I once covered how the word hysteria meant "uterus" in Greek, but I was shocked to find out that the word histrionic was not related- I had always assumed a common ancestor. Both have connotations of exaggerated emotions, but histrionic was adopted in the 1640s from the French word histrionique, meaning "having to do with actors or theater" (while hysteria comes directly from a medical Latin word for "womb"). This comes from Latin histrio, meaning "actor" (you can see the connection to the modern definition- actors act melodramatic like a histrionic person). This, surprisingly, comes from the ancient Etruscan language, which of course is not Indo-European. Fascinating! Hystrionic is used about 7 times more in literature, and both terms have remained relatively constant in usage over the last century.
It's amazing that the US government has, in some capacity, issued an official statement on the etymology of "it's raining cats and dogs". According to the library of Congress website, the first usage was in a 1561 collection of poems by Henry Vaughan. It subsequently racked up more attestations, eventually used by Jonathan Swift and going as viral as you could back in those days. But why did Vaughan say "cats and dogs"? Nobody knows for sure, but there are some theories. The most widely accepted origin is that it comes from Norse mythology, when cats were associated with wind and dogs were associated with rain- so, metaphorically speaking, when it's "raining cats and dogs", it's "raining wind and rain". Another etymology, although not as likely, is that this could be a corruption of the Greek phrase cata doxa, meaning something like "unbelievable" "unexpected"- so it implies that the storm is surprisingly strong. There's also a myth that the phrase comes from when cats and dogs cuddled in thatched roofs during storms in the Middle Ages and got washed out, although that's completely bogus.
Gallery has always seemed like an interestingly formed word to me, but now it's even more so. Today, it means a room for exhibiting art or gathering space in general, but when it was first brought into the English language in the mid-1400s, gallery meant something more along the lines of "passageway" (the connection to art came because paintings were sometimes displayed in these hallways). Through Old French gallerie and Latin galeria, this likely derives from another Latin word, galilea (meaning "church porch"), although that is not confirmed. If true, then galilea has an interesting origin of its own: it was named after the region of Galilee, because church porches were at the far ends of the church, just as Galilee was at the far end of Palestine (and, obviously, there is a religious connection as well). The toponym Galilee comes from Hebrew Gelil Haggoyim, meaning "the district of Nations". And now you know.
I've noticed a curious new linguistic development in the world of youth social media! The image- and video-sharing app Instagram is rather popular with kids my age. The name is interesting in itself, because it is a blend of the words instant and telegram, but it only gets better from that oddly archaic combination. In many cases, this gets abbreviated to Insta, just to shorten the term for convenience's sake. However, some of the more hip and jive teens soon started a second insta so they could have one to present to the world and one just for their inner circle of friends, where they could goof off and be less careful about what they post. This second account was cleverly named a finsta, as a portmanteau of fake and insta. I couldn't find who coined the term, but it seems to have originated around autumn of 2014, and became mainstream in mid-2016. Curiously, the term rinsta ("real insta") has emerged to describe those public-persona accounts, as a formation based off finsta and just now really gaining popularity. These names are especially interesting because they're great opportunities to experience etymology in action- language is changing with us and our tech, and that's really cool.
I was quite surprised to learn that the word coffee came from Dutch! We borrowed it from them around the year 1600, and they got their word koffie from trading with the Italians, who got their word caffe from trading with the Turks, who got their word kahve from trading with the Arabs. It certainly was a popular bean! The Arabic word, qahwah, is a spot of confusion for etymologists. The main theory states that qahwah used to be a word for "wine", and got connected to the newer drink because both were brewed similarly and served heated in the area. This would be from the Proto-Semitic root k-m-r, meaning "to cover", in this case hot with water. However, that's contested, as another hypothesis traces the word coffee to the name for the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, where the plant was perhaps first cultivated. But, as aforementioned, this is a source of contention and we can't know for sure. Both Google Trends and Ngrams show the word coffee as being at its highest usage ever, as the beverage is in peak popularity.
