One of my friends recently asked me if slang is a portmanteau of "short language". While this makes a funny pun, those kinds of blendings are rarer and tend to be more modern. While we're uncertain about its exact origin, the word slang began showing up in London in the middle of the eighteenth century and, ironically enough, seems to have originally been a slang term referring to Thieves' Cant. Beyond that, the best theory that I found is that slang comes from a Germanic word meaning "sling", on the notion of words being casually slung around. It might also be from a dialect in Northern England, where it meant "turf", and got applied to one's own vernacular just as it was used for one's own property. Finally, it's similar to the Norwegian noun slengenamn, meaning "nickname", but a connection doesn't seem to make chronological and geographical sense.
The word pixie was first used in a 1542 translation of Erasmus's Apophthegmes, when it was described as something similar to hobgoblins. The etymology is uncertain, but there's certainly some fascinating speculation. It might come from the dialectal Swedish noun pyks, which meant "small goblin" (there are similar words in Scots and Norwegian), but the Oxford English Dictionary calls that connection "entirely wanting" in evidence. It seems more likely that pixie is from some obscure Cornish word, because early uses of the term were disproportionately from southwestern English (this would make it Celtic, not Germanic as the other theory would posit). According to Google NGram Viewer, literary usage of pixie over time was pretty sparse until a rapid increase in attestations around the turn of the twenty-first century, probably due to popularization through popular children's books.
The name carbonara sauce was first attested in 1950 in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, in reference to a Roman dish that many American soldiers enjoyed. Soon thereafter, it was written about in English-language cookbooks, and usage of the term exploded in the 1960s and beyond. In Italian, carbonara literally means "in the manner of coal miners", and, just as for marinara, there are several attempts to explain this. There's a theory that it's a traditional dish of coal miners, but the Oxford English Dictionary dismisses that as implausible. It also might be that the flecks of black pepper in the meal were thought to resemble coal flecks, that it was named after the Carbonara restaurant in Rome (this seems most widely accepted), or that it's a tribute to a secret revolutionary society called the Carbonari. Basically, nobody's quite certain about the origin, but all the possibilities are exciting.
Marinara sauce first started getting popularized in America by Italian immigrants in the mid-twentieth century, and there are scattered references to it throughout the 1900s. It was first mentioned in the Italian cookbook Lo Scalco alla Moderna (or "The Modern Steward"), which was written in the 1690s and described a kind of sauce that was more like salsa than what we know today. The word is the Italian feminine singular of marinaro, meaning either "seafaring" or "sailor", and the reason for this is uncertain. It may have been invented by Neapolitan sailors returning from the New World, where they first encountered the tomato. Alternatively, it might have been prepared by the wives of those sailors when they returned from their voyages. Marinaro is from marino and Latin mare, meaning "sea", and those ultimately derive from the Proto-Indo-European root mer, also meaning "sea".
The first attestation we have of the noun carnation in English is from a 1533 French language textbook, when it was used to describe the rosy pink color of the flowers, with their name developing from that sense only a few years later. The word was borrowed, unsurprisingly, from French, where it was spelled the same way and also referred to the hue. Beyond that, spellings vary and etymologists have hotly debated the origin. One theory was that it was at least in part influenced by the word coronation, because of the crown-like resemblance of the petals. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, suggests that it's from the Latin word carnatio, meaning "fleshiness", the connection again being the color. Finally, I've written about this before, but carnatio is from Latin caro and Proto-Indo-European sker, meaning "flesh" and "cut", respectively.
The word leveret, which describes hares within a year of their birth, was first attested in a fifteenth-century book on Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, so it was probably colloquially in use a bit before that. It comes from the Old French noun levrat, which was a diminutive of levre, "hare". Levre comes from Latin lepore, the ablative singular of their word for "hare", lepus (the p to v change probably happened because of an intermediary vowel, β). Finally, lepus has an unknown origin but is thought to possibly come from an Iberian dialect because of cognates in some now-extinct regional languages. This is especially interesting to me because there's a house at Harvard called Leverett with bunnies on their shield; apparently the family it's named after is descended from rabbit hunters.
