Aglet is one of the more specific words in the English language, and it's wonderful that we have it. Defined as "that metal or plastic thing on the ends of your shoelaces", aglet actually maintained the same meaning since its debut in the mid-1400s, but spelling varied a little; it occasionally took the form of aiglet. Either spelling comes from the Middle French word aiguillette, which is a diminutive of aiguille or aguille, a term for "needle" (because aglets act as needles for threading through the shoelace-holes). As many French words do, this comes from Latin, in this case from the noun acucla or acucula, both of which are diminutives of acus, which still meant "needle". This comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ak, or "to be sharp". Interesting definition, double diminutive, secret meaning: aglet checks all of the etymological boxes!\
It would seem weird to use the word mnesia in English, but when we attach a one-letter prefix meaning "not" in front of it, it's suddenly normal. That's exactly what's happening on an etymological level here: our word amnesia, which comes from Ancient Greek amnesia, is composed of that prefix, a-, and the root mnesia, meaning "to remember" (so, together, amnesia means "not remembering"). A-, through Proto-Hellenic, comes from Proto-Indo-European n (yes, just the letter), which meant "not". Mnesia, of course, isn't too complex, either; it can be conjugated to mnasthai ("recall"), which, also through Proto-Hellenic, comes from Proto-Indo-European. In this case, the reconstruction is men, meaning "to think". Usage of the word amnesia, which was first attested in 1786, has skyrocketed in recent years as its meaning becomes less medical and more used in popular culture. What was I talking about again?
Something that is moot is disputable, irrelevant, or unsolvable, but going back it time we can see it take on quite a different meaning. First, we get the usual slew of alterations in Middle English due to the lack of more rigorous conventions: forms such as mot and gemot were rampant as well as our current word. Gemot was also the word for moot in Old English (the ge- got dropped later), where it meant "assembly" or "meeting" (Game of Thrones fans might recognize the usage of moot in a context of "congregation", where a Kingsmoot is a method of choosing a ruler of the Iron Islands). The connection is rather curious: law students back in the day would gather in meetings to practice hypothetical trials. These mock trials led to a meaning of "hypothetical", which was later extended to the current definitions. Anyway, gemot comes from Proto-Germanic mota, meaning "an encounter", and that in turn is derived as being from Proto-Indo-European mehd, or "to come".
Desire has a surprisingly poignant etymology for such a simple-seeming word. Borrowed in the 1200s from the Old French verb desirrer (meaning "to wish for"), it can be traced to the Latin word desiderare, which could mean "demand" or "express" but had a much prettier literal meaning: "to await what the stars will bring". Obviously, this etymology is heavily steeped in astrology and the Romans' beliefs that the heavens influenced all the happenings on Earth. More than wishing for something, they wished that the heavens would give them something. Anyway, desiderare is composed of two parts: the prefix de-, meaning "of" or "from", and sidus, meaning "star" or "constellation". De- just comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "of" and sounding about the same, and sidus, most likely through Proto-Italic, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sweyd, meaning "sweat". It appears that desire to use the word desire has decreased throughout the ages: it was far more prevalent in seventeenth century English than today.
The letter b wasn't always in doubt. In Middle English, it was most often spelled douten or duten and also had meanings of "to dread" or "fear", and in Old French it was doter. It isn't until we trace the word back to Latin that we see the b reappear in dubitare, a word with a very similar meaning as today. The reason both the spelling and definition are closer to Latin is that, as Latin grew more influential in English following the Renaissance, scholars tried to push many words back to their roots, and this was one of the victims. The verb dubitare comes from the noun dubius (which, yes, is the direct etymon of dubious). This has a particularly interesting origin: it's composed of the words duo, meaning "two", and habere, meaning "to hold". If you put those together, you're holding two ideas or beliefs, and that's how it's connected to doubt. Duo, through Proto-Italic, is from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dwoh, meaning "two". Habere, also through Proto-Italic, hails from PIE gehb, "to grab".
