The Gregorian calendar we use today has its origins in the old Roman calendar, which had only ten months, each with 30 or 31 days. The first four, Martius, Aprilis, Maias, and Iunius, were named after Mars, Aphrodite, Maia, and Juno - these names should be pretty recognizable. After that, I guess the Romans ran out of ideas, so they named the remaining six months Mensis Quintilis, Mensis Sextilis, Mensis September, Mensis October, Mensis November, and Mensis December, which meant "Fifth Month", "Sixth Month", and so on. After a while, the ten-month calendar became an issue because all the seasonal holidays shifted to other seasons, so in 46 BCE Julius Caesar stepped in and ordered two extra months added to the beginning of the year (ignoring the numbering system entirely). Those months were Ianuarius, named after the god Janus, and Februarius, named after Februa, a pastoral festival meant to cleanse Rome of evil spirits. Later, Mensis Quintilis and Mensis Sextilis were renamed Iulius and Augustus to honor Caesar and his successor, but months "seven" through "ten" stuck, just as our ninth through twelfth months.
The Mercator projection is a cylindrical map projection often criticized for distorting landmasses near the poles but nevertheless frequently used in websites like Google Maps. It was created in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerhard Kremer, who went by the trade name Gerardus Mercator. Kremer spent a lot of time learning Latin and gave himself a pseudonym that was a literal translation of his own. Kremer means "merchant" in German, and mercator means the same in Latin. The term comes from the noun merx, meaning "merchandise", which in turn traces to Proto-Italic merk and possibly Etruscan. Merx is also the root of a bunch of commerce-related words like merchant, market, mercenary, mercantile, and commerce, among others. Apart from a spike during World War II, usage of the word Mercator over time has been fairly constant since the mid-eighteenth century.
An ananym is a word created by reversing the lettering of another word - essentially a more constrained anagram. There are several cool ananyms out there that you may or may not have heard of:
The Heimlich maneuver was named after Dr. Henry Jay Heimlich, who developed the procedure in 1974. That's a German surname originating in fifteenth-century Switzerland which was originally a nickname for a secretive person and comes from an adjective meaning "secret" or "private". -Lich is just an suffix used for forming adjectives (eventually coming from Proto-Germanic likaz and Proto-Indo-European leyg, "like") and heim derives from the Proto-Germanic word haimaz, meaning "home" - the connection was that people do private things in their homes. Finally, that derives from Proto-Indo-European koymos, or "village". After rapidly being popularized in the 1970s and 1980s, literary usage of the phrases Heimlich and Heimlich maneuver peaked in 1995 and have been declining since.
A gaiter is a kind of leg covering meant to protect the ankle. From its spelling and semantic similarity, I thought that it would come from the word gait ("manner of walking"). However, the word is completely unrelated, as it's actually an eighteenth century borrowing from French guetre, which meant "legging" and was associated with peasant attire. That has an uncertain origin, but is thought to come from the Old French word wrist, meaning "instep". That further derives from Proto-Germanic wristiz, which had connotations of turning and is the etymon of English wrist. One cool thing I noticed about the word gaiter is that it has increasingly been dissociated from its original definition: people are now selling neck gaiters and, ironically, wrist gaiters.
For the first two hundred years of its existence in English, the primarily capitalized word Lesbian exclusively referred to people from the island of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean Sea. The modern connection to homosexuality is due to the poet Sappho, who lived on the island and was well known for her erotic writings about both men and women (sapphic is another adjective used to describe lesbians). Beyond that, the term (which came to us through Latin Lesbius and Ancient Greek lesbios is thought to maybe mean "forested" in Hittite, but that's unsure. For a while, lesbian was kept out of print literature, but it finally started gaining traction in the 1970s with the women's liberation and gay rights movements, peaking in the year 1997 and slightly decreasing in usage since then.
The sasquatch is an ape-like creature in North American cryptozoology that's thought to be an amalgam of Native American and European folklore. The name reflects this too: it is likely an Anglicized corruption of a Salishan word. The term was first used in 1929 collection of stories by J.W. Burns, an agent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who transliterated it from Halkomelem sasq'ec, which meant "hairy man" or "wild man". Burns published the stories on April Fools' Day, and many took them to be a joke, dismissing them until a revival in the 1950s. The synonym bigfoot (first used in 1963) is a bit more self-explanatory, and the first documented claim of a Sasquatch/Bigfoot sighting was in an 1884 article where it was called "Jacko" and described as "half man and half beast".
