As an uneducated mainland American, I've always assumed that the word aloha just means "hello" or "goodbye" in Hawaiian, but I recently found out that it's much more significant than only that. Apparently, it can also mean "love", "affection", "peace", "mercy", and "compassion", and represents an entire way of life for the native Hawaiian people. Originally, though, it meant "love", and there are several cognates across Polynesian languages: aroha in Maori, aropa in Anuta, arofa in Tahitian, alofa in Samoan, and more. It's reconstructed to the Proto-Polynesian word qarofa, which also meant "love" and might sound more like "adofa" to English speakers.
I had always wondered about the etymology of deadpanning (the action of saying something funny while keeping a straight face), but for some reason never thought to look it up until now. The term first showed up as a two-word adjective in 1920s, emerging as a slang word in the acting industry and spreading from there. Although its origins haven't been recorded anywhere, it seems that the "dead" part is just analogous to "expressionless" and pan was a colloquial word for "face", due to a similarity with the flatness of the cooking tool. So deadpanning is just keeping an "expressionless face", which checks out pretty well with the modern definition. According to Google NGrams, usage of deadpan has increased with its increased exposure in American comedy, peaking in usage in 2017.
A few days ago, I wrote about the pejorative agent suffix -ard and how it shows up in several negative words, like drunkard, coward, and bastard. One word that I neglected to mention was the noun mallard, describing the type of duck. If you go back far enough, it comes from the Old French word malle, meaning "male", and -ard. At the time, the word referred not to a certain species of bird but to any male duck in general, and it appears that they were humorously spoken about in an insulting manner. Then the name for the specific type of duck emerged in the early fourteenth century, and the older definition was lost to the ages. Malle comes from Latin mas, which meant "male" and is thought to be from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction meryos, "young man".
In the book The Da Vinci Code, protagonist Robert Langdon explains that the Mona Lisa's name is an anagram of the hieroglyphic names for the Egyptian gods Amon and Isis. Needless to say, that's not right. Although theories still vary on the subject of the painting, most people believe the account in Italian painter Giorgio Vasari's 1550 biography of da Vinci, which identifies her as Lisa di Antonio Maria, the wife of Florentine merchant Francesco Giocondo. Mona in Italian is a formal honorific for women that originated as a shortening of madonna, itself from ma donna, "my lady" (this is similar to how madam - "my dame" - got shortened to ma'am in English). The Italian name for the portrait, however, is La Gioconda, after the feminine version of her husband's surname, and this gets transcribed in French as La Joconde. Both of those names come from the Latin adjective iucundus, meaning "pleasant", which I find humorous because it also describes her smile.
A week ago, I wrote about how the verb to badger comes from a noun meaning "trader", and since then I found out more information and wanted to issue an update. Apparently there are two verbs spelled badger that respectively mean "to haggle" and "to harass", and it's considered unlikely that they are directly related, although the former may have influenced the development of the latter. That latter verb, which I didn't discuss last week, turns out to have an even more interesting origin. It was probably coined in reference to the practice of badger-baiting, a nasty blood sport where a dog was set to continuously attack a badger until it finally died. There were also some seventeenth-century allusions to the persistence of badgers to bite down on something until their teeth met, so those may have also influenced the meaning.
Bollard is the rather funny-sounding word for those little posts used for traffic control on the sides of the road, or for the pole that a ship is tethered to. The traffic-related sense emerged in the 1940s from the resemblance to the nautical definition, and that came about in the 1840s from the botanical term bole, meaning "tree trunk", and the suffix -ard, which is curiously mostly used a pejorative suffix (think drunkard, coward, bastard). So it's a pathetic excuse for a tree trunk, I suppose? Bole was borrowed in the early fourteenth century from Old Norse bolr, which came from Proto-Germanic bulas (both with the same meaning). Finally, it all comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction bhel, which meant "to swell" and is also the source of words like ball, balloon, bull, and bollocks.
The word honeymoon was first recorded in a 1546 dialect book as hony moone, and other spellings around that time included honney moone, hony-moon, and hony-moone. As expected, it all boils down to the word honey and the word moon, and the reason for this is disputed. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it's a pessimistic reference to how love wanes like the moon, or an even more pessimistic statement that the love in question won't last longer than a month. Over time, this evolved from a less tongue-in-cheek expression to one meant sincerely, and usage has steadily increased over time. Honey, through Proto-Germanic hunang, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root keneko, used for things with yellow or brown colors, and I've written about the word moon before.
When the word expedition was first attested in English in 1430, it referred specifically to military campaigns. Soon thereafter, it came to be used for the act of expediting, the action of sending out official documents, the state of being ready, and much more. Through Old French, the word comes from the Latin word expeditionem, which also meant "military campaign". That's from the past participle of expedire, a verb for "to prepare", and expedire is composed of the prefix ex-, meaning "out", and the root pedis, meaning "chain for the feet". So expedire, which is also the source of word verb expedite, literally meant "to free the feet from fetters", with the notion being a "liberation from difficulties". Usage of the word expedition peaked in 1626 and has been declining since.
