The word rhubarb was borrowed into English as Rubarbe in the late fourteenth century. Other spellings around that time included reubarbe, rubarb, reubard, reuballe, and more. Through Old French rubarbe, the word comes from Medieval Latin reubarbum and Ancient Greek rha barbaron, which meant "foreign rhubarb" (a wonderfully recursive etymology). You'll notice that the h appears in Greek but is only a recent readdition to English: the letter was inserted throughout Middle English and then standardized in the eighteenth century because of influence of the rheum plant genus. The rha part of rha barbaron is an ancient Scythian name of the Volga River, from whence the vegetable was commonly important, and the barbaron is the same element as in the word barbarian - it was basically use as a negative term for anybody who was not Greek. Finally, barbaron is onomatopoeic of what unintelligible foreign speech sounded like to the Greeks.
The word nutmeg was first used in English in the 1380s, when it was spelled nutimenge. Other forms around that time included nootmoge, notemoge, netmug, notemygge, notmyge, and more. The current iteration became the standard around the early seventeenth century and then peaked in usage in the 1780s. The word comes from an incorrect partial translation of the Old French phrase nois muscade, meaning "nut smelling like musk". That comes from Latin nux muscata, with the same meaning. Nux comes from the Proto-Indo-European kneu, which also meant "nut" and is the source of words like nougat and nucleus. Muscata, meanwhile, comes from the Sanskrit word for "testicle" which I've written about before when blogging about the etymology of "musk". Eventually, it's all thought to trace to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction muhs, meaning "mouse" (there was a perceived resemblance in shape).
The earliest English attestation of the word cocoa in its current sense (describing the seeds used to make chocolate, or the powder produced from them) is from French explorer François Froger's 1698 account of his voyages in Africa and the Americas. Before that, however, the word was in use for several decades to refer to the cacao tree, which produces those seeds. The noun actually comes from cacao, but it was corrupted by influence from the word coco, meaning "coconut palm". This mistake was then adopted by the time Samuel Johnson's highly influential Dictionary of the English Language came out in 1755., and then it could never be undone. Cacao comes from the Nahuatl word cacahuatl and is reconstructed to Proto-Nahuan kakawatl, with the same definition. Coco, if you were interested, comes from a Spanish and Portuguese word meaning "grinning face", because apparently that's what they thought coconuts looked like.
One cool dialectal variation that I always ask people about is their use of the phrases kitty-corner and catty-corner. Although I never heard them growing up, apparently they mean "diagonally across from someone or something", with kitty being more used in the north and west (and said slightly more overall) and catty being a Southern thing. Anyway, while I was researching the etymology of cadre the other day, I stumbled across the fact that the initial element in both words comes from the same Latin word - quattuor, meaning "four". That developed into French quatre, which spawned the now-archaic word cater, initially meaning "cut into fourths" and later "diagonal". Around the 1830s, it became a thing in American English to say cater-corner for something diagonally across from a corner, and the current forms developed because of a folk etymological association with cats.
The noun cadre (describing a small group of people, often united by a political purpose) comes directly from the French word cadre, which meant "framework". The meaning had shifted to "organizational framework", particularly for military groups, and eventually came to be applied to all sorts organized groups, from communists to scientists. The French word was also not pronounced with the e at the end, but Americans started saying it because they assumed that the word came directly from Italian or Spanish, where the final vowels are pronounced. Going back further, it does in fact derive from Italian quadro, meaning "square" (the connection was the idea of a military formation). That's from Latin quadrum, which is related to quattuor, the word for "four". Finally, it all derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kweter, meaning "four" (also the source of everything from quarrel to squad and farthing).
When the word detergent was first used at the start of the seventeenth century, it was an adjective meaning "cleansing" or "purging", and around the 1670s it also became a noun referring to cleaning agent. This was originally meant in a medical sense, but it started being used for household cleaning products in the 1930s. The word comes from Latin detergentem, the accusative of the present participle of the verb detergere, meaning "wipe away". That contains the prefix de-, meaning "off" or "away" (probably ultimately of Etruscan origin), and the verb tergere, "to wipe". Tergere, which is also the source of the word terse (which evolved from connotations of cleanliness to conciseness), is listed in several places as being of uncertain origin, but there's alsoa. theory that it may have developed from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction terh, meaning "to rub".
