When the word enchant was first used in 1374, it had the figurative meaning of "influence" or "delude". The literal meaning of "put under a spell" actually came about three years later; I think that's an interesting order of things. The term comes from Old French enchanter, which comes from Latin incantare, which had the same definition. Now we can break it apart into the prefix in-, which here meant "upon", and the root cantare, which meant "to sing". The idea there was that sometimes songs can be so beautiful that they enchant you. In- traces to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hen, meaning "in", and I've covered cantare before: through Proto-Italic kano, it derives from PIE kehn, meaning "to sing". Incantare is also the etymon of the English word incantation, through Old French incantacion, which meant "spell" or "exorcism".
When the word diva was first used in 1883, and for a hundred years after that, the sole definition was "a distinguished female singer", but in the late 1980s a new definition of "demanding, narcissistic celebrity" arose, because of association with the former (after that usage of the word tripled in literature). The word comes from Italian, where it meant "fine lady" but, earlier on, it had a definition of "goddess". This traces to Latin divus, meaning "divine one", which, through Old Latin deiuos and Proto-Italic deiwos, finally derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction deywos ("god"). There are a lot of cognates lurking around: deywos is also an element in words as diverse as divine, journey, Tuesday, meridian, circadian, Zeus, Jupiter, and dismal, just to name a few.
Chakra is the concept in Hinduism and Buddhism that there are various focal points in your body where energy is concentrated. The word comes from Sanskrit cakra, which meant "wheel", because it was implied that chakra was a "wheel of dharma" or "wheel of time" in various sources. Through Proto-Indo-Iranian, cakra further derives from the Proto-Indo-European root keklos, which could mean "wheel" or "circle". Keklos also became the Ancient Greek word kyklos, which became Latin cyclus, which became cycle; and the Proto-Germanic word hwewlaz, which became Old English hweol, which became Modern English wheel. It's pretty crazy that those words, which all seem so different, are connected by only several millenia of change, which isn't that much on a larger time scale of things.
Zarathustra was an ancient Persian religious leader who started Zoroastrianism. He's immortalized today through Friedrich Nietsche's book Also Sprach Zarathustra and the musical piece named after it. There are several etymological proposals for his name, but the most widely accepted one is that it comes from a combination of the words zarant, meaning "old", and ushtra, meaning "camel" (implying that Zarathustra owned old camels, not that he was one). Zarant comes from the same source as the Greek root gerontos: the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gere, which meant "to grow old". Ushtra also has Indo-European cognates that imply a PIE origin, but there there are no reconstructions for it. It probably had the same meaning for a while and a generally similar sound, though.
In recent days, there's been a lot of misinformation on the Internet about the etymology of the Japanese word for "thank you", arigato. Some claim that it comes from the Portuguese word obrigado, which also means "thanks". On the surface, it looks like it may be possible, since there are a ton of Portuguese words in Japanese due to contact with early traders (which I discussed yesterday). However, that etymology is too perfect to be true. It shifted over time from the word arigataku, which meant the same thing and was used more than a hundred years prior to the Portuguese arriving. The roots there are ari, which meant "to exist" and katashi, which meant "difficult". The combined definition of "difficult to exist" later shifted to "rare", which became "special", which became "nice to have", which became "thank you". That's a lot of semantic change, and even cooler than an Indo-European origin.
In 1550, the kingdom of Portugal monopolized trading rights with Japan, and that basically lasted up to the Dutch entering the region in the seventeenth century. Relations were still really close until the Tokugawa shogunate isolated Japan in the 1630s, and, as such, a lot of Portuguese words were borrowed into Japanese (especially because of new ideas and technologies being brought over by missionaries). Here are some of the most interesting borrowings:
The noun filet first emerged in the early fourteenth century. For a while, there were a bunch of accepted spellings, including felet, fyllet, filett, and fillit, but around the time when the word was verbified at the start of the seventeenth century the most common forms were narrowed down to fillet and filet. It comes from the Middle French word filet, which had the rather interesting definition of "ribbon". The connection there is that early styles of the dish were prepared by being tied with a string. Further back, we can trace it to Latin filum, which meant "thread", and that traces to a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like gwhi and with the same meaning. This makes fillet related tot he words file and profile, but those are stories for another time.
