A kiwi can be a fruit, a name for a New Zealander, and a type of bird. But how are the three connected? The oldest of the words is the one meaning "bird". It comes from the Maori language, where it was adopted through onomatopoeia- it seemed imitative of the ratite's call. Next came the people name. The appellation was first coined in 1918, because the country was so heavily associated with those unique birds, and it's stuck ever since. However, through all this time, what we know today as the kiwifruit or just kiwi went under a completely different name: the Chinese gooseberry, because the plant originally came from China and resembled other gooseberries. This would not do for New Zealand exporters, who wanted to associate the delicacy with their own country. So they did the natural thing and, in the mid-twentieth century, named it after themselves and their famous bird! Kiwi meaning "fruit" was in widespread use by its official commercial adoption in 1974. To think all those words stemmed from the cry of a bird! Etymology is amazing.
Most people know that the disco genre of music was called that because it was played in discotheques, but there's so much more to it than all that. Discotheque comes from French, where it also meant "nightclub". This was modeled after the pre-existing term bibliotheque, meaning "library", but with the word disque ("disk") replacing the prefix. So a discotheque is a "record library". Makes sense. Disque comes from Latin discus, from Ancient Greek diskos, with the same definition. This derives from the verb dikein, meaning "to throw" (so diskos was adopted metonymically). This is reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European deykti, "to show". Meanwhile, bibiotheque, from whence the back-formation -theque came, was bibliotheca in Latin and bibliotheke in Ancient Greek, where it literally meant "book room". Here we can break it up into biblion, meaning "book" (with Attic origins), and theke, meaning "chest" (from tithemi, "to place", which comes from PIE deh, "to put"). So, if we go as far back as possible, disco means "to show putting books".
We didn't really have modern, multi-section symphonies until the 1700s. Before then, the word covered many different concepts, going all the way back to Ancient Greek, so we'll be seeing quite a bit of shift here. When we first borrowed the word from Old French simphonie in the early fourteenth century, it meant "stringed instrument" in general. Before then, as Latin symphonia, it meant "harmony" (the connection, of course, being that stringed instruments can sound quite harmonious), with the same meaning and spelling in Greek. Now as we go further back in time, we can break up the word into two parts: syn-, meaning "together", and phone, meaning "sound" (and the same root as in the word telephone). Syn- comes from Proto-Indo-European sem, meaning "with", and phone comes from the PIE reconstruction bha, or "to speak". So a symphony is" speaking with" or "sounds together".
There's nothing like some good old irony, but before 1502, we didn't even have a word for humorous contrasts. We borrowed it from the Latin word ironia, which comes from Greek eironeia, meaning "feigned ignorance", a common type of irony in Ancient Greek theatre. This further comes from eiron, a word with a rather specific definition of "a person who feigns ignorance", and which, curiously enough, is named after a character in Aristophanes' plays, Eiron, who used concealed talent to triumph over boastful characters. Even earlier, his name is thought to either come from or somehow be related to the verb eirein, meaning "to speak" and deriving (through Proto-Hellenic) from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction were, also "to speak". That established, allow me to shed some quick insight on the usage of ironic versus ironical- the reason I thought to make this post. Both are correct, but ironical is a bit more formal and British and it seems a bit weirder to say- Ironic is utilized more than twelve times as often in modern literature.
For me, charlatan is a whimsical and particularly satisfying way to insult people in a joking manner. To a person living in Shakespearean England, however, it referred to a person who sold faulty remedies (an even more old-timey snake oil salesman, in short). This was borrowed from exactly the same word in Middle French, although then meaning something more like "swindler" in general. In Old Italian, it was ciarlatano, and here it gets it gets interesting: because these sneaky tricksters talked a lot, this comes from the verb ciarlare, meaning "to babble" (or, in noun form, ciarla, "chat"). Now, Italians are traditionally stereotyped as being very active talkers, but even among the Italians, the general consensus was that people from a village called Cerreto in the Umbria region babbled the most (they also had a lot of proverbial charlatans), so we can trace ciarla to the name for that town. Peak usage of the word charlatan was surprisingly in the 1930s (encompassing about 0.00007% of all words written), but in recent years it has thankfully started an uptick again. Lot of charlatans out there!
The word queer is interesting in that it used to be a really offensive insult towards homosexuals, but has recently been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. Of course, it depends largely on context, but it's a wholesome example of how words can experience semantic shift. There's also some change from when the word was first borrowed in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, as well: queer used to mean "eccentric or peculiar" only, just as with the parallel definition existing today. Through Scots, this comes from Middle Low German word queer, meaning "off-center" (hence the "abnormal" connotations to the word) and deriving from Old High German twerh, meaning "slanting". Even further back, twerh morphs into Proto-Germanic thwerhaz, which carried a definition of either "cross" or "adverse" and traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction terk, meaning "to turn".
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.