The word clap comes from Old English claeppan, which meant "to beat" or "throb", has some Germanic relatives, and is probably onomatopoeic in nature. That's simple and relatively uninteresting, but some fascinating slang words have derived from the word. Starting all the way back in the 1580s, gonorrhea began to be referred to as the clap, which was probably partially influenced by the "throb" meaning (due to the painful feelings associated with the STD) and the Old French word clapoire, meaning "brothel". In recent years, getting clapped has also started to emerge in teenage argot as meaning "to be defeated" in both a literal and metaphorical sense, which is probably influenced by the more physical connotations of the word, and clapping can have a definition of "having sex", for similar reasons.
The term jackpot was first attested in an 1881 edition of the Harvard Lampoon, where it was stylized Jack Pots and described a type of poker game where players needed a Jack card or better to be ante, and a large amount would accrue right before the end. Therefore, the name got applied to a large sum of money; by 1932 it could refer to slot machine winnings and by 1944 it had to do with lotteries too. "Hit the jackpot" was first coined in 1938. Now to break apart the word Jack Pots: the name of the card type Jack comes from Middle English jakke, which only meant "guy", and that goes back to the name John, which I've covered in a previous post. Pot is quite boring: in Old French, it was pot, and earlier in Latin it was pottus. Before that, the etymology is uncertain.
When the word chaos was borrowed into English from Old French in the late 1300s, it specifically referred to Tartarus, the prison of the underworld in Greek mythology. As such a niche term, it didn't get much usage until the seventeenth century, when a resurgence in interest in Greek and Roman culture led to more widespread adaptation of the word, and, subsequently, change to what it is today. The Old French word chaos comes from the Latin word chaos, which comes from Ancient Greek khaos, which still had the same meaning. That in turn has an uncertain etymology, but some linguists have found links to the words khaskho, meaning "gape", and khaino, "to yawn". If that theory is correct, and the word is in reference to the size of the hole of Tartarus, it can be derived back to Proto-Indo-European ghieh, "to be wide open".
A coxswain is a person in charge of steering and navigating a ship. In crew, it's the person sitting backwards in the boat, tasked with rudder control and command. The word was borrowed in the early 1300s as cockswain (at one point, cokswain was also an accepted spelling). That comes from the words cock, meaning "boat", and swain, meaning "boy". "Boat boy" makes a lot of sense. Cock has nothing to do with the definitions meaning "rooster", "penis", or "tilt": it developed on its own from Old French coque, meaning "canoe". That comes from coco, a word for "egg" (apparently because boats look like shells), which has an uncertain origin. Swain, meanwhile, also meant "servant" and could also be spelled swayn, swain, sweyn, and swein, eventually tracing back to Old English swegen, possibly from PIE swe, "oneself".
Most people can figure out where the word photosynthesis comes from, but it's still a very interesting origin to cover. Photo- is a prefix meaning "light" present in a lot of scientific words. That's from the Ancient Greek word phos, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction bha, which means "to shine" and is present in thousands of other words. Synthesis is also something we should recognize: it exists today as a word meaning "to make", and that's exactly its function in this word. Through Latin, it came from Ancient Greek, where it had the same spelling and definition. Now we can eliminate the prefix syn-, which meant "together" or "with" (traces to Mycenaean Greek), which leaves the verb tithenai, "to place" (so synthesis is placing together), ultimately from PIE deh, "to put". The etymology of photosynthesis almost suggests that you're placing light together, but as we know it's meant to evoke placing together molecules in the presence of light.
The word student was first introduced into English in the late 1300s (and has since greatly increased in usage) from the Old French word estudiant, which had a definition very similar to today. This replaced the previous word leorningcild (equivalent to "learning-child") rather quickly, perhaps because scholars preferred the perceived erudition of a word from a Romantic language. That traces to the Latin word studiare or studere, which meant "to study" and is also the etymon of our word for "study". Through Proto-Italic, we can derive that from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction stewd, which meant "to push or hit". The connection there is supposedly one of "pressing forward" with your studies. Let's keep pressing forward, fellow hits of etymology!
