The Venn Diagram, so ubiquitous in statistics as well as popular science, was named after a person, John Venn, who in 1881 wrote a book about the logical sets. Originally it was named Venn’s Diagram, but the possessive became too cumbersome so it was eventually dropped altogether. It’s hard finding etymologies for surnames, but Venn may be an alteration of a medieval English name, Fenn (this is a good connection to make, especially considering that John Venn was English), which would come from Anglo-Saxon, where it took the form of something like foenn, or a “marsh”. This word has philological relatives in German and definitely traces to Proto-Germanic fanja, from Proto-Indo-European pen, both of which meant “swamp”. Surprisingly, usage of the now-word Venn has only overtaken usage of the name Fenn in the 1980s.
In Old English, noon, or "12:00", "midday" was spelled non and it meant "the ninth hour since sunrise" (they used a different system of counting time in those days), or in other words, "3:00 pm", often the time of the monasterial midday prayers (which still exist today). This is when people in the old times considered the sun to be strongest, but as prayer times eventually moved, so did the definition, shifting to when the sun is highest. This is a shortening of the Latin phrase nona hora, or "ninth hour". We only really care about the nona part here, and that's a conjugation of nonus, also "ninth". This is from novem, "nine", from earlier noven, and, with a probable jaunt through Proto-Italic, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European hnewn, which may or may bot be in turn related to the PIE word for "new", newos. Usage of the word noon has also decreased since the nineteenth century. It's funny, looking back, how noon has roots in "nine" and "three" but none in "twelve" until very recently.
Nope, the word boondocks has nothing to do with boon. It comes from the other side of the world as that origin! Commonly abbreviated the boonies, the boondocks (basically another colloquialism for "sticks" or "woods") seem like a common fixture to be associated with hillbillies, but it in fact derives from the Tagalog (Filipino) word bundok, which meant "mountain". To find out how this transition occurs, we turn to US imperial history. At the turn of the twentieth century, when the Philippines revolted from American rule, like half a platoon of US soldiers drowned in a river that was in a general area which locals called the boondocks. (Yellow) newspapers back home heavily reported on the incident, and boondocks wormed its way into American homes. Not long after, the word lost its stigma with dead soldiers and began to refer once more to nature-y areas, becoming ingrained in our culture through comic steips and songs alike. No further etymology could be found, but as a Central Philippine language, words in Tagalog tend to be of Proto-Philippine origin, and ultimately Austronesian.
This is sweet stuff. Just looking at the word candy with my semi-trained but frequently-accurate eye, I imagined another word coming to us from French, or perhaps Germanic. But just when I thought I knew it all, everything changed. Candy is an abbreviation of sugar-candy, which used to be the only correct spelling. This is a calque on French sucre candi, from which we get just candi (which kinda meant "crystallized", as in "crystallized sugar"). Here we get exotic: it's from Arabic qandi or qandiyy, "candied", which is a conjugation of qand, describing a special kind of Arabic candy made of cane sugar. Here the etymological train of thought splits; all we know for sure is that the trail leads further east, into India. Qand either derives from Sanskrit khanda, with the same meaning (which would be from khand, "break apart") or goes even further back and to another language family, appearing in Proto-Dravidian kantu, also "candy". If you go back and look at the path for sugar, it too traveled from the east and possibly another language family... there's more to that sugar-candy than meets the eye.
The word nice is an etymological hot mess, so bear with me for several moments. When it entered English in the 1300s, it meant "foolish". Yes, that's right. It gets better: later it meant "timid", "fussy", "delicate", "careful", "doubtful", and "strict". Basically, throughout its history, nice assumed the role of sort of a jack-of-all-trades word. It was very difficult to tell what people meant much of the time, and many writers like Shakespeare and Austen played with their words based on this premise. The modern definition started to emerge in the eighteenth century, but it was still confusing. Eventually, highborn people gentrified the word; they wanted the prettiest meaning to prevail. That's what happened, and why it means "pleasant" today. Going back to the beginning, nice ("foolish") came from Old French nisce, or "ignorant", from Latin nescius, also "ignorant", from the verb form nescire. Now, nescire is a compound of ne-, a prefix meaning "not", and scire, a root meaning "to know". Scio, through Proto-Italic skijo, is from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction skios, a word for "dissect", sonething that's done in intellectual thought and is therefore connected to knowledge. So many definitions; it's kind of nice that no one need know what you mean!
