Vellichor is a rather beautiful word used to describe "the wistfulness of a second-hand bookstore", for that je ne sais quoi feeling of being among antique books that seem abandoned. The term has been making the rounds on the Internet for several years now, peaking in usage in 2015. It was coined in mid-2013 by Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows editor John Koenig, who didn't say why he named it that, but the answer is obvious. The first part is the word vellum, meaning "calfskin parchment", and the ichor part is the same suffix as we see in petrichor ("the smell of wet earth"), referring to the blood of the gods in Greek mythology. Vellum traces to an Old French word meaning "veal" and ichor has an unknown etymology, but is thought to ultimately be Pre-Greek in origin.
In recent years, the word zoomer has emerged as slang for someone born in Generation Z. This is a relatively recent phenomenon dating back to at least 2016 (we can't pinpoint the exact origin, but it might trace to 4chan message boards), but before that the word has also referred to especially active Baby Boomers and also, on rare occasions, "one who zooms". The term really started escalating in usage in November 2019, when the OK Boomer memes started getting popular and zoomer was proffered as a modern-day counterpart. It hasn't made it to dictionaries yet, but it's been added to Merriam-Webster's "Words We're Watching" list. It's probably here to stay, especially since it's become oddly appropriate now that our entire social and academic lives are taking place on Zoom.
An irreversible binomial is a pair of words connected with a conjunction that would no longer have the same definition if the order was switched. Normally, something about the binomial makes it sound catchy: it can be alliterative, like with bed and breakfast (which would have a completely different meaning if it was breakfast and bed); synonymous, like with pins and needles; antonymous, like with mom and pop; rhyming, like with wine and dine; and with legal terms, such as cease and desist. All of these phrases need that particular ordering to work. Occasionally, irreversible binomials can be composed of proper nouns, like Adam and Eve, and irreversible trinomials are also a thing, including red, white, and blue, and life, liberty, and property. I think it's pretty cool how we form these unshakeable semantic associations in our heads.
Poindexter is a (mostly North American) word for an overly studious individual who doesn't have any social skills. The term emerged in teenage slang in the mid-1980s and comes from the TV cartoon show Felix the Cat, where there was an extremely nerdy character with that name. This stereotype may have been helped by a character from the 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds named Arnold Poindexter. Beyond that, it's just an English surname - Ronald Reagan's national security advisor was called John Poindexter - tracing to the Isle of Jersey in the thirteenth century. Originally, it was spelled poigndestre, which is of Norman roots meaning "fist" and "right". By 1992, poindexterish was also used as an adjective, and pointdexter has started to emerge as an alternate spelling.
The word fallacy was first used in a 1481 collection of fables about an anthropomorphic fox. At the very beginning, it was spelled falacye, and then fallacie was the popular way of writing it until fallacy was popularized in the seventeenth century. Through Old English fallace, it all traces to Latin fallax, which meant "deception" or "deceit". That's a noun created from the verb fallere, "to deceive". Finally, Dutch Indo-Europeanist Michiel de Vaan reconstructed it all to Proto-Indo-European sghel, meaning "stumble", although that's uncertain. Semantically, this means that "stumble" took on a metaphorical implication of "causing someone to stumble mentally", and then that transitioned from to a more passive "poor argument" meaning. Usage of fallacy has been decreasing since a peak in the mid-nineteenth century.
Today, the word myriad refers to an extremely large number, with no specific amount implied. However, historically it meant "ten thousand", just like million means "1,000,000". That noun comes from French myriade, which is from Latin myrias, with the same definition. That's from Ancient Greek myrios, which was a bit more abstract. It could mean "infinite", "countless", or "boundless", basically serving the same function as gazillion or bajillion do in informal English today. Finally, myrios is of uncertain origin, but the prevailing theory is that it derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction meue, which roughly translates to "push away" and is also the source of words like motility, motive, motif, promote, remote, and many others. Usage of myriad has been increasing in literature over time since its introduction in the mid-sixteenth century.
