When the word pariah was first used in the English language in a 1613 volume by Samuel Purchas, it had a very specific definition of "ceremonial drummer". This is connected to the modern meaning because drummers at southern Indian festivals were often of the lowest caste, and the term began to be associated with "untouchables", who were shunned by society as social outcasts. Finally, by the early nineteenth century, pariah came to refer to outcasts of any time, losing association with its Indian roots. Speaking of those roots, the word is believed to come from either Tamil paraiyar (a conjugation of parai, or "drum") or Malayalam parayan (from para, also "drum"). There is no evidence going any further back, but since those languages are Dravidian, it can be assumed that the word has no Indo-European origin.
THINGS TO BE DONE
When the word agenda was first borrowed into the English language in the seventeenth century, it was used in a theological context to refer to religious practices that were carried out, unlike its counterpart credenda, which was reserved for religious beliefs that were more theoretical. Both terms come from Latin, where agenda literally meant "things to be done" since it was a gerund of the verb agere, "to do". That, through Proto-Italic, is believed to derive from the Proto-Indo-European root ag, which had to do with movement. Agenda got where it is today because the definition evolved from "religious practices" to "a written set of religious rituals" to "items of business". By the twentieth century, it came to be associated with planners, and usage in literature over time peaked in 2003.
In Old English, the word petersilie was the only term used to refer to parsley, but then when the Normans invaded England, they brought with them the Old French word, peresil. Those forms briefly coexisted for a while, shifting in spelling over time to the point where they were utterly confused and our current word parsley emerged from the ashes. Both the Old French and Old English nouns trace to Latin petroselinium, which is an oddly appropriate compound of the words petros, meaning "rock", and selinon, meaning "celery". Linguists are unsure about the origins of both of those roots, but they probably come from a Pre-Greek language. According to Google NGrams, usage of the word parsley took off in the 1960s, peaked in the 1980s, and has been on the decline since then.
In the 1620s, the word cucaracha was borrowed from Spanish into English to represent beetle-esque household pests. That stuck around for a little bit until some non-Spanish speakers decided that cucaracha was a misspelled combination of two other animal names, cock (chicken) and roach (an old word for a type of fish), so they "fixed" it to the cockroach we know and love today. It really makes no sense but that's what they went with. Cucaracha meant "beetle" in Spanish, and the root there is cuca, which referred to some caterpillar types (and is most likely imitative in origin). Cock is a very simple word that underwent very little change throughout history and is probably also onomatopoeic, while roach traces back to a lineage of Germanic words meaning "fish". Roach as a shortening of cockroach emerged in 1837 and the "end of a marijuana cigarette" definition was first attested in 1938, although that may not be connected
Over two millenia ago, ancient Chinese civilizations began to create artistic miniature landscapes. About seven hundred years ago, that practice was adopted by Japanese Zen Buddhists, who turned it into a spiritual activity. Eventually, they stopped doing whole landscapes and made the activity centered around miniature trees, which they called bonsai, a noun roughly meaning "tray plant" (these trees were often grown in trays). The roots of that hopefully-familiar term are bon, meaning "pot", "bowl", or "tray", and sai, a verb meaning "to plant". Similar to the practice's evolution, those words came from China, apparently from characters meaning "tub" and "cultivation"; not much is known after that. Google NGrams shows high usage of the word in the 1960s and 1990s but large dips of unpopularity in the '40s and '70s.
The word humble was borrowed in the late 1200s from Old French, where it was spelled umble, umele, humle, and also humble, but held the same definition. That's from Latin humilis, which could mean "lowly" but more literally may be interpreted as "on the ground". The root there is humus, or "earth", which (by way of Proto-Italic) comes from the Proto-Indo-European word degom, also "earth". Humilis, through Old French umilite, is also the root of the word humility, but my favorite descendant of the word is omerta, the Mafia's code of obedience and secrecy. Apparently that used to mean "humility" as its earlier form umilta (an allusion to a mafioso's loyalty to the gang leader), which also traces to the Latin word. All three words have trended upwards in usage in recent years.
The first use of the word museum in the English language was in a seventeenth-century translation of Plutarch's Moralia, in which the word Musaea was retained from the original Latin to refer to the temple of the Muses (the nine goddesses of knowledge and the arts), and because some of those buildings were set aside for studying history, the word got extended to refer to museums as we know them today. For a while, it was spelled as musæum, but the word was standardized with an e replacing the ash by the eighteenth century, with usage increasing until a peak in 1997. Musaea comes from Ancient Greek mousa, meaning "muse" (also the source of the verb to muse and the noun music), which eventually may be derived from Proto-Indo-European men, meaning "to think".
