TRIVIAL ETYMOLOGY TRIVIA
Trivia is always a fun thing to enjoy, especially in high school quiz bowls. The word has an interesting origin, albeit trivial. It first can be traced back to Latin, and the word trivium, or "a place that three roads meet", from tri- "three" and via "road". Intersections were places where people met each other, and many people did indeed congrgate at triviums. However, Roman patricians and snobbish types looked at these common, filthy people all in one place, and turned the word into a pejorative adjective: trivialis, meaning "vulgar and commonplace". This word then got adopted by the English language in the late sixteenth century. The equally snobby English kept the "insignificant" part, but somehow lost "vulgar" and made it apply to educational matters. Ergo, the new word of trivial meant "knowledge that is unimportant". Note I wrote trivial: trivia was only begun to be used in the 1930s, and it referred to "tiny bits of insignificant knowledge", not just "insignificant knowledge" in general. Just a fun bit of three roads for you etymology fans out there!
BUFFALO BUFFALO BUFFALO
Buffalo is one of my favorite words in the English language, partly because of its three definitions. The first, meaning "a kind of ox", arises from Greek boubalos, meaning "a kind of antelope". This was then passed into Latin, then Portuguese, then adopted in English as another kind of large animal, but not exactly an antelope. The second definition is a little more obscure, but still utilized daily: "to intimidate or bully". This most likely originates from the first, because of the tendency of oxen to panic or posture. The third definition, a city in western New York, is completely different in origin, coming from either a portmanteau of French for "beautiful river" (this makes more sense, since it sits on the beautiful Niagara River) or a Native American chieftain's name. Combined, these three homographs create the longest grammatically correct sentence using only one word: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. This might make no sense, but it's AMAZING and it means "Oxen from Buffalo, NY who are bullied by other oxen from Buffalo then bully more oxen." THIS IS WHY ETYMOLOGY AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS AWESOME.
NOT A RULE OF THUMB
I'm an AP Psychology student, and my teacher said that the phrase rule of thumb originated from an (obviously) outdated English law that stated that it was acceptable to beat your wife, but only if the stick was less than the diameter of the thumb. Stunned, I went to all my usual etymology sources to find out the truth. However, seven out of eight sources concurred that this is a myth. While rule of thumb, meaning "a broadly accepted guideline", a phrase combining the descendant of Latin for "straight stick" (a future etymology post) and the offspring of the PIE word meaning "to swell", was an actual thing in Great Britain, it was neither a law nor the origin of the word. Of the five sources that explained where rule of thumb actually came from, they all agree that it was established more than a century before the English incident, as a reference in woodworking, where the rule of thumb was literally that the first joint of a thumb was about an inch long. Just wanted to dispel that misconception...
Remember, for etymology books, check the next page. The word book can be traced back to Proto-Germanic, where it was bokiz, literally meaning "beech tree". It's not because of the common misconception that since wood is used to make paper, surprisingly. Nope, it's much more convoluted. Etymologists and historians alike speculate that this was simply because ancient people carved writings directly onto tree trunks; actual books didn't pop up until much later. Before the actual "book" came to England, the word boc did, meaning "collection of writings", and it wasn't much of a step after the printing press arrived to refer to a book with its current definition. At this point, the book had traveled in a full circle, from carvings on wood to writings on former wood, with no connection at all. Both Latin and Sanskrit also share a connection between their words for "writing" and a type of tree, again displaying the curious correlation of those two words.
The etymology of kitten is unbelievable! Its first appearance is in Latin, where it originally took the form catulus, meaning "dog". The Romans then began to associate four-legged creatures a little differently, and gave kitten/cat its own word, cattus. At this point, the etymologies of cat, "older domestic feline", and kitten, "younger domestic feline", split for millennia. Kitten traveled through thousands of years of French as chatoun, then chitoun, then kittoun in England, and finally kitten today. Cat, meanwhile, took the Germanic route, diffusing into Proto-Germanic as kattuz (from cattus, remember, not such a shocking change) and then somehow changing into the English language as catt around 700 CE. This later became cat, which was a simple matter of dropping a letter. Ergo, dog is nearly as strong of a relative of cat as kitten is, and the latter two have been developing independently for thousands of years until their reunion in the English language. This is why etymology is so awesome!
