Five thousand years ago, Proto-Indo-European speakers on the Pontic-Caspian steppe used the word brahter to mean "brother". Obviously this went on to evolve into words like English brother and Latin frater, but far more interesting was the term's development into Sanskrit, where it was spelled bhrata and meant the same thing. That further morphed into Romani phral or pral, which was brought into Europe by the migrating Roma around the thirteenth century CE. By 1770, the word was being used in English to refer to accomplices in crime (perhaps due to mistrust of the Roma), but by the middle of the nineteenth century, it lost all consonant clusters and took on a definition of "compatriot" or "friend" - the word pal as we know it today! The verb form was first attested in 1879.
In 1908, a snack manufacturing company named Sunshine Biscuits released a crème-filled sandwich cookie called the Hydrox, to decent reception. Four years later, Nabisco came out with their own version of the treat, which they called the Oreo Biscuit. Originally, this had lackluster sales, but it soon took off and reached such immense popularity that people mistook Hydrox for being an off-brand version of Oreo and it died out. In 1921, Nabisco renamed their product to Oreo Sandwich, and they struck again in 1948 with Oreo Creme Sandwich and 1974 with Oreo Chocolate Sandwich Cookie, which is the full name that exists today (although people obviously shorten it to just Oreo, which is evident if you look at the exponential increase of usage of the word since the 1960s). As for the name itself, Nabisco never provided an official etymology but there's a theory that the snack could be named for the oreodaphne genus of the laurel family - a lot of other Nabisco products are also named after plant - or that it was just made to be short and easy to pronounce.
The word hermaphrodite was first borrowed into the English language at the end of the fourteenth century from Latin hermaphroditus, which in turn comes from Ancient Greek hermaphroditos, with the same meaning. That used to be a proper noun, through, specifically describing the mythological child of Hermes and Aphrodite (hence the name) who got blended with a naiad named Salmacis to create a single person with both male and female sex characteristics. Hermes has an unknown etymology which is thought to be possibly non-Indo-European, and Aphrodite could be from the Phonecian word Ashtaroth, which would further be from Aramaic Ishtar and eventually Proto-Semitic and Proto-Afro-Asiatic. Usage of the word hermaphrodite has been relatively constant since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Scaphism was a rather horrible torture/execution method thought to be used by the Ancient Persians, wherein a person was tied between two boats, slathered in honey, set to sail, and left to be eaten by bugs and rats (although it's possible this was made up by the Greeks to make the Persians look bad). The root of the word is Ancient Greek skaphe, which meant "boat"; -ism denoted a state and came from Proto-Indo-European mos. Skaphe literally meant "thing cut out" and, through Proto-Hellenic, derived from PIE skep, meaning "cut". That's also the root of the term scaphoid, which describes the carpal bones in the wrist and apparently got its name because they look boat-shaped, and the word bathyscape, which is a type of deep-sea submarine (bathys meaning "deep" in Ancient Greek).
Despite Arthurian legend being set in the fifth and sixth centuries, the first use of the name Excalibur in English was in the 1300s, when it was spelled Excalaber. Before that, the Old French words Escalibor and Escaliborc were the standard, and they just added an es sound to the beginnings of the words Calliborc and Calibourne for no reason. Those are from Medieval Latin Caliburnus (which is still only from the twelfth century), which finally derives from Old Welsh Caledfwlch. That, in turn, is composed of the roots caled, meaning "hard", and bwlch, meaning "crack" (the development of calib was due to influence by a Latin word for "steelwork"). Caled traces to Proto-Indo-European kel, meaning "hard", and bwlch is also PIE through Proto-Celtic. Excalibur is also etymologically related to a legendary Irish sword named Caladbolg, which literally translates to "hard belly"
The word impeach as a verb has been around for a good 130 years prior to its initial appearance as a noun. It was borrowed from Anglo-French empecher, and originally meant "to hinder" or "prevent". Through manifold variations such as enpeche, enpesshe, empeach, impesche, and eventually impeach, it acquired its modern definition in the sixteenth century, peaking in usage in the 1660s, although Google Trends shows a marked increases in searches since the 2016 presidential election. Empecher derives from Old French empeechier, and that's from Latin impedicare, "to entangle" or "fetter". Impedicare is composed of the prefix in-, which meant "into", and pedica, which meant "shackles" and, through Proto-Italic, eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European word ped, meaning "foot". So the word went from feet to shackles to entanglement to hindrance to political removal: a fascinating transition!
