The word porcelain most likely comes from the Italian word porcellana, which meant "cowry shell" (a cowry being a type of sea snail). This is because of the similarity between the textures of porcelain and the cowry shell. However, here it gets crazy: porcellana comes from the word porcella, which meant "young female pig", a connection that occurred because cowry shells also allegedly look like sow's vaginas. Porcella is from Latin porcellus, which described young pigs of either gender and is a diminutive of porcus, the word for "pigs" in general. Through Proto-Italic porkos, this derives from Proto-Indo-European porkos, which can be further reconstructed to an earlier root, perk, which meant "to dig", as in pigs dig. So, starting from a word for digging, we went to pigs, then to little pigs, then to little female pigs, then to little female pig vaginas, then to shells, and then to pottery. Etymology is amazing, and very weird.
Our word asylum comes from the Latin word asylum, with basically the same definition. This is from Greek asylos, which meant "sanctuary" literally. The "mental health institution" meaning, attested in 1773, came from the "safe space" meaning (attested in the 1640s), as in how asylums ensure the safety of mentally ill patients. Here we can eliminate the prefix a-, which meant "without" (allegedly from the Proto-Indo-European root ne, meaning "not"). What's left is another Ancient Greek word, syle, which, curiously enough, was actually a legal term, referring to the city-states' rights of seizure. Syle does not have a confirmed word origin, but it also likely comes from Proto-Indo-European. So, technically, asylum means "without the right of seizure", which results in a pretty democratic madhouse. Usage of asylum peaked in the twentieth century, but it's recently experienced a bit of a rebound, accounting for about 0.00057% of all spoken words
Voir dire describes a set of legal procedures in jury selection, with different meanings in different countries. In the United States, it entails questioning jurors about their biases, but traditionally it's just an oath. Literally translated, this phrase means "speak the truth". Voir, sometimes styled voire, comes from the Old French word voir, meaning "truth", from Latin verus, with the same definition. This, through Proto-Italic weros, derives from Proto-Indo-European weh, which still meant "true". Dire, meanwhile, is from French dire, which means "to say or speak". Not online voir, this traces to Latin, in this case hailing from the word dicere, still with the same meaning. This is from PIE deik, or "to show". Not much semantic change there at all, but nonetheless interesting to etymologize- even to its roots voir dire means "showing truth". Voir dire was first attested in the 1670s and peaked in usage in the 1990s.
Happy Memorial Day! The word memorial is obviously an adjectival form of the word memory, which somewhat less obviously comes from the Anglo-Norman word memoire. Through Old French, this derives from the Latin word memoria, which in addition to still meaning "memory" also meant "record" and "method of remembrance". The root here is memor, meaning something like "mindful", and this comes from Proto-Indo-European smer, meaning the verb "remember". This is a pretty standard word origin, but the best part of this etymology is all of its relatives and other assorted linguistic nuggets. It helps form the words commemorate, remember, mourn, memoir, memo, memorandum, and much more. Since peak usage in the 1760s, utilization of the word memorial has decreased over time, but Google searches of the world always peak in late May. I couldn't find stats for memorial, but memory is the 894th most common word in the English language. It's a pretty large difference; memory is used 0.0085% of the time while memorial only makes up 0.0006% of all words used.
The term nihilism was coined in 1817 by a German philosopher, and was promptly used so much that it lost its original purpose (irony intended, but I'm serious). Originally, it was used more to describe rationalism, but today it's more like something similar to existentialism. Anyway, the philosopher in question, Friedrich Jacobi, originally called it nihilismus, and he created that word from a portmanteau of the Latin word nihil, meaning nothing, and -ismus, which was just the German way of saying -ism (itself just a boring suffix with no semantic change in its etymology). Nihil comes from the prefix ne-, meaning "not" (from Proto-Indo-European ne, with the same definition and also the initial element in null, nothing, none, and nil), and the root hilum, which meant something like "trifle" (so, together combining to kind of mean "not in the least"). This has an obscure Proto-Semitic etymon.
In 1845, the editors of the increasingly Americanizing Webster's Dictionary decided that the word pyjamas was unnecessarily complicated, so they changed it to pajamas, and that's why America spells it differently than the rest of the world. However, the origins are far from these puny Anglo-Saxon languages. When the East India Company ruled India around 1800, its employees started picking up the trend of wearing light, loose pantaloons favored by Muslims and other denizens. These were called pai jamas, which literally meant "leg clothing". Pai comes from the Persian word pae, meaning "leg", which comes from the Proto-Indo-European word ped, with the same meaning. Jamas, meanwhile, comes from jamah, also meaning "clothing", with no offered origin beyond that. This is a really excellent example of how obscure Indian words picked up by European colonists actually come from the same source language as English itself. Very cool!
