The word paradox was borrowed by Thomas More in 1533 from the Middle French word paradoxe, which was borrowed at some point in the fourteenth century from Latin paradoxum, which still had the same definition. Paradoxum comes from Ancient Greek paradoxon, meaning "unexpected" or "incredible". More literally, it meant "contrary to opinion", as it was composed of the prefix para-, meaning "contrary" or "beyond", and the root doxa, meaning "expectation" or "opinion". Earlier on, para meant "alongside"; this is the same usage as in parallel, because the Greeks considered two viewpoints that never intersected contradictory (and, ultimately, it's from Proto-Indo-European per, "forward"). Doxa, meanwhile, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction dek, meaning "take".
When the adjective amenable was borrowed into English in the late sixteenth century, it was used to describe someone who could be held liable in court. This led to a meaning of "able to be controlled" that eventually gave us our modern definition of "easily persuaded". The word was borrowed from Old French amener, meaning "to bring", which was composed of the prefix a-, meaning "to" (from Latin ad and Proto-Indo-European hed, "at") and the verb mener, "to lead". In Latin as the deponent minari, that meant "to threaten", and it developed into "lead" through a sense of driving animals. Minari, which is also the etymon of the English words menace, minacious, and demeanor, either comes from the Proto-Indo-European root men, meaning "project", or mey, "small".
Our first recorded mention of the word referendum in the English language is from a 1744 edition of the London Evening-Post, when it referred (heh) to a Swiss parliamentary procedure wherein a proposal was given to an elite group of people for approval. It was only in the early nineteenth century that the term came to connote legislation brought to a popular vote. The word comes from Latin referendum, which meant "that which ought to be brought back". As a gerundive, this could only be used with other words, and it was based on the verb referre, which just meant "to bring back". Finally, referre was composed of the prefix re-, meaning "again" (from Proto-Indo-European wert, "to turn"), and ferre, meaning "to bear" (from Proto-Indo-European bereti, also "to carry")
The etymology of the word snickerdoodle is very uncertain. The first known usage of it that we can identify is from an 1898 cookbook that doesn't go into any detail on the origin of the cookie name. One theory, proffered by the Joy of Cooking cookbook, is that the term "may be a corruption of the German word Schneckennudeln," which means something along the lines of "snail dough" The Oxford English Dictionary, meanwhile, says that it might just be a whimsical combination of the words snicker (meaning "laugh") and doodle (meaning "doodle-bug"). The German connection is a bit tenuous, and it makes more sense to me that the light, fun confection would be a fanciful nonsense word. This is completely unrelated to the popular Snickers candy bar, which was named in the 1930s after a horse owned by the Mars family.
I recently was surprised to learn that the island of Guadalcanal, best known for a major WWII battle, is named after a city in Spain. Apparently it was discovered in 1568 by Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, who was reminded of his hometown. That comes from the Arabic phrase wadi al-kabir, meaning "big river". Wadi, which here meant "river" but could also mean "valley" or "riverbed" (and also makes up the first part of toponyms like Guadalajara), comes from the Proto-Semitic root w-d-y, which was generally related to things that protruded. The kabir part comes from the Proto-Semitic root k-b-r, which meant "large", "old", or "great". According to Google Ngrams, literary usage of the name Guadalcanal (unsurprisingly) peaked in 1945, rapidly declined, and has levelled off since.
I never realized before today that the word recap is actually an abbreviation! The term was first used in some 1909 shipping records as a shorter version of recapitulation. In music, that refers to a movement that is repeated; in biology, it's the repetition of a life process; and, in general, it was the same as our modern definition. Recapitulation was borrowed at the start of the fourteenth century from Old French recapitulacion, which was borrowed at the start of the thirteenth century from the Latin participle recapitulationem. That's composed of the prefix re-, meaning "again", and capitulam, meaning "section" or "main part". Capitulam quite literally translates to "little head"; the root is caput, which I've written about before (through Proto-Italic kaput, from Proto-Indo-European kaput, "head")
The word toboggan was first used in English in a British officer George Head's 1829 account of his exploration of the North American wilderness, where he spelled it tobogin. Later spellings included taboggan, tobaggan, tarboggin, toboggen, tarbogin, and several others; the current form was standardized in the late nineteenth century and the word got really popular in the 1880s. Head apparently got the word from French tabagane, and the French got it from either the M'ikmaq word tepaqan or the Abenaki word dabogan, which also referred to the type of flat-bottomed sled (these would both come from Proto-Algonquian). To toboggan first began to be used as a verb in 1846 and the phrase toboggan cap is from 1929. Usage of toboggan peaked in 1936 and has about halved in frequency since then.
