The word alibi was first attested in Edward Grimestone's 1612 General History of Spain, in which it had the same definition as today. Possibly through Dutch, it comes from Latin, where it literally translated to "elsewhere" or "another place". That comes from the adjective alius, meaning "other", and alius ultimately derives from Proto-Italic aljos and Proto-Indo-European hel, both with the same definition. Alius has had a sizeable impact on the English language: it also gave us the words alias ("otherwise named"), alien ("belonging to another"), and the phrase inter alia ("between others"), in addition to being a distant relative of words like else, other, and ulterior. According to Google Ngram Viewer, literary usage of alibi has been steadily increasing since its introduction, with a peak in 2017.
Today, I mostly associate the word gregarious with outgoing people, but when it was first borrowed into the English language in a 1668 essay, it was a biological term used to describe animals that live in flocks (this is still used in zoology, and, in botany, it refers to plants that grow in clusters). It comes from Latin gregarious, meaning "of or pertaining to flocks". This was the adjectival form of grex, the word for "flock" or "herd", and that finally derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hger, meaning "assemble" or "gather". Grex is also the etymon of the words aggregate ("to collect the flock"), congregate ("with the flock"), segregate ("apart from the flock"), and egregious ("out of the flock"); the latter might shed some insight into why it's so commonly confused with gregarious.
The word hearse was first used in English around the late thirteenth century. Obviously, they didn't have vehicular hearses like today, but the term referred to a framework placed underneath the coffin for decorative purposes. Around the sixteenth century, the definition shifted to encompass a type of structure used by pallbearers to transport coffins, and then around 1650 it was first used in regard to carriages used in funeral processions, which naturally developed into our modern sense. The word comes from French herce, where it meant "harrow" (a type of spiked cultivation tool) or "portcullis", which visually resembled the early frameworks. That traces to Latin hirpex, which also meant "harrow" and might be from a non-Italic word meaning "wolf", on the notion of wolves having spiky teeth like harrows.
As someone with a lot of hobbies, I was surprised that I never thought to look up the etymology of the word amateur until now, but was quite satisfied with what I found. It was borrowed in 1784 from French, where it meant "one who loves" (the definition just shifted to "one who loves a hobby" in English). That traces to Latin amator, with the same meaning, and the verb amare, "to love". Amare is recognizable in a bunch of words, including amorous, amity, enamor, and paramour. It comes from the Proto-Italic root ama, which meant "to take", and Proto-Indo-European hemh, "to seize" (it seems that the idea was that love "takes hold" of you). According to Google NGram Viewer, usage of the word amateur peaked in 1937, and, according to Google Trends, search interest is highest in Kentucky for some reason.
The word pretzel was borrowed in the early nineteenth century from the German word Brezel. The b to p switch you see here occurred because, in German, the b was aspirated (meaning that there was a short breath of air after it), but that was lost going into English, and an unaspirated b sounds very similar to a p. Going back to Old High German, Brezel is from brezitella, which probably comes from a Latin word looking like brachiatellus and referring to a similar kind of twisted pastry. This must have been thought to have a resemblance to folded arms, because brachiatellus comes from bracchium, meaning "arm". Finally, bracchium traces to the Ancient Greek word brakhion, which could also mean "arm" but more literally translates to "shorter" (from Proto-Indo-European mreg, "short").
The noun leukemia was first written attested in an 1855 medical textbook, when it was spelled leukæmia with an ash. It looked like that all they way up to the 1950s, when the a and e were separated, and the first vowel was dropped not long after (this accounted for a large increase in literary usage, peaking in the 1970s). The word was modelled on German Leukämie, which was in turn created in the mid-nineteenth century on from the Greek words leukos, meaning "white", and haima, meaning "blood", in reference to the abnormal accumulation of white blood cells associated with the cancer. Finally, leukos comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction leuk, also meaning "white", and haima derives from Proto-Indo-European sei, "to drip".
When the word cash was first attested in English in 1595, it referred to a box where you store your money, and it wasn't until 1677 that it was used to mean "money" in general. The word comes from French caissa, which was taken in the early sixteenth century from Latin capsa, meaning "box". Capsa, which is also the source of the words chassis, case, and capsule, comes from the verb capere, meaning "to seize" (and capere is also the etymon of a bunch of words, including incipient, capture, capiche, forceps, deceive, and dozens more). Finally, that derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kehp, meaning "grasp". Cash was first used as a verb in 1811 (encash was briefly a thing in the 1860s, but that died out), which helped account for an increase in usage in the nineteenth century.
