The word police was first used around the year 1440 by author Stephen Scrope in a translation of a French book by Christine de Pizan, The Epistle of Othea. In it, a knight is described as policing others with great counsel and wisdom. That word was in French since the 1250s, when it was borrowed from the Latin word politia, which meant "civil administration". It's not too much of a semantic stretch to connect that to Ancient Greek polis ("city"), and that's exactly what happened. Polis was a pretty broad word, as it could refer to anything from a people-group to a fortified city-state, and was around in the language for quite a while. If we go back far enough, etymologists reconstruct it to Proto-Hellenic ptolis and Proto-Indo-European tpolh, which could mean "citadel" or "hill". Since its introduction into the English language, usage of the word police has been on the rise, and currently composes 0.0075% of all words used in literature.
Pegasus is quite a prolific word. It's been the name of a type of fish since 1842, it's been used in heraldry to refer to winged horses since 1542, the first reference of a constellation being named Pegasus was in 1449, and for many eons before that the word's been associated with the Pegasus - the figure from Greek mythology, the original winged horse who was the child of Poseidon and Medusa. This word, taken from Ancient Greek Pegasos by way of Latin, has a surprisingly obscure etymology. It's thought that it could come from the noun pege, meaning "spring" (and this would make sense because Pegasus was born near a spring in the stories), which would be from a Pre-Greek source. However, that's uncertain, and nobody really knows for sure: it could also be from the Luwan word pihassas, meaning "lightning" (which would check out because Pegasus was Zeus' bearer of lightning bolts) and coming from Hittite. That's also hotly disputed, though; it's unlikely we'll find out for sure.
Anacrusis is a technical term in poetry and music wherein one syllable or note is unstressed at the beginning of a verse or bar line, respectively. The word was first used in an 1833 issue of The Edinburgh Review when describing the theory of iambic pentameter. This was a loanword from Latin, and the Latin word was a transliteration of an Ancient Greek word, anakrousis. This meant "a pushing back" or "pushing up", presumably because the transition to stressed sounds with the next syllable/note will be like pushing upwards. Ana- here means "back" and comes from the Proto-Indo-European root an, meaning "on" or "above". Meanwhile, the root of the word, krouein, meant "to strike" and comes from PIE kreue, also "strike" or "push". Usage of anacrusis peaked in the 1960s and has been trending downward since.
Liquidate is such an interesting word. It can mean "convert into cash", "pay off", or "murder", and all of those definitions come from an original meaning of "reduce to order" (whether it be an account or a life), first attested around 1575 by politician James Balfour in a legal context. He took it from Latin liquidare, which meant "to melt" but could also have a more metaphorical denotation of "clarify", which is what was extended to English. You might have guessed where this is going: the root in liquidare is liquidus, which meant "liquid" and indeed is the etymon of our word liquid (through Old French liquide). That traces further back to Proto-Italic wlikweo, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wleyk, meaning "to run" or "to flow". Usage of liquidate peaked in World War II (when the "assassinate meaning was at its greatest use) and has declined since.
The word atone was first used as a noun in 1559, but it existed as a verb for four years before that, first showing up in a translation by writer William Waterman with a definition of "be unified" or "in harmony", the idea being that once you atoned for your sins, you could be at one with the universe and God, which is where the word comes from. At one as a phrase signifying that state of concord has been around since the thirteenth century, and was increasingly combined after Waterman did it first. Through Old English and Proto-Germanic, at is derived from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hed, which could also mean "near". One, by way of Old English an and Proto-Germanic ainaz, traces to PIE oynos, still with the same meaning.
When the word percent was first brought into English in the 1560s and until the 1900s, it was stylized per cent, which more closely matches the Latin phrase it was taken from, per centum. This meant "by the hundred", which makes a lot of sense even in the current context. Per, meaning "by" or "through", comes from the Proto-Indo-European root per, with a general definition of "before". Centum (also the root of English cent), through Proto-Italic kentom, derives from PIE kmtom, or "one hundred". The percent sign, %, traces back to the Italian practice of abbreviating por ciento to p. 100, then dropping the p., then moving the 1 into the middle of the number to get o/o and finally giving us our modern symbol. Usage of the word percent peaked in the 1980s and has been declining since.
