Cahoot is a word meaning "partnership" that curiously almost never shows up in its singular form. We only ever see the term as part of the phrase in cahoots (which has more negative, conspiratorial connotations), which traces back to the mid-eighteenth century. Cahoot was around for a little bit before that, with its first attestation in an 1829 grammar book, but it eventually faded as the expression stayed prominent. Linguists aren't quite sure where that comes from, because it seems like it popped out of nowhere in the American south, but the main (tenuous) theory right now is that cahoot came from the French word cahute, meaning "hut" (maybe partnerships were formed. That's from Dutch kajuit, which is from Middle Dutch kayhute, which also has an unknown origin.
The word jaguar was first used by Spanish Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta in his 1604 Natural and Moral History of the Indies, in which he stylized it iaguar (this eventually found its way into English through Portuguese sailors). In subsequent years, spelling varied to include forms like jagvara and jaguara until the English settled on jaguar. Acosta got his word from the local Tupi speakers in South America, who used the term yaguara to mean "beast of prey" (this is related to the Tupi word for "alligator", jacare). Beyond that, we don't know anything due to a lack of written records, but it could be from a hypothesized Je-Tupi-Carib proto-language. The name for the car brand was chosen in 1935, but that wasn't made to be the company's name until 1945, when it was picked to be distinctive and exotic. The abbreviation jag was coined in 1959.
Fifteen years ago, everybody would agree that the word doge referred to the chief magistrate of Genoa or Venice. Since then, however, a new meaning has stormed the internet: that of "canine", normally associated with memes of Shiba Inus saying cute, truncated phrases. This humorous alteration of dog first traces to a 2005 episode of Homestar Runner, a surreal comedy web series, where the protagonist spells out the word. Five years later, a woman named Atsuko Sato posted pictures of her Shiba with that caption online, and the web quickly turned it into a meme with superimposed text, the rest being history (usage peaked in December 2013). Curiously, there's been some contention over the proper pronunciation. I always thought dohge, but some people pronounce it like dodge, doggeh, dough-geh, and just doggie. It'll be interesting to watch more words with standardized spellings but not pronunciations arise due to the Internet spreading them.
A lot of people learning English gripe about all the irregular conjugations in the language, but one of the most interesting ones is the past tense of go, went. It seems so out of place when compared to other forms like goes, going, and gone, and that's for a reason. It all traces to the now-archaic verb wend, which has several definitions, including "turn" and "go in a specific direction". Both it and go were around since the days of Old English, essentially as synonyms, but for an unknown reason go did not have a past tense, and since went had direction, it was perfect for both words. Then wend became increasingly obsolete, leaving its offspring as the only remnant. This type of change, when one unrelated word becomes a conjugation of another, is called suppletion and is pretty rare in any language. It's also why we have bad/worse, good/better, and be/am - fascinating stuff!
A shibboleth is a cultural tradition or custom that distinguishes a group of people from another. Just looking at the term, it seems apparent that it comes from Hebrew, and if you made that conclusion, you'd be right - it traces to a word sounding like shibbolet and meaning "ear of corn". The story behind this takes us back to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, in which the Gileadites needed to figure out who the Ephraimites were, so they asked everyone to pronounce shibboleth. Since the Ephraimites weren't able to pronounce the sh sound, the Gileadites were able to weed them out from their own and slaughter them. After that the word evolved to refer to societal markers in general. Shibbolet comes from the Proto-Semitic root sh-b-l, which probably could also mean "stalk of grain".
Yesterday, when researching how prescription medications get named, I stumbled across the rather interesting story of the word Viagra. According to IUPAC standards, the official chemical name is sidenafil citrate, but that wasn't too popular with ad executives. They wanted something that was easy to remember, so they could continue to make a lot of money when the patent expired, and something that sounded sexy, that could evoke flowing fertility. So after a meeting in the mid-1990s, the drug's maker, Pfizer, settled on Viagra, which works on multiple levels. The first part, vi-, brings to mind words like virility, vitality, victory, and vigor, while the last part is the name Niagara, like the waterfalls. Besides that portmanteau, it's also a play on the Sanskrit word vyaghra, which meant "tiger", so it's very well thought out.
