The etymology of "California" is so interesting it gets its own Wikipedia page, something I've only seen for OK before now. When California was discovered in 1542, it was thought to be the mythical island predicted by the 1510 Spanish novel Las Sergas de Esplandián, a wildly popular fantasy book in which there was a paradise isle east of Asia covered with fierce and strong native women. By the time the conquistadors realized that what we call Baja California is a peninsula and not an island, it was too late and the name had stuck. But where did the name in the book come from? It's thought that the author created the toponym from the Arabic word khalifa, meaning "caliph" (so California literally means "land of the Caliph". This comes from khalif, "successor", from the verb khalafa, "to succeed", from the root k-l-f, having to do with transition. This in turn is of Proto-Semitic origin- possibly from the reconstruction halap, meaning "to go beyond".
We borrowed the word toxic from French toxique in the late seventeenth century. Toxique comes from Latin toxicus, which meant "poisoned", not unlike today's definition. This in turn comes from Ancient Greek toxikon, which had the very specific meaning of "poison meant to be used on arrows". There was actually a more ubiquitous word for "poison" in general, ion, but the io- sound was considered "too weak" so, for scientific purposes, toxikon was repurposed instead. Now, the word toxikon can be conjugated to toxikos, meaning "of or pertaining to bows", from toxon, "bow" (you can see here the metonymic shift, through association of poison on the bows). Finding the etymon of taxon is difficult, as nothing is confirmed about it. Linguists think that there is a connection to the Latin word taxus, which had a definition of "javelin", and that both words either come from a Scythian origin or the Iranian word taxsa, meaning "bow".
The Evenki language is one of the Tungusic family, a group of tongues spoken by people-groups across Russia and thought to possibly be part of the tentatively hypothesized Altaic family. As far as I can tell from my research, Evenki only gave one word to the English language: shaman, that spiritual priest in native cultures in Asia and American. This was borrowed into English in the 1690s by route of Russia through Germany, where the words were shaman and schamane, respectively. Russian picked it up from the greater Tungus language, where it was saman, and that's essentially the same as the Evenki word. Beyond, that etymologists can only guess at the proper origin, but some think it could be from Chinese sha men, meaning "Buddhist monk", or from sramanas, meaning "Buddhist ascetic". These reconstructions, however, can only be guessed at. We do, however, know that usage of the word shaman has steadily been increasing since its initial adoption.
Ironically, it's almost as if the etymology of the word obscenity was censored; there are conflicting accounts once we pass the Latin word obscenus. My personal favorite of the lot is that it could be from the Greek phrase ob skene, meaning "off stage", because some parts of Ancient Greek theatre was so obscene that it had to be implied that they took place away from the audience. If this is the case, ob would be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hepi, meaning "near", and skene would derive from a Semitic source meaning "dwelling". If not, another possible etymology would be that obscenus comes from the Latin phrase ob caenum, meaning "in front of filth". Ob, you'll notice, is different in this context; it was quite a multipurpose word in Latin and Greek. Caenum would be from Proto-Indo-European kweyn, meaning "soil". Those are just two possibilities, but they are the most likely.
Ever since I was young, my mother told me not to drink soda because of the artificial sweetener aspartame in it, and to eat my asparagus because it was healthy. Little did I know about the etymological conundrum this put me in. Turns out that aspartame comes from asparatic acid, which is synthethically created from asperagine, which is a compound found naturally in asparagus and similar plants (hence the name). The -ame suffix indicates an amide, and the -ine in asperagine is a multipurpose suffix for chemical compounds. Now onto asparagus! It was borrowed in the second half of the fourteenth century from Latin, where it came from the Ancient Greek word asparagos, still describing the plant. This, however, is of uncertain origin, but might be from Proto-Indo-European sperg, meaning "to spring up". Usage of both the words asparagus and aspartame has been on the rise since the 1960s.
