Back in Middle English, the word scabbard could be spelled a number of ways, including scauberc, scaberke, skabrek, scabarge, skabarge, scaubert, and more (the modern form was popularized around the middle of the eighteenth century). It comes from the Anglo-Norman word escauberc, which had the modern definition but also an auxiliary meaning of "vagina". That may have come through Frankish or another Germanic language, but it definitely traces to the Proto-Germanic roots skeriz, meaning "blade", and bergaz, meaning "protection". Skeriz comes from the verb skerana ("to shear", from Proto-Indo-European sker, meaning "cut") and bergaz, which also composes all or parts of harbor, belfry, barrow, berg, and harbinger, comes from Proto-Indo-European berg, meaning "high".
GOOD GATHERING PLACE LAND
In the 1992 film Wayne's World, singer-songwriter Alice Cooper explains that the name Milwaukee comes from the Algonquian word millioke, meaning "the good land". However, that's only one theory, and most etymologists consider the origin uncertain (the other major explanation is that it comes from the Potawatomi word minwaking, meaning "gathering place"). The word was first attested in the late seventeenth century, and the spelling at the time was all over the place: early attestations included Melloki, Milwogue, Miskoumina, Melecki, Wilakie, Waillawaky, Milwacky, Milwaukie, and Milwauke. Throughout the 1800s, Milwaukie and Milwaukee were still used at about equal frequency, and it only got standardized when the city was officially established in 1846. The demonym Milwaukeean emerged around the same time, originally with the spelling Milwaukiean.
Today I found myself wondering about how alfredo sauce got its name. I thought that it might be similar to how al dente pasta is "to the tooth", but I was really confused about what fredo could mean. Turns out that's because the whole thing is literally some guy's name. The fettucine dish was invented by Alfredo di Lelio in Rome in the early twentieth century, and his particular style of making it was so popular that it was named after him. The name Alfredo comes from the Old English roots aelf, meaning "elf", and raed, meaning "advice". Aelf, which is also the etymon of the English word elf, derives from the Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European roots albiz and helbos, meaning "white". Raed traces to Proto-Germanic redaz and is eventually reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European hrehd, meaning "think".
The word mandible was first used in an early fifteenth century surgical guide, and was directly taken from the Latin word mandibula, meaning "jaw". That comes from the verb mandere, meaning "to chew", and finally derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction mendh, also meaning "chew". This same root also went into Ancient Greek as mastax, or "jaw", into Medieval Greek as moustakion, into Italian as mostaccio, and became the word moustache that we use today (this is mostly spelled mustache in American English because of Merriam Webster and other dictionaries propagating a less French-looking spelling). At the same time, mendh additionally developed into another Latin verb for "chew", masticare, which eventually made its way into English as masticate. It's so cool that these words all share the same origin!
The word usher was borrowed into the English language in 1386, when it was spelled ussher. Through Anglo-Norman, it traces to the Old French noun ussier, which had definitions of "porter" or "doorman" - still pretty similar to today. That's from Vulgar Latin ustiarius and Latin ostiarus, which both also meant "doorman". The root of ostiarus is ostium, or "door", and it all eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction os, meaning "mouth" (the idea was that both are entrances or openings of a sort). Os also gave us the words oral, Oslo ("river mouth" in Old Norse), oscitant, orifice, orator, and many other terms that have to do with gaps and mouths in general. According to Google NGrams, literary usage of the word usher was highest in the 1500s and has been trending downwards since.
BOY AND GIRL GASKETS
The word gasket (describing a type of mechanical seal) was borrowed in the early seventeenth century from the Middle French noun gaskette, with the same definition. There's a lot of uncertainty about where that comes from, but the leading theory is that it's from garcette, meaning "little girl", perhaps through a figurative nautical sense of "plaited coil". That would be a diminutive of garce, which referred to young women, harlots, or concubines, and garce was a feminine version of garcon, which still means "boy". Finally, that traces to the Frankish reconstruction wrakjo ("servant" or "boy"), to Proto-Germanic wrakjon ("exile") and Proto-Indo-European wreg ("track" or "hunt"). The expression to blow a gasket emerged in the 1940s, when gaskets used to seal pressure in car engines were known to occasionally degrade and pop.
