In English, the word gauche means "tactless", but in the original French, it means "left", and the definition shifted because left hands were associated with awkwardness (this is why the socialist party in France is called the parti de gauche, or "left party"). This right-handed historical actually influenced a ton of words, including sinister, which I've already covered, and a word I'll talk about tomorrow. Gauche comes from the verb gauchir, which meant "to turn", and that is from the Old French verb gaucher, which is best translated as "swerve". Gaucher traces to the Proto-Germanic word wankjan, which had the same definition, and that ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction welh, "turn" or "roll". After its first attestation in a 1751 letter, usage of the word gauche increased until a peak in the mid-197os, and is now fading out of favor.
In 1781, English astronomer William Herschel identified Uranus as being a planet and decided to name it George's Star, after King George III and to be confusing, I guess. Obviously, that wasn't very popular outside of Great Britain, so there were a lot of proposals for different names internationally, including Herschel's star, Neptune, and Planet Great Britain. Uranus was proposed by a German named Johann Bode to follow the Roman mythology theme of the other names, and that got a lot of support, especially after the element uranium was named in for the planet. Uranus is a Latinized form of the Greek god Ouranous, but that literally means "sky" or "heaven". Earlier on, that's from worsanos, which meant "to rain" and is related to hourein, "to urinate" (the etymon of urine). Finally, some linguists reconstruct it all to Proto-Indo-European wer, meaning "water".
In 1784, a lieutenant in the British Army named Henry Shrapnel invented a new kind of cannonball filled with little lead parts that went everywhere when the ammunition exploded. He demonstrated it in Gibraltar, and it became so popular that the Army adopted it in 1803. Henry meant for the shell type to be called spherical case ammunition, but that was a mouthful, so people just used his last name for it, and that rapidly got extended to refer to fragmentation from shells like his. By 1810, someone decided it was an uncountable noun, so we got stuck with the plural shrapnel instead of shrapnels, and usage peaked in World War I. It's believed that the surname shrapnel comes from French Charbonnel, the root being charbon, their word for "charcoal" (a reference to hair color).
The word garbanzo came from Spanish in the seventeenth century and was originally spelled garavance or caravance. That has an unknown origin, but both of the main theories are quite interesting. One possibility is that it could be from the Basque word garbantzu, which was composed of their words for "seed", garau, and "dry", antzu. Those would be from Proto-Basque, a non-Indo-European language. The other, somewhat less plausible contention is that the term could somehow trace to Ancient Greek erebinthe, which had the same meaning and equally murky origins. The words chickpea and garbanzo were approximately equal in usage up until the 1970s, when the food item became more commercially popular and chickpea overtook its counterpart by a lot to become more used.
The word hybrid was first used in the English language in a 1601 translation of Pliny the Elder's Natural History by English physician Philemon Holland, but it didn't achieve widespread usage until the mid-nineteenth century. It came from the Latin word hybrida, which meant "mongrel" and was particularly applied to the offspring of pigs and boars. Hybrida was a bit of a hybrid word, as it came from the earlier Latin word ibrida but the spelling was influenced by the Ancient Greek word hubris (with a definition of "outrage", not the "pride" meaning we associate with it today). Ibrida has an uncertain etymology. The first part of the word is thought to derive from a Proto-Indo-European word reconstructed as ud and meaning "outward", but linguists still haven't identified the root of the term. Use of hybrid as an adjective began in 1716, and the "partially electrical vehicle" meaning is from 2002.
The drink bourbon was created in the late 1700s, but it wasn't until the 1840s that people started calling it that. Because of the gap between the creation and the name, etymologists aren't a hundred percent certain why we call it that. The most likely theory is that it's named after Bourbon County in Kentucky, where stories say the drink was invented. However, all the stories about the origins of bourbon are likely apocryphal, and the dates don't line up too well. Another possibility is that it's named after a former region of Virginia called Old Bourbon, which encompassed parts of Kentucky until it broke away and formed its own state in 1792. Finally, it might be after a famous avenue in New Orleans named Bourbon Street, because it was the site of a port where they sold a lot of Kentucky whiskey. In any case, all three of these locations are named after the House of Bourbon, a royal family that ruled France from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Their name comes from a town in France that was in turned named after a Celtic god of hot springs, Borvo.