Close is a very versatile word. As an adjective, it can mean "confined" or "almost"; as an adverb, it can mean "tightly" or "near"; as a noun, "an ending"; and as a verb, "to shut". The last term is the oldest- all the previous definitions were first attested in the late thirteen hundreds and come from the verb, which appeared circa 1200. In Middle English, this underwent a number of variations (such as closen, clusen, and clysan, all with the same meaning. All of this comes from the Old French word clos or clysan, which stems from Latin clausus, a word that could be better defined as "shut up". Clausus derives from claudere, which carried a whole slew of meanings, among them "block", "enclose", and "confine". A flexible term, just as close is today. After this, through Proto-Italic, we can go as far back as the Proto-Indo-European word klau, meaning "hook" (under the connection that hooks close things).
The brutalist movement began in the early 1950s under the architect Le Corbusier, who named his style of crude cement buildings beton brut, which literally meant "raw concrete". This term perfectly encapsulated the vibe the structures exuded, and was soon widespread. When the word was borrowed into English in the 1950s, a slight tweak was made to make it more recognizable as an English term, and, lo, we ended up with the word brutalism. So it's a slightly different word and connotation in our language, but, etymologically, none of that matters, as both brut and English brutal come from Latin brutus (albeit the latter by way of Medieval Latin brutalis, "stupid"), meaning "heavy" or "dull". Yes, this is where the name for Caesar's assassin comes from as well. Curiously enough, brutus does not come from Proto-Italic as most Latin words do. Instead, it came through Oscan from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gwere, meaning "heavy".
We get our word chai (meaning a specific type of Indian spiced tea) from the Urdu word chay, which meant "tea" in general- so when we say "chai tea", it really means "tea tea". Chay comes from the Mandarin word cha (everything from here on out will also mean "tea", so I won't bother with definitions anymore), and that comes from the Old Chinese word rla. Rla is also the source of the Min Nan Chinese word te, which yielded Malay teh, a word that was picked up by the Dutch when they claimed the East Indies for themselves. Not long after, the English borrowed the word as tea. So, not only is chai tea redundant, but the two words are etymologically connected. It gets way more interesting than that, though: the Old Chinese root rla had amazing spread. As it traveled with the tea, it evolved into words as diverse as Swahili chai, Hausa shayi, Turkish chay, Finnish tee, Japanese ocha, and many more. Almost all modern languages' words for tea are connected by that one word. Fascinating.
Koi is a kind of Japanese carp, but, etymologically speaking, that's like saying carp is a kind of carp. This is because koi comes from the Japanese word koi, meaning "carp" in general. This was borrowed in 1727, but only as a term for the most common type of Japanese carp- the rest all have different names. Koi in Japanese probably comes from an Old Japanese word with the same meaning and sounding like kopi (there is a citation in the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book in Japanese). Before that, it's anyone's guess, but it probably derives from a Proto-Japonic root meaning "fish" in general or something of the sort. East Asian languages are always difficult to trace. Fun side note: in Japan, koi can also mean "love" or "affection", so koi have become synonymous with friendships and infatuations in the country. Second side note: because of the increased popularity of koi ponds in landscaping, the word koi is now at its highest usage ever.
Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz invented calculus in the mid-seventeenth century. Newton gave it the very tedious name "the science of fluents and fluxions" and Leibniz was the one who gave it its modern name- it's not surprising that Newton's name didn't stick. Leibniz borrowed the word from Latin, where it referred to "a pebble used for counting", with a connection of solving mathematical problems. Because many of these pebbles were made out of limestone, we can further trace this back to the Latin word for "limestone", calx (making it related to words as diverse as causeway, recalcitrant, calcium, and chalk). This is from Greek khalix, also meaning "pebble" but nothing to do with counting this time. Origins of this are surprisingly obscure. It might be from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "to break up", or it might have a non-IE Pre-Greek origin. Hopefully future resources will shed some light on that. As for now, it's all Greek to us.
