There's a distinct difference between the words crevice and crevasse: the former refers to a small cut in rock, and the latter is about a deep cleft in a glacier or ice sheet. Both words, despite their differences, may be traced back to the Old French word crevace, which meant "gap" of any kind. This comes from the verb crever, meaning "to break" or "burst". This derives from Latin crepare, meaning "to crack". The connections to chasms are clear. Crepare may be reconstructed to to Proto-Indo-European korh, an onomatopoeic noise that is imitative of natural creaking sounds. In that vein, korh eventually also gave way to the Proto-Germanic khrabanaz (with the same meaning), which spawned Old English hræfn, which meant "bird" (because the creaking of birds is similar to that of crevices, apparently). A few centuries of development, and we are left with the word raven. An interesting etymological connection, to be sure, but a welcome one.
Pardon the pun, but the word pollution has a surprisingly dirty etymology. It wasn't until the 1860s that the word meant "environmental contamination"; before that it had the very specific definition of "semen released anytime other than during intercourse", often referring to nocturnal emissions. Obviously this is connected to the modern word through a sense of contamination, but where does it come from? The source in question is Latin pollutionem, which had a bit broader meaning of a "defilement" or "desecration" of any kind. This nominative can be conjugated into the verb polluere, which meant "to defile" and was composed of two parts: por-, meaning "before", and luere, meaning "to smear." Essentially, "before smearing". Make your own inferences. Por- comes from the Proto-Indo-European root per, with the same definition and luere comes from Proto-Indo-European leu, or "to make dirty".
The hashtag is ubiquitous in our Internet-centered society, but why do we call it that and what does the word really mean? For decades prior, it was known as a pound sign or number sign and the mathematical term is an octothorpe. Well, when Twitter first started using the symbol to group things in 2007, they renamed it the hashtag because "it just sounds catchier", and the rest was history. However, the word hashtag has been around a bit longer than all that; it was used in the late 1970s to program special keywords. This was called a hash tag because hash is an obscure word for "sign", ergo "sign tag" (it was originally going to be called a tag hash, or "tag sign"). This is the same hash as the potatoes but not the same as the drugs, as it comes from French hacher, meaning "to chop" (something you do to make both signs and hash browns). Through Middle French and Old French hacher, this can be traced back to Proto-Germanic hakkona, meaning "hack" (also the source of English hack, through Old English haccian and Middle English hakken/hacken), from Proto-Indo-European keg, or "to be sharp". Tag, meanwhile, has a surprisingly interesting etymology which I'll save for later.
Centuries before plastic as we know it was invented, the word plastic referred to anything that could be molded. However, when it was invented in 1855, it was called parkesine, and the modern definition wasn't applied to plastic until 1909. Okay, so the word was originally borrowed into the English language in the 1630s from the Latin word plasticus, which meant "of molding". This in turn comes from the Ancient Greek word plastikos, from plastos, "molded", which can be conjugated to plassein, a verb meaning "to mold" (as you can see, there isn't much semantic change going on here). Plassein also gave us our word plasma, through the same word in Greek and Latin, under a connection of something molding like plasma. This derives from Proto-Hellenic platto, from Proto-Indo-European pele, meaning "to spread", as in you spread material to mold it. Usage of both the words plastic and plasma followed roughly the same trend in literature, peaking in the '80s, at about the same amount, as well.
In legal contexts, an averment is a formal statement to prove a fact. Even outside law (though it is used less commonly), it means "allegation". But where does the word come from? It was borrowed in the fourteenth century from the Old French word averer, meaning "to confirm" or "prove" (this would occasionally take the form of aveir or avoir). Averer comes from the Latin verb habere, meaning "to have" (or "hold", or "regard". A very important word overall). Through Proto-Italic habeo or haseo, this may be reconstructed back to Proto-Indo-European gehb, meaning "to grab". So, that's a rather "gripping" etymology of a word for a legal assertion. Pardon the pun. One interesting side note I might make here: habere had a huge etymological impact, being an element in the creation of the terms malady, inhabit, havoc, exhibition, duty, endeavour, debt, prohibition, habeus corpus, able, and avoirdupois, among many, many others. A ubiquitous word indeed.