ON CLOUD NINE
For such a quotidian occurrence, cloud has a controversial and interesting etymology. Where it stems from is also the source of much confusion for etymologists, but many agree that it comes Proto-Indo-European as gleu, or "clay". This root, if it is correct, is also shared by "clay" and "glue". As PIE dropped a few letters, the word in Proto-Germanic then gained some. letters. It became klutaz, or "lump" because of clay's tendency to lump. This underwent even more inexplicable transitions and turned into clud, or the Old English word for "mass of rock". In Middle English this became cloud, but still meaning "a large formation of stone". The first use of cloud with its current meaning was around 1200 CE, when someone decided that those big airy lumps in the sky resembled those big dirty lumps on the ground and decided to adopt cloud for the thing in the sky, replacing the previously used weolcan and skie. The word "cloud" for rock evolved to be "clod" today.
An obvious Thanksgiving post to make. Many people have speculated whether the country Turkey and the bird turkey are etymologically related. Indeed, it's been the source of myriad obfuscation. The truth is they are connected! Back in the early 16th century, a type of guinea fowl from Madagascar became quite popular among the European aristocracy, who clamored from its import. However, the Ottoman Empire was between Europe and Madagascar geographically, so the bird had to pass through Turkey first. Thus a European bird became known as a turkey. This was, however, a completely different species from what we now call turkey. The present definition came along when European explorers came to the Americas and discovered a bird similar in looks and taste to their guinea fowl, and decided to call it turkey too. Meanwhile, to avoid confusion, they dropped the old definition. Thus we get our similarity between a Thanksgiving meal and an Asian country.
A lot of people wonder where Earth came from and how long it's been around (this is almost as hilarious as my God post). Some may say Earth has been around 5,000 years; they are wrong (I wonder if I'm only funny to myself here?). In truth, it's only been around for about 1,000 years, since Proto-Indo-European had er, or "the ground". This two-letter word then made the miraculous journey into the world of five-letter words, when it evolved into the Proto-Germanic term ertho, because those zany Germans just had to add on some extra letters. From here it was an understandably short journey through a millenium until the word passed from Old English into New English as Earth. Through all this time, it continually referred to "soil" or "the ground" or something along those lines, until around the fourteenth century, where a schism occurred: the old definition was kept, but the Earth also came to mean our planet, because they needed a scientific term for it. Therefore, Earth has been around for a while and undergone some drastic changes (haha).
MORE THAN A GAME
Many chess enthusiasts such as myself are aware that the game originated from ancient India. However, most don't know what the word comes from there too. Back in the 500s, the game chess originated, with only four pieces. Thus the Sanskrit word for chess was chaturanga, or "four arms". This had nothing to do with additional bodily appendages; the old Indians apparently just liked making things sound spiritual that way. As the word passed from India to Persia, it became chatrang, and in Arabic it later became shaterej, since the Arabs had no "ch-" or "-ng" sounds. When the game finally reached European speakers, they called it several things, including the Persian word for "king", shah, which they figured was basically short for shatarej. Eventually, the Romans got wind of more ways to prove themselves intellectually superior, and thus came the Latin-ized word scacchi. This went into French as eschec (they really butchered that one) and came out as esches (not so much). Around the 1200s, this came to England, to be known as chess for the rest of time.
What is a blog, anyway?
I've been making etymology posts for twenty days and I still have no clue what a blog meant, so I decided to research it. Blog was actually a shortening of weblog, or web (meaning "internet") and log meaning "journal". I don't want to go into web too much, because I'm saving that for a later post, but take my word for it when I say it traces back to a PIE word for "fabric". Meanwhile, the word log first springs to mind a gnarled broken-off piece of a tree. The log in weblog is different, but actually does come from the exact same word. Descending from Norse lag, meaning "fallen tree", English adopted log, which means "part of a fallen tree", not much of an etymological transition. Then a curious transition occurred. Sailors created log-books to make records of speed, which was measured at the time by a piece of wood (a part of a log) at the end of a string. Log-books then got shortened to logs, which was a term adopted into a portmanteau with web to make weblogs. The we- prefix got dropped accidentally, and a b got added to log to make blog. Curious story really. Blog-worthy.