The word investigation was borrowed into the English language in the middle of the fifteenth century from the Old French word investigacion, which is a fourteenth century loanword from Latin investigationem, meaning "a searching into". That word is composed out of the prefix in-, which here meant "into", the verb vestigere, or "to search", and the suffix -onem, which forms an accusative singular noun. In- eventually traces to the Proto-Indo-European root en, which had the same definition, and vestigere comes from the Latin word for "footprint", vestigium, which has an uncertain origin but might trace to a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sounding something like steyg and meaning "to walk". Investigate is a sixteenth-century back-fornation; usage of both that and investigation has been trending upwards in recent decades.
Historians know for sure that the can-can dance emerged in music halls in France during the 1840s, but nobody is absolutely certain about the etymology of its name. According to one theory, it could be from the verb cancaner, which meant "to quack" and had figurative definitions of "noise" or "disturbance". Alternatively, it could be a duplication of can, a child's way of saying the French word for "duck", canard. Waterfowl aside, my favorite theory is that it could all stem from an argument between Latin scholars at the Collège de France in the mid-sixteenth century. The debate was over whether to use reconstructed Latin pronunciations or French pronunciations of Latin words. One of the most contentious terms was the Latin word quamquam, which should've been pronounced sort of like kwamkwam but the French pronounced it more along the lines of cancan. This became such a heated argument that the word cancan allegedly took on a new definition of "scandalous performance" in general - and that was later applied to the risqué dance centuries later. If true, that would be a really cool explanation.
The word newt wasn't widely used before the eighteenth century. Before that, it was spelled nute, neuft, newte, neuette, neuet, and newet, among other variations. The only constant things were a letter n at the beginning and a t towards the end... or were they? In Middle English, there actually wasn't an n in front, and it only got added because of confusion with indefinite articles. Essentially, people back then were saying an ute, an euft, an ewte, and so on so much that they rebracketed the words into a nute, a neuft, and a newte, respectively. Eventually, that derives from Old English efete, which still had the same meaning. Nobody's quite sure where that came from, because there are no cognates to compare with. Analyzing the Google Trends patterns for the word newt is really interesting: it peaks in early 2012, when Newt Gingrich was running for president.
The word cavalcade is a rapidly-declining term meaning "procession of horses". It was borrowed in the 1590s and comes, through Middle and Old French, from the Italian verb cavalcare, which meant "to ride on horseback", and the noun-forming suffix -ade. Cavalcare is from Vulgar Latin caballicare, where the root is caballus, with a definition of "horse". That in turn has a disputed origin, but likely has Proto-Celtic roots, because there are cognates in Irish, Manx, and Welsh. Here it gets interesting! In the early 1910s, Lyle Abbot, the automobile editor of the Arizona Republican, had a need to refer to a procession of automobiles, so he created the word motorcade, under the assumption that -cade was the suffix in cavalcade. It, of course, was not, but by now it's far too late to change that and we're stuck with an errant c in motorcade for eternity.
I guess I never stopped before to consider where the word pixel comes from, but I sure didn't expect it to be a portmanteau of pix (as in the informal plural of pictures) and the first part of element. The term was first written down in 1965 by NASA scientist Frederic Billingsley to describe frames of videos sent back by space probes. Billingsley says he got the word from another scientist working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Keith McFarland, but McFarland doesn't know for sure who told him about the word. The word pix as meaning "pictures" was first used in a 1932 edition of Variety magazine, the phrase picture element was actually in use since the nineteenth century, and pixilation is a completely separate word referring to the use of real people in stop-motion animation.
The word balaclava comes from the October 1854 Battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War, wherein British soldiers stationed in the cold were sent the garments from back home. Before that, they were called Uhlan or Templar caps; this is because the military orders were well known for wearing them. They first recorded mention of balaclavas still wasn't until 1881, though: apparently it was used by former soldiers way after the fact in remembrance of the battle. The town name Balaklava has a disputed origin. It used to be controlled by the Ottomans, who called it Balak-Yuka, which meant "fish's nest". That seems like a pretty solid theory, but it could also be folk etymologized from an Ancient Greek fortress in the area named Palakion. That would be after a Scythian ruler, Palakos.