Originally, the word cabal was pronounced with a stress on the first syllable (kind of like Kabul), and it meant "small private gathering" without any negative connotations. The term got popularized with the new pronunciation and a more sinister definition in England during the early 1670s, when King Charles II's ministry was composed of politicians called Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale. Together, they were called the "Cabal ministry" and they were seen as a dangerous and powerful organized group, hence the association. Going back, cabal comes from French, where it could either mean "gathering" or refer to the mystical Jewish interpretation of the Bible we know know as Kabbalah. Since it was a small group with esoteric practices, the definition broadened to mean any small group, and then narrowed again. Finally, through Latin cabbala, the word traces to Hebrew kabala, literally meaning "something received".
When the noun innuendo was first used in English in the early sixteenth century, it was a legal term used to introduce a parenthetical explanation of a reference. Around the 1670s, it started to mean "indirect suggestion" in general, and right around that time it was also used in an inappropriate sense. The word comes directly from Latin, which literally meant "by nodding", because nodding is like referencing something. That's the ablative of innuendum, which was the gerund of the verb innuere, meaning "to nod to" (or "signify"). Taking it apart, we can identify the prefix in-, here meaning "towards", and the hypothesized Latin verb nuere, which would mean "nod". This is unattested, but almost definitely existed, and is thought to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction new, also "nod". Interestingly enough, the English word nod is probably unrelated to nuere - it's thought to be from Proto-Germanic hnudan, which doesn't have anything to do with the PIE root.
Most people who know the word gamergate would associate it with a 2014 right-wing online harassment campaign targeting women in the video game industry, but it has another meaning, mostly known by entomologists. Apparently, it's also a type of egg-laying worker ant! The word, which was coined by geneticist William Brown in 1983, has nothing to do with gamers or gates, and derives from the Greek word gamos, meaning "marriage", plus ergates, "worker" (so, together, a gamergate is a "married worker ant"). Gamos, also the root of a lot of words ending in -gamy in them, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root gem, also "to marry". Ergates, meanwhile, comes from Greek ergon, meaning "work" (also present in a lot of recognizeable words, like ergonomic, metallurgy, and surgeon). Finally, that's from Proto-Hellenic ergon and Proto-Germanic ergom, also "work".
The adjective contrite ("expressing remorse") was first borrowed into English in the mid-fourteenth century to describe a "crushed" soul. Through Old French contrit, the word comes from Latin contritus, which meant "worn out" or "ground to pieces". More specifically, it's "to rub with", because it comes from the prefix con-, meaning "with" (from Proto-Indo-European kom, "beside" or also "with") and the verb terere, "to rub". Terere, which also makes up part of other wearing-out words like detriment, termite, and attrition, comes from Proto-Indo-European terh, meaning "twist". Contrite's sister word, trite, also comes from terere and got its meaning of "hackneyed" through the idea of an idea being worn out to the point of being unoriginal and boring.
Somebody recently requested the word instinct, which is great, because I've wanted to cover that one for a while. It was first attested in the early fifteenth century in a history of the city of Troy, and comes from an Old French with the same spelling and meaning. That came in the fourteenth century from Latin instinctus, which could mean either "instigation" or "inspiration". Either way, it's something that compels people to do things, and it derives from the verb instiguere, meaning "incite". That's composed of the prefix in-, meaning "into", and stinguere, meaning "prick" or "goad". Apparently the idea was that something that was instinctual was instigated by something pricking into you. Stinguere, which is also the root present in extinguish, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction stegw, "to thrust".
I've previously written about how the word fanatic originally referred to someone with religious fervor, and the same is actually true for the word zealot. That term originally referred to a religious sect in the Roman province of Judaea, who were so passionate about their cause that they killed themselves en masse before the Romans took over their fort during the Siege of Masada. Since then, zealot has become more figurative and can be applied to anyone who is uncompromising in their beliefs (also specifically as an epithet for the apostle Simon). Through Latin, the word derives from Ancient Greek zelotes, meaning "zealous follower". That's from the word zelos, which meant and is the etymon of "zeal". Finally, zelos comes from Proto-Indo-European ya, meaning "desire".
