If you were to say the noun console to me, my first thoughts would be about computer screens and video game controllers. However, before those definitions existed, the word referred to a type of ornamental cabinet that was used to hold radio, stereo, and television electronics. That meaning comes from an earlier sense of "body of a musical organ", the connection being that it was a large wooden thing encasing some kind of control mechanism. Before that, a console was a kind of wall-mounted table and, earlier still, a type of ornamental bracket used to support walls. This and our verb console are thought to both come from the Old French verb consoler ("to comfort"; the idea was that the human-shaped cornices on the brackets looked like they were comforting the ceiling. Finally, consoler traces to Latin com- ("with", from Proto-Indo-European kom, "beside") and solari (also "to comfort", from Proto-Indo-European solh, "mercy").
A BASED ETYMOLOGY
A little over a decade ago, the slang term based emerged to refer to a quality of not caring about what others think of you. That meaning comes from the rapper Lil B, who sometimes went by the nickname TheBasedGod. Here, based was reclaimed from an existing colloquialism meaning "addicted to crack cocaine" - that's from the noun freebase, which was a chemical term for the conjugate base form of an amine that was mainly used to refer to cocaine prepared through freebasing. Finally, freebase is just from free (indicating that the compound has no ionic bond) and base (indicating that it has a pH greater than 7). In the present, based has simultaneously been appropriated by online meme communities to serve as an antonym of cringe and by the alt-right to serve as an antonym of woke.
The first recorded mention of term gung-ho (meaning "enthusiastic") is from a 1942 article in the New York Times Magazine, where it was cited in quotes as the slang motto of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion, an American guerrilla unit in the Pacific theatre of World War II. The phrase, which described a common working spirit, was picked up by Major Evans Carlson from his friend, communist writer Rewi Alley, who got it from kung ho, the Chinese name for their industrial cooperative. Quite literally, this translates to "work together", and comes from the roots gong (meaning "work") and he ("together"). Throughout the rest of the 1940s, the phrase spread throughout the ranks of the US Marines, and became the title of a 1943 war film. The expression hit the mainstream in the late 1950s and peaked in usage in 2012.
The first uses of the word shiv (meaning "sharp thing used as a weapon", originally also spelled shive) emerged in New York City underworld slang in 1915 as a variant of the existing word chiv/chive/chieve, which similarly meant "knife" in British Thieves' Cant. That emerged in London prisons at some point in the mid-seventeenth century, and the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't comment on its etymology. However, several other sources suggest that it may derive from a Romani word spelled something like chivomengro and meaning "knife" (this would ultimately trace to the Sanskrit noun churi, still "knife". The word shiv kept a fairly low profile in American English until 1990s, when it skyrocketed in usage due to being popularized by rappers and U.S. prisons.
The word cigarette first started cropping up in American English in the 1830s and 1840s, with the first attestations being loanwords from people who visited France. That's a diminutive of the French noun cigare, which was in turn borrowed in the late eighteenth century from our word cigar. Going back further, cigar seems to have been taken in the 1730s from Spanish cigarro (still with the same definition), and here it gets interesting. Some sources say cigarro is from the Mayan word sik, meaning "tobacco", but the Oxford English Dictionary disputes this. Others think that it may trace to the earlier Spanish word cigarra, meaning "cicada", due to a perceived resemblance in shape; that it may come from Spanish cigarral, meaning "summer-house"; or that it derives from an Arabic word meaning "little house". No matter what, that's fascinating!
The word leech in reference to parasites was first used around 900 CE with the spelling lyce (later forms included laece, liche, leche, leach, and more). It's often thought to come from another Old English word spelled leech of about the same age and with the definition "doctor". However, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the latter only influenced the spelling of the former through folk etymology, and that the name for the worm actually comes from the Midde Dutch lake, also meaning "leech". That should actually be a cognate of the English word lake, as both come from the Proto-Germanic root lako, which described bodies of water. If that's true, it ultimately all derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction leg, which meant "leak" or "drain".
