Roman de Fauvel is a satirical French poem about a horse who rises to power in the French royal court. That horse's name, Fauvel, is teeming with easter eggs. First of all, fauvel could describe a muddy beige color which matched his fur coat. Secondly, fau vel in Middle French meant "false veil", and, thirdly, if it's turned into an acronym, apparently it represents six vices or something of the sort. You may be wondering why I'm telling you this. Before the grand unveil, there's one more piece to put into place. The word curry has an obscure second definition, that of "to groom a horse with a comb", and in the poem, Fauvel's admirers traveled to court to curry his fur. They curried Fauvel. This phrase was borrowed into English to describe somebody acting obsequiously or sucking up to someone else, just like the nobility did to Fauvel by cleaning him. However, some wise English scholars decided that this seemed rather wrong, and the phrase curry favor made more sense. Thus, folk etymology got the better of the tale and the Roman de Fauvel has been lost to obscurity.
The adjective emaciated was adopted in the 1660s, and comes from the verb emaciate, which has been around since the 1620s. Emaciated, however, is much more popular with the d than without, as it shows up more than a hundredfold as often as emaciate, and Google autocorrects you if you try to type emaciate. A pity. Anyway, this comes from Latin emaciatus, a past participle of emaciare, a verb meaning "to cause to waste away" much like today. Here, we can eliminate the prefix ex-, meaning "out", leaving us with the root macies, meaning "lean" (as in emaciation brings the leanness out). Macies derives from the verb macer, "to thin", which is from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction mak, which meant "long" (as in thin things are often long too). Considering that ex- comes from PIE eghs, also "out", if you go as far back as you can, emaciate means "long out"
Laconic has one of the sassiest etymologies out there! Today a term meaning "concise", the word was borrowed in the 1580s from Ancient Greek Lakonikos, a toponym for a region of the Peloponnese peninsula. What's so special about this area? It was ruled by the Spartans, who were famous for their short replies. One famous and often-quoted example of this is when Phillip II of Macedonia asked whether he should come to Sparta as a friend or an enemy. They sent back just the word "neither". Ticked off at the lack of respect, he replied that if he does come to Laconia, he will kill everybody there and burn everything to the ground. The Spartans replied with another single word: "if". The Macedonians never tried to come. That level of toughness and terseness can't be encompassed by just one example, but you get the idea why the connection to laconic exists. The stem of Lakonikos is Lakon, the name for the people of Laconia, and that's a word that's been around forever, tracing to a Mediterranean Pre-Greek language.
In English today, an apparatus can refer to a piece of equipment, a structure, or a part of a whole, but when it was first borrowed into English in the 1620s, it particularly meant "a collection of tools or equipment". This was taken from Latin apparatus, which held a variety of definitions, including "tools", "preparation", "implementation", and "equipment". The "prepare" meaning is most important as we go back in time, since apparatus came from the verb apparare, which meant "to prepare" and was composed of the prefix ad-, "to", and the root parare, "make ready". Therefore, an apparatus makes something ready, or prepares it. Ad- comes from a Proto-Indo-European root with the same definition, and parare is reconstructed as deriving from PIE per, meaning "produce". Usage of the word apparatus spiked during World War I and has been on the decline since, but Google searches for the term have remained relatively constant over the years.
The word ubiquitous was coined more than two hundred years after ubiquity; it's far from unusual to see nouns be there first. Through Modern Latin, uibiquity traces to the Latin word ubique, meaning "everywhere" (you can see the connection to the current definition). This was composed of two parts: ubi, meaning "where", and que, which held many definitions, including "and", "any", and "also", but in this case stood in as the "every". Ubi- is reconstructed as having derived from the Proto-Indo-European root kwe, which was an important part of many pronouns and ironically ubiquitous, making up parts of the words why, which, where, who, how, either, neuter, quantity, quote, quibble, quality, and quotient. My favorite descendant of the root, though, is the Latin word que, which makes up the second part of ubiquity. That's right: ubiquity comes from a PIE root so ubiquitous that it composes both halves of the word. Etymology is awesome.