Historians have been debating for a while where the pierogi comes from. Theories range from the proposal that it's from China and was brought to Europe by Marco Polo to the idea that it was introduced by invading Tatars in the thirteenth century. However, thanks to etymology, the dispute may be put to rest, as the origin of the word pierogi conclusively proves that it had to be from central-eastern Europe. The English term is a plural of the Polish word pierog, which meant "dumpling", and that's from Russian pirog, which could also mean "pie". Pirog, through Old East Slavic, traces to Proto-Slavic piru, meaning "feast", and if we go even further back, piru derives from Proto-Indo-European poi, "to drink". Since being borrowed into English in 1854, the word pierogi peaked in usage in 2002 and has been decreasing since.
The word calzone was first used in the United States in 1933, but it was coined in Italian all the way back in the eighteenth century when the food was invented. The term had a literal definition of "trouser leg", apparently because of visual similarity. That's from the earlier word calza, meaning "sock", which comes from Latin calceus, meaning "shoe". The root there is calx, the word for "heel", and the suffix -eus, which is just the masculine nominative suffix. Calx, which is unrelated to the word for "limestone", has an uncertain origin, but it might be from Proto-Indo-European kel ("to bend"), from PIE khlk ("hip"), or even Etruscan. Usage of the word calzone peaked in the mid-1990s.
The first attestation we have of the word noble being used in the English language is from the Ancrene Riwle, which was an early thirteenth-century guide for nuns. It was probably borrowed directly from the Old French word noble, which had basically the same meaning as today and was in turn from Latin nobilis, which meant "famous" or "renowned". Earlier on, that was spelled gnobilis, and more literally meant "knowable". The root there is the verb gnoscere, which meant "to know". That traces to Proto-Italic gnosko, which ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gneh, still "to know". Usage of the word noble peaked in the year 1617 and has steadily been trending downwards since, except for large spikes in Decembers for some reason.
In 1871, Lewis Carroll wrote a rather influential poem, Jabberwocky, which left a sizeable etymological contribution out of only seven small stanzas. First, it gave us the word Jabberwocky itself, which describes meaningless or nonsensical language, since the poem itself was half nonsense. Carroll confirmed that this term was created out of the Anglo-Saxon word wocor, meaning "fruit", and the English word jabber, meaning "excited discussion". The poem also yielded chortle, which was simply a portmanteau of chuckle and snort, and galumph, which was interpreted to mean "move clumsily" and is thought to possibly be from another portmanteau, that of gallop and triumph or something along those lines. Many of the other words were also combinations of pre-existing words or just made up for fun.
The word patsy as meaning "someone who is blamed for a crime" originated in US slang in the 1870s, and there are a lot of different theories about the etymology of that term. It's a possibility is that it could be from the Italian word pazzo, which meant "madman", but that's pretty loosely supported. One hint is that the earliest spellings of patsy were with a capital first letter, which implies that it's a name. It might come from the Irish diminutive of Patrick, Paddy, which was considered a stereotypical immigrant name at the time. It could also come from Patsy Bolivar, a character in vaudevillian skits who was always blamed by the other schoolboys for classroom pranks (the actors' traveling could have helped it spread around the country). The word really only got popularized in the early 1900s, eventually peaking in usage in the 1970s.
The word turtle-dove has nothing to do with turtles in the slightest. It comes from Middle English turtildove, also spelled as turtilldove, turtledoue, and turtyldoue; that's composed out of turtur, the name of the genus, and the Middle English word for dove. Turtur traces to Latin, and that's it: the term is onomatopoeic for the bird's call. Dove traces to the Old English word dufe, which could also have a definition of "pigeon". Dufe comes from Proto-Germanic dubo, which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dewb, meaning "to move quickly" or "be obscure". Turtle-dove in the context of it being a verb meaning "to show affection" first originated in 1922. The hyphenated version of the word used to be much more popular, but now it's in second place in usage, behind turtledove and just ahead of turtle dove.
The verb asphyxiate was coined in 1818 from the infrequently used noun asphyxia, which described the state of suffocation. That was taken from scientific Latin, but ultimately traces to an Ancient Greek word spelled asphyxia and pronounced something like aspooksee-uh, meaning "a stopping of the pulse" in general. It also means that literally: the term is composed out of the prefix a-, meaning "not", the root sphyxos, meaning "pulse", and the suffix -ia, which is just there for word-forming purposes. Sphyxos traces to the verb sphyzein, which had a definition of "to throb". That's of unknown origin, but there are cognates in Sanskrit and other languages that tell us it's pretty likely to be Indo-European.
