The word for the color maroon comes from French marron, which referred to a different, chestnut colored brown hue, but whatever. This is from Italian marrone, from Greek maraon, which referred to a chestnut, as a food. Already an interesting semantic change, but how is that connected to maroon, "to abandon"? Well, it's not. They're homographs! The latter of the maroons (often implying being stuck on an island) also goes back to a French word marron, but it is decidedly a different word, with a much more fascinating etymology. Going backward in time, it most recently meant "to be lost", but before that it meant "a runaway slave", after "a runaway slave in the wild", after just "the wild". A lot of weird stuff to throw at you, I know, sorry! All this evolved the Taino native term simaran, for "wild". But, sheesh, there are way too many connections with maroon and color.
Calamari, far from the scrumptious seafood snack, has origins in writing utensils. We borrowed the word in the mid sixteenth century from the Italians, many of whom lived close to the sea and ate the morsel, and they borrowed it from Latin calamarius, a word that meant “pertaining to a pen”. This etymology exists because not only were squids oblong like pens back then (which were very different from our ball-point or fountain variations, of course), but they held ink inside, also not unlike those aforementioned pens. Calamarius is from calamus, which later meant “pen” and earlier meant “reed”, a component of some early writing utensils. Calamus derives from Greek kalamos, also "reed", which can be reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European zero-grade klhmos, a use-all word for basically anything that had a passing resemblence to grass.
The most interesting thing about the word misanthropic ("disliking humanity") is that it's actually incorrect. The old form, misanthropical, would be laughed at today, but it was used at least a century and a half before the modern variation took over (because people used folk etymology to make it look like other words we know... never misunderestimate the power of people to create right-sounding new terms). Before that, we got the word from Greek misanthropos. Man, they had a term for every philosophy. Misanthropos in turn is a portmanteau of misein ("to hate"; from Proto-Indo-European mewh, "to complain") and anthropos, which we can recognize as the direct etymon of anthropology, and a variation of aner, "man", ultimately deriving from PIE ner, which had connections to the definition "man", "strong", and possibly "below"
Far from flatterers, a sycophant used to be an inflammatory politician. It all goes back to the Greek word sykophantes, or "showing the fig". Yes, that's right. It is a portmanteau of sykon, "fig" (which is probably not PIE and likely traces to a Semitic source), and phanein, "to show" (from Proto-Indo-Europeann bha, or "to shine"; this connection has to do with sunrises). Anyway, the whole fig-showing thing has to do with an ancient hand gesture used by the Greeks as an equivalent of the modern-day middle finger: a crease in the fingers, symbolic of female genitalia, which was ironically called a "fig" because it also looked like that a little. This was used by Greek politicians and their supporters to anger the other side. Thus, weirdly, a sykophante became a "slanderer". The word then went into Latin as sycophanta, and into English as sycophant. Meanwhile, the definition was also changing: from "slanderer" to sort of "one who bears false witness to further himself" to "one who furthers himself". Generally, the word today is reserved for suck-ups. Curious, really, how sign language influenced verbal language in this occasion, and how a fig came to be associated with a teacher's pet.
For once, we have an obvious etymology! It is nonetheless interesting: today we explore the word urchin, which entered English in the early fourteenth century and describes those annoyingly spiky sea creatures. It is from yrichon, which was an old term for "hedgehog" (so named because it's a similarly spiky bother), from Old Northern French irichon, from Old French herichun, from Vulgar Latin hericionem, and finally from Latin ericius. This was a series of unsurprising developments, which as a whole trace to Proto-Indo-European gher, meaning "to bristle", again because of the spiky correlation. What is not as connected to sharp stuff is the later emergence of urchin as meaning "filthy street child". This was adapted by the snobby elite who used the term to emphasize how undesirable poor kids were. Also, in the early atomic bombs, an urchin was a device which helped start the reaction! Yay!