The word bidet has had a fascinating history. When it was borrowed into English in the early seventeenth century, it referred to a specific breed of small horse and we got the modern definition through the notion that people have to straddle a bidet in a similar way that they straddle a small horse. We got it from French, since the horse, now extinct, was native to northwestern France, and its name comes from the verb for "trot", bider. That has an unknown etymology; Celtic origins were proposed by some linguists, but those seem to have been debunked, and there's also an unconfirmed theory that bider comes from Middle French rabider, "to go quickly". Apparently, in the sixteenth century, bidet could also refer to a type of small dagger, but I can't find any research into how that happened or whether that's related.
I'm not a religious person, so I was surprised to learn that St. Peter's real name wasn't actually Peter but Simon Bar-Jona. Peter, which is a Greek translation of the Syriac word for "stone", was actually a nickname given to Simon (sometimes stylized Simeon, or written out in full as Simon Peter) by Jesus on the notion that Simon would serve as the "rock" upon which he would build his Church. This makes the name related to words like petroleum, petrify, saltpeter, and other stone-related terms; beyond Greek, the etymology is unknown. Because it was a popular thing in Christian countries to name children after apostles, many children were named some variation of Peter, and this developed across several languages to give us Pedro, Pierre, Pierce, Pearson, and more.
Today, the word convoluted has a more figurative meaning of "difficult to follow", but when it was first used in James Petiver's late seventeenth century Philosopical Transactions journal, it had the very literal definition of "twisted round" something (and the noun form, convolution, was attested in the 1540s with a meaning of "a state of being rolled up", often in a botanical context. The term comes from the Latin verb convolvere, which translates to "roll with", from the prefix con- ("with") and the infinitive volvere ("to turn"). Con- derives from the Proto-Indo-European root kom (also "with") and volvere is reconstructed to Proto-Indo-European wel (also "turn"). According to Google NGrams, usage of convolution peaked in the late 1990s while usage of the verb convolute peaked in the early 2010s, which is interesting.
I was surprised to find that angst - the perfect word to describe both teenage attitudes and what I feel whenever I think about philosophy - is a relatively new word, first being used in English in the 1940s (it had shown up a few times before then, but always in context as a foreign term). That's often attributed as coming from Søren Kierkegaard, who was the first to use it to describe a philosophical dilemma, specifically his feelings about moral freedom and religion in his book The Concept of Anxiety (and that was extended to things like existential dread by other authors). Kierkegaard got the word from Dutch angest, meaning "anxiety", and angest is reconstructed as being from the Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European roots angustu and angh, both meaning something like "painful".
Imagine having such an impressive coiffure that a hairstyle is named after you! That's exactly what happened with the word pompadour, which was borrowed in the mid-eighteenth century from the name of French king Louis XV's mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, who was well known for having her hair swept over her forehead. The Marquise also famously wore a lot of accessories and a particular shade of the color pink, and at various points her name was also used to refer to those things, although those usages died out. The name Pompadour is from an estate in central France, and there's no further research into where that comes from. According to Google Ngram Viewer, literary usages of pompadour spiked in the 1770s, 1900s, 1940s, and 2010s. After some searching, I found that the style was very popular for a brief time under Louis XVI, that it was revived as part of the "Gibson Girl" fashion in the late 1800s and remained popular until WWI, and that it got popular again during WWII, which checks out.
Pavlova, the type of fruit and meringue dessert, was invented in the early twentieth century, and there's a lot of dispute over who actually came up with it; several eateries in both Australia and New Zealand lay claim to it. The first attestation of the name in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New Zealand Herald in 1911, which gave the recipe for strawberries pavlova, but it seems that the person who named it is not the same as the person who invented it, because there are recipes for the same dish, just titled "cream cake". It's almost certain that the dessert was named after Anna Pavlova, who was a well-known ballerina at the time, either because they were reminded of her billowy tutu or by how light it was. That's a variant of the name Pavel, which comes from Latin paulus, meaning "small" (also the origin of Paul).
