The word jiffy has held many different meanings throughout history. Most people don't even realize that it's a unit of measurement, and use it interchangeably as moment; however, it does have scientific meaning as well. Nowadays, it's referred to by computer animators as the time it takes to go from one frame to another, or 0.1 seconds conventionally. Prior to that, it was used by engineers to denote the time between electrical alternating currents, which could either be 0.0167 or 0.02 seconds. It's also been used to refer to much smaller times, such as the time for light to travel one centimeter (0.0000000000334 seconds) or the time for light to travel one Planck length (it has 43 zeroes in front of it). But before these "official" defined usages, "jiffy" has been used colloquially for a while. It was first attested in 1785 and in early days was thought to be the time for a lightning strike to occur, possibly having came from a code word used by eighteenth-century hustlers to mean "lightening".
In the late 1300s, English speakers adopted the word vulture to describe that large necrovorous bird we so often erroneously associate with buzzards. This, through Anglo-French vultur, Old French voitoir, and Latin vultur, eventually can be traced back to the Latin verb vellere, meaning "to pluck" or tear". It's pretty obvious how this transition occurred: the flesh-tearing bird eventually got metonymically named after the action of tearing. This has two possible proposed Proto-Indo-European predecessors: that it's from hwelh, meaning "wool", because you can pluck wool, or that it's from wel, meaning "to pull", because tearing and pulling are basically the same things. Either way, vulture has an interesting cousin if you're willing to follow me back to vellere for a moment. This later evolved into the Italian word svelto, meaning "lengthened", because things that are pulled out are lengthened, which would later mean "slender", because lengthened people are slender. Through French, this gave us the word svelte that we use in absolutely no relation to vulture today.
Most people know that the word flu is a truncation of the more scientific term influenza, but only a few know about the origin after that. Arguably through Spanish, it comes from the Italian word influenza, which comes from the Italian word influentia. This had a distinguishably different definition, one which you may have figured out already: "influence" (except this is particularly in a supernatural sense; the broader influence that we know today evolved in the late 1500s from that word). This is because early people with flu were thought to be under the influence of the stars, so there you go: they had ill omens from above. This is from the verb influere, which meant "flow" or "stream", because the stars were supposed to be emanating a flow of influence. Eliminate the prefix -in and we have the verb fluere, with basically the same meaning (and the origin of fluent, through Latin fluentum, "relaxed"). Finally, this is from Proto-Indo-European bhel, meaning "to swell", making it the distant cousin of other words like follicle, bollocks, ballot, boil, beluga, and hundreds of other words. Anyway, I'm writing this blog post under the influence of the flu, which makes it all the more relevant and whimsical.
The Python programming language was named after the British comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus because the creator, Guido Van Rossum, was a fan and wanted his language to be short and unique, like that of the TV series. So how did the cast of Monty Python decide on their name? It was a completely arbitrary string of random words meant to be funny, and that's that. But, yes, Python was inspired by the deadly snake. This serpent, in turn, was named after the mythical scourge of Apollo's temple at Delphi in Greek mythology, and that almost definitely gets its name from the old name for the island of Delphi, Pytho. Further analysis suggests that the island name originates from the Greek root pythein, meaning "rot", from Proto-Indo-European dheub, meaning "hollow". So, here we have a language named after a comedy named after.a snake named after a monster named after an island, which has intriguing origins of its own. Etymology is awesome!
Spring has sprung, and Easter is right around the corner. So what does the word Easter mean, and does it have any relation to the cardinal direction east? Let's find out. Easter was a pagan holiday (which would later be reappropriated to Christianity, just like Christmas was from Saturnalia) that was meant to celebrate Eostre, a Germanic goddess of rebirth, spring, and fertility. Her name comes from the Proto-Germanic root aust, meaning "sunrise" (something to do with both rebirths and fertility, in a way). This in turn probably hails from the Proto-Indo-European root aus, meaning "to shine", because the sun shines. Makes sense, but let's swing back to aust for a second. It had a second meaning of "east", because the sunrise occurs in the east, and, through Old English eastan, is the etymon of our word east. So not only is the Easter Bunny pagan and fertile, but it's the opposite of the Wester Bunny, in a serious, etymological sense.
