Prefrosh is a word used by some colleges to refer to high school students who were admitted to their institution but are not attending yet. This term is usually first applied during the admitted students' weekends, and lasts all the way until classes begin. Pre- obviously means "before" and frosh is another word for freshman, which has recently had a resurgence in usage since the 1990s. But how did that term develop? It's a pretty natural etymological clipping to lose the -man suffix, but the weird vowel swap in fresh to frosh is quite confusing and even irritating if you don't know the reason behind it. Turns out it's a pun! There's a German word, frosch, which means "grammar school pupil" but also "frog", so a frosh is simultaneously a freshman, a metaphorical frog, and a pupil, while a prefrosh is even worse off.
In 1901, the pharmaceutical company Parke, Davis & Co. (now a subsidiary of Pfizer) registered the trademark Adrenalin to describe a new purified extract from the adrenal glands that was perfected by Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine. In Europe, people added an e to that, and that's how we got the word adrenaline. Takamine coined the word from Latin ad, meaning "near", renal, meaning "kidneys" and the chemical suffix -ine, because the adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys. We've seen the prefix ad an inordinate amount of times, and (surprise!) it still comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to", "near", or "at". Renal, meanwhile, traces to Latin ren, also "kidneys". This has an officially uncertain etymology, but could be from PIE gren, which referred to internal organs in general.
Due to their sky-blue hue, sapphires have always been associated with the heavens, which is why ancient Indians named it sanipriya, meaning "sacred to Saturn" (a particularly karmic planet), from the Sanskrit words Sani, meaning "Saturn", and priyah, meaning "precious". Usage of this word traveled into the Middle East as the Hebrew word sappir, which also referred to lapis lazuli. That went into Ancient Greek as sappheiros (probably not related to the poet Sappho), which was still associated with both gems, and that in turn was picked up by the Romans as the Latin word sapphirus. That diffused into Old French as sapphir and was borrowed into English in the mid-1200s. The adjectival form arose in the 1400s and peak usage was in the late 1800s as sapphires boomed in popularity due to new imports from Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Madagascar.
The word acceptance was first attested in the 1570s, and is modeled off its French equivalent but comes from accept, which was around since the 1300s. The Old French root of that is accepter, from Latin acceptare, which still had about the same meaning of "receive willingly". That's a frequentative of accipiere, and now we can break it apart. Leading the word is the prefix ad-, meaning "to", and ending it is the word capiere, "to take". Of course, it's sort of weird adding that affix to an infinitive, because you repeat to, but whatever works, I'll accept it. Ad in Proto-Indo-European meant "to", "near", or "at", and, through Proto-Italic kapio, capiere derives from the PIE reconstruction kehp, meaning "seize" or "grab". Usages of the words accept and acceptance in literature over time peaked in the 1960s for reasons I can't discover.
Oulipo was a rather fascinating literary movement originating in France that focused on so-called "constrained writing" techniques. The most famous example is Georges Perec's 3pp-page novel A Void, which is lippogrammatic for (excluding) the letter E entirely. It's harder than it sounds. Other examples include palindromes (something that reads the same backwards and forwards), univocalisms (when words have only one vowel), and snowball poems (where each word is a letter longer). All of this is particularly fascinating to me, especially as someone who's failed at making a lot of Oulipo poems. Even more fascinating is the word's etymology - Oulipo is an acronym of the phrase Ouvroir de litterature potentiell, which, roughly translated, means "workshop of potential literature" in French.
It's a relatively well-known fact that Harvard University's famous motto, Veritas, means "truth" or "truthfulness" in Latin, because the school values integrity so highly. This was adopted in 1643, replacing the more religious Christo et Ecclesiae motto, which meant "Christ and Church". The root in veritas is another Latin word, verus, which was basically just the adjectival form of the noun, meaning "true". That is reconstructed as deriving from Proto-Italic weros, which would be from Proto-Indo-European wereo, "trustworthy". So not much semantic change, but the descendants of verus are pretty interesting. Veracity, verify, versimilitude, and very are all cousins of veritas, and more than 1,500 words stem from PIE wereo. Usage of the word veritas in English peaked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and has been decreasing since then.