The word down, as such a ubiquitous word (being a preposition, adverb, adjective, verb, and noun), initially doesn't seem like it would have much of an interesting history, but it's actually really cool. There are records going back to the earliest days of Old English, attesting it with a bunch of different spellings, including doune, duna, downe, and dun. In some of its earliest forms, it was actually spelled adun, but the first unstressed vowel was lossed, possibly because of confusion with the phrase a dun and the word adun. Adun traces to ofdune, which literally translates to "off the hill". The main part there is dune (also from whence we got English dune), meaning "hill", and that derives from a Proto-Indo-European word sounding like dheue and meaning "closed". Of is the etymon of English off and of and eventually comes from PIE apo, meaning "away". This etymology in particular kind of makes a lot of sense.
To me, the word chef is just a fancier kind of cook. When the word was first used at the beginning of the nineteenth century, though, it referred exclusively to the head of a restaurant, being a shortening of French chef de cuisine, which literally meant "head of the kitchen". Prior to that, chef was borrowed from the Old French word for "leader", chief, which is also the source of English chief (and Spanish jefe, meaning "boss, through Old Spanish xefe). That traces to Latin caput, which meant "head", but could figuratively be extended to leaders. Caput, through Proto-Italic kaput, eventually derives from a similar-sounding Proto-Indo-European word with the same definition. Usage of the word chef over time has gone steadily up since the 1980s, but the word chief seems to be getting less popular.
As an American speaker, I didn't know this, but people in the United Kingdom apparently call eggplants aubergines. Now, I get that it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to call them eggplants either - that name comes from a less frequent variety of the plant where the fruit is white and rounder - but aubergine has an actually fascinating backstory. The word was borrowed from the French, who borrowed it from the neighboring Catalans as alberginera, who borrowed it from the Arabic-speaking Moors as al-badinjan. Al just means "the", but badinjan derives from Persian batenjan, which still referred to the plant. Batenjan is from Sanskrit vatigagama, which had a literal meaning 0f "plant that cures the wind" and might be from something Dravidian. That means a non-Indo-European language loaned a word to an Indo-European language, which then loaned it to another non-Indo-European language, which then loaned it to another Indo-European language, which then loaned it to another Indo-European language, which loaned it to English, also an Indo-European language. Makes perfect sense, right?
The first usages of the word chivalry in the English language were around the turn of the fourteenth century, when there was still a lot of variation. This led to attestations like chivalrie, cheualry, cheuelry, cheualrie, chewalrye, chiualrie, and more, and there were almost as many definitions as spellings. At the beginning, it didn't necessarily refer to the honor code of knights: it could mean "knighthood" or "warfare", it could refer to a tenure of land, and, earliest on, it meant "cavalry". Through Old French chevaler (also the source of our word cavalry), the term traces to Latin caballarius, which meant "horseman". The root there is caballus ("horse"), which has a disputed etymology. One theory is that it could have been borrowed from a Gaulish word, meaning it would go back to Proto-Celtic, but it also might be Slavic or Greek - there are confusing cognates all throughout the Indo-European languages.
Today, the word scamp is basically used as a synonym of ragamuffin, but when it was first used in the 1780s, it meant "highway robber" (this just gradually became less extreme). That's from the verb scamper, which was first attested in 1687 and has a fascinating history of its own. In many of its earliest usages, scamper had a much more specific connotation of soldiers sneaking off a battlefield. This probably originated from Dutch military slang and the word schampen, which further derives from Old French escampere, meaning "decamp". Escampere traces to the Latin roots ex-, meaning "out", and "campus", meaning "field", which fits: someone scamping was leaving the field of battle. Campus derives from Proto-Indo-European khemp, meaning "curve" or "bend", and ex- is from PIE eghs, "out".
