Five hundred years ago, we didn't have a word for mosquito. The early speakers of Modern English had to make do with terms like gnat or midge, but those weren't perfect because they referred to multiple kinds of insects. That's why we turned to the Spanish in the late sixteenth century and simply borrowed their word for "gnat", mosquito. This was possibly adopted by American colonists near the Spaniards in Florida, through English trading with continental Europe, or by another medium - we're not really sure. Mosquito is a diminutive of Spanish for "fly", mosca, and that's from Latin musca, with the same definition. Further back, that may derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction mew, which is also thought to be the distant etymon of midge. We've come full circle!
A canton in vexillology is the top left rectangle in a flag, a canton in geography is a division of Switzerland, and then there are cities named Canton in places as far apart as China and Ohio. The Chinese Canton, which more frequently goes by Guangzhou nowadays, is a Portuguese garbling of the local name Guangdong. The Ohio city and most other towns named Canton all are named after the place in China. The other two, lowercase canton definitions derive from a Middle French word which could mean either "portion of a country" or "corner". That traces to a Lombard word, cantone, which meant "section" and further comes from Latin cantus, or "rim". Because of cognates in Breton, Irish, and Welsh, it's thought that this was borrowed by the Romans from the Gauls, who used the reconstructed Proto-Celtic root kantos, also "corner" or "rim".
When the word enamel was first used in the English language in fifteenth-century health books, it was in its verb form, describing the action of encrusting something with what we now call enamel. It developed into a noun about a hundred years later, peaked in usage in the 1940s, and has been decreasing in popularity since. Through Middle English, enamel comes from Anglo-Norman enamailler, which is sort of redundant because it contains the prefix en-, meaning "in", and the root amailler, meaning "to enamel", which is exactly what we started with. Going back further, we can trace the term through Old French esmailler and esmal, both with the same definition. Possibly by way of Frankish smalt, that further would derive from the Proto-Germanic reconstruction smaltjana, meaning "to smelt". Today, that early word is survived by enamel's cognates in German schmelzen and Danish smelte, both "melt".
The word fricative - an important term to understand in the field of linguistics - was first used in the English language to describe anything caused by friction. By the 1860s, it, in some early books on language theory, started to be used in reference to the consonant type where air is forced out of the mouth between two articulators. It comes from the Modern Latin fricativus, which is a conjugation of the verb fricare, meaning "to rub" (this is also where friction comes from, through French. Other words like traffic and dentrifice have it as a component). Fricare, in turn, is thought to be from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root breyh, also "rub". Use of the word friction peaked in the 1940s, while the peak of fricative was in the 1970s. Usage according to Google Trends looks pretty regular, however.
I don't know what I was expecting for the etymology of caboose, but this wasn't it. Turns out that the word I and many other North Americans associate with "last railcar of a train" used to mean "ship's cookhouse" and got applied to locomotives in the nineteenth century because cabooses usually held eating facilities for the train crew. Just a simple matter of applying one established transportation term to a new invention in a fledgling different method of transportation, but then the older definition died out. The older definition, by the way, comes from the Middle Dutch word for "ship's gallery", kabuis. That in turn derives from Low German kabhuse, which may incorporate the same elements as the words "cabin" and "house", but etymologists aren't too sure if that's true, or what comes after it otherwise.
The word peculiar has quite a peculiar etymology! The Oxford English Dictionary shows it as first cropping up in the middle of the fifteenth century, and etymologists have concluded that it was borrowed directly from Latin peculiaris, which meant "one's own property". The current definition of "unusual" arose because peculiar things were considered to be special attributes of a specific person or thing, just like property is owned by a particular person. Peculiaris comes from the noun peculium, which meant "private property" but more literally could be interpreted as "property in cattle", because a lot of wealth was measured in livestock back then. The root is pecus, or "cattle", and that, through an earlier form sounding like peku, derives from Proto-Indo-European peku, with the same meaning.
The word prophet has been in the English language since the earliest days of Old English, when it was spelled propheta. Throughout the centuries, the spelling took on forms like prophetæ, prophete, proffet, profitte, and profite until prophet was widely accepted in the seventeenth century. The word comes from Latin, where it was spelled the same way and had the same meaning. That in turn derives from Ancient Greek prophetes, which most aptly described oracles who could see into the future. This may be revealed in the term's etymology, which meant "before-tell", as in foresight. Pro- was a prefix meaning "before" (from PIE per) and phemein, the root, is a verb meaning "to tell" from Proto-Indo-European behti, meaning "to speak". As the world's gotten less religious, use of prophet in literature has decreased over time.
