In 1869, French scientist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès invented a butter substitute as part of a contest to make cheap spread for soldiers. He called it oleomargarine, which meant "margarine oil" (margarine then referred to a type of fatty acid), but then people decided that was too lengthy and dropped the oleo- prefix. When that was brought to the United States in 1873, the name stuck, peaking in usage in 1982. The term margarine acid was coined in 1813 by another French chemist, Michel Eugène Chevreul, who named it after the Greek word for "pearl", margarites, because the acid was judged to have a pearly luster. Margarites, the etymon of the name Margaret, has an unknown origin but is thought to ultimately derive from Iranian, because of cognates in Middle Persian, Avestan, and Sogdian
Quite frequently, programmers like to feel cool and give their projects code names while they're in development. It's happened with Windows 98 (formerly Memphis), the Xbox One (Durango), Android 8.0 (Oreo), Mac OS 9.0 (Sonata), and almost every other conceivable update or software launch. Sometimes, the name sticks, like with Yosemite becoming the actual term for an Apple operating system; my favorite example of this phenomenon is that of Bluetooth, which was temporarily named after a Danish King in the tenth century, Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson. The cryptonym was suggested by Intel engineer Jim Kardach, who likened the unity between mobiles and computers to the unification of Scandinavia under Bluetooth's reign. Later, ideas for the real name included RadioWire or Personal Area Networking (PAN), but a lot of details about Bluetooth (including the name) were already leaked at that point so the development team just went with it. The Bluetooth logo is a rune merging Harald's initials.
Tapioca, the kind of starch that's extracted from cassava and is best known for being in bubble tea, was originally endemic to northern Brazil. It was encountered by the Portuguese around the turn of the sixteenth century, who traded it around until the balls were invented in southeast Asia and eventually popularized abroad. The word for the foodstuff, first used in English in the 1640s, was borrowed from the Tupí word tipioca, which specifically referred to the juice of a cassava plant. That literally meant "to squeeze out dregs", coming from the words tipi, meaning "dregs" (also can be interpreted as "residue" or "sediment"), and oka, "to squeeze out". The word cassava was also borrowed from Brazil through Portuguese, in this case from the Taíno term kasabi, still with the same definition.
The earliest written use of the word synagogue was in a late twelfth century collection of Christian sermons. That comes from Old French sinagoge, which could be used to refer to any non-Christian places of worship, including mosques and pagan temples, and (through Latin) ultimately traces to the Ancient Greek word synagoge, meaning "place of assembly" or "to bring together". That was composed of syn, which meant "with" (and is an element in words like syllable, syntax, and symphony) and agein, a verb which meant "to move" (and is an element in words like strategy, agony, and demagogue). Respectively, those terms come from Proto-Indo-European sem ("together") and heg ("to drive"). Literary usage of the word synagogue has trended upwards over time, peaking in the year 1998.
Looking at the formations of the words gymnastics and gymnasium, you can see that they share a root in Ancient Greek gymno-. However, I have a friend who used to work at a mathnasium, slimnastics is a type of yoga workout, and people work out at the gym (a word that is now used four times as much as gymnasium in literature, and over a hundredfold more in online searches). It's rather interesting how the term was improperly rebracketed like that, but I guess we're stuck with it. Both gymnasium and gymnastics were borrowed around the seventeenth century from the verb gymnazein, meaning "to exercise naked", because Ancient Greek sports were done in the nude. Gymnazein comes from the root gymnos, which meant "naked", and that traces to Proto-Indo-European nogw, also "naked".
Puttanesca sauce, that delicious tomato mixture of olives, capers, garlic, and some other ingredients, has a name literally meaning "sluttish" in Italian. This is because of an association with prostitutes during World War II for reasons that are not entirely clear. Explanations range from it being cooked as an easy dish by sex workers between customers to it smelling similar to them; linguists are really quite unsure. The root of the term is puttana, a pejorative word for "prostitute". That comes from puta, which is Latin for "girl" and in turn is a conjugation of putus, which meant "boy" but originally had a definition of "pure". Finally, it all derives from the Proto-Indo-European root pewh, meaning "to purify". After its introduction to the United States in the 1960s, puttanesca exploded in usage in the '80s and '90s as it was popularized through cooking shows and cookbooks, peaking in 1998.