Despite its appearance, the exclamation P.U. (used in reaction to unpleasant odors) is not actually an acronym. It comes from a seventeenth-century word that could be spelled pue, peugh, pew, pue, and pyoo, and was pronounced pew. Over time, the pronunciation morphed into pee-yew because of people humorously extending the sound. Then, because it sounded like the letters, people mistakenly changed the spelling to look the way it does today. There are several theories as to the etymology of pue/peugh/pew/pue/pyoo: it might derive from the Spanish interjection fu, which is used to show disgust; it might come from the French verb puer, meaning "to stink"; it might be a variant of the exclamation phew, and/or it might somehow trace to Latin verb putere, also "stink".
ONE WHO STANDS BEFORE
The word prostate was first used in the mid-seventeenth century in a manual of human anatomy as prostata (the plural form being prostatae). Through Middle French, this comes from the Latin word prostata and the Ancient Greek prostates, which could mean "protector" but more literally translated to "one who stands before" (apparently in reference to its position at the base of the bladder). The prefix pro- meant "before" here and comes from Proto-Indo-European per, "forward"; meanwhile the root stata is from histanai, meaning"cause to stand" - this is from Proto-Indo-European sta, "stand". Histanai is also the root of words like apostate, system, ecstasy, and Anastasia, and, according to Google NGram Viewer, usage of the word prostate peaked in 2010.
The word lollipop was first attested as lolly-pop (describing confections in general) in an eighteenth-century article in the London Chronicle, and there are multiple theories as to what its etymology is. One explanation is that it was borrowed from the Romani word lollipobbul, which meant "candy apple", but there isn't a lot of evidence supporting this. Alternatively, in some northern dialects of England, lolly meant "tongue" (from loll, "to dangle the tongue", from Middle Dutch lollen, "mumble". The pop part would suggest the tongue popping out to lick the candy. I looked up whether the word lollapalooza was related in any way, but it seems that was purely a fanciful formation from the turn of the twentieth century (other early forms included lollypaloozer, lallapaloosa, and lallapalootza).
I'm surprised I never looked this up before, but the word caucus has some fascinating potential origins. The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that it might come from a Latin word meaning "drinking cup", but the Oxford English Dictionary disparages this theory - it would be inconsistent with meaning and early usages. The most likely explanation, especially since it first showed up in North American newspapers in the mid-eighteenth century, is that it was borrowed from a Native American language. A suitable candidate would be caucauasu, a noun in a Virginian dialect of Algonquin meaning "counselor" or "adviser". The definition would have shifted to denote informal policy advising sessions by political elites, and eventually to the voting process. I should note, however, that this is still disputed, and there are some unexplained possible inconsistencies with the names of ships and social clubs.
LET IT BE DONE
The first recorded mention we have of the word fiat (meaning "decree") in English was in an early seventeenth century sermon, in the sentence The Lord be pleased to set His fiat unto it, and confirm it with His royal assent. At that point, it's pretty clear that it was used more in a context of approving or authorizing than ordering or commanding. The word was taken directly from the Latin third singular present active subjunctive fiat, which can best be translated as "let it be done". That traces to the Proto-Italic verb fuio ("to become") and eventually Proto-Indo-European buh, which could mean "grow" or "appear". The automobile brand Fiat has nothing to do with the noun; it's actually an acronym of the words Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or "Italian Automobile Factory of Turin".
DICKERING OVER TEN
The word dicker (meaning "petty arguing") is dying. Google NGrams shows literary uses for it today at half the level of in the 1960s, and the main source of Google searches for it is the name of a furniture store in Lansing, Michigan called Dicker and Deal. The term was borrowed (likely via West Germanic; early spellings included dacre, deker, dyker, dikker, and more) in the thirteenth century from Late Latin dacra, which meant the same thing, and that's from decuria, meaning "parcel of ten", because that was used as a unit of barter in the part of the Roman empire bordering Germania, typically for bundles of hides or rods that often came in groups of ten. Decuria is from decem, the number for "ten" (and etymon of December, decimal, and decile), and that's reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root dekm.
The earliest English attestation of the word scissors is from 1425, when it was spelled cysour. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 110 different spellings of the word since then, with some of the more common ones being sissars, sesours, sisours, sissers, cizzars, cyssers, and scizzors. The sc- formation emerged due to a folk etymological association with the otherwise unrelated Latin word scissor, which referred to butchers or gladiators (who, like the instrument, were associated with cutting). The word, usually used in the plural since the thirteenth century, comes from Old French cisoires, meaning "shears". That's thought to come from caesus, the past participle of the Latin verb caedere, "to cut", and caedere derives from the Proto-Italic word kaido and the Proto-Indo-European word keyhd, also meaning "to cut". The name for the swimming kick is from 1902.