When someone refuses to pay a bet, we say that they have welched on it. This expression originated in the 1860s in English horse racing slang and very likely is an insult geared towards Welsh people, which resulted from the xenophobic mistrust of the people-group by the English. This ethnic tension hails all the way from the 400s CE, when the Anglo-Saxons, Jutes, and other Germanic invaders began displacing the Celtic tribes in what is now England. Their word for the Welsh, Wealh, literally meant "foreigner", despite the fact that they were, ironically, the natives of the land. Wealh comes from the Proto-Germanic word walhaz, which could refer to any Celtic group but earlier on was specific to the Volcae people, who probably had a name meaning something like "hawk" in Proto-Celtic.
The first time you look at it, the word walnut doesn't look like anything special. Then you begin to wonder what wal means and the etymology gets very interesting. In Middle English, the word underwent a lot of spelling variations, including walnote, walnutte, walnotte, and walnote. It all comes from Old English walhnutu, which literally meant "foreign nut". The second part, hnutu, was the antiquated way to spell nut and comes from Proto-Indo-European knew, with the same definition. Now for wal: it comes from wealh, which was the Old English word for "foreigner" but could also be applied to Celtic people-groups looked down upon as barbaric by the Germanic settlers of Britan. In fact, Wealh is also the etymon of the demonym Welsh for that same reason. They've always been a bit odd to the English. I'll go more into detail on that in tomorrow's blog post.
Well over a thousand years ago, the word accent was used in the Old English language as a synonym of "mark" or "sign". Then it died out and nobody used it until the late 1300s, when they borrowed it again from Old French acent. By the sixteenth century, the word had also branched out in definition to relate to emphases, language pronunciations, tones, and more. Acent and the original accent were both borrowed from Latin accentus, which meant "song added to speech" (reflecting the current "intonation" meaning) and was composed of the prefix ad-, or "to" (from a very similar Proto-Indo-European reconstruction), and the root canere, meaning "to sing" (that's also thought to be PIE, from kan, with the same definition). Usage of the word accent peaked in the 1780s but has been on the rise recently.
In 1514, Diego Veláquez founded the city San Cristóbal de la Habana, which meant "Saint Cristopher of the Habana" and later became the capital of Cuba. Habana was the name of the local people group, and nobody is exactly sure where that comes from, but it's theorized that the appellation derives from Habaguanex, who was a chief of the Native American tribe. His name is Taíno, which is an Arawakan language, but nothing else is known. When Habana was borrowed into English, the b was switched to a v because of a linguistic phenomenon known as betacism, which is a confusion between the voiced bilabial plosive and voiced labiodental fricative sounds that occurs in many Spanish dialects. Usage of the word Havana in literature understandably peaked during the Spanish-American war, but it still is being propped up a lot because it represents a type of cigar, a color, and a type of rabbit as well as the city.
The noun anticipation entered English in the mid-sixteenth century, which was good, because it seems like everybody was just waiting to use that type of word. It soon skyrocketed in usage, plateauing around the 1830s. This, under French influence, was taken directly from Latin antipationem, which meant something more like "preconception", and is connected because preconceptions can lead to anticipations. That's formed from the verb anticipare, which meant "to take before" and was composed of anti, an archaic spelling of ante, "before", and capere, "to take". Ante comes from Proto-Indo-European ant, which could mean "front" or "forehead", and capere, through Proto-Italic kapio, is reconstructed as deriving from another Proto-Indo-European root, kehp, which meant "seize".
John Francis and Horace Elgin Dodge were two brothers born in Michigan during the 1860s. From an early age, they were very close and loved tinkering, which led them to eventually set up an automobile parts company. They won a contract to a company run by a man named Ransom Olds and later left to help build Henry Ford's cars. Later, they had enough money to run their own corporation. Around the same time, former railroad mechanic Walter Chrysler left a business founded by David Buick to begin his own enterprise. Buick was forced out of his own company by GM founder William Durant, who helped a man named Louis Chevrolet start another brand and bought Ransom Olds' company. You might have recognized some of those names, and you'd be right: from those interconnected early American entrepreneurs arose some of the most recognizable brands in the world today. I think that's pretty interesting.