I got a very interesting question submitted today: why do people call water fountains bubblers specifically in parts of Wisconsin the Massachusetts/Rhode Island area, and Australia? Almost everywhere else, it's either a drinking fountain or a water fountain, so why those three places? To answer that, we'll have to look at the (Wisconsin-based) Kohler Company, which invented the water fountain in the early 1900s. They called this a Bubbler, trademarked it, and marketed it so aggressively that use of that word became more ubiquitous than Kleenex in place of tissue (which is also a trademark, of course). Nobody's quite sure why the greater Boston and New South Wales regions picked it, but most logically that is where the word spread with the thing, instead of people just keeping an archaic term for something that spews water on it. There's an excellent graphic in Josh Katz's book Speaking American on this if anybody is interested.
The trademark Kodak was coined in 1888 by George Eastman, and usage of it has steadily increased since. The story behind the name is fascinating; apparently Eastman was specifically looking for three criteria- it had to be short, it had to be pronounceable, and it had to be memorably unique. So how did he think it up? By stirring alphabet soup with his mother! When they finally hit Kodak, he really liked the ks on the ends, so that's what he ran with (other stories allege an anagram set instead). I think that's pretty neat. And now, a quick segue into the world of hip-hop: the name for the rapper Kodak Black likely was inspired by the camera company, and rapper Cardi B's song Bodak Yellow is an alteration of Kodak Black's name, so this is getting pretty meta.
Purl has always been such a weird word to me. A kind of stitch in knitting, the term for it always seemed kind of foreign and strange to enunciate. So I looked up its etymology, and turns out there's no solid evidence. However, there are several theories. Some linguists conjecture that it comes from the Middle English word pirlyng, which meant "twisting" and is kind of annoying because that too has a disputed origin. Next up is the Italian word pirolare, which meant "to twirl". Thirdly, there's the possibility of the old Venetian pirlo, a word for a place where knitting in general occurs. All in all though, results are overwhelmingly inconclusive. Oh, and apparently purl as a verb can also mean "to murmur", and that's imitative, through Scandinavian influences.
Something avant-garde is new and unusual, and nothing is newer or more unusual than the first wave of a military battle. That's the logic that went into the formation of the phrase, anyway, because avant-garde literally means "advance guard"- something that is pushing the limit, just like the actual unit. Avant is a word meaning "in front" or "before" and, through Old French, it comes from the Latin word abante, with the same definition. This easily breaks into the prefix ab-, meaning "of", and the root ante, meaning "before". Garde, meanwhile, is the cognate and etymon of the English word guard, and it derives from the verb guarder, meaning "to protect". This in turn originated from the Frankish phrase wardon, "to protect", from Proto-Germanic wardana, "to guard", from PIE wer, "to cover". That's all, folks!
Before we start, a quick distinction: something is only a monopoly if it single-handedly controls an entire industry. If it shares that power with a few other countries, as many corporations do today, it's an oligopoly, where the influence is held by and the terms are dictated by a few rich companies. All right, into the etymology: the word monopoly came to us in the early sixteenth century from the Romans, whose word monopolium came from the Greeks. Here we can separate the word into its components: monos, meaning "single", and polein, meaning "to sell". This alludes to how a monopoly is a specific person or business is the single one to have selling rights for a particular product. Monos comes from the Proto-Indo-European root men, meaning "isolated", polein comes from the PIE root pel, also meaning "to sell", and that's the whole story.
Somebody recently asked why we "overpronounce" the ending syllables of beloved and some variations of cursed. This is a very good question, and one which can be extended to many other words, such as crooked, wicked, jagged, and many more. In these final stressed -ed sounds, the e has what is called a "grave accent", which should be notated as an è. Many of these words used to have that accent, but then dropped them when they seemed too archaic. But the reason that these stressed vowels exist in the first place is because in the old times, when people wanted to take a verb and use it as an adjective, they added the diacritic. Instead of a necklace being beloved by Sally, it became the belovèd necklace of Sally. This stuck, even as some of these adjectives became nouns as well: the necklace was Sally's belovèd. This is the case most of the time, but occasionally throughout history the grave accent was added to help poets keep their rhyme scheme, like how Shakespeare frequently did to preserve his iambic pentameter.