When you get prescription medication, there are often at least three names associated with it. One is the scientific word for the compound. This is normally longer and composed of the official IUPAC-sanctioned chemical prefixes and suffixes. Then there's the name of the active ingredient, which has to be approved by national regulatory bodies. This is a shorter words with a suffix that has to meet naming standards, with each suffix corresponding to a structure and function so pharmacists don't get confuse and make lethal mistakes. The preceding syllables, however, are entirely up to producer's choice, as is the third type of designation: the commercial name. This is not subject to regulation, and is extremely important to the companies, because it needs to be memorable so people pay higher prices for the name brand once the patent expires. Let's look at an often-cited example: Prozac. Its name was arbitrarily invented in the 1980s, its active ingredient is fluoxetine, and its full name is (RS)-N-methyl-3-phenyl-3-[4-(trifluoromethyl)phenoxy]propan-1-amine. I think that's pretty interesting.
I've always thought the phrase temper tantrum was sort of redundant, because are there really any other kinds of tantrums? The phrase, which was probably adopted so widely due to its memorable alliteration, emerged in the early 1920s, around the time that the word tantrum entered mainstream usage in America. Tantrum had been around in England ever since its first usage in a 1714 letter, when it was spelled tanterum. Other forms like tantarum, tanthrum, tantrim, tantum, and tantell all rose and fell in popularity in the century or so after that, but soon tantrum was predominantly accepted as the correct variant. Despite all that documentation, there is no evidence where tantarum comes from. It looks Latin, but there's nothing connecting it to the language. There is an attestation of it from a 1675 burlesque meaning "penis", but that might not be related. It might also trace to the Tamil word tantiram (meaning "stratagem"), but that too is tenuous. Hopefully, we'll find out someday.
Tamarinds are fruit-bearing trees indigenous to Africa, but they've been around in south Asia and Oceania for a really long time as well. That's why Arabic traders mistakenly called it tamar hindi, meaning "date of India" (date also being the fruit tree type, although not even in the same order as tamarinds). That was borrowed into Latin as tamarindus, which became Old French tamarinde, which in the mid-sixteenth century finally developed into English tamarind and alternate spellings like thamarynde or tamarine that died out. Arabic tamar comes from a similar-sounding Proto-Semitic root with the same meaning and hindi derives from Sanskrit sindhu, meaning "river". Finally, that, through Proto-Indo-Aryan and Proto-Indo-Iranian, is eventually reconstructed to PIE kiesd, "to go away".
When the word brothel was first used in the English language in a 1393 poem, it was a noun meaning "scoundrel" or "wretch". Around a hundred years later, it came to be used in reference to unsavory women more than men and took on a definition of "harlot" or "prostitute". This spawned the phrase brothel-house, which was a place where prostitutes gathered, and the house was eventually dropped, giving us our modern form of the word. Going back, brothel comes from the Old English word breoðan, which meant "deteriorate" (implying that scoundrels were deteriorated and worthless humans) and further derives from Proto-Germanic breutan, "to break" (and an etymon of brittle). Finally, that's from Proto-Indo-European bhreu, meaning "cut". Usage of the word brothel in literature over time has been trending upwards, peaking in 2004.
Fornication, the rather whimsical-sounding word for intercourse between unmarried people, has mostly been replaced by the phrase extramarital sex nowadays because of increased association with, and parodies of, right-wing hyper-religiosity. However, back when it was first used in a fourteenth century poem, it was in a far more serious context. The word, which has also been spelled fornicacion, fornycacyoun, fornicacioun, and fornycacion throughout the ages, traces to (through Old French) the Latin word fornix, meaning "brothel" - the connection being that a lot of fornication took place in brothels. Since many Roman brothels were in vaulted chambers, that may have meant "arch" earlier on, and the term has cognates hinting that it may be from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to warm", but etymologists aren't absolutely sure.
Why do we call Republican-voting states red states and Democratic-voting states blue states? The first election color map, in 1972 on CBS, actually used blue for Republicans and red for Democrats. Soon after, other networks started using their own colored maps without any particular methodologies. For the 1980 and 1984 elections, most sources used red for Reagan (simply due to the alliteration) and blue for his opponents, and that seemed to have stuck. By 1996, every media outlet was using the color scheme as we know it today, and that was soon picked up on by pundits and comedians. The extra emphasis on election maps following the 2000 voting controversy in Florida sparked comments about red states and blue states, which led to the parties increasingly associating themselves with those colors and closing the loop. CNN was the first to use the term purple state in 2002, and the words only really took off in the last fifteen years. As a Gen Z-er, I had no idea the development was so recent, which fascinates me.