In the Roman empire, people were given three names: a praenomen (personal name), nomen (family name), and cognomen (originally a nickname, later used as another family name). For example, the politician Cicero's full name was Marcus Tullius Cicero (pronounced kee-ker-oh in Latin), with Cicero being a cognomen meaning "chickpea". Apparently, one of his ancestors had a cleft in his nose that looked like a chickpea, and the term stuck. Several other cognomens also had to do with legumes - Lentulus, Fabius, and Piso meant "lentil", "bean", and "pea" - and many more followed earthy or simple themes. The Caesar part of Julius Gaius Caesar may have meant something like "head of hair", "bluish-gray", or something else, depending on which historians you consult.
When the word nectar was first borrowed into English in 1555, it was in the more classical sense of "food of the gods", and the definition was quickly extended to more abstract uses such as describing sweet liquids (1559) and that fluid in plants (around 1600). The noun, through Latin, traces to the Ancient Greek word nektar, also describing the mythological drink of the gods, and that's thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction nek, meaning "death" (making it related to words like innocent, noxious, pernicious, and necropolis). Nectarine, originally spelled nectrine, was coined in the seventeenth century (likely modelled on German nektarpfirsich, meaning "nectar peach"). Literary usages of both nectar and nectarine have been fairly constant throughout the years.
Back in Old and Middle English, the word I had many different spellings, including ic, icc, ich, ikh, and i. You'll notice all those are lowercase; the capitalization started in the fourteenth century, first showing up around the time of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It's actually very unusual to have the first person singular pronoun be majuscule - English is the only language that does it - but linguists theorize that it emerged when i became one letter to stress that it was not some kind of typographic error. Ic/icc/ich/ikh comes from Proto-Germanic ek, and that is reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European root eg, which also meant "I". Going further, there's a New York Times article about this that raises some interesting points: how might the capitalized "I" affected the development of English speakers? How might increased use of lowercase i on the Internet change the use of the word? Why didn't this happen with other words? Just some interesting food for thought.
The word galore was first used in a 1675 diary entry of an Anglican clergyman, when it was spelled gallore. After that, several other spellings, such as gillore, galloure, gilore, gelore, and golore, were attested, with the modern form becoming the norm sometime in the nineteenth century. The term comes from the Irish phrase go leor, which translates to "sufficiently", "enough", or "plenty". The go part of that traces to Old Irish co, meaning "with" (this was often added to make adjectives from other parts of speech), and that, through Proto-Celtic, derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kom, "along". Leor, which also meant "enough", is from Old Irish lour, Proto-Celtic lawaros, and ultimately Proto-Indo-European lehw, meaning "benefit". Literary usage of the word galore peaked in 2009.
A boustrophedon script is a writing style that is bi-directional, with every other line reversed or mirrored (so while English is read left to right, a boustrophedon would go left to right, then right to left, then repeat). The word was borrowed in 1783 to describe a type of boustrophedon used in Ancient Greece, unsurprisingly from the Ancient Greek language, where it meant "turning as an ox is plowing". That's composed of bous, meaning "ox" (from Proto-Indo-European gwos, "cattle"), strophe, meaning "turning" (from Proto-Indo-European streb, "to wind", and the adverbial suffix -edon, which translates to something along the lines of "in the manner of". Literary usage of the word boustrophedon peaked in 1886, and has recently been on a downward trend.
