Today, everybody knows the word tofu - the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows it as being in the top 11,000 most used English words and Google Trends shows the number of searches for it being about equal to those for pickle - but virtually nobody used it until the 1970s, when it was popularized by hippies promoting it as a vegetarian meat alternative. The first documented instance of an American referring to tofu was Benjamin Franklin in a 1770 letter, who thought it was a Chinese cheese, but the word was first actually used in 1876. It comes from Japanese tofu, which indeed traces to a Chinese word sounding like doufu and meaning the same thing. That derives from the Middle Chinese words duw, meaning "bean", and bju, meaning "fermented" or "rotten", which is lovely.
The noun fetish can refer to a sexual fantasy, a fixation in general, or a type of spiritual object historically used by the indigenous people of West Africa. Both of the first two definitions evolved from the latter in the nineteenth century through connotations of "charm" or "sorcery". The term was borrowed from French fetiche, which was borrowed from Portuguese feitiço, also meaning "sorcery". That further derives from the Latin adjective facticius, meaning "artificial", because people who perform magic tricks use artificial means to fool their audience. The root there is the verb facere ("to make"), and it all finally comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction deh, meaning "set" or "put". Usage of the word fetish peaked in 2016 and has been declining since.
The word freelance was first used in Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe, where it exclusively referred to a type of mercenary warrior during the Middle Ages. The idea was that these soldiers and their weapons were not sworn to any particular liege, but were instead free to hire. A figurative sense of this emerged in the 1860s, and by today the historical definition has been largely replaced with connotations of consultants and journalists. The word free, through Old English freo, comes from the Proto-Germanic root friaz, meaning "beloved" (that's from Proto-Indo-European pri, "to love"), and the word lance is from Latin lancea, which possibly comes from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like plehk and meaning "to hit". Literary usage of the word freelance peaked in 2002 and has been declining since.
Apparently, Americans pronounce the word lieutenant as loo-ten-unt, but British people say lef-ten-unt. There are several different theories for why that's the case: some think it got confused with Germanic words or that people just misread the u as a v, but the Oxford English Dictionary dismisses these theories. According to it, changes like this are rare and it's "difficult to explain" but most likely has something to with the labio-velar approximant (a w sound) being pushed a little further back to become realized as a labio-velar fricative (f or v) in certain dialects. The word comes from Old French lieu tenant, which literally meant "place-holder" because lieutenants were considered substitutes for higher-ranking officers. Lieu, which is the same as in the phrase in lieu, comes from Latin locus, meaning "place", and tenant, which is the same as the English word for "occupant", comes from the Latin verb tenere, meaning "grasp".
The modern meaning of the word ordeal emerged in the mid-seventeenth century. Before then, it was strictly a legal term, used by the Anglo-Saxons to describe divine judgements made through physical tests (think dunking accused witches in water or trial by combat). These were typically protracted painful experiences, hence today's definition, which was probably first used by the French, and then borrowed back into English. At the time, it was usually spelled ordale or ordel, and that traces to the Proto-Germanic reconstruction uz-dailjam, which meant "judgment". More literally, though, it translates to "that which is dealt out", coming from the prefix uz, meaning "out" (from Proto-Indo-European uds, "up") and the root dailiz, meaning "part" or "deal" (also the etymon of deal, from Proto-Indo-European dail, "to divide").
Someone asked me today if the word orangutan has anything to do with the color orange. While it would be awfully convenient if that were the case, the real etymology is far more interesting. The noun was borrowed into English in the late seventeenth century through Dutch orang-outan, and that was picked up by sailors from the Malay phrase orang hutan, which described people who lived in the forest (and did not actually refer to the ape - they had a separate word for that, mawas). The name literally translates to "forest person", coming from orang, meaning "person" (from Proto-Malay urang, "outsider") and hutan, meaning "forest" (from a Proto-Malay reconstruction with the same spelling and definition). Interestingly, the genus name, pongo, comes from a Kongo word for "gorilla", because people thought they were the same type of animal for a while.