In modern contexts, the word Bohemian describes someone who lives an unconventional lifestyle. These people, particularly artists, espoused free love, voluntary poverty, and resistance of the government. In a nutshell, hippies. This term originated in French as bohemien, meaning "gypsy", because the Roma people were traditionally associated with the unorthodoxy of those artists. It gets even more interesting after this: Bohemiens were named after the region of Bohemia in the western Czech Republic, because when they first came to France, there was some unsubstantiated urban legend that they came from that area. Bohemia, likely through Latin or French, ultimately comes from the Proto-Germanic words haimaz, meaning "home" and Boio, the self-appellation for the Celtic Boii tribe. Haimaz hails from Proto-Indo-European koymos, "village", and the origin of Boio is unknown but might have something to do with cattle.
The word abstract was borrowed into Middle English in the fourteenth century from the Latin word abstractus, meaning "drawn away" (you can sort of see the connection to a nonexistent concept; it's "drawn away" from reality). This is from the verb abstrahere, implying the pulling away of something. Abstrahere is composed of ab-, meaning "off" and trahere, "pull" or "draw". Ab- comes from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like hepo and containing the same definition. Trahere, meanwhile, is reconstructed as deriving from another Proto-Indo-European root; in this case it is from tregh, which likewise matched its Latin meaning almost exactly. The term abstract in reference to art hails from the 1920s, but was really popularized in the '50s. According to Google NGrams, usage of the word abstract in literature is now higher than it's ever been, constituting about 0.0026% of all words used.
Shaft has some delightfully incongruous definitions. It can range in meaning from "a long passageway" to "the body of an arrow or column", and you can also get shafted by taking a bad deal. Well, the last one comes from a 1958 connection of "being impaled", with inapporpriate undertones. We're now left with two elongated, narrow spaces, one full of air and the other of material. Both of these interpretations are connected through that cylindrical similarity and trace to the Old English word sceaft, which meant "long, slender rod". This is generally acknowledged to be from the Proto-Germanic reconstruction skaftaz, with the same meaning; that, in turn, has an unknown origin but is hypothesized to derive from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like skapos and meaning "stem" or "stalk". The first vulgar noun usage of shaft is from the early eighteenth century, through the meaning of "column".
The word tenacious has survived in the English language for over four centuries (you could almost say that it was tenacious). Although it now has a more figurative meaning of "difficult to sway from one's beliefs", as the Middle French word tenacite, it meant something more literal, along the lines of "clinging on" (although that is also a remaining definition today, of course; there is a shift, however). In Latin as tenacitas, the translation is "the act of holding fast", and that traces to the verb tenere, meaning "to hold" (Spanish speakers can recognize this as the etymon of tener, "to have". Earlier, in Proto-Italic, etymologists reconstruct this to a word sounding like teneo, and that in turn would be from Proto-Indo-European ten, meaning "to stretch". Ten is interesting because of the sheer number of words that spawned from it; among those that include it as a root are abstain, baritone, catatonic, detain, entertain, hypotenuse, intend, maintain, ostensible, pertain, sustain, temple, and tenure. The list goes on and on. Like derivation, like etymon: it certainly is tenacious.
Our word tuition originally meant "guardianship"! The meaning of "money you pay to a school" was applied because colleges and schools are your temporary guardians and charge you fees, so the definition began to shift. Anyway, in the early 1400s, guardianship came from Anglo-Norman tuycioun, which came from Old French tuicion, which had a very similar meaning. As many Old French words did, this derives from Latin, in this case from the nominative tuitio, or "protection", which in turn is a conjugation of tueri, "to watch over". This makes tuition distantly conencted to the words tutor and intuition. It is theorized to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction tewh, which would mean "to observe" if the origin is correct. It appears that as colleges charge more and more, the word tuition has risen in usage throughout time, now at its peak.
