Back in the days of Ancient Rome, each of the seven known heavenly bodies was associated with a metal: the sun with gold, the moon with silver, Venus with copper, Mars with iron, Jupiter with tin, Saturn with lead, and Mercury with, well, mercury. The normally liquid element was associated with the planet and the god it was named after because all three had an association with being mobile and quickly changing (this is also how we got the word mercurial). The god's name probably comes from the Latin word merx, meaning "merchandise", because Mercury was the god of tradesmen. The Greek word for the element, hydrargyros, is the reason that it's represented with an Hg on the Periodic Table. That name comes from hydor, the word for "water", and argyros, the word for "silver" (so, together, mercury was "silver water").
The word bandit was first attested in English in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2 (written at an unknown point in the late 1590s). There, he spelled it bandeto, and subsequent forms included bandetto, bandito, and bandite. These words hint at its origin from the Italian word bandito, which meant "outlaw", same as today. That's the past participle of bandire, a verb meaning "banish", since outlaws are people banished from society. That traces to the Vulgar Latin verb bannire, meaning "to proclaim" (the connection was that people were banished through proclamations), and the d might have been added because of influence from a similar Gothic word. Finally, bannire (also the source of ban and banish) derives from the Proto-Indo-European root bha, meaning "to speak".
Today, I mostly hear the word Providence either in reference to the capital of Rhode Island or in the religious sense, meaning "divine care". When the word was first recorded in the 1382 Wycliffe Bible (a book that shows up a lot in Middle English etymologies), it meant "foresight" and it only took on its ecclesiastical sense around the start of the seventeenth century, through the notion of God's foresight guiding people. The term comes from Latin providentia, which was formed from the verb providere, "to see ahead". Pro-, which meant "ahead" here, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root per-, meaning "before". Videre is the source of a lot of sight-related words, including voila, visage, visor, visible, visa, view, and much more. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction weid, also meaning "see".
Yesterday, I wrote about how the words convict and convince come from the Latin verb vincere, meaning "to conquer". Another word that probably has that root is province. The noun was first borrowed into English around the end of the fourteenth century, when it showed up with a variety of spellings, including prouynse, prouynce, prowince, provynce, and more (the spelling was later changed to make it look more like the original Latin). Through Old French, this came from Latin provincia, composed of the prefix pro-, meaning "before", and vincere. Provincia specifically referred to administrative divisions of the Roman empire, with a sense that they were conquered beyond the home region of Italy. Related to this is Provence, a region of southeastern France, because the Romans used to call it nostra provincia, or "our province".
When the word convince was first used in a 1548 history of the British royal family, it meant "overcome"! That definition died out in the seventeenth century, but a new sense of "to overcome in argument" emerged around the same time, which stuck with us to today. This actually makes a lot of sense if you look at the Latin roots of the word: con- is from the word cum, meaning "with", and the vince part comes from the verb vincere, meaning "to conquer". Finally, cum comes from Proto-Indo-European kom, meaning "beside", and vincere derives from Proto-Indo-European weik, "to fight". Convince is closely related to convict, since someone is convicted when a jury is overcome by the arguments of the prosecution, and conviction, which came to us by a notion of "proof" through overcoming evidence.
The prefixes of the words dissuade and persuade mean "against" and "thoroughly", respectively. So what does suade mean, and why don't we have it in English? There actually is a sort of obsolete word, suasion, which means the exact same thing as persuasion. It and the roots of the other two words go back to the Latin verb suadere, which meant "urge" or "recommend" (so dissuasion is recommending against something, while persuasion is thoroughly recommending in favor of it). Suadere derives from the Proto-Italic root swadeo, which is from the Proto-Indo-European root swehd, meaning "sweet" (also the etymon of sweet, along with words like hedonist, suave, and assuage). The idea was probably that the act of suasion required sweet-talking, or that the things being advocated for were often sweet.