I have some very early memories of my mother and grandmother playing and talking about sudoku, so it felt very surprising to me that the word sudoku has only been around in English since the year 2000, a year before I was born. I was also surprised to learn that the game was not in fact invented in Japan, but by a retired American architect named Howard Garns, who called it Number Place and published it in a magazine called Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games. Number Place did okay in the states, but it got very popular in Japan in the mid-1980s, particularly because of the Nikoli puzzle company, which called it sudoku as a shortened version of the phrase suji wa dokushin ni kagiru, meaning "numbers are restricted to being alone". Finally, the London Times started printing the game in 2004, leading to it being brought back to the West with the new name.
The earliest records we have of the word wheel are from the 800s, when it was spelled hweol. Around the 1400s, it started to be spelled without the o and with a wh- at the beginning, although it still had a soft (voiceless) w sound for a while until the modern pronunciation was adopted. The word comes from Proto-Germanic hwehla, and we can tell this comes from Proto-Indo-European kwel (meaning "revolve") because, according to Grimm's Law, the kw in PIE became a hw sound in Proto-Germanic. Meanwhile, it stayed the same in other families like Latin, which is why some other descendants of kwel include words with hard-k sounds like collar and colony. The word wheel first started getting used as a verb in the 1200s and peaked in usage in 1906.
In the early 1860s, a group of Parisian artists fed up with the strict rules of France's Académie des Beaux-Arts formed the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (or "Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers") to independently exhibit their artwork. This was looked upon very critically by the art establishment, and one critic named Louis Leroy wrote an extremely negative review where he derisively nicknamed this group the "Impressionist School" based on Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise. Since the other name was too long and they sort of agreed with the name, the group cheerfully adopted the moniker, and that's how we got the word impressionism.
Please see my update on this here.
I recently got a very interesting question about the relationship between badger, the type of animal, and to badger, the verb meaning "pester". Turns out there is none! The verb badger emerged in the late eighteenth century from a previous verb meaning "to trade". Over time, that developed a sense of "to haggle" and then it took on more annoying connotations. The "trade" verb was first attested in 1600 and seems to be from a noun spelled badger, which referred to traders or, more specifically, fur traders (hence the name). That has an unknown origin, but is widely considered unrelated to the animal name or anything t0 do with bagging. The Oxford English Dictionary says it could come from an Old English surname or various botanical Latin names.
The word wisteria, referring to a genus of colorful climbing shrubs, was coined in 1819 by English anatomist Thomas Nuttall after Caspar Wistar, an anatomy professor who passed away earlier that year, and the noun-ending suffix -ia. You may have noticed that Wistar's name has an a in it while wisteria has an e in it, and this was traditionally ascribed to misspelling, but new evidence from an 1898 interview says otherwise. According to Nuttall, he intentionally coined the name because wisteria sounded more euphonious. There was also a branch of the Wistar family called the Wisters, so Nuttall figured that if it was pretty much the same thing he might as well go with the version that sounded better to him. Both sides of the family anglicized their name from Wüster, a German word related to our word waste.
The word catalog developed from its other spelling catalogue in the late nineteenth century as part of a movement to create more American-looking words. In Old French, the word looked the same and meant "index", and that came in the fourteenth century from Latin catalogus, which traces to Greek katalogos, "enrollment" or "register". Katalogos comes from the the fairly common prefix kata-, meaning "down" (also present in words like catastrophe and cataract), and the root legein, meaning "to say" or "count" (we've seen this before in the suffix -ology). Finally, kata comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction kmt, also "down", and legein is from Proto-Indo-European leg, meaning "gather or collect". So, together, a catalog gathers down all the information from a store.
The word burglar, which predates burglary in English by about 250 years, was borrowed in the thirteenth century from the Anglo-Latin word burglator, and that's from the Medieval Latin word burgator. The l in the middle of the world was not natural and it was added because of influence from another Latin word for "thief", latro. Burgator was based on the Latin verb burgare, meaning "to break open", and that's from burgus, a noun meaning "castle" (apparently the word was formed on the notion of breaking open a castle's defenses). The verbs burgle and burglarize independently developed as humorous back-formations of burglary on different sides of the Atlantic in the 1860s.
The oldest attestation we have of the word serenade was in a 1656 dictionary of complicated words. At the time, it had pretty similar connotations as today - a romantic open-air musical performance - but it was more specifically used for performances given at night. The word comes from French sérénade and Italian serenata, which meant "calm sky". That comes from sereno, which meant "open air" and was the noun version of an adjective meaning "clear" or "calm" that you might recognize as being related to our word serene. It's also thought that the definition of the Italian word was influenced by another word, sera, which meant "evening". The word first started to refer to pieces of music used in serenades in the 1720s and has been in use as a verb since 1671.
Today, we associate the name Kit Kat with a kind of chocolate, but back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term was used for a kind of mutton pie served at meetings of the Kit-Cat Club, a literary and political Whig establishment in London. Then, in 1911, the Rowntree's candymaking business copyrighted the names Kit Kat and Kit Cat, presumably a reference to the club (although there are no official records of why these were chosen). Diving into this further, it seems that the club was named after a person called Christopher Catling and the rights to the brand were acquired by Nestlé in 1988. Since then, popularity has increased, with usage peaking in the year 2016 and searches for the phrase spiking in fall of 2013 because KitKat was used as the nickname for an Android update.