Before the word carpenter came to be used in the fourteenth century, people used the word treowwyrhta, which meant "tree-worker" in Old English. Carpenter was brought over by the Anglo-Normans from a dialect in northern France where they called the workers carpentiers, and that term derives from the Latin phrase artifex carpentarius, which meant "wagon maker". Artifex here is the word meaning "craftsman", which leaves the root of carpenter meaning "wagon". That comes from carpentum, which specifically referred to a type of two-wheeled chariots that was borrowed from the Gauls, who called it carbantos. Eventually, that traces to Proto-Italic karbantos, meaning "war chariot", which is probably related to the etymon of the word car (maybe from Proto-Indo-European krsos, "to run").
The word sideburn used to be spelled burnside, but then in the 1870s some people erroneously figured that the former spelling had to be the correct one because of the hair being on the sides of your face (and through confusion with another term, sidewhisker), so we got stuck with the new word. However, neither sides nor burns have anything to do with the it, which was named after a Civil War general named Ambrose Burnside, who was known for his rather magnificent facial hair (pictured). Originally, the term only referred to the particular style of beard that left the chin clean-shaven while the sides turned into a moustache, but as that grew less popular it came to increasingly be associated with hair just on the sides of the face. The word sideburn peaked in usage in 2003 after a massive increase in the early- and mid-twentieth century.
As late as the year 1808, some people were spelling the word eye as ee. Other alterations throughout history include eage, eygh, yee, ene, eie, eyȝnen and eiȝe with yoghs, nye, ney, neye, and nie (the last four because of rebracketing "an eye" into "a neye" or something equivalent in the seventeenth century, but that died out quickly), and more. As such a simple, common word, it sure changed a lot. Through Old English ege, it all traces to Proto-Germanic augo and ultimately Proto-Indo-European hek, with the same definition. The earliest use of the phrase private eye in print was in a 1938 edition of Dime Detective, a pulp fiction magazine. It was a pun based off the abbreviation of private I for private investigator and the idea that PIs spy on people, hence the eye part.
Since it was borrowed in the year 1400, the word alarm has been spelled alarom, alarum, a larme, al'arme, and allarm until today's spelling became standardized around the turn of the eighteenth century. As a noun, it had a lot of meanings, all of which are somehow related: the "clock" definition comes from the "warning" definition, and that came from the "awareness of danger" definition. That traces to Old French alarme, which had the latter meaning and was borrowed from a contraction of the Italian phrase alle arme, or "to arms". But the plot thickens: alle is also a contraction, of a ("to"; from Latin and possibly Etruscan) and le (an article). Arme is the plural of arma, meaning "weapon". That derives from Latin and eventually hails from Proto-Indo-European hermos, "to fit together". The word alarm peaked in usage in the 1820s and has declined since.
The word elephant was borrowed in the 1340s from the French word olifant, which was taken from Latin elephantus, from Greek elephas. This did have a definition of "elephant", but it mostly referred to ivory, which traders were encountering on a much more frequent basis than the animals. Homer and other writers such as Pindar and Hesiod all used it in this latter sense. Beyond that, the word is thought to be non-Indo-European, maybe from a Phonecian or Berber word sounding like elu and meaning "elephant". Some accounts incorrectly rebracket elephant into a word ele (possibly meaning "arch") and the root phanein (meaning "to show", same as in sycophant or phantasm), but there is a plethora of evidence discrediting that theory, so give it no credence if you encounter it.
In 1926, a man named Sakichi Toyoda founded a company called Toyada Automatic Loom Works, Ltd to sell a new type of machine-powered loom he invented. This became pretty popular, and the patent was eventually bought by a British textile corporation, giving Toyoda's son and successor Kiichiro the funds to branch out into the burgeoning automobile industry. Soon after, ownership of the company passed to Kiichiro's brother-in-law, Rizaburo Toyoda, who felt that it was time for a rebranding. He didn't particularly care for the name Toyoda because it could be translated to "rice paddies" (a modern name was preferable to one tied to farming) and because it was cumbersome to say, so he switched to the easier-to-pronounce name Toyota, which had the added bonus of cutting brush strokes down from ten to eight, a lucky number. And that's how we got the modern automobile brand name, which is pretty neat!
