When I think of the word pavement, I imagine an asphalt-covered road, but obviously that's a newer invention. In the olden times, the term could refer to any sort of hard covering on the ground, especially tiled floors. Through Old French, it can be traced to Latin pavimentum, meaning "floor" or "firm surface". That derives from the verb pavire, "to beat" - the connection was that, to be firm, the floors had to be beaten down with tools. Pavire ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction paw, which meant "strike" and is also the root of words as diverse as amputate, reputation, berate, dispute, and pit. According to Google NGrams, usage of the word pavement has been dramatically decreasing since a high in 1913, and Google Trends shows declining searches as well.
When the word protest was first used in English around 1560, it meant "formal declaration" (this is the same sense as in the noun Protestant, which described people who formally declared independence from the Catholic Church). Through Old French protester, it traces to Latin protestari, also meaning "publicly declare" but having a more literal translation of "testify before". That's because it's composed of the prefix pro-, meaning "before" or "in front of" in this context (from Proto-Indo-European per, "forward"), and the root testis, meaning "witness" (also the etymon of testify, testament, and testicle; from the Proto-Indo-European word for "three", tris). The idea was that when someone protested, they were standing before others and declaring their thoughts. Throughout the centuries, the term developed a more oppositional connotation, and during the civil rights movement it finally evolved into its modern meaning of "mass demonstration".
Orioles are yellow-and-black songbirds native to Afro-Eurasia. Their name, through Old French, comes from the Latin word aureolus, meaning "golden", reflecting their vibrant yellow plumage. There is a similar-looking type of blackbird called the Baltimore Oriole in North America, but it is not genetically related to the original kind of oriole. It was also not named after the city of Baltimore as one would expect, but rather after the English nobleman Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, since his coat of arms resembled the coloring of the New World birds. Aureolus is a diminutive of aureum, or "gold", and that, by way of Proto-Italic auzom, derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for "gold", aus. At some point, the Baltimore Oriole was made the official bird of Maryland, and several local baseball teams began using the name, including the modern MLB team and the New York Yankees until they moved base and changed their name to what it is today.
The word edit as a noun meaning "correction" is only about fifty years old! It came from the verb, which is a late eighteenth century back-formation from editor, which originally referred to the person in charge of printing pre-prepared works (and only later came to be associated with the proofreading process). That's a 1649 borrowing from Latin editus, meaning "brought forth", the past participle of the verb edere (which should not be confused with its homonym meaning "eat"). Finally, that can be broken up into the prefix ex- ("out"; traces to Proto-Indo-European eghs) and another verb, dare, meaning "to give" (from Proto-Indo-European do, also "give"). According to Google NGrams, usage frequency of the words edit, editor, and edition has remained relatively constant since the seventeenth century.
The word wretch used to be kind of a catch-all insult, and was used surprisingly frequently (about seven times more than today, at its height in 1795). It's been around for as long as English has, and throughout the years has been attested as wrecche, wrechhe, wrecch, wrech, wroche, wrich, wryche, wratche, and more. The word was borrowed from the Proto-Germanic root wrakjon, which meant "one who is pursued". In this context, it refers to exiles and ruffians who are driven out of communities, but in other languages, that developed differently. For example, in German, wrakjon became the word Recke, meaning "hero", since heroes are pursued by the forces of evil - that's a pretty fascinating contrast! Finally, wrakjon derives from Proto-Indo-European wreg, meaning "track" or "follow".
When the noun mission was borrowed into the English language in a 1513 theological text, it referred exclusively to God sending Jesus onto Earth. Around 1598, a new definition emerged, describing Jesuits who were sent to Europe, and a few decades later it was broadened to anyone being sent anywhere with a purpose. The word always had to do with sending, though, and that's because it derives from Latin missionem, meaning "sending". That's the fourth principal part of the verb for "send", mittere (also the source of words like emit, manumission, transmit, submit, admit, compromise, and missile, among others), and that ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction meyth, meaning "to exchange". Usage of the word mission over time has been pretty constant since the 1800s.