Troglodyte is a fancy word for someone who lives in a cave but these days is probably used more often to refer to stupid people by people who think they're far more intelligent. Orthographic development wasn't very interesting for a while: In Middle French, it was troglodyte, in Latin, it was troglodytae, and in Greek it was troglodytes. This could best be defined as "cave-dweller". The word is composed of two parts: trogle and dyein. Trogle had some very interesting semantic change: going back in history, it meant "cave", and then "hole", and then "mouse-hole". So, a constantly shrinking pit of a word. From this "mouse-hole" definition, trogle may be traced back to the verb trogein, meaning "to gnaw" (as in a mouse gnaws his hole). This in turn could derive from Proto-Indo-European terh, meaning "to rub". Dyein, the second part of troglodytes, means "to enter" or "sink" (as in someone sinks into a hole). Because of Sanskrit cognates, etymologists think that this comes from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like dew, with a similar meaning.
I recently read in some court papers that a defendant had exhibited "contumacious conduct". Not knowing what the word meant, I immediately looked up the definition and etymology, of course. The result was quite interesting. As can be inferred from the context clues, contumacious means "in a stubborn manner", particularly in a legal context. The word comes from Latin contumax, meaning "insolent" or "obstinate". However, the literal definition if you take it at face value is "inclined to scorn". This is because of the suffix -ax, meaning "inclined to", and the root contemnere, a verb meaning "to scorn" or "despise". -Ax is just a modifier which is the same in Proto-Indo-European. Contemnere, meanwhile, may be split into two parts: con-, meaning "with", and temnere, meaning "to despise" still (so the con- is somewhat redundant). Con-, as we've already seen before, is a conjugation of cum, which, through Proto-Italic, comes from Proto-Indo-European kom, meaning "next to". Temnere comes from PIE temh, meaning "to cut". That's all, folks: "cutting next to inclination!"
One of four days named after Norse gods and the last in this little series I've been doing, Tuesday perhaps has the least obvious etymology of the lot. It's named in honor of the deity Tiw, a war god of sorts who was infamous in mythology for losing a hand to the wolf Fenris. Now, in Middle English, Tuesday was spelled Tewesday, and in Old English, it took the form of tiwesdæg. Here we can separate the dæg (meaning "day", of course), and then it gets interesting. As we go further back in history, Tiw in all his forms and spellings gets more powerful, eventually being associated with the Roman god Mars and getting worshipped as a lord of the sky. Again with the crossover god thing we've seen several times now. In Proto-Germanic, he took the form of Tiwaz, and in Proto-Indo-European as deywos, meaning "god". Dæg comes from Proto-Germanic dagaz, from PIE deg, meaning "to burn". And that concludes the etymology of weekdays!
So, the etymology of Monday was basically explained in entirety yesterday. When Anglo-Saxon invaders crossed into England in the 400s-500s CE, they brought with them their heavily pagan beliefs, including their worship of the Sun and the Moon. The Sun got its day in Sunday, and the moon got its in Monday. A Moon's Day. But that's a bit of an orthographic interpretation; the word moon didn't gain that double o until after the weekday name was formed. In Middle English, Monday was spelled Monenday, and in Old English, it was monandæg. The root here is mona, meaning "moon" and coming from the Proto-Indo-European word for moon, mehns, through Proto-Germanic. Mehns possibly goes further back to meh, meaning "to measure" (a connection between the moon and the cycle it goes through). Day, for the sixth time, was spelled dæg in Old English. This comes from Proto-Germanic dagaz, which in turn derives from Proto-Indo-European deg, with the same meaning.
Sunday definitely has the easiest etymology to figure out of all the weekdays. Sun and day. But there's a reason all the Germanic languages have the traditional day of rest named after a celestial body rather than having it mean "day of the Lord" like all the Romance languages (deriving from Latin dominicus) or "no work day" as in Slavic ones. This is a remnant of our Anglo-Saxon heritage: the pagans who conquered England in the fifth century were fierce worshippers of the sun and the moon, which is also why Monday is named after the moon. Now for the actual etymology! In Middle English, Sunday was spelled sunnenday, and in Old English, it was sunnandæg. This is composed of the parts sunne, meaning "sun" and often personifying the deity that is the sun. Sunne comes from Proto-Germanic sunno, from Proto-Indo-European sohwl, still meaning the "sun". Day comes from dæg, from Proto-Germanic dagaz, from PIE deg, "to burn".