When the word assume was first used in English in a 1436 collection of poems, it referred to the the process of being received into Heaven, and a more specific sense of this still exists in some Christian theologies as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The first time it was used in the modern sense was in the 1590s, and it has increased in usage since then, peaking in the early 1970s. The word comes from the Latin word assumere, meaning "to take up" (the connection being the action of taking something for granted or taking up an opinion), from the prefix ad- ("to"; from PIE ad, with the same meaning), and the verb sumere, meaning "to take". Finally, sumere was composed of another prefix, sub- ("under"; from PIE upo, with the same meaning) and another verb meaning "take", emere (that's from PIE em, "to distribute").
The word onion first started showing up in the 1350s with a wide variety of spellings, including unniun, huniun, oignon, oinon, and oynun, among others. Everything indicates that it came through Anglo-French from the Old French word oignon, which still referred to the vegetable. Finally, oignon comes straight from the colloquial Latin word unio, literally translating to "united" (from unus, from Proto-Indo-European oynos, "one"). According to Roman writer Columella, peasants gave it that name because it didn't have any shoots and was thus a single entity. The word, which could also mean "pearl", was used in informal situations instead of the usual Latin noun, cepa, which resulted in Romance language names like Italian cipolla and Spanish cebolla.
The word groom meaning "husband-to-be" is a shortening of bridegroom that first appeared in the early seventeenth century. It comes from the Old English word byrdguma, but the r was added because of the folk etymological influence of another word spelled groom that meant "attendant" (this sense is still around to describe people who care to horses, and comes from an unrelated Old English word meaning "grow"). Byrdguma comes from byrd, which was basically the precursor of "bride" and derives from a Proto-Germanic word for "daughter-in-law", and guma, the Old English word for "man". So, together, a bridegroom is just a "bride man", while a groom is just a man. Finally, guma comes from Proto-Germanic gumo, which eventually traces to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning "earth".
In Ancient Greek, the word ambrosia was used to describe the mythological food of the gods. Literally, it can be translated along the lines of "of the immortals", because it comes from the prefix a-, meaning "not", and the root mbrotos, which is a variant of mortos, meaning "mortal". I've covered a- many times before, but mortos comes from the Proto-Indo-European root mer, which meant "to die". Mer has a really eclectic mix of descendants, from mortal and mortgage to morsal, mortar, nightmare, and remorse. Anyway, ambrosia was borrowed into English in the early sixteenth century through Latin, started being used figuratively for very tasty foods in the early seventeenth century, and came to be applied to a type of fruit salad in the 1860s. It also lent its name to types of beetle, fungus, and pollen, and peaked in usage in 1809.
The word occidental, today used to describe things pertaining to countries in the West, was borrowed into English in the fifteenth century in a mostly astrological sense, describing the direction that the sun sets, and it only got applied to civilizations about a hundred years later. Through Old French, the word traces to the Latin word occidens, the noun version of an adjective meaning "setting". That's from the verb occidere, meaning "to fall down", in reference to the motion of the sun. Finally, occidere comes from the prefix ob-, meaning "down" (from Proto-Indo-European opi, "against"), and the root cadere, "to fall down" (from Proto-Indo-European kad, also "fall"). Occidere is also the etymon of the word occasion, through a sense of causation and opportunity. I thought that was interesting!
The pass of Thermopylae, famous for being the site of a fifth-century BCE battle where the invading Persians were crushed by a coalition of Greeks, has an etymology that's surprisingly easy to pick apart. The thermo- part meant "hot" and is the same as we see in words like thermometer and thermostat. Meanwhile, the pylae part, which should be familiar from the word pylon, is a Latin-influenced variant spelling of the plural of the noun pyle, which meant "gate", "pass", or "entrance". So, together, Thermopylae meant "hot gates". This was in reference to the hot sulfur springs in the area and its function as an entrance into the region of Thessaly. In Greek mythology, it was also believed to be the entrance to the underworld, which gives the name a double meaning.
The name Singapore is an anglicization of the Malay toponym Singapura, which is widely understood to come from Sanskrit Simhapuram, meaning "lion city", from simha ("lion", ultimately from Proto-Indo-European singo) and puram ("city", related to the Greek word polis through PIE plh, meaning "stronghold"). The lion is the national animal of Singapore and has long been associated with the city-state. According to Malay mythology, it was founded by a prince who saw a lion in the area, but that's either apocryphal or erroneous because lions are not native to Southeast Asia. Many think that this creation story to replace the previous city name of Temasek was intentionally fabricated at some point during the fourteenth century to support a claim over the island or build a common identity.
For my final project for my GIS class, I created an interactive etymology map! You can check it out below (click on the country names to see their origins) or see it at any time by going to the "interactive map" tab under my "infographics" page.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic. This year, I graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Government and Linguistics. There, I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society and wrote a thesis on Serbo-Croatian language policy, magna cum laude. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy philosophy, trivia, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.