LOL has stood for many things throughout the years. League of Legends. Little old lady. Lots of love. But the most influential one, of course, is laughing out loud, perhaps one of the best-known internet acronyms out there. The abbreviation was coined on a bulletin board system by Calgary native Wayne Pearson in the early 1980s. A friend's message made him burst out laughing, and rather than typing hahaha he randomly used LOL. The friend asked him what it meant, then started using it himself, and the rest is history. What happened next was analyzed rather well by linguist Gretchen McCulloch in her delightful new book Because Internet: over time, LOL stopped being an acronym and started being a word - lol. Rules were established, if not codified, over its usage. It no longer refers to actually laughing, but can express slight amusement, flirting, validation, correction, empathy, or it serves soften the meaning of a message. It's used only once a sentence, typically at the end or beginning, and nowadays it's almost always lowercase. We're at a point when I regularly hear my friends say the word out loud (as loll, not el oh el) in reaction to a joke. What started as a spur-of-the-moment acronym turned into an actual term, dissociated from all past meaning, with its own social context - and it all happened within thirty years. That's incredibly cool.
The name for Herzegovina, the southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was first popularized in the early nineteenth century, peaking in usage during the 1870s, World War I, and when the country was being formed in the 1990s. However, the word was floating around for a while before that, first being coined in 1448 in reference to the ruler of Bosnia at the time, Hercog Stjepan Vukčić Kosača. Hercog was his title (basically meaning "duke") and Herzegovina was the word for the territory he controlled (equivalent to "duchy"); the term just stuck around after that. Hercog comes from German herzog, which traces to the Old High German word herizogo, meaning "army leader". That derives from Proto-Germanic harjatugo, which is made out of Proto-Indo-European components meaning "war" and"pull".
An aptronym is a personal name that is oddly appropriate to that person's line of work. Here are some examples of the amusing connections:
The noun proportion was first used in English in a 1382 translation of the Holy Bible by theologist John Wycliffe, and the verb came shortly afterwards. At that point it was spelled proporcyon; after a few hundred years alternating in usage with proporcioun and proportion, the latter won out. The word comes from Old French proporcion and Latin proportionem, both of which meant "measurement". Proportionem in turn came from the phrase pro portione, which is best translated as "according to the relation" but literally means "for part": pro meant "for" (and traces to Proto-Indo-European per, or "before") and portione is the ablative singular of portionem, which meant "proportion" or "part" (and derives from Proto-Indo-European pere, which meant "to allot").
The word electric was first used in 1626 by Sir Francis Bacon, and electricity was coined twenty years later by Sir Thomas Browne. Both of them used the terms to describe materials that attracted other objects, and both probably got the terms from English scientist William Gilbert's treatise De Magnete, which discussed in Latin how amber produces static electricity. The word he used was electricus, which was a new formation from Latin electrum, meaning "amber". That was borrowed from Ancient Greek elektron, also "amber", which, due to cognates in Sanskrit and elswhere, is probably Indo-European, although that's uncertain. Electron was coined in 1891, and then proton and neutron were created due to analogy with that. Those are just some descendants of many - and it was all due to the experiments outlined in a seventeenth-century paper.
Hegemony, or the concept of one state being dominant over others, has its roots in Ancient Greek history. In fact, it used to refer exclusively to one city-state exerting control over its neighbors. Before reaching common usage in the 1800s, the term was borrowed in the 1560s directly from the Ancient Greek word hegemonia, which stems from hegemon, a word which could mean "leader" or "authority". Ultimately, that is thought to trace to the verb hegeisthai, "to track down" (it had a figurative definition of "to lead") and finally the Proto-Indo-European root sehg, "to seek out" (interestingly, this also is the etymon of the English word sake). Apparently hegemony can be pronounced either with the g sounding like a j or a g in British English, which I didn't know - Americans only say it with a j sound.
