OFF THE HILL
The word down, as such a ubiquitous word (being a preposition, adverb, adjective, verb, and noun), initially doesn't seem like it would have much of an interesting history, but it's actually really cool. There are records going back to the earliest days of Old English, attesting it with a bunch of different spellings, including doune, duna, downe, and dun. In some of its earliest forms, it was actually spelled adun, but the first unstressed vowel was lossed, possibly because of confusion with the phrase a dun and the word adun. Adun traces to ofdune, which literally translates to "off the hill". The main part there is dune (also from whence we got English dune), meaning "hill", and that derives from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like dheue and meaning "closed". Of is the etymon of English off and of and eventually comes from PIE apo, meaning "away". This etymology in particular kind of makes a lot of sense.
To me, the word chef is just a fancier kind of cook. When the word was first used at the beginning of the nineteenth century, though, it referred exclusively to the head of a restaurant, being a shortening of French chef de cuisine, which literally meant "head of the kitchen". Prior to that, chef was borrowed from the Old French word for "leader", chief, which is also the source of English chief (and Spanish jefe, meaning "boss, through Old Spanish xefe). That traces to Latin caput, which meant "head", but could figuratively be extended to leaders. Caput, through Proto-Italic kaput, eventually derives from a similar-sounding Proto-Indo-European word with the same definition. Usage of the word chef over time has gone steadily up since the 1980s, but the word chief seems to be getting less popular.
THE PLANT THAT CURES THE WIND
As an American speaker, I didn't know this, but people in the United Kingdom apparently call eggplants aubergines. Now, I get that it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to call them eggplants either - that name comes from a less frequent variety of the plant where the fruit is white and rounder - but aubergine has an actually fascinating backstory. The word was borrowed from the French, who borrowed it from the neighboring Catalans as alberginera, who borrowed it from the Arabic-speaking Moors as al-badinjan. Al just means "the", but badinjan derives from Persian batenjan, which still referred to the plant. Batenjan is from Sanskrit vatigagama, which had a literal meaning 0f "plant that cures the wind" and might be from something Dravidian. That means a non-Indo-European language loaned a word to an Indo-European language, which then loaned it to another non-Indo-European language, which then loaned it to another Indo-European language, which then loaned it to another Indo-European language, which loaned it to English, also an Indo-European language. Makes perfect sense, right?
The first usages of the word chivalry in the English language were around the turn of the fourteenth century, when there was still a lot of variation. This led to attestations like chivalrie, cheualry, cheuelry, cheualrie, chewalrye, chiualrie, and more, and there were almost as many definitions as spellings. At the beginning, it didn't necessarily refer to the honor code of knights: it could mean "knighthood" or "warfare", it could refer to a tenure of land, and, earliest on, it meant "cavalry". Through Old French chevaler (also the source of our word cavalry), the term traces to Latin caballarius, which meant "horseman". The root there is caballus ("horse"), which has a disputed etymology. One theory is that it could have been borrowed from a Gaulish word, meaning it would go back to Proto-Celtic, but it also might be Slavic or Greek - there are confusing cognates all throughout the Indo-European languages.
IN THE OUTFIELD
Today, the word scamp is basically used as a synonym of ragamuffin, but when it was first used in the 1780s, it meant "highway robber" (this just gradually became less extreme). That's from the verb scamper, which was first attested in 1687 and has a fascinating history of its own. In many of its earliest usages, scamper had a much more specific connotation of soldiers sneaking off a battlefield. This probably originated from Dutch military slang and the word schampen, which further derives from Old French escampere, meaning "decamp". Escampere traces to the Latin roots ex-, meaning "out", and "campus", meaning "field", which fits: someone scamping was leaving the field of battle. Campus derives from Proto-Indo-European khemp, meaning "curve" or "bend", and ex- is from PIE eghs, "out".
In 2007, the streaming service Hulu was formed by a bunch of executives from several different media companies. Just as the venture was a calculated corporate creation, so was its name, which was carefully thought out by the aforementioned execs and includes a rather clever hidden pun. In Mandarin, húlú means "gourd" - ancient hulus were carved out to hold precious belongings - and hùlù means "interactive recording". According to the company, both of those concepts are "highly relevant to the mission of hulu". Hulu is not to be confused with a Swahili meaning "cease" and sounding the same, with Hawaiian, where it means "fur", and with Indonesian, where it means "head". Search interest for the term is strongest in Maine and it peaked in May 2011.
