Since the volcanically preserved city of Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, people have been fascinated with the writing on the walls of the Roman settlement. They provide a unique snapshot into the era, from simple statements like "Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here" to advertisements, epithets, doodles, and more. In 1851, the Italians assigned a term for those writings, graffito, which was a diminutive of their word for "scratch", graffio. The best translation is probably "scribbling". Twenty-something years later, people across Europe realized that they didn't have a word for modern crude vandalisms, so they pluralized graffito to graffiti and that became our word for surface scribblings of all kinds. Graffio eventually comes from Ancient Greek graphein, meaning "scratch" (present in words like graphite, diagram, and graphic), which is thought to trace to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gerbh, "to carve".
William Dampier, a former pirate who became the first to circumnavigate the world three times, reached fame in British naval circles for his 1697 novel A New Voyage Round the World. In it, he mentioned that many sailors around the southeastern coast of India used rafts on top of logs running down the bottom. They called this style of boat a catamaran and, because Dampier's book became so popular,the name stuck in nautical vernacular and eventually seeped into mainstream use. This word is from Tamil kattumaram, which means "tied wood". That in turn was created out of the components kattu, which could be defined as "tie" or "bind", and maram,"tree". These terms likely have ancestors in Old Tamil and Proto-Dravidian (they're not Indo-European). Such an interesting word, and it's all thanks to the diary of a British buccaneer!
When the word prophylactic was first used in the English language in the 1540s, it solely referred to medicines that prevent disease. It had a myriad of spelling variations, such as prophikacticke, prophikactyke, prophylactice, prophtlactyce, prophylactick, and prophilactic, only becoming standardized during the eighteenth century. It wasn't until the 1930s that the word gained its most widely recognized definition of "rubber condom" (under a shared connection of stopping the spread of disease), since there was an increased need of euphemistic synonyms for the birth control method at the time. Through French, prophylactic is a Latinized version of the Greek word prophylaktikos, which carried a definition of "precautionary", or, more literally, "watch before". This is composed of the prefix pro-, meaning "before" (from Proto-Indo-European per) and the root phylassein, "to guard" (which has an unknown etymology but is likely Proto-Hellenic in origin).
The word ferret was used in the English language in a 1398 translation by scribe John Trevisa because he couldn't find a word to stand in for Old French furet, with the same definition. This term, which competed with ferretto be the proper spelling of the word for a while, comes from Vulgar Latin furittum, a diminutive of fur, meaning "thief". The term was applied to the polecat in allusion to Roman perceptions of clever and sneaky attributes to the animal. Through Proto-Italic for, likely still with the same denotation, fūrtraces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction bher, meaning "to carry". According to Google NGrams, usage of ferret in literature over time peaked in the year 2000, but Google Trends has shown a promising uptick in 2018.
I've always loved the word archipelago - it just has a pleasing ring to it, I guess - but I like it even more now that I know the etymology. Originally, the word specifically referred to the islands in the Aegean Sea, but over time it came to mean any cluster of islands in general. This was borrowed at the beginning of the sixteenth century from Italian arcipelago, which then referred to the entire Aegean. In Ancient Greek, this was the proper noun arkhipelagos, which may be translated as "the Chief Sea", a term that reflects the water body's importance to the Greeks. Arkhi- more literally means "leading" and, through the verb arkhein (meaning "to rule"), derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hergh, with the same definition. Pelagos stood in for "sea" and possibly comes from Proto-Indo-European pele, meaning "flat", but that's not certain.
In 1625, one year before kicking the bucket in a debtor's prison, English cleric Samuel Purchas made an indelible mark on the English language in a four-volume history of the world. That mark was a then-insignificant mention of the fact that Turkish people enjoyed eating a sour milk product named yoghurd. This word soon spread as travelers brought the foodstuff back from their journeys, taking on spellings such as yogourt, joghourt, yahout, yaourt, yahourt, yaghourt, and youart, before settling on yoghurt in British English, yogourt in Canadian English, and yogurt in American English. One reason for all of those variations was a misunderstanding of how to translate the Turkish g, which should sound more like w to English speakers, but a lot of us erroneously pronounced the hard g and it stuck. Through Old Turkic, yogurt traces to a Proto-Turkic word sounding like jowurt and meaning "coagulated milk".
