In nuclear physics, a barn is a unit of measurement used to describe the cross-sectional areas of reactions for subatomic particles. The name was coined by a group of physicists at Purdue University who were working on the Manhattan Project and needed a secretive-sounding unit equal to 10^−28 square meters. This was considered a large target for particle accelerators, so they joked that reaching it would be "as easy as hitting the side of a barn", hence the name. The word barn has been around since at least the tenth century and is actually a compound of the Old English nouns bere, meaning "barley", and ærn, meaning "place"; barley was one of the most commonly grown grain crops in Anglo-Saxon days. Bere (which is also the source of the word barley if you add the suffix -lic, meaning "like") comes from Proto-Germanic baraz, also meaning "barley", and ærn is from Proto-Germanic razna, meaning "dwelling".
If you speak French, this one won't be surprising, but it is nevertheless interesting: the word paiper-mâché means "chewed up paper"! The papier part is from Old French papier, which also gave us the English noun paper. That comes from Latin papyrus, which obviously described the thick material differing from modern paper, and papyrus ultimately has an unknown origin but is thought to be Egyptian. I mentioned in a recent blog post how a circumflex over a French vowel indicates the disappearance of the letter s, and that's what happened with mâché, which comes from the Latin verb masticare, meaning "to chew" (this is also where we get the English word masticate), in turn from Ancient Greek mastikhan, "to gnash the teeth" and Proto-Indo-European mendh, meaning "to chew".
Before the United Nations was called the United Nations, it was just a group of countries without any unifying name. Franklin D. Roosevelt and William Churchill both wanted to come up with something clever to call their collection of allies, but they couldn't decide on anything better than Associated Powers. Then, the story goes, Roosevelt randomly thought up United Nations (which both worked on its own and was a nod to its predecessor, the League of Nations) and was so excited by his epiphany that he wheeled himself into Churchill's room without knocking and came across the prime minister naked. Churchill agreed, probably apocryphally saying "the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States." A charter was drawn up, and in 1945 the United Nations was officially founded.
In my French class yesterday, my professor told us that the English word gout (referring to the type of arthritis) comes from the French word goût, meaning "taste", because gout has been associated with extravagant appetites. I didn't want to correct her during class, but this was incorrect, and there's a tell-tale sign: the circumflex over the u in French indicates the disappearance of the letter s after the vowel. If the word were to go into English from Old French (which is much likelier than Modern French), it would be spelled goust. Indeed, goût comes from an Old French word spelled goust that itself is from Latin gustus, meaning "taste". However, English gout is from Old French gote and Latin gutta, meaning "drop of liquid", because, in old times, the disease was thought to be caused by an excess of the bodily humors, which would seep into the blood in droplets from the joints.
Today, a friend told me that the word alligator comes from the Latin word alligare, meaning "to bind". Turns out that's untrue, although there was an unrelated alligator definition that meant "one who binds" and died out in the eighteenth century. The real story of the reptile's name is far more interesting. It's a corruption of Spanish el lagarto del Indias, or "the lizard of the indies". The el became an a- at the beginning and then a folksy -r was added at the end in much the same way that we got the words feller for fella and tater for potato. Lagarto comes from another Latin word, lacertus, which meant "lizard" as well (and is also the source of the word lizard). That has an unknown etymology, but it has been proposed to be related to the word for "upper arm", larcertum, because of a perceived resemblance in movement.
The word larceny was borrowed in 1475 from the Anglo-Norman word larcen, and where the -y came from is a spot of confusion for linguists. It could have gotten attached to a noun-forming suffix, like we see in the words sympathy or victory, but it also might have been modelled on other crime words like burglary and felony. Either way, larcen comes from Old French larcin and Latin latrocinium, which both also meant "robbery". Latrocinium is a second-declension noun formed from the third-declension word latro, meaning "mercenary" or "highwayman". That comes from Ancient Greek latron, "pay" or "hire" (the connection was the action of hiring mercenaries, but it's sort of funny to me that this is the opposite of the modern definition). Finally, latron derives from Proto-Indo-European leht, meaning "to grant" or "possess".
