Despite doing a whole infographic on epidemiology etymology, I've never discussed the origin of the word herpes before. It was first used in Bartholomeus Anglicus' 1398 encyclopedia On the Order of Things, where it was capitalized and had pretty much the same definition as today. Anglicus took that directly from Latin herpes, which could refer to any kind of inflammatory skin problem, and the Romans borrowed their word from Greek herpein, meaning "creeping". That's also the source of the word herpetology, "the study of snakes", because the Greek word for "snake" literally meant "creeping thing". It's also the source of serpent, because the Greek h corresponds to the Latin s as it developed from the Proto-Indo-European s. That takes us to our final word, PIE serp, which meant "creep" or "crawl" as well.
There's an eleventh-century French epic poem called The Song of Roland, and it turns out that Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien was heavily influenced by it. The titular character bears striking similarities to Boromir, the sword Anduril was based on Roland's sword Durendal, and - this is the topic of today's post - both feature an animal called an oliphaunt, which in the books was basically a larger elephant. Oliphant was actually an obscure twelfth-century variant spelling of elephant borrowed from Old French olifant, which could refer to elephants, ivory, or horns made out of ivory. That comes from Latin elephantus, which is from Greek elephas, meaning both "ivory" and "elephant". Finally, that's thought to be non-Indo-European in origin, and etymologies have been proposed from Phoenecian to Berber and Egyptian.
As you may have noticed, I've recently been gathering information on how various typefaces got their names. Turns out that a lot of this information is not available online because nobody thought to write down the reasons, so I've had to do some research and email designers about their naming processes. One of these designers was Gary Munch, a senior lecturer at the University of Bridgeport and the guy who created the Candara font. Apparently, the working name for Candara was Sense, but it was commissioned as part of the Microsoft's ClearType project, which required all its fonts to start with the letter C (others included Calibri, Cambria, Consolas, Constantia, and Corbel), so Munch changed the name to Candor, meaning "honesty". However, Microsoft vetoed that, so he suggested Candel or Caroleon as variations of the word until the marketing team stepped in, changed a few letters around, and Candara was born.
The font Helvetica was created in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger, but it wasn't called that at the time. It originally came out with the name Neue Haas Grotesk, or "New Haas Grotesque", with Haas being the name of the type foundry and Grotesque being a type of sans-serif font. However, as you can imagine, the marketers at Miedinger's parent company weren't too happy with the name, and pushed for something more memorable and accessible. The suggested name, Helvetica, was an elegant reference to the country of Switzerland, which was referred to as Confoederatio Helvetica in Latin. That's a reference to the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe living in the area during Roman times, and the name ultimately meant something like "many grasslands" in Proto-Celtic.
Today, we think of the word font as whatever kind of text we choose to write in, but that idea historically has been communicated by the word typeface, while font included the specifications for size, italics, and more within that typeface. This sense traces back to the printing press days, when a font was a set of printing blocks carved out in a certain height, width, and style. That definition, which emerged in the 1660s, comes from an earlier meaning of "cast iron", because the printing blocks had to be made out of cast metals. Through French, that comes from the Latin verb fondre, meaning "to melt", here in reference to the metals that were melted while being cast. Finally, it all traces to the Proto-Indo-European root gheue, meaning "to pour".
The Georgia typeface (a registered trademark of Microsoft) is one of the most recognizable serif fonts out there. As you might surmise, it is named after the American state, but there's much more to the story than just that: it was rather whimsically named after a tabloid headline reading Alien Heads Found in Georgia. Apparently, the designer, Matthew Carter, was partially inspired by the lettering on the tabloid headline and wanted to pay homage to it. It's probably named "Georgia" and not something along the lines of "Alien Heads" because there is a long tradition of naming fonts after places, from Helvetica (the Latin name for Switzerland) to Tahoma (the native name for Mount Rainier in Washington). Stay tuned for more font facts in upcoming days.