Scurvy, that disease brought about by a lack of Vitamin C, has pretty milky origins. Originally spelled scurfy, it used to be an adjective meaning "covered in scabs". The meaning narrowed because of exposure to a Dutch cognate which actually meant the disease, and the definition was extended because people with scurvy develop scabs and similar symptoms. Though it is somewhat uncertain, it is likely that scurfy comes from the Old Norse term skyrbjugr, which literally meant "sour milk swelling", of the elements skyr, "sour milk", and bjugr, "swelling". The correlation here is because of how scurvy sufferers' stomachs could swell after swallowing sour milk. That's one theory, however. Other possibilities include the Middle Low German schoren, which meant "to lacerate", because of lacerations in the stomach caused by scurvy. So, yeah, a lot of stomach stuff associated with scurvy.
Somebody, I assume from my school, just requested the word flaze. This is a slang term which means something like "ridiculous" or "terrible". A quick Internet search yielded absolutely no results on this except some Urban Dictionary entry defining it as "something you don't like". No origin listed there, or anywhere else for that matter. However, when I was recently reading Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments, I noticed she used the phrase "flase supposition". This has a very similar context and I was in fact able to get a definition on it: apparently it's an old word meaning "weak". However, it's still too obscure for an etymology. Based off its monosyllabacy and fl- initial sound, this probably has ancient Germanic origins. This is all conjecture, however, so take my ramblings with a grain of salt.
Since tacos are made of corn tortillas, and corn comes from the Americas, I expected the unusual-sounding word taco to have Native American origins. And, indeed, the Aztecs are thought to have eaten tacos. But that's not where the word comes from. When the Spanish encountered the delicacy in the sixteenth century, they called it taco, their word for "a light lunch". This is a bit of a metaphor; the literal meaning is "plug", and by eating a taco you could put a proverbial plug in your hunger, as it were (this strikes me as ironic because tacos these days need plugs to stop all the food from falling out). This comes from the Old French word tache, meaning "nail", which in turn came from Middle Low German zacke, meaning "sharp point". Apparently that got less dull over time. This is from Proto-Germanic tag, from Proto-Indo-European dek, both with connotations of sharp objects. Probably due to increased commercialization of the food in the era of globalization, usage of the word taco has been increasing almost exponentially in English since about the 1960s.
Salsa is both a type of tomato sauce and a type of dance, and both definitions come from the Latin word for "salt", sal. That word later evolved into salsus, which meant "salted". Many sauces are salted, so it's not that surprising that salsus became the Spanish word salsa, which was brought into English in the year 1846. And since salsa is made of many mixed ingredients, and the salsa dance is a mix of different types of dance (jazz, rock, and general Latin music), it makes sense that the word would further be applied to name the dance in 1975. That second meaning must have been much more popular; usage increased almost 50 times over from 1974 to 2000. This was a really interesting series of transitions, but let's go back to the Latin word sal. This has a simple origin; it comes from Proto-Indo-European root sehls, with the same meaning.
In May 1980, the game Puck-Man was released in Japan, starring a lovable yellow protagonist fleeing ghosts while eating pixels. Five months later, Pac-Man released in the United States. Why the switch? Game developers were afraid of crude colloquial substitutions of the leading p with an f, which would ruin the innocent fun of the game for many, so the vowel change occurred. Now, back in Japan when Puck-Man was first coined, the term had nothing to do with pucks as we know them. It most likely came from the Japanese verb paku, meaning "chomp". This occasionally could take the form of paku paku, defined as "flapping open and closed", with a specific emphasis on the mouth. Essentially, chomping. Obviously all this chomping stuff refers to all the eating Pacman does in the game. Usage of the term Pac-man peaked in 1985 but has experienced a recent resurgence.