Much like grasshoppers and crickets, katydids produce sound by rapidly moving their wings to attract mates. Unlike their relatives, however, females also make sound, and this results in a characteristic back-and-forth natural symphony, marked by one side making three bursts of noise and the other responding with four. According to some people, these noises sound like Katy did, Katy didn't - an argument between two insects. And that's how we got the name! Since the word's introduction in 1784 by US botanist John F. D. Smyth, it peaked in usage in the 1940s, and utilization has been fairly constant since the '60s. The name Katy, Caty, Catie, or Katie is a shortening of Catherine, a name that possibly traces back to the Ancient Greek word hekateros, which meant "each of the two" and might be connected to the goddess Hecate. Did comes from do, and that didn't change much throughout history as it developed from Proto-Indo-European deh, with the same definition.
Homeroom is stereotypically a short period before classes start when announcements and stuff like that take place. It makes sense that the word is a combination of home and room, but if you think about it, the term is really weird. What does home have to do with anything? The history of homeroom in the context of American schools traces back to 1913, when it was stylized home-room. The name was meant to indicate that the period was a home away from home, a place at school where you could relax for a moment and plan for later. One interesting thing I've noticed about homerooms is that my high school holds it for five minutes after second period (weird, I know), which shows a shifting definition from a point in time before classes to any time at all. Homeroom lost the hyphen in the 1930s, peaked in usage in the 1940s, and has since remained relatively common in utilization.
Harvard University and MIT are mainly situated in the city of Cambridge, MA, which is just north of Boston. When the area was first settled in 1631, however, it was just referred to as the newe towne, which was later shortened to Newtowne. Eventually, the city split into what are now the present-day towns of Newton, Cambridge, and a few others parts, most of which were incorporated into Boston. As I've explained in my latest map (see the infographics page), the Cambridge part was named in honor of the university in England, and it's stuck since. Now we get to the fun part: the etymology of Cambridge. It seems intuitive that it would be named after the River Cam, which flows through the center, but a lot has actually changed throughout the years. In Middle English, it was also spelled Cantebrigge and Grentebrige, and it all traces back to Old English Grantabrycg, which meant "Granta bridge", Granta being the old name for the river Cam. The reason it's different today is because British accents mangled the spelling and pronunciation to Cambridge over time, and people adjusted the river name to accommodate for that, too. The etymology of Granta is uncertain, but likely stems from Brittonic, and brycg, through Proto-Germanic, derives from Proto-Indo-European bherw, meaning "wooden flooring".
The word deciduous was first attested in the 1680s as an adjective used to refer to anything that eventually falls off or descends with time. This was used to apply to subjects as varied as teeth, shooting stars, and testicles, but eventually it evolved into just describing plants which have leaves that fall off. Deciduous was taken from Latin deciduus, a word that meant "that which falls down" and developed from decidere, "to fall off" or "to fall down". Moving back in time, we can eliminate the prefix de-, which here indicated a downwardly direction but could also mean "off" or "from" (tracing to PIE de, same definition). The remaining verb is cadere, meaning "to fall", and that, through Proto-Italic kado, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction khd, also "fall".
Everybody knows that a meme is a humorous image, often with a funny caption. It's a bit harder to define dank meme, which is a subset of that medium that emerged around 2013 in Reddit and 4chan forums. The term differentiates the genre as different from image macros, and often is associated with internet inside jokes, overuse of the same formats, and some nonsensicality. As some people may know, dank may also refer to high-quality marijuana, and was used to mean "cool" by some stoners. The term dank was then ironically applied to the meme type to satirize lesser memes, and popularized by pro-Bernie Sanders groups in the 2016 primary season. The weed-related definition traces back to the 1980s, when drug slang started adopting the word for "moist" in a new manner. As a word, dank was first recorded around 1310 and is probably from an obscure North Germanic word, due to a synonym in Swedish dank, meaning "marshy spot".
The earliest attestations of the word glitch were in the 1940s among radio operators and television repairmen, who started using it to describe intermittent bursts of static. By the 1950s, it started to refer to computers acting funny, as well, and it became a mainstream word in the 1960s after NASA's expeditions popularized it. Glitch's etymology is not known for certain, but there is one strong contender for the origin: the Yiddish word glitsh, which meant "a slip" (with a "mistake" connotation"). That would hail from German glitschen, "to slip" (with a "losing footing" connotation") and eventually trace back to Proto-Germanic glidan, or "to glide". Finally, we can reconstruct it all to the Proto-Indo-European root ghel, meaning "shine", presumably because you glide on shiny surfaces. Interesting how the word denotes less and less of a mistake as you go back in time there.