The word csardas or czardas, which describes a type of traditional Hungarian dance and is also the name of my favorite piece of violin music, was borrowed into English in 1860 from Hungarian. That, in turn, was the adjectival form of the word csarda, meaning "tavern", because the type of music was frequently played in taverns. Csarda was borrowed from the Turkish noun cardak, which could refer to several different building types, and the Turkish word came from Persian cartaq, describing a type of arch with a pointed apex. More literally, it meant "four arch", coming from car, the word for "four" (from Proto-Indo-European ketwores), and taq, a word for "arch" which I can't find any more information on. According to Google NGrams, usage of the words csardas and czardas peaked in the 1890s, 1900s, and 1930s, and has declined significantly since.
The adjective impudent (meaning "impertinent") and the noun pudendum are related. Through Middle French, the former comes from Latin impudens, which was formed from the prefix in-, meaning "not", and the verb pudere, meaning "to be ashamed". A pudendum, meanwhile, literally translates as a "thing to be ashamed of". This kind of curious split isn't exclusive to English: numerous languages have shaped pudere into words meaning everything from "modesty" (Italian pudore) and "prudish" (French pudibond) to slang words for "to have sex" (Austrian German pudern) and "penis" (Spanish pudendo, though archaic). Because of how the word could be interpreted as both "shame" and "thing to be ashamed of", it evolved in very different ways. Finally, pudere comes from the Proto-Indo-European root paw, meaning "to strike".
In golf, being below par is a good thing, so why is being subpar a bad thing? To answer this, let's go back to the Latin adjective par, which meant "equal" or "even". This was borrowed into Old French in the 1200s and then was first used in English in 1601 as an economic term referring to the rate of exchange of a currency between two countries. Throughout the centuries, it took on the meaning of "average", which was used in both of the previous examples, just in different ways. It could also mean "equal" or "normal", as in the case of par for the course. Finally, Latin par has an uncertain derivation. Some theorize that it comes from Proto-Indo-European perh, meaning "exchange", but sound change rules don't work for that, so it's also possible it might not be Indo-European at all.
Apparently, when the Episcopal Church was being set up at the end of the 1700s, its full name was The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and this remained the only official name until 1964, when they amended the constitution to allow for the shorter The Episcopal Church. Several prominent members throughout the history of the organization actually took issue with the name, saying it didn't reflect the reformed nature of the church and advocating for it to be called something like the American Catholic Church. The word "episcopal" just means "of or pertaining to bishops", and comes from episcopus, the Latin word for "bishop" (and also the source of English bishop, once you drop the e and the suffix). Finally, that comes from the Ancient Greek roots epi, meaning "over", and skopos, meaning "watcher", because a bishop is like a religious overseer.
The phrase grand slam is very embedded in our recreational culture: in baseball, it refers to a home run when all bases are loaded; in bridge, it's used when someone wins all thirteen tricks; and in tennis, golf, and rugby, it's when someone wins all the major championships of that sport within a year. All of these achievements get their name from a trick-taking card game called Boston, which was basically the precursor to bridge. Then the term seeped into popular culture with the meaning "great success" and got applied to sports. In Boston, the word slam is thought to be completely unrelated to the verb meaning "forceful sound". Rather, it probably comes from slampant, a term in an older, seventeenth-century card game which ultimately was an obscure word meaning "trickery".
A lothario is a man who unscrupulously seduces women. The term was popularized through Nicholas Rowe's 1703 play The Fair Penitent, which featured a character with that name who, unsurprisingly, unscrupulously seduced women. Rowe didn't just make the name up, though; apparently it was previously used for a similar character in William Davenant's 1630 tragedy The Cruel Brother, and the word may have evolved from stock character status into what it is today. The name comes from Old English Hlothari, which literally meant "famous warrior": hloth comes from Old High German lut, meaning "noisy" (or, in this case, "famous", from Proto-Indo-European klutos, also "famous") and the other element is heri, the Old English word for "army" (from PIE korio, meaning "war").
