Check tomorrow's post for a satirical April Fool's etymology. The word fool today means "a silly or unwise person". This was phonetically very similar throughout its career in English, but it definitely changed semantically. Back in the fifteenth century, any "silly" person was frowned upon as indecent, since they were all serious folks back then. Many indecent persons were prostitutes, and so was the word fool: it used to mean "sex worker". Sadly, as you go back in history, this curious usage fades: this came from the Old French word fol, which meant "idiot", much closer to our current definition. This in turn is from Latin follus, "foolish", from the earlier Latin word follis, which meant "bellows" (as in the thing you use to waft a fire; the meaning applied to follus was metaphorical and implied an empty windbag of a person), from follicus, "a little bag" (the source of the scientific term follicle today, directly). This is from the root follis (completely different from the later one; don't confuse the two) which had to do with inflating stuff, from the Proto-Indo-European root bhel, or "to swell". Because of how foolish people manipulated language, a fool has thus been "a clown", a "prostitute", and a "bag". LANGUAGE IS AWESOME.
A chupacabra is a mythological creature from Latin America, so it makes sense that the origin would be from Spanish. However, grammatical errors over time failed to take into account that the correct singular in Spanish is chupacabras, with an s. Minor errors aside, since the chupacabra is infamous for murdering goats, it is not that surprising either that it the word for it is a portmanteau of chupar ("to suck") and cabras ("goats"). Literally: goatsucker. Chupar is reportedly of onomatopoeic origin, though this is unconfirmed. It may also be of imitative origin. Cabras, on the other hand, is more clearly traced, deriving from the Latin word capra, specifically meaning "a female goat". This then makes a gender change to mean "he-goat" in Latin as caper, and is ultimately from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root kapros, also "male goat". Not much semantic change there, but curious enough!
I found this out while finishing up my latest infographic (which is now on the corresponding page): the word clavicle, being the scientific term for the bone stretching from your shoulder to your sternum, has fascinating origins. First, it derives from the French word clavicule, which meant "collarbone", from its Latin cognate. This was kind of a metaphorical usage of the earlier Latin word clavicula, which meant "small key", sort of because the clavicle fits in like a key. This is from the earlier word clavis (clearly also the source of Spanish llaves), also defined as "key". This probably comes from the Proto-Indo-European word klehw, "hook" through Proto-Italic klawis, but an alternative theory pegs clavicle as from the same root but through the Greek word for "key", klis. I guess we'll never "unlock" this mystery, but if anyone ever does, it will be the "key" to linguistic success.
People have oft described war as a kind of ballet, but it's pretty crazy how intertwined the two are etymologically. Ballet is a word which can be traced through French and Italian (which makes sense, because ballet as a dance came to France from Italy), and eventually leads to the Italian root ballo, or "dance" (balletto meant "short dance"). Ballo is from Latin ballere (also the root of Spanish bailar), which derives from Greek bailizein, which meant "to dance or jump". Since the next logical link from "jump" is "throw", it is not surprising that this comes from the earlier Greek word ballein, or "to throw", from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gwele, which doubled as "throw" and "reach". Anyway, ballein lead to the later Latin word ballista, which described a type of catapult that "throws" stones. This came to be associated with projectile weaponry in general, and that's how today's crude nuclear ballistics are connected to the refined art of ballet.
Scapegoating is a word basically meaning "to throw someone or some group under the bus". So what does Scape- mean, and what is a goat doing in the word? Turns out it all stems from a mistranslation of the Bible! Scapegoat was coined in 1530 by William Tyndale, who wanted to find a translation for the part in Leviticus 16 that presumably had to do with one goat that was not sacrificed while another was. However, many ecclesial scholars today believe that the word was translated improperly, and instead of goats the Hebrew word Tyndale thought meant "goat" referred to the proper names of demons. Now we know the semantic reasoning: what about the phonetic change? Scape-, which meant "escaped", roughly, probably is a shortening of escape, which I'm saving for a later post. Goat has an glaringly obvious Germanic origin, from the Proto-Germanic term gaito and PIE ghaido, both of which also meant "goat". It's amazing how much of our lexicon comes from mistakes.