When the word hobby was first borrowed into English around the turn of the fifteenth century, it meant "small horse"! This has a very interesting history. By 1689, the word got a new definition of hobby-horse, a term that's still in use to refer to those children's toys with stuffed horses' heads on sticks. The playthings were regarded to be very childish, so to hobbyhorse became a verb meaning "engage in a fanciful pursuit". Sometime in the early nineteenth century, the -horse part was dropped and the old definition of hobby grew archaic, leaving us with the current state of the word. Going backwards, hobby used to be spelled hobyn or hobin and was likely a proper name for a horse, which the Oxford English Dictionary suggest ultimately is some kind of diminutive for the name Robert or Robin.
The word horoscope is pretty cool because it's a classical borrowing from before the Norman Conquest. Through Old French, it traces to Latin horoscopus and Ancient Greek horoskopos, which still meant the same thing but can be more literally translated as "hour-watcher". That's because the first part, hora, meant "hour" or "season", and the second part, skopos, meant "one who watches". Hora, also the root of the English word "hour", eventually derives from Proto-Indo-European yeh, which could refer to many different types of time periods but is notable for being the etymon of "year". Skopos, meanwhile, was the nominative singular form of a noun derived from the verb skeptomai, "to observe"; that, through Proto-Hellenic, derives from Proto-Indo-European spek, with the same definition.
The word banshee was first used in the English language in a 1771 book about Scotland, where it was spelled benshi. For the next century or so, all kinds of spellings were attested, such as ben-shie and banshie, but by the late ninetenth century the form banshee was widely accepted. The word is a phonetic transcription of the Irish term bean sidhe, meaning "female elf" or, more literally, "woman of the fairy mound". Bean is from ben, which is from Proto-Celtic bena and Proto-Indo-European gwen, also meaning "woman" (and the root of words as diverse as queen and gynecology). Sidhe is from Proto-Celtic sidos, which could just mean "mound" but definitely still had connotations of fairies, and that derives from Proto-Indo-European sed, "to sit". Usage of the word banshee has been increasing since the 1980s.
Many websites claim that the phrase Black Friday, referring to the shopping bonanza after Thanksgiving, is so named because it's the day when the stores' ledgers go from in the red to in the black. This is a linguistic myth: the term actually became popularized by the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1960s, when they used the name to describe the shopping pandemonium in downtown stores. Here, "black" was used pejoratively (like how Black Tuesday and Black Thursday described the crashes in 1929), and the moniker was originally unpopular with retailers. However, they soon realized that it wasn't going anywhere, so they reinvented the term in the 1980s to have more positive connotations, using it in advertisements and creating the "red to black" myth.
Since the mid-aughts, the phrase on point has been a slang term meaning "perfect", essentially a synonym of on fleek. This definition was popularized by 1990s hip-hop, where it had more of a connotation of being "ready to go". Before that, it may have been influenced by several different historical usages: it can describe a soldier leading a military formation; in legal jargon, it can mean "relevant"; and (this was probably most impactful) in ballet, to balance on the points of your toes, or en pointe, is considered the perfect way to appear weightless. Through association with precision and improvement from all these sources, the modern definition eventually came to be. According to Google Trends, searches of "on point" peak every spring and autumn, and I'm not sure why. Maybe people hear it from other people while they're in school, and then search up the meaning? Interesting, no matter what.
The word punch meaning "to hit" comes from the Old French verb ponchonner, with the root ponchon, meaning "piercing weapon". That developed from Latin punctionem, which described pointed tools and was the past participle of pungere, "to pierce" (finally, pungere derives from Proto-Indo-European pewg, also "pierce"). Punch can, of course, also refer to a type of juice; I always assumed that it was related, but it turns out that's not the case. The word was borrowed in the early seventeenth century from the Hindi word for "five", panch, because when the original punch was introduced to sailors from the British East India Company, it was made with five ingredients (alcohol, water, lemon juice, sugar, and spice). That's traces to Proto-Indo-Iranian panca and Proto-Indo-European penkwe, both also "five".