Platinum was identified as an element in 1741, but the word for the metallic substance didn't come into English until 1812; they didn't even have a word for it in Old English. This wasn't borrowed the usual route, that being directly from French or Latin; actually, it was taken from the Spanish diminutive platina, meaning "little silver". This is because platinum was considered an impurity when found in silver, and it was sort of meant pejoratively. Platina is from plata, meaning "silver" in general, and that, through either Old French or Old Provençal, is related to our word plate through Latin plata, meaning either "plate" or "piece of metal" (and thus our etymologies join). This likely comes from Ancient Greek platys, meaning "wide", "flat", or "broad" (also the prefix in plateau, platonic, platform and platypus), which derives from a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sounding like plat and meaning "to spread". Through a lot of changing definitions and relatives, the etymology of platinum has enjoyed a nice spread.
Yeet is a very interesting neologism which has been around for several years at this point. Mostly used by younger people, it can carry multiple usages, but is always used as an exclamation, indicating either excitement or rejection (and quite often associated with throwing something). Got a new pair of shoes you don't like? Just yeet them out of there. Want to come with me to the movies? Yeet. In short, it's a very confusing modern word with many different applications. There's also a whole debate whether the past tense is yeeted or yote. I'm not going to go into that, but you can hear youngsters saying both interchangeably. Onto etymology! Most sources indicate that the word originated in a 2014 Vine video, where it was the name for a specific type of dance, and then grew from there. While more accurate or in-depth sources are nonexistent, it's always cool to see some modern etymology in action with examples like this.
The etymology of vanilla is actually far from plain vanilla. The meaning of "plain" was first attested in the 1940s, when the whiteness and commonality of the ice cream flavor caused the new definition to arise. Before that, vanilla referred exclusively to the plant and extract of the plant, a term which was adopted in the 1660s from Spanish vainilla, which literally meant "little pod" (a word created during Hernando Cortes' infamous mission to the Aztec empire). This is a diminutive form of vaina, meaning "pod", and that derives from Latin vagina, meaning "sheath", under a connection of those pods having sheaths. Yes, that's right. It also had a secondary definition of "vagina" and is the etymon of our word for a woman's external genitals. Sort of makes sense, but what a wild twist that took. Vagina is reconstructed as having derived from Proto-Italic wagina, with the same meaning, and that likely comes from an unknown Proto-Indo-European root.
Evisceration may refer either to the disembowelment of an animal, or a phenomenon where an animal willingly ejects its guts to scare predators (brilliant strategy, right? The main example of this is the sea cucumber). Funnily enough, when the word was first brought into English around 1600 CE, it was figurative, meaning "to expose someone's secrets"; the literal meaning didn't come about until another 20 years had passed. Both of these definitions are based off the Latin verb eviscerare, meaning "to disembowel" (so the literal part of it was applied a little circuitously). This in turn is a combination of the prefix ex-, meaning "out" (from Proto-Indo-European eghs, also "out"), and viscera, a word meaning "bowels" and the etymon of visceral (since something visceral is experienced on an emotional, gut level). So an evisceration is a "removing of bowels". Makes sense. Viscera may derive from Proto-Indo-European weys, meaning "to turn" or "rotate".
Psoriasis is a skin disease, normally characterized by scaly, reddish, and itchy patches. The word was borrowed in 1680 from medical Latin, which comes from Ancient Greek psoriasis. This was less specific to a certain kind of condition, and just referred to having itchy skin in general. Psoriasis comes from the word psorian, meaning "to have the itch", which comes from psora, a word with the plain ol' definition of "itch" (once we eliminate the -sis suffix indicating a noun of action, that is). This could also be used to individually refer to scabies or mange, but the broader denotation still stood. Because you rub your itches, this hails from psen, meaning "to rub", and that comes from a Proto-Indo-European root with the same definition. Usage of the word psoriasis peaked in the 1870s but is now enjoying a healthy comeback. Google searches for it have also increased, as more and more people seem to be suffering from it.
In the 1580s, as people began naming rhetorical techniques, they needed something to describe the apex of the action, so they borrowed the Latin word climax, which basically meant a "dramatic culmination". This came from Greek klimax, which had figurative overtones of something moving from weaker to stronger and a literal definition of "ladder". Makes sense- you're moving upwards when you go up a ladder, just like the story is. Now, because all old ladders had to be slanted against a building, it's also not too shocking that klimax comes from the Ancient Greek verb klinein, meaning "to slant". Because of Sanskrit and Latin cognates, we can further reconstruct this as deriving from Proto-Indo-European kley, meaning "to shelter" or "cover". Climax in reference to orgasms was coined in 1880 by feminist, botanist, and birth control proponent Marie Stopes, who attempted to make sex more relatable to the general public and loosen impressions of it.