In 1622, Pope Gregory XV established a committee of cardinals called the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Latin for "sacred congregation for the propagation of the faith") to help arrange missionary work and increase the breadth of the Catholic faith. Occasionally, this was abbreviated down to just Propaganda, a word which in the 1790s began being used in irreligious contexts. By the mid-nineteenth century, the word had taken on a negative connotation and essentially described propaganda as what we imagine today. That Latin word from earlier, propaganda, is a gerund of the verb propagare, which meant "to propagate" (and is the etymon of our word propagate as well, for the curious). Once we break off the prefix pro-, the root takes us to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pag, meaning "to fasten".
In April 2018, a series of memes where the letters ck were replaced by cc took the Internet by storm, starting from websites like Reddit and 4chan and soon reaching mainstream level. This was a parody of how Crip gang members avoided the letters ck because they were slang used by Bloods to mean crip killer. It wasn't the first time a meme like that had surfaced; in early 2017, internet users began ironically supplanting the letter c (and soon, many other consonants) with the 🅱️ emoji, like the Bloods did to avoid contact with the sign of their mortal enemies. That first meme had died out and this was the next installment... but there was a difference. The cc spelling of words became so popular that more people than ever started unironically using it, especially in a sexual context, and now a sizeable amount of people are seriously spelling thick as thicc and suck as succ. Just an interesting example of how both gangs and the Internet are influencing linguistic development, I thought.
In the late 1800s, female African American slaves and sharecroppers wore cloths over their heads to tie their hair back with. In the 1930s, the practice evolved into a method to preserve a wavy hairstyle, and the rags were worn at night. By the 1960s, however, partially due to the Black Power movement, it became an actually popular style to wear hairdo-rags, or do-rags, as they were soon called (an interesting example of clipping). People started wearing them in public as a fashionable accessory, and the clothing piece was especially popularized by rappers at the time. Eventually, even the spelling started to shift: the pronunciation remained the same, but it became more in vogue to start spelling it durag, no apostrophe. Today, almost everyone spells it that way (durag has more usage in Google Trends than all the other terms combined), but Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia stick to do-rag because of etymological fallacy, I suppose.
The word treasure as a verb was first used in the late 1300s, but as a noun it was loaned in the middle 1100s from the French word tresor. Orthography remains constant as we move back through Old French to Latin, where we trace it to Latin thesaurus, also meaning "treasure" (and, yes, as I've covered in a previous blog post, this is related to our word thesaurus). That derives from Ancient Greek thesauros, which meant "treasure house" and is related to the verb tithenai, meaning "to put" (which is connected through the idea of storing treasure). Tithenai is thought to be a reduplication of the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed root dhe, meaning "to put" as well, and the word treasure has slowly been decreasing in literary references since the pirate days of yore.
Lately, I've been hearing the colloquialism spill the tea more and more often as slang for "to share gossip", and the tea to just refer to rumors. Curious about its origin, I turned to the internet, and the results are fascinating. The earliest references are from early 1990s African-American drag culture, where it was originally just the letter T, as an abbreviation for Truth. Eventually, tea sort of emerged as an alternate spelling and pun, meant to evoke an image of someone literally spilling a hot cup of tea after receiving a juicy bit of information. As black drag culture gained prominence (especially with shows like RuPaul's Drag Race later on), so did their phrase, and it really took off with a popular meme of Kermit the frog sipping tea in the early 2010s. At this point, it's a well-established part of American vernacular, and examining its origin was quite fun!
Coterie is an adorable-looking word that describes a small group of people with a unifying goal or interest. The term was borrowed in 1738 from French (no surprise there) and appears to be a diminutive of the Old French word cote, which meant "cottage" and is also a relative of our current English word cottage. The connection was in landholding; originally, a coterie was a group of people that had a property in common, and the definition grew from there. Cote, sometimes spelled cotte, probably traces to the Old Norse word kot, meaning "hut". This, through the Proto-Germanic reconstruction kutan, probably derives from a Proto-Indo-European root, but I can't find any theories as to which one. The word coterie has been declining in usage since the early 1900s.