In Middle English, the word hemp was stylized hempe, hemppe, henpe, henoppe, henepe, henep, and hanep. That's from Old English hænep, which traces to Proto-Germanic hanapiz, with the same definition. It's uncertain where that comes from, but it's definitely not Indo-European. The currently reigning theory is that it could be borrowed from a Scythian word sounding something like kannapis. That same word, linguists say, later evolved into Ancient Greek kannabis, which also referred to the plant. You can see where that is going: kannabis evolved into the Latin word cannabis, which was borrowed into English as the synonym for hemp. Hemp used to be used a lot more in literature, but now both are about equal; searches in Google Trends and uses in Google NGrams are about equal.
Around 900 BCE, Proto-Polynesian-speaking navigators traveled down to the Tongan archipelago, and from there fanned out to settle a lot of other Pacific islands, such as Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the south. This led to a bunch of diverse languages like Hawaiian and Maori, with Tongan being the closest to the original Proto-Polynesian. In Tongan, the word Tonga meant "south", because the Tongan islands comprise the southernmost archipelago of central Polynesia. This same word mutated to a spelling of kona and a definition of "leeward" in Hawaiian, which later got applied to the name of an island and a kind of expensive coffee grown in the area. That's a cool connection! Usages of both the words Tonga and Kona have remained relatively constant in recent centuries.
Today I'd like to talk about all the wh- interrogative words in English. If you look at their etymologies, they all follow a similar pattern:
SNEAKING IN SNEAKERS
Sneaker feels like a really natural thing for me to say, but the term is mostly relegated to the northeastern United States and parts of Florida. Almost everywhere else calls them tennis shoes, except in Chicago and Cincinnati, where a majority of people say gym shoes. Those words sort of make sense, but why do we call them sneakers? The earliest recorded usages were from New England back in the late 1800s, shortly after the shoe was invented. The name referred to how the rubber soles made much less noise than leather shoes, and thus the wearer could sneak around in them. Even earlier, the word sneak was used to mean "quiet shoe", so that may have influenced things, as well. The verb sneak could be from Middle English sniken, meaning "crawl", but it's hard to know for sure. There may be a relation to the word snake.
In Middle English, the word pelican could also be spelled pellican and pellicane, and in Old English, it was pellicane. That was borrowed from Late Latin pellicanus, which traces to Ancient Greek pelekan. Here it gets interesting. Pelekan is widely believed to be related to the words pelekus, which meant "hatchet", and pelekas, which meant "woodpecker". The connection between the bird and the ax apparently lies in the shape of the bill, which is also how the woodpecker fits in. Beyond that, it's hard to pinpoint an exact origin because the word for hatchet did a lot of traveling. It shows up in Sanskrit as parasu, in Ossetian as færæt, and maybe even shares a root with Akkadian pilakku and Sumerian balag. Most likely, it's Semitic in origin, although with the amount of contamination present we can never be exactly sure.
The word narc is primarily an informal term used to describe a kind of police officer that enforces anti-drug laws, or a civilian that turns people in to the police for drug offenses. In slang, this also developed into a verb and took on connotations of "snitching" in general, without necessarily pertaining to drugs at all. It's pretty common knowledge that narc stands for narcotics agent, but that's only half true. It actually comes from an older verb, nark, which meant "to inform on someone", and both the definition and spelling sort of merged with narcotics over time. Nark is thought to be from the Romany word nak, which meant "nose", perhaps due to a connotation of sniffing out illegal activity. That in turn would be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction nas, also "nose".
The word chamber was borrowed around the beginning of the 1100s from the Old French word chambre, which comes from Latin camera, which had the same definition but also had a specific connotation of the rooms having vaulted ceilings. That's from Greek kamara, which described anything with an arched cover, and kamara in turn is reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root khem, meaning "bend" or "curve". If you noticed the word camera and wondered if there's any relation to photography, there actually is: our modern word is actually a clipping of the Latin phrase camera obscura, which meant "dark chamber", because the first cameras used a dark room and a pinhole. According to Google NGrams, usage of the word camera peaked in the early 2000s and is now in decline.