When the word auburn was first brought into the English language circa 1430, it meant "white" or "yellow-white". Back then, there were a ton of different accepted spellings, including aburne, abourne, aborne, abron, and abrun. That last one is really important, because brun was the Middle English word for brown and people kept confusing the two. This resulted in the definition shifting over time to today's meaning of "reddish-brown", which is really cool! The original "white" meaning becomes more obvious as we move back through Old French auborne and Medieval Latin alburnus ("off-white") to the Latin word albus, which just meant "white" (you may recognize the name from Harry Potter; J.K. Rowling intentionally chose it for that definition). Finally, through Proto-Italic, the term eventually derives from PIE helbos, also "white".
When the word gonorrhea was first used in the English language toward the end of the fifteenth century, it had the specific medical definition of "involuntary discharge of semen". Later on, that term got applied to a disease characterized by a whitish discharge which was actually mucoid, but was mistaken for ejaculate. That disease was gonorrhea as we know it today, and at various times it was written gomorra, gomorrea, gonorrhey, gonorrhæa, gonorrhœa, and many other ways. The word, through Late Latin, derives from the Greek word gonos, meaning "seed" (also the root of gonad; from Proto-Indo-European genh, "beget") and rhein, meaning "to flow" (deriving from Proto-Indo-European srew, also "flow"). So, together, gonorrhea can be translated to "flowing seed". That's pretty interesting.
I recently leaned the rather fascinating fact that 97% of all Wikipedia pages lead to "philosophy" if you click the first link that shows up enough times. There are many theories as to why this pattern exists, but at least one explanation is that philosophy is the most wide-ranging field, the "mother of all sciences". This is sort of reflected in the word's etymology: through Old French filosofie and Latin, it comes from the Ancient Greek word philosophia, which meant "loving wisdom". The roots there are philos, or "beloved" (which is from philein, meaning "to love", and eventually has an unknown origin), and sophos, which meant "wisdom" (and eventually derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sehp, "to try", but that's contested). Usage of the word philosophy has decreased since the early 1960s.
The word taxation was borrowed in 1325 from Anglo-Norman taxacioun, which comes from Old French taxacion, which comes from the Latin accusative taxionem, which could mean "appraisal" or "rating", because tax collectors need to ascertain the value of things before they collected the government's share. The root there is the verb taxere, which could mean "evaluate" but also had connotations of handling money, and could mean "charge". Because of that connection to tangible currency, it's thought that taxere derives from tangere, which meant "to touch". That, through Proto-Italic tango, would eventually come from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction tag, meaning "touch" or "handle". Although usage of the word taxation has been decreasing since the early twentieth century, the frequency of the word tax has skyrocketed since then.
We all know that a praying mantis is said to be praying because it raises its forelegs in what appears to be a penitent position, but why is it called a mantis? The first attestation of the word in the English language was in Thomas Browne’s 1646 work Pseudodoxia Epidemica (which I recognize as also being the book that veterinarian was coined in), when it had the same definition as today. That was taken from Modern Latin, which in turn borrowed mantis in 1604 from Greek, where the word was still used to denote the insect but had a more literal meaning of “prophet”, again in reference to the religious-seeming posture (so saying “praying mantis” is somewhat redundant). The root in Greek mantis is menos, meaning “passion” or “spirit”, and that finally derives from the Proto-Indo-European root men, meaning “think”.
The word seduce was first used in 1477 CE, preceding the word seduction by about a century. Back then, there was no standard spelling, so forms like seduyse, seducit, and sedoussit were common. The term also did not have the same definition as today - it originally referred specifically to vassals deserting political allegiance, and the meaning of "entice into sexual relations" didn't show up until the 1550s. It all comes from the Latin word seducere, meaning "lead away". The root there is ducere, or "to lead" (which, through Proto-Italic douko, is thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dewk, which could mean "pull" or "draw"), and the se- part meant "without" or "away" (from PIE swe, "self"). Seduce has been increasing in literary usage since a low point in the 1910s.