The holiday of Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Black Panther activist Maulana Karenga as a way to bring together the African American community. To do this, he examined various African harvest celebrations and tried to make sort of an amalgam of those cultural holidays. Karenga called this combo-holiday kwanza, a word taken from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits" in Swahili. He then tacked on an extra a so the word could have seven letters, each representing one of the Seven Principles of Blackness. Now, in that phrase, kwanza was the part meaning "first", so it's really not that surprising that it's the infinitive of a word meaning "to begin", anza. Further etymology is unknown, but, being from a Bantu language, anza could likely trace to a Niger-Congolese ancestor. Usage of the word Kwanzaa peaked in the late 90s, and Google searches for the term always have a seasonal uptick in December.
When I think of the word economy, I imagine large-scale things such as the national debt or trade deficit. I don't think of personal finances or checkbooks immediately. However, in the olden days, the word economy only used to refer to household management, while the phrase political economy was exclusively used for national money matters. It wasn't until the 1650s that people thought it would be nifty to drop the word political and refer to any financial system as an economy. In its earlier form, economy was borrowed in the 1530s from the Latin word oeconomia, which was from Ancient Greek oikonomia, with the same meaning of "household management". This in turn was composed of the parts oikos, meaning "house", and nemein, meaning "manage", "distribute", or even "allocate". Oikos traces to Proto-Indo-European weyk, a verb for "to settle" (and ancestor of the English suffix -wick for villages) and nemein can be reconstructed to PIE nem, "assign"). So, in a way, the etymology of economy is like real estate economics: it's all about assigning location, location, location.
What the heck is the mistle in mistletoe, and what do toes have to do with it? To answer that, we turn, as usual, to its etymology. In Middle English, the word was spelled mistelto, and in Old English, it took the forms of mistiltan and misteltan (so you can see that there are no toes involved; the word just developed that way). The first part of the word here is missel, which could refer to the "basil" or "misteltoe" plants, and the second part is tan, meaning "twig". Missel is where all the action is: it might be from a Proto-Germanic word meaning "excrement", mist, through a connection of how the plant reproduces (by dropping seeds, much like excrement). This is only a theory, but the most likely one; if true, it would be from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like meigh and meaning "urinate". Back to tan! Through Proto-Germanic tainaz, it derives from Proto-Indo-European, but we're not sure exactly how. So, mistletoe really means "urine twig". Perfect for the holiday season!
Call me a Gen Z ignoramus, but the only meaning I had ever attached to the word Nickelodeon was to the children's TV channel. Can't really blame me, as 80% of US households have access to it. This channel, much to my surprise, was named after a small type of movie theatre in the early 1900s. For only one nickel, audiences could see all the motion pictures of the day. However, as films got longer and venues grew to accommodate larger audiences, nickelodeons died out, relegated to pop culture references until the company was created in 1977. Now, the first part of the etymology should be obvious: a nickel, as in the 5-cent coin, is what you were charged for entry. We've already covered its origin in a previous post, but the second part, odeon, is a Greek word for "theatre" and comes from an earlier word for "song", oide. That in turn is from aeidein, "to sing", which probably comes from a similar word in Proto-Indo-European.
Yesterday we discovered that toward and towards can be used interchangeably, but it's a little more complicated for further and farther. The Oxford English Dictionary and a few other places claim that there shouldn't be a distinction, but many other sources say that farther represents physical distances and further represents distances that are figurative or beyond something else. So you can run a little farther to the further field, but develop a bit further. Etymologically speaking, farther was modified from further near the end of the fourteenth century, so they're linguistically similar, at least. In Old English, it could be spelled further or forther (pronounced with a soft th), in Proto-Germanic it was furtheraz, and that traces to Proto-Indo-European per, meaning "forward". Usage of further is more than ten times as frequent as farther in English, and that gap might grow even further.
I've often found myself writing a sentence and wondering whether I should be using toward or towards. Was there a difference, anyway? Turns out not. Toward is used slightly more in American English than towards (about five times more), and some pedants will say that towards is incorrect, but both are actually acceptable. Meanwhile, towards is used three times more in British English. It really, really doesn't matter, though. Both forms come from Old English toweard, with the same general meaning of "in the direction of". This combines the word to and the suffix -weard, which implied direction. To in Old English and Proto-Germanic was basically the same, but could also be spelled ta, and in Proto-Indo-European, it could be de or do, but with the same definition (simple words often have simple etymologies). -Weard also comes from Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Germanic; in this case, it may be reconstructed to wer, meaning "to turn".