In the earlier days of English, the word festival referred specifically to religious holidays, so it's changed a tiny amount since then. First recorded in 1589, this came pretty much without event from the Old French word festival, which in turn came from Latin festivus, meaning "lively" or "festive" in general. This can be conjugated to festus, which essentially meant "anything having to do with feasts". Further back, we're already reconstructing: in this case from Proto-Italic festos, from Proto-Indo-European dehs, meaning "deity", because feasts were held to honor the gods. As you may have guessed, this is related to the word feast as well. The latest common root is festus, which gave way to Old French feste, also meaning "religious holiday", which became feast as we know it. In English today, the word festival is used a little more often than feast, but both have been decreasing in utilization since the nineteenth century.
Right up until the 1970s, the word gender was completely interchangeable with sex. It was only once the political zeitgeist grew to be more accepting of transgenderism that there was a need to split the terms, and gender got chosen to mean one's perception of sex rather than their sex itself. Accordingly, gender used to have a much more biological meaning, and has its roots in science. It was borrowed in the fourteenth century from the Old French word gendre, which could mean either "gender" or "species", in an academic context. From here, we can trace it to Latin genus, which had an even broader definition of "kind", "type", or "sort" (also the source of genre). Through Proto-Italic genos, this may be reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European genh, a root meaning "to produce" (as in, classifications are produced) and also the source of words as diverse as genome, natal, eugenics, nation, Renaissance, cognate, oxygen, and much more. I guess you could say there are many types of genders.
Why the heck do we call a genre of music rock n' roll? What do those words have to do with anything? Well, in the early 1900s, the word rock had emerged as African American slang for music to dance to in general, in reference to how gospel singers would rock back and forth to the spiritual songs they sang. Over time, the word grew to carry more and more hedonistic, scandalous connotations. Meanwhile, the word roll had been a euphemism for "sex" for quite a while- a colloquialism dating all the way back to the Middle Ages, while simultaneously having connotations of "to sway". This all collided in 1941 when lyricist Buck Ram created the song Rock and Roll. This kept developing into the overarching term for the rock and roll genre, which really began emerging in the 1950s and obviously took off from there. Later on, the and was shortened to n' just for coolness. So that's how two anachronistic words combined into the word for a style of music. Two curious points I can make here are that the phrase sex, drugs, rock n' roll is sort of redundant because of the previous connotations of roll and that the shortening to rock is really cool because it encompasses all of that in just the first word.
The word anatomy, meaning "study of the human body", was borrowed into English in the late 1300s from Old French anatomie, which came from Latin anatomia, still with the same definition. This comes from Greek anatome, which meant "dissection" (because to study anatomy, you had to dissect people, of course). We can dissect that into two parts: ana, meaning "up", and temnein, meaning "cut". So a dissection is cutting something up. Makes sense. Ana in Proto-Indo-European was hen, or "on", and temnein comes from PIE tem, also meaning "to cut". One interesting side note in the development of anatomy: it was very close to losing the preceding a in English, as it was very frequently mistakenly divided into a natomy- just like we got uncle from nuncle through the division an uncle. Luckily, though, the Latin form prevailed, and we got the purest form of the word. Applications of the word anatomy has really increased since the 1700s, and is now at one of the most frequent usages it has ever been.
The word bra obviously comes from brassiere, and that comes from French brassiere, but here it gets interesting. In Old French, the etymon of these terms was braciere, and that referred to a protective lining of armor meant to protect the arm (yes, this is related to brace). Further back, the Old French word brace meant "arm", and that comes from Latin brachium, meaning "arm" as well (this is connected to several brachio- words, including bracelet, embrace, brachiosaurus, and, bizarrely, pretzel- we'll have to get into that later). In Greek, brakhion meant "upper arm", but before that, it meant "short", purportedly because the upper arm is shorter than the lower arm. What a strange metonymical switch! Further back, we can trace this to Ancient Greek brakhus, meaning "short" as well, and, through Proto-Hellenic, this derives from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-Europpean root mregus, "short" or "brief". For a short period in the 1940s, the word brassiere has been more commonly used than bra, but the latter form really took off since then, and currently stands at about nine times the usage of brassiere.