A few days ago, I briefly mentioned how the word dress came from the Latin word regere, meaning "to rule", and I just want to elaborate on that, because it seems like a weird connection. So it turns out that the noun has held a lot of senses: it could mean "conduct", "the act of putting something in order", "the action of setting to rights", and "the action of dressing a wound" in addition to describing the garment. All of these meanings developed from a verb sense that came in the fourteenth century from Old French dresser, which meant something along the lines of "arrange" or "prepare". This sense of getting ready for something got extended to the concept of wearing clothes, and eventually to a specific type of clothing (this happens a lot across languages; consider Spanish vestido/vestirse).
I recently stumbled across a word you all might like: epeolatry, meaning "the worship of words". It appears that it was first used in an 1860 collection of essays by American polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (the father of the Supreme Court Justice), and Holmes coined the term from the Greek words epos, meaning "word", and -latry, meaning "worship of". Epos, which was like a more specific version of the word logos and is also the source of epic, comes from Proto-Indo-European wekw, meaning "to speak". Meanwhile, the suffix -latry, which is in a bunch of words but most notably shows up in idolatry, comes from Greek latreia, meaning "worship", and that's from latreus, meaning "servant". Finally, it's thought that latreus derives from Proto-Indo-European le, "to get".
When the word jungle was first used in English in 1776, it referred exclusively to the swampy areas at the base of the Himalaya mountains. However, by 1849, the term was extended to any sort of place with overgrown vegetation. Interestingly enough, the word comes from the Hindi and Marathi noun jangal, which meant "desert"! That later developed a sense of "wasteland" and came to be extended to marshlands like the ones the British encountered in India, with the meaning gradually changing to be more associated with densely packed forests. Jangal comes from Sanskrit jangala, meaning "arid", and that has unknown, possibly Dravidian origins. The phrase jungle gym is from a company that was established in 1921 and jungle fever in reference to the disease is from 1803.
The noun hammock was introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus in the narrative of his first voyage, where he wrote "A great many Indians in canoes came to the ship to-day for the purpose of bartering their cotton, and hamacas, or nets, in which they sleep." The first English attestation was in Richard Eden's 1555 translation of Italian historian Peter Martyr d'Anghiera's The Decades of the Newe Worlde, where he also spelled it hamaca. Later forms included hamacco, hamacho, hamacoe, hamack, and hamock, and hammock was standardized by the eighteenth century. Columbus got the word from Taíno hamaka, which could refer to any kind of net, and that traces to a Proto-Arawak reconstruction that sounded the same way and may have more specifically meant "fish net".
Today, I discovered that almond farmers in northern California pronounce the word almond as ah-mond, with the l being silent. There's a common joke explanation that the nut is called an almond on the tree and an ah-mond on the ground because you shake the l out of it. Obviously, that's not the real reason for the sound change. Almonds were first introduced to southern California by Spanish missionaries who called them almendras, and then to northern California by Portuguese and French immigrants who called them amendas and amandolas, respectively. This makes up just one of many linguistic differences between the two halves of the state, including the increased prevalence of Chicano English and "Valleyspeak" in the south and the more widespread use of the word hella in the north.
The Latin verb regere (which could mean either "to keep straight" or "to rule") has had an enormous impact on our language. Its fourth principal part, rectus, has contributed to pretty much every word you can imagine with a rect in it: think rector (the "ruler" of a parish), direction (which originally meant "set straight"), correct ("with straightening"), and rectum (which was considered the "straight intestine"). Then the second principle part (that being regere) developed into a bunch of words containing reg in them: this includes regime (something that rules a country), region (a piece of land historically ruled by someone), and regular (which originally meant "straight piece of wood"). Finally, there are a bunch of random descendants that underwent other changes, like dress, ergo, surge, and more.
Recently, I was wondering why the United States armed forces didn't have the rank of field marshal, despite a bunch of other countries using the title for their highest-ranking officers. We actually had a functionally very similar role several times throughout history, but it was called General of the Army, first established for Ulysses S. Grant in 1866. The most recent time it was instated, the title was bestowed upon future-Secretary of State George C. Marshall, and part of the reason that they didn't use the title marshal was to avoid having to call him Field Marshal Marshall, which was considered "undignified". Another reason that the military ultimately chose to not go with the term was that marshal was already in use for local law enforcement, and they wanted to prevent confusion between U.S. Marshals and potential Field Marshals.