I've skirted around topic of generic trademarks on this site before (see my posts on the dumpster, granolas, the frisbee, adrenaline, Kodak, and Xerox), but I've never gone into depth with an explanation. Basically, sometimes brand names for things can get associated with the product in general, normally when that brand has a large share of the market and/or is very good at branding. However, there's such a thing as too good branding, because trademarks in the US and UK can expire if a judge rules that they are now inextricably linked with the product. This sort of thing has happened with words like aspirin and escalator, and many modern companies are in a never-ending legal struggle to stop their trademarks from being ruled generic. LEGO has done a lot of public relations work to ensure that their name only is used for their product and not similar toys; Adobe is probably going to fail to hold onto their trademark Photoshop; and Google has been particularly litigious with this, suing dictionaries that list its name as a verb meaning "search" in general. A pretty interesting concept to casually follow!
While researching the etymology of the word spa, I came across several websites claiming that its name comes from an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Salus per Aquam, meaning "health from water". Such acronym theories are almost always fake, and this is no different. It's also been proposed that spa might come from the Latin verb spargere, meaning "to scatter", but in reality, spa was probably the name of a specific resort in eastern Belgium known for its medicinal springs, which were said to contain remedies for several medieval diseases (this term probably derives from the Walloon word espa, meaning "fountain"). At some point during the sixteenth century, British people started using the name of the Belgian town to refer to health resorts in general, and the rest is history.
When the word duffel was first used in some 1649 records from the colony of Connecticut, it was spelled duffle and referred to a kind of woollen fabric. Around the mid-nineteenth century, that was extended to the type of coat made of the material and "camping materials" that tended to be associated with it. Finally, the sense of "duffel bag" emerged in the 1930s. Before that time, the word was spelled duffel and duffle with about the same frequency, but duffle started to emerge as the more popular spelling, although the other form is still valid. The word comes from Duffel, the name of a town in Belgium where the textile was originally sold. That was attested in Middle Dutch as Duffla and might be a combination of the Gaulish word for "water", dubrum, and the Latin word for "place", locus.
The word clairvoyant was first recorded in a 1672 play written by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, with the definition "clear-sighted". This was the predominant sense for a while until "clear sight" gave way to "foresight" and it eventually got tied to the idea of psychic powers around the middle of the nineteenth century. The word comes directly from French, where it literally meant "seeing clearly", from the word clair (also the source of the name Claire), meaning "clear", and the present participle of the verb voir, "to see" (which also shows up in voila, voyeur, and interview). The former is from Latin clarus, which derives from Proto-Indo-European kele, meaning "to shout". The latter is also Latin, coming from the verb videre and eventually Proto-Indo-European weid, still "to see".
Turns out that Sacagawea's name wasn't originally Sacagawea. It's actually a Shoshoni rendering of the name she was given when she was a captive of the Hidatsas people, tsaka'aka wi'a, a compound of two nouns meaning "bird woman" (the reason for this association is lost to history). When she reunited with the Shoshone, they apparently folk etymologized her name to Sacajawea, which meant "boat puller", with this confusion probably causing the switch from a k/g pronunciation in the center of her name to a j. Lewis and Clark were no help at all in figuring this out, because they wrote down her name with a bunch of inconsistent spellings and personally called her Janey. According to Google Ngram Viewer, usage of the name Sacagawea spiked sharply in the late 1990s, peaking in 2004. My best explanation for this is the US issued a coin bearing her image in the year 2000, and there must've been both a lot of people discussing that and increased awareness of who she was in general.
The word knapsack (sometimes spelled knapsacke in its early days) was first attested in a 1603 history of the Second Barons' War. It was borrowed either from the Dutch word knapzak or from Middle Low German Knapsack. Either way, it comes from two Germanic elements: one looking like cnappen or knappen and meaning "to eat" and the word sack, which meant "bag", just like the identical word we use today. Earlier on, cnappen meant "snap" or "crack" - the sound was thought to be similar to those made while eating - and that's ultimately of onomatopoeic origin. Sack comes from Proto-Germanic sakkuz, Latin saccus, and Proto-Germanic sakkos, all also meaning "bag". Finally, that might be of Semitic, because etymologists have identified similar words in Hebrew and Egyptian.
The name of the Bosphorus, the strategically important strait connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, is the product of a misspelling! In the original Ancient Greek, it was Bosporos without an f sound, but when it got borrowed into Medieval Latin, it seems like the p was mistakenly believed to be aspirated, and since aspirated p's were written and pronounced as ph, that's how it got transcribed. It gets even more interesting: in Ancient Greek, the name meant "cow passage", because in Greek mythology there was a woman named Io who got turned into a cow and stung by flies until she crossed that strait. Eventually, bosporus sort of became a general word for "strait" in Ancient Greek; it was notably also used for the name of the waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.