The word lagoon first started showing up in English in the early seventeenth century with the spelling laguna. At the time, it exclusively referred to the body of water that Venice was in, but it came to be applied to other brackish lakes separated from the sea by barriers after James Cook used it to describe a stretch of water in a southern Pacific atoll. The word, possibly through French, comes from the Italian word for "pond", and the -oon suffix was added to show the stress on a borrowed noun (see buffoon, lampoon, and harpoon for similar examples). Finally, the Italian word comes from Latin lacus, which meant"pond" and is also the source of "lake", and that's from Proto-Indo-European laku, meaning "body of water" more generally.
At first blush, the word bonfire might appear to be from the French word for "good", bon, plus the word fire. Indeed, many early dictionaries, including Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language and Webster's Dictionary, claimed that, but this violates spelling change rules and doesn't make historical sense, and the reference books were corrected around the turn of the twentieth century. The first element of the word actually comes from the English word bone, because it used to be a practice to burn bones (apparently you can do that) in honor of certain saints. Later on, the original meaning was entirely forgotten and the e was dropped from the word because of analogy with the French adjective.
There's a baseball team called the Red Sox and a baseball team called the White Sox. Both are, simply enough, named after the color socks they wore in their outfits, with sox being a popular commercial slang term for socks around the beginning of the twentieth century, when both teams were named. And they weren't the only teams named after their clothes! The Cincinnati Reds were so named because they wore knee-high red socks, and there were historically professional teams called the Blues, Maroons, and Grays after their stockings. However, don't get fooled: the Cleveland Browns are named that after their original coach, Paul Brown, and the St. Louis Blues got their name from a song with that title.
In marketing or politics, astroturfing is the practice of advertising in a way that makes it look like it's coming from a grassroots campaign, despite being backed by big money. The word in this sense emerged in a Canadian newspaper and then spread on Internet message boards throughout the 1990s, and comes from AstroTurf, the name of an actual synthetic turf company - since it's a brand of fake grass, it's a joke on the word "grassroots". The company was invented and patented in 1965 under the name ChemGrass, but was then rebranded after it was used in the Houston Astrodome sports stadium the following year, and turf has been around with the definition "slab of grass" since Old English. Although, now, more people probably associate the word with the fake grass, since that was clipped from the company name.
As an uneducated mainland American, I've always assumed that the word aloha just means "hello" or "goodbye" in Hawaiian, but I recently found out that it's much more significant than only that. Apparently, it can also mean "love", "affection", "peace", "mercy", and "compassion", and represents an entire way of life for the native Hawaiian people. Originally, though, it meant "love", and there are several cognates across Polynesian languages: aroha in Maori, aropa in Anuta, arofa in Tahitian, alofa in Samoan, and more. It's reconstructed to the Proto-Polynesian word qarofa, which also meant "love" and might sound more like "adofa" to English speakers.
I had always wondered about the etymology of deadpanning (the action of saying something funny while keeping a straight face), but for some reason never thought to look it up until now. The term first showed up as a two-word adjective in 1920s, emerging as a slang word in the acting industry and spreading from there. Although its origins haven't been recorded anywhere, it seems that the "dead" part is just analogous to "expressionless" and pan was a colloquial word for "face", due to a similarity with the flatness of the cooking tool. So deadpanning is just keeping an "expressionless face", which checks out pretty well with the modern definition. According to Google NGrams, usage of deadpan has increased with its increased exposure in American comedy, peaking in usage in 2017.
A few days ago, I wrote about the pejorative agent suffix -ard and how it shows up in several negative words, like drunkard, coward, and bastard. One word that I neglected to mention was the noun mallard, describing the type of duck. If you go back far enough, it comes from the Old French word malle, meaning "male", and -ard. At the time, the word referred not to a certain species of bird but to any male duck in general, and it appears that they were humorously spoken about in an insulting manner. Then the name for the specific type of duck emerged in the early fourteenth century, and the older definition was lost to the ages. Malle comes from Latin mas, which meant "male" and is thought to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction meryos, "young man".