The first attestations of the word platitude as meaning "an unoriginal remark" come from the early 1800s, but for a century prior to that the term existed as a more general adjective describing "the quality of being dull". In the original French, the word meant "flatness" because flat things were considered dull. The root in platitude is Old French plat, meaning "flat"; -itude is from Latin tudo, which signified a state or condition (and is from Proto-Indo-European tus). You may recognize plat from words such as plateau and plate. It is reconstructed as deriving from another Proto-Indo-European root which also sounded like plat and meant "flat". Usage of the word platitude over time peaked in the 1920s and has been decreasing since, as competitor cliche surpassed it in utilization.
At this point, the car manufacturer Jeep is a household name, but almost nobody in the 1930s had ever heard of one, and linguists have a hard time explaining its etymology. The most widely held theory is that it's a slurring of the initialism G.P., which was an assembly line code and was stamped on the sides of the open-air military vehicle that was widely used during World War II. Some thought this stood for General Purpose or Government Property and created the nickname along with their backronyms. This formation may have been partially or fully influenced by Eugene the Jeep, an animal in the Popeye comic strip that could only say the word "jeep". To confuse things even further, there are scattered mentions of troops in the US Army using the word to refer to unused equipment and uninitiated soldiers since World War I. Most likely, it's several of these and other possibilities mixed together, but we can't know for sure.
Today, people associate pontoons with hollow platforms designed to float on water, or a type of boat made out of pontoon-like structures, but the word originally meant "bridge". Over time, the definition got increasingly specific to the point where it only referred to military bridges made out of those platform things, and then the term got associated with the components, giving us the modern form. The word was borrowed in a 1590 war philosophy book from Old French ponton, which in turn came from Latin pons, also meaning "bridge" (we've seen this element before in pontifex, "bridge-maker"). That's reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root pent, or "path". The word pontoon peaked in usage during the Civil War and has been relatively stagnant in recent years.
The word ambush as a noun was first used in 1489, but it’s been around as a verb since around 1300, when it was first used in a biography of Thomas Becket, a canonized archbishop of Canterbury. Back then, it was spelled abussede, and people were clearly confused about how to properly spell the word, because it also took on forms like enbuschyt, enbussh, embusshed, embushe, and inbush, with its current spelling only becoming normal in the seventeenth century. It all comes from the Old French verb enbuscier. This had the same definition as today, but more literally meant "in forest", because the prefix en- meant "in" and the root is Latin boscus, meaning "wood". The idea is that a good way of ambushing someone is hiding in a nearby forest. En-, through Latin in, and under influence of Frankish an, derives from Proto-Indo-European hen, also meaning "in". Boscus traces to Proto-Germanic buskaz, which meant "bush" (and is indeed the etymon of English bush), and that's from PIE buh, "to grow".
The word chameleon first showed up in English in 1340 CE in the Ayenbyte of Inwyt, a book we've already come across in the past. It was translated by Kentish priest Dan Michel of Northgate from French, and since he couldn't find an equivalent of the word cameleon, he simply wrote the Middle English predecessor of our current term, gamelos (due to further influence from French, this was later modified to look more familiar to us). The French word traces to Latin chamaeleon, from Ancient Greek khamaileon, with the same meaning. The root of the first part is the verb khamein, or "to be on the ground", and the second bit comes from leon, meaning "lion". So a chameleon is a "lion on the ground": the theory behind this is that it was so named because a chameleon's head crest vaguely resembles a lion's mane. Khamein is from Proto-Indo-European dheghm, meaning "earth", and leon could be non-IE in origin, but that's uncertain.
As my latest infographic will tell you, the ampersand was once considered to be the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet. It appeared right at the end, so when children sang the alphabet song, they would sing w, x, y, z, and per se &. It was fashionable in the olden days to use the Latin phrase per se, which meant "of itself", to distinguish any letter that could be used as a word itself to avoid making things confusing (so this was also done for A, I, and O). When children quickly sing songs, they tend to slur words, and over time, the words and per se and were slurred to ampersand, and that's how we got the term. The symbol itself is a ligature of the Latin word et, meaning "and", as the e and t fused in Roman cursive.
I recently covered the etymology of capital, but capitol deserves its own blog post. Distinguished from the former because it is a building where a legislature meets, rather than a city, the word capitol comes from Capitolium, the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. In 1698, the building for the General Assembly of Virginia was named after the temple because of architectural similarity, and since then use of the word proliferated. The Capitolium was situated on the Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, and that has an officially uncertain etymology. However, it's likely that the name comes from Latin caput, meaning "head", because we know from an army commander's speech that a human skull was found on top of the hill before the Romans built the temple. Caput would be from Proto-Indo-European kaput, also "head".
