The word cul-de-sac just means "a dead-end road" to us today, but it means "bottom of the sack" in the original French. This will not come as a surprise to many, but the crazy connection we'll make later will be. First, let's get sac out of the way. Also an English word describing biological bags, it comes (the former through Old French sac, with the same meaning, and the the latter through Old English sacc, "cloth bag") from the Latin word saccus, from Ancient Greek sakkos (meaning "bag" still), which may have Semitic or Phoenician origins. De, from Latin de, just expresses belonging. It gets interesting with the first word, cul. It comes from the older French word cul, which meant "backside". This kind of makes sense with the "end" or "bottom" meaning. However, what you weren't expecting is that cul is also the etymon of tutu, the skirt ballerinas wear. Eventually it was modified to cucu, and the cs got switched to ts. The correlation is clear: a tutu is worn over the backside. Anyway, French cul comes from Latin culus, a rude word for "posterior", which can be reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European zero-grade kuhl, "to cover".
Between 1796 and 1798, English doctor and scientist Edward Jenner noted that people who tended to cows were less likely to contract "cowpox", a brand of smallpox from cattle. From this, the theory of vaccination arose and impacted our culture forevermore. But where did the word vaccination come from? No less than vaccinus, the Latin word for "of or pertaining to cows", a term that derives from vacca (just "cow") and is the etymon of words like Spanish vaca, Romanian vaca, and French vache. While this is officially of uncertain origin, it quite possibly goes back to a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like wokeh and also meaning "cow". So, just because the initial vaccine was based on an observation concerning bovines, we know regularly inject cows in ourselves to ward off diseases. What has society come to?
Almost half of Michigan's county names are completely made up. This is due to the work of Henry Schoolcraft, a geographer in the early- to mid-1800s. When he was off surveying the areas that would eventually become counties, he got to name them, and he got pretty creative. Schoolcraft particularly enjoyed combining elements from several languages. The county names Alcona, Algona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Oscoda, and Tuscola were all splicings of Latin, Arabic, and/or local languages to make it sound as if the area has a rich native history (which it did, but Schoolcraft overdid it). Not to mention Schoolcraft county itself and Leelanau county, after his wife's pen name. So, right now, we have at least ten county names in Michigan which are total gibberish. I feel like he did this only to confuse future etymologists.
The word poppycock doesn't have anything to do with plants or chickens at all. Today meaning "nonsense" and kind of archaic, the word comes to us from Dutch pappekak, which literally meant "doll excrement", a portmanteau of pappe, "food", and kak, "dung". Pappe, which described softer foods given to youngsters and (a cousin to the English word pap, also meaning "baby's food") is connected to a "doll" meaning through the connection of an infant. There are several languages which use sort of a papa sound to describe babies eating, and it's suspective that this is imitative of child-directed speech. Meanwhile, kak came from the Latin word cacere, a verb for "excretion", which in turn derives from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root kakka, bluntly meaning "to poop". Anyway, accusing someone of being poppycock is actually the equivalent of telling them to eat their own dung.
The word tarnation was coined in 1784 in New England, but its use in the Northeast was quickly superseded by that of the South. This is sort of a mutt of words. It’s a bowdlerizing alteration of the word darnation, but it’s sort of influenced by the word eternal, kind of emphasizing eternal darnation, the latter word of which is a euphemism for damnation, so this is sort of a double euphemism. The –ation part is just a suffix, but damn, through French, comes to us from Latin damnum, which meant "loss", as in loss of salvation. Through Proto-Italic dapno, this is from Proto-Indo-European dehp, meaning "to sacrifice" or still "lose". Eternity isn't quite the etymon in tarnation, only affecting its development through influence, so I'll save that for a future post. As a word, tarnation was used most frequently in the 1800s, but there's been a recent increasing period due to its whimsical usage on the Internet.
We all know a buttonhole as the gap in a coat through which you're supposed to push a button. Its etymology seems simple, right? Button and hole? Well, it is simple, but that's incorrect. Buttonhole actually used to be the spelling, and it meant "a looped string through which a button goes". The new name got applied through folk etymology; people associated the loop with a hole, thought hold should actually be spelled hole, and changed it. Buttonhole designs evolved too, giving us our modern prototype of the word. Weird. NOW we etymologize button: possibly through French, it traces to the Proto-Germanic term buttan, from Proto-Indo-European bhau, a word that meant "to thrust" since buttons jut out. Hold, through Middle English holdan, Old English haldan, and Proto-Germanic haldan, ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root kel, which meant "to shepherd" or "drive" under the connection of livestock.
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.