The word intricate was borrowed into English sometime in the early 1400s directly from Latin intricatus, which meant "entangled". While that differs slightly from the current definition of "complicated or detailed", one can clearly note the semantic connection. Intricatus is a conjugation of the verb intricare, which is composed of the prefix in-, meaning "in", and tricae, meaning "tricks" or "perplexities" (together, "in perplexities" describes entangled things pretty well). In- is the same as English in, and comes from the Proto-Indo-European root en, with the same meaning, and tricae is obscure. We know the word extricate ("out of perplexities") is a cognate, but not much else; the best guess is that it derives from PIE terk, which meant "to turn". Both intricate and extricate have been decreasing in usage in recent years.
In Ancient Greece, the three-stringed lute, or pandura, was very popular from the 4th century BCE onward. The Romans thought it was neat too, so they borrowed both the instrument and the word for it, making a few changes like widening the neck and adding a string. Then that was picked up by the Portuguese, with the word for it becoming bandurra along the way (the p to b switch is common in etymology because both letters are bilabial stops, the only difference being that you vibrate your vocal cords for the b). As the Portuguese spread their music, they also transported slaves across the Atlantic Ocean, some of whom picked up the bandurra for themselves. However, because the Indo-European word was so unusual to the non-IE Africans, they slurred it to become banjo, which should be familiar to you all. This is just the most likely of many possible explanations for banjo's origin, but we definitely know the term emerged from the Caribbean in the 17th century. It could also trace to an African string instrument called mbanaza, or from a folk dance, banya, or maybe it traveled by way of Spanish bandurria. Intriguing options either way!
Cahoot is a word meaning "partnership" that curiously almost never shows up in its singular form. We only ever see the term as part of the phrase in cahoots (which has more negative, conspiratorial connotations), which traces back to the mid-eighteenth century. Cahoot was around for a little bit before that, with its first attestation in an 1829 grammar book, but it eventually faded as the expression stayed prominent. Linguists aren't quite sure where that comes from, because it seems like it popped out of nowhere in the American south, but the main (tenuous) theory right now is that cahoot came from the French word cahute, meaning "hut" (maybe partnerships were formed. That's from Dutch kajuit, which is from Middle Dutch kayhute, which also has an unknown origin.
BEAST OF PREY
The word jaguar was first used by Spanish Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta in his 1604 Natural and Moral History of the Indies, in which he stylized it iaguar (this eventually found its way into English through Portuguese sailors). In subsequent years, spelling varied to include forms like jagvara and jaguara until the English settled on jaguar. Acosta got his word from the local Tupi speakers in South America, who used the term yaguara to mean "beast of prey" (this is related to the Tupi word for "alligator", jacare). Beyond that, we don't know anything due to a lack of written records, but it could be from a hypothesized Je-Tupi-Carib proto-language. The name for the car brand was chosen in 1935, but that wasn't made to be the company's name until 1945, when it was picked to be distinctive and exotic. The abbreviation jag was coined in 1959.
MUCH ETYMOLOGY, SUCH WOW
Fifteen years ago, everybody would agree that the word doge referred to the chief magistrate of Genoa or Venice. Since then, however, a new meaning has stormed the internet: that of "canine", normally associated with memes of Shiba Inus saying cute, truncated phrases. This humorous alteration of dog first traces to a 2005 episode of Homestar Runner, a surreal comedy web series, where the protagonist spells out the word. Five years later, a woman named Atsuko Sato posted pictures of her Shiba with that caption online, and the web quickly turned it into a meme with superimposed text, the rest being history (usage peaked in December 2013). Curiously, there's been some contention over the proper pronunciation. I always thought dohge, but some people pronounce it like dodge, doggeh, dough-geh, and just doggie. It'll be interesting to watch more words with standardized spellings but not pronunciations arise due to the Internet spreading them.
GOED TO WEND
A lot of people learning English gripe about all the irregular conjugations in the language, but one of the most interesting ones is the past tense of go, went. It seems so out of place when compared to other forms like goes, going, and gone, and that's for a reason. It all traces to the now-archaic verb wend, which has several definitions, including "turn" and "go in a specific direction". Both it and go were around since the days of Old English, essentially as synonyms, but for an unknown reason go did not have a past tense, and since went had direction, it was perfect for both words. Then wend became increasingly obsolete, leaving its offspring as the only remnant. This type of change, when one unrelated word becomes a conjugation of another, is called suppletion and is pretty rare in any language. It's also why we have bad/worse, good/better, and be/am - fascinating stuff!
