In 1622, Pope Gregory XV established a committee of cardinals called the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Latin for "sacred congregation for the propagation of the faith") to help arrange missionary work and increase the breadth of the Catholic faith. Occasionally, this was abbreviated down to just Propaganda, a word which in the 1790s began being used in irreligious contexts. By the mid-nineteenth century, the word had taken on a negative connotation and essentially described propaganda as what we imagine today. That Latin word from earlier, propaganda, is a gerund of the verb propagare, which meant "to propagate" (and is the etymon of our word propagate as well, for the curious). Once we break off the prefix pro-, the root takes us to the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pag, meaning "to fasten".
In April 2018, a series of memes where the letters ck were replaced by cc took the Internet by storm, starting from websites like Reddit and 4chan and soon reaching mainstream level. This was a parody of how Crip gang members avoided the letters ck because they were slang used by Bloods to mean crip killer. It wasn't the first time a meme like that had surfaced; in early 2017, internet users began ironically supplanting the letter c (and soon, many other consonants) with the 🅱️ emoji, like the Bloods did to avoid contact with the sign of their mortal enemies. That first meme had died out and this was the next installment... but there was a difference. The cc spelling of words became so popular that more people than ever started unironically using it, especially in a sexual context, and now a sizeable amount of people are seriously spelling thick as thicc and suck as succ. Just an interesting example of how both gangs and the Internet are influencing linguistic development, I thought.
In the late 1800s, female African American slaves and sharecroppers wore cloths over their heads to tie their hair back with. In the 1930s, the practice evolved into a method to preserve a wavy hairstyle, and the rags were worn at night. By the 1960s, however, partially due to the Black Power movement, it became an actually popular style to wear hairdo-rags, or do-rags, as they were soon called (an interesting example of clipping). People started wearing them in public as a fashionable accessory, and the clothing piece was especially popularized by rappers at the time. Eventually, even the spelling started to shift: the pronunciation remained the same, but it became more in vogue to start spelling it durag, no apostrophe. Today, almost everyone spells it that way (durag has more usage in Google Trends than all the other terms combined), but Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia stick to do-rag because of etymological fallacy, I suppose.
The word treasure as a verb was first used in the late 1300s, but as a noun it was loaned in the middle 1100s from the French word tresor. Orthography remains constant as we move back through Old French to Latin, where we trace it to Latin thesaurus, also meaning "treasure" (and, yes, as I've covered in a previous blog post, this is related to our word thesaurus). That derives from Ancient Greek thesauros, which meant "treasure house" and is related to the verb tithenai, meaning "to put" (which is connected through the idea of storing treasure). Tithenai is thought to be a reduplication of the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed root dhe, meaning "to put" as well, and the word treasure has slowly been decreasing in literary references since the pirate days of yore.
Lately, I've been hearing the colloquialism spill the tea more and more often as slang for "to share gossip", and the tea to just refer to rumors. Curious about its origin, I turned to the internet, and the results are fascinating. The earliest references are from early 1990s African-American drag culture, where it was originally just the letter T, as an abbreviation for Truth. Eventually, tea sort of emerged as an alternate spelling and pun, meant to evoke an image of someone literally spilling a hot cup of tea after receiving a juicy bit of information. As black drag culture gained prominence (especially with shows like RuPaul's Drag Race later on), so did their phrase, and it really took off with a popular meme of Kermit the frog sipping tea in the early 2010s. At this point, it's a well-established part of American vernacular, and examining its origin was quite fun!
Coterie is an adorable-looking word that describes a small group of people with a unifying goal or interest. The term was borrowed in 1738 from French (no surprise there) and appears to be a diminutive of the Old French word cote, which meant "cottage" and is also a relative of our current English word cottage. The connection was in landholding; originally, a coterie was a group of people that had a property in common, and the definition grew from there. Cote, sometimes spelled cotte, probably traces to the Old Norse word kot, meaning "hut". This, through the Proto-Germanic reconstruction kutan, probably derives from a Proto-Indo-European root, but I can't find any theories as to which one. The word coterie has been declining in usage since the early 1900s.