When the word crimson was borrowed into the English language in the 1400s, it took a lot of different forms. There was cremesin, cremesyn, and several other variations, and all of that was borrowed from Italian, where there was an even more diverse myriad of forms. Carmesi, cremesi, carmisino, and cremesinus all meant the color throughout time, but could also refer to the cochineal dye used to create crimson. The Italians acquired those terms through trade with the Arabs, who had their own word, qirmiz, to describe kermes, the type of dye made from crushed insects that yields the color red. Eventually, the word traces to Proto-Indo-European (not Proto-Semitic!) krmis, meaning "worm", because at one point the hue was also made through crushing worms. How lovely.
The word nefarious was borrowed into the English language at the turn of the seventeenth century directly from the Latin word nefarius, which had a similar meaning of "wicked". That's a modified form of nefas, which could mean "crime" or "impiety". Nefas is composed of ne, meaning "not", and fas, meaning "divine law" (since a crime contradicts divine law). Therefore, something that is nefarious. Ne is an element present in many languages (for example, in Serbian, the word for "no" is ne), ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction with the same spelling and definition. Fas derives from PIE behos, which meant "utterance", and that can be simplified further to beh, or "speak". So, if we go back as far as possible, nefarious means "no speech", and calling someone nefarious is tantamount to telling them to shut up.
It's pretty well known that Harvard University is named after John Harvard, who helped found it in the 1630s. But what does his name mean? In the past, variations such as Hovard, Hovart, Hereuuard, Heruart, and Hoovart were recorded, but to trace the etymology we need to go to the Old English surname hereweard, which literally meant "army guard", composed of the elements here, or "enemy army" (not related to the modern word), and weard, meaning "guardian" or "watchman". Here is from the Proto-Germanic word harjaz, which comes from Proto-Indo-European ker, still meaning "army". Weard, meanwhile, came from Proto-Germanic warona ("to protect") and ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wer, which meant "to become aware of". So, depending on how far back you go, the word Harvard can mean "to become aware of armies" or "army guard".
In 1605, Francois Hannibal d' Estrées, a marshal in the French artillery, recovered a manuscript written by an alchemist almost a hundred years ago for a drink which allegedly provided longer life. Unable to make heads nor tails of it, he gave the paper to some Carthusian monks situated in the outskirts of Paris. They also had trouble understanding the complex 130-herb recipe, so they sent it on to the main monastery in their order, la Grande-Chartreuse. A yellow-green alcoholic beverage was successfully produced, modified, and became quickly popular. Knowledge of how to make it soon spread beyond the monastery, and Chartreuse became a widespread drink, today marketed as Les Pères Chartreux. The word chartreuse to describe it was borrowed into English in 1866, and by 1884 the word also began to be used to describe the yellow-green hue that was frequently found in those beverages. That's how a color came to be named after a liqueur, which in turn was named after a monastery. Etymology is awesome!
The word periwinkle can describe a light purple color, a kind of evergreen plant, or a cute little gastropod. The name of the hue alludes to the appearance of the flower, and the name for the flower has been around for a while. In Middle English, it went through some alterations such as perwinke and parvink, and in Old English, it took forms like perwince and perfince. It all derives from the Latin word for the flower, pervinca, which has an uncertain origin. There's one theory that it could be related to or coming from the verb pervincire, meaning "entwine", but that's not for sure. The name for the sea snail is a bit of a different story. It's composed of the Old English roots pine, meaning "mussel", and wincel, meaning "spiral shell". This was combined together to form pinewincel, which was then intentionally altered to look more like the word for the flower, even though there is no etymological connection. Pine is from Latin pina, also "mussel" (that being from Ancient Greek), and wincel could be from a Proto-Germanic word for "corner".
Samaritans follow Samaritanism, which is sort of a different form of Judaism, and the phrase "Good Samaritan" derives from a parable in the Gospel of Luke (first attested in the 1630s). Samaritans are also traditionally from the region of Samaria. But here's the thing: we're not sure if the Samaritans are named after Samaria, or if Samaria is named after the Samaritans. It's sort of a chicken-and-the-egg kind of question. Even then, the origin is disputed and even politicized (because there's a whole debate over whether the people-group rightfully owns the place). There is a Hebrew cognate which traces back to a word for "to guard", shomer, and the Samaritans' own appellation for themselves is Shamerim, which means "guardians of the Torah", so that probably hints at an etymology which is thereafter uncertain.
