Kombucha is a very strong, fermented type of black or green tea. It originated in northeastern China, but the word's origin is officially uncertain. The most likely backstory is that somebody borrowed the Japanese word kombucha- but that they screwed it up. Kombucha actually translates into "kelp tea". There's a bit of a difference between fermentation and seaweed. Anyway, kombucha is broken down into kombu, a word describing that kind of kelp that goes into tea, and cha, meaning "tea". Kombu, which also exists as a word in the English language, was earlier spelled konfu or kofu. We're not sure where that comes from, but we know it emerged in the 12th or 13th century from mysterious origins. Cha is one of those universal words (like mama or papa), which sounds the same in almost every language. As for it, it's just a given that cha means "tea". We could delve into a bunch of convoluted linguistic theories about this, but I have to go sleep. This was fun.
On the American frontier in the mid-to-late 1700s, deer hides were especially valuable. However, they were also common enough to be used in lieu of currency, as a medium of exchange where one high-quality skin equaled one dollar. It is for this reason- the adoption of buckskins as a bartering tool equivalent to US currency- that we began using the word buck as slang for "dollar". The phrase pass the buck (meaning "to shift responsibility") dates back to the 1860s, when card players would use a marker made out of buckskin to indicate whose turn it was to deal. This prompted Truman to say the buck stops here in 1952, giving us that phrase. Now, the word buck itself comes from the Old English word bucca, which actually referred to male goats, and only got applied to deer later. This, through Proto-Germanic bukkon, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction bhugo, with the same meaning.
I always associated the word immolation with people lighting themselves on fire for political purposes. But the definition is closer to "sacrifice by burning". The word comes from the Latin verb immolare, which meant something even more specific: "to sprinkle with sacrificial meal", because that had to be done before burning something for sacrifice. This literally breaks down into the component words: im-, meaning "to" or "upon", mola, meaning "meal", and the -ere suffix implies an action. Im- can be derived from the Proto-Indo-European root en, which meant "in". Meanwhile, mola earlier meant "flour" (as many meals are made of flour) and developed from Proto-Indo-European mele, which meant "to grind", as flour is ground. The verb immolate was introduced in the 1540s, peaked in usage in the 1840s, and has become less common since then. This is such an amazing etymology; I'm so engrossed.
Malfeasance implies some sort of misbehavior, and the etymology does as well. It arose from the Old French word malfaisance, from the verb malfaire, meaning "to do evil". This originated from Latin malefacere, which is composed of the words male, meaning "evil", and facere, meaning "to do" or "make". Male can be conjugated to malus, which, through Proto-Italic, most likely derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction mel, which meant "to deceive". Now, you may have noticed that the words maleficent and malefactor are similar in construction and definition. Indeed, maleficent (through Latin maleficus, meaning "criminal") also traces back to the words male and ficus, and malefactor comes straight from malefacere. Although the word malfeasance was first borrowed into English in the 1690s. it wasn't used so commonly until the 1800s, and since then, usage has increased more than tenfold.
Ratatouille is most famous in America for the 2007 movie, which uses the final dish served as a kind of pun for all the rats in the movie. However, the origin is far from the gutters. Since ratatouille is a dish from southern France, the word comes from (dialectal) Occitan ratatolha. At the start of this word is an unidentifiable prefix rat- or tat-, which doesn't have much research on it, so we don't know much about it. The root, however, we are pretty sure of: it's from the French word touiller (after the late 1700s, it just meant "coarse stew", and by today the definition narrowed down even more). Touiller derives from the Latin verb tudiculere, meaning "mix" and coming from tudes, meaning "hammer" (I guess hammers can mix things up). Tudes in turn may be reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European stew, meaning "to push". It's ironic that the word for a type of stew comes from a word sounding like stew and quite scintillating that it once meant "hammer".