Treacle is how British people say molasses, and treacle tart is Harry Potter's favorite dessert. Well, it's origin gets pretty wild. Before people realized that treacle was a great sugar substitute, they believed that it could be used as an antidote to snake venom. This was so extreme that, earlier, as the French word triacle, its literal meaning was "antidote" (again with an emphasis on serpents). With the same definition, this came from the Latin word theriaca, which came from the Greek word theriake. This is a conjugation of theriakos, a term meaning "of, or pertaining to, wild beasts" (through a connection of "bite"). Theriakos further comes from ther, which meant "beast" in general. That, through Proto-Italic kwher, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ghwer, still with connotations of "wild animal". I'm never going to read Harry Potter the same way again now that I know Hagrid makes tart out of wild animals...
In 1872, Alexander Williams got appointed Captain of the East 35th Street Precinct of the NYPD. At the time, this was a red-light district, brimming with brothels and oozing with potential kickbacks, bribes, and loose money. Mr. Williams wasn't the most scrupulous of gentlemen, and therefore was very happy with his new job. "I've been having chuck steak ever since I've been on the force, and now I'm going to have a bit of tenderloin," he famously remarked. This was a metaphor. Chuck steak is known for being a "subprime" part of a cow, and tenderloin for being very delicious. Here, meat is used to refer to the types of bribes he'll be getting, and Williams is excited that, with all these illegal things going on, he'll be getting the "tenderloin" of all bribes. From there, "tenderloin" evolved into a euphemism for "red light district" in general, with San Francisco adopting a "tenderloin district" of their own for those reasons. The resemblance to the phrase "tender loins" is just a very serendipitous coincidence.
The word auger, meaning "a tool for boring holes in wood", is not to be confused with the word augur, meaning "foretell". It's the first word we're concerned with today; in Middle English it was spelled nauger. This is the same type of rebracketing that we saw in yesterday's blog post about the word adder, and the ones we explored a while ago in uncle: the phrase "a nauger" inappropriately got rewritten as "an auger", and the rest is history. Previously, the word was nafogar, which meant "drill nave", a phrase which, for all my research, I still don't know the meaning for (but apparently a nave is a kind of hub or something). This is from Proto-Germanic reconstruction nabogaizaz, which meant the same thing, apparently a portmanteau of the ancient words for "nave" and "drill", nabo and gaizaz, respectively. Nabo in turn is from Proto-Indo-European hneb and gainaz is from PIE ghey, meaning "move".
An adder is a type of venomous snake, which is appropriate, because it has a poisoned etymology. Okay, maybe that's melodramatic, but it certainly took a surprising turn. Back in Middle English, the word was addere, and before that, it was naddere. Why the dropping of a consonant? Well, in the olden days, people said "a naddere" so much that it became "an addere," and the shift occurred (this is a process known as rebracketing). In Old English, the word was naeddre, and in Proto-Germanic, it was nadro. By then, the meaning had broadened to "a snake" in general, though, phonemically speaking, we have traveled quite a way from the original term. Further reconstructions take us to the Proto-Indo-European root netre, also "snake", which in turn may be from a word sounding like neh and meaning "to twist", because snakes twist. Apparently, there was a bit of natural selection going on: nadder was also a word, briefly, in the nineteenth century, before it faded into obscurity.
You would have expected that the Canary Islands were named after canaries because of all the birds found on the islands, but it's actually exactly the opposite. The islands (discovered in Ancient Greek times) were already called the Canary Islands when people decided to associate a bird common to the area by name in the 1650s. Meanwhile, the Canary Islands were named after a completely different animal. It's likely that the name comes from the earlier Latin phrase Canariae Insulae, which meant "dog islands", canarius being the Latin word for "canine". This was likely named after all the dogs living there (and ironically not the birds). Anyway, canarius is a conjugation of canis, meaning "dog", from Proto-Italic ko, which in turn is from Proto-Indo-European kwo. Both of these other words also meant "dog". Surprisingly, usage of the word canine in literature is over four times as much as usage for its linguistic cousin, canary.