Panache is a rather delightful word meaning "flamboyant confidence". That definition is derived from an earlier, archaic term for the plume of feathers on top of helmets and headdresses. Because of the pompous nature of the tufts, the modern connotation emerged. The word comes from Middle French pennache, which is from Italian pennaccio and Latin pinnaculum, meaning "peak" (also the root of pinnacle), since panaches were on the peaks of helmets. Pinnaculum is a diminutive of pinna (still "peak", and the etymon of pinion, pin, and fin), which ultimately derives from either the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pihn, meaning "fin", or pet, meaning "fly". Usage of the word panache in literature over time peaked in 1999 and has been declining since.
The adjective debonair (which can mean "suave" or "nonchalant") was first used in the Ancrene Riwle, a mid-thirteenth century monastic manual, when it was spelled deboneire. Other forms after that have included de bonere, debonayre, deboner, debonaire, debonnair, debonnaire, and many others. The word comes from the Old French de bon' aire, which literally meant "of good race". Pure lineages were associated with high class, so that's how the "suave" definition came about, and then that developed a more carefree connotation later on. De, through Latin, traces to a Proto-Indo-European root sounding the same and also meaning "of". Bon' is an abbreviation of bone, from Latin bonus (also "good"), and ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European dew, "to show favor". Finally, aire has an uncertain origin but could be from ager, the Latin word for "field".
The word armadillo was borrowed in 1577 from Spanish, where it was a diminutive of armado, the word for "armored". This implied that armadillos are small armored animals - very appropriate. Armado comes from Latin armatus, which meant "armed" and is the past participle of arma, or "weapons". More literally, it translates to "tools of war", because in its earliest days, arma had a definition of "tools". Finally, everything is reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European ar, meaning "fitting", on the notion that some tools fit things together. Arma also gave us words like armory, armament, Armageddon, armada, army, alarm, and armoire, so there are some interesting cognates there. According to Google NGrams, usage of the word armadillo has remained relatively constant since it was first popularized in the late eighteenth century.
The perineum is the small region between the anus and the genitalia in both men and women. The word, first used in a 1425 translation of a treatise on surgery, comes from Latin, like a lot of other medical terms. Ultimately, we can trace it to Ancient Greek perinaion, which is composed of the word peri, meaning "near" or "around", and inein, meaning "to evacuate" or "empty out". I've looked all over for an explanation, but I can't seem to find one, or an origin, for that matter. Peri is reconstructed as coming from Proto-Indo-European per, "forward". The common slang term taint to describe the perineum emerged in the 1970s from the phrase 'taint your balls and 'taint your butt. Actually, there are a lot of words to describe as specific area an area as the perineum, including barse, bonch, chad, geish, gooch, grundle, guiche, nifkin, and notcher. They probably arose so much (and remained out of mainstream use) due to the inappropriate nature of the subject.
The noun empanada was borrowed from Spanish in the 1860s, and the first mention of it anywhere was in a Catalan cookbook from 1520. The meal and the word come from northwestern part of Spain, where they named it after a method of breading and frying, empanando. That's from the prefix en- (the nasal assimilated to the place of the following plosive), meaning "in", pan, meaning "bread", and just a verb-forming suffix. En- comes from Latin in-, which we've already seen as coming from Proto-Indo-European en (still meaning "in"). Pan traces to Latin panis, which had the same definition and was also the etymon of words like panini, companion, and pantry. That, finally, is thought by many to derive from another Proto-Indo-European root, pa, which meant "to feed".
The noun skirmish was first used in English in the 1374 Chaucer epic Troilus and Criseyde, where it was spelled skarmuch. Other variations since then have included skarmoch, scaramosh, scarmoge, scarmouch, skarmyssh, skarmish, scarmysshe, skarmich, skyrmissh, skyrmysh, skermysche, skermish, skermedge, and so many others that the word will seem senseless if I list them; skirmish wasn't a standard spelling until the nineteenth century. Through Old French escarmouche, the word traces to Italian scaramuccia. If you're a Queen fan, you might recognize that as the root of the name Scaramouche, which means "little skirmisher" (and was a stock clown character in 1500s Italian comedies). Earlier on, scaramuccia was schermugio, and that is thought to eventually derive from Proto-Indo-European sker, meaning "to cut", on a connection of defense.
Today I learned that sphinx has two correct plurals: sphinxes and sphinges. We have the former because it's how we would naturally pluralize it in English, and we have the latter because it reflects the word's origins in the third declension Latin noun sphinx. The word is from Ancient Greek, where it meant "the strangler". That is believed to further derive from the verb sphingein, which meant "to squeeze". It would be really cool if that's true, because sphingein also became sphinkter, which could be used to refer to anything that binds or squeezes tightly. That, through Latin, became the English word sphincter. However, there may be another origin: some etymologists think that sphinx could derive from Egyptian szpnh, which meant "divine image". Hopefully that's not true.
