The word catalog developed from its other spelling catalogue in the late nineteenth century as part of a movement to create more American-looking words. In Old French, the word looked the same and meant "index", and that came in the fourteenth century from Latin catalogus, which traces to Greek katalogos, "enrollment" or "register". Katalogos comes from the the fairly common prefix kata-, meaning "down" (also present in words like catastrophe and cataract), and the root legein, meaning "to say" or "count" (we've seen this before in the suffix -ology). Finally, kata comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kmt, also "down", and legein is from Proto-Indo-European leg, meaning "gather or collect". So, together, a catalog gathers down all the information from a store.
The word burglar, which predates burglary in English by about 250 years, was borrowed in the thirteenth century from the Anglo-Latin word burglator, and that's from the Medieval Latin word burgator. The l in the middle of the world was not natural and it was added because of influence from another Latin word for "thief", latro. Burgator was based on the Latin verb burgare, meaning "to break open", and that's from burgus, a noun meaning "castle" (apparently the word was formed on the notion of breaking open a castle's defenses). The verbs burgle and burglarize independently developed as humorous back-formations of burglary on different sides of the Atlantic in the 1860s.
The oldest attestation we have of the word serenade was in a 1656 dictionary of complicated words. At the time, it had pretty similar connotations as today - a romantic open-air musical performance - but it was more specifically used for performances given at night. The word comes from French sérénade and Italian serenata, which meant "calm sky". That comes from sereno, which meant "open air" and was the noun version of an adjective meaning "clear" or "calm" that you might recognize as being related to our word serene. It's also thought that the definition of the Italian word was influenced by another word, sera, which meant "evening". The word first started to refer to pieces of music used in serenades in the 1720s and has been in use as a verb since 1671.
Today, we associate the name Kit Kat with a kind of chocolate, but back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term was used for a kind of mutton pie served at meetings of the Kit-Cat Club, a literary and political Whig establishment in London. Then, in 1911, the Rowntree's candymaking business copyrighted the names Kit Kat and Kit Cat, presumably a reference to the club (although there are no official records of why these were chosen). Diving into this further, it seems that the club was named after a person called Christopher Catling and the rights to the brand were acquired by Nestlé in 1988. Since then, popularity has increased, with usage peaking in the year 2016 and searches for the phrase spiking in fall of 2013 because KitKat was used as the nickname for an Android update.
When the word assume was first used in English in a 1436 collection of poems, it referred to the the process of being received into Heaven, and a more specific sense of this still exists in some Christian theologies as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The first time it was used in the modern sense was in the 1590s, and it has increased in usage since then, peaking in the early 1970s. The word comes from the Latin word assumere, meaning "to take up" (the connection being the action of taking something for granted or taking up an opinion), from the prefix ad- ("to"; from PIE ad, with the same meaning), and the verb sumere, meaning "to take". Finally, sumere was composed of another prefix, sub- ("under"; from PIE upo, with the same meaning) and another verb meaning "take", emere (that's from PIE em, "to distribute").
The word onion first started showing up in the 1350s with a wide variety of spellings, including unniun, huniun, oignon, oinon, and oynun, among others. Everything indicates that it came through Anglo-French from the Old French word oignon, which still referred to the vegetable. Finally, oignon comes straight from the colloquial Latin word unio, literally translating to "united" (from unus, from Proto-Indo-European oynos, "one"). According to Roman writer Columella, peasants gave it that name because it didn't have any shoots and was thus a single entity. The word, which could also mean "pearl", was used in informal situations instead of the usual Latin noun, cepa, which resulted in Romance language names like Italian cipolla and Spanish cebolla.
The word groom meaning "husband-to-be" is a shortening of bridegroom that first appeared in the early seventeenth century. It comes from the Old English word byrdguma, but the r was added because of the folk etymological influence of another word spelled groom that meant "attendant" (this sense is still around to describe people who care to horses, and comes from an unrelated Old English word meaning "grow"). Byrdguma comes from byrd, which was basically the precursor of "bride" and derives from a Proto-Germanic word for "daughter-in-law", and guma, the Old English word for "man". So, together, a bridegroom is just a "bride man", while a groom is just a man. Finally, guma comes from Proto-Germanic gumo, which eventually traces to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "earth".