The word splendid emerged in the 1620s as a shortening of the existing adjective splendidous, and that was taken directly from Latin splendidus, which had a lot of different definitions, including "bright", "glittering", "distinguished", "fine", and "noble", among others - kind of a catch-all for describing excellent things. Splendidus traces to the verb splendere ("to be bright"), which is also the source of splendor, through Anglo-French esplendour, and resplendent, with the addition of the re- prefix (which in this context is intensive and not the "again" definition you're probably most familiar with). Finally, splendere is reconstructed back to the Proto-Indo-European root splnd, which had to do with things manifesting in general. According to Google Ngrams, literary usage of splendid has been declining since a peak in the 1830s, which is sad, because it's such a splendid word.
The word bungalow was borrowed in the late seventeenth century, when it was spelled Bungale. Later attestations have included bungala, bungelow, bungilo, bungallow, and bungalo, with the modern form becoming standardized in the early 1800s. The reason for these early variations is that it's a transliteration of the Hindi word bangli, which was their name for the Bengali people, since the house style originated from the country. We're not exactly sure where that demonym comes from, but it might be after Banga, a founding chief. In Bangladesh itself, the people call the building a banglaghar, and it's pretty much something along those lines everywhere else, too. According to Google Ngrams, literary usage of bungalow peaked in 1922, and according to Google Trends, searches for the term spike every year in mid-summer.
The word debunk was prominently coined by author William Woodward in his 1923 satirical novel Bunk, wherein the main character went around trying to "take the bunk out of things". The bunk in that sentence is with the meaning of "nonsense" that we still sometimes use today. That's a 1900 shortening of bunkum, which is a misspelling of Buncombe, the name of a county in North Carolina. The area got associated with nonsense because of a particularly boring speech given by Democratic-Republican Congressman Felix Walker concerning the admission of Missouri to the Union. Despite being asked multiple times to stop his excruciating drivel, Walker kept on talking, saying it wasn't for the benefit of Congress but rather a "speech for Buncombe", irrevocably associating his town with political verbiage. This is completely unrelated to the "type of bed" definition for bunk, which is related to bunker.
The word gobsmacked (a whimsical way to say "astonished") was first written down in a 1935 edition of a periodical called the Beekeeper's Record, in the following sentence:
When he landed back Martha wad be fare gob smacked at the yarns he wad tell 'er about Yorkshire clod-hoppers.
This near-incomprehensible quote is a great example of the very colloquial history of the word. It combines our familiar term smack with the Scottish Gaelic noun gob, which meant "mouth" (the idea was that if something was gobsmacking, it was akin to getting hit in the mouth). That percolated through various northern English dialects, becoming especially associated with Liverpool, and was then popularized through television programmes set in the area. The etymology of gob is uncertain; it could be related to the Middle English verb gobben, which meant "drink greedily", or another Gaelic word, which was also spelled gob and meant "beak". Smack is just imitative of the sound of a strike.
The Mamluk sultanate (also stylized Mameluk, Mamluq, Mamaluke, Mameluk, and Marmeluk because of how the Arabic was translated) was a medieval caliphate with a weird governmental system where they would import slaves to be soldiers and eventually leaders. Accordingly, the word meant "slave" in Arabic, with a literal translation of "possessed". That's the past participle of malaka ("to possess"), which comes from the Proto-Semitic root m-l-k, meaning "king" (through a connection of "rule"). This also yielded the Hebrew and Arabic words for king, melekh and malik, which is kind of a cool juxtaposition, and mamluk was borrowed by the Portuguese to become mameluco, their word for first generation children of Europeans and Native Americans.
The word caddy can describe either a type of small storage container or a golfing assistant; the definitions are unrelated. The former comes from catty, a unit of weight used by the British East India Company that came to be metonymically applied to the tea it measured (that originated from the kati unit used by Malay traders). The latter is an alternative spelling of caddie, which originally meant "person who runs errands" in general and was the Scottish spelling of French cadet (the source of English cadet, with the same meaning). Through a Gascon sense of "young member of a noble family", cadet traces to the Latin noun capitellam, or "little chief", and the root there is caput, meaning "head", because a chief is the head of a tribe. Finally, caput is from a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction also meaning "head", caput.