In 2007, the streaming service Hulu was formed by a bunch of executives from several different media companies. Just as the venture was a calculated corporate creation, so was its name, which was carefully thought out by the aforementioned execs and includes a rather clever hidden pun. In Mandarin, húlú means "gourd" - ancient hulus were carved out to hold precious belongings - and hùlù means "interactive recording". According to the company, both of those concepts are "highly relevant to the mission of hulu". Hulu is not to be confused with a Swahili meaning "cease" and sounding the same, with Hawaiian, where it means "fur", and with Indonesian, where it means "head". Search interest for the term is strongest in Maine and it peaked in May 2011.
In Middle English, the word hemp was stylized hempe, hemppe, henpe, henoppe, henepe, henep, and hanep. That's from Old English hænep, which traces to Proto-Germanic hanapiz, with the same definition. It's uncertain where that comes from, but it's definitely not Indo-European. The currently reigning theory is that it could be borrowed from a Scythian word sounding something like kannapis. That same word, linguists say, later evolved into Ancient Greek kannabis, which also referred to the plant. You can see where that is going: kannabis evolved into the Latin word cannabis, which was borrowed into English as the synonym for hemp. Hemp used to be used a lot more in literature, but now both are about equal; searches in Google Trends and uses in Google NGrams are about equal.
Around 900 BCE, Proto-Polynesian-speaking navigators traveled down to the Tongan archipelago, and from there fanned out to settle a lot of other Pacific islands, such as Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the south. This led to a bunch of diverse languages like Hawaiian and Maori, with Tongan being the closest to the original Proto-Polynesian. In Tongan, the word Tonga meant "south", because the Tongan islands comprise the southernmost archipelago of central Polynesia. This same word mutated to a spelling of kona and a definition of "leeward" in Hawaiian, which later got applied to the name of an island and a kind of expensive coffee grown in the area. That's a cool connection! Usages of both the words Tonga and Kona have remained relatively constant in recent centuries.
Today I'd like to talk about all the wh- interrogative words in English. If you look at their etymologies, they all follow a similar pattern:
Sneaker feels like a really natural thing for me to say, but the term is mostly relegated to the northeastern United States and parts of Florida. Almost everywhere else calls them tennis shoes, except in Chicago and Cincinnati, where a majority of people say gym shoes. Those words sort of make sense, but why do we call them sneakers? The earliest recorded usages were from New England back in the late 1800s, shortly after the shoe was invented. The name referred to how the rubber soles made much less noise than leather shoes, and thus the wearer could sneak around in them. Even earlier, the word sneak was used to mean "quiet shoe", so that may have influenced things, as well. The verb sneak could be from Middle English sniken, meaning "crawl", but it's hard to know for sure. There may be a relation to the word snake.
In Middle English, the word pelican could also be spelled pellican and pellicane, and in Old English, it was pellicane. That was borrowed from Late Latin pellicanus, which traces to Ancient Greek pelekan. Here it gets interesting. Pelekan is widely believed to be related to the words pelekus, which meant "hatchet", and pelekas, which meant "woodpecker". The connection between the bird and the ax apparently lies in the shape of the bill, which is also how the woodpecker fits in. Beyond that, it's hard to pinpoint an exact origin because the word for hatchet did a lot of traveling. It shows up in Sanskrit as parasu, in Ossetian as færæt, and maybe even shares a root with Akkadian pilakku and Sumerian balag. Most likely, it's Semitic in origin, although with the amount of contamination present we can never be exactly sure.
The word narc is primarily an informal term used to describe a kind of police officer that enforces anti-drug laws, or a civilian that turns people in to the police for drug offenses. In slang, this also developed into a verb and took on connotations of "snitching" in general, without necessarily pertaining to drugs at all. It's pretty common knowledge that narc stands for narcotics agent, but that's only half true. It actually comes from an older verb, nark, which meant "to inform on someone", and both the definition and spelling sort of merged with narcotics over time. Nark is thought to be from the Romany word nak, which meant "nose", perhaps due to a connotation of sniffing out illegal activity. That in turn would be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction nas, also "nose".