Gibbous is a word many of you will recognize in an astronomical context, as it refers to the period of time when a heavenly body is more than half, but not fully, visible to an observer. However, the adjective also has a general definition of "characterized by swelling or protuberance", which was the original meaning. The word is a Middle English borrowing from the Late Latin gibbus, meaning "hunchback", and got its modern definition because of a physical resemblance between the moon and a person hunched over. Earlier on, gibbus was a noun meaning "hump", and that, through Proto-Italic gifri, is thought to derive from Proto-Indo-European geyb, "curved". After its first attestation in Lanfranc's Science of Cirurgie, a medical book from sometime in the fifteenth century, usage of the word gibbous in literature over time peaked in the year 1750 and has been trending downward since, especially as the earlier definition is increasingly relegated to the tomes of history.
There are apparently some weird myths out there that the company name Adidas is an acronym of "All Day I Dream About Sports" or something along those lines. Acronym etymologies are almost always false; the truth here is actually far more interesting. Our story begins in the Bavarian village of Herzogenaurach during the 1920s, where two brothers named Adolf and Rudolf Dassler started a shoemaking business that quickly started growing. As their corporation expanded, however, the brothers grew estranged, disliking each other's business and political ideas (both were Nazis but Rudolf was further right) and even wives. Rudolf left to set up his own competing company. Adolf renamed the family business Adidas as a portmanteau of his nickname Adi and his last name (Addas was briefly considered, but another company already registered that trademark), and Rudolf almost named his new enterprise Ruda in similar fashion, but opted instead for Puma, to evoke a sense of sleek athleticism. The brothers bitterly hated each other and kept trying to one-up each other's businesses, and as a byproduct of all that rapid competitive expansion we ended up with the second- and third-largest sportswear companies in the world. Funny how it works like that sometimes.
John Oliver's recent episode on Mount Everest taught me a fascinating new term - a capitonym is a word that changes its meaning when capitalized. For example, March refers to the month while a march is a brisk walk and Hamlet is a renowned play while a hamlet is a small village. The best capitonyms can also change pronunciation based on the first letter, like Polish and polish. The etymology of capitonym is fairly obvious: the root is the word capital, and then there's the suffix -onym. We call uppercase letters capital because it's a synonym for important, and the word capital comes from Latin caput, meaning "head" (the head being the most important part of the body). That's from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kaput, with the same definition. -Onym is a useful suffix to know in linguistics because it shows up a lot, meaning "name" or "word". That's from Ancient Greek onoma, which derives from PIE hnomn, still "name".
The word lavender has been around Middle and Modern English at least since its earliest recorded attestation in a book of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and as such has underwent a plethora of spelling variations through history. Alternate forms have included lavandre, lavendere, lavanda, and lavand, and it all comes from Old French lavandre, still with the same definition. That was borrowed something during the tenth century from Medieval Latin lavandula, which is thought to be from Latin lividus, meaning "bluish". The letter a was probably thrown in at the beginning because of confusion between that and the word lavare, meaning "wash" (because lavender was used in laundry in olden times - still is occasionally). Going further back, lividus is from the Old Latin verb slivere, "to be blue", and that's reconstructed as deriving from Proto-Indo-European sliwo, still referring to the hue. Usage of lavender over time peaked in the late 1920s but has been increasing again since the 1980s.
The first recorded mention of the elder tree was all the way back in Old English during the eighth century CE, when it was spelled ellaen. Throughout the eons, it morphed in spelling, taking on forms like ellaern, ellarne, ellerne, and helren before adding a d in the fifteenth century with eldyr, eldern, and eventually elder, which became the standard by Shakespeare's time. Since the word has been muddling through the annals of history for so long, it's very hard to find its etymology (it has been reconstructed to Proto-Germanic elernaz, with the same meaning), but we do know that the d was probably added because people confused the tree with the alder, which is related to the birch and not a berry tree like the elder. The word elder meaning "older" is unrelated, but also comes from Old English, where it was spelled eldra, yldra, or ieldra. This would be from Proto-Germanic aldaz ("old"), which further traces to Proto-Indo-European hel, "to grow".
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.