The word guacamole was borrowed from Spanish in the early twentieth century, and they took that from the Aztecs and their word ahuacamolli. That's a portmanteau of ahuacatl, meaning "avocado", and molli, meaning "sauce" (this is also the etymon of the Mexican sauce mole). Makes a lot of sense. I've already covered ahuactl before, but it had a curious secondary definition of "testicle", due to visual resemblance. The eventual root is thought to be Proto-Aztecan pawa, also referring to the fruit. Molli, meanwhile, probably took a similar route but we don't have a reconstruction for it. The shortening guac (which is largely limited to North American colloquial speech) was spawned in the early 1980s, and the expression holy guacamole modified the pre-existing holy moley, which has been around since the 1940s and referred to a magical herb from Greek mythology.
The first recorded usage of the word suspicion in the English language was in a 1290 religious manuscript, when it was spelled suspecioun. Many other forms showed up later throughout history, including suspition, suspecyon, susspecion, and more. Suspecion was particularly popular for a while, which reflects the word's eventual origins in Old French sospeçon. The i was reinserted due to influence from the etymon of suspeçon, Latin suspicere, which had about the same definition as today but could also carry secondary meanings of "believe" or "suppose". The roots of suspicere are the prefix sub-, meaning "up to", and specere, "to look at", the notion being that someone who's suspicious of someone else will look up at them secretly to keep an eye on them. Sub- traces to Proto-Indo-European upo, meaning "below", and specere derives from PIE spek, "to see".
Fun fact: the word author didn't always have a th. Until the seventeenth century, it had a t, reflecting its Latin origins, but someone somewhere along the line confused it with the word authentic, with evident results. In Middle English, there were a ton of different spellings floating around, including auctor, autor, auctour, and many more. Before that, the term was Old French, where similar variations existed. The relevant Latin word, auctor, meant more than "author": it had a broader definition of "creator" or "originator". In this case, it's an originator of a story, but it could also mean "founder", "father", "performer", and "builder" - all creators of their own types. Auctor is from the verb augere, "to increase", which, through Proto-Italic, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hewg, with the same meaning.
The nineteenth-century Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was kind of a wacko: he supported eugenics, opposed vaccination, and was fascinated with vivisections. Perhaps his strongest belief, however, was that the English spelling system was idiotic, and he let this show in his writings. He always dropped the apostrophe when he wrote contractions, he created his own phonetic alphabet, and he reverted to archaic orthographies when he could. One of his coolest experiments to show how arbitrary language can be was his infamous respelling of the word fish as ghoti - gh as in rough, o as in women, and ti as in motion. Although it's now disputed whether that was really Shaw, it's definitely a rather popular linguistic thought experiment, with references ranging from Finnegan's Wake to a cameo in Klingon (the word ghotl means "fish" in the conlang), and very interesting!
Ramen was brought by Chinese immigrants to Japan in the late 1800s, and it soon became a staple of their culinary culture. After the instant variety was created in 1958, it also grew in popularity in America, with the word consistently increasing in usage. It was actually more commonly referred to as shina soba ("Chinese soba") in Japan until the 1950s, but then shina became sort of pejorative so they switched over. The word ramen is a borrowing from Chinese lamian, the source of lo mein; the l to r switch occurred because the Japanese r sound is an alveolar tap halfway between the phonemes. The first part of that, la, meant "pull" or "stretch", and the second bit, mian, meant "noodle", so lo mein and ramen both mean "stretchy noodles". That would be from Middle Chinese and eventually Sino-Tibetan.
The first attestation of the word condom dates back to the early seventeenth century writings of Scottish noble John Hamilton, who spelled it condum. Shortly afterwards, other spellings like condon, condam, quandam, cundum, and eventually condom emerged; it was also often bowdlerised into c----- or something along those lines. There was a lot of secrecy around the word throughout its history - it wasn't used in media until the late 1980s and it was absent from the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary - and partially due to the lack of confirmed usages it's difficult to trace an exact etymology. There's an urban myth that it was named after a British court physician, but far more plausible is another theory that the term traces to the Italian word for "glove", guanto. It's probably impossible to ever know for sure, though.
Our mental prototypes of the word arcade probably include retro game rooms full of kids playing Pacman, Galaga, and the like, but before that definition existed arcade (short for video arcade in this context) referred to covered avenues lined with entertainment venues. Even earlier, it meant "covered passageway" (this still is present as a definition today), and before that it specifically meant "arched passageway". The semantic shift gets even more wild when we go back to Latin arcata, or "arch of a bridge", and that derives from Latin arcus (the etymon of arc), "arch"or "bow". Finally, it all comes from the Proto-Indo-European arkwo, also meaning "bow". According to Google NGrams, utilization of the word arcade peaked in 1878 and has been decreasing since.