While traveling in the Balkans, I learned a fascinating new etymology this week. The word cravat, which today describes a kind of cloth worn around the neck like a tie, was first used in English by lexicographer Thomas Blount in 1656. Initially, there were a lot of different spellings, such as crabbat, crabat, crevatt, and crevat, but by the eighteenth century the word was relatively standardized with its current orthography. This was taken from French cravate, which meant "Croatian" because Catholic French soldiers who fought alongside Croats in the Thirty Years' War noticed that their Slavic comrades had a particular fondness for donning linen scarves much like people wear cravats today. Through German, cravat traces to the demonym Croatians give themselves, Hrvat, an appellation that likely traces to an Old Church Slavonic term for "highlander".
A graduated cylinder is a type of equipment marked with lines for measuring water, and a graduate is a person is someone who's been awarded a degree. These two seemingly unrelated definitions are actually connected through the Medieval Latin word graduatus, which had to do with the increasing of a degree, whether scientific or tangible. That further comes from Latin gradus, which could mean "step", "rank", or "degree", and Proto-Indo-European ghredh, "walk". After first being used in the year 1479 in the Paston Letters, the word graduate peaked in usage in the 1970s and has remained constant since, although Google Trends shows it decreasing in popularity for whatever reason.
On March 9, 1898, a company in Paris started offering rides by motorized cabriolets that included rudimentary taximeters measuring distance. They metonymically called these vehicles taxametres, which they switched to taximetres by 1904. By early 1907, services in London and New York began to pick up on the name, and marketed their rides as either taximeters or taximeter cabriolets. However, because those words were so clunky, they were shortened to taxi and taxicab, respectively (the latter was further clipped to cab, as I mentioned in my post two days ago). The terms rose concurrently with the rise of the automobile, reaching mainstream use by the late 1910s and increasing in usage since then. The word taximeter is basically equivalent to tax and meter, so that's pretty self-explanatory.
The math in aftermath has nothing to do with "math" as we know it today. In fact, in Middle and Old English, it referred to the mowing of a lawn, and the aftermath would be the clippings that remained after you cut your grass, usually with a scythe. Over time, this morphed into a more extreme type of consequence, but still retains the farming definition in agricultural jargon. After- was the same in Proto-Germanic and comes from Proto-Indo-European hepo, meaning "off". Math, meanwhile, Came from Old English mæð and PIE me, which still meant "to cut grass". The other type of math, the one we learn in school, is an abbreviation of mathematics, comes from Greek, and is entirely unrelated. Aftermath entered the English language since 1496 and has been increasing in usage since then.
In writing yesterday's post on capricorn, I stumbled on the very unusual etymology of cab, which I simply have to share today. This synonym for "taxi" was coined in 1826 as a London slang clipping of the word cabriolet, which at the time referred to a two-wheeled carriage pulled by a single horse. This, through French, came from Italian capriola, meaning "jump", which is in reference to the springy suspensions of the cabriolets. However, it could also mean "jump of a kid goat", which makes sense when you consider that its etymon, Latin caper, means "goat" (and, yes, is the same as the root in capricorn). This, as we've seen, comes from Proto-Indo-European kapros, meaning "buck". So we went from an adult goat to a baby goat to a goat jump to a jump to a carriage to a taxi. Etymology is awesome!
I love the fact that I've been doing etymological research for long enough to know where this word came from before I even searched it. Capricorn was first used in English circa 1400 CE in Geoffrey Chaucer's A Treatise on the Astrolabe and was either taken from French capricorne or directly from Latin capricornus, a word that literally means "goat-horned". This makes sense if you consider the symbol for the zodiac. Capricornus combines two words: caper, which meant "goat" (and derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kapros, defined as "buck") and cornus, which we've seen in cornucopia and unicorn as having meant "horn" (this comes from PIE kerh, also "horn"). Usage of the word capricorn peaked in the mid-eighteenth century and has since been trending downwards.
The word pony was first attested in a 1659 Scottish diary as powny. Thereafter, it underwent some variation, taking on forms like ponie, powney, pownie, and poney before becoming standardized by 1900. All of it comes from French poulenet and Old French poulain, with the same definitions. However, as Latin pullanus, the word could refer to the young of any type of animal. Pullus, the earlier version of that, meant the same thing (and is also the etymon of pusillanimous and the game of pool, I'll have to explain those later), and it all derives from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root pelh, also with the same definition. Pony peaked in usage at the turn of the twentieth century and has recently experienced a bit of a resurgence in utilization in literature over time.