Grace and Virginia Kennedy were two identical twins born in Georgia in 1970. Following some postnatal seizures, doctors warned their parents that the kids may exhibit developmental disabilities later in life. Interpreting that to mean they were already disabled, the parents neglected to interact with them, spending very little time in their presence and not letting them go to school. The Kennedy sisters did not, however, actually have any mental problems, so they naturally progressed to create their own language, crafted out of German snippets they heard from their grandmother, some English, and random words they created. They named themselves Poto and Cabengo, respectively, and their syntactical and grammatical structures were noticeably different from English. Eventually their abilities were discovered by a speech therapist, they made national news, and they were integrated into a normal educational system. This phenomenon, known as cryptophasia, has been well-documented. Sometimes called "twin talk", it's estimated that about half of infant twins will create some form of language between themselves. Possible causes include developmental delays in one of the siblings, decreased interaction between adults, and more exposure between themselves than with any other people.
Tantalus was a figure from Greek mythology who angered the gods because he killed his son and offered him as a sacrifice. To punish him, they cast him down into Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld and made him stand in a pool of water below a fruit tree. Whenever he went to grab a fruit, it rose out of his reach, and whenever he tried to drink some water, it receded. This left him perpetually hungry and thirsty and constantly tempted with something unobtainable, which is where we get the verb tantalize from. I'm really proud of figuring this one out by myself - it was a random epiphany connecting my interests in mythology and etymology. Tantalus' name is thought to be from an actual person named Tantalus who lived in Anatolia, possibly deriving from some old Hittite kings' names.
The term anagram, through French anagramme and maybe Modern Latin, comes from two Ancient Greek words: ana, which meant "backwards" or just "back", and gramma, meaning "letter". Earlier on, ana had multiple interpretations, including "upward" and "again", and is the prefix found in words like aneurysm, anaphase, anaphora, anabolic, and more. Eventually, it can be traced to Proto-Indo-European hen, meaning "on". Gramma, meanwhile, should be familiar in words like grammar, gramophone, and monogram. Through Proto-Hellenic, that derives from PIE gerb, meaning "to scratch". After being first used in 1589, anagram has remained relatively constant in usage over time. A blanagram is an anagram where only one letter is substituted and an ananym is a type of anagram where the word is directly reversed.
The word yacht was first used in a 1580s nautical history by an English secretary to the ambassador of France, in which he wrote yeagh, which was borrowed from Dutch jacht. Soon thereafter, variations such as yothe, yaught, yaugh, yolke, yought, yaucht, yaacht, yatch, yott, and more cropped up, until spellings were standardized in the eighteenth century. Jacht is a shortened form of a previous Dutch word, jachtschip, which meant "speedy pirate ship" (over time, after yacht was adopted in Great Britain, the definition widened to mean "speedy ship" in general). More literally, this was "ship for chasing" (the connection being that pirate ships chased normal ships), because it's comprised of the elements schip, a cognate of English ship, and jagen, a verb meaning "to chase". Finally, jagen, through Old High German jagon and Proto-Germanic jagona, comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction yek, meaning "to hunt".
In 1646, English polymath Sir Thomas Browne published a rather interesting book entitled Pseudodoxia epidemica, in which he essentially dispelled fake news, correcting common superstitions and errors of the time. The third part of the seven-section tome dealt with animals, and in it he wrote one sentence about how even veterinarians believe that horses don't have gallbladders. That was the first use of the word veterinarian in the English language (replacing its bizarre predecessor dog-leech), and it only took off from there, now constituting about 0.00012% of all spoken words. Browne borrowed the word from Latin veterinarius, which meant "cattle doctor" (over time, that definition got widened to "animal doctor" in general), and that has an uncertain etymology. It could be from words meaning "old", "to draw", or something else, but we're not completely sure.
The Ancestral Pueblans were an ancient Amerindian civilization famed for their basketmaking and dwellings carved out of stone and clay. Around the year 1400, they began to be in increasing contact with the Navajo people, with whom they had a generally beneficial relationship. However, there was a point when Navajos didn't trust the Pueblans too much because their forebears weren't related. Thus, they called them the anasazi, a word which in their language meant "enemy ancestors" (composed of anaa'i, meaning "enemy", and bizazi, meaning "ancestors". This was borrowed into archaeological terminology in the 1880s when Americans first started exploring local ruins, and soon reached mainstream recognition. The modern-day Pueblans, however, don't like that term and have been trying to rebrand, so there's been a marked drop in usage of the word since the turn of the century.
Acronyms (which must be pronounced as words, unlike initialisms) were pretty rare until World War II, and many abbreviation explanations you hear for etymologies are fake, so that's something to be cautious about. The term acronym was first used in 1940 by literary critic Edwin Muir and took off, peaking in usage in 2004. That was borrowed from German akronym, which was created, by influence of words like homonym and synonym, out of the Ancient Greek word akron, meaning "summit" or "peak", and the suffix -onym, meaning "name". The idea was that an acronym is composed only out of the "peak" (uppercase) letters of the words that compose it. Akron, which is the etymon for the Ohio city name, comes from Proto-Indo-European hkros, which meant "sharp", and -onym derives from the PIE root hnomn, also "name".