When Darwin discovered evolution, he didn't make the word up. It had already been in the English language for over 200 years, and meant "unroll", but was largely used in the sense of a popular military formation at the time. This came from the French cognate evolution, from the Latin word evolutionem, referring to the unrolling of a scroll or book. This is a conjugated form of the earlier word evolvere, "to unroll". Evolvere is a portmanteau of the barely-recognizable prefix ex-, meaning "out of" and the stem volvere, or "to roll". Going further back, etymologists reconstruct the word as having derived from the Proto-Indo-European term which sounded something like wel and roughly meant "revolve". As Darwin used it, evolution was meant to describe how animals "unrolled" into being what they are today, and the rest is history.
Such a simple word like sheriff hardly seems like it would elicit a convoluted origin. However, it is rather complicated. Somewhere between Old English and Middle English, the word evolved from the previous word scirgerefa, which literally meant "local official in a shire", as a combination of scir ("shire") and gerefa ("officer"). Scir, now, came from the Proto-Germanic word skiro, meaning "district", which derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for "to cut" (since districts were divided, or "cut"), ker. Meanwhile, gerefa was developing from the Germanic family of languages, but we're not exactly sure what it was before; only that it had vague military connotations. It seems to possibly be a portmanteau of the intensifier ge and the root rof", which may have meant "host" in the archaic form (like a battalion, almost). Meh. What we know for sure is that sheriff used to mean something like "army cutter".
The word shark has uncertain origins. What we know for sure is that the animal was first brought back to England by John Hawkins, whose crew had dubbed it a "sharke". They provided no source for this word, but there are several theories. The dominant conjecture is to the Yucatan word xoc, which referred to "an ill-defined group of large fish or whales", according to a paper by etymologist Tom Jones. This came from the term hkan xoc through ah kan xoc, which was the morpheme applied to a mythological giant creature. This probably traces to the even earlier phrase chak uuyab xooc, which sort of meant "demon fish", or at least we think so. Both evidence and research at that point and beyond get blurred. This is certainly a viable theory, but there's a wrench (according to Jones): "why is there no trace of [xoc] in Spanish [if it's] from Yucatec?" There should be; the Spanish had much more influence and time in the area than some English explorer. This is why a second theory is proposed: it may be from the German word schurke ("scoundrel"), from Old German scuren. We also mustn't discount the possibility that the crew made up the word. I guess this a quest for linguistics sharks!
In a bizarre twist, the word robot derives from Czech, something rare in English. The word picked up popularity after the 1920 sci-fi play Rossum's Universal Robots. In it, flesh-and-blood people were depicted as servants, which explains both how robot today is a "servant" and how the word has origins relating to people. Anyway, the robot part came from the Czech word robotnik, or "forced worker" with "farmer" connotations (sort of like a serf), from robota, "slavery". This derives from the Proto-Slavic cognate orbota, which is in turn from the earlier Proto-Slavic word orbh, "slave". Etymologists reconstruct the word as coming from the Proto-Indo-European term herbh, or "to change status"; something one must do when sold into slavery. Anyway, back to the play. Rossum's Universal Robots eventually made its way to the US, where the latter term came to be applied to machines serving you, an easy connection to make. If anyone refers to a "slave robot" or your "robot" updates its "status", appreciate the etymological irony. It's also justified to giggle at farmers losing their jobs to robots now!
The word puzzle has a missing piece in the grand etymological scheme of things. Linguists know for sure that it came from the earlier (now antiquated) term pusle, meaning "bewilder", but beyond that they're bewildered. The dominant but unconfirmed theory right now is that it's from the older word pose (not that one; it's a homonym), which meant "perplex", in conjunction with the suffix -le. Pose is an etymology we know; this comes from Middle French poser, or "assume", from its Old French cognate and etymon, poser, which meant "to place" (presumably the new definition developed metaphorically). This comes from Latin pausare ("to rest"), which derives from the earlier word pausa ("halt"; also the forebear of pause through the French word pausee). This is from Greek pausis, from pauein, "to stop", from the Proto-Indo-European word pehw, which meant "few" for some reason beyond my etymological knowledge. Whatever. Perhaps in the future when you peruse a puzzle, this'll give you pause.
