Essentially, quintessential has a quintessentially interesting etymology. When it was first borrowed around the year 1600, it meant something more like "purest" rather than its current meaning of "exemplification". Through Middle French, this comes the Medieval Latin phrase quinta essentia, which meant "fifth essence"- the equivalent of the "fifth element" that we know so well from pop culture. This is because, in addition to earth, air, fire, and water, there was thought to be a fifth element which was purer than all the rest, and, therefore, quintessential. Quinta comes from quinque, which meant "five" and in turn derived from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction penke, which also meant "five" but was probably related to words meaning "fist" and/or "fingers". Meanwhile, essentia was created off the verb esse, "to be". This is thought to be from PIE es, with the same definition. A nice, interesting etymology... until the Fire Nation attacked.
Persnickety is a wonderfully whimsical adjective that implies someone is obsessing over detail too much, often over a trivial matter. Now let's obsess over the details of its etymology! There are multiple accounts of its origins, and none of them are backed up too well. All etymologists agree that it was first coined in 1889, likely from the previous form pernickety, which held the same meaning and probably came into English circa 1800. One theory traces this to a Scots word, pernicky, but that could just be a cognate. Another school of thought is that pernickety is just a child's way of saying particular, and that a persnickety is just very particular over minutiae. Others say that -nick could be from knick-knack or that per- could be from a Latin prefix meaning "thoroughly", but no one is sure at all. It's all very mysterious. Persnickety is at its highest usage ever, but attestations of pernickety have been dropping since its peak in the mid-1900s.
Our word berserk comes from the beserkers of the Ancient Norse, who were reputed to go into a wild frenzy during battle and, without battle, cut down everything in their path. In English, the word berserker was introduced by Sir Walter Scott in his 1822 novel The Pirate. Scott borrowed this directly from Old Norse berserkr, which is probably a portmanteau of bjorn, meaning "bear", and serkr, meaning "coat". This "bear coat" meaning is a bit contested; some think that it was the equivalent of bare shirt, but because of similar words with connotations of wolves and boars, this has been largely discredited. It really is just to imply the raw savagery of these warriors. Bjorn, through Proto-Germanic bernuz, comes from Proto-Indo-European bruhn, which meant "grey" or "brown". Serkr, through Proto-Germanic sarkiz, comes from PIE ser, which meant "to string" or "attach". So, even further back, a berserker is a "brown attachment".
Finally, an etymology that isn't contested! Except it is: the word contest didn't become a noun until the 1640s. Before that, it had much more militaristic meaning, often in reference to armies clashing rather than frivolous competitions. The verb came from French contester, which meant "to dispute". and that came from the Latin phrase contestari litem, which had the rather interesting definition of "call to witness". This is because, in the days of Rome, the first step to have a legal one-on-one fight was to get somebody to act as a witness to the battle. Contestari is composed of two parts: the prefix con- (alternatively, com-, meaning "with") and the root testis, meaning "witness" (and, as we've seen with testify, surprisingly connected to the word testicle). Con- comes from Proto-Indo-European kon, "next to", and testis comes from Proto-Indo-European thrisths, meaning "third party" (as in witnesses are third parties). Cool stuff!
The word caravan (which we've been seeing a lot in the media lately) meaning "group of travelers" was borrowed in the late sixteenth century from the Middle French word caravane, with the same meaning. In Old French, this spelling alternated with that of carevane, and, even further back, it was caravana in Medieval Latin. This was picked up during the Crusades from Arabic qairawan, and we can trace the through the Moors to North Africa to the Middle East to Persia, where it was karwan, which specifically referred to groups that traversed deserts. Etymology gets sketchy right around here, but karwan might metonymically come from Sanskrit karabhah, which meant "camel". Let's fast forward back to the present again: in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, caravan can also refer to a vehicular trailer or RV, and the first attestation of the word meaning "covered trailer" was in the 1670s, under a connection of Roma individuals traveling in groups with those wagons. Despite a similarity in meaning and spelling to the word van, there is no connection.
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.