In Ancient Greek, the word ambrosia was used to describe the mythological food of the gods. Literally, it can be translated along the lines of "of the immortals", because it comes from the prefix a-, meaning "not", and the root mbrotos, which is a variant of mortos, meaning "mortal". I've covered a- many times before, but mortos comes from the Proto-Indo-European root mer, which meant "to die". Mer has a really eclectic mix of descendants, from mortal and mortgage to morsal, mortar, nightmare, and remorse. Anyway, ambrosia was borrowed into English in the early sixteenth century through Latin, started being used figuratively for very tasty foods in the early seventeenth century, and came to be applied to a type of fruit salad in the 1860s. It also lent its name to types of beetle, fungus, and pollen, and peaked in usage in 1809.
The word occidental, today used to describe things pertaining to countries in the West, was borrowed into English in the fifteenth century in a mostly astrological sense, describing the direction that the sun sets, and it only got applied to civilizations about a hundred years later. Through Old French, the word traces to the Latin word occidens, the noun version of an adjective meaning "setting". That's from the verb occidere, meaning "to fall down", in reference to the motion of the sun. Finally, occidere comes from the prefix ob-, meaning "down" (from Proto-Indo-European opi, "against"), and the root cadere, "to fall down" (from Proto-Indo-European kad, also "fall"). Occidere is also the etymon of the word occasion, through a sense of causation and opportunity. I thought that was interesting!
The pass of Thermopylae, famous for being the site of a fifth-century BCE battle where the invading Persians were crushed by a coalition of Greeks, has an etymology that's surprisingly easy to pick apart. The thermo- part meant "hot" and is the same as we see in words like thermometer and thermostat. Meanwhile, the pylae part, which should be familiar from the word pylon, is a Latin-influenced variant spelling of the plural of the noun pyle, which meant "gate", "pass", or "entrance". So, together, Thermopylae meant "hot gates". This was in reference to the hot sulfur springs in the area and its function as an entrance into the region of Thessaly. In Greek mythology, it was also believed to be the entrance to the underworld, which gives the name a double meaning.
The name Singapore is an anglicization of the Malay toponym Singapura, which is widely understood to come from Sanskrit Simhapuram, meaning "lion city", from simha ("lion", ultimately from Proto-Indo-European singo) and puram ("city", related to the Greek word polis through PIE plh, meaning "stronghold"). The lion is the national animal of Singapore and has long been associated with the city-state. According to Malay mythology, it was founded by a prince who saw a lion in the area, but that's either apocryphal or erroneous because lions are not native to Southeast Asia. Many think that this creation story to replace the previous city name of Temasek was intentionally fabricated at some point during the fourteenth century to support a claim over the island or build a common identity.
For my final project for my GIS class, I created an interactive etymology map! You can check it out below (click on the country names to see their origins) or see it at any time by going to the "interactive map" tab under my "infographics" page.
In the earliest attestations of the word priest back in Old English, it was spelled preost. As the language developed into Middle English, we started getting forms like preast, prest, preiste, preyste, and more, with the modern spelling becoming the standard sometime in the seventeenth century. The word comes from the Late Latin word presbyter, meaning "elder", and that comes from Ancient Greek presbyteros, the comparative word for "old", presbys. Finally, there are several theories as to where the Greek word comes from. The most accepted explanation is that pres- means "before" or "in front" (from the Proto-Indo-European root per, "forward") and that bys might be from bous, "cow". Either way, as you may have guessed, priest is related to the word presbyterian, which is pretty cool.,
I've recently been getting very into GPT-3, a predictive text AI. It's fun to run my groupchats through it and see how it simulates conversation. For example, this is a conversation between me and my friend Joanna, generated entirely by bot:
Joanna: this is a very good podcast
Adam: I like the different segments
Joanna: I like that they are highlighting the variation and diversity of the araucanian language
Adam: I feel like you have a very good understanding of the araucanians.
Joanna: gotta keep it
Adam: Do you think there were other tribes who spoke it
Joanna: is there an araucanian word for when a bird is chirping?
Adam: I think there were different tribes who spoke it
Joanna: i think i will do some research on this
Joanna: because it's a really cool language and I want to learn more about it
Joanna: and I want to learn more about the people who speak it
Adam: like who
Joanna: the araucanian people
Adam: the araucanians are a people?
Joanna: they are an indigenous group in what is now chile and argentina
Joanna: yeah, they're a people
Adam: do you know what language they spoke
Joanna: that i know of, they spoke araucanian
It's crazy how accurately this mimicks our speech and text patterns. And this tool has so much potential!
The word cybernetics first showed up as the title of a 1948 book about self-regulating mechanisms, written by American mathematician Norbert Wiener. Wiener took the word from a Latinized form of the Ancient Greek word kybernetes, meaning "steerman", along with the suffix -ics. This new sense was probably influenced by the French word cybernetique, or "the practice of governing", on the notion of a control device being something like a computer governor. Kybernetes comes from the verb kybernan, "to pilot", and that has an unknown origin. The prefix cyber- that we use to refer to computer-related things first started showing up in the 1980s, and is a mistaken rebracketing of the original word. The noun cyber as shorthand for "virtual sex" was first attested in 1995.