The word cervical, if you bothered to notice, refers to two different parts of the human body. It may mean "the lower part of the uterus", as in cervical cancer, or "relating to the neck", as in cervical vertebrae. Cervix is the same story, though normally more exclusive to the uterus. How did this come about? To find out, we look at the farthest root, the Proto-Indo-European word kerh, which... wait for it... meant "head". This hodgepodge of body parts is really weird until you realize that the neck is attached to the head, and is a logical derivation as the word traveled into Latin as cervix, or "neck". This passed into English for scientific use in describing the neck, but doctors began overusing the word and applying it for anything that remotely looked like a neck. This is why by the eighteenth century cervix also began to be applied to the "neck of the womb"; same story with its derivative, cervical. "The part of the uterus" is a more common definition now because it's used much more; people get afflictions down there more often than in the neck. However, it also stands to etymological logic that any malignant tumor above the shoulders can also be considered "cervical cancer".
If the word reckless is a synonym for "careless", what does reck mean? Let's find out! Reckless can be traced through several alterations in the earlier forms of English, including rechless, retchless, rekles, rekeles, and receleas, but ultimately derives from the Old English word reccileas, which was a combination of reccan "to care" and the archaic form of the suffix -less. Since the reck- is what we're after, let's leave -less for a later post. Reccan, deriving from recan, goes back to Proto-Germanic, as many multi-consonant hard-sound-ending short words do. In this case, it stems from the West Germanic word rokjan, from the Proto-Germanic word rokja, still "to care for". This in turn can be followed to the Proto-Indo-European word meaning "help", reg. However, the legacy of its etymon reck has faded into antiquity since the sixteenth century; it died out, as all words will in the end. Since we are without the term, it may be said that we are reck-less.
Right now, the word kowtow has essentially one usage: it's a political insult meaning "to act subserviently", normally to a group of people. But where did this word come from? Turns out it was a Chinese diplomatic act! In order to show fealty to the emperor, one would bow so low his head would touch the ground. Thus, kowtow meant "knock head" in Mandarin. This is a portmanteau, of the words k'o ("knock") and t'ou ("head"). Since Chinese is weird compared to our Indo-European languages, t'ou is a phono-semantic compound, an etymological concept not present in our tongues and a tricky topic for transliteration. This means that an unrelated sound, tau, denoting plants, and the character meaning "head" combined to give us the word, and going further would be irrelevant (and besides, I'm hardly skilled enough to explain it more). Both of these terms are obviously of Sino-Tibetan origin, and kowtow has been steadily growing in popularity since its introduction in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in New Zealand, for some reason.
The word puny, mostly meaning "small" or "inferior" at this point, is a 1570s loanword from French. When it went into English, it meant "of a lower rank", so it's unsurprising that this comes from the word puisne, which meant "born after": younger people typically had lower ranks. Puisne is a portmanteau of puis ("after") and nez ("born", also the source of nee, pertaining to marriages), which is curious because it's rather small for such a combination. Puis is an alteration of the Latin word postea "after", from post, supposedly from the Proto-Indo-European word apo, "away". Nez or ne, as it sometimes appeared, is also a drastic shortening of Latin, this time from the word natus (the etymon of natal), meaning "birth". This is the past participle of nasci, "to be born", which derives from the word gnasci, which in turn traces to PIE gene "to give birth". The most interesting things we can glean from this are that puny has ageist connotations and it is quite the puny portmanteau.
The word hysteria has an origin embroiled in misogynism. The word originally denoted a mental affliction: Sigmund Freud published several papers on it in the 1880s, effectively popularizing the word, which would more than double in usage since 1870. Before that, it was also a clinical term. However, this affliction was one attributed to women, who would supposedly grow "hysterical" during menstruation and similar processes. This is evident in the term's etymology, which traces to the Greek hysterikos, or "suffering in the womb", an alteration of the earlier word hystera, or "womb" (from which the modern word hysterectomy, "operation on the uterus", also derives. This may have come from the Proto-Indo-European udero, which encompassed several lower body parts (the Indo-Europeans didn't have too good of an anatomical knowledge set). Anyway, back to the outrage of hysteria! After people realized that the word was a load of patriarchal jargon, it fell in favor, until hysterical was revived as meaning "very funny", similar to how crazy became an adjective with a positive connotation. Serves those sleazy 'scientists' right.