The verb negotiate didn't appear until the late sixteenth century, but the noun negotiation dates back to the early fifteenth. This, through Old French negociacion, comes from Latin negationem, which meant "to do business"- a little broader than the current definition. We can simplify that to negotium, meaning "business" or "affair" in general. Here it gets interesting: negotium to the roots nec, meaning "not", and otium, meaning "leisure". Therefore, Latin business was given the distinction of not being recreational. Nec is an apocope (simplification) of an earlier Latin word, neque, which in turn is a portmanteau of ne, meaning "not" (and coming from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ne), and the suffix -que, meaning "and" (from PIE kwe, same definition). Otium has an uncertain etymology, but it may trace to a Proto-Indo-European word for "forlorn". Negotiate and negotiation have about the same usage levels in the English language, each around 0.001%, and rising. I guess there's not a lot of leisure going on these days.
A catastrophe wasn't always a terrible event! When it was borrowed in the early sixteenth century, the word merely referred to a sudden and unexpected reversal. In this context, it could even refer to, say, an impoverished person winning the lottery. Through Latin, this comes from the Greek word katastrophe, meaning "an overturning" (as if the plot was suddenly overturned). This is a portmanteau of kata, meaning "down" or "against", and strephein, meaning "turn". Kata comes from Proto-Indo-European kom, with the definition of "beside". The verb strephein, meanwhile, comes from PIE strebh, also having to do with "twisting" and "turning". Now, the whole reason for this post is so I can share one of my favorite words: eucatastrophe, when a previously dark story took a suddenly good turn and ending happily. This was coined by none other than Lord of the Rings author and amateur etymologist J.R.R. Tolkein in a 1944 letter by attaching the prefix eu-, an Ancient Greek prefix for "good". What a eucatastrophical origin!
In 458 CE, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a former Roman patrician and generally cool dude, was summoned from his farm to lead the army in response to an attack by the neighboring Aequi tribe. To facilitate the war effort as best as possible, he was appointed dictator and given absolute authority over all matters. After the Roman victory, many people looked to him to continue leading, but he stepped down from his total control to go back to farming. This immortalized him in Roman legend as one of the most virtuous people ever; indeed, many historians today list Cincinnatus among the greatest leaders of all time. Citizens of the newly formed country of America also agreed with this profusely, touting him as an example of civic virtue and republicanism. This idolization culminated with a group of settlers in 1788 who named a city after him in what is now southwest Ohio. That's right; Cincinnati is named after a Roman general! The more you know.
Callipygian is a rather interesting word with a fascinating etymology. An obscure term meaning "pertaining to beautiful buttocks", usage has actually been rising slowly since its introduction in 1800 from the Greek word kallipygos. Funnily enough, this was named after a statue! The Kallipygos was a sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite in the city of Syracuse (this was lost to the ages, although the Venus Callipyge in Naples was a Roman knockoff which purportedly looks very similar), famed for its perfect posterior. That was the first attestation of the word in Ancient Greek, but its component terms were around for much longer: kallos meant "beauty" and pyge meant "buttocks". Kallos, which also yielded the name of the goddess Callisto, comes from kalos, a word meaning "good" and deriving from Proto-Indo-European kal, also along the lines of "good" or "beautiful". Pyge, meanwhile, also traces to Proto-Indo-European, in this case to the root pouga, with about the same definition.