There is a surprisingly common misconception out there that Nylon is a portmanteau of New York and London, the two cities in which it was supposedly invented. However, that is quite incorrect. Firstly, it was created in a DuPont laboratory in Delaware, and, secondly, it's not really a portmanteau. Nylon was originally called No-Run, because the material wasn't supposed to unravel easily, but DuPont wanted to legally avoid making such an unjustified claim. So the guy who discovered it, Wallace Carothers, kept making small changes to the name until the company approved it. Nuron was suggested, but that was too close to a nerve tonic, so Carothers floated nilon, but that could be pronounced two ways, so he suggested nylon, and the company approved that. Sadly, Carothers committed suicide in that last waiting period, so he never got to see his product officially named. The suffix -on was modeled after cotton and rayon.
Strozzapreti is a kind of hand-rolled pasta with a fascinating origin. The word comes from Italian, of course, but there it had an entirely different meaning: "priest-choker" or "priest-strangler". This is a very strange connection with no certain explanation, but there are several theories that explain the etymology. One school of thought is that the pasta was very popular among priests in southern Italy, who would eat it so ravenously that they choked themselves. Alternatively, in making the pasta, you would metaphorically "choke" the dough with enough anger to kill a priest, or it was a way to pay tithes to undeserving priests who deserved a choking, or the pasta resembled the type of collar worn by vicars. In short, we have no clue but many possibilities. Now we can break this up into two words: strozza, meaning "choke", and preti, meaning "priests". Strozza is specifically from the region of Lombardy, where it meant "throat", and preti comes from Latin presbyter- more on that and presbytarian in a future post.
What do caterpillars have to do with either cats or pillars? Turns out, nothing with the latter but a lot with the former. The word was borrowed in the sixteenth century as catyrpel (alternatively catirpel or catirpeller) from the Old French word caterpilose, which meant "hairy cat". This was sort of along the lines of how we call that specific kind of caterpillar a "woolly mammoth". They really can look like fluffy animals. This term was loaned directly from Latin catta pilosa, with the same definition. Catta, though Proto-Germanic kattuz, which is surprisingly of Afro-Asiatic origin (but, in retrospect, that makes sense as the first cats were domesticated in Egypt). Pilosa, meaning "hairy", is a conjugation of pilus, "hair", and that comes from the Proto-Indo-European pil, which referred to one strand of hair. The word caterpillar peaked in usage in the 1860s and has since remained relatively constant in our language.
Cuck is a word used by alt-righters to describe anybody weak, specifically a conservative who compromises some of their values to the "liberal agenda". This term, popularized on deeply conservative message boards in election-season 2016, derives from the much older word cuckold, the "husband of an adulteress" and a type of person typically stereotyped as weak, because they couldn't keep a partner. Cuckold has quite the diverse history. In Middle English, it was spelled either as kukewald or cokewold. Both of these alterations come from Old French cucuault, which is a formation off of cocu, the word for "cuckoo" (because the female cuckoo is known for changing mates) and the Germanic suffix -ault, which had pejorative connotations. Cocu is onomatopoeic in origin, as it's meant to be imitative of the actual cry of a cuckoo. -Ault comes from Frankish walda, meaning "authority".
The word testicle was borrowed in 1704 so as to be a less vulgar way to describe male reproductive glands. This, as basically all gentrified words, come from Latin, but this case is far more interesting than most, as it's from the word testis, meaning "witness". This crazy connection came about because testicles were seen as "bearing witness to male virility" or "manliness". And, yes, for those wondering, this word is connected to the word testify (through Old French testifier and Middle English testifien, in conjunction with the verb facere, meaning "to make"). So, like felony, testify is a legal term with inappropriate connections. I wonder how many more lurk out there. Anyway, testis comes from the Proto-Indo-European tris, meaning "three", implying that a witness is an impartial third person. Interesting side note: testicle and testify are also connected to the word testament, through Latin testamentum, meaning "last will". This forms a sort of perfect etymological synergy between law, religion, and the human body.