When the Swedish music streaming platform Spotify was first becoming successful, all the news outlets reporting on it were told that the name was a combination of spot and identify. That sounds plausible enough, but it was actually a lie to cover up a slightly embarrassing mistake. The truth is, when founders Martin Lorentzon and Daniel Ek were trying to come up with names, they were literally just trying to make it catchy. After failing to get anything substantial from online jargon generators, they resorted to just shouting out random words to each other and checking if they were taken. At one point, Lorentzon asked Ek to look up a word that he misheard as "Spotify". When it returned no results on Google, they just decided to go with it. Now it has over 400 million hits and has been continuously increasing in searches since its founding in 2006.
The Cambrian Period was a geological time period 55 million years ago that's well known for having the evolutionary "explosion" that gave us vertebrates, and it's directly preceded by the Precambrian Eon, the earliest part of Earth's history. The term was first used in 1836 by English scientist Adam Sedgwick, who named it after the historical name for Wales, Cambria, in reference to a system of rocks from the Cambrian Period exposed in the area. That's the Latinized form of Cymru, the Welsh self-appellation, and eventually traces to Proto-Celtic mrogis, meaning "country", and Proto-Indo-European morg, "border". Usage of the phrase Cambrian Period has steadily been increasing over the past few centuries, especially being popularized by palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould's 1989 book Wonderful Life.
A friend of mine recently sent me this screenshot of some text explaining where the word threshold comes from:
This, found on Facebook, is actually taken from a viral article titled Life in the 1500s that's infamous in etymological circles for being the textbook example of fake word origins being spread on the Internet. According to Snopes, the article was published as a joke in 1999, but a bunch of people took it seriously and shared it around so much that it's still percolating through the interwebs today (here's the full text if you're interested). The word threshold has been around in some form since Old English. The first part comes from þrescan, which meant "tread" or "trample", and nobody knows where the second part comes from (although it was most likely folk etymologized into hold).
The verb sack has many different meanings: it can refer to someone being fired, to a play in football, to the plundering of a city, or the action of putting something in a bag. The first two come from the "pillage" definition, which in turn comes from the French phrase mettre a sac, meaning "put it in a bag" (on the notion of packing up booty). That's essentially equivalent to the last definition, which just comes from the noun. Eventually, it all traces to Proto-Germanic sakkuz, a borrowing from Latin saccus, which meant "large bag" (and is the etymon of terms like sac, satchel, and saccade). Finally, that, through Ancient Greek sakkos, is thought to ultimately derive from Proto-Semitic due to cognates in Hebrew saq and other Middle Eastern languages. Usage of the word sack in literature over time has been fairly constant since the eighteenth century.
The word guitar was first used in a 1637 translation of Horace's Art of Poetry. Obviously, there were no modern-day guitars in classical Rome; at the time, the word probably referred to a lute, or was just a fanciful translation. Guitar comes from Spanish guitarra, which reflects the instrument's origin in fifteenth-century Iberia. Before that, it might come from Arabic qitara, but it definitely (either directly or indirectly) derives from Latin cithara, which described a lyre-like instrument used primarily in Ancient Greece (this also gave us the word zither). In the original Greek, that was kithara, and it's probably Proto-Indo-European because of a cognate with sihtar, the Persian etymon of the word sitar. The portmanteau keytar is from 1979 and the rare verb to guitar was first used in 1816.
Meconium is a word for the slimy greenish substance that constitutes the first excretion of newborn infants. The word was borrowed at the beginning of the seventeenth century from Ancient Greek mekonion, meaning "opium". The connection is that physicians perceived a physical resemblance to tar-like raw opium. Mekonion is from mekon, which meant "poppy" and is most likely Indo-European due to cognates like in Serbian mak and German mohn. Interestingly, through French and the suffix -ine (used for naming chemical compounds), mekonion also gave us the nineteenth-century word for the morphine-based drug codeine. Since their respective introductions, usage frequency of meconium has closely mirrored that of codeine, peaking in the early 1980s.