The word obituary was first used in English by an Anglican bishop White Kennett in a 1701 translation. This comes from the Medieval Latin word obituarius, which meant "death record" but had a more literal definition of "pertaining to death". The root is obitus, or "departure" (which was metaphorically applied to passing away later on), a conjugation of obire, "to come to". Obire is composed of the prefix ob-, meaning "toward" in this context (from Proto-Indo-European hepi, "near"), and the verb ire, meaning "to go" (derives from PIE heyti, same denotation). The colloquial obit was first formed from obituary in 1874 - an example of our ever-shortening language - and usage of the word obituary peaked in the late 1980s.
The word fungus was first used in the year 1527 by translator Laurence Andrewe in a book he wrote on distillation of water. Nothing was new about this except the language it was attested in; the word had the same spelling and definition in Latin. In earlier variations, however, fungus more commonly took the form sfungus, and it comes from the Ancient Greek word spongos, meaning "sponge" (which through Latin spongia, is also the etymon of our English word sponge). We don't know where spongos comes from, but there are some observed cognates, like Armenian sunkn ("tree-mushroom") that hint at a possible origin in a Pre-Mediterranean or otherwise non-Indo-European language. Popularity of the word fungus peaked in 1912 and has been declining since then.
It's thought that the word athlete entered English in the early fifteenth century; the first attestation listed in the OED is from 1425, in reference to wrestlers. That came from Latin athleta, which referred to anyone who competed in public games, and goes back to the Ancient Greek verb athlein, which meant "to compete for prizes". This was a conjugation of either athlon, meaning "prize", or athlos, meaning "competition". Officially, those related terms have an unknown origin, but some linguists reconstruct it to the Proto-Indo-European root hweh, which meant "to wheeze" (the connection being a tenuous one to athletes getting exhausted). Usage of the word athlete in literature over time rapidly increased in the twentieth century due to greater interest in sports in general.
In 1887, a Polish ophthalmologist named Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof published the most influential book in conlanging history - Unua Libro (or "First Book"), which laid the foundation for Esperanto. He wanted this to be a universal auxiliary language, which never quite happened, but to this day there are several thousand native speakers and a very dedicated base. It was still a good hope, however, which was probably why Zamenhof signed the book with a pseudonym meaning "one who hopes", or Esperanto. Since he never named his language, early adopters latched onto his pen name, and that's why we call it Esperanto today. That word wasn't pulled from thin air, however: Zamenhof created it from the Latin verb sperare, meaning "to hope", which is coincidentally the etymon of both the English words despair and prosper (coming from Proto-Indo-European speh, meaning "to turn out well").
Tiramisu, that delicious coffee-dipped sponge cake, originated in brothels in Treviso, Italy. It was considered an aphrodisiac by locals, and was served right before sex as a little pick-me-up. That's why the word literally translates to "pick-me-up" in Italian; tira could mean "pick", "pull", or "cheer" in this context, mi was a reflexive pronoun, and su meant up. Tira is a conjugation of the verb tirare, which had a plethora of definitions such as "to pull", "to throw", "to utter", "to draw", and more. This jack-of-all-trades came through Latin from the Proto-Germanic reconstruction terana, meaning "to tear", and that in turn is from Proto-Indo-European der, "to split". Mi never changed much through time, going back to PIE me, with the same meaning. Su derives from Latin subversus, which meant "overthrown" and is composed of the prefix sub-, mainly meaning "under" (from PIE upo) and the root versus, meaning "revolve" (traces to PIE wert, "to turn").
When the word prolific was first used in the English language by historian Thomas May, it was spelled prolifique and had to do with fertility and producing lots of offspring. Later on, that expanded to include more figurative definitions, after which usage over time remained relatively constant. Prolifique is glaringly French, crossing the channel in the 1630s and taken from Latin prolificus in the 1500s. The Latin word combines two others: proles, meaning "offspring" and facere, "to make" (so to be prolific is to make offspring). Proles can be traced back to two Proto-Indo-European roots, pro (meaning "forth") and al ("to grow"), and I've covered facere on multiple occasions; it derives from PIE dhe, "to put". So much development over time - I guess you could say this was quite a prolific etymology.
I’ve read George Orwell’s seminal masterpiece 1984 twice, and it remains my favorite dystopic novel of all time to this day. One the most interesting points the book raises is that language is extremely malleable and can be distorted for political purposes, as we can see from the State imposing “Newspeak” on its people to limit their ability to express negative thoughts about their government. I'm particularly fond of one concept, that 2+2 could equal 5. This makes no mathematical sense to us, but it could make linguistic sense. Definitions are inherently subjective and contingent on the vox populi. If everybody agrees that a false statement is true, who's to say that it is false? The meanings we attribute to the numbers 2 or 5 could shift, and then the equation would be correct. Orwell's math is a constant reminder to me that all of language is arbitrary and could be changed. This idea, though, predates 1984 by quite a while: it was actually Descartes who first posited that an equation like 2+2=4 has no reality outside of our minds, and 2+2=5 has been around as classic falsehood since 1728. Orwell had also expressed the notion prior to 1984, using it to explain how Nazi propaganda influenced subjective truths in his 1943 essay Looking Back on the Spanish War. Ah! What a fascinating topic!