The first grammatical apostrophe (') only originated five hundred years ago, when early Renaissance writers started using them to contract words. For the next several centuries, it grew increasingly popular, but without standardized usages (this is why Shakespearean writing has unusual and often inappropriate-seeming apostrophes cleaving words in half). To complicate matters, a few centuries after its introduction, somebody thought to use it to indicate possessives as well. Eventually grammar grew more standard and people began using apostrophes as we know them today, but for a few hundred years it was a right kerfuffle. But why do we call it an apostrophe anyway? Isn't that also a word for a rhetorical device when a character addresses an absent person or object? Well, through Latin, both of those words come from the Ancient Greek verb apostrephein, meaning "to turn away". The little hook in the punctuation mark turns away, and an actor turns away when dramatically addressing an imaginary entity. Beyond that, the etymology is unknown, but it's probably from a Proto-Indo-European word also meaning "turn".
A friend of mine was quite titillated today to discover that gruntled is a word meaning "satisfied", as opposed to the much more common word disgruntled. Gruntled has actually been around longer; the dis- wasn't affixed until the 1680s, and it really didn't become popular until the 1870s, when it utterly quashed gruntled into the realm of archaic terminology. Okay, so dis- is a Latin prefix meaning "lack of", and it comes from Proto-Indo-European dis-, "apart". -Le is just a frequentive suffix, so the root in fact derives from our word grunt, which, of course, refers to a snorting sound. In Middle English, this was grunten, in Old English, it was grunnettan, in Proto-Germanic it was grunnatjana and in PIE it was ghrun. Not much semantic change there, but at the end it meant something more like "shout". Beyond that, I'm guessing there's an onomatopoeic component. This etymology certainly gruntled me!
The immediate association people make with the word arrest is that of "to detain", but something can also be arresting, as in it makes you stop and look at it. You may not have thought about it, but the second definition has been around much longer: somebody who is arrested is stopped, just as you would be, more figuratively. It all comes from Old French arester, meaning "to stay" or "stop", and as Latin arrestare, it could also mean "detain". See the connection to both of the modern denotations? Here, we can break off the prefix ad- ("to", from Proto-Indo-European hed, "near"), leaving us with the root restare, or "to stand firm" (less "stopping" and more "not moving" at this point). There's a hidden second prefix, re-, meaning "backwards" and coming from PIE wre, "again", and what's remaining is stare, "to stand" (from PIE sta, also "stand". Usage of the word arrest in literature increased up to the 1860s, but has since been on a slight decrease. We won't lose the word for a long time, because of the legal seizure meaning, but we might lose the older definition as the newer one forces it out.
The first thing I think of when I hear the word Matrix is the philosophical idea that we might all be living in a simulation. This schema of mine stems from the 1999 movie, but before that, the word meant "a place where something develops". The Matrix film is connected to that because it posits that humans are developed in this virtual world as they're drained of life for energy. A matrix can also be a kind of array in mathematics or circuitry; this is connected because certain values have to be set for those matrices, which is similar to the development aspect. But the "place of development" meaning has been around the longest of the modern definitions: it was first recorded in the mid-sixteenth century. Before that, matrix in English meant "uterus". Again, the "development" connection, but this specific connotation died out over time. Now, that was fascinating, but it gets better. The "uterus" definition was a loanword from Old French matrice, which came from Latin matrix, which still meant "womb" but could also mean "pregnant animal". Even further back, it's from the word mater, meaning "mother". Through Proto-Italic, this is from Proto-Indo-European mehter, with the same definition. I guess you could say that the etymology of matrix has an interesting development, or matrix!