There's a particularly interesting sound change that occurred from Proto-Germanic into Romance languages that crops up a decent amount in English. Where the language originally had a w sound at the start of words, the consonant shifted into the velar stop g, and a u was inserted after it to differentiate it from the "soft" g. English often borrowed these words, while simultaneously keeping the w- words from Germanic, resulting in some cool pairings. Here are some examples of this:
The word calumny, meaning "slanderous statement", was first used in English around the 1560s and partially popularized when Shakespeare used it in Hamlet. It was borrowed from the Old French word calomnie (with the same meaning), and that was taken in the 1400s from Latin calumnia, "trickery" (also the etymon of the word challenge, on the notion of "false accusation" developing into "accusation" and eventually "confrontation"). The origin of that is calvi, meaning "to deceive", and calvi, based on cognates in Greek and Germanic languages, has been tentatively reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like kehl and having something to do with betrayal or lying. According to Google NGrams, literary usage of the word calumny peaked in 1796 and has been declining since.
The words terrible and terrific are related! Terrible was borrowed in the fifteenth century from Old French, and the Old French word was borrowed in the twelfth century from Latin terribilis, meaning "frightful". That comes from the verb terrere, which (much like its other descendant terrify) meant "to fill with fear" and derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction ter, "weak". Terrific also traces to terrere, by means of Latin terrificus, which was pretty much the same as terribilis. Until the late seventeenth century, terrific meant "frightening" as well, but people started using it as an adjective for "great" (sort of like how we can now say that shirt looks terribly good on you). Eventually, the old definition was lost and it took on grander, even more positive connotations, giving us the curious contrast we see today.
Today, the word nuclear might conjure images of exploding warheads, but it literally just means "of or pertaining to the nucleus", because that is what's being split, after all. When it was first borrowed into the English language in 1668, nucleus referred specifically to the main part of comets or meteors, and that was later broadened to central masses in general. The word is from Latin, where it meant "kernel". That's from nucula, which meant "little nut" and was the diminutive of nux (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kneu, "nut"). The pronunciation nucular, which has been used by four U.S. presidents and several nuclear scientists, is now included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Hypotheses for why people say that vary: linguist Stephen Pinker thinks the u was inserted because it's easier for English speakers to say that than the accepted pronunciation, but others say it's because people think of nukes and then attach the -cular suffix from words like molecular. There's also an interesting theory that the politicians who say it but know better deliberately do so to sound folksy.
The game Yahtzee was invented by an unknown Canadian family in the mid-twentieth century. They originally called it the Yacht Game, because they played it on their yacht with their friends, and it was also sort of based on an existing dice game called Yacht. The rights were bought out by toymaker Edwin Lowe, the name was tweaked for commercial purposes, and the trademark for the game was registered with the US Patent Office by the Milton Bradley Company in 1956. Interestingly, the game has been marketed under different names in different geographic regions: it's spelled Yatzy in Scandinavia, Yams in France, and parts of Great Britain and Italy have used Yatzi and Yazzi. According to Google NGrams, Yahtzee makes up about 0.00000226% of all words in English literature, and peaked in usage in 2017.
When the word disgust was first used in the English language toward the end of the sixteenth century, it referred specifically to a strong distaste for food, but it soon came to refer to aversions to things in general. The noun was borrowed from Middle French desgouster, which (through the exact same word in Old French) is composed of the roots des-, meaning "not", and gouster, meaning "taste". Des- is a Latin prefix that is reconstructed to a Proto-Indo-European element meaning "apart" and gouster is, by way of Latin gustare, from Proto-Indo-European geus, "to taste" or "choose" (this is also the source of the names Angus and Fergus, the verbs choose and gustate, and the nouns gusto and Valkyrie). Usage of the word disgust peaked in 1804 but has been experiencing something of a comeback since.
There's a commonly repeated myth that the word kangaroo comes from a Guugu Yimithirr (an Aboriginal language) word meaning "I don't understand" because the Aborigines allegedly didn't know what the Europeans were saying when they asked the name of the marsupial. However, that's widely regarded as incorrect; they did understand what was going on and responded with gangurru, their word for the Macropus robustus subspecies, which the English mistakenly interpreted to refer to all kangaroos. Most other languages in Guugu Yimithirr's family also had that term, and it probably comes from a similar-sounding root in Proto-Pama-Nyungan, although no reconstruction work has been done on it. An interesting thing that happened is that the Paakantyi language, which didn't have gangurru in its vocabulary, borrowed kangaroo from English as baagandji, meaning "horse".