There's a rather delightful concept called RAS syndrome, where RAS means "redundant acronym syndrome". This describes situations when there's accidental repetition in a word following an acronym. Here are some common examples:ATM (automatic teller machine) machine
An ortolan is a type of bird native to Eurasia and known for being cooked and eaten whole in some cultures. The name for them comes from Middle French hortolan, which meant "gardener". Through Old French, that traces to Latin hortulanus, which is a conjugation of hortulus, which is a diminutive of hortus, "garden" (the source of the word horticulture). That is said to derive from Proto-Indo-European gher, meaning "enclosure" (this composes parts of the words Asgard, garden, arugula, orchard, kindergarten, and many more). The scientific name for the ortolan, hortulana, comes from the Italian word ortolano, which eventually derives from hortulanus. After its first introduction to the English language in the late seventeenth century, ortolan peaked in usage in the 1780s and has been generally trending downwards since.
The word perpetrate was first used in UK parliamentary records from the 1470s, and it was borrowed directly from Latin perpetratus, meaning "accomplished". That comes from the verb perpetrare, or "carry through", which is composed out of per, meaning "through" in this context, and patrare, which is best translated as "to bring into existence". Per is reconstructed as coming from a Proto-Indo-European root that sounded very similar, and patrare traces to the Latin word for "father", pater, because fathers definitely are people who bring things into existence. Through Proto-Italic, that derives from Proto-Indo-European phter, also "father". Perp as an abbreviation for "perpetrator" emerged in 1968, and usage of the word perpetrator has skyrocketed since the 1960s.
Why do most modern video game controllers have A, B, X, and Y buttons instead of A, B, C, and D or some numerical pattern? It seems weirdly arbitrary. Our history begins in 1983 when the Nintendo NES controller was released, containing just a directional pad, an A button, and a B button. This was just a way of differentiating the two, which still makes sense. Then, in 1990, Nintendo released the SNES, which had a diamond-shaped pattern much like today's, and other corporations followed suit. Although the company never officially made a statement on why they did this, there are several quite convincing explanations, all of which may have played a part. For one, it's easy to distinguish between the sounds for all of the letters (not so much when you're shouting B and D excitedly). It also could have tested better in marketing or it could have been implemented to future-proof the devices in case they wanted to make a controller with six buttons that was still compatible with four-button games (if this was in alphabetical order, then there would be a frameshift that hinders gameplay). Whatever the reason, it's pretty interesting that that's what we particularly ended up with, rather than something else.
The type of of facial tissue we use today wasn't invented until the 1920s, but it had a meaning of "ribbon" or "handkerchief" since the late fourteenth century, when it was spelled tyssu. Spelling varied for a few hundred years after that, with alternations such as tyssewys, tisshue, tyssue, tysshewe, tysshiew, tushwe, tischay, tissu, and tissew being made up until the mid-1500s. The word comes from Old French tissu, which was the past participle of tistre, meaning "to weave". That traces to Latin texere ("to weave") which in turn came from tek, a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction meaning "to produce", by way of Proto-Italic tekso. Usage of the word tissue over time has been steadily increasing since the beginnning of the nineteenth century, save for a downward blip during the 1930s.
I often use the word swell as an adverb meaning "excellent". That comes from a now-archaic adjective meaning "stylish" which was first attested in 1810 (use of it as a single positive expression is from 1930s American slang). That in turn is from a noun meaning "stylish person", which comes from the verb for "enlarge" because stylish people were thought to have swollen egos. Through Middle English swellen and Old English swellan, the verb traces to the Proto-Germanic word swellana, which is thought to derive from an unknown Proto-Indo-European root. Use of swell in a figurative manner (such as to swell with pride or swell with anger) began in the late 1300s, and usage of the word swell over time has been decreasing since a swell in the eighteenth century.
The word cantankerous first emerged in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was said to have originated in Wiltshire County slang in the United Kingdom, from the word contenkerous. This was either a portmanteau of contentious and rancorous or from the Middle English word contankour, meaning "troublemaker" (this could have changed spelling due to influence from either raucous or rancorous). I'll focus here on the latter possibility: contankour came from the Anglo-Norman word contec, which meant "discord", and that's from Old French contechier, which was composed out of the prefix con-, meaning "with", and the verb atachier, "to hold fast". The idea was that discord arises from stubborness, I suppose. After peaking in the year 1953, usage of the word cantankerous over time sort of levelled off.
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.