Today, the word nuclear might conjure images of exploding warheads, but it literally just means "of or pertaining to the nucleus", because that is what's being split, after all. When it was first borrowed into the English language in 1668, nucleus referred specifically to the main part of comets or meteors, and that was later broadened to central masses in general. The word is from Latin, where it meant "kernel". That's from nucula, which meant "little nut" and was the diminutive of nux (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kneu, "nut"). The pronunciation nucular, which has been used by four U.S. presidents and several nuclear scientists, is now included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Hypotheses for why people say that vary: linguist Stephen Pinker thinks the u was inserted because it's easier for English speakers to say that than the accepted pronunciation, but others say it's because people think of nukes and then attach the -cular suffix from words like molecular. There's also an interesting theory that the politicians who say it but know better deliberately do so to sound folksy.
The game Yahtzee was invented by an unknown Canadian family in the mid-twentieth century. They originally called it the Yacht Game, because they played it on their yacht with their friends, and it was also sort of based on an existing dice game called Yacht. The rights were bought out by toymaker Edwin Lowe, the name was tweaked for commercial purposes, and the trademark for the game was registered with the US Patent Office by the Milton Bradley Company in 1956. Interestingly, the game has been marketed under different names in different geographic regions: it's spelled Yatzy in Scandinavia, Yams in France, and parts of Great Britain and Italy have used Yatzi and Yazzi. According to Google NGrams, Yahtzee makes up about 0.00000226% of all words in English literature, and peaked in usage in 2017.
When the word disgust was first used in the English language toward the end of the sixteenth century, it referred specifically to a strong distaste for food, but it soon came to refer to aversions to things in general. The noun was borrowed from Middle French desgouster, which (through the exact same word in Old French) is composed of the roots des-, meaning "not", and gouster, meaning "taste". Des- is a Latin prefix that is reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European element meaning "apart" and gouster is, by way of Latin gustare, from Proto-Indo-European geus, "to taste" or "choose" (this is also the source of the names Angus and Fergus, the verbs choose and gustate, and the nouns gusto and Valkyrie). Usage of the word disgust peaked in 1804 but has been experiencing something of a comeback since.
There's a commonly repeated myth that the word kangaroo comes from a Guugu Yimithirr (an Aboriginal language) word meaning "I don't understand" because the Aborigines allegedly didn't know what the Europeans were saying when they asked the name of the marsupial. However, that's widely regarded as incorrect; they did understand what was going on and responded with gangurru, their word for the Macropus robustus subspecies, which the English mistakenly interpreted to refer to all kangaroos. Most other languages in Guugu Yimithirr's family also had that term, and it probably comes from a similar-sounding root in Proto-Pama-Nyungan, although no reconstruction work has been done on it. An interesting thing that happened is that the Paakantyi language, which didn't have gangurru in its vocabulary, borrowed kangaroo from English as baagandji, meaning "horse".
When the word occupy was first used in the English language in the mid-fourteenth century, it meant "to make use of". From the 1470s to the 1700s, it also had a definition of "have sexual intercourse with", but the inappropriate meaning eventually died out in favor of our modern one (during this time, occupant also meant "prostitute"). Through Old French occuper, the word traces to Latin occupare, meaning "take possession of". That's composed of the prefix ob-, meaning "over" (from Proto-Indo-European hepi, meaning "on"), and the verb capere, meaning "seize" (also the etymon of captive, capiche, expect, receive, capacity, and many more words; through Proto-Italic kapio, it derives from Proto-Indo-European kap, "to grasp"). Literary usage of both occupy and occupant peaked in the late nineteenth century.
I don't remember the context, but someone recently joked to me that the city of Genoa and the word genuflect are related. I looked it up later, and, surprisingly, they are! In Latin and some older texts, it was spelled Genua, and that's probably an old Ligurian word for "knee" because of the city's geographic position where the Italian peninsula curves into the rest of Europe like a knee. Finally, that comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gnewo, also meaning "knee". I've already written about genuflect before, but it comes from the same root, through Medieval Latin genuflecto, the fourth declension Latin word for "knee", genu, and the Proto-Italic root genu. The term genoa can also refer to a type of jib used on cruising yachts - that term was borrowed into English around the 1930s - and is the source of the word jeans.
