades it may be the norm - Google NGrams shows based off becoming very popular in the 1990s and Google Trends has shown that it has just continued to rise meteorically since then. Apparently, people are confusing their prepositions as the phrase becomes more and more dissociated from the concept of an argument being built on something and instead likened to expressions such as going off. Fascinating.
Update: a day after I wrote this, I attended a debate at the Harvard Institute of Politics where one of the speakers used the phrase. It's everywhere, and it's infectious.
NOT A KNOT
Denouement is a rather beautiful literary term describing the final part of a story. The word was first borrowed in 1752 from French dénouement, which meant "untying". That has the suffix -ment, which was used to form nouns, and the verb dénouer, which was composed of the negating prefix des- and the root nouer, meaning "tie" or "knot". Des-, through Latin dis, derives from the Proto-Indo-European root dis, which meant "apart". Nouer traces to Latin nodus, which is the etymon of node and meant "knot" (ultimately coming from Proto-Indo-European ned, "to bind" or "to tie"). After it was popularized in the nineteenth century, use of the word denouement in literature over time has continually trended upwards, peaking in the 1920s. Interestingly, Google searches for the word spike every September, presumably when language classes assign it for memorization.
Racket and racquet are two spellings of the same word, both with the same definition. Both come from Middle French racquette; the only difference is that the latter is often used in a fancier context and was only popularized because people wanted to make racket look more like the original French. Racquette has an hotly debated origin, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists it as coming from the Arabic word raha, meaning "palm of the hand" (that would be from the Proto-Semitic root r-w-h, "leisure"). By 1785, a new meaning of "fraudulent activity" had emerged for the word racket, quite probably through another definition of "game" that is connected to the other words. Racket meaning "loud noise" is onomatopoeic and unrelated and the word racketeer was coined in 1928.
The word office was first used around the turn of the fourteenth century, when it was spelled offiz. Other spellings since then have included offys, offes, officis, offis, offyce, and ofice, but office has been widely accepted since the 1700s. The word comes from Old French ofice, which meant "position" rather than "workplace" (a definition that emerged later). That's from Latin officium, which had a lot of different definitions, such as "moral duty", "official position", "religious service" (from whence we get the verb officiate), "ceremony", and "business". Officium is a contraction of opificium, which was composed of the words for "work", opus, and "do", facere (so holding an office is literally "doing work"). Box office was coined in 1786, through a sense of money being kept in a box, and the phrase office hours was first attested in 1841.
Originally, an imbecile was a category used by psychiatrists to describe people with an IQ between 26 and 50, higher than an idiot but lower than a moron. This was a legitimate description used in courts to prove insanity, but it eventually grew to be pejorative, along with those other terms. The word, like most medical terminology, was taken from Latin, in this case from imbecillus, which meant "weak". That's composed of the prefix in-, meaning "not" (the n changes to an m before a b or p due to place assimilation) and the root baculum, meaning "stick". Nobody is really sure how to explain that connection; it might involve a convoluted link between being "unsupported" and not having a walking stick. Baculum comes from Proto-Indo-European bak, also meaning "stick".
PAPUA NEW BLACK
There are four countries with the word Guinea in their names - why? It all traces to a 15th-century Portuguese nickname for the area roughly around where southern Senegal is today (that's from a local self-appellation thought to trace to the Berber word aginaw, meaning "black"). Eventually the definition expanded to include all of the west African coastline, which was then partitioned by the colonial powers into French Guinea, British Guinea, and so on. Finally, many of those countries kept those names when they achieved independence, giving us the states of Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea. Papua New Guinea got its name from a Spanish explorer in 1545 who likened the skin color of the natives there to that of West Africans, the word guinea meaning "gold coin" was also named after the region in Africa because it was made out of gold extracted from the area, and the guinea pig was named after Guyana, which has a separate origin.
The verb sneeze was first written down sometime in the fifteenth century, but it had a lot of different forms throughout history. Around that same time, the words snese, sneese, scniese, and sneez were all recorded, among others. Even earlier, in Middle English, it was spelled fnesen, and the story of how that first letter changed is actually quite interesting. Back then, people sometimes used the long s, an archaic way of spelling the letter that looked sort of like an f (ſ), and since fn- words are so infrequent in the English language, people just assumed that spelling was incorrect and changed it to have a long s instead. Fnesen (which still had the same meaning) comes from Old English fneosan and Proto-Germanic fneu, ultimately deriving from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pneu, meaning "to breathe".
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.