In the new Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues, they mention the etymology of the word prestige, which is pretty interesting. When it was first used in the middle of the seventeenth century, it actually meant "deception"! The definition shifted to its modern sense through a notion of "illusion" or "glamour", and it gradually got more associated with reputation and influence. The term comes from Latin praestigium, which meant "delusion". That's composed of the prefix prae-, meaning "before", and "stringere", meaning "to bind" (together, this could be translated as "to blindfold", something that figuratively happened to deluded people). Finally, prae is from the Proto-Indo-Euopean root per, meaning "forward"; stringere, which also shows up in words like restrict, strait, strain, strict, stress, constrain, and constrict, derives from Proto-Indo-European streig, which could mean "rub" or "press".
The earliest recorded mention we have of the word crush in a romantic sense is from an 1884 diary of Cairo, Illinois resident Isabella Rittenhouse, who wrote that "Wintie is weeping because her crush is gone". It's thought that this sense of the term developed from the prior slang word mash (this had been recorded earlier with the same definition), since crushing and mashing were similar verbs. Outside of that, it seems like the word crush entered the English language at some point during the fourteenth century. Early spellings included cruschen, cruschyn, crusshe, and crousshe, and it comes from the Old French verb croissir, with the same meaning. Beyond that, it could be from the Frankish word krostjan ("to gnash") or from an unattested Latin word meaning "brush", but that's all uncertain.
Nightmares occur at night, but what does the mare part mean? The word (probably modeled after similar examples in Dutch and German) was first used in English around the start of the fourteenth century CE, when it was hyphenated. Mare in this context was an old word referring to a type of incubus that was thought to possess people while they slept and give them bad dreams (and in case you were wondering, this was completely unrelated to our modern term for "female horse" or the Latin word for "sea"). That comes from the Proto-Germanic word maron and Proto-Indo-European maro, both of which still meant "incubus". Finally, the night- part of nightmare is less interesting: it comes from Old English niht, Proto-Germanic nahts, and Proto-Indo-European newkt, which all had the same definitions.
The verb to orient (often spelled oryente, oriente, orientst, orien, or oriyenst in the early days) came from French orienter in the 1740s. For all intents and purposes, that had the same definition as our word, but more literally, it translated to "to face the east". That's because it comes from the Latin word orientem, meaning "east". Orientem is also the etymon of the noun Orient and the adjective Oriental, which originally just referred to things in the east, but became associated with Asia after increased interaction with Europe. Going back further, orientem served as the accusative present participle of oriri, meaning "to rise" (the connection being that the sun rises in the east, of course). Finally, that's from the Proto-Indo-European root heri, also "rise" (and the root of words like abort and origin).
The word bunk has two unrelated definitions: a "type of bed" and "nonsense". The "type of bed" meaning was probably a shortening of bunker, which was originally a Scottish slang term for a type of seat (beyond that, the etymology is uncertain). The second meaning is also a shortening, this time of the now-archaic noun bunkum (also "nonsense"), and that word is a corruption of the North Carolinian county name Bumcombe! For the story behind that, we turn to a debate on the floor of the U.S. Congress in 1820, when a North Carolina Representative called Felix Walker gave a very long and boring speech regarding the Missouri Compromise. Several other congressmen called for him to wrap it up, but he persisted, repeatedly saying that he wanted a quote of his to be featured in local papers and that it was a speech for Buncombe, not Congress. Thereafter, bunkum came to be associated with political claptrap and then nonsense in general, and Walker left his mark on history.
The word incest was first used in Middle English in an early thirteenth-century manual on how to be a good anchoress. Possibly through Old French inceste, it came from the Latin adjective incestus, which could refer to anything unclean, unholy, or unlawful. It was composed of the prefix in-, meaning "not", and castus, meaning "pure" or "chaste". In fact, it's also where we get our word chaste from, as well as the verb castigate (originally "to. make pure") and the noun caste (associated with "pure" racial groups). Going back further, in- is from Proto-Indo-European ne, meaning "not", and castus comes from the verb carere, meaning "to be cut off from" (as in something pure is "cut off" from all the impure stuff), which in turn gets reconstructed back to the Proto-Indo-European root kes, also meaning "to cut".