The word pervert was first used in English in the late fourteenth century as a verb meaning "alter something from its intended state" (as in pervert the course of justice). The noun form emerged in the 1500s with the definition "one who has been perverted to an immoral set of values". Originally, this didn't have the modern connotation and could refer to people who converted from Christianity, but around the 1850s it came to be associated with sexual deviancy. The word traces to Old French pervertir, which meant "to undo" and further comes from Latin pervertere, meaning "to corrupt" or, more, literally, "to turn the wrong way". Finally, that derives from the prefix per- ("away", from Proto-Indo-European per, "forward") and the root vertere ("to turn", from PIE wer, also "turn").
If you know Spanish, you'll sometimes come across the second person singular pronoun usted abbreviated as Vd. instead of the normal Ud. This is because the word used to be vusted; the v just kind of merged into the rest of the word by the seventeenth century and we have Vd. as a remnant of that. Vusted, in turn, is a contraction of the phrase vuestra merced, which meant "your grace" or, more literally, "your mercy". Vuestra derives from Latin vestra, the feminine second person plural possessive pronoun (this ultimately comes from Proto-Italic westeros, from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wos), and merced is from Latin merces, which meant "pay" or "reward" and is also the etymon of words like mercy, commerce, Mercury, market, and mercenary (this, through Latin merx and Proto-Italic merk, probably has an Etruscan origin) .
There exist a surprising amount of contradictory etymologies swirling around the Internet for the city of Nome, Alaska, and all of the possibilities are very interesting. One theory is that it's a transliteration of the Inupiaq word for "I don't know", no-me, because they were misunderstood while trying to communicate confusion to European settlers asking what the name of the place was. Another proposal is that the toponym traces from an 1849 British map, where they didn't have a name for the area and just wrote ? Name, which was later misread to be C. Nome, hence the name. Although possible, both of these stories sound a little far-fetched to me; the most likely explanation is probably that the city was named after a town in Norway by founder Jafet Lindeberg, who was from there.
When the word bias was first used in English in the early-to-mid sixteenth century, it referred to diagonal lines or hypotenuses. Around 1560, it became a technical term in lawn bowls for a type of ball that was heavier on one side, and thus veered off to one side when it was cast. Within a couple decades, the word took on the modern, figurative meaning of "prejudiced belief" and quickly surpassed the previous definitions. Bias was borrowed from the French word biais, which meant "slope" or "slant". That has a debated etymology, but probably comes, through Occitan, from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sker, meaning "to cut". The earliest attested use of bias in a statistical context is from 1900 and, according to Google NGram Viewer, literary usage of the word peaked in the year 1995.
I love using the phrase pulling out all the stops. It's a whimsical and positive way to describe when every effort is made in an endeavour. However, I had never given any thought to its etymology before a friend told me this very cool tidbit. The term was coined sometime in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century as a reference to organ playing, where a stop would refer to a knob controlling a set of pipes. When all of those knobs are pulled out at once, all the stops are pulled out, and the organ is making the loudest noise that it can possibly make. The first attestation I can find of the phrase being used figuratively is from a 1927 edition of The Oxford Magazine, when it described a particularly eloquent speech. Since then, usage of the phrase has been steadily increasing, with a peak in 2012.
The word incumbent was borrowed in the fifteenth century from the Medieval Latin present active participle incumbens, which meant "holding an office" (especially for ecclesiastical positions) but more literally translates to "reclining". The idea, presumably, was that incumbents figuratively "lean" on their current positions. The infinitive of incumbens is incumbere, which was composed of the prefix in-, meaning "on" (from Proto-Indo-European en) and the root cumbere, "to lie down". That comes from Proto-Italic kubao and Proto-Indo-European kewb, which probably meant something like "sleep". Cumbere has been a pretty prolific word in English, also giving us words like succumb, catacomb, and decubitus; other relatives include cubicle, concubine, succubus, and more.