PILOTING A HELM
Before the term came to refer to aviators, a pilot was one who guided or navigated in general, either literally (like a driver) or figuratively (like a pastor). The word was borrowed toward the end of the fifteenth century from Middle French, and that came at some point in the mid-fourteenth century from Italian piloto, still with the same definition. The earliest use we have of that in text is from 1282, and, one way or another, it all traces to the Ancient Greek word pedotes, meaning "helmsman". Pedotes stems from pedon, which referred to steering oars, and that's thought to be related to pous, the word for "foot", because of a shared flat shape. If that's true, then it would finally derive from Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ped, also "foot" (and forming words like podium, pedal, expedition, foot, foosball, pedigree, and more). Pretty interesting!
The word placenta, first used in a 1638 anatomy textbook, was borrowed from the New Latin phrase placenta uterina, meaning "uterine cake", because the circular, flat shape of the organ was thought to resemble a traditional Roman flat cake. The placenta part of that traces to Ancient Greek plakoenta, the accusative of plakoeis, "flat". That traces to the earlier word plax, which could be translated as "cake", "tablet", "plain", or pretty much anything flat and broad, and that, through a Proto-Hellenic word sounding like pluks, traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pleh, also meaning "flat" (and the etymon of flag, plank, fluke, and more). In biology, the word placenta refers to the part of flowering plants where ovules form - that simply comes from the anatomical definition.
THING WHICH OUGHT TO BE READ
At various points in Middle English, the word legend was spelled legand, legande, legant, legeand, legent, legende, legeant, legiant, and legyand. Despite all these differences, all have the root leg- and some kind of combination of an alveolar nasal and an alveolar stop. This reflects its derivation from Latin legenda, meaning "story" (it was borrowed in the early 1300s through the twelfth-century Old French word legende). Legenda was the feminine nominative singular gerundive of the verb for "read", legere, and meant something along the lines of "thing which ought to be read". That, through Proto-Italic lego, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction leg, which meant "gather" and also helped form words like analogy, legal, dyslexia, tautology, logarithm, intelligence, and prologue.
The word paradox was borrowed by Thomas More in 1533 from the Middle French word paradoxe, which was borrowed at some point in the fourteenth century from Latin paradoxum, which still had the same definition. Paradoxum comes from Ancient Greek paradoxon, meaning "unexpected" or "incredible". More literally, it meant "contrary to opinion", as it was composed of the prefix para-, meaning "contrary" or "beyond", and the root doxa, meaning "expectation" or "opinion". Earlier on, para meant "alongside"; this is the same usage as in parallel, because the Greeks considered two viewpoints that never intersected contradictory (and, ultimately, it's from Proto-Indo-European per, "forward"). Doxa, meanwhile, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dek, meaning "take".
When the adjective amenable was borrowed into English in the late sixteenth century, it was used to describe someone who could be held liable in court. This led to a meaning of "able to be controlled" that eventually gave us our modern definition of "easily persuaded". The word was borrowed from Old French amener, meaning "to bring", which was composed of the prefix a-, meaning "to" (from Latin ad and Proto-Indo-European hed, "at") and the verb mener, "to lead". In Latin as the deponent minari, that meant "to threaten", and it developed into "lead" through a sense of driving animals. Minari, which is also the etymon of the English words menace, minacious, and demeanor, either comes from the Proto-Indo-European root men, meaning "project", or mey, "small".