In France, the word for "public urinal" is vespasienne, and this has a very interesting etymology. They were originally called colonnes Rambuteau after the Comte de Rambuteau, who ordered their installation in the 1830s. Understandably, the Comte didn't want his name associated with pissoirs, so he suggested the use of vespasienne. This was a reference to Emperor Vespasian, who ruled Rome between 69 and 79 CE. During his tenure, Vespasian ordered a tax on any urine extracted from public toilets for use in tanning. This wasn't that strange of a directive - Nero had done the same thing a decade ago - but it was particularly memorable when he responded to criticisms with the quip pecunia non olet (or "money does not stink"), drawing him even greater mockery. Rambuteau used this story to his advantage and his name was quickly dissociated from the installations.
At first blush, the etymology of the word dough might appear a little boring. It's been around English for a while, showing up as dow, dogh, and dagh in Middle English and taking the form dag in Old English. That's reconstructed from the Proto-Germanic root daigaz, meaning "something kneaded". Finally, daigaz comes from the Proto-Indo-European verb dheigh, which could mean "build", "mold", or "form". The interesting part is the other words that came from deyg. We have the noun lady, which literally meant "bread-maker" in Old English; the last part of the word paradise, which meant "form a wall around"; fiction, which came to us from Latin through a sense of "building" a story; and effigy (something you "mold"), among many others. It's really cool how many word are related to plain old dough!
The other day, I heard someone use the word perfumigate, which I thought was rather clever (Urban Dictionary says it's the action of spraying perfume or cologne so liberally that the area smells worse). That's obviously a portmanteau of the words perfume and fumigate, and today I'll focus on perfume. The word only got associated with good smells in the 1530s, and before that it could refer to any smell in general. It was borrowed from Middle French parfum, and that came from the verb parfumer, meaning "to scent". Possibly through Occitan, Old Provençal, Italian, and/or Spanish, parfumer traces to the Latin prefix per-, meaning "through", and the root fumare, "to smoke". Per- we've seen before, but fumare derives from the Proto-Indo-European root duhmos, with the same definition.
One of my favorite kinds of cheese is manchego, which got its name from La Mancha, the region in south-central Spain where it was historically produced (that might also be familiar to some of you as the place where Don Quixote de la Mancha came from in the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes). That name literally means "the stain" or "patch" in Spanish, but the reason for this connection is highly uncertain and a lot of etymologists think that it's actually not connected. The proposed explanation for this is that it comes from Arabic al-mansha, meaning "birthplace", and that was folk-etymologized to the modern name. After being borrowed into the English language in 1905, literary usage of manchego rose sharply until a peak in 2014. It's mostly stablized now, making up about 0.0000017% of all English words.
The modern definition of the word crew was first used in English in 1578 with the spelling crewe (another early form was crue). Earlier than that, it had a more specific meaning of "group of soldiers" or armed men, and earlier still it was a term for a group of soldiers sent somewhere as reinforcements. It comes from the Old French word creue, which translates to "recruit" or "increase" (since recruits increase the size of an army), and that derives from the Latin word crescere, meaning "to grow" (also the source of crescendo, increase, create, concrete, and funnily, recruit). Finally, it all comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ker, meaning "to grow". The name for the crew cut hairstyle emerged in the 1930s after it was used by rowers from Harvard and Yale Universities, and the same thing happened with the crew neck shirt
On the Starbucks website, it says that the name of their company was inspired by Starbuck, the First Mate of the Pequod in Moby Dick. This was meant to evoke "the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders", but apparently there's more to the story. According to Starbucks co-founder Gordon Bowker, the idea came to him when he and some others were brainstorming potential brand names starting with st- (because an advertising executive thought those were more powerful) and somebody pulled out a mining map of the Cascade range. They pointed out a town named Starbo, and that reminded Bowker of the literary reference. The name worked perfectly for another reason, too: Starbuck Island is a coral atoll in the Pacific known for its shipwrecks, and the company's logo is a siren, which lures sailors toward shipwrecks.
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.