Why is titmouse a name for a type of bird if the word mouse is in it? Well, turns out it has nothing to do with mice at all! When it was first borrowed in the fourteenth century, the word was actually spelled titmose. By the sixteenth century, however, people decided that mose looked like a weird suffix, so they changed it to look like the name of another common animal (this shift also marked the change in the plural from titmoses to titmice, again modelled off the rodent). The first part of titmose, tit, still exists as a word meaning "small bird" today. It has no connection to the vulgar word for "breast" and is most likely imitative of a tapping sound that was associated with the bird. The second part, mose, comes from Old English mase, which also referred to titmice, making the tit prefix completely redundant. In Proto-Germanic, this was maison or maiso, and beyond that the etymology is unknown.
Marmite, of course, is a salty yeast extract widespread in Great Britain that's generated as much controversy as pineapple on pizza. Turns out that even its etymology is against it! The English word comes from a French term spelled the same which meant "earthenware pot", because that's what marmite was first sold in. Now, it's quite possible that this in turn comes from an Old French word meaning "hypocrite", under the connection that the contents of marmite jars was hidden, just like the true intentions of a hypocrite. Hold on: it gets even weirder! That earlier definition of the word was "muttering cat", because everybody knows cats are hypocritical and selfish. This in turn is thought to be composed of the onomatopoeic verb marmotter ("to mutter") and the word mite, or "cat". While marmotter is imitative, not unlike mutter itself, mite is a cognate with the English word mite, meaning "small creature" and likely coming from a Latin root meaning that as well.
The first mentions of mozzarella are in a few cookbooks from hundreds of years ago. It sort of fizzled out in usage until the twentieth century, as mass production of the cheese started in the 1950s and popularity really began in the '70s. Before that, though, it was a little-known delicacy relegated to the Naples area of Italy. The term isn't quite from Italian, but from the Neopolitan dialect, where it was a diminutive of mozza, a word for soft cheeses in general. Here, we can trace it to the verb form, mozzare, which meant "cut" or "cut off" (as in "soft cheeses" can be "cut" easily). Surprisingly, this is most likely from Latin mutilare, which meant "to cut off" as well, but is recognizable to us as the etymon of mutilate. However, going beyond that, there's not much evidence to go on, let alone reconstruct something. It might be from an earlier word meaning "blunt, but nobody knows for sure. Usage of the word mozzarella in literature peaked in 1998.
For those not well versed in Greek mythology, Cerberus was thought to be a three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to Underworld to stop dead people from leaving and living people from entering. Now, the etymology is a little disputed, but it proffers a very interesting explanation. The only thing we know for sure is that the name was borrowed into English in the 1300s as a Latinized form of the Greek word Kerberos. Beyond that, some linguists think it might be related to the Sanskrit word karbura (meaning "speckled") through the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kerberos, "spotted". So the Lord of the Dead would have literally named his dog Spot, if this is true. However, other scholars poke holes in this theory by citing the relative infrequency of the b sound in PIE. So what else could work? The word is likely not Greek. Etymologies have been proposed that trace it to definitions such as as "not yet successful" and "growl", but, for now, the true etymon remains elusive or unconfirmed. Usage of the name Cerberus in literature was previously declining since the nineteenth century, but is now on the rise again, due to Greek mythology being increasingly included in popular culture.
The most common theory behind the origin of the word mayonnaise, espoused by food blogs everywhere, is that the condiment name's history hails back to the Seven Year's War, specifically the Battle of Minorca, which was the first European naval battle of the conflict and a complete British screw-up. The French handily won, executed the English admiral, and bragged about it to any person or nation that would listen. It got so out of hand that they took the capital of Minorca, Mao (which could be stylized as Mahon) and the suffix -aise (which has to do with denoting the quality of being from a location), and used their new word of mayonnaise to describe a new sauce which had just been invented, so they could rub it in some more. However, there are some problems with this etymology. The timeline doesn't match up perfectly; etymologists only tentatively cite it as the most likely origin. It could be a corruption from Bayonnaise ("from the city of Bayonne"), from the Old French word moyeu, meaning "egg", or from the verb manier, meaning "to handle". It's certainly a sticky situation!
Apparently the people who rang early church bells all day were really buff. The clappers, which they had to rhythmically swing back and forth all day, increased proportionally with the size of the bell and could often be hundreds of pounds. Some people caught on to the great form of exercising, and, wanting to get bigger muscles themselves but not actually ring the bells, invented a device which mimicked the feel of swinging the clapper but did not make any noise. This was referred to as a dumb-bell, "dumb" in this context meaning "silent", and it eventually evolved into the dumbbells we know today. But what of barbells, which are just bigger versions of dumbbells? Well, it's kind of obvious if you think about it. If they're like dumbbells but with bars you can lift with, why not combine the words and call them barbells? The same logic followed for naming kettlebells, which looked like kettles but acted like dumbbells. And there you have it: the reason why three types of weights are named after a musical instrument!
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a junior 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.