BINGER OF HAR
I've seen a lot of people misspell the word harbinger as harbringer, or ask me if the word is somehow related to bring. At a glance, this seems like it could make sense: after all, a harbinger brings news or change. However, the word used to refer to a "person sent ahead to arrange lodgings", usually for a travelling group of soldiers or nobility, and before that it meant "innkeeper" in general. Back then, it was primarily spelled herberger; the -n- was added because of association with words like messenger. Through Old French, herberger comes from the Frankish noun heriberga, meaning "lodging" or "inn", and that finally traces to the Proto-Germanic roots harjaz ("army"; from Proto-Indo-European koryos, "war") and bergo ("protection"; from Proto-Indo-European bhergh, "to hide"). These same roots later developed into the word harbor, which is pretty cool.
You know that feeling when you get goosebumps from listening to a really powerful piece of music? That's called frisson, and there's a whole Wikipedia article on the phenomenon. The word was borrowed into English in 1777 by British politician Horace Walpole, who used it with more of a general "emotional thrill" sense. He took it from the French word frisson, which could mean "fever" or "shiver" and was in turn borrowed in the twelfth century from the Latin verb frigere, meaning "to be cold" (this was also the source of frigid). Finally, that's thought to derive from the Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European reconstructions srigos and srig, both meaning "cold". Because of the new definition emerging, usage of the word frisson started dramatically increasing during the late 1900s and peaked in 2014.
On a surface level, it seems like the noun disinformation is just the prefix dis- attached to the word information, but there's a lot more to it than just that. It's actually a 1950s borrowing modeled on the Russian word dezinformatsiya, which was coined by Joseph Stalin in 1923 to describe the Soviet spy tactic of spreading false information in foreign countries to confuse and deceive the public. The term was used as the name of a KGB "black propaganda" department, and was only really popularized in the United States around the mid-1980s, when it was revealed that the Reagan administration used disinformation tactics to interfere in Libya. Funnily enough, the very use of disinformation is a product of disinformation: Stalin introduced the French-based dezinformatsiya to replace the previous word for the strategy, maskirovka, to make it seem like it was originally a Western European practice.
If you look in early versions of the Bible, the word cherub is often written as cherubin, with the plural forms cherubim or cherubin; it wasn't until the turn of the seventeenth century that we Anglicized it to be cherub and cherubs. The reason for the initial forms lies in Hebrew grammatical structures, which were preserved up to that point. Through Latin cherubin and Ancient Greek kheroubin, the word comes from the Hebrew noun k'ruvim, which described heavenly beings with human and animal characteristics who were the throne bearers of God (that's thought to come from Akkadian karabu, "to bless"). These creatures did not have the baby-like features that we associate with cherubs today; rather, that became a thing because of confusion with the unrelated Aramaic word ke-rabya, "like a child".
I've only ever seen pander used as a platonic verb meaning "to please others", but apparently it also had historical senses of "to sexually gratify" and "to pimp". The verb form evolved in the early seventeenth century from a previous definition of "pimp", and that was borrowed around 1450 from Pandero, the name of a character who set his cousin up with a Trojan prince in a twelfth-century poem by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio was further inspired by Pandaros, a character in Homer's Iliad who had nothing to do with prostitution whatsoever. Finally, his name is composed of the prefix pan-, meaning "all" (from Proto-Indo-European pant, also "all"), the root dero, meaning "to flay" (from Proto-Indo-European der, "to tear", and the noun-forming suffix -os.
When the word dolphin was first used in English in a fourteenth century romantic epic about Alexander the Great, it was spelled delfyn, and other spellings around that time included delphin, dalphyn, daulphin, dolphyn, dolfyn, dolphyne, and doulphyn; the modern form didn't really become widely used until the 1600s. Delfyn came from the Old French word daufin, which, through Medieval Latin dolfinus and Latin dolphinus (both with the same definition), traces to the Ancient Greek noun delphys, meaning "womb". Etymologists aren't really sure why that's the case, but theories include a perceived resemblance in shape or something to do with them giving birth. Delphys, which also evolved into the -delphia part of Philadelphia, eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gwelb, also meaning "womb"
The word morgue was borrowed in the late eighteenth century from French, where it described a very specific building in Paris called La Morgue which was used to display unidentified bodies, especially recovered drowning victims from the Seine. Before that, La Morgue served as a room where newly incarcerated Parisian prisoners were identified. The name is thought to be from the French word morgue, meaning "haughtiness" or "pride", likely in reference to the smug expressions of the jailers processing the criminals. That traces to the Old French verb morguer, which meant something more along the lines of "to look solemnly". Morguer traces to Vulgar Latin murricare ("to make a face") and murrum (meaning "snout"; likely from a Celtic language) - what an interesting series of etymological developments!