A hypochondriac is one who obsesses over perceived health conditions to an abnormal extent. We get this word from French hypocondriaque, which traces to Greek hypokhondria, meaning "under the cartilage". What gives? Well, whenever Ancient Greek doctors encountered a medical condition they couldn't explain, they blamed it on soft tissues and organs, which can often be found under a person's cartilage. Throughout the years, people anxious about their health fretted about having failing organs, and thus the word got applied to those people. Breaking down hypokhondria, we can see the words hypo, meaning "below", and khondros, meaning "cartilage". Hypo is reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root upo, meaning "under", and khondros has a bit more obscure of an origin, but some etymologists reconstruct it to PIE ghrendh, meaning "crushing". This, however, is unconfirmed. Usages of hypochondria and hypochondriac have been very closely paralleling each other throughout the centuries, and both are now in moderate decline.
Whiskey was first attested in the English language in 1715, but the word was around the British Isles for quite a while longer, seeing as the beverage was invented in Scotland in the 1490s. Their language was Gaelic, however, where they called it uisge beatha, meaning "water of life". You can tell they valued their alcohol! Uisge, defined as "water", came from Old Irish uisce, which, through Proto-Celtic udenskyos, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wed (all of these forms also meant plain old "water"). Beatha, meaning "life", also derives from Old Irish, in this case from bethu, which, through Proto-Celtic biwotus, also traces to Proto-Indo-European, in this case the root gweyh. Likewise, all of these terms meant "life" as well. One curious part of this origin is that the competing theory also traces it to "water of life", but just in another language: some etymologists think it stems from Latin aqua vitae. Whatever the case, people clearly care a lot about whiskey.
Our word buccaneer came from a time when pirates were at the height of their activity, the 1680s, and we get it from French boucanier, which in its later days also meant "pirate". However, earlier on, it meant "to smoke fish" and sometimes other kinds of meat, because lawless sailors in the Caribbean were heavily associated with the smoking of meat (this was sometimes spelled boucaner). Etymologists trace this to another French word, boucan, which was their word for the type of grill that this smoking would be done on. Surprisingly, further derivation of this word takes us all the way back to the Brazilian Tupi language, which was quite common for trading in the area (some even would go as far to say it was the lingua franca of the region). Here it was mukan, with the same definition. Be wary, though: another theory places the correct etymology with Arawak buccan, which would mean "a special tool for roasting manatees". Despite the uncertainty, though, buccaneer certainly is interesting overall!
I was just reading a news article when I came across the word jurisdiction. Then I stopped for a moment, looked at it funnily, and immediately realized its wonderful etymology. I think I'll keep you in suspense for a few sentences, however. First adopted in the mid-1300s, it took the forms of variants such as juridiction, jurediction, and jurisdiccioun in those early days. There were several of these spin-offs, but they all came from the Old French word juridicion, which in turn derived from Latin iurisdictionem (the i is pronounced like a j). Here's the origin I guessed at: iurisdictionem is a combination of iuris, meaning "law", and dictionem, meaning "decree" or "saying". This combined meaning of "legal decree" fits pretty well with the modern meaning of "the power to make judgments". Iuris, which may be simplified to ius, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hey (defined as "vital force" or life"), through Proto-Italic jowos. Dictionem, which may be simplified to the verb dicere, likewise hails from Proto-Indo-European, through Proto-Italic, in this case from the word deykti, meaning "to point out". So, as far back as possible, a jurisdiction is just "pointing out life".
Toadstool has a very weird name, but an easy-to-guess etymology: it was just a fanciful name meant to poetically imply that mushrooms are furniture for amphibians. Mushroom, meanwhile, has a much more interesting and in-depth origin. At first blush, it may seem almost like it's a room for mushing things, but that's not right at all. The room part has nothing to do with rooms, and we won't be branching off into a portmanteau as we go back in time; that's just how the end of the word formed throughout the ages. Instead, we get to see a ton of phonetic changes. In Middle English, mushroom was spelled muscheron, musheron, and musseron; in Anglo-French and Old French it was musherun, meisseron, mousseron, and just mousse. At this point the word meant "moss" instead of "mushroom". Origin after this is uncertain, but it seems to get even more simplified as we travel to Low Frankish mosa, Proto-Germanic musa, and Proto-Indo-European meus (at this point it could also mean "mold" or "mildew"). Such an interesting origin for such a commonplace word!
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.