A carmagnole is a style of energetic street song. To understand where the word for it comes from, we have to go back to August of 1792, when an actual song called La Carmagnole emerged during the French Revolution- a musical account of the monarchy's demise that was quite popular among the revolutionaries (sort of like La Marseille). The name for this came from the dance they did during the song, and the dance was named after a specific type of short jacket worn by the sans cullottes as they sang and danced the Carmagnole. This jacket originated from a specific area in Piedmont, the town of Carmagnola, where our journey ends. Despite that tumultuous whirlwind of an origin which took us through music, dance, attire, and cities, nobody bothered to etymologize the town name, so we'll be stuck at Carmagnola until further research is done.
The word table underwent a bunch of alterations in Middle English; in those tumultuous years between the Battle of Hastings and the Renaissance, spellings such as tabel, tabil, and tabul could all be seen. In Old English, all those forms plus tabele, tablu, tæfl, tæfel, tabule, and tabula existed. The latter form is most etymologically accurate, as all of this comes from the Latin word tabula, meaning "board"- not necessarily one with legs, as that definition got applied much later, after Old English. Tabula, the same element appearing in the term tabula rasa, officially has an uncertain etymology, and there are several theories out there. It is definitely related to an Umbrian word, so there's the chance that it might not be Indo-European, but some etymologists think that this might derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction root teh, meaning "to stand", which would connect it to the Latin word for "stand", stare.
To ameliorate is to improve something, of course. But what a curious word! It came to English in the mid-seventeenth century from the French verb ameliorer, which came from two parts in Latin: the prefix a-, meaning "to" in this context, and the root melior, meaning "better". So, etymologically speaking, to ameliorate is also "to make something better", a definition very similar to today. Melior may be reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root mel, meaning "strong" or "large" (clearly, strength and size were equated with being better in this transition). The a- in ameliorate is equivalent to ad-, which comes from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding the same and meaning either "to" or "near". According to Google NGrams, usage of the word ameliorate peaked in the mid-1800s, then dipped in the mid-1900s, and is now more utilized than ever.
I just got a whole slew of word requests, so I'm just going to crunch them out in the next few posts. The word agnostic was first coined in 1870 by the grandfather of novelist Aldous Huxley, Thomas Huxley, who was quite active in the Darwinist debates of the day. Slow to accept the idea of evolution but disinclined to reject it, Huxley created agnosticism to describe that limbo of unknowing. Over time, as use of the term grew, it became more applied to religion than anything else, and now is almost exclusive used in reference to people who will neither believe nor disbelieve in God (as opposed to atheism, the disbelief). It is evident that Huxley used the prefix a- in agnostic, meaning "not"(and pretty common throughout all languages), and the root Gnostic, an Ancient Greek word meaning "having knowledge". So, "not having knowledge". Makes sense, considering the current definition. Gnostic eventually traces back to gignoskein, meaning "to learn", and that comes from Proto-Indo-European gno, or "to know".
Ornithology, as basically only bird and language fans know, is the scientific study of birds. The word was coined as a New Latin formation by Ulisse Aldrovandi, a pioneer of natural history. He took this from the Greek word ornithologos, which meant the same thing. This was comprised of ornis (meaning "bird" but having a secondary definition of "chicken") and -logia, which, as we've seen many times, meant "the study of" but earlier on meant "word". Ornis has a quick and somewhat contested origin, possibly coming from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hern, meaning "eagle" (apparently it became somewhat gentrified in definition over time, but it's still pretty interesting how it meant two different birds before it got broadened). The suffix -logia derives from the verb legein, meaning "to say" and coming from Proto-Indo-European leg, "to gather" (as in gathering words to say). Usage of ornithology peaked in the 1830s, but has relatively flatlined over the last century.