Saturday is the only day of the week solely named after a Roman god. In this case, it's after Saturn, the father of the gods and lord of time. In Old English, the weekday was spelled Sæterdæg or Sæternesdæg, and in Middle English it was Saterday. We can break up the Old English words into two parts, Sætern (denoting the god) and dæg, meaning "day". We've already seen three times and will soon see three times more how dæg comes from Proto-Germanic dagaz, from Proto-Indo-European deg, meaning "burn". Now, Sætern as a name derives from Latin Saturnus, which earlier on was correlated with agriculture even more than time, as over time Saturn came more and more to be associated with the Greek time god Khronos. As articulated previously, belief systems are weird. This explains why the word is traced back to the verb serere, meaning "agriculture" (from Proto-Indo-European seh, "to sow").
Friday is the fourth and last day of the week to be named after a Germanic or Norse deity. In this case, the etymological culprit is the goddess Frigg (alternatively spelled Frigga, Frija, and Frea in Germanic variants or Frige in Old English), the wife of Odin (see the etymology of Wednesday) and a generally wise omniscient being. She also rides around in a chariot pulled by cats. That covered, Friday in Old English was spelled frigedæg, and obviously meant "Frigg's day". This, also pretty obviously, is a portmanteau of Frige (the previously discussed Old English spelling of Frigg) and dæg, meaning "day". Frige, Frigg, and all relatives alike travel back to the Proto-Germanic word frijjo, which still described the goddess but as a weird hybrid with the Roman goddess Venus, just as Odin was fused with Mercury and Thor with Odin. For the third time, it's weird. After a few conjugations, we can make our way back to frijaz, meaning "free", and ultimately reconstruct it to Proto-Indo-European prihos, meaning "beloved".
Thursday has one of the more widely known etymologies of the days. Throughout Middle and Old English, it took on various forms such as thuresday, thursdæg, thunresdæg, thurresdæg, and thunresdæg. However, though, this word in all of its forms can ultimately be broken down into its Old English components: thunre, the spelling of "Thor" at the time, and dæg, which we've already covered as meaning "day". In Proto-Germanic, thunre was thunraz, who was sort of a hybrid god of Thor and Jupiter (in most Romance languages, the fifth day of the week is normally named after Jupiter), similar to the Mercury/Odin split for old words for Wednesdays. It's weird. The literal meaning of thunraz was "thunder", and it retained this definition from its Proto-Indo-European progenitor, tenh. Dæg comes from Proto-Germanic dagaz, from PIE deg, or "to burn", as we've already covered in yesterday's post. So Thursday's hidden meaning is "burning thunder".
The orthography of the word Wednesday has befuddled generations of English speakers. While many know that it was named after Odin, the Norse king god with specialties in war and wisdom, they still don't understand how that connects to the actual word. Turns out that an archaic way of writing the name Odin was Woden, and Wednesday is a corruption of Woden's Day (although it was spelled wodnesdæg in Old English and before). In these Germanic variants, Woden was actually sort of a combo god of Odin and Mercury, some weird pagan hybrid. Read up on it for more information; I'm not too sure about specifics. Wodnesdæg comes from the Porto-Germanic reconstruction Wodanas dagaz, a calque of Latin dies Mercurii, a holiday celebrating the messenger god. Wodanaz meant "raging" and comes from Proto-Indo-European weht, denoting "excitement". Dagaz, meanwhile, comes from PIE deg, meaning "burn".
A surprising amount of people aren't aware that the name of the cartoon character Harley Quinn comes from the word harlequin, which describes a type of pantomime jester found in Italian plays and often causing all kinds of mischief (hence the connection to the villain). Now, the origin of the word harlequin is quite interesting. Firstly, there were a lot of variations of it through Old French, including halequin, herlequin, hellequin, and harlicken, Somewhere in all of these alterations, the meaning had changed, deviating from the original definition of "malignant spirit" or general demonic entity. Etymologists further trace this to be named after Herla King (or, in the Old English spelling, Herla Cyning), a mythical leader of a Germanic Wild Hunt, who was believed to have caused quite a bit of mischief himself. The name of this fictional elf-king figure is quite possibly correlated to that of the Herules tribe. We're not sure where this comes from, but as the tribe is East Germanic, it makes sense that the word is too.