EAR OF CORN
A shibboleth is a cultural tradition or custom that distinguishes a group of people from another. Just looking at the term, it seems apparent that it comes from Hebrew, and if you made that conclusion, you'd be right - it traces to a word sounding like shibbolet and meaning "ear of corn". The story behind this takes us back to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, in which the Gileadites needed to figure out who the Ephraimites were, so they asked everyone to pronounce shibboleth. Since the Ephraimites weren't able to pronounce the sh sound, the Gileadites were able to weed them out from their own and slaughter them. After that the word evolved to refer to societal markers in general. Shibbolet comes from the Proto-Semitic root sh-b-l, which probably could also mean "stalk of grain".
Yesterday, when researching how prescription medications get named, I stumbled across the rather interesting story of the word Viagra. According to IUPAC standards, the official chemical name is sidenafil citrate, but that wasn't too popular with ad executives. They wanted something that was easy to remember, so they could continue to make a lot of money when the patent expired, and something that sounded sexy, that could evoke flowing fertility. So after a meeting in the mid-1990s, the drug's maker, Pfizer, settled on Viagra, which works on multiple levels. The first part, vi-, brings to mind words like virility, vitality, victory, and vigor, while the last part is the name Niagara, like the waterfalls. Besides that portmanteau, it's also a play on the Sanskrit word vyaghra, which meant "tiger", so it's very well thought out.
When you get prescription medication, there are often at least three names associated with it. One is the scientific word for the compound. This is normally longer and composed of the official IUPAC-sanctioned chemical prefixes and suffixes. Then there's the name of the active ingredient, which has to be approved by national regulatory bodies. This is a shorter words with a suffix that has to meet naming standards, with each suffix corresponding to a structure and function so pharmacists don't get confuse and make lethal mistakes. The preceding syllables, however, are entirely up to producer's choice, as is the third type of designation: the commercial name. This is not subject to regulation, and is extremely important to the companies, because it needs to be memorable so people pay higher prices for the name brand once the patent expires. Let's look at an often-cited example: Prozac. Its name was arbitrarily invented in the 1980s, its active ingredient is fluoxetine, and its full name is (RS)-N-methyl-3-phenyl-3-[4-(trifluoromethyl)phenoxy]propan-1-amine. I think that's pretty interesting.
I've always thought the phrase temper tantrum was sort of redundant, because are there really any other kinds of tantrums? The phrase, which was probably adopted so widely due to its memorable alliteration, emerged in the early 1920s, around the time that the word tantrum entered mainstream usage in America. Tantrum had been around in England ever since its first usage in a 1714 letter, when it was spelled tanterum. Other forms like tantarum, tanthrum, tantrim, tantum, and tantell all rose and fell in popularity in the century or so after that, but soon tantrum was predominantly accepted as the correct variant. Despite all that documentation, there is no evidence where tantarum comes from. It looks Latin, but there's nothing connecting it to the language. There is an attestation of it from a 1675 burlesque meaning "penis", but that might not be related. It might also trace to the Tamil word tantiram (meaning "stratagem"), but that too is tenuous. Hopefully, we'll find out someday.
DATE OF INDIA
Tamarinds are fruit-bearing trees indigenous to Africa, but they've been around in south Asia and Oceania for a really long time as well. That's why Arabic traders mistakenly called it tamar hindi, meaning "date of India" (date also being the fruit tree type, although not even in the same order as tamarinds). That was borrowed into Latin as tamarindus, which became Old French tamarinde, which in the mid-sixteenth century finally developed into English tamarind and alternate spellings like thamarynde or tamarine that died out. Arabic tamar comes from a similar-sounding Proto-Semitic root with the same meaning and hindi derives from Sanskrit sindhu, meaning "river". Finally, that, through Proto-Indo-Aryan and Proto-Indo-Iranian, is eventually reconstructed to PIE kiesd, "to go away".
When the word brothel was first used in the English language in a 1393 poem, it was a noun meaning "scoundrel" or "wretch". Around a hundred years later, it came to be used in reference to unsavory women more than men and took on a definition of "harlot" or "prostitute". This spawned the phrase brothel-house, which was a place where prostitutes gathered, and the house was eventually dropped, giving us our modern form of the word. Going back, brothel comes from the Old English word breoðan, which meant "deteriorate" (implying that scoundrels were deteriorated and worthless humans) and further derives from Proto-Germanic breutan, "to break" (and an etymon of brittle). Finally, that's from Proto-Indo-European bhreu, meaning "cut". Usage of the word brothel in literature over time has been trending upwards, peaking in 2004.