Red Delicious and Golden Delicious are two of the most recognizable cultivars of apple. From their names, it seems like the words' etymologies would be fairly boring, but there are actually some interesting stories there. Red Delicious was discovered in 1872 by Iowan farmer Jesse Hiatt, who called it Hawkeye after the state's nickname. The rights were then sold to the Stark Brothers Nurseries, which began aggressively marketing it as Stark Delicious in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Gold Delicious was developed in the early twentieth century by West Virginian orchardist Anderson Mullins, who called it Mullin’s Yellow Seedling. He later sold the cultivar to Stark Brothers, which had the brilliant idea of advertising it opposite their other brand, killing two birds with one stone. So they renamed Stark Delicious to Red Delicious and then changed Mullin's Seedling to match, and the rest is history.
In maritime law, there are four types of marine debris: flotsam (floating goods that were not deliberately thrown overboard), jetsam (floating goods that were intentionally discarded), lagan (sunken goods that are tied to a floating object), and derelict (unrecoverable sunken goods). Of those, flotsam and jetsam have been repurposed by the public as an irreversible binomial that means "discarded or useless objects" in general. The words are essentially equivalent to float and jettison: flotsam comes from Old French flotaison (or "floating"), which traces to Frankish flotan, meaning "swim", Proto-Germanic flutona, and Proto-Indo-European plow, "to flow"; and jetsam is from Old French getaison ("throwing"), which in turn probably derives from the Latin verb iactare, meaning "to throw".
Wallabies are very cute mammals native to Australia and New Guinea that are essentially smaller kangaroos, and also the name of Australia's national rugby team. The word was first used in English in an 1826 agricultural account of New South Wales, when it was called a wallabee. For a while, it was also spelled walloby and whallabee, but the modern form was standardized by the end of the nineteenth century. The term is taken from wolaba, a noun in the extinct Darug language with the same definition. Beyond that, etymologists aren't able to reconstruct anything further. Darug also gave us pademelon, the name for another close relative of the kangaroo, through another word, badimaliyan. Both it and wallaby have been increasing in usage since introduction, although wallaby much more so.
Before the word clementine came to refer to the citrus, it was used to describe any one of the fourteen popes named Clement. It wasn't until the early twentieth century that the fruit even came into existence, when it was accidentally bred in the garden of an Algerian monastery belonging to a French missionary named Clement Rodier. Starting in 1914, clementines began to be commercially cultivated in California, and they were a massive hit. By the mid-1900s, they were widespread, and the word has exponentially increased in usage since the '60s. The name Clement means "mild in temper" and comes from the Latin word clemens, translating to "merciful" or "calm". That's thought to derive either from the Proto-Indo-European root klei, which meant "to lean", or from the reconstruction kel, which meant "to cover".
Viz. is an abbreviation used sort of like i.e. or e.g., but less frequently and with the purpose of elaborating on something expressed before. For example, you could say I study linguistics, viz. etymology and conlanging. The term was originally Tironian shorthand for the Latin word videlicet, which basically translates to "namely" or "that is to say". Interestingly enough, videlicet is actually a contraction itself, combining the words videre and licet, which meant "to see" and "allowed", respectively (so, together, videlicet means "it is allowed to see"). Videre, through Proto-Italic wideo, derives from the Proto-Indo-European word weyd, still with the same definition, and licet is thought to trace to Proto-Indo-European leyk, which would mean "to prepare for sale" (it was associated with auctions).
Right now, the word cipher is used to denote encrypted messages, but five hundred years ago, it meant "zero". This is because it came to be associated with numerals in general, then with codes using numerals, and finally with the modern definition. It comes from Old French cifre, Latin cifra, and ultimately Arabic sifr, which still meant "zero". Since the Roman number system did not have any concept of nothingness, sifr also gave us the word for "zero" in many European languages, including French chiffre, German ziffer, and English zero; the term likely comes from an earlier Arabic word, safara, which meant "to be empty". That in itself has an interesting etymology; it's named after the Arabic month of Safar, the second of the Muslim calendar, because that time was known for pagan looting that would leave all the houses empty.