The word tempura was first attested in 1920 in an English-language Japanese newspaper, when it was used to describe the method of cooking. You'd think that would just come from another Proto-Japonic root, but they actually borrowed the practice of cooking in flour and egg batter from Portuguese missionaries in the sixteenth century! The word is definitely Portuguese, and most sources suggest that it comes from tempero, meaning "seasoning", while others think it could be from the holiday Tempora, when Catholics would eat fried vegetables and fish. Either way, though, tempura eventually traces to the Latin word tempus, meaning "time" - the former through the verb temperare, which translates to "to temper", and the latter from the notion that the holiday was celebrated during a specific time period.
I recently put two and two together and realized that, in Serbo-Croatian, the words for "month" and "moon" are the same (mesec), and that got me wondering how many other words for month have lunar origins. In the other foreign language I know, Spanish, the word for "month" is mes, which comes from the Latin noun mensis (also meaning "month"), and mensis traces to the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European word for "moon", mehns. In English, month comes from Proto-Germanic menoths, which also derives from mehns, so that's related too. Beyond Indo-European languages, this is pretty universal, as well: in Chinese, yuè can also refer to both concepts; so does Swahili mwezi (which can also mean "menstruation"); shahr, the Arabic word for "month", comes from an Aramaic word for "moon"; and so on. Although not very surprising, this is really cool!
When the word molasses was first used in English in the 1500s, it was used in a Scottish dialect to refer to a specific type of alcoholic beverage made from the syrup. During the late nineteenth century, it began showing up in North American newspapers with the modern definition. The term was borrowed from the Portuguese word melaços, which was plural but people just assumed it was singular, which is why we have the plural-sounding ending for an uncountable noun. Melaços comes from Latin mellaceus, meaning "honey-like", with the mel in mellaceus meaning "honey" (and tracing to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction melit, which also meant "honey"). Historical usage of the word molasses peaked during 1919 and 1941, probably due to the food being used as a substitute for sugar when it was scarce.
When I was researching the etymology of blasé yesterday, I found an interesting tidbit about historical pronunciation of Don Juan. Today, most English speakers say something sounding like Don Wan, although there's been an increasing amount of people saying don hwan because of familiarity with Spanish. However, in Lord Byron's version of the Spanish story (the first major English adaptation), he rhymes the name with words like ruin and true one, leading linguists to believe that he meant it to be pronounced with three syllables, as don jew-ahn or don zhu-wan. Apparently this was an intentional literary device meant to highlight the irony of an uneducated, rustic narrator telling a grand, cosmopolitan tale, but it seems like some people genuinely did pronounce it that way for a while. Byron also rhymed the city name Seville (which is supposed to sound like se-bee-ya in Spanish) with "uncivil" and the Guadalquivir river with the word "river", despite it being supposed to end with a quiveer sound.
The word blasé was first used by Lord Byron in his 1819 version of the Spanish story Don Juan, when he wrote it with the acute accent (and afterwards, nobody questioned it, so the diacritic remained, despite that being relatively rare in English). As you may guess, the word comes from French, where it meant "weary from overindulgence" and served as the past participle of the verb blaser, "to satiate". Next, although this is unconfirmed, several etymologists think that blaser might trace to the Middle Dutch word blasen, meaning "to blow"; the connection would be a notion of someone being puffed up from drinking too much. Finally, blasen derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction bhle, also meaning 'to blow". Usage of blasé was historically pretty low, but during the early 2000s, usage skyrocketed, with literary attestations peaking in 2017.
When the word ravine was first used in English in 1545, it meant "powerful surge of water". It wasn't until the late seventeenth century that it first began to refer to gorges created by powerful surges of water, with literary usage peaking in 1855. The word comes from Old French raviner, which primarily meant "take by force" in the sense of robberies, but it was also figuratively applied to water rushing into places, which is how we got the definition. Raviner in turn derives from the Latin verb rapere, meaning "to seize" (this is also the root of words like raptor, rape, rapid, ravish, surreptitious, usurp, and more). Finally, etymologists reconstruct the word to the Proto-Italic root rapio and the Proto-Indo-European verb hrep, similarly meaning "to snatch".