One thing I've always found unusual but haven't been able to explain is why we use the abbreviation lb to mean "pound". Apparently it traces back to an ancient Roman unit of measurement, libra pondo, which meant "a pound by weight" (their pound was 12 ounces; the word didn't mean 16 ounces until the 1300s). Pondo is also where we get our modern word pound, through Proto-Germanic punda and Old English pund, and the pound currency name derives from association with silver being measured in 12-ounce units. The pound symbol £ is a stylized l from libra pondo and the symbol # is sometimes referred to as a pound sign because it actually started as a fancy cursive combination of the letters l and b and to be used as shorthand for the word pound. I love how all these loose ends come together, just because of one Latin phrase.
When the word ditto was borrowed into English in 1625, it was only used to replace the month name in accounts of dates, to avoid hand cramping due to copying the same term over and over again. 53 years later, people figured out that they can use ditto in any context where a list contains repetition, and the rest is history. In the original Tuscan, ditto meant "the said" (as in, something that was already said), which is a variation of Italian detto. Detto in turn is from the Latin verb dire, or "to say", which is a contraction of the infinitive dicere, "to speak". Finally, through Proto-Italic, dicere derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction deik, meaning "to show". Ditto was especially popular in the 1770s and has been decreasing in usage since then, despite a small resurgence in the 1940s.
A threnody is a type of musical or poetic composition composed in memory of a dead person. The word was first used in 1634 when it was spelled thrænody, but the ash quickly got swapped out in favor of the letter e. That was taken directly from Ancient Greek threnodia, which is often translated as "lamentation". Threnodia was composed out of the roots threnos, meaning "wailing", and oide, meaning "ode" or "song". Threnos has an unknown origin: some think it's onomatopoeic, but there are cognates in Sanskrit, Latin, and Old English that suggest it may be Pre-Greek. Oide is related to the words melody, rhapsody, and others; it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root hweyd, meaning "sing". Usage of the word threnody peaked in 1904 and has been decreasing in utilization since.
In phonetics, the schwa symbol (notated with an ə) represents the uh sound, which is fascinating for many reasons: it's the most common vowel sound in English, it's the most relaxed sound our mouths can make, and it can be represented by any vowel letter. The first usage of this linguistic term was in an 1895 comparative philology textbook. That was taken directly from German, and the Germans borrowed the word from Hebrew sheva, which denoted a type of diacritic placed under a letter to indicate the absence of a following vowel sound (Jewish grammarians regarded the schwa as not being a vowel, due to its neutral qualities). Further back, sheva meant "emptiness" and may come from an Aramaic word swaya, meaning "equal" or "even".
When I first looked at the word claptrap, I assumed it was some type of onomatopoeic reduplication. Turns out I really missed the mark with that one. Our story takes us back to the thespian world of the 1730s, when actors would use specific rhetorical techniques and jokes, often without true substance, to get the audience applauding. Through their sycophantic tricks, they used words to trap the audience into clapping, and that's how the theatre slang emerged. Over time, the definition was broadened into a less-niche meaning of "nonsense speak", and today claptrap makes up about 0.00000988% of all English words used (down from its 1929 peak, which was about double that). Through Old English clæppan and Proto-Germanic klappona, the verb clap is eventually onomatopoeic, and through Old English træppe and PGmc trep, trap ultimately derives from PIE dremb, meaning "run".
We've been accustomed to the concept of privilege for as long as the English language existed. There are attestations from the dark ages of it being used as a Latin word in an English context, but it really started to grow its own identity in the 1100s CE. Since those early days, the Oxford English dictionaries lists 131 different forms of the word emerging, with spellings as diverse as priuilag and prewyllage; by the eighteenth century privilege was pretty standardized, especially due to influence from the French cognate. The aforementioned Latin word was privilegium, which had the very specific definition of "law applying to one person". That's composed of the roots privus, meaning "individual", lex, meaning "law", and the noun-forming suffix -ium. Privus (the etymon of private) comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction per, or "forward", and lex comes from PIE leg, "to gather".
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 philosophy, trivia, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.