We sometimes call the Republican Party the GOP, which some people know is an acronym for Grand Old Party. but why do we do that? That's a terribly old-fashioned thing to say, isn't it? Indeed, the phrase referring to Republicans does date back to 1876 (exactly twenty years after the formation of the party). As a matter of fact, it was kind of fashionable to say grand old at the time; even the Democrats used that nickname until the late 1800s, only the Republican one survived to today. Initially, people wanted the name to reflect the values of civic virtue, and used it interchangeably with gallant old party. In a 2011 poll, 35% of respondents thought GOP meant "government of the people", so there's a lot of misinformation going around about the acronym. Some interesting side notes: the color red wasn't really associated with the Republican Party until 2000, when the TV networks simultaneously used it to portray states won by George Bush, and the elephant was first used as a symbol in an 1874 political cartoon.
A lot of people just assume that the word parsnip is a combination of parsley and turnip. Well, not really. As parsnip developed into existence from the Old French word pasnaie, the -nip ending was indeed added by influence of turnip, but the rest was unique. Anyway, pasnaie (which could also be a euphemism for "penis") comes from Latin pastinaca, which meant both "parsnip" and "carrot". This in turn derives from pastinum, which meant something like "two-pronged fork or spade", because they have a similar shape. Although this has an unknown etymology officially, I'm guessing it comes from a word for "dig" (based on a connection to pastinare, with that meaning), possibly because of the "spade" connection. It might not even be Indo-European; just some wild guesses. Although it was borrowed in the 1300s, the word parsnip has had relatively constant usage since the late 1700s.
In its earlier days, infant was sometimes spelled infaunt, and it also sometimes meant "fetus". For the most part, however, it retained its modern spelling and definition, with very little variation in form and frequency of usage. This comes directly from the Latin nominative infans, which literally meant "not speaking", literally because infants cannot speak. Although it kind of makes sense, it's pretty surprising nonetheless. If we break up this work, we can separate the prefix in-, meaning "not", and the root fans, which is a conjugation of the verb for, meaning "to speak". Via Proto-Italic en, in- derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction n, which also meant "not". Meanwhile, for came by way of Proto-Italic faor from Proto-Indo-European bheh, or "to speak" as well. So, not much semantic development, but a very interesting hidden definition.
The first thing most people think of when they hear the word yen is the Japanese currency, but yen also means a "desire" or "yearning". The first yen is obviously Japonic, but I thought the second sounded vaguely Gemanic, maybe even being etymologically connected to yearn. Wrong! It's also Asian, but in this case Chinese. In 1900, it was borrowed from the word yen-yen, which meant "a strong craving for opium". This desire got a little less specific over time (possibly with a little influence by yearn), and that's how we were left with the modern word. Yen was the word for "opium", and the repetition implied just how much opium was desired. This might be from jin, meaning "smoke", which has an obscure etymology due to it being a Beijing dialectal word. Although there may be a little interference from the other yen, usage of the word has fluctuated upward throughout the decades.
The modern refrigerator was invented in 1834, but the word for something that cools has been around since the 1610s. This noun form comes from the verb refrigerate, which has existed since the 1530s. Refrigerate derives from Latin refrigerare, which is composed of the prefix re- and the root frigerare, or "cool". Therefore, refrigerare means "to cool again". The etymon of frigerare is frigus, meaning "cold" in general, which in turn comes through Proto-Italic from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction srig, with the same definition. Now, why does the common nickname for the refrigerator, fridge, have a d in it? Simply to reinforce the natural sounds of the cropping, which in itself is a pretty unexpected formation. The most interesting part of this all is the name of the fridge company Frigidaire (registered as a brand name in the US but in some international cases used as ubiquitously as Kleenex for tissue). It's a play on words messing around by combining the terms fridge, refrigerator, and frigid air, quite an interesting amalgamation.