The origin of the word tragedy is downright comical. It developed from Middle English tragedie, which was borrowed from Old French tragedie, which developed from the Latin word tragoedia, still with the modern definition. As many Latin words did, this came from Greek; in this case it was from tragoidia, which still meant "bad event" but could also describe the famous Greek tragedies, plays depicting bad events. When these plays were first invented, they needed a name of them, and since many of these tragedies depicted satyrs (half-goats) they called them "goat-songs", combining the words tragos ("goat") and oide ("song"). Tragos has an unknown origin, but seems to be Indo-European. and oide is a shortening of aeido, which means "sing", not too far of a stretch. This is from Proto-Hellenic aweido, from Proto-Indo-European hweyd, both of which also meant "song". But, yeah, goat songs. Very solemn.
I'd put a couple of puns here, but there's no point. I'll never come off sounding sharp. The word porcupine had many variations when it was new to our language; since it entered English around 1400 as porke despyne, it took forms such as porkpen, portepyn, porpentine, porkenpick, and porpoynt until the modern spelling was standardized. All of this kerfuffle can be traced back to Old French porc espin, itself taken from two Latin words: porcus, meaning "pig", and spinus, obviously "spine", here kind of "spiny". It's easy to see what the person who named the animal was thinking, but it's even easier to see they didn't know taxonomy; porcupines are rodentia and pigs are artiodactyla, different genuses in the mammalia family. Classification errors aside, porcus is from its Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European etymons porkos ("pig") and porkos ("pig"), respectively, and spinus (a conjugation of spina) is from Proto-Indo-European spei, or "thorn". Usage of the word porcupine has flatlined since the 1800s, with few spikes. THERE'S your pun!
Many people have wondered what's the name of the piece of skin between your nose and mouth, and even more have never considered it. The word is philtrum, and it has a fascinating etymology. It's taken from the Greek term philtron, which meant "love charm" or "love potion". This crazy connection occurred because the Greeks believed that the groove above your lip was a particularly erogenous zone (parallels have been drawn to Aphrodite and angels alike). Philtron is a compound of the verb philein ("to love", and sometimes doubling as "to kiss") and the suffix -tron, and philein is a conjugation of philos, or "beloved" (a root that can be recognized in Philadelphia and philosophy). Now, the origin past here is very hazy, and etymologists are unsure how to proceed. It definitely seems to be Proto-Indo-European, and the only theory I could find is that it traces to bhil, a reconstruction meaning "friendly". In any case, it's wonderfully curious that you have a little bit of love right under your nose!
The word manure today is a noun meaning "fertilizer", but in the den days it was a verb meaning "to fertilize". Before that, it was spelled something more like manuren and meant "to work on the farm" in general, and before that it was the Old French word manovrer, which meant "to do manual labour". These series of seemingly innocuous changes creating a wholly new definition would merit a blog post by themselves, but here it gets more interesting. Manovrer is also the source of today's word maneuver ("to move or work"); an easy connection to make but mind-blowing when you consider how closely it's related to manure. Anyway, manovrer comes from Latin manuopere, or "to work by hand", a combination of manus ("hand") and operaror ("to work"). Manus derives from the Proto-Italic word manus, from the Proto-Indo-European root men, both also meaning "hand". Operaror similarly retained its definition as it went back through Proto-Italic to Proto-Indo-European (the root op, in this case). Next time somebody discusses naval/military/Quidditch tactics with you, keep in mind that for ever maneuver, there's some animal dung at the end of that rainbow!
Biblical transliterations have always been tough for etymologists, and armageddon is no exception. Officially stylized Armageddon with a capital A, the word appears in Revelation 16:16 as part of a prediction concerning the end of humanity. Though it's a little unclear, Armageddon seems to be the name of the mountain where evil spirits meet to destroy us all. In the original Hebrew, the spelling was har megiddo, and it meant "mount Megiddo", megiddo being a proper noun. Since both har and megiddo are very old words, it's hard for philologists to look into them. One research paper said that "they generally regard the etymological problem as being unsolvable". There have been attempts, however. Har seems to be a very basic word that's stuck around for a while, and megiddo has several suggested meanings. It's been theorized that it was the name of a local town, it was a word for "slaughter" connected to Hebrew gadad ("cut"), it meant "invading", and that it was a compound of two words, ultimately meaning "gather" and "cut". Either way, it doesn't sound good and probably traces to Proto-Semitic and Afro-Asiatic.