In 1911, physicist Ernest Rutherford did his famous "gold foil" experiment, where he determined that at the center of every atom is a small, dense, and positively charged mass. In 1912, he named this the nucleus. However, he wasn't the first person to use that word in reference to tiny particles; Michael Faraday actually coined the term in 1844, but only to refer a hypothetical central point of an atom, so Rutherford really gets the credit there. However, it goes deeper: the word has really been around in English since 1704 as a synoynm for "kernel of a nut", and Faraday just borrowed that because it seemed like a good analogy. However, this had the side effect of making the atomic definition become so popular that it largely drove out the more nutty meaning. Before then, the word was a diminutive of Latin nux, meaning "nut", and that in turn is from Proto-Indo-European kneu, with the same definition.
A friend asked me today whether the words sublime and subliminal are etymologically connected. Well, that's a very interesting question with a fascination answer. First, sublime. Through Middle English sublimen and Old French sublimer, it traces to Latin sublimere, meaning "to raise high" (you sort of guess from there how both the meanings of "phase transition from solid to gas" and "exalted" can and did stem from this; the "lofty" definition has been around longer, though). The root here is limen, which meant threshhold, and the prefix is sub-, which in this case meant "up to". Subliminal also sprang directly from this exact combination, but how? Turns out that sub- can mean both "up to" and "below", although we know it more as being "below" in the English language. So something sublime is "up to" the threshold of what is good, while something subliminal sneaks in below the threshold of conscious thought. Sub-, through Proto-Italic, comes from PIE upo, "under", and limen is from Latin limus, which meant "oblique" and is of unknown origin
A requiem is a (usually Catholic) mass to honor the souls of the deceased. The irreligious, however, might better know the term from the somber and often eerie music composed for these occasions. Requiem was borrowed into the English language around the turn of the fourteenth century directly from church Latin, where it was a conjugation of requies, meaning "rest", as in the soul of the dead person is at rest. This is a combination of the prefix re-, meaning "again", and the root quies, or "rest" (the etymon of quiet, through Old English quiete, also "rest"). So the re- is a bit redundant; there are a lot of useless affixes in Latin. Re- is from Proto-Italic wre, with the same definition. That could be from a similar Proto-Indo-European word, but there's no widely accepted reconstruction. Quies, meanwhile, can be traced to the PIE root kwyeh, which still meant "rest" but also "peace". Usage of requiem in literature has been decreasing since a maximum in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The word fan, as in the thing that cools you down, has been in English for many centuries, dating back to Old English fann. Before then, in Latin, it was vannus. This could either be from Proto-Indo-European wet, meaning "to blow" or from Latin ventus, meaning "wind", which could be from the same PIE root. Now, there are a lot of puns made connecting the air-moving device to the definition meaning "admirer", but no etymological correlation. In actuality, fan is a clipping of fanatic, something that seems obvious now but most people have never thought about before. In Latin as fanaticus, this word had a more religious connotation, implying a zeal for God- and that's why it comes from the earlier word fanum, meaning "temple". Through Proto-Italic faznom, this hails from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dehs, meaning "God". Fanatic might also be a cognate of fancy. How fancy!
This post is really only for people who've read the Game of Thrones books, so if you haven't, just ignore this. I say Game of Thrones because that has by and large emerged as the popular term to describe George R. R. Martin's universe. Blame HBO. However, real fans know that the proper name for the series is A Song of Ice and Fire, and that's what I'll be covering today. Why, exactly, is it called that? The juxtaposition of hot and cold is important throughout the books, and the title is commonly thought to contrast the fire of Daenerys' dragons and the ice north of the Wall. Moreover, in the famous prophecy telling of Azor Ahai (commonly thought to refer to Jon Snow or Daenerys), it's written that "he is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire." Both Melisandre and the Reeds use the phrase as well. Does the title, then, refer to the prophecy? George R. R. Martin has not explicitly commented on this, but did say he was influenced by the Robert Frost poem Fire and Ice. There still seems to be a piece missing, however. Something more conclusive should draw it all together and have the name make sense- something that must be revealed in the end. My favorite theory about this is that both major horns in the series, Dragonbinder and the Horn of Winter, will be blown in the fight against the Others. Since Dragonbinder controls dragons, which are creatures of fire, and the Horn of Winter will bring down the Wall, which is made of Ice, if they are sounded at the same time, it will be a literal Song of Ice and Fire. What other purpose would the horns serve in the books? Just an interesting theory to dwell on for fellow fans.