In 455 CE, King Genseric of the Vandals (a demonym most likely coming from a PIE word for "wind"), upset at the cancellation of a betrothal, led an army toward Rome, knocking down aqueducts along the way. By the time he got there, a mob had already overthrown the Roman emperor, and the Pope at the time convinced him to not destroy the city nor murder its inhabitants. All in all, the famed Sack of Rome wasn't nearly as bad as it could've been: they only stayed for a fortnight, and didn't do anything violently, although they did carry off some slaves and treasure and destroyed some monuments. Other sacks in history were far worse, but this one was amplified by Enlightenment poets who idealized Rome and portrayed the Vandals as the most egregious example of barbaric brutes and defacers of art. This idea was propagated throughout Europe, and by the 1660s, vandalism made its debut as a word in the English language, inextricably associating the Germanic tribe with destruction of property for the rest of time.
The word identity was first used in English by bishop and historian John Bale in 1545. Back then, he spelled it ydemptyte, but the word quickly evolved to idemptitie, identitie, and by the 1650s the term was widely written identity as we know it. Through Middle French, it all comes from the Latin neuter idem, meaning "the same". Idem is composed of the pronoun is, meaning "he" (and deriving from Proto-Indo-European ey, a third person pronoun), and im, an empathetic marker characteristic of the Proto-Italic language. Usage of the word identity peaked in 2003 and has recently started to slightly decline but today is utilized six times more than it was in 1940, probably due to increased importance placed on our identities in recent years. I was actually pretty surprised there's no connection to the word id, but there you go.
The word schadenfreude, meaning "pleasure derived from others' pain", suddenly became extremely popular after its use in a 1991 episode of The Simpsons and has been prominent in our vernacular ever since. The noun was in use since the 1850s, but a lot of the early attestations just provided it as an example of interesting German word - it wasn't seamlessly integrated into English text until the start of the twentieth century. In German, the word is a bit of an etymological oxymoron, coming from schaden, meaning "harm", and freude, meaning "joy". Schaden is from Old High German scado, or "damage". That, through Proto-Germanic skatho, came from Proto-Indo-European sket, with the same definition. Freude traces to Proto-Germanic frawaz, meaning "joy", which came from PIE prew, "to hop". What a cool word!
In 1279 CE, Dominican friar Laurentius Gallus wrote La Somme des Vices et des Vertus, a treatise on morality written in French. 61 years later, Benedictine monk Dan Michael of Norgate published a translation of that in the Kentish dialect. Michael's translation was quite poorly done, but it's historically significant to us because it was the first time the word innocent was used in the English language. Before that, in Old French it was inocent, and in Latin it was innocens, which literally meant "to not hurt". This is because the root is the verb nocere, meaning "to hurt", and that's modified by the prefix in-, which here means "not". Nocere, through Proto-Italic nokeo, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root nokeo ("disappear"), while in- is from PIE n, also "not".
The earliest attestation of the word zodiac is in 1390 CE from English poet John Gower's seminal epic Confessio Amantis, where he writes about twelve signs "compassed in the zodiaque". Here, Gower just borrowed an Old French word to use in his writing, and that came from Latin zodiacus, still with the same definition. Zodiacus is a shortening of the Ancient Greek phrase zodiakos kyklos, which literally translates to "circle of little animals", something that makes a lot of sense if you think about it. The zodiakos part of that is a diminutive of zoion, the word for "animal" in general (and where the zoo- part in zoology comes from). This, through Proto-Hellenic, finally traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction geyh, "to live". Usage of the word zodiac through history peaked in the 1790s and has been relatively constant throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Paisley patterns are traditionally associated with southern Asia, but the word paisley is named after a village in southwestern Scotland. In fact, it wasn't until relatively recently that the term had anything to do with the well-known design: originally, it referred exclusively to the famous shawls the village produced, and the definition wasn't extended until the nineteenth century when it became fashionable to print the Kashmiri teardrop-shaped motifs on those shawls. The Scottish village has a name literally meaning "church" in Scottish Gaelic; through Middle Irish baslec, it goes all the way back to Latin basilica, which we should recognize as an English word as well. Basilica traces to Ancient Greek basilikos, which meant "royal" and eventually traces to Proto-Hellenic gatileus, "chief".