In the rather excellent movie My Cousin Vinny, the prosecutor said that the word "verdict" means "truth" and implied that it comes from Old English. This is half-correct. The noun was first attested in 1297 as verdit - that's during a time when Middle English was spoken - and, that derives from the Old French word veirdit, which translates most directly to "true saying" (the latter part was conspicuously glossed over). The "true" part, veir, is from Latin veritas and Proto-Indo-European weh, with the same definition; the "saying" part, dit, is the past participle of the verb for "say", dire, and that traces to Latin dicere (also "say") and the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction deik, meaning "show". I used Google Trends to look up search frequency for the term verdict over the past 16 years, and it had large spikes in July 2011, July 2013; I'm guessing that was because of the Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman trials which resolved at those times.
Chicanery is a rather delightful word that refers to deceit or subterfuge, particularly in a political or corporate context. The term was first attested in English in 1589, when it was spelled chicanerie. Other forms around that time included chicannery, chiquanerey, chiquanery, and more; the modern spelling seems to have been standardized around the late seventeenth century, and it really peaked in usage in the 1760s. It was borrowed from French chicanerie, which meant "trickery" in general. That's from the verb chicaner, "to quibble", which has an unknown origin. The best theory we have is that it further traces to the Middle Low German word schicken, meaning "arrange". That would be from Proto-Germanic skikkijana and the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction skeg, which best translates to "jump".
The word relegate (meaning "exile" or "demote") was borrowed in the fifteenth century from Latin relegatus, which is the past participle of the verb relegare, which had the same definition. More literally, it translates to "send again", as it was composed of the prefix re- ("again", from Proto-Indo-European wre) and the root legare, which could mean "send", "choose", or "gather", often particularly for use in diplomatic contexts. This is also the source of the words delegate, legation, colleague, and legacy. Finally, legare comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction leg, meaning "gather" (the etymon of legal, apology, elect, lesson, logic, and many, many more words). According to Google NGrams, literary usage of relegate peaked in the 1890s and has been fairly constant since.
When the word egregious was borrowed into English in the late 1500s, it meant "splendid" or "distinguished"! However, over time, the definition shifted to the modern meaning of "outstandingly bad" because it was frequently used in a sarcastic context, and the other sense was relegated to the annals of history. It seems that the adjective was taken directly from Latin egregius, which also meant "excellent" but more literally translates to "out of the flock": that's composed of the prefix e-, meaning "out of" (from Proto-Indo-European eghs, also "out") and the root grex, meaning "flock" (from Proto-Indo-European ger, "to gather"). After peaking in the year 1590, literary usage of the word egregious has generally declined, although there's been a slight resurgence since the late twentieth century.
The word deadline in the sense that we know it today first emerged in early twentieth century newspaper slang. It's thought to have originated from a Civil War term (frequently stylized with a hyphen) referring to an actual physical boundary in prisoner-of-war camps that inmates were not allowed to cross, on penalty of death. The term was popularized by its use in the highly-publicized trial of Confederate general Henry Wirz, who infamously established such a line at his squalid camp in Andersonville, Georgia. Later on, apparently people metaphorically extended the word to time limits on the sense that submitting something late is like getting shot. One piece of evidence that would challenge this theory, however, is that there are attestations of the noun deadline being used in the 1920s to refer to a marking on the bed of a printing press. Maybe that's also related, though - it's uncertain.
Today I'd like to briefly talk about the Latin verb rapere, which meant "seize" or "carry off". Its past participle, raptus, has been extremely influential in our language. In later Latin, it developed into the noun raptor, meaning "thief", which eventually became a term for "bird of prey" in English. In Old French, it evolved into the verbs rapir and ravir, meaning "take by force"; in the fifteenth century, these turned into English rape and ravish, respectively. In church contexts, rapture came to refer to a "state of mental transport", like being carried off by God. Things that were seized were often taken quickly, so rapidus and eventually rapid emerged from that sense. Ravine, usurp, ravenous, rapacious, rapt, surreptitious, and many other words can also all be traced back to raptus - I'll have to go more in depth on several of those later.
When the word monkey was borrowed into English in the 1530s, there was no standard way of writing it. Spellings included monkaie, munckey, munkai, menkeie, munkkey, moncky, munkie, and many others. The reason for all the confusion is that it was borrowed from an unrecorded Dutch word, so scholars had to figure out how to spell it on their own. In the language, it probably sounded something like monnekjin, and that's thought to be from Spanish mono, meaning "monkey". Mono is thought to be a shortening of Old Spanish maimon, which was borrowed from Arabic maymun, still "monkey" (as a Serbian speaker, it's cool to see the connection to their word, majmun). Finally, that's thought to be related to the Proto-Semitic root y-m-n, "right", but the etymology is uncertain.