Fornication, the rather whimsical-sounding word for intercourse between unmarried people, has mostly been replaced by the phrase extramarital sex nowadays because of increased association with, and parodies of, right-wing hyper-religiosity. However, back when it was first used in a fourteenth century poem, it was in a far more serious context. The word, which has also been spelled fornicacion, fornycacyoun, fornicacioun, and fornycacion throughout the ages, traces to (through Old French) the Latin word fornix, meaning "brothel" - the connection being that a lot of fornication took place in brothels. Since many Roman brothels were in vaulted chambers, that may have meant "arch" earlier on, and the term has cognates hinting that it may be from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to warm", but etymologists aren't absolutely sure.
RED WHITE AND BLUE
Why do we call Republican-voting states red states and Democratic-voting states blue states? The first election color map, in 1972 on CBS, actually used blue for Republicans and red for Democrats. Soon after, other networks started using their own colored maps without any particular methodologies. For the 1980 and 1984 elections, most sources used red for Reagan (simply due to the alliteration) and blue for his opponents, and that seemed to have stuck. By 1996, every media outlet was using the color scheme as we know it today, and that was soon picked up on by pundits and comedians. The extra emphasis on election maps following the 2000 voting controversy in Florida sparked comments about red states and blue states, which led to the parties increasingly associating themselves with those colors and closing the loop. CNN was the first to use the term purple state in 2002, and the words only really took off in the last fifteen years. As a Gen Z-er, I had no idea the development was so recent, which fascinates me.
POTO AND CABENGO
Grace and Virginia Kennedy were two identical twins born in Georgia in 1970. Following some postnatal seizures, doctors warned their parents that the kids may exhibit developmental disabilities later in life. Interpreting that to mean they were already disabled, the parents neglected to interact with them, spending very little time in their presence and not letting them go to school. The Kennedy sisters did not, however, actually have any mental problems, so they naturally progressed to create their own language, crafted out of German snippets they heard from their grandmother, some English, and random words they created. They named themselves Poto and Cabengo, respectively, and their syntactical and grammatical structures were noticeably different from English. Eventually their abilities were discovered by a speech therapist, they made national news, and they were integrated into a normal educational system. This phenomenon, known as cryptophasia, has been well-documented. Sometimes called "twin talk", it's estimated that about half of infant twins will create some form of language between themselves. Possible causes include developmental delays in one of the siblings, decreased interaction between adults, and more exposure between themselves than with any other people.
Tantalus was a figure from Greek mythology who angered the gods because he killed his son and offered him as a sacrifice. To punish him, they cast him down into Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld and made him stand in a pool of water below a fruit tree. Whenever he went to grab a fruit, it rose out of his reach, and whenever he tried to drink some water, it receded. This left him perpetually hungry and thirsty and constantly tempted with something unobtainable, which is where we get the verb tantalize from. I'm really proud of figuring this one out by myself - it was a random epiphany connecting my interests in mythology and etymology. Tantalus' name is thought to be from an actual person named Tantalus who lived in Anatolia, possibly deriving from some old Hittite kings' names.
The term anagram, through French anagramme and maybe Modern Latin, comes from two Ancient Greek words: ana, which meant "backwards" or just "back", and gramma, meaning "letter". Earlier on, ana had multiple interpretations, including "upward" and "again", and is the prefix found in words like aneurysm, anaphase, anaphora, anabolic, and more. Eventually, it can be traced to Proto-Indo-European hen, meaning "on". Gramma, meanwhile, should be familiar in words like grammar, gramophone, and monogram. Through Proto-Hellenic, that derives from PIE gerb, meaning "to scratch". After being first used in 1589, anagram has remained relatively constant in usage over time. A blanagram is an anagram where only one letter is substituted and an ananym is a type of anagram where the word is directly reversed.
SPEEDY PIRATE SHIP
The word yacht was first used in a 1580s nautical history by an English secretary to the ambassador of France, in which he wrote yeagh, which was borrowed from Dutch jacht. Soon thereafter, variations such as yothe, yaught, yaugh, yolke, yought, yaucht, yaacht, yatch, yott, and more cropped up, until spellings were standardized in the eighteenth century. Jacht is a shortened form of a previous Dutch word, jachtschip, which meant "speedy pirate ship" (over time, after yacht was adopted in Great Britain, the definition widened to mean "speedy ship" in general). More literally, this was "ship for chasing" (the connection being that pirate ships chased normal ships), because it's comprised of the elements schip, a cognate of English ship, and jagen, a verb meaning "to chase". Finally, jagen, through Old High German jagon and Proto-Germanic jagona, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction yek, meaning "to hunt".
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic. This year, I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Government and Linguistics. There, I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society and wrote a thesis on Serbo-Croatian language policy, magna cum laude. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.