Most people use chrysalises as the plural of chrysalis, but apparently the more etymologically correct version is chrysalides (although you're free to use whatever you want). The word was borrowed in 1658 from Latin, and the Latin word came from Ancient Greek khrysallis. The root of that is khrysos, meaning "gold" or "wealth"; the connection was that the pupae of many butterflies in the region were gold-colored. This is probably from a Semitic source, because of cognates in languages like Hebrew. Khyrsos also gave us the word chrysanthemum - anthemon meant "flower" in Ancient Greek (and comes from Proto-Indo-European hendos, meaning "bloom"). Literary frequency of both words has been about the same; fairly constant since the mid-twentieth century.
Arpitania is a cultural region in the Western Alps split between parts of France, Switzerland, and Italy (and it has one of my favorite flags). Its name was coined as Harpitania in the 1970s by ethnologist Joseph Henriet, who was trying to promote geographic unity in the area. He created the term from arpian, a word in the local dialect of the Aosta Valley meaning "one who works in the Alps", with the influence of Basque harri-pe, meaning "under the rocks" (Henriet was highly influenced by Basque writer Federico Krutwig). For aesthetic purposes, the initial h was dropped and a t was added. The name really started getting popular in the 1990s as people turned to Arpitan to replace Franco-provençal as the word for the dialect the people in the region spoke (it sounded less cumbersome and rhymed with Occitan), so here we are.
The word wretch has been around for as long as English has. Throughout the years, it's been spelled wrecca, wrecche, wrehche, wrechche, wrecch, wretche, wryche, wrache, wriche, and in a bunch of other ways. Today, it primarily means "despicable person", but in Old English it had more of a connotation of "outcast". The word comes from Proto-Germanic wrakjon, which could be defined as "fugitive", "warrior", or "exile". Beyond that, it traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wreg, "to follow". Interestingly, wrakjon developed very differently in German: through Old High German reccho, it became the word recke, meaning "hero". English just kept the more negative connotations of the root, while German held on to the positive ones. Wretch has been decreasing in literary usage since the eighteenth century.
The words stepfather, stepmother, and stepchild have been around since early Old English, as steopfæder, steopmodor, and steopcild, respectively. I always assumed that the steop part just meant that the person was a step removed from being an actual parent, but it actually meant "loss"! The idea was that you would only get a step-family if you lost a family member; for a while, steopcild was basically a synonym for orphan. Finally, through Proto-Germanic steupa, steop comes from the Proto-Indo-European root steu, meaning "to push" or "hit". In recent years, there has been a push against use of the word step-family, because of pejorative connotations arising from the "evil step-parent" archetype. The movement has adopted the terms bonusfamily or blended family instead, which is a much more positive way of looking at it.
Somebody recently requested the word inchoate, and I had to look up the definition of this one: it's an adjective meaning "just begun" or "underdeveloped". In legal terminology, an inchoate crime is preparing to commit another crime. The word is a sixteenth-century borrowing from Latin inchoatus, the past participle of the rare verb inchoare, which meant "to begin" and is an alteration of incohare (it may have been influenced by the word chaos). Incohare was composed of the prefix in-, meaning "in" (from Proto-Indo-European en), and the root cohum, which probably had the very specific definition of "strap attaching a pole to an oxen's yoke", because connecting the cohum was necessary for work to begin. Finally, that's reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European kagyom, meaning "enclosure".
The origin of the rice dish biryani is disputed by scholars. It may have originated in Northern India from Mughal influences, in the south with a modification of a pilaf brought over by Arab traders. We do know a bit about the word, though: it was first used in a cookbook in 1932 and was borrowed directly from Hindi. Beyond that, there are two theories. It either comes from the Persian word biryan, meaning "fried" or "roasted" (as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests) or from birinj, which was Persian for "rice". Either way, it's ultimately of Indo-European origin, and there aren't further reconstructions. According to Google NGram Viewer, usage of the word biryani really got popular in the US in the 1980s, and Google Trends only shows search frequency increasing as well.
