Here's the recording of a talk I hosted with Marc Okrand, the creator of the Klingon language:
The modern-day city-state of Monaco was first settled by Phoenician sailors, and then by Greek colonists in the sixth century BCE. While the Phoenicians regarded it as a sacred city of their god Melqart, the Greeks believed that the city was significant because Hercules passed through it while going about his adventures. According to the Greek geographer Strabo, a temple of Heracles Monoikos was established there. Monoikos here translates to "single house" in Ancient Greek, and what exactly was meant by that is subject to some debate. Some believe the "house" part may be regarded as meaning "one" and that "single one" was an epithet of Hercules, while others think that it might have been a reference to the temple, or just the fact that the city was relatively isolated. Either way, the temple lent its name to that of the city, which later changed into the spelling we know today. There's also a prominent port in Monaco called Port Hercules, which is a cool remnant of this story.
The island of Madagascar was first encountered by Europeans when the Portuguese explorer Diego Diaz found it and named it St. Lawrence in the year 1500. Three decades later, French navigators Jean and Raoul Parmentier also came across it and, unaware of Diaz's name, decided that it was the same island as one Marco Polo called Madeigascar in his travelogues. Polo, however, was likely writing about the Comoros archipelago, and got that name because he mistranslated a label on an Arabic map that was actually referring to Mogadishu, a city on the coast of Somalia. Prior to Diaz and the Parmentiers, there was no indigenous name for the island, and Madeigascar ended up being the one that stuck (just changing to have all a's, of course). Finally, Mogadishu comes from an Arabic word meaning "holy" or "seat of the Shah".
The definition I immediately associate with the word default is "preselected option", but this is actually a really new meaning! In fact, when the word first started showing up in English in the thirteenth century, it meant "transgression" or "sin". This spawned a new sense of "doing something incorrectly", which evolved into "failure to do something one was supposed to do" - the reason one defaults on a mortgage and the reason a sports team can win a game by default if the other team doesn't show up. In the 1960s, computer scientists needed a name for the value that was output when there was no input, and so they called this the default setting, which is how we got that definition. The word comes from Old French defaulte, meaning "deceit", and that's from the Latin prefix de- ("away") and the root fallere, meaning "to cheat" or "deceive". That also gave us words like false, fail, fault, and fallacy, and is ultimately of unknown origin.
The word mystery was first used in a 1350 poem by William of Shoreham, with the spelling mysterye. Other forms around that time included misteri, misteria, mystere, mystri, misterye, and dozens more; our modern spelling didn't get standardized until the seventeenth century. The noun comes from Anglo-Norman misterie and Old French mistere, which had pretty much the same definition but were used more often in the context of religious concepts that humans couldn't understand. Those come from Latin mysterium and Ancient Greek mysterion, which referrred to secret rites and sacraments, and the root there is mystes, meaning "initiated one". Going further back, mystes is from the verb myein, meaning "to close", possibly in reference to the eyes or lips of those initiated into secret religious organizations. Indeed, we've seen both meanings develop from it: myein also gave us mute, which involves a closed mouth, and myopia, which was associated with closed eyes.
I've written about the word atlas before, but not about its numerous other applications. In anatomy, the C1 vertebra (the topmost bone of the spine) is often referred to as the atlas vertebra. This is a reference to the titan Atlas in Greek mythology, since the bone was thought to hold up the head just as Atlas held up the celestial heavens. There is also a mountain range called the Atlas Mountains. Although there are other theories, one major explanation for its etymology lies in the myth that Perseus showed the head of Medusa to Atlas, turning him to stone. According to that legend, the Atlas mountains are the remnants of the Titan's petrified body. Finally, Atlas was also the name for a family of intercontinental ballistic missiles used by the Air Force and, later, NASA. This term didn't have as much thought go into it. They just named something big and powerful after a mythological figure that was also big and powerful. It's cool to see the same classical influence present in these three very different things!
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.