The word soap has been around since the eleventh century CE, when it was spelled sape and referred to a type of reddish pigment used to dye the hair of Germanic warriors for use in battle and general intimidation. That developed, through other spellings like saip, saep, and sope, into the definition "salve", and our modern usage was completely standardized by the eighteenth century. Sape comes from Proto-Germanic saipon, which mostly meant "resin" but could refer to any dripping thing, and that in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European root seyp, meaning "to pour out". While researching this, I also learned that in classical history, people used oil and not soap for bathing, so most of the other branches of the Indo-European family had to borrow saipon when they switched to normal soap.
I recently found out that all of my friends use the word jerry-rig ("to build something temporary") while I use jury-rig. Across the United States, it's also true that a majority use jerry while only small groups in Massachusetts, New York, and California say jury. Apparently, neither use is incorrect, though: jury-rig is a much older word with the same meaning, probably coming from the nautical concept of quickly fixing a jury mast on a boat. That later influenced the development of jerry-rig, which originally took the form jerry-built and meant "something built with bad materials". The origin behind that is a little murky, but it first started showing up during the first world and the leading theory is that it comes from a nickname for the German people, through the notion that Germans were bad at building things (a stereotype that hasn't held up well).
Now that the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine has been approved, it's being marketed under the brand Comirnaty, a name which has elicited a lot of criticism. The name was creating by a marketing consultancy named the Brand Institute, which combined the phrases "Covid-19 immunity" with "mRNA", the technique behind the vaccine. As a whole, the idea is to evoke the word community, and the Brand Institute's president of operations said that the goal behind the branding was ""to overlap ideas and layer meaning into a name" (other considerations were Covuity, RNaxCovi, Kovimerna, and RNXtract). This is either a case of marketing gone very wrong or very right. On one hand, a lot of people are making fun of the absurd spelling, but on the other hand, it's causing people to just continue calling the vaccine Pfizer, which is good for the pharmaceutical company. Just something to think about.
The word interpret was first used in the late fourteenth-century Wycliffite Bible, when it was spelled interprete and meant "explain the meaning of" or "translate", much like today. The word comes from the Old French verb interpreter, which in turn was borrowed in the thirteenth century from the Latin present passive infinitive interpretari, which could also mean "decide" and "regard". More literally, the word meant "agent between", because it comes from the preposition inter, meaning "between", and the root pres, which was a lesser-known word for "agent". Inter comes from Proto-Indo-European enter, meaning either "between" or "among"; pres is thought to be related to the word for price, pretium, which would mean that it comes from a Proto-Indo-European root sounding like per and meaning "sell".
Today I'm going to talk about the Latin verb rumpere, which meant "to break", "burst", or "destroy". If you speak a Romance language, you probably know one of its descendants: Spanish has romper, Italian has rompere, and French has rompre (all mean "break" as well). However, there are some hidden descendants as well. The fourth principal part of the verb, ruptus, had a sizeable impact on the English language: mostly through Old French, we got the words eruption (a "breaking out"), abrupt (a "breaking off"), interrupt (to "break between"), disrupt (to "break apart"), corrupt ("destroy" with an intensive prefix), bankrupt ("broken bench"), and, of course, rupture. Most interesting to me was how the word went into Vulgar Latin as rupta, which meant "broken group", and then that became Old French route, which referred to troops fleeing the battlefield, and that gave us the English word rout.
Today, the word balm can refer to any ointment used to heal the skin, but when it was first borrowed into the English language as basme in the thirteenth century, it referred to a specific kind of aromatic resin extracted from a specific kind of tree. Through Old French, the noun traces to Latin balsamum, which could pertain to either the resin or the type of tree it came from (the balsam - that's also where we get that word). Going further back, balsamum comes from Ancient Greek balsamon, with the same definitions; and that comes from a Semitic word which probably meant something like "spice" because it has cognates like Arabic basham, also "spice", and Hebrew bosem, "perfume". According to Google Ngrams, usage of balm peaked around the turn of the nineteenth century, but it's been on the rise again lately.
