The word cuneiform (describing a Mesopotamian writing system) may seem to have origins as exotic as what it describes, but its entire history in fact is exclusive to Europe. The English word stems from the French word cuneiforme, which still pertained to the language, however that derived from the New Latin word cuneiformis, which meant "wedge-like", describing the shapes of the letters. This is a portmanteau, that of cuneus ("wedge") and forma ("shape or figure", possibly from Etruscan or Greek). In one theory, cuneus traces to the Proto-Indo-European root hku, which meant "sting" and possibly connected to "wedge" because the words share an association with pointiness. This, though, is not confirmed, and etymologists have difficulties figuring out where it came from for sure. What we do know is that the word cuneiform has no origins in cuneiform writings.
The word paradise today refers to utopia-like places or even feelings of bliss or happiness. These meanings are metaphorical extensions of the biblical meaning (the Garden of Eden). Since the Old Testament has been around for quite a while, it is therefore not surprising that paradise kept that biblical connotation the whole time as it came from French paradis, from Latin paradisus, and finally from Greek paradeisos. We're not exactly sure where this was from, but because the story about Eden originated in Semitic regions, the word hung around the Semitic languages, clinging to both Hebrew and Arabic as we trace further back to the Proto-Indo-Iranian term paradaiza. This is supposedly a portmanteau of pari- (meaning "around") and daiza (meaning "walls"). Thus a paradise was the original place with walls all around, the perfect enclosure. Pari may stem from Proto-Indo-European per, which carried a definition like "to go over", and daiza is possibly from dheygh, or "to form, knead, or shape". But we're not sure, because as paradise began to "go over" to Greek, it took many "forms"!
Stalin was the adopted surname of Joseph Jughashvili, who made up the name because everybody in the Bolshevik party was trying to deceive the authorities and stuff. His use of it was surprisingly appropriate, as it meant "steel" in Russian, and, well, just look at his personality. The -in suffix made it plural, so the root was stalb, or "steel", singular. This is a loanword from the German word stahl, with the same definition. Stahl is from the Proto-Germanic term stahla, or "to be firm" (this is also the root of the English word steel, through Old English style, and of the words for steel in everything from Luxembourgish to Esperanto). As basically all Proto-Germanic words do, this derived from Proto-Indo-European stak, which meant "to stay or be firm". Usage of the words steel and Stalin have both decreased since 1950. Apparently both iron alloys and Communists are out of fashion.
Looking at the word vegan, it's surprisingly obvious to see its origin, but hard to notice at first. It's a clipping of vegetarian, used by a radical new society in the 1940s which wanted to distinguish itself from its inhumane predecessors. This word comes from the word vegetable, with the addition of the suffix denoting a person, -an. Originally, around the time when Linnaeus used it, a vegetable was any type of plant, but later it grew more specific. Since veggies are living and humankind knew it, the word traces to French vegetable, or "living" (which makes the word's usage as "brain-dead person" all the more ironic). This is from Latin vegetabilis, which meant "able to live and grow", from vegere, "to be alive or active". This is most likely from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word weg, which meant "strong or lively", proving that your mother was right about the connection between eating your greens and becoming stronger.
An axolotl, or ambystoma mexicanum (see the infographics page for the origin of Linnaean classifications) is a little-known type of salamander walking-fish thing, which I didn't even know about until it was requested. The word axolotl is clearly of Native American origin, in this case from Nahuatl as axolotl, or "slippery one", earlier on meaning something more like "slippery servant". This is a portmanteau of two words, atl, which meant water (and even had a figurative meaning of urine!) and xolotl, which meant "male servant". Since there is very little research in non-Indo-European languages, we can only say generally that this is of Uto-Aztecan descent. We can, however, say that searches in Google for axolotl have increased over four times in the last decade, and usage over time in English has grown infinitely since 1800. Obviously, that's only because it had no usages in 1800s, but still, infinity is quite a large number...
Sorry, bit of a Harry Potter joke for the title, but it's applicable for this post. Almost all Rowling geeks could tell you that the first name of Draco Malfoy (the archenemisis of Harry in school) comes from the Latin word for "dragon". However, where does Malfoy derive from? First, the prefix -mal. This is recognizable even in English as meaning "bad" (as in maleficent, malicious, or malignant). It is then unsurprising that mal was a word in French which meant "evil". This is from Latin malus, also "evil", from Proto-Indo-European mel, "wrong", through Proto-Italic. Here it gets fascinating: the foy part of Malfoy meant "trust" as foi in Old French. This is an alteration of Latin fides, "faith", which ultimately stems (somehow) from the Proto-Indo-European bheidh, which meant "to trust". Since Malfoy was a bad character who later became good, and his name incorporates both bad and good components, this means that J.K. Rowling not only planned his future from the beginning, but that she was also a whimsical etymologist!
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.