The word casual was first used in the 1370s, where it was spelled casuel. Two centuries later, it went through a brief phase when it was spelled casuall, and we've been writing it the modern way since the mid-seventeenth century. The adjective was taken from Middle French and traces to the Latin word causalis, meaning "by chance". This developed into the modern definition on a notion of something not happening with regularity, which later translated into informality. Causalis comes from the earlier Latin word casus, meaning "event", and that's from cadere, a verb for "fall" (at the time, things happening were likened to falling, similar to the word befall). Ultimately, cadere is reconstructed as coming from the Proto-Indo-European root kad, also "fall". Usage of the word casual has been pretty constant for about the last century.
I've noticed that there's a phenomenon of college students using the word dormcest to refer to hookups between two people living in the same dorm (it was probably named this because many people have strong feelings against the viability of such relationships). This is not an incredibly new word: Urban Dictionary has had it listed since 2004, and the earliest reference I can find anywhere is from a 1999 anthropological book describing the social lives of young adults. There, it seemed like it was a relatively new addition even in spoken language. This is further shown through many early sources spelling it "dorm-cest", a sign that the authors were uncertain of the proper spelling and emphasized the different parts of the portmanteau to make it clear that the term was composed of dorm and incest. For some reason, Google searches of the word are most frequent in the state of Michigan.
The word slalom was first used in a 1921 edition of the magazine for the Ski Club of Great Britain. It was borrowed directly from Norwegian slalam, which referred to downhill skiing races but more literally meant "sloping track". It's composed of the words sla, meaning "side of a hill", and lam, meaning "track". I can't find exactly where those terms come from, but some etymologists speculate that lam may be related to another Norwegian word meaning "row of houses". Ultimately, these probably trace to Old Norse, Proto-Germanic, and finally Proto-Indo-European. Usage of slalom peaked in the 1980s and '90s, and has been decreasing since, although Google searches for it obviously spike during every Winter Olympics. The verb form was first attested in 1973, and both slalomer and slalomist are correct names for "one who slaloms".
The word esoteric was first used in a 1660 history of philosophy, where it was spelled esoterick. It was taken from Ancient Greek esoterikos, which meant "belonging to an inner circle" (this was later applied to knowledge to give us our modern definition). The term was first applied to the teachings of Pythagoras, which were meant only for his followers. That's from esotero, a comparative adverb of eso, meaning "within". Finally, it derives from Proto-Indo-European ens, "in". The opposite of esoteric is the word exoteric, meaning "understood by the general public". That comes from Ancient Greek exoterikos, "belonging to an outer circle", and traces to PIE ex-, "out of". Both words have been increasing in usage lately, but esoteric is used more than ten times as much, making exoteric the esoteric one.
In The Handmaid's Tale, the main character famously discovers the phrase nolite te bastardes carborundorum etched into a closet. It's actually a joke, tracing back to Atwood's Latin classes. The phrase doesn't really make any sense; it's kind of what you get when you run something through Google Translate a bunch of times. Although it couldn't be a sentence in actual Latin, if each word is translated piecemeal, it would mean don't let the bastards grind you down (nolite is "do not", te is "you", bastardes is "bastards" in the wrong case, and carborundorum is a material used in grindstones). The phrase has taken many different forms since it was first used in World War II: it has shown up in some iteration in everything from a Harvard fight song to a plaque on John Boehner's desk. More broadly, it falls into the category of Dog Latin, which is rather interesting; I suggest you check out the Wikipedia page on it.
The word pirate was adopted in the 1300s to refer to someone who robs ships, and by the late fifteenth century it could be metaphorically applied to people on land, as well. It became a verb in the 1570s, was first connected to plagiarism in 1603, and the first mention of pirate radios is from 1913. Through Old French, the noun was taken from Latin pirata, and that evolved from Ancient Greek peirates, "one who attacks". The root there is the verb peiran, which more literally meant "to attempt" (the connection was that attacks are attempts to cause harm). Eventually, that derives from Proto-Indo-European per, meaning "cross". One famous relative of peira is the English word empirical, which came to us on a notion of experimentation being done through multiple attempts.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a rising junior 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.