It seems that all good things are amoral. The word hedonism, now touted by religious conservatives as paramount with the sin of lust and just general wantonness. Well, it wasn't always like that. In days of yore, hedonism was an actual philosophical system where some ancient Greek thinkers decided that, in an absurdist sentiment, there was no purpose to life and therefore we should enjoy ourselves as much as possible, because WHY NOT. So hedonism was borrowed from the much older Greek term in the nineteenth century. That term is from earlier hedone ("pleasure"), which is curious in its own way. While it perhaps does not directly derive from Greek hedus, "sweet", it is at least an identical twin, for both are entwined and originated from Proto-Indo-European swad, meaning "sweet". The connection is obvious; that which is sweet is also pleasant.
This post was shamelessly copied from my research notes. The word plagiarism comes directly from the Latin word plagiarus, which meant "kidnapper". How did this crazy connection occur? It all harkens back to the Roman poet Martial, who was upset at people who copied his works without accrediting him. He then wrote a tell-all exposé poem railing against those who dared to steal his writings, lambasting their appropriations as akin to stealing another citizen's slave, or kidnapping. Thus the parallel was drawn; but where did plagiarus come from? None other than plaga, "a hunting net" (later meaning "trap"). This is a pretty obvious semantic correlation, for a net is how one would ensnare his unsuspecting prey. This is from Proto-Indo-European plaga, which meant "flat", based off the idea that a net is originally spread flat. PIE connections are weird. It's strange how many times the meaning of this word was hijacked. Even plagiarized, you could say!
If you'll take a moment to peruse yesterday's post, you'll notice that the word bedlam comes from an asylum called Bedlam in London. It goes even more in-depth if you consider that another term for "craziness" also originates in a London mental institution: barking mad. Apparently, there's a neighborhood in the fancy part of Britain's capital called Barking, and in it is a renowned religious building called Barking Abbey, which (you guessed it) used to be a mental institution. Soon enough, barking mad was applied to people who were as insane as the ones from the real barking, and the origin, being forgotten throughout time due to that correlation with dogs, influenced other terms such as howling mad. I have to issue a slight disclaimer, here, though, because it is in fact possible that barking does indeed refer to the onomatopoeic sound dogs make. The origin, as I said, is obscure, and like those of many words, only theorized at. But just think how whimsical it would be! How serendipitous! How intriguing! Call me barking mad, but I want it to be true.
In 1247 CE, a small monastery called St. Mary of Bethlehem was founded in London. It became a part-time hospital in the 1330s, and by the time of the Black Death a few years later, it was a full-time health center. At the dawn of the fifteenth century, they began admitting "lunatic" patients, and in 1547 it dropped any vestiges of being a monastery, officially becoming a city asylum. However, the patients there weren't treated very well, with some being shackled, tortured, or abused. A general atmosphere of bad chaos became associated with the place. Incidentally, over the many years of it being open, people got bored with the whole long name St. Mary of Bethlehem and eventually reduced it to just Bethlehem, which the English accent mangled to Bethlem, a word that was recorded as Bedlam. By now you will have drawn the comparison; today bedlam is a noun meaning "a violet or confusing situation". The word bedlam was used most in the seventeenth century, when it went colloquial, and usage has been decreasing steadily over the past couple decades.
In optics, it meant Optical Myasthenia Gravis. In computing, it meant Object Management Group. Then the Internet happened. OMG (sometimes just stylized omg; meaning "oh my God") was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as a word in 2011, but to find where it comes from, we have to go back a century. It was the middle of World War One when Winston Churchill, the man who would be Prime Minister of England in 23 years, received a letter dated September 9, 1917 from First Sea Lord John Fisher, in which was written the phrase "I hear that a new order of knighthood is on the tapis- OMG! (Oh! My God!)- shower it on the admiralty!" This is the first ever recorded mention of the word, which is pretty darn cool. It might have been floating around before, and it was certainly floating around afterwards, but only a little bit.. Usage of the acronym really started up around 1994, when people on the Internet started using text-speak. And now it's officially an English word! Ah, the impact Churchill had on life today...