The word nacho is named after a Mexican cook called Ignacio Anaya, who invented the dish in 1943. That might seem like a weird way to shorten the name, but the Spanish language is actually full of really unusual nickname developments! Here are a few more:
In classical antiquity, the word adamant had a lot of different meanings. At different points in time, it was used in reference to white sapphire, steel, iron, gold, magnets, various hard stones, and particularly diamonds. In Old English, it meant "very hard stone" in general, and around the 1440s it became an adjective meaning "unmovable" or "inflexible" (this gradually became more figurative). The term comes from Latin adamas, which is also the source of our word diamond, through Old French diamant. Adamas comes from an Ancient Greek word with the same spelling and a definition of "invincible". It's commonly thought that it ultimately comes from the prefix a-, meaning "not", and daman, meaning "conquer" (so "a stone that can not be conquered"), although a Proto-Semitic origin has also been proposed.
The word kudos emerged in university slang around the turn of the nineteenth century with the definition "glory or fame". For a while, the word was being spelled kudo because of people mistakenly believing that the s made it plural, but that got fully sorted out by the mid-1900s. It comes directly from Ancient Greek kydos, which meant pretty much the same thing but more in a context of battle than one of scholastic competitions. This word wasn't used by regular everyday Greeks, but was more of a poetic term found only in works like The Odyssey and The Iliad. Ultimately, it literally meant "that which is heard of" and derives from the Proto-Indo-European root keu, meaning "to perceive" (this also makes up words like caution, scavange, sheen, and show). According to Google Ngram Viewer, literary usage of kudos peaked in 2011.
The word pussy was first attested with the definition "cat" in the late seventeenth century, as a diminutive of puss. It was actually already in use as a term of endearment for "girl", on the notion that sweet girls exhibited characteristics similar to kittens (it's this sense that later developed into the insult meaning "effeminate man"), and could also mean "rabbit" in its early stages. The slang term for "woman's genitals" also emerged from puss around the turn of the eighteenth century because of the idea that they were both "soft, warm, and furry". Finally, puss comes from a common Germanic word for "cat", which was probably onomatopoeic of the hissing sound used to call them over (similar words also exist in Arabic and Farsi). The expression pussyfoot emerged in 1903 on the notion of cats treading lightly.
The word derby originally referred to a specific horse race that was held annually in the British town of Epsom, Surrey (coincidentally the place Epsom salt was named after, due it being discovered in a local mineral spring). The competition was established in 1780 by Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, and quickly became the most important race in England. Because of its prominence, the term came to be applied to any kind of sporting contest by the late nineteenth century (especially horse races though), giving us the modern definition of the word. Derby has been a surname since the days of Old English, when it was spelled something like Deoraby or Deorby and could best be translated as "deer village". Historical usage of the word derby had two peaks, first in the early twentieth century and then again in 2017.
Black boxes, which are electronic recording devices placed inside airplanes to help investigate onboard accidents, are well known for actually being painted orange. So what gives? Before the term was used in aviation, black box referred to technological devices whose functions were not well understood by regular people. The Oxford English Dictionary lists attestations from the 1930s where it was used for complicated communication devices on naval ships. In the mid-1940s, that term became a slang word among Royal Air Force pilots for navigational devices that were quite literally black boxes, and in 1964 it first got applied to flight recorders. Soon thereafter, people realized that black was not the exactly the most easily identifiable color, so they began painting black boxes bright orange but kept the name, giving us our modern misnomer.
Today, the word triumph can refer to any victory, but back when it was first being used in English in the fourteenth century, it specifically referred to "success in battle" and "military processions celebrating success in battle". Through Old French triumphe, the word comes the from Latin word triumphus, which described a Roman custom of allowing a general to parade into Rome after an important victory. That traces to the Greek word thriambos, which meant "hymn to Dionysus"; the association was that there were commonly processions held in the god's honor as the hymn was sung, and these processions were thought to be similar to the triumphus ceremony. According to Google Ngram Viewer, usage of the word triumph peaked in 1592 and has been declining since then.