Six millenia ago, Proto-Indo-European speakers invented the word grumo. This was a weird word; according to its reconstruction, it meant "scrape together", "scratch", or "claw" in addition to "lumber" and "junk". This eventually caved into the Proto-Germanic word krumo, which meant "fragment", since the "junk" you "scrape together" are "fragments" of "lumber", I suppose? That would be ideal, but it probably only developed from one of the aforementioned definitions. None of my sources know what happened next: the word was marked as "obscure" until it mysteriously resurfaced in Old English as cruma, still meaning "fragment". Here the word split into two. One one hand, the word morphed to crymel, meaning "to become fragments", another instance of anthimeria. From there it changed several times, incorporating the Old English term crymlan to the Middle English term crymblem to the more modern word crymble, to crumble, which is what it is today. Makes sense. Meanwhile, as crumble was developing, so was crumb, with one major difference. It went from Old English cruma to Middle English crumme, with no addition of a b. Later, as Modern English developed, it adopted that b under the folk etymological influence of crymble to become today's word crumb. It's fascinating how these words influence themselves over time to become what they are today.
For such a futuristic word, astronaut sure has old origins. It was popularized by NASA for the Mercury missions, but lingered in the English language among the stories of science fiction writers, arguably as far back as the nineteenth century. Whoever did create it obviously combined two Greek words, astro (also the source of astral), meaning "of the stars", and naut (also the source of nautical), meaning "of the sea". Astro is a combining form of the earlier Greek word astron, which meant "star". This comes from the Ancient Greek word aster, from Proto-Indo-European hster, both still meaning "star". Here it gets interesting: hster is reconstructed as having come from the even earlier PIE word hehs, which meant "to burn", though it wasn't until thousands of years later that we realized that the stars are continuously burning. Naut, on the other hand, comes from nautes ("sailor"), which itself derives from naus, ("ship"). This probably traces to the Proto-Indo-European word nau, which meant "boat" and may or may not come from the earlier PIE word meaning "swim". So while we can definitely say that an astronaut is a "star sailor", it's only a possibility that they are also "fire swimmers".
Today we venture into the realm of neologisms; many adults don't know what this word means, though some zombies might. Fleek, an urban slang word meaning "awesome" that is now surprisingly popular among schoolchildren, was attested several times throughout the eighteenth century, peaking around 1744, when it was a probably unrelated word meaning "bushy" and chiefly used by poets who needed more -eek rhymes. Though there were a couple mentions throughout the centuries, the word as it exists today did not rise in prominence until a 2014 Vine video where the user Peaches Monroee (a Chicago teen) used it to describe her eyebrows. "[The word] just came to me out of the blue," she was quoted as saying. It does not appear to have any correlation with the 1700s word, especially since in the context she used it in, it meant "awesome". Later that year, fleek was used by pop singer Ariana Grande, and it rapidly gained traction from there. In recent days, fleek has lost popularity slightly; Google searches for the word are down 56 percent since their peak in May 2015. However, it's just gaining momentum in other countries like South Africa, and it's liable to remain part of our vernacular forever.
The English language is multifaceted and ever-changing, and that reflects in the word English. When it first appeared in the English language, it was the word Aenglisc, "of the Angle tribe", an important Germanic group of people. Since then, it has altered an insane amount of times, going through phases where it was Englisc, Inglis, Inglish, Englisch, and Englishe, until the spelling standardized itself in the current form around the seventeenth century. But where did Aenglisc come from? It derives from the Old English word Aengle, basically a self-appellation. The Aengle people were named as such because they came from the Angul region of Denmark, which was so named because it looked like a hook, or an "angle". This, as we found out in a previous post, is from Latin through the Proto-Indo-European word for "to bend". The suffix -isc, however (of Aenglisc, if you forgot), derives through Germanic rather that Latin, from the morpheme iska, or "of a place".
The word tourney is often used in old-fashioned knights in armor stories to describe a jousting competition. It's not really surprising that it's connected to the word tournament, but what the correlation implies is so much more fascinating. Through a couple transitional phases, both words can be followed back to the French word tornoier, or "turn", incidentally also the source of the current word turn. This is because people back in the old days didn't just go to a tournament, they "took a turn", hence the word. Tornoier comes from the Latin word tornare, now meaning "to turn on a lathe", and metynomically, from the earlier word tornus, meaning "lathe" (a kind of wood grinder, that is). This, as many Latin words do, comes from Greek, in this instance from the cognate tornos, which is reconstructed as being from the Proto-Indo-European word tere, "to rub" (since a lathe "rubs" wood). Next time you take a "turn" "rubbing" your new trophy after a "tournament", appreciate the irony.