Most people don't know that the mathematical name for the infinity symbol or any figure-eight shaped curve (∞) is a lemniscate, and of course even fewer know the interesting etymology behind that word. It comes from lemniscatus, meaning "decorated with ribbons", obviously because the original models for lemniscates were made of ribbons. Early ribbons were made of wool, so it's really not that surprising that lemniscatus comes from Ancient Greek lemniskos, literally translating as "woolen ribbon". Now, the origin of this word is officially uncertain, but it is entirely possible that there is some kind of unknown connection between it and the Greek island of Lemnos. As these islands were explored by many Phoenician sailors, Lemnos would come from a Proto-Semitic root reconstructed as l-b-n, which meant "white". The plot thickens! The word lemniscate was introduced in the early 1800s, and has remained relatively constant in its niche usage since then.
Today I found myself questioning whether there's a connection between basil the plant and basilica the type of church. Turns out that there is! The word basil comes from French basile, which, through Latin, comes from the Ancient Greek word for "king", basileus. This is because basil was traditionally considered a royal plant, as it was possibly used in some baths or medicines drawn up for kings. Before this, basileus came from Proto-Hellenic gwatileus, which meant something more like "chieftain". This may not be PIE, as it has a hypothesized Pre-Greek origin. Meanwhile, basileus also evolved to give us the Greek word basilike, which meant "royal hall". Eventually, the regal sense evolved into an ecclesiastical one, and by Latin basilica it was the same as the word we know today. There's a third word I suspected of being connected, basilar as in a type of membrane in the ear, but apparently it's uncorrelated. Despite that disappointment, I find it insanely interesting how both a plant and a building are etymologically connected to a dead word for "king".
Epistemology is a subfield in philosophy concentrated on the theory of knowledge. Sounds boring? Well, it was coined in 1856 by the even more boring writer J.F. Ferrier, who was so prosaic that the major accomplishment on his Wikipedia page is how he "introduced the word epistemology". Apart from the -ology suffix denoting a science, the root here is the Ancient Greek word episteme, which meant "knowledge". Here we can break off the prefix epi-, which meant "over" or "around" and comes from Proto-Indo-European opi, with a similar meaning but perhaps more of a connotation of "near". The root of epistemology, meanwhile, is Ancient Greek histasthai (which obviously appears a little cropped in today's word). This had the definition of "stand". One who stands around has knowledge, according to the Greeks, apparently. Finally, this comes to Proto-Indo-European sta, also meaning "stand". Ferrier's contribution was helpful, apparently; usage of epistemology has been increasing almost exponentially in recent years.
Endocrinology is the field of science concerned with studying hormones and the endocrine system. Once we eliminate the -ology suffix, we're actually left with a word that literally means "secreting internally"! This is because, when the word was coined in 1914, it was composed of the prefix endo-, meaning "inside", and the Ancient Greek word krinein, which meant "separate". The hidden definition of endocrine implies the quality of glands to secrete hormones internally. Endo- comes from Ancient Greek endon, meaning "internal", and, through Proto-Hellenic, this derives from the Proto-Indo-European hendom, "in". Meanwhile, the root krinein also may be traced through Proto-Hellenic to Proto-Indo-European, in this case to the reconstruction krey, meaning "to sift". Usage of the word endocrinology steadily increased until a peak in the early 1980s, however it has recently decreased dramatically, perhaps due to fewer advances in the field nowadays.
We've covered entomology and etiology, now onto two more similar-sounding fields: epidemiology and eschatology! Eschatology first. For those unaware, this field of study is concerned with studying the end of the world and judgment on a theological and personal level. The word comes from the Greek word eskhatos, meaning "last", and -ology, being the study of things. Therefore, eschatology is "the study of the last". Eskhatos can be reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like eghskatos, which reduces to ex, just meaning "out". Moving on now to epidemiology, the study of the spread of diseases. Eliminating the -ology, the root is Ancient Greek epidemia, meaning "among the people", because diseases spread among the people (also the source of epidemic, through French epidemie). This is composed of two parts: epi-, meaning "among" (from PIE opi, "near"), and demos, meaning "people" (from PIE damo, "division"). Stay tuned for more weird sciences.