Wikipedia actually has a page devoted to the 38-item-long list of possible etymologies of the word OK, so obviously its origin is somewhat under contention. While there have been roots proposed from Choctaw to West African to Greek, there is one theory that seem most likely. In the late 1830s, a slang fad originated in Boston, where people would ironically misspell words. One of the most whimsical of these alterations was oll korrect, but it would have died out with the rest if not for Martin Van Buren's 1840 re-election campaign. His slogan was OK Club, his voters being in the 'club' and his home, Old Kinderhook, NY, being the OK. It connected with his fans on a more personal level and was easier to say than Van Buren Club. However, it allowed the opposition in Boston to start jokingly calling it the oll korrect club, and, eventually, it lost the sarcastic connotation and started to just mean "good". Okay developed on a phonetic basis in the early twentieth centuries.
We've had the word bacon in the English language since the 1300s, since we took it from the Old French word with the same spelling and meaning. This in turn comes from the Proto-Germanic word bako, which meant "back" or "back meat". It actually makes a lot of sense, because bacon was taken from the back of a pig (and still is, although the "American bacon" us statesiders have come to know is mostly from the belly). This is from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding something like bhag and sharing a meaning of "backside" and "buttocks". It is worth noting that this is only one theory; it is also possible that the word traveled through Frankish and then Anglo-Norman. Bhag is likely related to bhogo, the PIE predecessor of the modern word "back". Since bacon was a basic meat of the early twentieth century, the phrase bring home the bacon was first attested in 1908.
My whole life, I've been awkwardly calling the largest toe on my foot the "big toe". It never felt right, and I was always aggravated that the thumb had a special name but the big toe did not. Well, turns out there's a scientific word for both! The thumb is officially the pollex and the big toe is the hallux. The word hallux comes from the Latin word allus, which had the exact same meaning and derives from an unknown origin (but is likely Proto-Indo-European). Pollex, meanwhile, has nothing to do the Greek demigod or the star Pollux, but from a Latin word spelled exactly the same with the same definition. This quite possibly comes from the verb pollere, meaning "to be strong", which would have roots in the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction potis, meaning "owner". Usage of the word hallux is much more prominent that pollex, probably because we already have a word for the "thumb".
Fun anatomy fact: the glabella is the patch of skin between your eyebrows, unless you have a unibrow, in which case no glabella for you. The word was adopted in the times of Shakespeare from the Latin word glabellus, which meant both "without hair" and "smooth", a logical extension. This further derives from the root glaber, with the same meaning, from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gladh, meaning "smooth" but also sometimes "shiny". Glaber also gave us the equally obscure word glabrous, which means "smooth" as well, and gabbro, an igneous rock that's, you guessed it, pretty smooth. There are several relatives stemming from gladh, including glad, the word for "happy" itself, glare, glass, gold, and even yellow, all by influence of the "shiny" definition. Usage of glabella really spiked in the '40s and has been diminishing since.
For centuries, native Americans had been chewing on coca leaves to boost their energy. When European scientists found out that extracting coca to form a fine white powder had certain advantageous effects, they jumped all over it. Specifically Albert Neiman, the German chemist who coined the word cocaine in 1856 (which was meant to have three syllables, but everybody kept pronouncing only two). This is obviously a formation from the word for the coca leaf and the chemical suffix -ine. Coca comes from a Quechua (so from the area of Peru) word sounding like cuca or kuka with the same meaning, and the -ine suffix has been used for materials since the times of the Proto-Indo-European language. After a slump in the 1960s, literary usage of the word cocaine peaked in 1994 and is currently on the decline again.
The English word vermilion, describing that particular shade of red, comes from the French word vermeillon, with the same meaning. This comes from the Old French word vermeil, meaning "crimson" (and the source of the English word vermeil, meaning "gilded silver", through a connection of fanciness), which may be traced to the Latin word vermiculus, which is a conjugation of vermis, or "worm". How, you may very well ask? Turns out that some early crimson dyes were made out of the crushed scales of a worm-like bug, and thus the connection was formed. Vermis is from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wrmis, which meant "worm" as well, and is a cognate of the Old English word wyrm, the predecessor of our word for worm. You can kind of see it: worms are vaguely a vermilion color. Anyway, creepy but cool.