The word crazy has two main definitions. One is "mentally deranged" and the other takes on a more positive connotations, as either an adverb or adjective meaning "interesting" or even "enthusiastic". The word is slowly shifting towards the latter over time. However, in the past, the word was created by the addition of a -y to the word craze, which at the time meant "diseased" or "sickly", as in she was in a craze, This went through several alterations as we go further back in history, including crase, craize, and craise, but most etymologists agree that this traces to the Middle English word craisen, or "to break", apparently because a sick person is "broken". This allegedly derives from Old Norse krase, or "to shatter", from an unknown origin. An interesting antonym which is almost a homonym: most of the Slavic languages have something similar to the Polish krasa, which meant "beauty".
A commonly asked grievance I hear is "why isn't the plural of moose the 'word' meese? Unlike goose/geese, moose is a loanword from a Native American Algonquian language, and we kept their phonemic structures for it. Elaborating further already brings us into the realm of linguistic guesswork, because there is few research in non-IE languages. While we know this comes from one of the tribal tongues in the New England area, we're not sure which; many of them have cognates. Moose (which in English itself went through a few variations as mus and moos) may have been from Massachusett mws, Narragansett moos, or Penobscot mos. Yes, those are all languages, and at least we know for sure where they trace from: Proto-Algonquian, where linguists reconstruct the animal word as originally being moswa, or "to strip off", since moose "strip off" bark. This most likely can further be followed to Proto-Algic, but the lines get blurred.
The etymology of burrito is really obvious, but nobody stops to think about it, as it's basically become a single morpheme at this point. Since -ito is a Spanish suffix meaning "little", burrito means a "tiny burro", or a "tiny donkey" (pretty macabre; that's probably what kind of meat stuffed the original burritos). Burro comes from the earlier Spanish word with the same definition, burrico, which stems from Latin, as many Romance language words do; in this case from the word burricus, which was a type of horse- not much of a change. Since the burricus horse was tinted chestnut, it makes sense that burricus would come from the Latin word for "reddish-brown", burrus. By similar logic, since fire is sort of reddish, it also is unsurprising that this comes from the Greek word for "fire", pyrros. from pur ("fire"), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European term pehwr, or "bonfire". It's amazing how these three words, so hard to connect by heuristics, make perfect sense when considered from a step-by-step point of view.
The phrase fascist has a curiously inappropriate origin. The term as we know it comes from Benito Mussolini's intolerant partito nazionale fascista, or "Italian National Fascist Party". While we can disregard the first two words as irrelevant, the third meant "group or association" back then, without the racist undertones of today. This comes from a very literal origin, from the word fascio, meaning "bunch" or "bundle" (since a group is a "bunch" of people "bundled" together by common beliefs), and going backward to Latin, it narrows even more to fascis, or "bundle of sticks". If this sounds familiar to vulgar speakers, it should, because that same word went into French as fagot, and from that it added a g into English as the curse word now meaning "homosexual" (since one was rudely and inaccurately considered a "burden", like a bunch of sticks). Anyway, these two words met at the Latin term fascis, which came from Proto-Italic faski ("bundle"), and both are ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European word bhasko, meaning "band or bundle". In any case, it's at least whimsical to see such a racist word sharing roots with a homophobic word, though neither were originally rude.
The etymology of jeopardy has surprising and whimsical origins. Since the word means "danger or risk", it, like hazard, originates in gambling, where it comes from the French phrase jeu parti, which meant "a fair game", or more correctly, "a divided game", because a game that's equally divided is fair. Since there is a surprising amount of risk in a 50-50 game, it came to be that "dangers" were associated with anything you didn't have a slight advantage in. Anyway, the words jeu and parte respectively came from the Latin words iocus ("joke", since many games aren't more than that) and partitus ("divided"). Iocus derives from Proto-Italic joko, from Proto-Indo-European yek, "speaking" or "word". Partitus came from the Latin word pars, meaning "part", and that may or may not come from the Proto-Indo-European word meaning "exchange", per. Whatever the case, jeopardy, though deriving from a word with the implications of "risky game", traces all the way back to words which together mean "speaking part", and many contestants on the show Jeopardy! play a "speaking part". Etymology is so circular sometimes!
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.