You'll never feel the same about farewells again. Bye, such a common word in our vocabulary, obviously comes from the word goodbye; it's a shortening. But goodbye itself is actually a contraction of god be with you! There are some interesting changes to note here. First, the shift from god to good. This occurred because of folk etymology. Since people were constantly saying things like good morning, good evening, and good afternoon, they assumed that another parting nicety must also start with good, and the people who spelled it godbye or godby (the previous spellings) were poor disillusioned saps. The second interesting change to note is the constant evolution of the contraction. From god be with you it became god be wi' ye, which later became god bwe ye, which later split into a mesh between godbwye and god b'w'ye (phonemic differences there), which became godby'e, which then devolved into goodbye's predecessors. Contracting further, goodbye today has extended to forms like g'bye, goodby, and just bye, proving that we're always trying to make our departures faster. Before you go, consider this: next time you say bye, you're just saying "be with you". Bye now!
It's the international day of chess, so this post was not in the spirit of football or war, but it got martial pretty quick anyway. The word blitz (with connotations of "speedy destruction" is an obvious shortening of blitzkrieg, a word we stole from the Germans meaning "lightning war", a portmanteau of blitz ("lightning", and yes, it's basically the same word we started with BUT SOMETIMES ETYMOLOGY IS CIRCULAR) and krieg ("war", of course). The German blitz is from Middle High German blitze ("flash"), which is from Old High German blecchazzen, with the same meaning. There have been several attempts at reconstruction, but most likely is that this is from the Proto-Germanic adjective blaikaz, meaning "white", from Proto-Indo-European bhleyg, "to shine". Meanwhile, krieg was developing from Middle High German kriec, which meant something more like "opposition" than "war", from Old High German krig, or "stubborness", which took a pit stop in Proto-Germanic as it developed from Proto-Indo-European gwere, which meant "heavy" possibly because of a "stubborn mule" connection. Now, we can draw two things from this: blitzkrieg literally means "shiny heavy" and we can at least thank the Nazis for our chess time controls.
The word unicorn has one horn but no corn, so what does -corn mean? I thought it was an old Germanic word for "horn", and I was half right. It's Italic! Through Middle English and Anglo-Norman, it traces to Old French unicorne, from Latin unicornis, both with the same modern meaning. Now, unicorns were first "discovered" 2,400 years ago by the Greeks, but the word was invented by the Romans (they sure loved copying the Greeks), who combined the common prefix uni- ("one") and the root cornu, which meant "horn". There you have the "one horn" translation, but we're not quite done yet. Cornu is a word we've already seen; it goes to PIE kerh, "horn". Uni- we've seen but not covered; it is a conjugated form of unus, their number "one", from Proto-Italic oinos and PIE oynos, both meaning "one" as well. Unicorn had the highest modern usage in the middle of the Great Depression, proving that desperate situations lead to greater imagination. Usage lately has also been increasing; I wonder what that tells us.
There are many alterations and possible origins of the word voodoo. The word voodoo that we know and associate with religious witchcraft only describes the religion in Louisiana. In Haiti, it's spelled vodou, in Brazil it's spelled vodum, in Africa it's spelled vodun, and in other parts of the Caribbean it's written vodu. All these words describe spiritual religions, but they differ by practice as well as spelling. Of these five variations, voodoo is by far the most used in English, but in other languages like French (which Haiti speaks) vodou is more used, and in Spanish the margins are a lot closer. All these Caribbean variations were brought over from Africa with the slave trade, and originate in the aforementioned term vodu, which once meant something more like "spirit" (since the voodoo religion espouses spiritual possessions). African words are always hard to trace because of the lack of written records and etymological interest, but this may be from a local word vo, meaning "harmful". Cognates have been suggested from Semitic to Italic languages. Whatever the case, it's part of the Niger-Congo language family for sure. VOODOO!
Hostage may have once been its own antonym. We know the word came to English from its Old French cognate, but there it gets muddled. One of the theories says that it's from Old French hoste, or "guest" (I know it seems weird, but over time it may have became more like "unwilling guest") and the suffix -age. If this is the case, hoste would be from Latin hospes, which had a double meaning of "guest" and "foreigner". Through Proto-Italic, this goes to the Proto-Indo-European root ghosti (same meaning). That, however, is only one theory; the other widely acknowledged one is less interesting semantically but more so linguistically. Some acclaimed etymologists state that hostage is actually a folk etymology corruption of another Old French word, ostage (people added the h to make it sound like host), from Latin obses, both of which also meant "hostage". This would be from ob-, a prefix meaning "in front of" and sedere, "to sit", reflecting the submissiveness of hostages. This, Proto-Italic sedeo, would trace to PIE sed, "sit". Both theories have their merits, and we can take this uncertainty as a reminder that etymology as a whole is often uncertain.