The word charcuterie (meaning "meat delicatessen") was borrowed in the mid-nineteenth century from French charcuterie, which at the time mainly meant "pork-butcher's shop". More literally, it meant "cooked flesh shop", because it comes from the obsolete word char, meaning "flesh"; cuit, the past participle of cuire, "to cook"; and the suffix -erie, which is used to denote places that sell things. Char comes from Latin carnem, also meaning "flesh" (we see this in words like carnivore, carnage, and carnival), and that, through Proto-Italic karo, traces to Proto-Indo-European sker, meaning "piece" or "portion". Cuire, meanwhile, comes from Latin coquere, which also meant "to cook" (and is the source of words like concoct, cuisine, and culinary) and ultimately traces to PIE.
The word stew comes from the Old French verb estuver, which meant "have a hot bath" and entered the English language on several occasions in several weird ways. The first time it showed up was in a 1305 cookbook where it meant "cauldron". The next usage is from 1374, when it meant "room with a fireplace". A variety of other heat-related definitions came and went, including "furnace", "drying room", "brothel" (because hot-air bathhouses often served as brothels), and, in 1756, the modern meaning finally emerged. Estuver comes from the noun estuve, meaning "bath", and that's thought to be from Medieval Latin stupha, which officially has an uncertain origin but might be from the verb extufare, meaning "to let vapor or steam out".
Panko, the brand of bread crumb used in Japanese cuisine, gets its name from the Japanese words for "bread", pan, and "crumb", ko. If you speak a Romance language and pan looks familiar to you, you'd be right. The Japanese actually learned how to make bread from Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century, so they also borrowed the Portuguese word for it, pão (which sounds a little like pan). This isn't the only instance of a Luso-Japanese borrowing, either: I've written in the past how tempura comes from the Portuguese word for "time", and there's a whole Wikipedia page on the phenomenon. The -ko part of the word traces all the way back to an Old Japanese noun also pronounced ko and meaning "powder". It's really cool how two very different language families came together to give us a word for something!
Today, I was looking at some cameos (carved gemstones) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Medici exhibit and I began wondering if there was any connection to the word cameo in filmmaking. Apparently there is! Because there was a common practice to engrave silhouettes onto cameos, a new definition of "brief sketch of a person" emerged for the word. That took on a more literary meaning in the 1850s, then to a brief appearance in a play in 1928, and eventually on to cinema! Through Italian, the artistic cameo comes from a Medieval Latin word with the same meaning spelled camaeus, and that has an unknown origin. However, there are two main theories: it could come from a Persian word meaning "ornamental stone" or an Arabic word meaning "buds of a flower". Either way, quite interesting.
The word chum poses quite an etymological enigma. The definition meaning "friend" emerged in the late seventeenth century among Oxford University students as an affectionate slang term for "roommate" (similarly, chummery was the the name for a shared living space and chummage was the process of splitting up a living space). There's some speculation that this comes from an abbreviation of chamber-fellow or chamber-mate because some early attestations define the word that way and at the time there was a popular fad that involved shortening words. However, this is uncertain and it could just as easily come from a word like comrade. The other definition of chum, "chopped fish", emerged among New England sailors in the mid-nineteenth century and also has an obscure etymology but is not related.
The word bug in reference to a computer glitch has actually been used by engineers to refer to mechanical defects as far back as the 1870s, on the notion of an actual insect getting into the machine. And it was still used in that half-serious, half-joking sense through the early computing age—notably, it was popularized in 1946 after scientists at the Harvard Computation Laboratory identified an actual moth in the machine as a cause of a malfunction in the Mark II computer. Unsurprisingly, the verb to bug meaning "annoy" also came from the insect, through a connection of them being perceived as irritating; as did to bug meaning "secretly electronically monitor" because of the idea of hidden cameras and microphones being the size of actual bugs. Finally, the noun bug has an unknown origin, but was probably somehow connected to the Middle English word bugge, meaning "something frightening" (this is also the source of bugbear and bugaboo).
The word swoon has been around as a word meaning "faint" at least since its earliest attestation in a 1290 hagiographic manuscript, but at that point it had the rather ugly spelling suoweningue. Other ways of writing it at the time included swoʒene, swowene, swoune, and swowne, but in the fifteenth century a new version started to emerge without that second approximant sound and in the nineteenth century the figurative, romantic definition came about. The word came about as the past participle of the Old English verb swogan, which could mean "to make a sound" or "suffocate", and that is from the Proto-Germanic root swogana, also "make a sound". Finally, that's of uncertain origin, but there are relatives in other Germanic languages meaning "sigh" and "choke", so they all have to do with noises.
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.