Somebody recently requested the word Spaniard, and I'm glad they did, because it gives me an excuse to talk about one of my favorite etymological processes, metathesis (when sounds in a word are swapped around). The term was first used in English around the start of the fifteenth century, when it was spelled Spaignarde. Later spellings included Spaynard, Spaynnarde, Spainierd, and Spayneyarde, and it wasn't until the mid-sixteenth century that the palatal glide before the letter n got fully moved to the second part of the word due to natural pronunciation mistakes. Unsurprisingly, the demonym comes from the equivalent of the word Spain in Old French, Espaigne, and that comes from Ancient Greek Hispania, with the same definition. Finally, it's thought that Hispania comes from a Phoenician word meaning "land of the hyraxes", a small groundhog-like mammal.
In Latin, the fourth principal part of the verb agere, meaning "to do", was actus, which could best be translated as "having been done". Actus has had an outsized influence on the English language, making up a lot of words starting with act-:
The adjective glib (describing insincere or shallow language) was first attested in 1594, when it meant "slippery" or physically inconsistent. About a decade later, this was figuratively applied to denote speech with those qualities. The word is a shortening of the (now antiquated) word glibbery, which pretty much meant the same thing, and glibbery is from Low German glibberig, also "slippery". Finally, it all derives from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction gelh, which could mean "flourish", "green", or "yellow" (and is the root of words like chlorine, cholera, gold, and yellow). According to Google NGrams, the word glib was very popular around when it first started getting used and has since levelled off, now making up about 0.00004% of all English words.
When the verb precipate was first in the English language in 1528, it meant "to throw someone into a condition", and it comes from the past participle of Latin praecipitare, "to throw headfirst". This sense of something suddenly happening or changing state turned into the definition of "to deposit in a solution" in the 1620s and eventually was extended to a meteorological context around the mid-nineteenth century, with the noun first showing up in the 1560s and the adjective meaning "hasty" from around 1600. Praecipitare is composed of the prefix prae-, meaning "before" (from Proto-Indo-European per, also "before") and the root caput, meaning "head" (from Proto-Indo-European kaput, also "head"). Together, you can see how the word was used for the action of diving headfirst into something.
The first time the phrase pop goes the weasel was first recorded in print was in an 1853 edition of the London Times to describe the children's game, but it was almost certainly used colloquially for a substantial period before that. It seems that the words were added to an existing dance tune at some point during the nineteenth century, but the exact etymology is debated. One of the main theories is that pop goes the weasel traces to Cockney rhyming slang, where pop meant "to pawn" or "barter away" and weasel was a type of coat. In the context of the third verse of the song, half a pound of tupenny rice/half a pound of treacle/that's the way the money goes/pop goes the weasel, this would refer to someone spending all their money on food and having to pawn away their best jacket. Later on, this would become confused with the animal weasel, which would explain the other verses. Alternatively, the weasel here could be a spinner's tool used for measurement, which made loud popping sounds after every fortieth revolution, and it apparently also meant "flat iron". You'll have to judge the plausibility of those proposals yourself.
The word drag in the context of describing the act of wearing clothes of the opposite sex first emerged in various newspapers in the early 1870s. There are several theories as to wear this comes from - including Yiddish trogn, meaning "to wear", and Romani indraka, meaning "dress" - but the most accepted explanation is that it simply comes from the verb to drag, on the notion of clothes dragging on the floor. In Middle English and Old English, that was draggen and dragan, respectively, and dragan comes from Proto-Germanic dragana and Proto-Indo-European dreg, which had the same meanings as today. The term drag racing first appeared in 1947, probably tracing to an old slang word meaning "buggy" (and this also derives from the verb, because horses would drag buggies).
Before we had the noun coma, speakers of Middle English used the term false sleep to define the state of consciousness. Then, in 1646, it was attested in an epidemiology textbook which said that sneezing is of "good signality" during capital-C Comas, and usage has been steadily increasing since then. This was a Latinized form of the Ancient Greek word koma, meaning "deep sleep" in general. Finally, the exact etymology of koma is unknown, but it's thought to maybe trace to the Proto-Indo-European root kumb, which would make it a distant relative of incumbent ("one who lies down"). Coma also has a second meaning of "head of a comet"; this is entirely unrelated and traces to Ancient Greek kome, which referred to head hairs and also has an unknown etymology.
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.