The word chamber was borrowed around the beginning of the 1100s from the Old French word chambre, which comes from Latin camera, which had the same definition but also had a specific connotation of the rooms having vaulted ceilings. That's from Greek kamara, which described anything with an arched cover, and kamara in turn is reconstructed as deriving from the Proto-Indo-European root khem, meaning "bend" or "curve". If you noticed the word camera and wondered if there's any relation to photography, there actually is: our modern word is actually a clipping of the Latin phrase camera obscura, which meant "dark chamber", because the first cameras used a dark room and a pinhole. According to Google NGrams, usage of the word camera peaked in the early 2000s and is now in decline.
The word pilgrim comes from Middle English pilegrim, and that was borrowed around the turn of the twelfth century from Old French pelerin or peregrin. This could mean many things, including "pilgrim", "foreigner", and "crusader", and hails from the Latin word peregrinus (the source of the names for the peregrine falcon and Pippin Took), which had more of a "traveler" connotation. -Inus is a suffix simply meaning "of or pertaining to", which leaves the root peregre, meaning "abroad". That, in turn, is composed of per-, which had a definition of "beyond" (from Proto-Indo-European peri, "before"), and ager, "country" or "land" (also Proto-Indo-European, in this case from the reconstruction agro, meaning "field"). So both pilgrims and peregrines go beyond their land. Appropriate.
To me, the word pee naturally seems like one of those really old terms that didn't change much in spelling or definition over thousands of years of existence. However, its etymology really surprised me: apparently it was first used in 1788 as a euphemistic initialism of the word piss. What started out as a modest letter P then developed a life of its own, to the point where it's more used than its parent and developed offshoots like the noun in 1880 and the 1920s formation pee-pee. The word Piss is more what I envisioned pee to be: through Middle English pissen and Old French pissier, it traces to Vulgar Latin pissiare, which ultimately is probably imitative. To take the piss, which is a British and Australian colloquial phrase meaning "make fun of" and piss-poor both were first coined in 1945, and the first figurative usage of the term pissy is from the 1930s.
Nobody's exactly sure how long jalapeño peppers have been cultivated, but it's probably been around for thousands of years, with confirmed cultivation dating back to the time of the Aztecs. Surprisingly, the food wasn't brought to the United States until the 1940s, but since its introduction, usage of the word has been increasing fairly linearly. The name literally means "from the region of Xalapa" (which is sometimes spelled with a J), because there was a lot of farming of the pepper in that area. Xalapa is Nahuatl for "sand by the water", and that word is composed out of xalli, meaning "sand", atl, meaning "water", and -pan, meaning "place". Beyond that, we can't reconstruct anything due to a lack of written records, but the terms probably come an Uto-Aztecan proto-language.
The word island was kind of a mess throughout history. The first dated attestation of it was back in the year 888, when it was spelled iland. Since then, it was also written as igland, ealond, yllonde, ylande, iegland, illond, yslelond, yle londe, and ilond. Before the muddled days of Middle and Old English, it's reconstructed to Proto-Germanic awjolanda, which could mean "meadow" in addition to "island" and traces to a combination of Proto-Indo-European hekeh, meaning "water", and lend, "land". You'll notice that none of those root words and most of the spellings I listed earlier don't have an s in them, but the modern term does. That's because of confusion with the word isle, which is an entirely unrelated word coming from the Latin word insula (you can see the conflation in yselond from before), which is pretty neat.
Today, zany is mainly an adjective meaning "bizarre" or "goofy", and that meaning was first attested in the 1610s, but for more than three decades before that it was a noun referring to a type of masked clown in old comedies that mimicked the actions of another. That, through Middle French zani, is a borrowing from Italian Zanni, which was a dialectal nickname for Giovanni, who apparently was a recurring character in many of the comedies. The proper noun Giovanni comes from Latin Iohannes, which comes from Ancient Greek Ioannes, which ultimately derives from the Hebrew word Yohanan, which translates to "God is gracious". As I've explained in a previous post, this origin makes the word zany related to names as diverse as Janice, Evan, Juan, Nina, Ivan, Hank, and Jonas, which is really cool.
Adam Aleksic, a freshman studying linguistics at Harvard University, has been described as the internet's sixth most famous etymologist. He also has disturbing interests in words, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law.