I've already covered entomology and how it should never be confused with etymology... well, here's another such word. Etiology is the study of origins, normally referring to diseases but not necessarily (so, yes, etymology could be said to be the etiology of words). Anyway, the word etiology (alternatively but less commonly spelled aetiology or aitiology) comes from the Greek word aitologia, which literally meant "statement of cause", as aitia was a word for "cause" or "responsibility" and logia meant "speaking". Aitia may be reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like ai, and meaning "to give" or "allot". I've already discussed logia several times, but again can't hurt: it's from logos, or "explanation", from legere, a verb meaning "to say", and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European leg, "to gather". Etiology as a word is actually used three times as often as etymology, so beware of finding it in the wild and mistaking it- a common error.
During the Korean War, it was revealed that up to 30% of American POWs collaborated with the Chinese and North Koreans after being taken captive. To justify these statistics, the American media began claiming that the Communist regimes were brainwashing soldiers, a term first being coined in a 1950 Miami News article by Edward Hunter and meant to mean "psychologically influence". This might seem like a simple portmanteau of brain and wash, which it is to some extent, but it is also a calque (literal translation) of a Chinese idiom sounding like xinao and meaning "to wash the brain". This was actually used by the Communists and was a bit of a pun on the xixin custom, a Taoist ritual of "cleaning the mind". However, the word literally comes from nao, meaning "brain" (from Proto-Tibetan snewk), and xi, meaning "brain" (from Sino-Tibetan mbsjl). Without the Chinese word, we wouldn't have the English word, and what a loss to our culture that would be.
Even before Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, there was a bit of a controversy with the Greeks over the name, which they claimed historical rights to. A whole kerfuffle ensued, with Macedonia taking the official name The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in defiance of the Greeks' bitter protestations. It's more controversial than you may think. The reason I'm spouting all these circumlocutions about FYROM is that just yesterday the two sides announced that Macedonia would agree to become the Republic of North Macedonia, giving thousands of people hope, but then the FYROM president refused to sign, so ignorance prevailed again. I'm pretty annoyed. The appellation Macedonian comes from Greek Makedones, which literally meant "highlander", from makednos, which just meant "tall". This in turn is from makros, meaning "long" or "large", from Proto-Indo-European mak, which also carried the definition of "thin".
A travesty means something absurd in a bad way right now, but earlier it meant "burlesque", under the connection of absurdity. In the 1670s, this was borrowed into the English language from French travestir, or "to disguise" (because burlesque actors would disguise themselves). This is composed of two Latin components: trans, meaning "over", and vestire, meaning "to dress". In effect, actors were considered "cross-dressers", literally. Those very words, trans and vestire, would also combine to create the offensive term transvestite, an unfortunate coincidence but one which also makes perfect sense. Trans comes from Proto-Indo-European terh, Vestire likewise comes from PIE west, meaning "to clothe" as well. Usage of both words has been decreasing over the years (after almost equalling each other around 2000), but transvestite has been a bit more precipitous since the'90s.
In 1592, the English poet Samuel Daniel write in his Sonnet XLVI "Let others sing of Knights and Palladines in aged accents, and untimely words" (Palladines rhymes with lines). This would prove to be the first traceable usage of the word paladin in the English language, paladin being a kind of synonym for "knight" (often with a religious connotation). Daniel had a fancy for saying things fancily, so the word was still paladin in Middle French and he had just spruced it up a bit. Through Italian, this comes from Latin palatinus, which meant "palace official". Makes sense, as knights were retained by those who lived in palaces. This is effectively a conjugation of palatium, which meant "palace", and here it gets interesting: palatium is named after the hill Palatium in Rome, which is where Roman senators and aristocrats built their opulent palaces (also the root of palace, through Old French palais). This is either named after an Etruscan goddess or a word for "stake", and that's all we know.