BEYOND THE LAND
The word pilgrim comes from Middle English pilegrim, and that was borrowed around the turn of the twelfth century from Old French pelerin or peregrin. This could mean many things, including "pilgrim", "foreigner", and "crusader", and hails from the Latin word peregrinus (the source of the names for the peregrine falcon and Pippin Took), which had more of a "traveler" connotation. -Inus is a suffix simply meaning "of or pertaining to", which leaves the root peregre, meaning "abroad". That, in turn, is composed of per-, which had a definition of "beyond" (from Proto-Indo-European peri, "before"), and ager, "country" or "land" (also Proto-Indo-European, in this case from the reconstruction agro, meaning "field"). So both pilgrims and peregrines go beyond their land. Appropriate.
A PISSY ETYMOLOGY
To me, the word pee naturally seems like one of those really old terms that didn't change much in spelling or definition over thousands of years of existence. However, its etymology really surprised me: apparently it was first used in 1788 as a euphemistic initialism of the word piss. What started out as a modest letter P then developed a life of its own, to the point where it's more used than its parent and developed offshoots like the noun in 1880 and the 1920s formation pee-pee. The word Piss is more what I envisioned pee to be: through Middle English pissen and Old French pissier, it traces to Vulgar Latin pissiare, which ultimately is probably imitative. To take the piss, which is a British and Australian colloquial phrase meaning "make fun of" and piss-poor both were first coined in 1945, and the first figurative usage of the term pissy is from the 1930s.
SAND WATER PLACE
Nobody's exactly sure how long jalapeño peppers have been cultivated, but it's probably been around for thousands of years, with confirmed cultivation dating back to the time of the Aztecs. Surprisingly, the food wasn't brought to the United States until the 1940s, but since its introduction, usage of the word has been increasing fairly linearly. The name literally means "from the region of Xalapa" (which is sometimes spelled with a J), because there was a lot of farming of the pepper in that area. Xalapa is Nahuatl for "sand by the water", and that word is composed out of xalli, meaning "sand", atl, meaning "water", and -pan, meaning "place". Beyond that, we can't reconstruct anything due to a lack of written records, but the terms probably come an Uto-Aztecan proto-language.
The word island was kind of a mess throughout history. The first dated attestation of it was back in the year 888, when it was spelled iland. Since then, it was also written as igland, ealond, yllonde, ylande, iegland, illond, yslelond, yle londe, and ilond. Before the muddled days of Middle and Old English, it's reconstructed to Proto-Germanic awjolanda, which could mean "meadow" in addition to "island" and traces to a combination of Proto-Indo-European hekeh, meaning "water", and lend, "land". You'll notice that none of those root words and most of the spellings I listed earlier don't have an s in them, but the modern term does. That's because of confusion with the word isle, which is an entirely unrelated word coming from the Latin word insula (you can see the conflation in yselond from before), which is pretty neat.
A ZANY ETYMOLOGY
Today, zany is mainly an adjective meaning "bizarre" or "goofy", and that meaning was first attested in the 1610s, but for more than three decades before that it was a noun referring to a type of masked clown in old comedies that mimicked the actions of another. That, through Middle French zani, is a borrowing from Italian Zanni, which was a dialectal nickname for Giovanni, who apparently was a recurring character in many of the comedies. The proper noun Giovanni comes from Latin Iohannes, which comes from Ancient Greek Ioannes, which ultimately derives from the Hebrew word Yohanan, which translates to "God is gracious". As I've explained in a previous post, this origin makes the word zany related to names as diverse as Janice, Evan, Juan, Nina, Ivan, Hank, and Jonas, which is really cool.
HAVE YOU HEARD THE GOOD NEWS?
The word evangelist was borrowed into English in the twelfth century CE, when it was spelled euangelist, ewangeliste, wangaliste, and evangaliste until evangelist became widely used in the eighteenth century. Before that, the word was spelled the same and had the same definition in Old French, and before that it showed up in Latin as evangelista. That in turn came from Ancient Greek euangelistes, which meant "bringer of good news" because it was composed out of the prefix eu-, meaning "good", and the verb angellein, meaning "to announce". Eu derives from Proto-Indo-European hsu, also "good", and angellein comes from angelos, which meant "messenger" and is the etymon of angel (with an uncertain origin, but there are cognates that suggest a possibly Semitic source).