The word diplomacy was first written down by former Irish MP Edmund Burke in 1796. He continued using it for a few years until other authors started picking it up, with usage peaking during World War I. This was borrowed from the French word diplomatie, which is from Modern Latin diplomaticus, meaning "diplomat". Here it gets interesting: that traces to the Latin word diploma, which described the official diplomatic papers that those diplomats received. This had a broader definition of "document conferring a privilege" and is also the etymon of our current English word diploma, which was adopted in the seventeenth century. The Latin term further goes back to Ancient Greek diploma, which meant "license" but more literally could be interpreted as "folded paper" because the root of it all is diplo-, "twofold" (-oma just denoted action). So both diplomacy and diplomas have creases in common.
The first pager was invented in 1921 for use by the Detroit Police Department, but back then they were called beepers and they weren't commercially viable until the 1950s, when the word pager first began to be used in advertising. This term is a noun form of the verb page, which had a definition of "summon someone by name" and has been around since 1904. For a good four hundred years before that, it also meant "attend to", which comes from a previous noun page, meaning "errand boy". Through Old French and maybe Italian, that derives from Latin pagius ("servant"), which traces to Ancient Greek pais, meaning "child". Finally, philologists reconstruct it all as being from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root pehw, or "little". There is no relation to page meaning "sheet of paper" whatsoever.
Gorp is a common word in North American camping and hiking slang describing a combination of nuts, dried fruits, and sometimes candy. Basically, trail mix. Most people assert that it's an acronym for good old raisins and peanuts (two common ingredients of the mixture). Some others claim granola, oats, raisin, and peanuts is the origin, or something else along those lines. However, etymologists aren't even sure it's an acronym at all. For one, there is evidence of gorp being a verb meaning "eat quickly" as far back as the 1910s, way before the food was popularized. Acronym explanations for etymologies are also frequently erroneous, so not much stock should be put into the common interpretation. Despite that murky origin, though, usage of gorp is on the rise these days, probably due to the increased interest in hiking in recent years.
Five hundred years ago, we didn't have a word for mosquito. The early speakers of Modern English had to make do with terms like gnat or midge, but those weren't perfect because they referred to multiple kinds of insects. That's why we turned to the Spanish in the late sixteenth century and simply borrowed their word for "gnat", mosquito. This was possibly adopted by American colonists near the Spaniards in Florida, through English trading with continental Europe, or by another medium - we're not really sure. Mosquito is a diminutive of Spanish for "fly", mosca, and that's from Latin musca, with the same definition. Further back, that may derive from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction mew, which is also thought to be the distant etymon of midge. We've come full circle!
A canton in vexillology is the top left rectangle in a flag, a canton in geography is a division of Switzerland, and then there are cities named Canton in places as far apart as China and Ohio. The Chinese Canton, which more frequently goes by Guangzhou nowadays, is a Portuguese garbling of the local name Guangdong. The Ohio city and most other towns named Canton all are named after the place in China. The other two, lowercase canton definitions derive from a Middle French word which could mean either "portion of a country" or "corner". That traces to a Lombard word, cantone, which meant "section" and further comes from Latin cantus, or "rim". Because of cognates in Breton, Irish, and Welsh, it's thought that this was borrowed by the Romans from the Gauls, who used the reconstructed Proto-Celtic root kantos, also "corner" or "rim".
When the word enamel was first used in the English language in fifteenth-century health books, it was in its verb form, describing the action of encrusting something with what we now call enamel. It developed into a noun about a hundred years later, peaked in usage in the 1940s, and has been decreasing in popularity since. Through Middle English, enamel comes from Anglo-Norman enamailler, which is sort of redundant because it contains the prefix en-, meaning "in", and the root amailler, meaning "to enamel", which is exactly what we started with. Going back further, we can trace the term through Old French esmailler and esmal, both with the same definition. Possibly by way of Frankish smalt, that further would derive from the Proto-Germanic reconstruction smaltjana, meaning "to smelt". Today, that early word is survived by enamel's cognates in German schmelzen and Danish smelte, both "melt".
Adam Aleksic, a freshman studying linguistics at Harvard University, has been described as the internet's sixth most famous etymologist. He has disturbing interests in words, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law, and he loves writing about himself in the third person.
The Etymology Nerd