Solipsism is the philosophical concept that only your own mind definitely exists, and that any other knowledge is uncertain. The idea was first put forth by Descartes and his statement cogito, ergo sum, but the term wasn't borrowed into English until 1871. The word is composed of three parts, all in Latin: solus, meaning "alone", ipse, meaning "self", and -ism, a suffix commonly used for ideologies or concepts. Solus, which is the etymon of English sole ("alone"), comes from the Proto-Indo-European reflexive pronoun swe, which can sort of be translated as "oneself". Ipse, since it also has to do with the concept of self, coincidentally also comes from swe, and -ism has an uninteresting history going back to Ancient Greek. That redundant etymology of solipsism is quite interesting: oneself-oneself-ism!
The word energy had generally the same meaning when it was borrowed from Middle French energie in the 1590s, but the nineteenth century is when it really got established as a scientific concept as well as an everyday term. Energie is from Latin energia, which in turn is from Ancient Greek energeia, a word meaning "activity" (the verb form being energein, "to be in action"). The idea of that was developed by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE, and he described it by combining the prefix en-, which could mean "in", "at", or "within", and the root ergon, denoting work. Therefore, energy is "work within", which makes a lot of sense. Ergon derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction werg, "to do", and usage of the word energy in literature over time has been decreasing since a peak in the 1980s.
Daffodils look very little like asphodels, but etymologically they're the same thing. The current form of the word daffodil was coined in the 1590s. Before that, it meant asphodel; the two were often compared and the defintion was not separated until then. That comes from the Middle English word affodil (the starting letter d is probably from the Dutch word for "the", de, because they would refer to the flowers as de affodil and eventually those two words joined together) and can be traced to Latin asphodelus, still referring to the asphodel flower. In Ancient Greece, a place where asphodels had religious importance, it was something like asphodelos, and nobody knows where that came from, but Proto-Indo-European is probably a safe guess. The word asphodel in its current form is from the Latin word, as its only synonym was gradually taken over by that new meaning.
Cancer was first documented by the Ancient Egyptians over 3500 years ago. It wasn't given its modern name until 400 BCE, though, when the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates noticed that many tumors with swollen veins are shaped like crabs, so he named the mass of cells karkinos, which meant "crab". This became cancer in Latin, which was later borrowed into English. This crabby connection is also why Cancer is the zodiac of the crab. Now let's go back to karkinos. Through the Proto-Italic word kankos, this comes from an even earlier Proto-Italic word, karkros, which meant "enclosure" (in reference to the shape a crab's pincers form). That in turn may be reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root krkr, which meant "circular". Usage of the word cancer in literature over time, both for the symbol and the disease, has been markedly increasing since the 1970s.
The YouTube channel Atlas Pro just released a terrific video called "The Geography of Yohanan", which raises an excellent point. Mohammed is often credited as being the most common name in the world, but there's a hidden name which might have even greater spread. Yohanan is a Hebrew word meaning "God is gracious", and just as Mohammed spread with Islam, Yohanan spread with Christianity to countries all over Europe. It spent the longest time in Greek, where variations such as Yanni and Gianni arose. Then Iohannes was borrowed into Latin, and the name's development skyrocket from there.
...Among many others. At the very least, all these variations of Yohanan are comparable to the extent of Mohammed - and that's not even considering all the last names like Jackson and Johnson. It's crazy how a name none of us recognize today is potentially held by the most people in the world. Onomastics (the study of name origins) is a very interesting subfield of etymology!
The word reply was first used as noun in the middle of the sixteenth century, but it was used as a verb for over 150 years prior to that. Usage peaked in 1850 but has recently started rebounding due to a new Internet-related meaning. The word is taken from French replier, with the same meaning. That comes from Latin replicare, which meant something more like "repeat", because you're sort of repeating communication with the person you're replying to. Replicare is also the etymon of replicate, which makes even more sense when we consider the literal translation of replicare: "fold again". When something is folded, it becomes two, which is both repeated and replicated. Replicare contains the prefix re-, meaning "again", and the root is plicare, "fold". Through Proto-Italic, that derives from Proto-Indo-European plek, "to plait".
Today, we're going to talk about ships. In the olden days, instead of a rudder, sailors would use a single oar in the back of the boat to guide it. When the ship had to dock, the side with the oar on it would face outward. Because you could better see the night sky from that half, it became known as starboard, and the side that faced the docks was known as port, for obvious reasons. Nowadays, however, port specifically refers to the left side of a ship, and starboard to the right. Why? Because the majority of sailors, like most people, were right-handed, and the oar was kept on the right side of the boat. Over time, the definitions shifted to be standardized meanings of "left" and "right". Finally, let me just dispel the myth that the word posh comes from the phrase Port Out, Starboard Home: most popular acronym etymologies like that are false.