The word ginger was around in Old English for a while, taking on forms like gingifer, gingiber, giniure, and gingifra. By Middle English, the spellings of gingere and gingevere were most prominent, and by the fifteenth century, the word had been standardized as ginger. At the time, this still referred exclusively to the spice, but the definition soon began to shift, as well. By 1785, ginger could be applied to the color of chickens, and the color word itself was extrapolated from that in the mid-1800s. During that time, it also was extended to describe people, cats, horses, other animals in general, and ginger-ale, peaking in usage around the year 2000. The Old English word comes from Latin zingiberi under the influence of Old French, and that in turn is from Ancient Greek zingiberis. Just like the plant itself, the word was borrowed from speakers of Sanskrit, who said srngaveram, which roughly translates to "horn body", describing the shape of the root. Finally, that most likely comes from a Dravidian language, since the southern Indians were the first to come into contact with ginger when it was brought over by Austronesian sailors.
It took me eighteen years to learn that a fiancé is different from a fiancée; apparently the one with one e refers to men and the one with two refers to women. The words were borrowed in the middle of the nineteenth century from French, both going back to the Old French verb fiancer, meaning "to betroth". The root of that is fier, meaning "to trust", and -ance was just a suffix to form nouns. Earlier, in Latin, fier took the form of fidus, which could also mean "faithful" or "loyal", and that's reconstructed as deriving from a Proto-Italic word, feithos, which would be from Proto-Indo-European beyd, also "trust". Usages of both the words fiance and fiancee in English literature over time reveals that they peaked in utilization in the late 1990s for some reason and that most people spell them without the diacritics.
As a student of Spanish, it's always weird to me to see the word molestar, which means "to annoy". My English-oriented brain always jumps to the word molest, which obviously is much worse. As you may expect, the two words are related, in this case through the Latin word molestare, which also had a meaning of "annoy". The connection to the modern word may be found in Old French molester, which meant something more like "torment" or "harass" and eventually shifted in meaning to give us the sexual abuse definition. The adjectival form of molestare, molestus, meant something like "burdensome" and links us to the noun form, moles, meaning "mass" or "boulder" (the idea being that a large rock was burdensome to travelling). That, finally, derives from Proto-Indo-European meh, "to exert".
The word vernacular is one I use a lot on this site, but never went into detail on before now. It describes the dialect spoken by a group of ordinary people in a particular region, and it has a fascinating etymology. Vernacular entered our vernacular in 1601 and was first used by a bishop named William Barlow in some papers defending the Anglican church. Before then, it was used in Latin as vernaculus, which meant "native", sometimes specifically in reference to servants and slaves. This came to be associated with language over time because the Romans used the phrase vernacula vocabula to describe local dialects, and the vocabula part was dropped when the word entered English. The root of vernaculus is verna, which meant "locally born slave", and that could either be Etruscan or from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "house"
The word emancipate was first used by Francis Bacon in his influential 1605 book The Advancement of Learning. In using it, he was discussing intellectual freedom, but by the late 1600s it began to refer to freedom from religious persecution, and in 1776 it was attested as meaning "a government action freeing slaves". Emancipate was taken from Latin emancipatus, a conjugation of the verb emancipare, which generally meant "to give up authority" but could also have to do with setting a child free. The prefix ex- (meaning "out"; from PIE eghs) is lurking just out of sight, but once that's chipped away we are left with the root manceps, which held a definition of "transfer". The literal meaning of that, "to take in hand", is revealed when we separate manceps into manus, meaning "hand", and capere, meaning "take". Manus comes from Proto-Indo-European man (also "hand") and capere is from PIE kap, "to grasp".
Fun fact: the singular of confetti is confetto. When the word confetti was borrowed into English in 1815, it actually referred to a kind of almond with a hard candy coating that Italians would throw at each other when celebrating (especially for weddings). To save money, commoners in England started using lime pellets instead, until they realized scraps of paper were cheaper and just as romantic - and that's how we ended up where we are today. Confetto comes from the Latin word confectus, which meant "prepared" or "produced" (as in the coated nuts were prepared) and is the etymon of the words comfit and confection. The verb form of confectus is conficiere, which is composed of the prefix con-, meaning "together" (through Proto-Italic, tracing from Proto-Indo-European kom, "next to"), and the root facere, "to make" (this is reconstructed to PIE deh, meaning "set").