There are a lot of English words ending in -ce. In most cases (think convince, advance, lenience) they just come from Latin, but a small minority come from Old English and Proto-Germanic. Pretty much all of these Germanic words used to end in an s, but the spelling was changed to preserve the breathy sound of the sibilant. One well known example is the plural of die being dice, although it was originally dys. Here are some others:
The earliest English attestation of the word sardine with the modern definition is from a 1430s cookbook, where it was spelled sardeyn. Other spellings around that time included sardyn, sardane, sardin, sardino, sirdena, and sardina, with the modern form only becoming widely accepted in the late eighteenth century. Through French and Italian, the word comes from Latin sardina and Ancient Greek sardinos. Beyond that, the origin is disputed, but it seems likely that sardinos was named after the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, from whence the fish was exported. Finally, that name seems to have been around for a very long time: the earliest reference to it is a Phoenecian inscription from the 9th century BCE, where it was referred to as Shardan. The expression "packed like sardines" emerged in 1911.
Today, fathom either serves as a word meaning "understand" or as a nautical unit of measurement equal to six feet, with both senses coming from the Old English word fæðm, meaning "embrace". The verb definition emerged from a notion of comprehension being a sort of envelopment, like a hug. The unit came about because, at one point, fæðm could also refer to a "length of outstretched arms", which is about six feet wide. Now that all that's explained, the word comes from Proto-Germanic faþmaz (also "embrace") and ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root peth, meaning "to spread out". The Proto-Germanic word has an f because of a regular sound change from PIE, but some related words on the Latin side of English include expand, petal, and patent.
When the word college was first used in the late fourteenth century, it had more of a meaning of "group of people performing a common function" (the same sense as in the phrase Electoral College) and the modern definition developed from that. The word comes from Latin collegium, which could mean "guild" or "society" (and is also the source of colleague). Collegium is composed of cum, meaning "with", and the verb legare, "to choose"; it seems that the idea was that business partners make decisions together. Cum comes from the Proto-Indo-European root kom, also meaning "with", and I've written about legare several times before (it's also the source of league, legacy, allege, and legal) - it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root leg, which translates to "collect" or "gather".
The word judge first started showing up in English as a surname in the thirteenth century and then as a noun in the fourteenth century, replacing the previous word, doomer. At the time, it had the spelling iuge or iug, with the y-like pronunciation at the beginning becoming a hard j and the d being added toward the mid-sixteenth century. The word comes from Old French juge, which meant the same thing and was in turn borrowed from Latin iudex (also the source of judicial and prejudice). Iudex literally translates to "one who says the law", as it was composed of iux, meaning "law" or "right", and dicere, a verb meaning "to say". Finally, iux comes from the Proto-Indo-European root hyew, also "right", and dicere derives from Proto-Indo-European deykti, "to point out".
In the French secondary education system, a lycée is a kind of government-funded high school that students go through for three years before heading off to a university or job. The institution was established in 1801 through Napoleon's education reforms, and (since the revolutionaries drew heavily on classical ideas about society and governance) was named after Aristotle's school, the Lyceum or Lycaeum. This was the term for a specific building in Athens where students would walk around the halls and learn about philosophy. It stood next to a temple to Apollo, who was nicknamed Apollo Lyceus - hence the name. Lyceus means "wolfish", and the adjective was applied to the god because he was traditionally associated with the animal. Finally, it all traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction wlkwo, "wolf".
This post is an interview I did for Eric Antonow's podcast Gastroetymology Today:
Occasionally we get words for types of buildings named after a specific building, like with morgue, capitol, and academy. Bastille is an example of the opposite: a specific building named after a type of building. The term, which today only refers to a former fortress in Paris or the band named after it, could once be applied to any tower or fortified encampment, just like its relative bastion. This most likely comes from the thirteenth-century Old Occitan word bastida, meaning "fortress", and that's from the Old French verb bastir, which could mean a lot of things, including "to build" (the sense used here), "to sew", "to prepare", and "to baste" (this is also the source of English baste). Finally, it's all reconstructed to a Proto-Germanic word also meaning "to baste".
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.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a sophomore studying linguistics and government at Harvard University, where I founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. I also have disturbing interests in politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, and law.