The word coriander was spelled coriandre in Middle French, and that, through Old French, comes from Latin coriandrum, which had the same meaning. That in turn derives from Ancient Greek koriannon, which some think is related to another word, koris, which meant "bedbug" and might be connected because the fruit of the plant smells bad when not ripe. It could also be non-Indo-European, and etymologists aren't really sure. Although coriander may refer to the entire herb, in the United States it generally is associated with the dried seeds, while cilantro encompasses the plants and stems. That word was borrowed in 1907 from Spanish culantro, which traces to coriandrum, which should look familiar. Usage of both the words cilantro and coriander shot up since the 1960s and peaked around the turn of the century.
Today I met a person from central Pennsylvania who uses the word macadam instead of asphalt, and that term fascinated me since I never heard it before, so I decided to do some research. Apparently that's a thing throughout Appalachia and parts of Ohio (although many other places use it to specifically refer to a type of gravel), and it was first used in 1824. The word is named after a Scottish engineer called John McAdam, who invented a technique of layering small crushed stones that constitutes the road type. In 1902, that process was refined by adding tar, so the word tarmacadam was created, and that eventually became our word tarmac. Macadamization is also a word tracing back to the nineteenth century. Tarmac has been consistently increasing in usage, but the other two peaked around the 1910s.
The word lady was spelled leuedi, leafdi, ladye, lafdi, laddy, ladi, lafuedi, læuedi, and lavdi throughout Middle English until the modern spelling became popularized in the middle of the eighteenth century. You'll notice that some of those have a f or v labiodental fricative; this disappeared in the fourteenth century but hints at the word's origin, from Old English hlæfdige, which also lost the h at the beginning and the g towards the end. Hlæfdige still meant "lady", but the more literal definition was "bread-kneader" (as contrasted to lord coming from hlafweard, meaning "bread guardian"), composed of hlaf, meaning "bread", and dige, "kneader". Hlaf, the etymon of loaf, came from Proto-Germanic hlaibaz, which had the same meaning, and dige traces to Proto-Indo-European dheigh, "to build"
NO COMMENTS FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY
Today, a peanut gallery is a group of people who give unwanted comments, criticisms, or advice. This is sort of a figurative take on the phrase, but when it was first coined in 1874, a peanut gallery was a very literal part of vaudeville theatres, referring to the cheapest seats in the back or balcony. These got associated with peanuts because they were the least expensive snack sold at the theatre, because they were most sold in that section, and because hecklers would sometimes throw peanuts from there to express displeasure at a performance. Some people think there may be racial undertones to the phrase, as those sections were often reserved for segregated African Americans and the negative connotation around the people who sit there is prejudicial. The phrase was popularized, made less offensive, and associated with children when the TV show Howdy Doody began to use it to refer to its live audience of kids.
LONG TIME NO PIDGIN
The phrase no can do secretly has racist origins. It was first written down in the late nineteenth century to parody the English pidgin that Chinese immigrants to the United States used. They actually used phrases similar to that because of syntactical differences, but this was used in a derogatory manner by white people for a while before it became mainstream. The same thing happened with some other phrases such as long time no see, which first showed up in imitation of Native American speech in an 1894 edition of the Boston Globe, and chop-chop (meaning "quickly"), which emerged around the same time period when American sailors borrowed the term from Cantonese sailors. That comes from the Cantonese word cuk cuk, which is from Mandarin kwai kwai, also meaning "quick, quick".
A COTTON-PICKING ETYMOLOGY
There is a 1953 animated Bugs Bunny cartoon where the titular protagonist exclaims "just a cotton-pickin' minute, this don't look like the Coachella Valley to me!" That's the first time the term cotton-picking was used in its modern context (as basically a synonym of damn), and it was soon picked by some speakers in the American south to just be a general expression of disapproval. However, cotton-picking very likely has racist undertones, as it is thought to trace back to the noun cotton-picker, which was first recorded in 1919 and meant "a contemptible person" - obviously a blatant slur against African American sharecroppers. In modern times, there's been a lot of controversy over the word, with former Canadian Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, sportscaster Brian Davis, and others coming under fire for using it in the last decade. Thankfully, Google NGrams and Trends both show usage going down significantly, so maybe that linguistic chapter is behind us.
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.