Although it's been around since 1473, the noun mural only started meaning "wall painting" in the early twentieth century. Before that, it could refer to fruit trees growing against walls, to the honors bestowed on the soldiers who were the first over an enemy's walls, or really anything to do with walls. The word comes from Latin muralis, which meant "of a wall" and was the genitive singular of murus, "wall". Muralis also gave us intramural, which translates to "within the wall" and was so named because it was applied to sports that took place within the walls of an institution (as opposed to extramural sports like varsity stuff). Murus is reconstructed as coming from the Proto-Italic root moiros, which in turn derives from Proto-Indo-European mey, a verb that could mean "fix" or "build fortifications".
After publishing my recent apple etymologies infographic, I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by David Lyall, the marketer who was directly responsible for naming the Jazz and Envy apple varieties. I personally found the process very interesting, and wanted to share his fascinating insights.
Q) What do you do at your job, and why is there a need for it?
Naming proprietary things is (sometimes!) a subset of branding strategy and that’s my day job, has been for years. It tends to operate in two key areas – name my product, or name my company. In the product naming space, people are typically wanting you to give them the next magic product name that will become as ubiquitous as say, Hoover or Sellotape. Good luck to them! Jazz (and Envy) were examples of product naming, in that the rights-holding company understood that they had an apple cultivar with excellent commercial potential. Apples as a subcategory of fruit are highly branded, as your very interesting chart laid out – with a long history of names of some origin or other.
Q) What happens before names are assigned?
The apple cultivars that eventually became Jazz and Envy basically had a numerical designator, not unlike Stormtrooper clones or software version numbers. They also had a distinct set of attributes (Jazz – crunch, taste, juiciness, sweetness), and an idea of the target market that that apple would really suit (kids – and therefore commercially, targeting parents buying apples for kids). The rightsholder dumps that group of information on the branding company, and we break all the components apart intellectually and try to form an overall idea of how we should treat this thing in terms of a concept or a creative idea.
Q) What happens during the naming process?
Every project will have a number of phases where various different ideas are thrown around – A name, with its own cohesive set of attributes – a creative idea, a bit of an idea of what the personality of the brand and marketing would be, some initial design and visual thoughts. A marketing taster basically. The naming strategy will often create territories (one territory might be portmanteaus, another might be colour-based names, the third could be flavour-based, the fourth might be a catch-all abstract set of names). This will be tested with the client across the criteria they have (ideally what the know of the consumer and of names likely to work – but often actually just what they personally like or not). There is then a second subsequent phase – which names are most likely to get legal protection in the markets the product is likely to enter. This one is about the least creative part for me, but often the lawyers can be surprisingly creative in suggesting close-to options that are more legally protectable... from there, the marketing material, taglines, design system, logo and all of those things are created. It’s been redesigned once or twice since the original work but the name remains the same. It’s hard to explain how it all works very simply, but I hope that is somewhat clear.
Q) How was Jazz named?
In the case of the Jazz apple, we eventually decided (this is not satire) that we would focus on the noise of the apple when you bite into it, and the taste/juiciness of it, which we wanted to express as an energy. The name was inspired by Jazz music – with the rationale being that, as an allegory – Jazz has percussive crunch, its brand would be free and expressive, with a real zing of taste (we talked about this as having a real energy), that ended up surprisingly sweet. Now that may seem tenuous but so are most names that aren’t specifically appearance based!
Q) How was Envy named?
Envy is quite interesting in comparison because it illustrates the different results naming can have - because the creative job was for the same client as Jazz. Envy had a different collection of attributes - in particular a deep red colouring, and flesh that stayed white for longer after being cut. It had great flavour and was very sweet but it was also more difficult to grow, and in the eyes of the client was clearly a more premium apple. They needed a positioning that would enable them to gain a greater return, to make the apple worth the extra effort. The winning creative idea, was to embrace the idea of making this particular apple an object to desire - hence the name Envy - and to really dial in on the colours red and white in the original design materials.
Q) What else is important to keep in mind?