The word president was first used in English in the year 1382, a time when, of course, there were no presidents as we think of them in today's terms. Instead, a president was the appointed governor of a province. Later on, a new definition of "appointed or elected head of a gathering" emerged, which evolved into the modern political sense of the word. Through Old French, president comes from the Latin present active participle praesidens, translating to "one who governs" or "one who supervises". More literally, though, it's "one who sits before", because the word comes from the prefix prae-, meaning "before", and the verb sedere, "to sit". This makes sense: governors have to preside over meetings by sitting before everyone else. Finally, prae- and sedere are from Proto-Indo-European per and sed, both with the same respective definitions.
Today, the word burlesque is mostly associated with those exaggerated theatre shows that often feature stripteases, and it can also refer to a mockery by caricature or a literary or dramatic parody. But when it was first borrowed into English in the middle of the seventeenth century, the word was an adjective meaning "grotesque" or "comical", and it eventually evolved to just represent burlesque works of art or writing. The word was taken from Italian burlesco, which literally meant "joke-like", with burla being an Italian word for "joke" or "prank". Burla is thought to be from Late Latin burra, which meant "nonsense" but more literally translates to "wool garment" (also the source of the word bureau, curiously enough), because those were considered trivial for some reason.
Queue is a weird word. It looks like somebody just vomited a bunch of useless vowels after the consonant, and I often get questions about it. Since being borrowed into English in the 1470s, the word has held a lot of different meanings: it could refer to a band of parchment, a line of dancers, a plait of hair, the long end of a string instrument, a cask, a bottom part of a lance, or the tail of a beast in heraldry. All of these definitions have something to do with length, and that last one is closest to their origin in Old French coe or cue, meaning "tail" (or, colloquially, "penis"). That comes from Vulgar Latin coda, which is also the source of the English word coda. That's from Latin cauda, still meaning "tail", and if we go back far enough we can trace it to Proto-Italic kauda and Proto-Indo-European khu, meaning "cleaved".
Today, the word topic can refer to any kind of subject, whether in text or conversation, casual or formal. However, when it was first being used in English during the sixteenth century, the term had the more rhetorical sense of "a class of considerations from which arguments are drawn". This comes from Aristotle's book Topics (or Topica in Latin or Ta Topika in Greek), which was a work on logic explaining how to create arguments. Its name comes from the Ancient Greek word for "place", topos, because Aristotle described topics as "places from which arguments could be made". This is the same topos that shows up in words like topology, isotope, and dystopia; it has historically been very difficult to etymologize because it covered a broad range of meanings, but might be of pre-Greek origin.
The two things I associate the word lozenge with are those tablets for sore throats and Piet Mondrian's paintings on rotated canvases. Apparently, it can also mean "charge in the shape of a diamond" in heraldry, and all of those senses come from an earlier meaning of "rhombus". The heraldry and painting things are rhombus-shaped, and the original cough drops were also shaped like diamonds. The noun comes from Old French losenge, and that has an unknown origin. However, it's related to words like Spanish losange, Catalan llosange, and Italian losanga, so some etymologists think that it could be from a pre-Indo-European Celtic word, possibly meaning something like "slab". According to Google Ngrams, usage of lozenge peaked in 1872 and has been declining since.
Despite its simple spelling, mug can have a lot of meanings. The word first showed up in 1400 as a unit of measurement for salt, and then reappeared in Scottish dialects a century later with the meaning "earthenware bowl". Then the modern definition of "drinking vessel" emerged in the 1560s, probably with some influence from similar Scandinavian words. As you know, mug can also be a colloquial term for "face", and this sense came from the "cup" meaning because of a fad in seventeenth-century England where drinking mugs were made in the shapes of grotesque faces. In the early 1800s, that gave rise to the metonymic verb to mug, meaning "strike someone on the face", which got extended to a broader meaning of "attack" in the 1840s and "attack by robbing" in the 1860s. Mug separately became used to refer to police records of people's faces in the 1870s, and the phrase mug-shot is from the 1950s. So much from just a measurement of salt!