Coquelicot is a bright reddish-orange color. It bears a striking resemblance to the hue of the poppy flower, and this is not without reason. When the word was first taken in as a loanword into English, it actually did refer to the flower. Over time, as poppy came to be more and more associated with the plant, coquelicot came to be less and less associated with it, and more with just the color. This was borrowed in the year 1795 from exactly the same word in French, but from here on out it gets really interesting. Coquelicot comes from the sound cocorico, which is how the French pronounce the cry of chickens. This is because, somewhere along the line, somebody thought that the poppy plant reminded them of the crest of a rooster, so decided to name it after the sound roosters make. That's the equivalent of deciding Oreos kind of look like cow skin and renaming them to Moos. Cocorico is onomatopoeic, which means that the sound is supposed to put into words the actual sounds roosters make. Funnily enough, it's the same in Serbian, of which I'm a native speaker. I think that's pretty cool.
Today someone asked me about the etymology of heroine. Turns out it was originally a trademark by the Friedrich Bayer Company, which registered the term in 1898 for their hot-selling morphine product. But where does this come from? Well, there's the obvious suffix -ine, which is a word-forming affix in chemistry, and hero- is exactly what it seems: through German, it comes from the Greek word heros, meaning "hero" (and also the root of our modern words heroine and hero). This might seem weird, but the connection actually makes quite a bit of sense, as the word is linked to the increased feelings of self-esteem you supposedly get from being high on heroin. Greek heros is of undetermined origin, but some etymologists have reconstructed it to the Proto-Indo-European root ser, meaning "to protect". Because real heroes and heroines protect you from heroin.
Krakatoa is famed for being the site of one of the most cataclysmic volcanic eruptions in modern history, which in 1883 caused a myriad of environmental issues and may even have been an inspiration for Munch's The Scream painting. But where does the name for that volcano derive from? Well, no one knows for sure. When the island was first listed on a map, it was written as Pulo Carcata, pulo meaning "island" in Indonesian and being the etymon of the country name Palau. Carcata was just one variation of dozens, with other listings spelled as Crackatouw, Cracatoa, Krakatau, Krakatao, and Karata. After the island erupted to leave a new island in the former caldera, it was renamed Anak Krakatau, or "child of Krakatoa". This was Anglicized to become just Krakatoa and the word spread from there. So what does Krakatoa mean? There are several competing theories, none of which are likely to ever be completely confirmed. It could be onomatopoeia for the sounds local birds make, from Sanskrit karkataka, meaning "crab", or from Malay kelakatu, meaning "white-winged ant". Any of these origins would be fascinating, however, for this equally fascinating island.
In legal contexts, prima facie refers to an accusatory instrument which provides enough evidence to prove a fact. The term is obviously Latin, but, interestingly enough, it translates to "at first appearance". This is because it should be obvious enough upon initial examination that the evidence can support a case. Prima, as one can guess, means "first" in this context (and, through Proto-Italic, is reconstructed as being from Proto-Indo-European preh, "before; not much semantic change there). Facie carries a definition more like "shape" or "figure" than "appearance". It is a conjugation of facies, which is also the etymon of the English word face, through Old French face. Ultimately, most etymologists agree that this derives from Proto-Indo-European deh, which meant "to put", which is very loosely connected to "shape" but does have a slight observable correlation. Ever since prima facie was introduced to English law around the 1300s, its usage has steadily increased until a bit of a plateau in the 1900s.
Habeas corpus is a legal term of art that requires a government to show justification for the imprisonment of a person. Basically, it means that we can't imprison people without cause. Because this involves holding people in prison, it makes sense that the Latin phrase literally translates into "have the body" (or, in plural, habeas corpora). This refers to the person in custody and not an actual body as proof, as some people mistakenly believe. Habeas, through Proto-Italic habeo, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gehb, meaning "to take" (also the etymon of Modern English have, through Old English hafian and Proto-Germanic habjana, "to lift"). Corpus, as one may imagine, is the progenitor of corpse (through Old French cors) and corps (through French corps d'armee, "army body"). This is reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European krep, also meaning "body", with a brief pit stop in Proto-Italic.
