The beginning of William Chester Minor's life was ordinary but successful. Born to Congregationalist missionaries in 1834 Sri Lanka, Minor was later sent to America and studied anatomy at Yale Medical School. After graduating in 1863, he served as an army doctor. Later in life, he became one of the largest contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary (the largest etymological reference book out there) by providing examples of quotations of words throughout history to show how the definitions shifted over time. Minor's research got more and more efficient with time, and he was praised repeatedly by the OED staff for being a major asset to the dictionary's compiling. However, there's something about him that none of the etymologists knew about until 1891 - he was a clinically insane murderer doing everything from his asylum. The wife of the man he killed was sympathetic and brought him books, and he dipped into his own personal library to become a prolific volunteer, but the fact remains that Minor was a paranoid criminal. In 1902, he chopped off his own penis due to his mental problems, then slowly slid into dementia until his eventual death in 1920. It's so intriguing to me that one of the major forces behind the most important etymological tool
of today was a mentally ill felon.
Something mediocre is pretty middle-of-the-road, but etymologically speaking it's more like middle-of-the-mountain. Borrowed in the 1580s from a Middle French word with the same spelling and definition, mediocre derives from the Latin word mediocris, which meant "ordinary" or "moderate" but had a literal meaning of "halfway up the mountain", because something mediocre is neither at the peak nor at the base of a figurative incline. That's a portmanteau of medius, meaning "middle", and ocris, or "mountain". Medius, through Proto-Italic methios, comes from Proto-Indo-European medhyos, "between". Ocris, meanwhile, traced from PIE hokris, meaning "top", possibly by way of Greek. The graph of usage in literature over time for the word mediocre is pretty situationally ironic: after a peak in 1928, it's decreased and settled about halfway between zero percent and the maximum utilization.
The English language actually owes a surprising amount of words to the Aztecs, including coyote, avocado, chili, and chocolate, but today we'll focus on the word tomato. It was first used in 1753, but an alternate form, tomate, was used for more than a century and a half prior to that; it most likely was changed to look more like the word potato. That's taken from Spanish tomate, which is a loanword from the Nahuatl (a language in the Aztec, or Nahuan, family) word tomatl, which still referred to the nutritional vegetable. However, it had a literal meaning of "swelling fruit" (this connotation of juicy, round plumpness later influenced the development of the old-timey slang word for "attractive woman" as well). Eventually, it goes back to Proto-Nahuan, probably to a word along the lines of "to swell".
Vermicelli, a thin, long type of pasta, has a less-than-appetizing word origin. There are varying standards of what qualifies as vermicelli; the Italians mandate that the diameter must be between 2.08 and 2.30 mm, but internationally those definitions can get a little looser. No matter what the meaning, it's inevitably a loanword from Italian, where it's a plural of vermicello, a term meaning "little worm". While initially shocking, this makes sense considering the shape of the pasta. Vermicello is a diminutive of verme ("worm"), which you can immediately tell is a cognate of the modern-day word worm. That's through Latin vermis, which eventually derives from Proto-Indo-European wrmis , with the same denotation. Usage of the word vermicelli has been decreasing since a peak in the 1780s, when it was apparently abnormally popular.
Historically, a charade was a type of French riddle where separate parts of a word were hinted at and you had to guess the whole thing. That concept of figuring out a word is important, because in the 1840s a new variant of the game named "dumb charades" emerged, wherein people had to act out the word, instead of working with riddles. This got insanely popular in England, to the point where the dumb was dropped entirely and we arrived here with our modern word charade. Zooming back about four hundred years, we can trace charade to the Provençal word charrado, which meant "chatter", something that is linguistically connected to it all because of the wordplay involved in early charades. That's from the Occitan word charrar, which meant "to talk" and is listed as onomatopoeic, but could be connected to words like Spanish charlar and Italian ciarlare. I think it's rather ironic that a silent game's name has such talkative origins.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic. This year, I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Government and Linguistics. There, I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society and wrote a thesis on Serbo-Croatian language policy, magna cum laude. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy philosophy, trivia, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.