The word life has ancient and fascinating roots. Its first appearance was at an unspecified date in the antediluvian, hypothesized tongue of Proto-Indo-European, at which time it was pronounced something like leip and meant "sticky" or "glue". Then as Proto-Indo-European evolved into many different languages, leip was adopted by Proto-German but changed to libam, meaning "longevity" and "perseverance" because they associated glue with long-lasting qualities. Later, as Proto-German became High German, the word libam was changed to lib, because who likes disyllabic words anyway? Around this time, the word also came to mean "the span of a human's existence" because it kind of got mangled around that way. Finally, in the 1200s, the English language took lib, changed it around to life because of the similar sound, and in the 1700s made it apply to inanimate objects as well. The 1800s and 1900s followed that up by making a bunch of life-related phrases, such as not on your life and lifejacket. Then they stuck happily ever after.
Have you ever wondered about the silent k in knight? Why is it there? The truth, in fact, is that it used to be. In old English, it was pronounced kuh-nite and spelled cniht, deriving from the Germanic word knecht, meaning 'servant' or 'boy'. The phrase 'servant' was translated into English and taken to mean 'servant of the king' around 1100 CE. Around 1300, knight somehow got mangled into the current spelling and became a lot more serious than 'boy', coming to denote a warrior rather than a submissive. Around the same time, to knight and knighthood began to be utilized. The most fascinating part of the history of this word was when, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it suddenly fell out of fashion to pronounce the k at the start of any kn- words, because it made everything too choppy and lengthy, so English speakers as a whole stopped pronouncing it as kuh-nite and started saying nite instead (though of course it was still spelled knight). Too bad knights are all but pufferies at this point; we won't get to see its etymology develop further.
Most people know that the banana originated from Africa, but not many know how it came to be what it is called today. This tropical fruit was considered quite exotic in early times, so the Romans decided to just call it a fig, because of their apparently uncanny resemblance. This caught on in premedieval France, where they called it a figue du paradis. However, after the collapse of Rome, trade diminished and Europe didn't see much of the banana for a while, letting it fade from their memories, for the most part. Meanwhile, in Asia, Arab traders were beginning to exchange goods with Africa, and they eventually came into contact with the banana. These wacky merchants began to call it after their word for finger or toe, banana, most likely because of its protrusion-like appearance. This word spread into Africa, and was picked up by the Portuguese and Spanish when they invaded the Congo area, and then spread to English when the banana arrived in 1633. So next time you feel an urge to eat a toe, peel it first.
This obfuscating etymological conundrum has a fascinating back story. In the Middle Ages, when English was really starting to develop, many people were arguing about the color that fire left. Some said it was white, because of the way the ashes glowed as the fire was still burning, but others said it was black, because of the hue left in the soot. Germanic speakers certainly couldn't figure this out, so they got the best of both worlds in one word, which happened to be blac (or something similar- no one's quite sure). This word referred to both the present-day colors of white and black at the same time, and was the source of great confusion. When everyone got annoyed with puzzling over what meant what, they divvied it up so that the French got blanc (meaning white) and the English got black (meaning black) and bleach (meaning white). Afterwards, the English modified the French word blanc to make it blank, since the color white was at that point associated with nothingness, and modified their own word of bleach to create bleak.
Adam Aleksic is a sophomore studying linguistics and government at Harvard University. He also has disturbing interests in politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.