Prosciutto, of course, is a type of Italian dry-cured ham eaten uncooked and taken from a pig's thigh. The word is quite clearly Italian as well, but what did it mean and where does it come from? Well, in the original Italian, it took the form of presciutto, a clear relative of prosciugato, the word for "dried". This parched definition holds true as we go further back, eliminating the prefix pre-, which is just intensive in this situation, and arriving at the root asciutto, which meant "dry" in general. This derives from Latin exsuctus, which literally meant "lacking juice", as ex- means "out" (and it was a hidden prefix, if you think about it!) and suctus, the main component, comes from the verb sugere, or "to suck". Sucking out all the juice yields a lack of juice, so there you go! Sugere may trace to the Proto-Indo-European root seue, which is reconstructed as meaning "to take liquid". After being borrowed into English in the year 1911, prosciutto is now enjoying greater usage than ever before, as more bakeries out there are trying to be fancy.
Spandex is a well-known elastic material, but where does the name for it come from? It certainly has an exotic-sounding ring to it. Well, that's because it's not a natural formation; it's actually an anagram of the word expands! The term was coined in 1959 by an unknown individual, which is too bad, as they really deserve credit for one of the few anagram etymologies out there. Now, onto the rest of it! The word expand comes from Anglo-Norman espaundre, which comes from Latin expandere, which literally meant "to spread out". This is because it is comprised of the root pandere, meaning "to spread", and the prefix ex-, meaning "out". We've already seen ex- on a plethora of occasions, and it comes from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like hegs or egs and carrying a definition of "out" as well. Pandere, meanwhile, comes from PIE peth, also "spread". Very little semantic change there but still a fascinating origin overall!
Verisimilitude, one of my favorite words, describes the quality of something to appear to be true (note that it doesn't necessarily have to be). This was borrowed in the seventeenth century from the same word in French, which was in turn was borrowed in the mid-sixteenth century from Latin verisimilitudo, which also had the very specific meaning of "likeness to truth". The root here is the neuter verus, which meant "true" or "real" (a component in veracity, very, verify, and voir dire). This, through Proto-Italic weros, derives from Proto-Indo-European weh, also "true". The second component of verisimilitude is similitudo, which meant "resemblance" and comes from similis, which makes up words like resemble, similar, facsimile, simulate, and assemble. This hails from Proto-Indo-European sem, meaning "together" or "one"
The word defenestration was invented from Latin roots specifically to describe one 1618 incident, the Defenestration of Prague, in which several officials were tossed unceremoniously out of a window by some angry Protestants, and to refer to future such window-removals. The root here is the Latin word fenestra, meaning "window". This has a curiously obscure etymology. Some linguists think it may derive from Etruscan (which would make it non-Indo-European) and others proffer a connection with the Greek verb phainein, which means "to show" (this would be from the Proto-Indo-European root beh, meaning "to shine"). Apart from this main part, we have the prefix de-, meaning "out" (and this definitely is from an unknown Etruscan word), and the suffix -ion, which just implies an action. So, if we go as far back as possible, defenestration can be taken to mean "to show out". Interesting.
Why are movie previews called trailers? It would only make sense if they came after the movie, or trailed them. Well, that's the thing: they actually used to for several decades. There would be a quick teaser after the feature, to build anticipation for its sequel. This was soon extended to any other upcoming films in general, and then marketing executives had an epiphany. What if they put trailers at the beginning of films? Then people would be forced to see them and not duck out during the credits. Thus, something supposed to trail a movie ended up preceding it. Anyway, the noun trail comes from the verb trail, which was borrowed in the 1300s from the Old French word trailler, which meant something like "drag". Trailler hails from Latin tragula, meaning "dragnet", which either comes from or is related to trahere, "to pull". This would come from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction tragh, with a similar definition.