When the Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. was introduced in 1985, a short, bushy-eyebrowed, shiitake-resembling character called a goomba was introduced as a basic enemy. It soon became quite popular and a staple of the Mario franchise. However, we rarely stop to wonder what its name means. It's sort of a pun: it comes from goombah, a slang word for Italian people (in keeping with the theme of the Mario characters), and gomba is also a Hungarian word for "mushroom". However, goombah has negative connotations and is considered by many to actually be a slur for Italians. The word comes from Sicilian cumpa, which meant something like "mate" or "buddy", and that is from Latin compater, which could mean "godfather" or "first cousin". We can break compater up into con-, meaning "with", and pater, or "father", both being words coming from PIE that I've explained before.
Nobody really knows why people say love instead of zero when notating scores in tennis, but several ideas abound. One school of thought is that it could be from the French word l'oeuf, meaning "the egg", because the number zero looks like an egg (the word would have been modified through folk etymology). Alternatively, it could be from Dutch, or just the word love, implying that before a game starts the players could still have "love for each other". Interesting, but what about the rest of the point values? Why do they increase the way they do? The going theory is that clock faces were initially used to keep track of the score - fifteen, thirty, forty-five, and sixty to win. However, when the concept of deuces was established, people started moving the hands to forty instead of forty-five, as a reminder that you couldn't win with just one point (15 minutes) more - you needed to score twice in a row, or else it was pushed back to 40 again. It's weird but it works, and it's a cool historical fact to know.
Originally, the pontifex maximus was the head priest in Ancient Rome. Today, it's the title of the Roman Catholic pope. The word pontifex has a rather curious etymology: it comes from the Latin word pont-, a stem of pons, meaning "bridge", and fex, meaning "maker". This is because the original pontifices were supposed to oversee the rebuilding of the Pons Sublicius, an important bridge across the Tiber River (the oldest and most sacred of Rome), and their name was adopted to reflect that. Pons comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pontehs, or "path", and fex traces to PIE dhe, with a definition of "set" or "put". Pontifex eventually led to other words such as pontiff and pontificate. All three of these words have recently been declining in usage, slowly decreasing in literary references after peaks in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
It seems almost intuitive that we got the word hangnail because there's a piece of skin hanging by your nail. That's what I had always assumed, at least, but I had assumed incorrectly. In reality, the term hangnail goes back to the Old English word angnail, which meant "painful nail". There is no hanging involved; the word was modified over time to seem more correct, in a classic instance of folk etymology altering development. Ang is a now-extinct word meaning "tight" or "painful", from Proto-Germanic anguz and eventually deriving from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hengus, meaning "narrow" or "tight" (the connection to "pain" being one of constriction). Nail, meanwhile, hails from Proto-Germanic naglaz, from PIE hnog, which still had the same definition. Intriguing stuff!
The word sushi was borrowed in 1893 as American society slowly began a long history of adopting pieces of Japanese culture (after which it steadily grew in usage to a peak today). There's a misconception that the name has something to do with fish, but in the original Japanese, sushi actually meant "sour rice", in reference to the outside of the delicacy. Earlier, with a different character but the same pronunciation, that meant "sour" or "tasting of vinegar", and further back there was a word sounding like su, which just meant "vinegar". -Shi is an adjectival suffix tracing to the Heian period. The etymology of su is uncertain. There's a theory that takes it to Proto-Japonic and another going back to Chinese, so we're not even sure about the language family there. Still very interesting though!
A premiere is an initial showing of a play, series, or movie, a premier is a head of government, and something that's premier is before any other in importance or order. All of this can be traced back to Old French premiere, meaning "first", through different routes. The noun premier came in 1711 from the adjective premier, because a premier is the most important minister in a country, and the adjective premier came sometime in the mid-1400s from a Middle French word with the same orthography and definition. The etymology of premiere meets up with those other terms in Old French because it also represents the first of something. That comes from Latin primarius, the root being primus, also "first". This makes premier a relative of the words principal, primitive, prince, prime, and many more. Through Proto-Italic priisemos, we can trace it back even further to Proto-Indo-European per, meaning "before", which sprung off hundreds of more relatives, some of which we've already covered.
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.