Firstly, easy of pronunciation - this is a global product, and people will not ask for something they feel embarrassed to pronounce, or fear they are pronouncing wrong (You can see this psychological behaviour in restaurant customers too - wines & dishes that are hard to say will get ordered measurably less as some people will opt instead for something they feel confident saying aloud). So in naming an apple, you want to avoid things that cause confusion in non-native english speakers. Jazz and Envy both pass this test, in particular avoiding the letters L and -tion constructions. And secondly, they are short words - one and two (simple) syllables. Which means that they have increased likelihood of being remembered, and have maximum possible recall when you are searching your brain for "that apple you really liked, what was it called again?" It is often the more theoretical points like these that are the most convincing when you are presenting names to clients, and it's why naming tends to be both art and science in equal measure.
A big thanks to David for reaching out and agreeing to be featured here. It's such a privilege to get to see how the sausage (or in this case the apple) gets made!
When the word lobster was introduced into English about a thousand years ago, it was spelled loppestre, and through Chaucer's time it was consistently spelled with a p in the middle. The b we use today probably replaced it in the sixteenth century due to influence from the Old English word lobbe, meaning "spider". Loppestre is thought to be a corruption of Latin locusta, which meant both "lobster" and "locust" and is also the etymon of the word locust (the connection between the two was a perceived physical resemblance). Nobody really knows where locusta comes from, but it's thought to be related to lacerta, meaning "lizard". Usage frequencies of the words lobster and locust were pretty evenly increasing until the 1960s, when lobster got a lot more popular and locust began decreasing.
For such a simple word, a lot went into the development of the second person pronoun you. Originally, it was only used as a dative and accusative plural, with thou being the singular version and ye being the nominative, but you began to be used as a term of respect and eventually became more and more common until thou died out entirely. You has been around in some form for as long as English has: it's been attested as iow, eow, geau, ȝeu, yhw, æu, ȝow, and yewe until the modern spelling was widely accepted as correct in the late sixteenth century. This form of the word is thought to have been influenced by the different declensions of ye and the German word euch, meaning "to you". You has been increasing in literary usage since the 1960s and now constitutes about 0.3% of all English words.
The word bachelor was borrowed in the thirteenth century from the Old French noun bachelier, which was used to refer to squires who were training for knighthood. The word became associated with unmarried men because, in the Victorian era, many squires were eligible for marriage and desired for their good social standing. That comes from Latin bacchalarius, which meant "vassal" or "serf", and ultimately might have connections to vacca, the word for "cow", although that's uncertain. The terms bachelor's degree and baccalaureate resulted from medieval scholars (either due to folk etymology or word play) confusing bachelier with the Latin phrase bacca lauri, which meant "laurel berry", since laurels were awarded for academic successes. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bachelor could also refer to fur seals or roofing slates.
The guillotine was named for French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who (contrary to popular belief) did not invent the machine, but helped popularize it during the Reign of Terror. Before then, it was called the louisette, after its actual inventor, surgeon Antoine Louis. Now that that's established, Guillotin's name is a diminutive of Guillot, which is a different form of the surname Guillaume. That's a cognate of William and Wilhelm, which are from Proto-Germanic roots wiljo, meaning "desire", and helmaz, meaning "helmet". The former derives from Proto-Indo-European welh, which could mean "choose" or "want", and the latter traces to Proto-Indo-European kel, "to protect". Unsurprisingly, literary usage of the word guillotine peaked in the late 1790s and has been trending downward since.
Up until the fifteenth century, the word bad wasn't really being used at all. It seems to have emerged from an obscure English dialect to become popular in vulgar speech and eventually replace evil as the default antonym for good. Because of the word's early rarity and apparent lack of cognates, the origin is officially unknown, but the most widely accepted theory is that it comes from Old English bæddel, meaning "hermaphrodite". The loss of the -el would match other spelling changes, and the ash is just an old way of writing the "a" sound in "bad". Semantically, it could have just been adopted as a generic curse word that got less severe over time. Bæddel does have relatives in other languages but also has an uncertain etymology, likely deriving from an earlier Proto-Germanic source.
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.