The first use of the word rival in fifteenth-century English was with the now-extinct definition of "shore" or "bank". That, through Old French rivaille, comes from the Latin noun rivus, meaning "small stream". The current meaning of rival developed through Latin rivalis, which meant "person who fishes alongside another person". Originally, this implied friendly company, but eventually grew to have a sense of "one who competes for fish", and, by the 1570s, the term was extended to people competing in any field. Rivus is reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction her, meaning "to move" or "stir". The modern verb came about circa 1600, the adjective dates from the 1580s, and usage of rival has been steadily declining since a peak in 1780.
When the word explode was borrowed into English in the 1530s, it meant something more along the lines of "bitterly reject". In the context of theatre, exploding used to refer to audiences making loud noises to boo bad actors off the stage. However, around 1650, the definition shifted to be "loud and sudden noise". By 1790, it took on a sense of something going off with a bang, and became associated with destruction in the late nineteenth century. In Latin, the word was explodere, and that's composed of the prefix ex-, meaning "out" (from Proto-Indo-European eghs, also "out") and the root plaudere, meaning "clap". This, possibly coming from Proto-Indo-European plek ("fold"), is also the etymon of the words plausive, plaudit, and applause, which is really cool.
The word rescue was first used in English in an early fourteenth century legend about a knight who had to do a bunch of noble deeds to win the hand of his love interest. Back then, it was spelled a variety of ways, including resceve, reschewe, reschow, reskeve, reschue, reskaw, and much more. That all derives from the Old French verb rescorre, which meant "protect" and further comes from the Latin prefix re-, meaning "again" (from Proto-Indo-European wert, "to turn") and the root excutere, meaning "shake off" or "drive away"; presumably a big part of rescuing was thought to be driving away bad things multiple times. Excutere is composed of another prefix, ex- (from Proto-Indo-European eghs, "out"), and the verb quatere, "to shake". Finally, quatere, also the source of quash, comes from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like kes and meaning "cut".
The state of Wisconsin (originally recorded as Meskousing and Ouisconsin), was organized as a territory in 1836 and officially founded in 1848, but the name was in use for the area for centuries before that. It's an English spelling of a French spelling of a Native American word that referred to the modern-day Wisconsin River. The exact meaning and origin of that word is debated, and there are several theories to look at. It might be from the Menominee toponym Weskohsek-Sepew, meaning "a good place to live", or, as the Miami word Meskonsing, it could have meant "river running through a red place", which would have something to do with the red sandstone along its banks. Alternatively, a number of translations in Ojibwa have been proposed, including "red stone place", "where the waters gather", and "great rock". We'll probably never now for sure, but there are a lot of interesting options!
Today I'd like to talk about the Latin verb ferre, which has been extremely influential in English. It meant "to bear" or "carry", comes from the Proto-Indo-European verb bereti, and was used as a root in many other words:
When the word cult was borrowed into English in the early seventeenth century, it specifically referred to the act of worshipping a god, without the negative connotation of today. It comes from the Latin word cultus, which translates to "cultivate", as in cultivating the temple of a god, an act of worship in ancient Roman culture (Cicero famously defined religion as cultus deorum, "the cultivation of the gods"). That comes from the verb colere, which could mean "to till", "to inhabit", or "to protect", and ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European kel, "to turn around". The modern, negative definition of cult emerged in the late twentieth century due to an increased notion of obsessive devotion. Cult following was used in 1898 and phrases like cult status and cult classic are from the mid-1900s.
The phrase brownie points, describing imaginary rewards given to those who do good deeds, has a hotly debated etymology. The first recorded mention of it was in a 1963 entry to the American Speech journal published quarterly by the American Dialect Society, but it was certainly in use for quite a while before then. Some commonly held theories are that the phrase is a reference to the badges awarded to the group of Girl Scouts, that it's named after a railroad superintendent who introduced a system of merits and demerits, or that it's related to brown vouchers or stamps given out by various organizations. While these explanations cannot be discounted, the story that the most etymologists agree with is that it comes from the term brown-noser, which describes people who so flatter others that it's like they have their nose up the other's rear. Usage of the phrase brownie points was popularized in the 1990s and peaked in 2014.