Yesterday we learned that the company name Verizon is partially made up by the word horizon, but where does horizon come from? To find out, let's set our horizons as far back as the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction werw, which had meanings of "border", "landmark", or a "demarcation" of any type. This eventually became the Proto-Hellenic root worwos, with about the same meaning, and that morphed into Ancient Greek horos, or "a boundary", more specifically. Horos became horizon in Ancient Greek (by then it had the modern meaning), and that was borrowed into Latin the same way, but here is where it gets really interesting. When the French loaned the word, their accents lopped off the initial h and left us with orizon or even orisaun. That's the way we took it into English, and used it for centuries, but somewhere in the 1600s somebody noticed that it didn't line up with the Latin spelling, and threw the h right back on. So there you go.
As someone who's only ever lived in the twenty-first century, I was surprised that the name for the telecommunications company Verizon predated me by only one year. After the Bell telephone monopoly broke up into seven "baby bells" in 1984, the "Bell Atlantic" wing survived on its own for a couple of decades through mergers and growth into nearby states. After acquiring GTE, however, they were looking to rebrand, so they took on the name "Verizon", which was a strategically chosen to be a portmanteau of the Latin word veritas, meaning "truth", and the English word horizon. Kind of a boilerplate corporate name, really, but still very interesting. Veritas, which can be conjugated to verus (also meaning "real"), comes from the Proto-Italic word weros and the Proto-Indo-European word weh, both with the same meaning. Horizon, meanwhile, will be covered in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
A geisha is a Japanese hostess who entertains men through performing arts and conversation (and, by definition, not a prostitute; those were the similarly-clad oiran). The word was borrowed from Japanese in 1887, where the most literal meaning is perhaps "artisan" (or "art person" if you want to get super technical). This is because geisha is a fusion of gei, meaning "art" or "technique", and sha, meaning "person". Both of these terms come from Middle Chinese, which is not too strange- there's a whole kanji alphabet for that very purpose. Gei comes from a word sounding like ngiei, also meaning "art" or "craft" (earlier on, we can trace this to words meaning "to plant") and sha derives from something sounding more like cha, which served as a suffix relating to people, such as -er or -ist today. I wish I could go more in depth but I'm absolutely terrible at East Asian etymologies. They get very messy. Geisha as a word peaked in usage in the 1960s but has recently been on the rise again.
The poet Thespis revolutionized the early stages of ancient Greek theatre by being the first to introduce one actor standing apart from the chorus, with deeper dialogue and greater development. Then Aeschylus came around and made it two actors, and Sophocles popped in to make it three. The initial and most important of these characters was the protagonist, then the deuteragonist for the secondary character and Sophocles' third character was called the tritagonist. Any or none of these characters could also be the antagonist, which obviously is the bad guy. Now, in those old Athenian times, they would have actors compete to win sort of their equivalent of the Best Actor Tony Award, so the word agonist, meaning "actor", originally could be defined better as "competitor" or "combatant" because they were competing for the theatre laurels. Pro- means that person is the first actor, deu- that they're the second, trit- that they're third, and anti- that they're "against" the other competitors. In Modern English, only protagonist and antagonist remain in use, and their meanings have clearly changed a bit since then.
The Taino language gave us a surprising number of words (in no particular order, this encompasses cannibal, tobacco, savannah, potato, barbecue, canoe, hammock, and Caribbean) for an indigenous language, but today we look at one in particular: hurricane. Until we borrowed this term, there were already existing names for hurricanes: typhoon, cyclone, even tempest. However, clearly we didn't have enough words for the weather pattern, and Spanish colonizers in America soon began adopting a word they transcribed as hurican from the natives of the Greater Antilles. In truth, it may have sounded more like huracan or even juracan depending on the dialect. Beyond that, it's obscure, but in Quechua and Mayan, hurakan and huranken respectively referred to storm gods, so there must be a common ancestor connecting the Arawakan (Taino) word to the rest. There's a lack of records for concrete evidence here, but just the hints are fascinating.