When the word occupy was first used in the English language in the mid-fourteenth century, it meant "to make use of". From the 1470s to the 1700s, it also had a definition of "have sexual intercourse with", but the inappropriate meaning eventually died out in favor of our modern one (during this time, occupant also meant "prostitute"). Through Old French occuper, the word traces to Latin occupare, meaning "take possession of". That's composed of the prefix ob-, meaning "over" (from Proto-Indo-European hepi, meaning "on"), and the verb capere, meaning "seize" (also the etymon of captive, capiche, expect, receive, capacity, and many more words; through Proto-Italic kapio, it derives from Proto-Indo-European kap, "to grasp"). Literary usage of both occupy and occupant peaked in the late nineteenth century.
I don't remember the context, but someone recently joked to me that the city of Genoa and the word genuflect are related. I looked it up later, and, surprisingly, they are! In Latin and some older texts, it was spelled Genua, and that's probably an old Ligurian word for "knee" because of the city's geographic position where the Italian peninsula curves into the rest of Europe like a knee. Finally, that comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gnewo, also meaning "knee". I've already written about genuflect before, but it comes from the same root, through Medieval Latin genuflecto, the fourth declension Latin word for "knee", genu, and the Proto-Italic root genu. The term genoa can also refer to a type of jib used on cruising yachts - that term was borrowed into English around the 1930s - and is the source of the word jeans.
The word pervert was first used in English in the late fourteenth century as a verb meaning "alter something from its intended state" (as in pervert the course of justice). The noun form emerged in the 1500s with the definition "one who has been perverted to an immoral set of values". Originally, this didn't have the modern connotation and could refer to people who converted from Christianity, but around the 1850s it came to be associated with sexual deviancy. The word traces to Old French pervertir, which meant "to undo" and further comes from Latin pervertere, meaning "to corrupt" or, more, literally, "to turn the wrong way". Finally, that derives from the prefix per- ("away", from Proto-Indo-European per, "forward") and the root vertere ("to turn", from PIE wer, also "turn").
If you know Spanish, you'll sometimes come across the second person singular pronoun usted abbreviated as Vd. instead of the normal Ud. This is because the word used to be vusted; the v just kind of merged into the rest of the word by the seventeenth century and we have Vd. as a remnant of that. Vusted, in turn, is a contraction of the phrase vuestra merced, which meant "your grace" or, more literally, "your mercy". Vuestra derives from Latin vestra, the feminine second person plural possessive pronoun (this ultimately comes from Proto-Italic westeros, from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wos), and merced is from Latin merces, which meant "pay" or "reward" and is also the etymon of words like mercy, commerce, Mercury, market, and mercenary (this, through Latin merx and Proto-Italic merk, probably has an Etruscan origin) .
There exist a surprising amount of contradictory etymologies swirling around the Internet for the city of Nome, Alaska, and all of the possibilities are very interesting. One theory is that it's a transliteration of the Inupiaq word for "I don't know", no-me, because they were misunderstood while trying to communicate confusion to European settlers asking what the name of the place was. Another proposal is that the toponym traces from an 1849 British map, where they didn't have a name for the area and just wrote ? Name, which was later misread to be C. Nome, hence the name. Although possible, both of these stories sound a little far-fetched to me; the most likely explanation is probably that the city was named after a town in Norway by founder Jafet Lindeberg, who was from there.
When the word bias was first used in English in the early-to-mid sixteenth century, it referred to diagonal lines or hypotenuses. Around 1560, it became a technical term in lawn bowls for a type of ball that was heavier on one side, and thus veered off to one side when it was cast. Within a couple decades, the word took on the modern, figurative meaning of "prejudiced belief" and quickly surpassed the previous definitions. Bias was borrowed from the French word biais, which meant "slope" or "slant". That has a debated etymology, but probably comes, through Occitan, from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction sker, meaning "to cut". The earliest attested use of bias in a statistical context is from 1900 and, according to Google NGram Viewer, literary usage of the word peaked in the year 1995.
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.