The phrase hip, hip, hooray emerged in English in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as an exclamation for making a toast. Hooray comes from hurrah, which has, along with huzzah, long been a battle-cry used by European armies with no specific definition. Hip is a bit more interesting. Historically, it's been attested as an interjection used to get someone's attention, and it's unclear to what extent that influenced the duplication. A major theory is that it could be related to hep, hep, which was a traditional anti-Semitic rallying cry popularized through the Hep-Hep riots in Germany, where many Jews were killed and their property damaged. There are many fake etymologies swirling around the internet about this one, but it most likely comes from a herding call for shepherds in the area.
The word cologne emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as a shortening of the term cologne water, which was a loan-translation of French eau de cologne, which literally means "water from Cologne", the city in Germany where it was first produced. Cologne has a really interesting etymology itself: it was originally named Oppidum Ubiorum ("town of the Ubius tribe") when it was founded in 38 BCE, but in 50 CE Roman emperor Claudius's wife Agrippina the Younger (who was born there) asked for it to be made a colony and it was renamed Colinia Agrippina in her honor. Later, the Agrippina part was dropped and Colognia morphed into the toponym we know today. Colonia traces to the Latin verb colere, meaning "cultivate", and that derives from Proto-Indo-European kel, "to move".
The phrase hot dog was first recorded in an 1884 edition of the Evansville, Indiana Daily Courier. The hot part just referred to the temperature, but the dog part had meant "sausage" for several decades before that, probably echoing a suspicion that many sausages were created with dog meat. The moniker became very popular with the youth of the day, and there were several early attestations from college newspapers. It was especially popularized by use in cartoonist Tad Dorgan's popular comic strip in the New York Sun (Dorgan also helped phrases like for crying out loud, the cat's pajamas, and several others reach the mainstream), and was widespread by the 1930s. The use of hot dog! as an exclamation of enthusiasm emerged in 1906 and was made famous through frequent use by Mickey Mouse.
When a friend asked me where the word sketch comes from, my first reaction was to guess a Scandinavian origin, since a lot of sk- words tend to ultimately derive from Old Norse. However (through Dutch schets), it came to us in the seventeenth century from the Italian noun schizzo, with the same definition. That's reconstructed to the Latin word schedius, which came from Ancient Greek skhedios, meaning "temporary" or "made suddenly". This is related to English scheme and synechia, as all three words trace to the verb ekhein, meaning "to hold". Finally, ekhein comes from the Proto-Indo-European root seg, which also meant "hold". The word sketchy emerged in 1805 for anything "relating to a sketch", and the modern meaning emerged in 1878 on the notion that sketches are flimsy or unfinished.
In 1937, the Nazi German government formed a state-owned automobile company that they called Gesellschaft zur Vorbeitung des Deutschen Volkswagen, or "Company for the Preparation of the German People's Car". They must've realized this was a mouthful, so a little over a year later, they renamed it to Volkswagenwerk, or "People's Car Factory" - a name meant to evoke a sense of nationalism and pride in Germany's vehicles. After World War II, the company was essentially defunct, but because of the Marshall Plan, the Allies were able to get it back in business with the name Volkswagen, and the rest is history (the nickname VW is from 1958, and usage of the name peaked in 1981). The Volk- part, meaning "people", traces to Old High German folc and Proto-Germanic fulka. Fulka, also the etymon of the English word folk, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pleh, meaning "fill". The -wagen part, obviously a cognate of English wagon, goes back to Old High German wagan, Proto-Germanic wagnaz, and eventually Proto-Indo-European weg, "to transport".
The phrase you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs originated in French in the eighteenth century as ne saurait faire d'omelette sans casser des œufs. The exact origin is a little hazy, although it's commonly attributed to politician François de Charette, who used it to justify the fact that he killed a bunch of people in the Vendée counter-revolution. The idiom first cropped up in English in 1796 but only really started getting used in the late 1800s, primarily still in a context of justifying deaths. It was notably used (and possibly popularized) in World War II by Gestapo founder Hermann Goring, who said that "if people say that here and there someone has been taken away and maltreated, I can only reply: you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." Usage really started taking off in the 1990s, and peaked in 2013.
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.