The word gnome first showed up in English in Alexander Pope's 1714 narrative poem The Rape of the Lock, where it had pretty much the same definition as today. It comes from a French word with the same meaning and spelling, and that was borrowed in the sixteenth century from the writings of the Swiss polymath Paracelsus, who used it as a synonym of pygmy, which at the time described a fictional race of people in eastern Africa and southern India who could move underground completely unencumbered. Beyond that, gnome doesn't show up anywhere, and there's a pretty good chance that Paracelsus made up the word. It could be from Greek genomos, meaning "earth-dweller", but that would require him to randomly drop an e. It could be from the Ancient Greek, or from a Greek word meaning "wisdom", but the Oxford English Dictionary regards that as "unlikely". Nope, folks, this was probably a typo.
The word Rococo first started showing up in English in the 1830s, in reference to the art style that emerged in France about a century earlier. In French, the word seems to have been a humorous alteration of rocaille, meaning "shellwork", based on the Portuguese word for Baroque, barroco. This is in reference to how Rococo art looks like Baroque art but with a bunch of lavish ornamentation that often incorporates or resembles seashells. The word rocaille, which originally described a method of decoration that frequently used shells, pebbles, and cement, comes from roc, meaning "rock", and both it and the English word come from a Medieval Latin noun with the same definition. The etymology of barroco is unknown, but it's considered to be related to a Spanish word for "wart", so that's interesting.
In Ancient Greek architecture, the attic was the façade on the top of a building, just above the columns and below the roof. Throughout the centuries, these were employed for decorative purposes, or to just make the edifice look taller, but during the Renaissance there began to be entire stories behind those façades, and by the eighteenth century, the definition had shifted to refer to the space behind that wall. The term attic comes from the Attic style of architecture, which was named after Attica, the region surrounding the city of Athens (the Greek version, Attikos, literally means "of Athens"). Finally, the toponym Athens has been traditionally derived from the name of its patron goddess Athena, but it is also possible that it might be from some Pre-Greek word that has long been forgotten.
Apparently the word torpedo has two definitions: in addition to the underwater missile, the term can also refer to a type of electric ray fish. The newer sense of the word was coined by American inventor Robert Fulton when he first thought of creating floating explosive charges in the early nineteenth century. For a while, it referred only to rudimentary naval mines, but that got extended to fancier technologies like the self-propelled weapon when they was invented. The fish name comes from the Latin verb torpere, meaning "to be numb", because one effect of being stung by the ray's electric discharge is that you feel numb in the affected area. Finally, that comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ster, meaning "stiff" (also the root of words like stark, startle, torpid, and stern).
Recently, I've noticed a lot of people my age using a new kind of slang that comes from the social media app TikTok. Examples of this include:
There's a British Overseas Territory named South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and both parts of that have interesting stories. South Georgia was first spotted in 1675 by English merchant Anthony de la Roché, and it was referred to as Roche Island on early maps. Then James Cook landed on it in 1775 and named it the Isle of Georgia after King George III, and that name stuck for whatever reason (the South was added to differentiate from the state of Georgia). The South Sandwich Islands were also discovered and named by Cook in 1775, who named them Sandwich Land after John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich and the guy the sandwich was named after. The South was added to differentiate the islands from another archipelago called the Sandwich Islands, which is now known as Hawaii. So there are no longer any North Sandwich Islands!
The US territory of Wake Island was first discovered in 1792 by William Wake, the captain of a British trading schooner called the Prince William Henry. One would think, based on that information, that the island would be named after him, but everybody kind of forgot about the dinky little atoll for a few years until it was rediscovered by the Prince William Henry in 1796, this time helmed by Wake's relative, Samuel Wake. Without leaving the deck of his ship, the latter Wake did a quick survey of the island, named it after himself, and moved on. Later in that same year, a new ship called The Halcyon came across the island and its captain, Charles Barkley, named it after the boat. However, it was too late; Samuel's name had already made it onto maps. Unsurprisingly, there was a large peak in usage of the island name during World War II. What an interesting history!
Here's the recording of a talk I hosted with Paul Frommer, creator of the Na'vi language in Avatar:
Here's the recording of a talk I hosted with Dr. Frank Jackson, creator of the "Mary's Room" thought experiment:
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.