There have been a lot of misconceptions about the etymology of the word Viking. Some linguists posited that it could've been a demonym for someone from the Viken region of Norway. Others proposed that it could be from an Old Norse unit for measurement, vika. There are even more theories I'm not listing, but the most widely accepted origin today goes back to the Old Norse word vikingr, which essentially had the same meaning as today. More literally, though, it meant "one who belongs to the fjords". This is because the root, vik, could mean "inlet" or "fjord", and the ending, -ingr, could mean "one who belongs" or "one who frequents". Vik, through Proto-Gremanic wiko, comes from Latin vicus and Proto-Indo-European weyk, meaning "village", and -ingr derives from Proto-Germanic ingo, which similarly modified words.
The word cougar was first attested in the English language in Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith's 1774 edition of An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, in which he described it as "an animal of America, which is usually called the Red Tiger". Goldsmith took this word from the French, who described it as a couguar, and that was taken from Portuguese çućuarana, which is further thought to be from a Brazilian language. The prevailing theory is that it would derive from the Tupi word susuarana, which meant "false deer", but nobody's sure. After that complicated series of linguistic borrowings, cougar seeped into our vernacular with a new meaning of "older women who seek younger male romantic partners" around the year 2002 from Canadian slang, in allusion to the predatory behavior of the women.
At first glance, I thought marrow might be Latin, because it's medical terminology, but on further inspection, it definitely gave off Germanic vibes. The way the consonants formed around the vowels just sort of had an Old English ring to it... and I was right! There are attestations going back to before Old English, and as such, there was a lot of orthographic variation. Over time, spellings such as merg, mearh, mearg, meari, marwz, mergh, maree, merow, merch, marowe, maree, and eventually marrow emerged (in that order of attestation). All of this is reconstructed as coming from the Proto-Germanic root mazgaz, with the same definition, and that in turn is thought to derive from Proto-Indo-European mosgos, which could also mean "brain" and resulted in some Slavic cognates meaning "mind" (such as mozga in my home language of Serbian!) Since its first use in the late 1300s, the word marrow peaked in the 1990s and has been decreasing in usage since.
The verb baptize was first used in 1297 in a chronicle by historian Robert of Gloucester. Thereafter, it underwent a lot of variations in the English language, taking on forms such as baptise, baptyse, baptisen, baptysen, and many more. Baptism as a noun was a thing since the 1380s (and because of all those spellings, the s and the z remain in the words). It was all taken from Old French baptiser, which was taken from Latin baptizer, which was taken from Ancient Greek baptizein. Previously, the words all held the same definition, but baptizein could also refer to the dipping of items into water for irreligious purposes. It derives from a previous verb, baptein, which meant "to dip" and might trace to Proto-Indo-European gwabh, also "dip". Use of the word baptism peaked in the 1840s and has decreased sharply since our societies became more secular.
The word intern as a word meaning "trainee who works to get experience" wasn't put in place until 1924. Since 1827, however, a different definition of "assistant physician" existed, and was applied because the helpers did internal work for hospitals. That came from French interne, which had the same definition but could also mean "internal", and eventually traces to Latin internus, "within". The root there is inter, which could also mean "among", and, further back, it (through Proto-Italic) derives from Proto-Indo-European hen, meaning "in". Use of the word intern over time peaked in the 1970s and the turn of the century, but has recently been decreasing for some reason. Fun fact: intern has a lot of dead definitions, including "of the soul", "boarding school student", and "the domestic affairs of a country".
A good friend of mine just signed my high school year book joking that he should of won the chess club presidency. I've seen this grammatical mistake many times during my high school career - as an editor of my school newspaper, I had to correct dozens of these errors from bright, intelligent young reporters - and it seems to be pervading the writing style of the newer generations. This alteration, arising because could've, would've, and should've are pronounced exactly like could of, would of, and should of, is actually by no means a recent occurrence, first showing up all the way back in 1814. It was used in an 1854 letter by renowned writer Charlotte Brontë, and countless others through history. However, now it seems much more common than before, due partially to propagation by the Internet, and many years down the road that spelling could quite possibly take over as prescriptivist grammar Nazis die out and nobody's around to correct it anymore. It's actually a pretty curious snapshot into linguistic development in action, and fun to observe from a pragmatic perspective. The phonological reason for the f and v confusion is that both letters are labiodental frictatives, which means that the lower lip is raised to the upper front teeth and air is forced through the mouth to make the sounds. The only difference between the two is that pronunciation of v includes vibration of the vocal cords, but otherwise they're the only two consonants in that category, so they're easy to confuse. Clearly, the alteration won't be disappearing anytime soon.
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.