The word hyacinth was first borrowed in the thirteenth century from the Old French word jacinth, which in turn comes from Latin hyacinthus, which still referred to the flower. The English word was originally spelled with a j at the beginning too, but then it was modified to reflect its classical roots. Hyacinthus traces to the Ancient Greek word hyakinthos, which was used to describe a blueish-purplish gem (probably sapphire). It was the name of a type of purple flower as well, which is how we got the modern definition; hyakinthos is ultimately of a non-IE Pre-Greek language. Hyacinthos was also a lover of Apollo in Greek mythology who was killed by Zephyrus, the jealous god of the west wind. Legend says that Apollo was devastated and wanted to remember Hyacinthos somehow, so he created the flower out of his blood.
In 1868, Australian sexagenarian Maria Ann Smith bought a crate of French crab apples. After she used them to bake pies, she discarded the scraps in a compost pile, and, later on, she noticed a sprout growing from that piles. She tended it for a while, and eventually it yielded more apples. Smith passed away in 1870, but her family continued cultivating the apple. Eventually, it grew into an orchard, and other farmers in New South Wales started growing it. In 1890, it won a cooking prize under the name Granny Smith's seedling, and after that, things really escalated. By World War I, Granny Smith apples were widespread. Now, according to Google Trends, Granny Smiths are the third most searched for of all apple varieties, after Honeycrisp and Gala. Search queries, of course, peak every October and November.
The word albatross was borrowed in the late seventeenth century from Spanish albatros, which is an alteration of alcatraz, meaning "pelican" (the definition was originally "frigatebird", but that changed over time). Yes, that's the same as the Californian prison island, which was named after the large population of sea birds found there. The exact origin of the word is uncertain; some etymologists think that alcatraz comes from the Arabic word al-gattas, meaning "the diver" (al-, of course, being the Arabic definite article, and gattas ultimately tracing to a Proto-Semitic root with a similar connotation), and another theory is that alcatraz is from al-qadus, meaning "jar", in reference to the pelicans' beaks. To complicate things further, the word may have been influenced by Latin albus ("white") and/or Portuguese alcatruz ("water wheel bucket"). It's all pretty convoluted.
The word donation was first used in a 1425 history of Scotland, when it was spelled donatyowne. It was borrowed from Old French donacioun, which was taken in the thirteenth century from Latin donatio, meaning "present". That, through the verb donare ("to give as a gift"), comes from donum, meaning "gift". Eventually, by way of Proto-Italic donom, that's thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European root deh, "to give". Donum also gave us several other recognizable descendants, each with their own cool story. It eventually evolved into the Old French word doneur ("one who gives"), which became Anglo-French donour and English donor, and it was also combined with the prefix per- ("thoroughly") to yield Old French pardoner, which meant "to give" and turned into our English word pardon. The same thing happened with the prefix con- ("with") and the word condone. Fascinating stuff!
A lazaretto is a special type of hospital for quarantining lepers and plague victims. The word comes from Lazzaretto Vecchio, the name of an actual island in the Venetian Lagoon that was used between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries to isolate sick people. Vecchio means old; Lazzaretto comes from the Italian word for "leper", lazzaro. That's from Lazarus of Bethany, the biblical beggar who later came to be regarded as the patron saint of lepers. The name is an Ancient Greek transliteration of Hebrew El'azar, which meant "he whom God has helped". El, meaning "god", comes from Proto-Semitic il, with the same definition. Azar, meanwhile, meant "helped" and also derives from Proto-Semitic. Usage of the word lazaretto peaked in 1791 and had a slight surge in Google searches in 2014 when there was a musical album released with that title.
HIV was first observed in 1981, and at the beginning there wasn't an official name for it - scientists just talked about its complications. Starting with a 1982 New York Times article, media outlets labelled it Gay-related Immunodeficiency Disorder, or GRID for short. That didn't stick, but throughout the early 1980s all the names for it were homosexuality-related. Phrases like gay plague and gay cancer were bandied about, and the CDC briefly introduced 4H disease (standing for the four groups that were perceived as being affected: homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians). Eventually, though, the powers that were realized that the disease wasn't isolated to gay people, and the new name Human Immunodeficiency Virus was accepted. To clarify a common misconception, HIV is the virus and AIDS is the symptom.