The word persecution was first recorded in English around 1350 CE in a new translation of the Book of Revelation. Back then, it was spelled persecucioun, which reflects its origins in the Old French word persecucion. That came from Latin persecutionem, a noun meaning "follow through" or "pursue", the idea being that the persecutor pursues discrimination against the persecuted - an active campaign against them. The verb form of persecutionem is persequor, which is composed of the prefix per-, meaning "through", and the root sequor, meaning "follow". Per- comes from Proto-Indo-European per, meaning "forward", and sequor traces to Proto-INdo-European sekw, "to follow". Usages of the word persecution over time have been thankfully declining sharply.
The word fracas is quite a pulchritudinous noun that's basically a synonym of "chaos" or "ruckus". It was introduced to the English language in 1727 by Lady Mary Montagu, a well-traveled poet and vaccination enthusiast. Thereafter, the word rapidly grew more popular, reaching widespread usage in the late eighteenth century. Montagu borrowed it from French, where it especially denoted loud noises or crashes. That came in the 1400s from Italian fracassare, which is a weird word because it combined and shortened Latin infra- ("below"; from Proto-Indo-European hndi, "under") and Italian cassare, "to smash". Combining those two parts from different eras of lingual evolution, infracassare meant "to smash into pieces". Cassare is from Latin quassare, which meant "to shake" and comes from PIE keht, with the same meaning.
Acolyte is a really pretty word synonymous with "follower" or "assistant", especially in a religious connotation. That makes sense; when the word was first borrowed in the fourteenth century, it had to do with people who helped out priests in the Catholic Church. That Middle English word came either from Old French or Medieval Latin, where it took the forms of acolite and acolytus, respectively. Either way, it goes back to Ancient Greek akolouthos, which still had the general definition of "follower". The literal meaning, however, meant "together with [someone on] a journey", the prefix a- in this case meaning "together with" and the root keleuthos meaning "path". The etymology of that is unknown, but it probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like kel and containing a similar denotation.
Nostalgia today is associated with warm memories and happy recollections, but it used to have a much harsher meaning. When the word was first brought into 1770, it described an intense ache to return home. The etymology of nostalgia (which was first coined by a Swiss student in 1688) reflects that earlier definition. Nost-, the initial part of the word, comes from Ancient Greek nostos, meaning "homecoming", and -algia is from Greek algos, "pain". Nostos comes from a Proto-Indo-European word, nes, with the same denotation; -tos is just an adjectival suffix here. Algos, meanwhile, developed from the verb algein, which meant "to feel pain" and has an uncertain etymology. Usage of the word nostalgia rapidly took off in the twentieth century and peaked in the 1990s.
The word myrtle was first brought into the English language around the year 1400 in reference to the plant's berries, but usage didn't really take off until the eighteenth century, and it wasn't applied to the tree type until 1562. This came from the Old French word mirtile, the y being influenced by an even older ancestor, the Latin word myrtillus or myrtus in its non-diminutive form. That in turn developed from the Ancient Greek term myrtos, which still described the families of vine-like plants and shrubs we know today. The Ancient Greek word is as far back as we can trace without getting hypothetical, but myrtos has been connected to the word myrrh as coming from a Semitic word, possibly tracing to Proto-Afro-Asiatic. There wasn't much semantic change there, but Myrtle as a proper noun first started to get popular during the Victoria Era and has recently fallen out of the top 1000 female names.
In 1556, the word ensurance was first borrowed into the English language, meaning "betrothal" or "engagement". Soon it expanded in definition to cover assurances and pledges of all kinds (the etymon of our word ensure), then the leading e became and i, and finally a meaning of "financial security against loss" emerged by 1651, giving us our modern word insurance. Before all that, esurance was the Old French word enseurance, which could also refer to an assurance of any type. Here we can chop off the prefix en-, which meant "make", and the suffix -ance, denoting an action, which leaves us with the root sur, meaning "safe". Sur is a relative of English sure, coming from the Latin word securus, or "free from care" (the direct ancestor of "secure"). Now another prefix, se-, can be eliminated, meaning "apart", leaving cura, "care". Finally, it's all reconstructed to PIE keys, "to heed". My takeaway here is that insurance means to "make something safe" and has a ton of relatives, from ensure to cure. Fascinating stuff!
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.