The Borg alien species (first mentioned in 1987) from Star Trek clearly got their name from the word cyborg, because the human-robot hivemind clearly is an adaptation of traditional concepts about cyborgs. But where did cyborg come from? It's actually a relatively recent formation itself, coined in 1960 as a portmanteau of cybernetic and organism, for obvious reasons. It's pretty interesting that you can reduce Borg to those two words, but it gets even better. The word cybernetics comes from a Greek word for "steersman", kybernetes, under a connection of communication and control. This derives from kubernain, meaning "steering" in general, and that in turn is tentatively reconstructed from Proto-Indo-European kerb, meaning "turn". Organism, meanwhile, has roots in the Greek word organon, meaning "tool". This, through Proto-Hellenic, comes from Proto-Indo-European werg, meaning "to work". So, depending on how far back you go, being a cyborg could mean everything from "steering tool" to "turn work".
Throughout English history, the word subpoena has been alternatively spelled subpœna, suppena, and subpena. However, all of this traces back to the Latin sub poena, which meant "under penalty". This phrase was adopted into English common law in 1623 under James I as a legal term for a summons, and it's been used by many countries since then. So, subpoena is a bit of a literal translation: sub- means "under", and poena meant "penalty". Sub-, through Proto-Italic supo, comes from Proto-Indo-European upo, still meaning "under" or sometimes "below". Poena comes from Ancient Greek poine, which likewise still meant "penalty" but could also carry connotations of "fine" or "blood money", which, through several circumlocutions, comes from Proto-Indo-European key, meaning "to pay" in general. Poena, unsurprising, is also the etymon of penal and penalty, through Latin penalis. Usage of the word suubpoena in English has steadily increased since its introduction.
In a previous post, we analyzed how linguine means "little tongues". Well, spaghetti as a whole means "little cords". Let's find out how. In Italian, spaghetti means "strings", which makes a lot of sense, as the pasta obviously looks stringy. This is actually plural for spaghetto, which means "string", singular. Now, this is a diminutive of spago, meaning "cord", implying that string is a little cord, and that comes from Latin spacus, meaning "twine". This is thought to be from Ancient Greek spakhos, with the same definition. The phrase spaghetti strap was coined in 1972, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been a thing since 2006, spaghettification has been used as a term in astrophysics for decades, and spaghetti western was first attested in 1969. Usage of the word spaghetti has been steadily increased since it was first introduced in 1849.
When somebody makes a fart noise with their mouth, it's called a raspberry. This has always been interesting to me: why? Turns out the phrase raspberry tart was used in the late nineteenth century as children's rhyming slang for the word fart, and that's where we got the association. Now, the word raspberry itself is also pretty neat. The berry part is obvious to eliminate (and it comes from Proto-Germanic basjom, an of unknown etymology), but rasp comes from the Middle English word raspise, which described a kind of sweet purplish wine- hence the connection, through both taste and looks. This comes from Old French raspe, and, although we're not sure, it's entirely possible that it could trace from the verb rasp, implying roughness, but we're really not sure about that anymore.
In the most recent Avengers movie, Thanos is a super-villain who successfully kills half the universe at random. This got me wondering, however... what kind of a name is Thanos, anyway? Turns out it's a derivation of Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. This makes sense, as both Thanos and Thanatos are heavily associated with Death. It's also pretty interesting, because it tells us that Marvel comic writers were well-versed in their Greek mythology (as this is one of the more obscure gods). Now, forget the proper noun, because thanatos as a word also meant "death" in Ancient Greek. This comes from the prefix thanat-, which was used to create any words involving death in one way or another. Now, there are several proposed Proto-Indo-European roots to this, reconstructed from several purported Sanskrit cognates. It's possible thanat- has origins in dhwene, meaning "to die", denh, meaning "to take off", and theino, meaning "to slay". A reasonable argument may be made for all three of these reconstructions. and it's possible we'll never be sure exactly which is the etymon.
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.