The word marionette was borrowed in 1645 from Middle French marionnette, which literally translates to "little little Mary". It comes from the name Mariole and the diminutive suffix -ette (the l was changed to an n because of influence from the name Marion), and Mariole is itself a diminutive of Mary. Apparently, during the Middle Ages in France, it was popular to put on string puppet shows of biblical events, and one of the more popular puppets was the Virgin Mary, hence the name. Mary, which is also the source of Marion as well as a bunch of other names (including Maria, Molly, Polly), has a disputed origin but is commonly said to be from an Aramaic word meaning "rebellion". According to Google Ngrams, usage of the name has remained constant in recent centuries, but made up a much larger share of overall baby names in the early-to-mid twentieth century.
In philosophy, the concept of telos is used to refer to the inherent purpose of someone or something (the explanation of this is called teleology, and the realization of it is entelechy). In Ancient Greek, that word meant "end" or "result", and it actually had quite a large influence on English. In biology, the "end phase" of mitosis is telophase and the "end part" of a chromosome is a telomere, and, in language, a homoioteleuton is a repetition of the end sounds of words. Then you got the noun talisman, which was borrowed into English in the 1630s from French and Arabic words ultimately coming from Byzantine Greek telesma, meaning "religious rite" or, more literally, "something done to completion". Finally, telos comes a suffixed form of the Proto-Indo-European kwel, "to revolve".
When the word coincidence was first attested in a 1626 natural history book by Francis Bacon, it referred to the condition of two things occupying the same space. A few decades later, it took on the additional meaning of "happening at the same time", and by the 1680s the "remarkable concurrence" definition also emerged. The word comes from the Latin verb coincidere, which is composed out of the prefix cum-, meaning "with", the prefix in-, meaning "into", and the verb cadere, meaning "to fall". As a whole, then, a coincidence was an event when things fell into each other. Cadere, which is also the root of words like cascade, decadaence, cadaver, and decay, comes (through Proto-Italic kado) from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction khd, also meaning "to fall".
At this point, I've written about two Nabisco products - Oreos and Triscuits - but I haven't yet dived into the name of the company itself. It all traces to an 1898 merger between the New York Biscuit Company and the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, which rebranded as the National Biscuit Company. In 1901, the company introduced a new type of sugar wafer that they called Nabisco, after the first few letters of each word in the company name. About a decade later, the company rebranded to just NBC, and in the 1940s they finally began using Nabisco across all their packaging, formalizing it in April 1971. These are minor legal changes, but following some mergers the company was renamed to Nabisco Brands in 1981, then RJR Nabisco in 1985, then back to Nabisco in 1993.
The Latin word umbra, meaning "shadow", has had a surprisingly large influence on our language. You might immediately recognize it as the source of the diminutized word umbrella, which literally translates to "little shadow". We also have the words umbrage, meaning "darkness", and umbrageous, meaning "shady" - those were borrowed from French in the sixteenth century. The color umber, describing the earthy brown pigment, comes from Italian ombra. Then we can also tack on the Latin word paene, meaning "almost", to form the word penumbra, referring to the "shadow cast by a celestial body during an eclipse". And (my personal favorite) add the prefix sub-, meaning "under", throw it through a couple centuries of French, and you also get the word somber.
Maybe this was already obvious to hip hop enthusiasts, but I just realized that rapper Cardi B's stage name comes from the rum brand Bacardi. Apparently, her sister's name is Hennessy, so everybody jokingly called her by the other alcohol brand name, since it sort of sounded like her actual name, Belcalis. However, Instagram kept deleting any account she set up with the word Bacardi, so she switched it up to Cardi B, which seems to have suited her fairly well. The brand Bacardi was founded in Cuba in 1862 by a man named Don Facundo Bacardí Massó, and the surname probably traces to the French word Picard, meaning "someone from the French region of Picardy". Finally, Picardy comes from pic, an Old French word for "pike", since people in the region traditionally used a lot of pikes in battle.
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.