When the word pioneer was first introduced into the English language in the early sixteenth century, it was a specific military term for an infantryman tasked with going ahead of the army to clear terrain and dig trenches, and the modern definition emerged from a seventeenth-century sense of "explorer" or generally "one who does things first". The term comes from French pionnier, meaning "foot-soldier", and that traces to the Old French word peon, which is also the source of the English words pawn and peon. Going back further, we can trace pioneer to the Medieval Latin noun pedonem, still meaning "foot-solider". The root there is pes, which is reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root ped, "foot" (this is etymon of a lot of English words, including pajama, pedigree, podium, impede, and pilot).
The word gravy was first attested in English in the late fourteenth-century cookbook The Forme of Cury, when it was spelled gravey (other early forms included greve, grovy, greavie, greavy, and gravie). It was borrowed from Old French grave, which meant the same thing and came about through a misspelling of their word for "stew", grané. That in turn traces to the Latin word for "seed", granum, on the notion of soups being seasoned with grain-like spices. Granum, which also happens to be the source of our words grain, granary, granite, and pomegranate, ultimately is reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root grhnom. also meaning "seed". Historically, literary usage of the noun gravy peaked in 1787 and Google searches for it unsurprisingly spike in November.
The musical Cabaret was named after a somewhat antiquated synonym for "nightclub" because it was set in one. The term was borrowed in the mid-seventeenth century from French, where it meant "tavern". That's of uncertain origin, but thought to be from the Middle Dutch cambret, with the same definition. Cambret would in turn be a diminutive of the the Old French word for "chamber", cambre (also the etymon of our modern word chamber), and, as I've previously discussed on this blog, that traces to the Latin word camera, which was used to describe rooms with arched ceilings (this eventually derives from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning "bend"). There is also a plant genus called cabaret, but that appears to be entirely unrelated, probably deriving from Latin cobretum, which was applied to a type of flower in the rush family.
I was recently asked why cat is spelled with a c and kitten is spelled with a k. I immediately assumed that cat was Italic and kitten was Germanic, as we would commonly see with these c/k pairs. However, this appears to be a rare exception! Cat comes from Old English catt, which is thought to be from the Proto-Germanic root kattuz, with the same meaning. Kitten, meanwhile, was borrowed in the late fourteenth century from Old French chitoun, a diminutive of chat, their word for "cat". Both chat and kattuz derive from the Latin word cattus, and the best I can guess for the spelling shifts is that cat was changed to look more like the original Latin while kitten was influenced by all the other English words starting with k. Finally, the etymology of cattus is unknown, but similar words crop up from Proto-Uralic to Afro-Asiatic because the animal was traded a lot, so it's muddled and hard to find out more.
One of my friends recently asked me if slang is a portmanteau of "short language". While this makes a funny pun, those kinds of blendings are rarer and tend to be more modern. While we're uncertain about its exact origin, the word slang began showing up in London in the middle of the eighteenth century and, ironically enough, seems to have originally been a slang term referring to Thieves' Cant. Beyond that, the best theory that I found is that slang comes from a Germanic word meaning "sling", on the notion of words being casually slung around. It might also be from a dialect in Northern England, where it meant "turf", and got applied to one's own vernacular just as it was used for one's own property. Finally, it's similar to the Norwegian noun slengenamn, meaning "nickname", but a connection doesn't seem to make chronological and geographical sense.
The word pixie was first used in a 1542 translation of Erasmus's Apophthegmes, when it was described as something similar to hobgoblins. The etymology is uncertain, but there's certainly some fascinating speculation. It might come from the dialectal Swedish noun pyks, which meant "small goblin" (there are similar words in Scots and Norwegian), but the Oxford English Dictionary calls that connection "entirely wanting" in evidence. It seems more likely that pixie is from some obscure Cornish word, because early uses of the term were disproportionately from southwestern English (this would make it Celtic, not Germanic as the other theory would posit). According to Google NGram Viewer, literary usage of pixie over time was pretty sparse until a rapid increase in attestations around the turn of the twenty-first century, probably due to popularization through popular children's books.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a sophomore studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.