When the word concierge was first used in English in 1646, it referred to caretakers of large estates. Later on it could also mean "janitor", "porter", and "warden", and eventually came to be applied to those people who work in hotels. The term most likely comes from the Old French word cumcerges, which described an official tasked with maintaining royal palaces. Cumcerges is thought to trace to Vulgar Latin conservius and Latin conservus, which meant "fellow slave". Infuriatingly, none of the sources I found explain why that's the case, but I imagine it has to do with the "slave" part evolving to mean something more like "servant". Finally, that's composed of the prefix cum-, meaning "with" (from Proto-Indo-European kom, "next to"), and the root servus, meaning "slave" (from PIE serwo, "guardian").
The word parapet was first used in English in a late sixteenth century book about hunting. It was borrowed from a Middle French word with the same spelling, and that came from Italian parapetto, which literally translates to "breast defense". The idea was that the rampart was usually about at chest height, and was thus able to defend the breast area from attacks. Para-, which meant "defense" there, comes from the Latin verb parare, which translates to "prepare" (and that traces to Proto-Indo-European per, "to produce"). Petto, meaning "breast", comes from Latin pectus, which is also the source of the words pectoral and expectorate (and that is most likely from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction peg, also meaning "breast").
The word mariachi was borrowed sometime in the mid-twentieth century from Mexican Spanish, and beyond that the origin is uncertain. For a while, the going theory was that it was borrowed from the French word for "marriage", mariage, because the music was often played at weddings, but that's fallen somewhat out of favor with etymologists because of attestations from before the French invasion of Mexico. It's also been suggested that it may be from an Uto-Aztecan word for the type of wood that traditional dancing platforms were made from, or that it may be an alteration of a woman's name, Maria H, or that it's from a tree name in another, extinct indigenous language. According to Google NGrams, literary usage of the word mariachi peaked in 2003 and has been declining since.
ST. AUDREY'S LACE
The word tawdry, which today means "gaudy", originally referred to a popular type of lace necklace worn by women in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, when the Puritans came to power in the mid-1600s, the material fell out of fashion and the term came to be applied to ostentatious things in general. It gets better: the phrase tawdry lace is actually a contraction of St. Audrey's lace. The Anglo-Saxon queen was traditionally associated with lace necklaces because she was said to have died of a throat cancer that she considered God's punishment for wearing too many necklaces in her youth. The name Audrey, or Æðelðryð as it was spelled back then, comes from Germanic roots meaning "noble" and "might" and was actually popularized by the saint.
When it was first used in the late sixteenth century, the word loophole referred to those narrow slits in the walls of castles used to protect archers while shooting. Somehow this got associated with "means of escape", and in the 1660s that emerged as a new definition. As the word increased in usage (it peaked in 1985), it got associated with more and more figurative contexts, and here we are today. Going back, the loop in loophole is actually not related to the word for the curved shape that we know today! It comes from the Middle English word loupe, which meant "opening in a wall" in general and is thought to trace to a Germanic source meaning something like "peek" or "watch". Hole is just hole (which makes loophole a bit redundant): that, through Old English hol and Proto-Germanic hula, derives from Proto-Indo-European kel, meaning "cover".
When the word emerald was first being used in Middle English, it was spelled emeraude, emeraundis, emerawd, or emraud, and, in Shakespeare's time, forms like emrauld and emrold were widely used. Sometime in the eighteenth century, emerald became the most popular form, and it's now being used in literature more than ever before. The noun came from Old French esmeraude, which is from an unattested Vulgar Latin word sounding something like smaraldus or smaraudus. That in turn comes from Ancient Greek smaragdos or maragdos, which could refer both to the gem and to malachite, and, earlier on, was just used to represent dark green colors. The current theory is that maragdos derives from the Proto-Semitic word bariq, meaning "lightning" (the initial b was turned into a nasal and the q turned into a g), due to a connection of both things "shining". There were a lot of really cool spelling changes taking place there!
A GRUESOME SHUDDER
The grue- in gruesome is a now-extinct Middle English verb meaning "to shudder", while -some is just the familiar suffix used to denote the existence of a quality. Grue was first recorded in a fourteenth-century Scottish dialect as grew, and both words were relatively rare until the late nineteenth century, when novelist Sir Walter Scott popularized the adjective through his writings but didn't really use the verb much. Due to its history and cognates in languages like Dutch, some etymologists think that grew could be of Scandinavian origin, while others contend that it all comes from Middle German or Middle Dutch grewen, both of which would be from the Proto-Germanic reconstruction gruwijana, with the same definition. Gruesome is unrelated to gruelling, which comes from another Germanic root meaning "grain".
When the word promulgate ("to make widely known") was first brought into the English language in 1526, it was spelled promulgat, and it stayed that way until the e was standardized in the late seventeenth century. It comes from Latin promulgatus, which was the past participle of the verb promulgare, with the same definition. Beyond this, there are two theories. There's definitely the prefix pro-, meaning "forth", but the root could be either an alteration of vulgare, which translates to "to publish", or mulgere, which meant "to milk" (or, more metaphorically, "to bring forth"). Personally, I like the second explanation better because it doesn't make much sense to me that an m would just change to a v unless it was conflated with another word. Mulgere is from Proto-Indo-European melg, "to wipe off".
Nobody knows for sure how the Ford Mustang got its name. It could have been suggested by designer John Najjar, who was a fan of the P-51 Mustang fighter plane, or by market research manager Robert Eggert, who bred mustang horses. A Ford representative actually made an official statement on the etymology, saying that it was uncertain and asking "does it even matter?". I guess not: one way or another, it leads to the name of the horse, which is from the Spanish word mestengo, meaning "stray" or "feral animal". That traces to mesta and Latin mixtus, meaning "mixed", due to the idea of wild animals attaching themselves to a flock of domesticated ones. Finally, through Proto-Italic miksko, mixtus derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction meik, also meaning "mix".
Musk is a strong-smelling hormonal odor secreted from the preputial glands of male deer. The word was first used in 1394, when it was spelled muske; other spellings included musce, musche, musco, musque, and muisske, until the final vowel was dropped sometime in the late seventeenth century. Going back to find the etymology of the word, we take a path through Old French musc, Latin muscus, Greek moskhos, and Persian mushk, which still had the same definition. Here it gets really weird: mushk is from the Sanskrit noun muska, meaning "testicle", because the shape of the preputial glands was thought to resemble a human scrotum. And that's a diminutive of mus, meaning "mouse", because testicles were thought to look like little mice! Finally, it all goes back to Proto-Indo-European muhs, which is also the source of the English word for "mouse".
Today, everybody knows the word tofu - the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows it as being in the top 11,000 most used English words and Google Trends shows the number of searches for it being about equal to those for pickle - but virtually nobody used it until the 1970s, when it was popularized by hippies promoting it as a vegetarian meat alternative. The first documented instance of an American referring to tofu was Benjamin Franklin in a 1770 letter, who thought it was a Chinese cheese, but the word was first actually used in 1876. It comes from Japanese tofu, which indeed traces to a Chinese word sounding like doufu and meaning the same thing. That derives from the Middle Chinese words duw, meaning "bean", and bju, meaning "fermented" or "rotten", which is lovely.
The noun fetish can refer to a sexual fantasy, a fixation in general, or a type of spiritual object historically used by the indigenous people of West Africa. Both of the first two definitions evolved from the latter in the nineteenth century through connotations of "charm" or "sorcery". The term was borrowed from French fetiche, which was borrowed from Portuguese feitiço, also meaning "sorcery". That further derives from the Latin adjective facticius, meaning "artificial", because people who perform magic tricks use artificial means to fool their audience. The root there is the verb facere ("to make"), and it all finally comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction deh, meaning "set" or "put". Usage of the word fetish peaked in 2016 and has been declining since.
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.