All languages come from a proto-language, meaning that they're related to one group of similar languages and that's it. It's very rare that languages from different families will have words in common. However, for the word mama, it holds true that some variation of it can be understood in almost any country in the world (by official language, all but six). This is not a coincidence; it's actually explained by one of the most grounded linguistic theories that exist. Biologically speaking, the first sounds babies can make are so-called "labial sounds", going from a soft consonant to a vowel as the mouth opens. This first sound is only naturally paired with the most important object in any baby's life- their source of food. Natural repetition in speech causes the second syllable found in mama. The same thing was happening with the word papa/tata/dada, but we gravitated towards m's for mothers because that's the sound that's easiest for babies to make while feeding on their mothers' breasts. Dads were left with the rest. Happy mother's day!
Typhoid fever, characterized by rashes and high temperatures, is an infection caused by Salmonella which can be spread through eating contaminated food. The word typhus was borrowed for medical usage in 1785 from the Ancient Greek word typhos, which meant "stupor", describing the fever brought about. However, typhos also had a second meaning, that of "smoke", probably due to a connection of opium and how smoking it caused a drowsy stupor. Fans of Greek mythology might want to note that this is connected to Typhon, the monster (whose name literally means "whirlwind") that was cast into Tartarus by Zeus. Anyway, this most likely has origins in a Proto-Indo-European word sounding something like dhubh, which meant "to scatter", with connotations of smoke or dust.
A cocktail is a combination of several things, and the theory of its origin is a combination of several disputed words. Though officially unknown in etymology, the most possible root is not the obvious one. According to a few sources, cocktail comes from the French word coquetier, which meant "egg-cup", describing the kind of glass the first cocktails were drunk out of. This would come from the French word coque, meaning "eggshell", if we eliminate the suffix -ier, which created the "cup" implication. Coque would come from Latin concha, meaning "shell" or "conch" (and, unsurprisingly, also the etymon of conch), and that most likely comes from an Ancient Greek word for "mussel". There are many other theories, but the second most plausible origin is that it comes from cock's ale, because early cocktails had chicken in them.
NCSA Mosaic was one of the first ever internet browsers and the first to incorporate many of the features we associate with the Internet today. However, fast-growing tech companies aimed to replace that with their own, updated browsers. One of those companies was Mozilla, whose name is a portmanteau of Mosaic and either killa or Godzilla. In either case, it alluded to the impending obsolescence of Mosaic as a result of Mozilla going online. As we all know, the current browser type for Mozilla is Firefox, but what most of us don't know or remember is that it used to be called Phoenix (under a shared guise of mythical creatures, one must presume). After a trademark dispute, they changed it to Firebird, but that didn't quite have a ring to it, so they once again switched it to Firefox. Now you know.
On his second expedition to the Caribbean, Captain John Hawkins did some sailing around the coasts of Venezuela and Mexico. When he returned to England, he brought back with him a shark, and, by extension, the word for it. Where this comes from was never elaborated by his crew, but there are several theory. The most possible, and, indeed, most interesting one, is that shark comes from the ancient Mayan Yacatec word xoc, which would make it the only English borrowing from that language. This could have been picked up off the shores of the Yucatan following a particularly nasty naval battle with the Spaniards which ended up in several people getting gobbled up by sharks. Other possibilities include a Germanic word, like Dutch schrock, meaning "glutton" or German schurke, meaning "scoundrel". None of these are confirmed and all are mere possibilities. You could say we're just testing the waters.
According to the official Crayola website, the name Crayola comes from two French words: craie, meaning "chalk", and ola, meaning "oil". An oddly appropriate moniker. Craie, also the origin of crayon itself, comes from Latin creta (with the same meaning), from cernere, a verb meaning "to shift" (possibly to do with the extraction of chalk), which, through Proto-Italic, traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction krey, meaning something more like "to sift". Meanwhile, we've already encountered the suffix, -ola, in the post on Canola oil. It most probably comes from the Ancient Greek word elaia, which meant "olive", from whence many types of oils were derived. While it's possible that this may be of a Proto-Indo-European origin, it is also quite possible that it's not, and it's actually from some Pre-Mediterranean language.
I'm a big fan of the study of flags, which is known as vexillology. The word for this field comes from the Latin word vexillum, which means "flag", and, obviously, -ology, which is the study of anything. Vexillum has a particularly interesting etymology. It comes from vellum, which meant "sail", the thing on ships. It's really not that much of a stretch to get to "flag" from there, but it's more so from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction weg, from whence it came. This meant "to weave a web" specifically. Because of a w to v switch from Latin to English, this root gave us a lot of our v words, including vigilant, surveillance, vigil, and bivouac. In fact, our word veil comes from vellum, which we examined earlier, making a face covering the closest relative to the scientific study of flags. And don't get me started on the origins of specific vexillology terminology...
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.