When the Nintendo game Super Mario Bros. was introduced in 1985, a short, bushy-eyebrowed, shiitake-resembling character called a goomba was introduced as a basic enemy. It soon became quite popular and a staple of the Mario franchise. However, we rarely stop to wonder what its name means. It's sort of a pun: it comes from goombah, a slang word for Italian people (in keeping with the theme of the Mario characters), and gomba is also a Hungarian word for "mushroom". However, goombah has negative connotations and is considered by many to actually be a slur for Italians. The word comes from Sicilian cumpa, which meant something like "mate" or "buddy", and that is from Latin compater, which could mean "godfather" or "first cousin". We can break compater up into con-, meaning "with", and pater, or "father", both being words coming from PIE that I've explained before.
Nobody really knows why people say love instead of zero when notating scores in tennis, but several ideas abound. One school of thought is that it could be from the French word l'oeuf, meaning "the egg", because the number zero looks like an egg (the word would have been modified through folk etymology). Alternatively, it could be from Dutch, or just the word love, implying that before a game starts the players could still have "love for each other". Interesting, but what about the rest of the point values? Why do they increase the way they do? The going theory is that clock faces were initially used to keep track of the score - fifteen, thirty, forty-five, and sixty to win. However, when the concept of deuces was established, people started moving the hands to forty instead of forty-five, as a reminder that you couldn't win with just one point (15 minutes) more - you needed to score twice in a row, or else it was pushed back to 40 again. It's weird but it works, and it's a cool historical fact to know.
Originally, the pontifex maximus was the head priest in Ancient Rome. Today, it's the title of the Roman Catholic pope. The word pontifex has a rather curious etymology: it comes from the Latin word pont-, a stem of pons, meaning "bridge", and fex, meaning "maker". This is because the original pontifices were supposed to oversee the rebuilding of the Pons Sublicius, an important bridge across the Tiber River (the oldest and most sacred of Rome), and their name was adopted to reflect that. Pons comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction pontehs, or "path", and fex traces to PIE dhe, with a definition of "set" or "put". Pontifex eventually led to other words such as pontiff and pontificate. All three of these words have recently been declining in usage, slowly decreasing in literary references after peaks in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
It seems almost intuitive that we got the word hangnail because there's a piece of skin hanging by your nail. That's what I had always assumed, at least, but I had assumed incorrectly. In reality, the term hangnail goes back to the Old English word angnail, which meant "painful nail". There is no hanging involved; the word was modified over time to seem more correct, in a classic instance of folk etymology altering development. Ang is a now-extinct word meaning "tight" or "painful", from Proto-Germanic anguz and eventually deriving from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction hengus, meaning "narrow" or "tight" (the connection to "pain" being one of constriction). Nail, meanwhile, hails from Proto-Germanic naglaz, from PIE hnog, which still had the same definition. Intriguing stuff!
The word sushi was borrowed in 1893 as American society slowly began a long history of adopting pieces of Japanese culture (after which it steadily grew in usage to a peak today). There's a misconception that the name has something to do with fish, but in the original Japanese, sushi actually meant "sour rice", in reference to the outside of the delicacy. Earlier, with a different character but the same pronunciation, that meant "sour" or "tasting of vinegar", and further back there was a word sounding like su, which just meant "vinegar". -Shi is an adjectival suffix tracing to the Heian period. The etymology of su is uncertain. There's a theory that takes it to Proto-Japonic and another going back to Chinese, so we're not even sure about the language family there. Still very interesting though!
A premiere is an initial showing of a play, series, or movie, a premier is a head of government, and something that's premier is before any other in importance or order. All of this can be traced back to Old French premiere, meaning "first", through different routes. The noun premier came in 1711 from the adjective premier, because a premier is the most important minister in a country, and the adjective premier came sometime in the mid-1400s from a Middle French word with the same orthography and definition. The etymology of premiere meets up with those other terms in Old French because it also represents the first of something. That comes from Latin primarius, the root being primus, also "first". This makes premier a relative of the words principal, primitive, prince, prime, and many more. Through Proto-Italic priisemos, we can trace it back even further to Proto-Indo-European per, meaning "before", which sprung off hundreds of more relatives, some of which we've already covered.