The word love (in its noun form) has a history you have to love. Dating back to the Proto-Indo-European word leubh, meaning "care" or "desire", it later evolved into Latin with the word lubet, which went on further to become libet. Libet is also the father of the word libido, which is connected to love almost as closely as its roots. After the Romans died out (a recurring theme in these posts, for some reason) the word spread not to French this time, but Germanic. Here it steadily evolved into four forms, each taking the place of the antecedent: lubo, liube, liebe, and then lob, all of which had the modern meaning, except liube, which went through a phrase where it was referred to as "joy". This eventually phased into Old English as lufu, and it got mangled around until it became love. Many phrases were derived from love, since it was such a powerful and important word in everyday life, including lovebird, lovesick, loveseat, and making love (which originally meant naught but the innocent act of courtship, until it became a euphemism and it suddenly turned inappropriate). Today, etymology enthusiasts can be a little surprised that throughout the history of words they love, love changed little. But then again, love loves to love love.
Spell-check won't recognize that "humour" is a word. It's the British variation, but that's a future story. Okay. The etymology of bathroom seems obvious at first sight; it's a portmanteu of bath and room, both of which are household words everyone knows. But where did those words come from? Bath came from Proto-Indo-European and meant "to warm". It then traveled through a large number of Germanic languages until it landed in English as bæð, or "to immerse in water". This is not surprising, because people would try and warm themselves in water if they were chilly. Though this verb form evolved into bathe, a gerund form also popped up, followed by the noun in bathroom today. Room also comes from Proto-Indo-European, from the word reue, or "open space". This eventually came to mean a space in general, and since a room is a space to do stuff in, Germanic and Slavic languages picked it up with its current meaning. The English word was originally rum, but it got changed (presumably to prevent associations with alcohol?) In 1780, these words were finally combined into one. Next time your bowels call? Go to a warm space.
CATTLE VS. CHATTEL
Everyone knows what "cattle" means. However, only a minority can define "chattel", so I'll define it before elaborating: it's a word denoting a slave, or in legal terms, a piece of property. Both words come from the Latin word caput, meaning head (sound familiar? It's where we get capitulate and decapitate from ), which later turned into capitalis, "of the head"(sound familiar? It's where we get capital from). Capitalis then evolved even more to capitale in Medieval Latin. At this point, it began to mean "property", because your head is your property, isn't it? At least that was the Catholic Church's logic. After Latin officially kicked the bucket, the French picked chatel, mostly because of a bunch of pronunciation slip-ups (in this, the h was silent). Sadly, this perfectly nice word was used for a horrendous thing, and in the early 1200s the English began using it as chattel to describe slaves, or their "property". Cattle came after chattel, if you can believe it.
TROPHY'S TREMENDOUS TURN
Everybody loves trophies. They're like the opposite of mortgages (see below). However, the word's history is simply scintillating. Trophy comes from the ancient Greek trepein, which meant "to turn". Later, as the Greeks started fighting among themselves and the Persians, there were a lot of military defeats on both sides, and a word was needed for specific occasions. Thus tropos became used, as a "turning" of the battle, where one side gains an advantage. Then the Romans, who steal everything from the Greeks anyway, stole tropos, "turned" it into trophæum, meaning a "sign of victory" but in a strategic sense, still a far cry from the current usage. Later, in the late fifteenth century, the French mangled both the word and the definition into trophée, a "spoil of war". This jumped the Channel over into English only ten years after the French got it, though its current meaning of " an award" was only used since the mid-1600s.
A MORTIFYING GAUGE OF MORTGAGE
Nobody likes a mortgage. Not the person who recommended this word, not most sane citizens. But back in the late fourteenth century, nobles adored it. The word and technique all started when the French took the Latin word mort-, meaning "death" and their own word gage (this is theorized to derive the Germanic word wadjo, which also gave us wed, a similarly serious pledge), with the definition "pledge". Therefore a mortgage was in fact a "death pledge," or a loan taken out on a peasant's property which could theoretically be paid off, but like in sharecropping instances, was never paid until death. This was used as a system for landowners to make money off of serfs until somewhere in the sixteen hundreds, when it came to be understood as any situation where a person deposited money to pay something off, a reasonable transition. Later on still, as big banks and financial corporations were looking for more ways to extract capital from unsuspecting citizens, they brought back the system of the mortgage. Some of them still aren't paid until a person's death, which makes the word oddly appropriate. Just make sure that next time bankers ask you for a mortgage, they aren't speaking medieval French.