If you wanted to bore a hole in the 1700s, you would have to use a hand-cranked drill to perforate the desired surface. Using the revolving tool necessitates a very dull, repetitive motion, which can often cause feelings of ennui or listlessness. Therefore, in 1768 the verb to bore got extended from the action of drilling to the causation of boredom, and it only grew from there. Now an irritating person can also be a bore (coined 1812), and you can feel boredom (1852). Usages of all terms related to boring are down since the initial craze in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but they're here to stay. Okay, back to the verb for "drilling", the original bore. That's from Middle English boren, which is from Old English borian, "to pierce". Through Proto-Germanic burona, we can eventually reconstruct that to Proto-Indo-European breh, which meant "to carve". Hope that wasn't boring to you guys.
Imbroglio is a rather beautiful word describing a complicated, often embarrassing situation. That particular meaning was metaphorically applied in 1818, but since the word's first application in 1750 till then, it meant something more like "jumble". The term, as you can see just by looking at it, is Italian, where it meant "tangle". Now that we know that, we can eliminate the prefix -im, which was a generally useful affix that meant "into", "upon", "in", "on", or just denoted derivation for verbs. The root is broglio, meaning "confusion". That's most likely from Middle French brouiller, which is also the etymon of embroil. Due to a connection between confusion and mixing things up, that's reconstructed as coming from a Proto-Germanic root for "broth", brutha, which would be from Proto-Indo-European bhreu, "to boil".
The word Ramadan was borrowed into the English language as the British started having increased contact with Muslims through trade. Today, it refers to the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. This shifts along our Gregorian calendar over time, such that it passes through all the months in 33 years. However, when the word was first coined in Arabic, it appears to definitely have been during the summer, because the name literally translates to "the hot month". That's from ramida, meaning "burnt" or "scorched". Prior to that, it can be traced to irtamada, which meant "to be consumed by grief and sorrow." I'm sure after a month of fasting, I'd be consumed by grief and sorrow too! Usage of the word Ramadan in literature over time has been steadily increasing with increased Islamic exposure in Occidental society.
The words "cower" and "coward" are etymologically unrelated, contrary to what I've been thinking for years. Coward was borrowed in the mid-1200s from the French word couard, and that's from Old French coart, with essentially the same definition as today. After eliminating the suffix -ard, denoting the possession of a quality, the root there is coe, meaning "tail" (because a coward runs away with their tail between their legs whenever they can). That's from Latin coda, an alteration of earlier cauda, which eventually derives from Proto-Indo-European kehw, still "tail". Cower, meanwhile, was taken in the mid-1300s from Middle German kuren, meaning "lie in wait" (with the modern connotation, it's waiting for your fears to pass). The etymology for that word is uncertain, but its possible Scandinavian heritage disprove any connection to coward.
To institute something is to establish it or set it up, but an institute is an organizational body. Both definitions come from the Latin word instituere, which meant "to put in place". The way they came about differed, however: the verb is through institutus and the noun from institutum, which meant "ordinance". It wasn't too much of a stretch from "established law" to "established organization", and here we are today with the two meanings. Back to the etymology of instituere - we can remove the prefix in-, meaning "in", giving us statuere, which could be interpreted as "to establish" or "to set up". Statuere is from status, meaning "position" (because positions are established; this is also the etymon of English status), and that's from Proto-Indo-European sta, "to stand".
Usage of the word heathen in the last five centuries peaked dramatically several separate times: in the 1520s, 1590s, 1600s, 1640s, 1750s, and 1840s. Perhaps that's when people were feeling particularly religious. Today, the word refers to any individual(s) outside of the scope of a major religion, but when it was encompassed by the Middle English word hethen, it referred specifically to people who weren't Christians or Jews. Same goes for the Old English word haethen, which was merged with Old Norse heithinn, meaning "pagan", to create the precursor to today's term. Both of those derive from Proto-Germanic haithi, a word meaning "uncultivated soil" (because pagans were "religiously uncultivated"; this is also the etymon of English heathland, "shrublike infertile land"), from Proto-Indo-European skayt, or "clear"
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.