I briefly alluded to this in yesterday's post, but it's time to expand on the etymology of licorice (called liquorice in the United Kingdom because of minute differences evolving over time in the languages). Today, we'll think of it as multicolored chewy strands of sweetness, but (most) of what we eat comes from the roots of the leguminous glycyrrhiza glabra plant. In French, this plant was called licoresse, and in Latin, it was called liquiritia. All of this comes from the Ancient Greek word glukurrhiza (yep, the root of the scientific name if you were paying attention), with the same meaning. Glukurrhiza comes from two parts: glukus, meaning "sweet", and rhiza, meaning "root". "Sweet root". An appropriate name. Glukus is akin to Proto-Indo-European dlku, meaning "sweet" as well, and rhiza comes from another Proto-Indo-European reconstruction, wrehds, which also meant "root". Although the lack of semantic change is unsurprisingly disappointing, the hidden meaning is pretty darn interesting.
Rapunzel is a famed German fairytale written by the Brothers Grimm, but where does her name come from? Turns out Rapunzel (as a proper noun) is. a German word for "rampion", a type of pink flower, or for "lamb's lettuce". Either way, it's a cute name derived from plants. All of these words, through nominative muddles in Medieval Latin, come from the Latin root radix, which meant "root"- an unsurprising connection to make to plants. The root word for this "root" word is the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wrad, which meant either "branch" or "root". Rapunzel's usage in English is higher than it's ever been, but it peaked in German during the 1980s (and, obviously, usage in German has been going on for much longer). Time for some etymological relatives: radix gave us the words radish, eradicate (to get rid of the root of something), radius, and radical, (which takes the root of something) while wrad devolved into all of those plus rutabaga, radicant, licorice, wrath, and many others. So Rapunzel has a lot of etymological relatives in the worlds of botany and math. Fun!
I just finished a year of AP Chem, and I never knew that Group 15 elements are also called pnictogens (one of the few words starting in pn-). You'd think that this would have something to do with the fact that the column starts with nitrogen, and that it's archaic, but think again, because that would make you wrong on both accounts. Pnictogen was coined by the Dutch chemist Anton Eduard van Arkel in the 1950s, based on the Ancient Greek verb pnigein, meaning "to choke" (which is something nitrogen and similar elements can do). The components -ct-, -o-, and -gen all function to modify the overall meaning slightly, and can be disregarded. Because of relatives in other Indo-European language families, we can reconstruct pnigein to a PIE root sounding similarly with about the same definition. Going back to pnictogen, it sometimes takes the form of pnicogen, but that's a bout 2.5 times less common in usage. A pnictide is also a binary compound of a pnicogen, so that's another connection
The word pageant didn't mean "spectacle" or "exhibition" until 1805. Although usage remained steady, for four centuries before that, it very specifically meant "a play in a series of mystery plays". This very odd definition comes to us from Latin pagina, which meant "page of a book", through a connection of "manuscript". This comes from pangere, a verb meaning "to fasten" (again under a slight connection to "page", as in pages are fastened to a manuscript), from PIE pag, also "to fasten". Pagina is recognizable to me personally because it's also the Spanish word for "page", and, if we dig deeper, it's also the root for the English word and many others in European languages. Moreover, the PIE reconstruction pag is the etymon of so many other words that we all know, including pallette, compact, propagate, palisade, impale, pagan, and fang. There are so many words I'm displaying here: you could almost call it a linguistic pageant!
If you're ambivalent, you feel indecisive about something, and that's literally what the etymology tells us, as well. So we get it straight from German Ambivalenz, which was coined by the Swiss psychologist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 and is meant to be capitalized. It was intended to describe the characteristic of people to see the strengths of both sides of the argument, and, in forming the word, Bleuler took the Latin prefix ambi-, meaning "both", and spliced it on top of the root valentia, meaning "strength". We've already covered ambi- in the ambidexterity post, so let's ignore that for now. Valentia, meanwhile, is also the etymon of valence (as in the electrons), because of a connection through a side definition of "capacity". This comes from the present active participle valens, from Proto-Italic waleo, from Proto-Indo-European hwelh, which still meant "to be strong", so not much change there. Usages of both ambivalence and ambivalent over time have been surprisingly uniform, increasing at basically the same rate and amount.
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.