It honestly never occurred to me until this word was requested, but flour is more than a homophone of flower- it's directly related! Sometime in the middle of the 1400s, we adopted the Middle English word flour, meaning "flower", for the white wheaty powder, under the notion that, as a flower is the finest part of the field, so is flour the best part of the meal. Flour meaning "flower" eventually changed in spelling to differentiate it (even though it was there first- no fair!) and flour meaning "flour" stayed the same in that time. Both of these words come from Anglo-French flur, which comes from Latin florem, still meaning "flower" but also doubling as "blossom" (this is connected to flora, as in flora and fauna, through a Roman goddess). In reconstructing the noun, we can trace it to Proto-Italic flos and Proto-Indo-European blehs, with the same definition. Usage of the word flour has mirrored that of flower very closely over the last five hundred years- changing when it changed, although always a little less.
Another word request, although I have to warn you that this one is a bit boring compared to the last one. Every single etymon of done means "do"; as such a simple and essential word it underwent very little semantic change, because it was always needed in that context, and there was no need to replace it or change it, ever. However, because it was so common, it also underwent a lot of orthographic variation, as the sheer number of usages inevitably caused. In Middle English, done took the forms of don, idon, yedon, gedon, and more; in Old English it was don or gedon. Reconstructing it further yields the Proto-Germanic word donaz and, earlier, the Proto-Indo-European word deh, obviously still meaning "to do", but also holding definitions of "to place" or "to put". Usage of both do and done has been relatively constant since the 1720s, and do is used about ten times as often. Okay, I guess you could say that this blog post is done.
I'm getting the best word requests right now! Absquatulate, another obscurity I've encountered very few times, is a verb meaning "to leave abruptly". Interestingly enough, this word was sort of created as a joke, to be a mockery of all those new Latin formations at the time (that being the year 1840). The central component is a blatantly ironic use of the word squat, which comes from Old French esquatir, with the same meaning. This comes from the prefix es-, meaning "out" (from Latin ex-, from PIE eghs, still "out"), and the root quatir, which traces to Latin cogere, "to compel", from PIE roots to do with motion). The first and last parts are meant to evoke abscond and perambulate, so you would abscond your squat to walk and leave abruptly, as it were. However, the affixes actually present in absquatulate are ab-, meaning "away from", and -ulate, implying an action of movement. So absquatulating means "to move away from squatting".
Fun fact: Nintendo was originally founded in 1889, which means it's about to turn 130 years old. Obviously, they weren't selling Switches and The Legend of Zelda; at the time it was just Japanese hanafuda cards, which became really popular and help grow the company into the gaming conglomerate it is today. The reason for naming the company was never made clear, but the original kanji could have two interpretations. The most prominent theory is that it means "leave luck to heaven" (which could be a reference to both the luck you can have in the cards and the luck the creator wanted for his company). In this interpretation, the word would come from Japanese ninkyo, meaning "chivalry", and ten, meaning "heaven". The other school of thought place Nintendo's etymology in the phrase "the temple of free hanafuda". I must stress, however, that neither of these origins are confirmed, due to a lack of primary sources.
When I first got the word Mlechchha in my etymology requests folder, I honestly thought I was being spammed or something. That doesn't look like a word! The double ch just looks absurd to me as an English speaker, but turns out that it is a legitimate name for a dynasty in the Kamarupa region of India that ruled from 650 to 900 CE. More commonly spelled Mleccha and occasionally also taking the form of Maleccha, the middle sound is just kind of a guttural k. Now, etymologizing this word is very tricky. No Vedic texts give any hint as to its origin, and the earliest citation we have of it is in a context pointing out what a weird word it is. In any form, however, it seems pretty clear that Mleccha comes from Sanskrit, meaning "barbarian" for a while, and some think it's so hard to find because it's regionally rooted. Another theory is that the apellation comes from Sanskrit mili, meaning "speech", and that would be from the (non-IE) Dravidian family. Just some possibilities. Interesting word; my thanks to whoever suggested it!
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.