Some of you may have read Andrew Clement's The Frindle as a kid. Turns out that's pretty much what happened with google. The term googol (note the different spelling) was invented by a nine year old in the 1940s (kind of makes sense if you think about it), whose mathematician father "borrowed" the term to describe a number one followed by a hundred zeroes. Googolplex was also coined at the same time, describing ten raised to the power of googol. Later, in 1997, as Alphabet founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were aspiring to create a search service, Larry suggested the name googolplex for their new site. Sergey agreed, after they both decided to shorten it to googol, however he misspelled it when entering the new domain name. The rest is history. Meanwhile, there's an apocryphal story that Microsoft's Bing search engine stood for "But It's Not Google." Microsoft has not commented on this, but it is likely false. "Bing" came from French around the nineteen hundreds and means "a small bang." Compared to google, maybe that's what it is.
The Capuchin monks were great benefactors to the wide world of etymology. In the sixteenth century CE, there was an argument among the monks of the Franciscan order, and one group split off from the whole to be more devout and religious. The Franciscans were understandably upset and hit the secessionists with the worst insult they could find: "little hoods", which translated into medieval Italian as cappuccios and was meant to pejoratively describe the brown monk hoods they wore. The name stuck, and stayed in the minds of initial explorers to the Americas, who found monkeys with brown hair on top on their heads not unlike the Capuchin order's hoods. Thus a species of primates was named after monks- the Capuchin monk-eys. Later still, when they started putting milk in coffee, they named the cappuccino what it is because of the color the beverage took- the same as Capuchin hoods.
Therefore, next time you go to Starbucks, enjoy a monkey.
This is crazy. As I was trawling online etymology forums, I came across the peculiar history of Lucifer. In the beginning, there was nothing (haha), until the Romans went along and invented the word lux, meaning "light", with a conjugated form luc. The Romans built upon that word by tacking on the suffix -fer, meaning "bringing". So lucifer originally referred to "light-bringing", or as it came to be used, "morning star" or "light on the horizon". This Satanic word originally meant something good, completely opposite from its current definition. However, when people decided to make the Bible, the Lord says in Isaiah 14:12 "How you have fallen from heaven, lucifer, son of the dawn!" Thus, Lucifer became sort of a proper noun and came to refer to fallen angels. At that point, it was only a skip, a hop, and a jump until the ultimate transition was made from "corrupt angel" to "the ultimate opposing force against God", with Lucifer's present-day synonyms including very nasty words like "the Devil", "Satan", and "Beelzebub", which shouldn't be associated with "light-bringer", but sadly they are.
DUCK FOR COVER
This was the first in a string of rhyming words submitted to my site. So, how exactly did duck mean both "waterfowl" and "to lower your head or body"? The reason can be traced back to the word ducan, which meant "to dive", and was descended from the Proto-Indo-European word dukjan. Ducan was then mangled into duce in Old English, and still meant "to dive". It kept this original definition through its entire usage, but right around the point when duce became duck, people got tired of saying elan, which was the ugly and cumbersome PIE-descended word for "duck" at the time, and decided to use the same word for two things because 1) it was easier and 2) a duck has to "duck" underwater to feed, so the verb kind of became the noun in that instance. Mostly in the twentieth and nineteenth centuries, a bunch of military terms were derived from duck, including sitting duck and duck and cover. Lame Duck referred to a stockbroker who couldn't pay his debts, and as a word evolved from there. Duck also means a type of cloth, but that's a different story.
Most politically inclined individuals know what the word filibuster means: it's a delaying tactic employed in the Senate to try and put off important votes or decisions. But almost no one is aware that this annoying procedure comes from a word for pirate. This word descended from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, literally translated as "West Indian buccaneer." Later, however, in the 1800s, filibuster referred to carpetbaggers of the farther South- US citizens who attempted to gain possession of Latin American nations through sketchy political means. It's easy to make the connection between a pirate and someone who hijacks a country, and equally easy to make a connection between a cantankerous political method to make things happen your way and the modern-day definition of filibuster. Another fun little tidbit about filibuster is its connection to the word freebooter (meaning "pirate"); they both descended from vrijbuiter, though only one kept its definition.
God has a peculiar origin.