The word meteor has some pretty airy origins. Arising from the Middle French word meteore, it can be traced through Latin meteorum to Greek meteora, or "heavenly phenomenon" (yes, this is the same as the name for those big monolithic rocks in Greece). This is a conjugated form of meteoros ("high thing", since heaven is pretty high up), which in turn is a portmanteau of the word meta, or "by means of", and aoros, "hovering in the air". Meta (and I know this is meta, but it's related to the prefix meta- that we use) is from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root me, which meant "in the middle", and aoros can first be traced to the Proto-Hellenic word awerro ("to lift") and then to the Proto-Indo-European zero-grade hwr. Of course, meteor ("matter about to hit earth from space") also gave rise to meteorite ("matter from space that hits Earth") and meteoroid ("matter in space that has not yet entered the atmosphere").
I just made a really cool connection. Sputnik right now is a word meaning "satellite", but everyone knows that that is a reference to the original Sputnik, the Russian spacecraft which orbited Earth in 1957. Well, where does that come from? Sputnik in Russian literally meant "traveling companion". Here we can eliminate the prefix s- (which meant "with") to get putnik, or "traveler". This is what my epiphany lead me to connect, for the word is the same in Serbian, which I speak. Because of my familiarity with Slavic languages, this also tells me that English speakers pronounce it wrong: it's not SPUTnick but SPOOTneek. So say it right. Anyway, putnik does happen to be a common Slavic word: it is from Old Church Slavonic, and consists of the root put ("road") and -nik ("person"; also seen in beatnik and peacenik). Put's origin is Proto-Slavic pontis, "way", from Proto-Balto-Slavic pont, and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pent, also having a definition to do with roads and stuff. Pretty cool though!
Frankincense is an incense that has the word incense in its name, so it's pretty clear that there's a connection. Indeed, frankincense is a portmanteau of the French words franc (meaning "noble" literally and "high quality" figuratively) and encense (French incense). Franc in all likelihood is named after the Frankish tribes who lived in the area during the Middle Ages (since, I don't know, they became French nobles later?). Their Old High German self-appellation was franko, which probably has roots in the Germanic word frankon, or "javelin". Encense, on the other hand, takes a predictably more Italic route, going back to the super-fun Latin word incensum, "that which is burnt", from the verb incendere, "to set on fire" (and, as you can see in the Harry Potter infographic, the root of the spell incendio). Eliminate the prefix in-, and another verb, candere ("to glow") can be identified. This, through Proto-Italic kandeo, goes to PIE kand, also "to glow", but MOST IMPORTANTLY it is the etymon of candle, through later candela. So if you ever light an incense candle, you're glowing a glow, to be frank!
When I say nugget, you think of chicken. Don't deny it. The chicken nugget came well after the gold nugget, and was named after the latter because of the lumpy connection. Anyway, nugget as a word itself has an obscured origin. The predominant theory is that it's an alteration of nug, a colloquial version of nib, if you will, which meant something like "lump" (this definition survived to today as slang for marijuana). The less likely theory that I like better is that it's an incorrect contraction of an ingot, an ingot being "a block of metal". If this is indeed the case, ingot would then trace to the Old English word ingyte, which meant "pouring in" since molten metals had to be poured into a frame to be cast (or SOMETHING. I'm a linguist, not a blacksmith). Eliminate the common prefix in- and we have ourselves the Proto-Germanic gutiz ("to flow"), from earlier geutana and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ghew, both meaning "to pour".
The word poverty comes from the Old French word poverte, which comes from the Latin word paupertas, which is composed of pauper, meaning "poor", and -tas, a common suffix. If you're thinking it, yes, the Latin root pauper is the direct root of the modern word pauper, or "poor person". It gets even more meta, though, when I tell you that Latin pauper is also the root of today's word poor (through Old French povre and poure then through Middle English povre and povere). All these connections unite there at pauper, and then as one they go back to pavopars, a primordial jumble in Old Latin that meant "getting little" and ultimately is from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root pehw, or "few". So if you're a politician wanting to blame poverty levels on something, I suggest Proto-Indo-European. Also, out of the three words we've discussed, poor of course has the highest usage because of the secondary definitions it developed.
Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is the fear of long words. I know, it seems cruel. However, it's also wonderfully whimsical, and that's where I come in. The word, first of all, is erroneous: the correct spelling is Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (slightly less monstrous, one p less), but now the former form is more common. It may even be that the word was altered to make it longer and thus more ironic. Now let's break it up! Hippo- and monstro- being obvious prefixes alluding to hippopotamuses and monsters, respectively, were also added to blow the word even more out of proportion. Technically, you don't even need them for the meaning (though they are indeed now part of the word); sesquipedaliophobia says it all. The root of the word is Latin sesquipedalis, which meant "a foot and a half long", a portmanteau of sesqui (one of my favorite Latin words, meaning "1.5") and pedalis ("pertaining to feet"). Phobia we all know as "an irrational fear". It's pretty evil to make people afraid of length fear another eighteen inches and thrice as many letters.
Roughly seven millenia ago, people on the Eurasian steppes used the word peyk as a blanket noun to cover all kinds of noisy birds. One of the eventual derivatives of this word was the Latin term pica, which described the bird we now know as a magpie. This word took a step towards its current state when it became French pie, then English pie. Later, people added a nickname for Margaret, Mag, to the front of pie to create magpie. This happened because Margaret was colloquially considered to be the name of a talkative female chatterbox, and the bird chirps a lot, so the connection happened, odd as it is. Now let's go back for a moment to the Latin word pica, also "magpie". Since magpies eat whatever they can find, including rubbish, pica later got adopted as a scientific term for a disorder where one eats nonedibles. This habit of eating jumbled things also brought about the definition for the edible pie, because early pies were cooked with a myriad of jumbled meats beneath the crust. SO MANY CONNECTIONS. Now, appreciate the irony that pie comes from PIE.
Since they're so phonetically close and both pertain to moola, it's glaringly obvious now that stipend and spend are connected. The word stipend is from French stipende, which is from Latin stipendium, a shortening of stipipendium. All these etymons had the same definition, but that changed as we break up stipipendium into stips ("payment") and pendere ("weigh"; a lot of commerce was done by exchanging certain weights of goods. This word also had a secondary definition of "to hang", because weights hang. We've actually already seen this word before). Meanwhile, spend is curious because it took a very Germanic path into Latin: from Middle English spenden, from Old English spendan, and from Proto-Germanic spendana, it finally goes back to the Latin word expendere, or "to weigh out" (again we see the connection between mass and money), a combination of ex- ("out") and pendere, where we meet up with stipend. From here, pendere becomes Proto-Italic pendo, "hang", from Proto-Indo-European pend, also "hang".
Mass in nature can contract, you can contract a sickness, and in law you sign a contract. All these meanings come together, verb and noun (you might even say they contract), to a single Latin word: contractum, which meant "to bring together" (this makes the most sense for the first definition, but you also bring together an agreement in legalese and bring together diseases) and came from the verb contrahere, with the same meaning but verbified a bit. From here we can eliminate the obvious prefix con-, which exists in a myriad of words today and means "with", or "together" in this instance. The remaining root is the word trahere, "to pull" (since something brought together is often pulled). Quick note to farmers: trahere is also the etymon of a tract of land through Latin tractus ("space") and the etymon of tractor through Latin tractor ("something that pulls"). Anyway, this whole verb comes from Proto-Indo-European tragh, which meant "to drag" and is the end of our quest. Speaking of quests, especially five-year ones, a tractor beam in Star Trek "pulls" other spaceships. TEXT-TO-TEXT CONNECTION.
Inside joke for the title. In Modern English, the word yellow has undergone a surprising amount of variation, encompassing forms such as yeller, yaller, yallow, yeallow, yullow, yelly, and yella, terms that were written down by people who dialectically used it that way or just couldn't spell. In Middle English, it got weirder still, with yelwe and yelou each making an appearance, and in Old English all the ys were replaced with gs to create words like geolwe, geolu, geolo, and geolue, all of which still carried the modern definition (such basic terms vary very little, since the meanings have always bern around). This is from the Proto-Germanic reconstructed root gelwaz, from Proto-Indo-European (or PIE) root gelhwos. After this we see our first variation and the last traceable word, PIE gelh, or "to shine", because of the sunny connection. Yellow meaning "cowardly" in Wild West slang came from a rascist slur for Chinese people, who were considered by xenophobic Americans to be sneaky and cowardly. And now you know.
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.