I got a rather intriguing word request: why do we say number one for urination and number two for defecation? The short answer is that we don't know, and there are a lot of different theories. I've seen several sketchy internet sources saying that the practice emerged in American classrooms in the 1960s, when children were asked to raise different numbers of fingers when asking to go to the bathroom, so the teacher could know how long the kids would take. While this may have helped popularize the phrase (which really took off in the 1970s), it's actually been around since as early as the 1880s. Other speculatory theories (probably without much merit) are that the phrases are so named because 1 is shorter than 2, because 2 rhymes with "poo", or because you only do 1 thing while peeing and sometimes do 2 while defecating. Basically, we don't know.
When I was younger, I frequently wondered why we say gubernatorial instead of governatorial. The answer lies in the Latin term gubernator, from whence both words come. This originally meant "commander of a ship" but got figuratively extended to other types of commanders, such as those of provinces. Later, that evolved into Old French gouvreneur (the b to v switch happening because the bilabial plosive got confused with a bilabial fricative, which then got confused with a labiodental fricative - this is called betacism), which became English governor. Gubernatorial, meanwhile, was borrowed straight from the Latin word, and that's why they're spelled differently. Gubernator traces to the verb gubernare, which meant "to steer a vessel", which is from Ancient Greek kybernan, which has an unknown origin.
Today I learned the word stigmata, which is the appearance of pain or wounds in the same places as those associated with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The -ata pluralized the word; a single stigma referred to a mark on the skin in general. This got figuratively extended to mean "mark of disgrace" in the early seventeenth century, and that's how we got our modern word stigma. Through Latin, the term derives from the Ancient Greek verb stizein, which meant "to mark" or "tattoo". That comes from Proto-Hellenic stiddo, which finally traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction steig, which meant "stick" or "point" (also a root in words as different as extinguish, thistle, stick, and instinct; I'll have to cover those later). Usage of stigma in literature over time is on the rise, but stigmata has been on the decline since a 1910s peak.
The noun betrayal was first used around 1600, but in verb form it was around since the beginning of the 1200s, when it was spelled betrai, betraye, or betraȝe with a yogh. In its earliest days, it was stylized be-trai, be-traye, and be-traȝe. That's because the term is composed of the word be (the same as we know today; through Proto-Germanic bi, this traces to Proto-Indo-European hepi, "at" or "near") and the Old French root traine, which still meant "betray" (apparently the prefixation of be didn't change much). Traine comes from Latin tradere, meaning "to hand over", so a betrayal is tantamount to handing someone over to their enemies. That in turn is a portmanteau of trans, meaning "across", and dare, "to give". Trans derives from Proto-Indo-European terh, meaning "throughout", and dare is from deh, same definition.
When the word enchant was first used in 1374, it had the figurative meaning of "influence" or "delude". The literal meaning of "put under a spell" actually came about three years later; I think that's an interesting order of things. The term comes from Old French enchanter, which comes from Latin incantare, which had the same definition. Now we can break it apart into the prefix in-, which here meant "upon", and the root cantare, which meant "to sing". The idea there was that sometimes songs can be so beautiful that they enchant you. In- traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hen, meaning "in", and I've covered cantare before: through Proto-Italic kano, it derives from PIE kehn, meaning "to sing". Incantare is also the etymon of the English word incantation, through Old French incantacion, which meant "spell" or "exorcism".
When the word diva was first used in 1883, and for a hundred years after that, the sole definition was "a distinguished female singer", but in the late 1980s a new definition of "demanding, narcissistic celebrity" arose, because of association with the former (after that usage of the word tripled in literature). The word comes from Italian, where it meant "fine lady" but, earlier on, it had a definition of "goddess". This traces to Latin divus, meaning "divine one", which, through Old Latin deiuos and Proto-Italic deiwos, finally derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction deywos ("god"). There are a lot of cognates lurking around: deywos is also an element in words as diverse as divine, journey, Tuesday, meridian, circadian, Zeus, Jupiter, and dismal, just to name a few.
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.