One can sort of tell that the word for trebuchet (the superior siege weapon) is French, because of the silent t and the ch which sounds more like an sh. And, it is indeed, having derived from the Old French trebuchier, which meant either "to overthrow" or "to topple". Here we can break it up into the prefix tre- or tra-, implying displacement, and the root buchier, an unattested verb meaning "trunk of the body". Tra- comes from the Latin word trans, meaning "across" or "between" and coming from the Proto-Indo-European root terh, meaning "throughout". Buchier comes from the noun buc, also having to do with the torso. This, surprisingly, comes from Old Frankish, in this case from the word buk, with the same meaning. This in turn comes from Proto-Germanic bukaz ("belly"), from Proto-Indo-European bow, meaning "to inflate", as in a belly is inflated. Trebuchet was coined in English in the fourteenth century, peaked in usage in the 1640s, and has recently experienced something of a comeback as it grows popular in modern culture.
We use the word footage to denote a film or videotape of something, but how is this connected to feet? To answer this, we must go back to the early days of video production, when 35 mm silent films were actually reels of frames and people measured it in feet, hence the term. So, the root of footage is the unit of measurement, but why, even, is that called a foot? The answer is easy to guess: it's about the length of a man's foot (probably not specifically a king's, as some tales suggest). What an arbitrary system, what an arbitrary etymology. In Middle English, the word foot alternatively took the forms of fote and fot, and in Old English, it was fot with a bit of an extra emphasis on the central o. This still had the definition of "foot", as did the Proto-Germanic word it may be reconstructed back to, fots. Finally, this is thought to be from the Proto-Indo-European root ped, still meaning "foot" (note the p to f change characteristic of Grimm's Law changes). Anyway, you could say that that word left a fascinating footprint!
In my last post, I talked about the etymology of gif, but now it's time to talk about other image files, because a surprisingly large amount of people don't know what their abbreviations stand for. Take the initialism PNG, for instance. It means "portable network graphics", and was created in 1997 (when the term was formed as well) as a better compression alternative for the graphics interchange format, or gifs to me and you. Next comes JPEG, or "Joint Photographic Experts Group" (the organization that created the file type), released and coined in 1992. This sometimes takes the form of JPG, which is a shortening of the abbreviation. It's interesting how both of those forms are pronounced jay-peg instead of spelled out, J-P-E-G or J-P-G. Language is a curious thing. PDF, meanwhile, stands for "Portable Document Format", for obvious reasons. Of the words I just covered, PDF is used in literature the most, followed by JPEG and PNG. Makes sense.
Everybody who uses the Internet has come across the controversy over how to pronounce gif, that image type which supports animations. The majority of people pronounce it like it's spelled, but a dangerous sect calls it jif. This minority is spearheaded by the founder of the gif, Steve Wilhite, who claims that it should be pronounced like the peanut butter brand Jif. Ridiculous. Linguistically speaking, it's more natural to use a hard g, so it's not surprising that so many people do. Additionally, because gif is actually an acronym of graphics interchange format, it would make a lot more sense to use the g sound. The OED accepts both pronunciations, so whatever. Gif, properly styled GIF, was coined in 1987, the same year the image type was invented. Usage of the term surprisingly peaked in 1999, and has since been on a decline as they're slowly becoming obsolete.
For those out of the know, rickrolling or rick-rolling is an Internet bait-and-switch phenomenon involving a disguised hyperlink that leads to a location other than what is implied. Nine cases out of ten, the rickroll will take you to a YouTube video of Rick Astley's song Never Gonna Give You Up, which is where the meme gets the first part of its name, Rick, from. It's named after the singer, simple as that. But what does rolling have to do with any of it? Well, Never Gonna Give You Up wasn't exactly the first of its kind, it was just the most popular. The first false hyperlink prank was back in 2005 on 4chan, where it became a fad to replace the word "eggroll" with "duckroll" for some reason. Combining the two memes into one word makes a lot of sense, so that's exactly what one anonymous 4chan user did when he first coined rickroll in 2007. Usage of the word peaked in April 2008, as Astley went viral, and by now has stabilized as rickroll has entered our vocabulary as a word not unlike any other.
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.