I hope someone got that. While nobody knows for sure where God came from (I need to stop this), it is believed that the word originated from Sanskrit, of all places, with the word huta, meaning "to invoke". This was passed to Proto-Indo-European with ghut, to "call" or "invoke". Then, as PIE faded, a bunch of languages all over Europe picked up the word, with variations such as got, gott, gup, and more. At this point the words all meant "godlike deity" or some other religious item. This was probably passed into English from the Dutch word god. However, at the time the situation was sketchy and some people aren't sure God ever existed (haha) in England until later. There are many possible paths the word could have taken, including the PIE word for "to pour". As God became a sensitive word which some people didn't want to say, euphemisms like golly, gosh, and gee popped up, and a very religious tone took place. Therefore, God has an interesting and unknown origin.
Not to seem partisan, but I think this is an extremely appropriate word for the day after the 2016 presidential election, with a historical but not necessarily unapocalyptic outcome (neither unapocalyptic nor inapocalyptic are words, but the former should be). The word apocalypse dates back to Greek roots, with apo- (meaning the prefix "un-") and kaluptein (meaning "cover") combining to form apokaluptein ("uncover, reveal"). This transitioned in Greek to be apokalupsis, and was adopted by the Catholic Church's Latin translation. This was then taken to mean "revelation", which is uncovered and revealed. Most revelations were bad, so this caused apocalypsis (as it was now called) to take on a negative connotation. This was passed into French and then English, with only marginal changes along the way. The backstory of the word apocalypse might interest the epitome of an etymology enthusiast because it shares the same root as the word eucalyptus, meaning the kind of tree koalas eat. Like all other trees, Eucalyptus was a seed that was covered in soil, giving it the same stem as apocalypse.
I figured this was an important post to make on election day. The word election goes back to Latin, and the word legere. This originally meant both "read" and "choose" simultaneously (also the root of lecture). The Romans took its form liegere, added the prefix ex-, and created eliegere, meaning "to pick out" or "select", altogether dropping the "read" part of that because it was too confusing. The noun of action for this word was electionem. In French, this was borrowed an came to be spelled elecion. This then crossed the Channel in the 13th century, with its present meaning and spelling. Another fun election term is that of gerrymander, which means "to manipulate voting districts to favor certain parties". This was primarily a portmanteau of salamander (the shape of a gerrymandered district in Massachusetts) and Governor Elbridge Gerry (the person who did the gerrymandering). Candidate also meant white robed, vote meant wish, and ballot meant small ball. How? You'll have to wait for future posts...
THE PLIGHT OF PEN
The modern day word pen used to mean "to fly". In its Proto-Indo-European roots, it was said petron and meant "wing" or "fly". Its Sanskrit root, patram, also meant "wing" or "feather". The Romans adopted this in Old Latin as petna or pensa, and this transitioned to regular Latin as penna or pinna, both of which now meant "feather" or "plume". Then, as barbarians got annoyed with Roman occupation and went off to burn their cities, certain words were picked up by the Gauls and Germanic peoples. The French, particularly, were important, as they took the word and made it pene, which still meant "feather". Later, as they were looking for words for a quill, they double-dipped with pene to make it mean "writing utensil" as well, since all their writing utensils consisted of feathers and ink. The French later dropped this newfangled definition in honor of old times or something, but the English picked it up, kept the pronunciation, dropped the e, and created pen. This continued to refer to the quill until Petrache Poenaru went along and made the modern pen, keeping the archaic, epynomous quill as its name in the English translation. Fun, right?
A BASKET CASE
I'm hoping it's politically correct to make this post. The word basket comes from Latin fascis, meaning "bundle of sticks" and bascauda, meaning "kettle". The French then combined these two words into bascat, with its present-day meaning, and this was quickly brought over to the English. The word case (as pertaining to a state of events) came from the Latin word casus and meant "an occasion". Then, as the Romans went out of style, they handed it off to the French, changing the meaning to "a situation" with more of a negative connotation and pronounced cas. Again, it was a simple task to cross the Channel to England, and that's how the word got there. But combine the words "basket" and "case"? It means someone who's off their rocker. It came to this meaning after World War I, when quadriplegics who had all their limbs blown off were called "basket cases" because they had to be carried around in such a manner. Morbid, right? Eventually the phrase transitioned to be associated with mental rather than physical disadvantages. I'm never saying that again.
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.