In phonetics, the schwa symbol (notated with an ə) represents the uh sound, which is fascinating for many reasons: it's the most common vowel sound in English, it's the most relaxed sound our mouths can make, and it can be represented by any vowel letter. The first usage of this linguistic term was in an 1895 comparative philology textbook. That was taken directly from German, and the Germans borrowed the word from Hebrew sheva, which denoted a type of diacritic placed under a letter to indicate the absence of a following vowel sound (Jewish grammarians regarded the schwa as not being a vowel, due to its neutral qualities). Further back, sheva meant "emptiness" and may come from an Aramaic word swaya, meaning "equal" or "even".
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.