Our first recorded mention of the word referendum in the English language is from a 1744 edition of the London Evening-Post, when it referred (heh) to a Swiss parliamentary procedure wherein a proposal was given to an elite group of people for approval. It was only in the early nineteenth century that the term came to connote legislation brought to a popular vote. The word comes from Latin referendum, which meant "that which ought to be brought back". As a gerundive, this could only be used with other words, and it was based on the verb referre, which just meant "to bring back". Finally, referre was composed of the prefix re-, meaning "again" (from Proto-Indo-European wert, "to turn"), and ferre, meaning "to bear" (from Proto-Indo-European bereti, also "to carry")
The etymology of the word snickerdoodle is very uncertain. The first known usage of it that we can identify is from an 1898 cookbook that doesn't go into any detail on the origin of the cookie name. One theory, proffered by the Joy of Cooking cookbook, is that the term "may be a corruption of the German word Schneckennudeln," which means something along the lines of "snail dough" The Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, says that it might just be a whimsical combination of the words snicker (meaning "laugh") and doodle (meaning "doodle-bug"). The German connection is a bit tenuous, and it makes more sense to me that the light, fun confection would be a fanciful nonsense word. This is completely unrelated to the popular Snickers candy bar, which was named in the 1930s after a horse owned by the Mars family.
I recently was surprised to learn that the island of Guadalcanal, best known for a major WWII battle, is named after a city in Spain. Apparently it was discovered in 1568 by Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, who was reminded of his hometown. That comes from the Arabic phrase wadi al-kabir, meaning "big river". Wadi, which here meant "river" but could also mean "valley" or "riverbed" (and also makes up the first part of toponyms like Guadalajara), comes from the Proto-Semitic root w-d-y, which was generally related to things that protruded. The kabir part comes from the Proto-Semitic root k-b-r, which meant "large", "old", or "great". According to Google Ngrams, literary usage of the name Guadalcanal (unsurprisingly) peaked in 1945, rapidly declined, and has levelled off since.
THE MAIN PART AGAIN
I never realized before today that the word recap is actually an abbreviation! The term was first used in some 1909 shipping records as a shorter version of recapitulation. In music, that refers to a movement that is repeated; in biology, it's the repetition of a life process; and, in general, it was the same as our modern definition. Recapitulation was borrowed at the start of the fourteenth century from Old French recapitulacion, which was borrowed at the start of the thirteenth century from the Latin participle recapitulationem. That's composed of the prefix re-, meaning "again", and capitulam, meaning "section" or "main part". Capitulam quite literally translates to "little head"; the root is caput, which I've written about before (through Proto-Italic kaput, from Proto-Indo-European kaput, "head")
NORTH AMERICAN TOBOGGANS
The word toboggan was first used in English in a British officer George Head's 1829 account of his exploration of the North American wilderness, where he spelled it tobogin. Later spellings included taboggan, tobaggan, tarboggin, toboggen, tarbogin, and several others; the current form was standardized in the late nineteenth century and the word got really popular in the 1880s. Head apparently got the word from French tabagane, and the French got it from either the M'ikmaq word tepaqan or the Abenaki word dabogan, which also referred to the type of flat-bottomed sled (these would both come from Proto-Algonquian). To toboggan first began to be used as a verb in 1846 and the phrase toboggan cap is from 1929. Usage of toboggan peaked in 1936 and has about halved in frequency since then.
In the Roman empire, people were given three names: a praenomen (personal name), nomen (family name), and cognomen (originally a nickname, later used as another family name). For example, the politician Cicero's full name was Marcus Tullius Cicero (pronounced kee-ker-oh in Latin), with Cicero being a cognomen meaning "chickpea". Apparently, one of his ancestors had a cleft in his nose that looked like a chickpea, and the term stuck. Several other cognomens also had to do with legumes - Lentulus, Fabius, and Piso meant "lentil", "bean", and "pea" - and many more followed earthy or simple themes. The Caesar part of Julius Gaius Caesar may have meant something like "head of hair", "bluish-gray", or something else, depending on which historians you consult.
When the word nectar was first borrowed into English in 1555, it was in the more classical sense of "food of the gods", and the definition was quickly extended to more abstract uses such as describing sweet liquids (1559) and that fluid in plants (around 1600). The noun, through Latin, traces to the Ancient Greek word nektar, also describing the mythological drink of the gods, and that's thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction nek, meaning "death" (making it related to words like innocent, noxious, pernicious, and necropolis). Nectarine, originally spelled nectrine, was coined in the seventeenth century (likely modelled on German nektarpfirsich, meaning "nectar peach"). Literary usages of both nectar and nectarine have been fairly constant throughout the years.
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.