Fun fact: the head of a heretical movement is a heresiarch. Anyway, the word heresy has been used for a while to describe beliefs contrary to the Church, whatever religion that might be. This was borrowed in the early days of Middle English from the Old French word heresie, which described immorality of any kind. In Latin as haeresis, this referred to a particular philosophical notion that we should choose to be immoral, and that choice becomes all the more important as we trace this further back to the Ancient Greek word hairesis, meaning "choice". This is from the verb harein, which meant "to choose" and officially has an unknown origin. However, speculation can bring us back even more to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ster, which could have meant something more like "to seize" or "to take". So all this means that heresy is a choice, a philosophy you happen to take. Unsurprisingly, use of the word heresy has decreased since conservative times.
Pandas seem like the most innocent, uncontroversial animals of all time, so perhaps it's poetic justice that its origin is hotly debated. There's a multitude of competing theories I was able to read about, but I'll just cover the main ones. There's the Tibetan phrase nigalya ponya, with a loose meaning of "eater of bamboo" (this was originally applied to the red panda, though it's really more of a skunk than a regular panda). This would have lost the first word over time and gotten modified to panda, according to the theory. Another possibility is that it comes from Tibetan phon nya, which meant "messenger". In either case, it's not Chinese; though they have a whole batch of their own hotly contested etymologies for their word for panda, it's not related to ours. We got our word for panda through French, surprisingly enough. It's surprising that it's not the British, because they were actually in the area, but this is how language works.
The word safari was introduced into English in the 1860s, and was recognized as a word in the 1890s. Defined specifically as an expedition to see or hunt wild animals, the term comes from an identical-sounding Swahili word, which meant "journey". Mere associations with Africa caused the new definition to arise later. The Swahili word is thought to come from the Arabic word safara, meaning "travel", a verb rather than the previous noun (quite a lot of Swahili words come from Arabic, because of all the trade in East Africa). Safara comes from the root s-f-r, which had connotations of traveling and likely derives from Proto-Semitic, and then Afro-Asiatic. Safaris seem to be popular; usage has steadily increased since its introduction, albeit Google Trends shows it kind of steady in search usage.
Two days ago, I talked about how the word carnival literally means "a farewell to meat" because that's what everybody had to give up for Lent. The true meaning of Mardi Gras is exactly the opposite. Also a word for the day before Lent, just celebrated in a different culture, I never stopped to consider its literal translation. Okay, I'll spill: it means Fat Tuesday in French, because of all the food you'd plow into yourself right before the fasting started. Some of you knew that already, but let's trace it further. Mardi comes from the Latin word Martis, which meant "of Mars", the Roman god of war, after whom the day was named. Gras is from the Latin word crassus, meaning "dense" (not too different from "fat", really. This in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European kert, or "to weave", because of ropes or something. Anyway, Mardi Gras means not only fat Tuesday, but also of Mars to weave. Cool.
We get our word vinegar from the French word vinaigre, which had the same meaning as today's term. This is actually a portmanteau, that of vin, meaning "wine", and aigre, meaning "sour". It sort of makes sense if you think about vinegar as sour wine; it is fermented, and red wine vinegar is a thing. Vin is from the Latin word vinum, from the Proto-Italic word winom, from the Proto-Indo-European root woyhnom, which still meant "wine". Meanwhile, the word aigre was coming from the Latin word acer, which had several definitions, including "sharp", "bitter", and "sour". This, through Proto-Italic akris, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hkros, which also meant "sharp". Now here comes the interesting part: remember aigre, which meant "bitter"? That came into English as a word that had a definition more like "fierce" or "angry", which later evolved into our word eager, which developed under a correlation of "powerful emotions".