I recently made the connection that typhus and typhoid are different diseases. The latter was more recently discovered; it was thought to be a variant of typhus, so they just added the suffix -oid (used to denote resemblance) and that was that. Typhus comes from the Ancient Greek word typhos, which meant "smoke"; the term was used by Hippocrates to describe conditions of stupor, and people later on thought that, since the affliction could cause feelings of drowsiness, it was an appropriate moniker. Typhos is from typhein, an earlier verb meaning "to smoke". That's thought to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dheu, which meant "dust" or "vapor" but also had connotations of sensory confusion that led to the development of words such as deaf and typhoon.
Before the Zika virus emerged from the forests of Brazil to reach international infamy from 2015-2016, it was an obscure virus travelling through various tropical parts of the world. It was first identified in a rhesus monkey's blood sample in the Zika Forest of Uganda in 1947, and in 1951 it was officially named after the region. Zika is a Lugandan word meaning "become overgrown" or "uncultivated", and that would ultimately be of Proto-Niger-Congo origin, like ebola and dengue. Interestingly, in naming the affliction itself, scientists were debating between Zika disease and Zika fever, but we somehow went ahead and largely decided to call it Zika virus, which doesn't make nearly as much sense if you think about it.
In 1827, dengue fever was brought over to the West Indies by East African slaves. Needing a word for the disease, the Spanish colonists there adopted the term used by the slaves, ki denga pepo, and, through the influence of an obscure Spanish word meaning "prudery", dengue is what eventually stuck. Ki denga pepo is a phrase roughly translating to "seizure caused by an evil spirit" in Swahili; eventually, all of that traces to Proto-Niger-Congo. Before dengue was borrowed from Spanish merchants, other names for it included "dandy fever" (because it makes people walk like "dandies", or men who put high emphasis on personal grooming), "breakheart fever", "Philippine fever", "Thai fever", and "Singapore fever". However, by the late nineteenth century, dengue entirely took over in our vocabulary, peaking in usage in the late 1910s and early 1940s due to spates of World War-related outbreaks.
The Ebola virus was first identified by a team of researchers in 1976 in a small Congolese city named Yambuku. One evening, the scientists had a meeting to figure out how to classify it, and one of them, Dr. Pierre Sureau, suggested that the pathogen be named after the village, but another, Dr. Joel Brennan, said he was concerned that the name might negatively impact its residents. Finally, Karl Johnson, the lead researcher on the team, suggested that they mitigate that by naming it after a local tributary of the Congo River, the Ebola River (they didn't name it after the Congo because there was already a disease named after it). Later on, that name stuck. The river itself gets its name from a Lingala word meaning "black"; that puts it in the Niger-Congo language family.
Coronavirus has been all over the news recently, but what does the word mean? The origin is well documented: the term was first used in a 1968 edition of Nature magazine, where a team of eight microbiologists suggested that the family of diseases "be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance [sc. recalling the solar corona] by which these viruses are identified". Corona is the Latin word for "crown" (we can recognize this in words like coronation, coronary, and Corona beer); through Ancient Greek korone, that ultimately traces to Proto-Indo-European sker, meaning "turn" or "bend". The official name for the disease, Covid-19, is an abbreviation for Coronavirus Disease 2019, the year when the pandemic started, and the official name for the pathogen itself is SARS-CoV-2, for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2.
There have been a lot of different spellings of the word store throughout history. Early forms included stoore, stor, stoer, istor, and story, and right up until the turn of the seventeenth century, there were still people spelling it as stoar. The first attestation we have in English is from a 1264 collection of political songs, where it was used as a verb (the noun came three decades later). The word was borrowed from the Anglo-Normans after they invaded and traces to Old French estorer, which meant "to construct". Estorer is from the Latin verb instaurare, meaning "establish" or "renew". That's composed of the prefix in- ("in", from Proto-Indo-European en), and the root staurare, which derives from PIE steh, "to stand up"). Related: I now have a store where I'm selling infographic prints! Go check it out!
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.