In the book The Da Vinci Code, protagonist Robert Langdon explains that the Mona Lisa's name is an anagram of the hieroglyphic names for the Egyptian gods Amon and Isis. Needless to say, that's not right. Although theories still vary on the subject of the painting, most people believe the account in Italian painter Giorgio Vasari's 1550 biography of da Vinci, which identifies her as Lisa di Antonio Maria, the wife of Florentine merchant Francesco Giocondo. Mona in Italian is a formal honorific for women that originated as a shortening of madonna, itself from ma donna, "my lady" (this is similar to how madam - "my dame" - got shortened to ma'am in English). The Italian name for the portrait, however, is La Gioconda, after the feminine version of her husband's surname, and this gets transcribed in French as La Joconde. Both of those names come from the Latin adjective iucundus, meaning "pleasant", which I find humorous because it also describes her smile.
A week ago, I wrote about how the verb to badger comes from a noun meaning "trader", and since then I found out more information and wanted to issue an update. Apparently there are two verbs spelled badger that respectively mean "to haggle" and "to harass", and it's considered unlikely that they are directly related, although the former may have influenced the development of the latter. That latter verb, which I didn't discuss last week, turns out to have an even more interesting origin. It was probably coined in reference to the practice of badger-baiting, a nasty blood sport where a dog was set to continuously attack a badger until it finally died. There were also some seventeenth-century allusions to the persistence of badgers to bite down on something until their teeth met, so those may have also influenced the meaning.
Bollard is the rather funny-sounding word for those little posts used for traffic control on the sides of the road, or for the pole that a ship is tethered to. The traffic-related sense emerged in the 1940s from the resemblance to the nautical definition, and that came about in the 1840s from the botanical term bole, meaning "tree trunk", and the suffix -ard, which is curiously mostly used a pejorative suffix (think drunkard, coward, bastard). So it's a pathetic excuse for a tree trunk, I suppose? Bole was borrowed in the early fourteenth century from Old Norse bolr, which came from Proto-Germanic bulas (both with the same meaning). Finally, it all comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction bhel, which meant "to swell" and is also the source of words like ball, balloon, bull, and bollocks.
The word honeymoon was first recorded in a 1546 dialect book as hony moone, and other spellings around that time included honney moone, hony-moon, and hony-moone. As expected, it all boils down to the word honey and the word moon, and the reason for this is disputed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it's a pessimistic reference to how love wanes like the moon, or an even more pessimistic statement that the love in question won't last longer than a month. Over time, this evolved from a less tongue-in-cheek expression to one meant sincerely, and usage has steadily increased over time. Honey, through Proto-Germanic hunang, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root keneko, used for things with yellow or brown colors, and I've written about the word moon before.
When the word expedition was first attested in English in 1430, it referred specifically to military campaigns. Soon thereafter, it came to be used for the act of expediting, the action of sending out official documents, the state of being ready, and much more. Through Old French, the word comes from the Latin word expeditionem, which also meant "military campaign". That's from the past participle of expedire, a verb for "to prepare", and expedire is composed of the prefix ex-, meaning "out", and the root pedis, meaning "chain for the feet". So expedire, which is also the source of word verb expedite, literally meant "to free the feet from fetters", with the notion being a "liberation from difficulties". Usage of the word expedition peaked in 1626 and has been declining since.
I have some very early memories of my mother and grandmother playing and talking about sudoku, so it felt very surprising to me that the word sudoku has only been around in English since the year 2000, a year before I was born. I was also surprised to learn that the game was not in fact invented in Japan, but by a retired American architect named Howard Garns, who called it Number Place and published it in a magazine called Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games. Number Place did okay in the states, but it got very popular in Japan in the mid-1980s, particularly because of the Nikoli puzzle company, which called it sudoku as a shortened version of the phrase suji wa dokushin ni kagiru, meaning "numbers are restricted to being alone". Finally, the London Times started printing the game in 2004, leading to it being brought back to the West with the new name.
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.