Our word carnival comes from the French word carnaval, which in turn comes from the Italian word carnevale, their version of Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday, or the day before Lent starts. Now, Catholics aren't supposed to eat meat during lent, so it sort of makes sense that the word carnevale means "without meat". There are a lot of ways to interpret the meaning of that term, so, in alternative definitions, it also means "put away meat", "raising flesh", or even "farewell to meat". This is a combination of the Latin words caro, meaning "flesh" or "meat", and levare, meaning "lighten" or "raise" or "remove". You can see why the previous definitions were so confuzzling. Anyway, caro comes from the Proto-Italic word karo, still meaning "flesh", but that comes from Proto-Indo-European ker, now meaning "army" for some reason. Levare came from levis, which meant "light". Through Proto-Italic leyis, which in turn is from Proto-Indo-European hleng, still meaning "light".
Every morning, I wake up to Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner as my alarm. It's the perfect song to get you out of bed because its loud crescendoes imply winged fury sweeping down to bear you away. And that's exactly the purpose, because a valkyrie is a being from Norse myths that determines who goes to Valhalla, their pagan heaven. Now, this etymology is quite literal but nonetheless scintillating. Now properly stylized Valkyrie, the word valkyrie or walkyrie comes from the Old Norse valkyrja, which meant "chooser of those killed in combat". Though the middle stages are a bit obfuscated, this definitely stems from the Old Norse elements valr, meaning "slain", and kjosa, or "to choose". Valr comes from Proto-Germanic walaz, which meant "corpse" and is also the etymon of Valhalla, which itself means "hall of those killed in combat". This in turn can be reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European welh, meaning "injury". Meanwhile, kjosa derives from Proto-Germanic keusa and Proto-Indo-European gews, which both also meant "to choose". However, earlier on gews meant "to taste", so when reconstructed farthest back, valkyrie means "tasting injuries." Yuck.
When the word tariff entered English in the 1590s, it referred to an official list of customs on trade, or even a mathematical table of any kind. This makes sense; in that medley of Medieval Latin and Italian, tariffa or tarifa meant a "list of prices", something not that dissimilar. The Italians, who traded a lot with Muslims, stole both the idea and word from them, leading us to Arabic ta'rif, which most recently meant "inventory", but before that meant "information" and before that meant "notification". This is all the more important meaning because it is best connected to the previous word's definition: Arabic arafa meant "he taught". This is probably from a Semitic root like r-f (no vowels, of course), which in turn could be said to be Afro-Asiatic. R-f generally had something to do with knowledge. Usage of the word tariff has decreased a lot since the early 1900s, but searches for the word in Google has dramatically increased in the past few weeks, with all the political drama.
I'll admit it: I said fleg-um for the first sixteen years of my life. Properly pronounced flem, phlegm is the term for mucus that you cough up. But to understand its etymology, you need to understand humorism. This has nothing to do with comedy; humorism is actually an ancient and inaccurate medical belief conceptualized by Hippocrates which states that there are four fluids in the human body: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Phlegm occurs when you have a cold, so obviously it's caused by too much heat. So this all comes from the Ancient Greek word phlegma, which described that cold, wet humor (this, by the way, through Old French fleume and Latin phlegma). Back to phlegma. Because of the "heat" theory, it simply meant "inflammation" earlier on, and before that, it meant "burn" as phlegein. This is from phlox, which meant "flame", and is ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root bhleg, or "to shine".
The word Sanskrit unsurprisingly comes from the Sanskrit language, where it took the form of samskrtm, which meant "put together" but also had a synonym of "perfect" (probably because the sacred Vedas were written in it). This is a portmanteau of the other Sanskrit words sam, which meant "together", and krta, which meant "do" or "make". Sam is from the Proto-Indo-European root sem, which meant "one" (under a connection of "unification"), and that's the end of that. It's krta's development which is interesting. This comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kwer, which meant "to do" as well. This same root later independently evolved into the Sanskrit word karma, which meant "an action" (something that you do). Actions have consequences, and the meaning eventually shifted to "fate", although the original definition also remained intact. This became the Buddhist concept that we know so well, which was introduced as a word into English in 1827, connecting two of the farthest apart Indo-European languages. It might be fate.
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.