Horchata is a broad term for different types of milky plant-based drinks, all of them very tasty and usually served chilled. The structure of the word seems rather odd to an American observer, and that's because it comes from Spanish. Before that, it was definitely part of a local dialect, most likely the Valencian variation of Catalan, as the word orxata, which in turn could possibly come from the Catalan root ordi, meaning "barley", because one type of horchata was made out of barley. Other theories for the derivation of orxata include an Arabic source, but whichever route it did take, the word is thought to trace to Latin hordeum, also "barley". Hordeum is further believed to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction grsdeyom, which meant "bristly" and is connected due to the prickly qualities of grain in general.
The word tropical was first used in English in the 1520s when someone added the suffix -al to the pre-existing word tropic. At the time, it only referred to the geographic zones, but by the late seventeenth century it came to mean any place that was humid like the tropics. Tropic in its purest form refers to the most north or south latitude where the sun can still be directly overhead, and obviously this was associated with warmer climates over time to have a more general meaning. The word comes from Latin tropicus, "pertaining to the solstice" (this zenith can only occur on the solstices for the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn), and that's from Ancient Greek tropikos, which had to do with changes in general. That derives from trope, meaning "turn" (and etymon of English trope), which is reconstructed to PIE trep, also "turn".
The word forgive has been around in English in one form or another for many centuries, but there's been a lot of variation along the way. In Middle English, the word could be spelled foryiven or forjiven, and in Old English it was forgiefan, which still had the same meaning, but also carried additional definitions of "give up" or "provide". This is because the elements composing the word, for and giefan, are equivalents of the modern day words for and give. To forgive is to metaphorically give up a grudge, and that's how the definition got attached. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it, but people rarely do consider it. For, through Proto-Germanic, goes back to Proto-Indo-European per, meaning "before", and giefan traces to the Proto-Germanic word for "give", gebana, which in turn is thought to be from PIE geb, which could also mean "move"
In the musical Hamilton, the titular character raps that he's going to "get a scholarship to King's College". Now, there are several King's Colleges around the world, including one in the setting of New York City, but what Hamilton was actually referring to was Columbia College before it changed its name. When the school was established in 1754, it was by royal charter, so it was named King's College. Due to the American war, the school had to shutter for eight years between 1776 and 1784, and, when it reopened, the royalty obviously wasn't too popular, so they renamed it Columbia after the personification of the USA (in case you haven't heard of her, she was replaced by the Statue of Liberty in popular perception around the 1920s), and it later grew into the well-known university it is today. Columbia was used to cartographically refer to North America as early as the 1730s, and is named after the explorer Christopher Columbus.
The word baguette came to us in the late fifteenth century from Old French baguelette. -Ette is just a diminutive suffix meaning "small", so we can eliminate that to better analyze the root, baguel, which meant "twist". It makes sense that baguette would mean "small twist", because there is a faint rotating pattern on the top of the bread. That's interesting in itself, but what's really fascinating is how the term is related to our current word bagel, which is also a twist and comes directly from the Old French noun. Another cognate is bugle, the type of instrument, which adopted the "twist" definition in German as bugel due to the characteristic loop in the horn. All three of these words eventually can be traced back to Latin bucure, which meant "to twist" and derives from a Proto-Indo-European reconstruction, bheg, also "twist". Also, if you haven't gathered from the title, that was entirely fake, but it seemed awfully real, didn't it? You never know when I could be lying to you... Happy April Fool's Day!
Prefrosh is a word used by some colleges to refer to high school students who were admitted to their institution but are not attending yet. This term is usually first applied during the admitted students' weekends, and lasts all the way until classes begin. Pre- obviously means "before" and frosh is another word for freshman, which has recently had a resurgence in usage since the 1990s. But how did that term develop? It's a pretty natural etymological clipping to lose the -man suffix, but the weird vowel swap in fresh to frosh is quite confusing and even irritating if you don't know the reason behind it. Turns out it's a pun! There's a German word, frosch, which means "grammar school pupil" but also "frog", so a frosh is simultaneously a freshman, a metaphorical frog, and a pupil, while a prefrosh is even worse off.