There are six common colloquialisms about cake that I could find, and four of them have origins to do with humiliating African-Americans. It all originates in the nineteenth-century cruel practice of white aristocratic slave-owners to force their chattels and local freedmen to dance around a cake. After all the mockery and laughter subsided, the slave owners would then award that cake to the slave who "danced best". It was a very degrading practice, but since the whites were the literate ones, they got to name the event: a cakewalk, today meaning something very easy. This was because they considered it almost a gift, to bestow a cake for "nothing", and the dancing was an incredibly easy thing to do to earn that gift. This then sprung about other terms, such as piece of cake and easy as cake (both of these became interchangeable with pie in more recent time), meaning "easy" as well, and "taking the cake", describing a foolish action. The other two, non-racist cake expressions I could think of were eat one's cake and have it too (which used to be have one's cake and eat it too, a phrase that makes much more sense) and the cake is a lie, now an official idiom describing a misguided end and originating from the video game Portal. From now on, watch those sugar levels, for they might be racist as well as unhealthy.
We got our word for linguine first introduced into the United States in 1948, surprisingly late, but because of pasta's popularity, it kicked off quickly. Obviously, before that it was Italian, where linguine was also a renowned dish. But before that, the word came from linguina, which meant "little tongue". That's right; the pasta was so named because each spaghetti looked like a little tongue. You can kind of see a similarity, I suppose. But the "tongue" connection in linguina goes even further. -Ina is a suffix denoting something small, so lingua by itself means "tongue". At this point, you may be noticing a connection, and, yes, it is the root of other terms, like language, lingua franca, and even linguistics, for they all share that common root of "tongue". In an older version of Latin, lingua was spelled dingua, which is from Proto-Italic denywa, which is from Proto-Indo-European dnghu, also "tongue", also the etymon of Germanic tongue. So, when your tongue touches linguine during your next pasta night, appreciate the irony.
We get our word cantaloupe from the French, from back in 1739 when we borrowed the word cantaloup to describe that succulent, newly discovered melon. Before that, the French got cantaloup from the villa of Cantalupo, a Roman papal estate located in the Sabina region not far from Rome. Why the papal estate? Well, he got the first of everything, including the first cantaloupes the Italians traded from the Armenians. This particular pope, Paul II, was so enamored by the fruit that he ate it every day, and even died after consuming two such melons. As for the estate itself, the noun Cantalupo is theorized to be a portmanteau of cantere, or "to sing", and lupus, or "wolf". Both from Proto-Italic, respectively they go back to Proto-Indo-European kehn (still "sing") and wlkwos (still "wolf"), and the place was probably named after singing wolves because they ringed the hills in the countryside every night and howled. Disclaimer: this may or may not be a folk etymology, but a real one is unconfirmed, so let's not ruin our fun!
Nowadays, people think of parasites as tapeworms, ticks, or the like, but this entomological usage was etymologically used differently before science showed up in the seventeenth century. Before being appropriated for those disgusting organisms, parasite literally meant "a PERSON who lives off of others", showing that this newer definition is in fact a metaphor. Since the Romans, too, had a plethora of needy clingy people (I believe they were called plebeians), it is not surprising that our word is from Latin parasitus. And since the Greeks were even worse, how weird is it really that it all comes from parasitos? Since parasitical people worm their way into dining opportunities, parasitos literally meant "to eat at the table of another". This is from para- ("beside") and sitos ("food"). We have no clue where sitos derives from, but para- is a common prefix even in English, and comes from Proto-Indo-European per, or "forward". This whole origin story is ironic because, far from being beside food, modern parasites are surrounded by it!
In earlier dialects of English and in Anglo-Norman, the word venom ("animal poison") was alternately spelled venim and venym. Before that, in Old French, it was either venim or venin, but in Vulgar Latin it was definitely venimem, from regular Latin venenum. Here it gets interesting, because venenum took some surprising semantic shifts in a short segment of time. Most recently, it had the modern definition, but as we go backwards in time and trace the definition, the meaning goes to "potion" (just a skip, hop, and a jump from "poison"), then to "drug" (not a stretch from "potion"), then to "love potion" (which arguably includes being drugged), then finally to "seduction" (which is what a love potion entails). One step at a time, the definition logically grew little by little away from its first meaning. Etymology is so cool! The earliest, "seduction" form of venenum probably is from Proto-Indo-European wenh, "love". Love to venom. It's ironic if you consider how many relationships follow this simple etymological rule.
Today, a mausoleum is any kind of aboveground, enclosed tomb. Wikipedia lists over 250 of them, and those are just the notable ones. You'll find several in the average cemetery. Well, the whole story of that word origin goes back to one person: the Persian satrap Masoulus, who fancied Hellenic architecture and kicked the bucket around 350 BCE. His grieving wife/sister (yes, one person; those were weird days) decided to build him a large Greek-style burial monument, not too unlike the Egyptian pyramids in idea but quite innovative in architecture. After suppressing a rebellion, his widow-sister finished building it, the Greeks adopted it as a word (mausolos back then) to describe such tombs, which became popular, then it went into Latin and eventually English as mausoleum. As for the origin of Masoulus's name, it's uncertain, but probably Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Iranian. Funny how Masoulus' indeed ensured he'd be remembered by history, but not in the way that was expected.
The title may sound like a bad horror movie, but it's a legitimate etymological connection. Our word sarcophagus comes from French sarcophage, from Latin sarcophagus, from Greek sarkophagos, which meant "a coffin, particularly made of limestone", a type documented by Pliny the Elder. However, sarkophagos previously meant "carnivorous" or "flesh eating". This is very creepy but had nothing to do with mummies rising; in fact, the coffin type was so named because it was commonly believed that in limestone, bodies decay more quickly, and within a couple of weeks, all the flesh would be eaten away. Thus, we can trace this further to sarx, meaning "meat" or "flesh", and phagein, or "to eat". Also present in sarcasm, sarx goes back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word twerk, or "to cut" (as in dining). Phagein is also PIE, tracing to the zero-grade bhhg, or "to divide" (as in dining). Additionally, usage of sarcophagus peaked in the 1870s, when they were discovering a bunch of them. So many interesting origins, so little time.
Have you noticed that both the words coroner and coronary have some semantic relation to death? Yes? Well, the obvious conclusion there is that they both trace to some kind of Latin root for "death". This, however, is far from the etymological truth. They both trace to the Latin word for crown! Let me explain. It all goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root sker, which meant "to bend", which begot Greek korone, a word which evolved from "something with a curve" to "crown" because, after all, crowns are curved. Korone eventually gave way to a Latin word for "crown", corona, which is where our two words meet and also a remnant in English today (you may remember it as the hottest part of the sun). Coronary was taken nigh-directly into modern English because of the association with the way the veins ring the heart and a crown. Meanwhile, a coroner was originally an "agent of the crown" (thus the connection) who conducted criminal investigations, including cause-of-death investigations, eventually morphing into the post we have today. So corona and coroner are connected, not by death, but by royalty.
Everybody remembers eugenics as the Nazi attempt to kill off anyone who was not contributing to society the way they wanted. Considering all the nasty deaths involved, the origin is quite the oxymoron. Though eugenics were practiced in Ancient Greece (think Sparta), the word itself comes from Greek but not directly: it was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, who attributed the Greek word eugenes ("well born") to the purpose (the theory, of course, being that eugenics would culminate in a better born and bred super-race). The prefix of that word is eus ("good"), from Proto-Indo-European hes, "to be". Meanwhile, the root is gignomai, which meant "breeding" and is from Proto-Indo-European genh ("to beget", also the root of gene, you may recall). Though eugenics as a practice has decreased recently, usage of the word has increased significantly, almost to the previous maximum in the early 1900s.
If you're into popular etymology, you may have read that the word Amazon means "breastless", from a- ("without") and mastos ("breast"). Indeed, even the Greeks thought that; back when they were using the word they were convinced it was describing the quality of some Amazons to cut off their right breast for better archery skills. These statements have been largely debunked by historians and philologists alike; the Ancient Greek word Amazon is more likely a foreign word, hailing from Iranian hamazan, which described a certain group of warrior women in the steppes around Ukraine. Being part of a Proto-Indo-European language, the Iranian word hamazan could be from PIE nmngwiones, or "manless", from mongwio, "man". That, however, is getting really hypothetical. What we DO know is that the river was named after a similar warrior tribe in South America, and the company was named after the river due to its qualities of being large and exotic.
The word ostracize means "to neglect or banish a person from a group". Many people use this term, but few realize that it was an actual voting process in Ancient Greece: in the olden days, when the city-states really didn't like one of their citizens, they would create a referendum to banish that person. To vote, all land-owning white free males would cast a pottery shard with a yes/no on it and someone would count up all the shards to see whether the people approve of ostracism. This is why our word for ostracize traces to the Greek word for "tile", ostrakon (through ostrakizein, Medieval Latin ostracismus, and Middle French ostracisme). This comes from Proto-Indo-European hest or host, which meant "bone" and is also the origin of some other Greek words denoting hard things, like "lobster" and (obviously) "bone". Yes.
In Ancient Rome, a dictator was a consul granted temporary powers in times of war. It was a fair extension of the powers of a duly elected official, and didn't carry the harsh or permanent connotations of modern usages. Such stigmas are because of Julius Caesar, who got his dictatorship while not in a state of emergency, and he got it for life. Today, we equate it with similar situations, like that in Equatorial Guinea or North Korea. Anyway, the word dictator comes from Latin dictare, or "to prescribe" (yes, the root of dictate through Latin dictatus) because the Senate would prescribe emergency measures, and because "prescribe" is kinda synonymic with "talk" it all comes from dicere, "to speak". This all traces to (see the post on valedictorian) Proto-Italic deiko, from Proto-Indo-European deik ("to point out")
If you've been checking my infographics, you know what's coming. Darth is an honorific synonymous with the Sith in Star Wars, and even the people who never watched the saga knows about the whole Darth Vader-being-Luke's-father drama, if only through cultural diffusion. But did they know that Vader means "father" in Dutch? According to George Lucas, the director of the original trilogy, in a Rolling Stone interview, "Darth is a variation of dark. And Vader is a variation of father. So it's basically Dark Father." That confirms everything; now to trace Dutch darth. It is clearly Germanic, from Old Dutch fader, which joins with the root of our word father at the Proto-Germanic juncture, also spelled father, and is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European phter, which is one of the more ubiquitous PIE terms present in basically all the languages. "Father", though. Coooool.
I've been putting off this post for a long time. The word procrastinate is more than just a single-word synonym for "put off for tomorrow"; that's literally what it means in Latin, as procrastinatum. Here, we can dismantle the prefix pro-, which often means "forward" and is kind of a modifier here (from Proto-Indo-European per, "to go over"), and the rest of the word is crastinus, or "belonging to tomorrow". The root, cras, means "tomorrow", and has an obscure origin, but most likely it comes from Proto-Indo-European ku, which meant "to burn" and likely was connected to "tomorrow" due to the implications of light, and light coming again with each new day. Those pre-civilized troglodytes were bad at naming things. But, yeah, procrastinate both means "put off for tomorrow" and "to go over burning", the latter of which actually sounds pretty pro-active.
The word school (“place of learning”), or scol in Old English, traces to the Latin word scola one way or the other. Closer to today, scola meant “school”, but as we go backward into the past, it meant something more like “discussion”, because that’s what they did in Roman schools. This word came from Ancient Greek skholeion, which meant “conversations”, but also changes in definition further back: to “knowledge gained during free time” from just “free time” or "leisure" (not what many people associate with school!). The changes here are understandable but nevertheless surprising; it’s even weirder when you consider that this all comes from Proto-Indo-European sghe, or “to possess”, which metaphorically evolved to its Greek definition. That’s all I got, but, incidentally, the word school as in school of fish has no etymological connection to the educational edifice. From Dutch skola, “swarm of animals”, it goes back to Proto-Indo-European skwel, “crowd”. Now you know.
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.