The word flamingo was first used in a 1589 account of discoveries by the English nation, where it was spelled flemengo. This is similar to the source word, Spanish flamengo, which literally meant "flame-colored". The reasons for the spelling changes were influences from Germanic languages and confusion with the ethnonym Fleming (which, as flamenco in Spanish, could be taken to mean "flamingo" as well). The root of flamengo is the noun flama, meaning "flame", which traces to Latin flamma and eventually Proto-Indo-European bhel, "to shine". The association of flamingoes with fire is not exclusive to Spanish: the Greek genus name phoenicopterus means "blood red-feathered", and in Serbo-Croatian, the bird is called a plamenac, from plamen, "flame".
Today, the word arena refers to any venue surrounded by seating for spectators, but when it was first brought into English, it was exclusively used in the context of the central parts of Roman amphitheatres. That definition comes from Latin harena, which originally meant "sand" or "sandy space", since the centers of ancient arenas were commonly filled with sand. That's also the etymon of arenaceous, an adjective used in mostly scientific contexts to refer to things pertaining to sand. Harena of uncertain origin, but has been spelled as hasena, and cognates suggest that it's possibly that it's ultimately from an Etruscan root. It occurred to me that we still use arena as a figurative term for battlefields, such as in the expression arena of war. This most closely relates to the original meaning, which is cool.
The word ottoman can refer to a type of footstool, a style of silk, or (with capitalization) to the former Turkish empire. Both items are, as you may expect, named after the caliphate: the stool became popular in European salons in the 1700s and was first recorded in French as ottomane due to an association with eastern European customs. The "silk" definition followed a similar route and was first used in the late nineteenth century. Ottoman eventually comes from the Arabic masculine proper name Uthman, for which I can't find a further etymology. You'll occasionally notice poets using Othman to refer to the people-group; this was both to be accurate in regard to the original Arabic form and for rhyming/metrical purposes. Surprisingly, usages of both capital- and lowercase-o Ottoman have been increasing lately.
The noun rigmarole (referring to long, convoluted stories or procedures) is a Kentish colloquial alteration of the Middle English phrase ragman roll, which was a type of parchment with character descriptions written on it that was used in a gambling game where the scroll was unrolled and the passage read out loud. People in the Middle Ages did weird things for fun. The game, which was earlier called Rageman or Raggeman, has debated origins, but was most likely a name from one of the descriptions (that's ultimately French in origin). The current definition arose from a sense of rambling something off, which was eventually extended to time-consuming things in general later on. According to Google NGrams, rigmarole was popularized in the 1820s and 1830s and has recently experienced a resurgence in usage.
The first turquoise was mined by the Egyptians in the Sinai peninsula and the Persians in the Nishapur region of modern-day Iran. Both civilizations traded it with the Turks, who then brought it to Europe. Subsequently, the French named it pierre turqueise, meaning "Turkish stone". That was borrowed into English in the 1560s and it began to be metonymically applied to the color of the mineral in the mid-nineteenth century. Turqueise is from Turk, the Turkish self-appellation, which has an unknown etymology. It may ultimately be from Proto-Turkic turi ("ancestry"), from the Tu-Kin people group (that's a Chinese name, interestingly), or related to words for "strength" or "barbarian". In 2019, turquoise made up 0.000153% of all words used in English-language books.
Punani, an often-vulgar slang word for "vagina", originated from the 1980s Jamaican patois term punanny and was popularized through reggae and use on Da Ali G Show. Some think that the term comes from Hawaiian puanani, meaning "beautiful flower" (from pua, "blossom", and nani, "lovely"), but geographically speaking that's hard to buy. It's also been proposed is that it's from poon, another nickname for "vagina" and a shortening of poontang, which is a Haitian Creole corruption of French putain, "prostitute". Putain, through Old French pute, traces to Latin putus, meaning "pure" (this may have been influenced by putidus, "stinking"; also the source of Spanish puta). Finally, that would be from Proto-Indo-European pewh, which meant "to purify". It's often hard to find etymologies for such colloquial words, but both options are fascinating!
Adam Aleksic is a sophomore studying linguistics and government at Harvard University. He also has disturbing interests in politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.