Gizzard is a word referring to the stomachs of birds, and it has meant the same thing since Latin. In Middle English, it could also be spelled geser or gyser, and in Old French, the term was attested as taking the forms gisier, giser, geser, and several more. In Latin, it was gicerium, which shifted away from the original noun gigeria, meaning "cooked insides of a bird". Note that over time, the word grew both more specific (from "insides" in general to "stomach"), and broader (from "cooked" to not necessarily heated up in any particular manner). I think that's pretty interesting, but it gets even better, with a mysterious turn! The origin of gigeria is unknown, but there are some theories. One exotic idea is that it could be from Middle Persian, because of a Persian cognate; another is that it is from a Proto-Indo-European sounding like hyekwr and meaning "liver". Nobody knows for sure, but it certainly is fascinating speculation!
Rapscallion is such a delightfully mischievous word. The very feel of it rolling off your tongue embodies what it represents. When I first picked the word to be etymologized, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was related to rascal. In fact, it's a 1690 alteration of rascallion, which in turn is universally described as a "fanciful elaboration" of rascal. The p just makes it swankier. As for rascal itself, it's been around English since the early fourteenth century. In Middle English, it was rascaile, which meant "lower class" (based on a connection rich people made between poverty and lawlessness). In Old French it was it was rascaille, which had more of a connotation of "outcast", and here it gets really interesting. This could be from rasque, or "filth", which really does even more to reflect on how the poor were perceived back then. If true, rasque could then be traced to Latin raiscere, meaning "to scrape" (because you scrape off filth, or in this case, the outcasts from society)
We recently covered the etymologies of Twitter and Reddit, and we've done Google, Amazon, and Instagram, in the past, but Facebook has been uncharted territory- until now, that is. It's a rather obvious combination of the nouns face and book, but how did that particular phrase get chosen? The answer surprised me as a Gen Z kid, but might not be so shocking for older people: a facebook used to be a directory for US college students listing names and headshots (a term first coined in 1983). When Mark Zuckerberg first launched his website in 2004, he meant it as a method for college students to network, and appropriately dubbed it The Facebook. Then, as anybody who's seen the Social Network can tell you, Sean Parker told him to drop the "the" and the rest is history, right? Well, not really- that story is most likely apocryphal. It was just sort of the natural thing to do as they bought out the domain name facebook.com in 2005.
The word eavesdropper existed before the word eavesdrop. Yep, our current word for "to listen in on others" is actually a seventeenth-century back-formation from a previous term meaning "one who listens at walls or windows". This in turn was created from the noun eavesdrip, which is the "place where water drips off the roof". Thus, an eavesdropper is someone who hides near an eavesdrip and listens to conversations going on inside. The first part of that, eaves, is a word that still exists today, meaning "lower part of a roof". Eaves, through Old English efes and Proto-Germanic ubaswo, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction upo, or "under". Drip, obviously, we also have in our vernacular. It traces to Proto-Indo-European dhreu through Proto-Germanic drupjanan, both with the same meaning. The word eavesdrop has been increasing exponentially in recent years, as people have been getting nosier, I guess.
Twitter completely ruined the best verb for describing excited sounds at nature, but, at the same time, you have to give them kudos for thinking up such an apt name. It perfectly matches the fast, light pace the website's intended to run at. But how did it get to be that word in particular? Well, when Jack Dorsey and his co-founders were originally fishing around for names, they wanted something to reflect a "short burst of inconsequential information", in his own words. Options such as Jitter and Twitch were both floated until someone, already in the Tw- section of the dictionary, stumbled upon Twitter and it was an instant hit. Interestingly, the company didn't come up with the word tweet; they originally wanted to call the posts "status updates", but users latched on to it as it became an unexpected hit. The word twitter comes from Proto-Germanic twitwizona, which is very likely onomatopoeic in origin.
In similar news, it's the one-year anniversary of the Etymology Nerd on Twitter! Check out @etymology_nerd if you haven't already!
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.