In 1901, the pharmaceutical company Parke, Davis & Co. (now a subsidiary of Pfizer) registered the trademark Adrenalin to describe a new purified extract from the adrenal glands that was perfected by Japanese chemist Jokichi Takamine. In Europe, people added an e to that, and that's how we got the word adrenaline. Takamine coined the word from Latin ad, meaning "near", renal, meaning "kidneys" and the chemical suffix -ine, because the adrenal glands are located on top of the kidneys. We've seen the prefix ad an inordinate amount of times, and (surprise!) it still comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to", "near", or "at". Renal, meanwhile, traces to Latin ren, also "kidneys". This has an officially uncertain etymology, but could be from PIE gren, which referred to internal organs in general.
Due to their sky-blue hue, sapphires have always been associated with the heavens, which is why ancient Indians named it sanipriya, meaning "sacred to Saturn" (a particularly karmic planet), from the Sanskrit words Sani, meaning "Saturn", and priyah, meaning "precious". Usage of this word traveled into the Middle East as the Hebrew word sappir, which also referred to lapis lazuli. That went into Ancient Greek as sappheiros (probably not related to the poet Sappho), which was still associated with both gems, and that in turn was picked up by the Romans as the Latin word sapphirus. That diffused into Old French as sapphir and was borrowed into English in the mid-1200s. The adjectival form arose in the 1400s and peak usage was in the late 1800s as sapphires boomed in popularity due to new imports from Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Madagascar.
The word acceptance was first attested in the 1570s, and is modeled off its French equivalent but comes from accept, which was around since the 1300s. The Old French root of that is accepter, from Latin acceptare, which still had about the same meaning of "receive willingly". That's a frequentative of accipiere, and now we can break it apart. Leading the word is the prefix ad-, meaning "to", and ending it is the word capiere, "to take". Of course, it's sort of weird adding that affix to an infinitive, because you repeat to, but whatever works, I'll accept it. Ad in Proto-Indo-European meant "to", "near", or "at", and, through Proto-Italic kapio, capiere derives from the PIE reconstruction kehp, meaning "seize" or "grab". Usages of the words accept and acceptance in literature over time peaked in the 1960s for reasons I can't discover.
Oulipo was a rather fascinating literary movement originating in France that focused on so-called "constrained writing" techniques. The most famous example is Georges Perec's 3pp-page novel A Void, which is lippogrammatic for (excluding) the letter E entirely. It's harder than it sounds. Other examples include palindromes (something that reads the same backwards and forwards), univocalisms (when words have only one vowel), and snowball poems (where each word is a letter longer). All of this is particularly fascinating to me, especially as someone who's failed at making a lot of Oulipo poems. Even more fascinating is the word's etymology - Oulipo is an acronym of the phrase Ouvroir de litterature potentiell, which, roughly translated, means "workshop of potential literature" in French.
It's a relatively well-known fact that Harvard University's famous motto, Veritas, means "truth" or "truthfulness" in Latin, because the school values integrity so highly. This was adopted in 1643, replacing the more religious Christo et Ecclesiae motto, which meant "Christ and Church". The root in veritas is another Latin word, verus, which was basically just the adjectival form of the noun, meaning "true". That is reconstructed as deriving from Proto-Italic weros, which would be from Proto-Indo-European wereo, "trustworthy". So not much semantic change, but the descendants of verus are pretty interesting. Veracity, verify, versimilitude, and very are all cousins of veritas, and more than 1,500 words stem from PIE wereo. Usage of the word veritas in English peaked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and has been decreasing since then.
When the word crimson was borrowed into the English language in the 1400s, it took a lot of different forms. There was cremesin, cremesyn, and several other variations, and all of that was borrowed from Italian, where there was an even more diverse myriad of forms. Carmesi, cremesi, carmisino, and cremesinus all meant the color throughout time, but could also refer to the cochineal dye used to create crimson. The Italians acquired those terms through trade with the Arabs, who had their own word, qirmiz, to describe kermes, the type of dye made from crushed insects that yields the color red. Eventually, the word traces to Proto-Indo-European (not Proto-Semitic!) krmis, meaning "worm", because at one point the hue was also made through crushing worms. How lovely.
Adam Aleksic is a 220-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard College in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd