The Fascinating Origins of These 30 Common Words
A deep dive into the ever-changing etymology of our lexicon
Each and every one of us uses some form of communication every day to interact with the people around us and convey the messages we want to get across. But while we use words and body language to speak and interact, we seldom think about the words we’re actually saying and where they originally came from. For instance, think about the word “muscle” for a second: If you’re a gym rat, then you probably use this word frequently, but what you probably don’t know is that this word literally translates to “little mice.” And “girl” is one of the most commonly used words in the English language, but it didn’t get its gender-specific connotation until the 1500s.
To expand your understanding the words you use every day, we delved deep into the origins of some of the most common words in the English language. So lectio custodiant (that’s Latin for keep reading, by the way), and when you master this English lesson, be sure to bone up on the 30 Common Words You’e Using All Wrong.
This word is actually a metathesis—or re-ordering—of the Old Norse word hrossvalr (“horse whale”), as was discovered by none other than J. R. R. Tolkien. Yes, the man who gifted us The Lord of the Rings is also the man who, in the late 1910s, worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and concluded that the word “walrus” came to be after another Germanic language accidentally confused the actual Old Norse word for walrus (rosmhvalr) with the word for “horse whale.”
The word “tragedy” comes from the Greek word tragodia, which literally translates to “goat song.” Many theories have been offered up to explain this strange origin, one such being that because goats would often be sacrificed to the Gods at the end of Athenian play competitions, the sound of their cries became associated with Greek tragedies.
New homeowners staring down hefty mortgages will empathize with the origin of the term. It comes from the Old French words mort and gage, which translate in English to mean “death pledge.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the mortgage got such a depressing name from the fact that “the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when payment fails.” And if you’re dealing with a death pledge, try these 20 Best Ways to Lower Your Mortgage Payment.
What makes this word’s origin so, well, bonkers is that it’s based entirely upon speculation. The word first began popping up in Britain in the 1940s as a more mellow synonym for “mad,” but our best guess of where the adjective came from is perhaps from Eric Partridge‘s A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, in which he writes that it is “perhaps from bonk, a blow or punch on the bonce or head.”
The modern version of the word “clue” actually derives from its Middle English ancestor. Spelled “clew,” this old variation referred to “a ball of thread or yarn,” and it became associated with the definition we know today thanks to Greek mythology. If you’re familiar with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, then you’ll recall that Theseus uses a ball of thread to trace his steps through the maze as he searches for the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Once he slays the Minotaur, he uses his thread—a “guide to the solution of a mystery”—to find his way out. And for more fantastical folklore, be sure to read up on The Biggest Folk Hero in Every State.
The “luke” in “lukewarm” is believed to be a derivative of the Middle English word lew and Old English word hleow, both of which mean “tepid.” So yes, technically speaking, lukewarm just means “warm warm.”
In Latin, the word for muscle translates to “little mouse.” Back when muscles were named, people believed that the movement of tendons looked like mice running underneath the skin.
The people whom we consider geeks today are certainly not the same people who would have been labeled geeks in the early 1900s. Back then, the word was used to describe not socially awkward, tech-savvy individuals, but rather circus sideshow performers who bit the heads off of small living creatures. It was only in the 1980s that the word began to take on its current meaning, and by the 21st century it nearly lost its negative connotation altogether.
Though it looks like a compound word, the term “boycott” is actually eponymous, named after 19th century land agent Captain Charles C. Boycott. During the Irish Land War in the 1880s, Boycott famously feuded with the Irish Land League and their supporters, all of whom were fighting for tenant farmers’ rights. The papers turned the landlord’s last name into an adjective, and its use quickly spread to other countries and, eventually, other languages.
Before there was the eavesdropper, there was the eavesdrop, or “the ground on to which water drips from the eaves.” This now obsolete definition was used before there were gutters on roofs, back when water would just fall onto the ground so as not to damage the house.
An eavesdropper became known as such because back when there were eaves, people would hang from them in order to listen in on other people’s conversations. This new definition took hold as early as the 1500s, as King Henry VIII had wooden figures built into his eaves in order to discourage such gossip and drama. And if you live for a little bit of gossip, check out the 25 Craziest Rumors about the Kennedys.
Nearly all professionals live and breathe by deadlines, at least metaphorically speaking. But during the Civil War, a deadline was literally life or death—not because people took their assignments more seriously back then, but because during this time, a deadline referred to the line drawn around a prison that a prisoner could not pass without getting shot. Many decades after the Civil War, American newsrooms began to use the word “deadline” in its current sense, and the original definition was all but eliminated from use (thankfully).
In the 1300s, archers protecting a castle would use loopholes to shield themselves from crossfire. No, these archers didn’t find ambiguity in the rules to cause a cease-fire and save their lives; rather, their loopholes were quite literally small slits in the wall through which they could shoot their arrows while simultaneously being protected. And if you love historical trivia, don’t miss the 30 Crazy Facts That Will Change Your View of History.
The word “robot” is less than 100 years old. In 1920, Czech playwright Karel Capek coined the term as part of his play, R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Capek’s word comes from the old Church Slavonic word robota, meaning “servitude,” and he uses it in his play to describe mechanical workers who “lack nothing but a soul” and who take on the tasks that humans loathe. And for how robots are intertwined with your everyday life, learn the 20 Types of Artificial Intelligence You Use Every Single Day And Don’t Know It.
The word chauffeur in French literally means “one that heats,” as the first ever chauffeurs were the people paid to keep a steam engine running. However, with the invention of automobiles, the French began to call carriage drivers chauffeurs as well, eventually lending the word to anyone paid to drive others around.
The word “chafe” comes from the french word chaufer, meaning “to make warm” or “to heat”. Though this makes sense considering what it means to chafe, it’s also odd, given that this is the same French word that gave us “chauffeur.”
When Mark Ronson wrote “Uptown Funk,” he probably wasn’t thinking about the word’s original meaning. Evidently, the word derives from the old French fungier, meaning “to give off smoke” or “to fill with smoke,” and was once used to describe tobacco smoke. And if you’re starting to notice that you’ve got an unpleasant one of these, you’ll want to check out the 15 Ways You’re Showering Wrong.
In the 1880s, Jumbo was not an adjective, but an elephant traveling with U.S. circus showman P.T. Barnum. Weighing in at 6.15 tons, the 10-foot-tall animal was certainly large, even in comparison to the rest of its elephantine relatives (who weigh an average of 6 tons). Given the elephant’s extraordinary size, it’s little surprise that today the word “jumbo” is used to describe something “unusually large for its type.” And for more fascinating animal facts, don’t miss the 15 Animals with Impressive Titles.
The word “girl” isn’t historically tied to a specific gender. Rather, as professor emeritus of linguistics Sally McConnell-Ginet explained to the Huffington Post, it was first used in the 13th century to refer to a young person in general, whether they were male or female. Up until the 16th century, “gay girls” were young women and “knave girls” were young men.
These flowers get their name from the Old English dægesege, meaning “day’s eye.” While this name seems random, it’s actually quite appropriate, as daisy petals open at dawn and close again at dusk. And before you treat that special someone to daisies or another beauteous bloom, read up on The Romantic Man’s Guide to Buying the Perfect Flowers.
The word that you now know to be “apron” first appeared in the 14th century as “napron,” a derivative of the medieval French word naperon (referring to a cloth placed over a tablecloth to avoid stains). As people used the word napron in speech, the boundaries of words were blurred, and a napron became replaced with an apron entirely by the 17th century.
The tuxedo made its first appearance at a country club in Tuxedo Park, New York, thus giving the dinner jacket its name. According to accounts from Tuxedo Club founding member Grenville Kane, it was fellow member James Brown Potter who brought the short jacket home from a trip to Sandringham in England and began the new trend in men’s fashion. And while a tuxedo is nice, it can look out of place at the wrong occasion, so make sure you’re aware of The Best Men’s Summer Wedding Looks for Every Dress Code.
Ironically enough, the word “candidate” and the word “candid” share the same root: the latin candidus, meaning “bright white.” Why is this ironic? In Rome, politicians often wore white yogas, as the color was associated with honesty.
Upper and Lower Case
The terms “upper case” and “lower case” have quite literal meanings. At the beginning of the printing press (back when there weren’t computers and nothing was automated), the letter blocks for capital letters were stored in higher cases (the “upper case”) than those for the small versions of the letters (the “lower case”).
Originally, warning labels cautioned that certain products were “inflammable.” However, safety experts feared that people would get confused by the prefix, and so they shortened “inflammable” to “flammable.” Today, both words mean the same thing: easily set on fire.
The word “guard” comes from the French word garde, which in turn comes from the English word “ward.” When the French were creating the word garde (meaning “to keep”), they replaced the “w” sound in “ward” with a “g” sound, thus creating the basis for “guard.” Because of all of this back-and-forth, we now have the words “ward,” “warden,” “guard,” and “guardian”—despite the fact that they are very similar in meaning.
The Capuchin friars, part of the Franciscan order of monks, are known for wearing plain brown robes with long, pointed hoods hanging down their backs (called cappuccios in Italian). While these cappuccinos weren’t java fanatics, their robes were the same color as the espresso mixed with froth milk, thus explaining how their name and the name of a popular coffee drink became one and the same.
This common word finds its roots in the Latin word salarius, meaning “of or pertaining to salt.” In ancient Rome, money and salt were closely connected; the mineral was a pricey but necessary commodity back then, and most warrior’s salaries were spent entirely on it. This relationship gave way to the word that now describes the fixed amount of money you receive from your employer every few weeks.
The origins of the word “hazard” are only based on speculation. However, it is believed that the word comes from the Old French hasard, meaning a “game of chance played with dice,” and that its definition eventually evolved from “a game of chance” to “a chance of harm” in the 1500s.
When someone gets sarcastic with you, their remarks can cut deep and hit you where it hurts. And this makes sense, given that the word comes from the late Greek sarkazein, literally meaning “to strip off the flesh.” Ouch! And if you want to entertain without hurting anyone’s feelings, try these 70 Jokes So Corny They’ll Leave You in Stitches.
Once upon a time, the Greeks would blame all of their misfortunes on the stars and the unfavorable positions of the planets, and so the original meaning of the word “disaster” was “an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star.” The word itself even has roots in the Latin astro, meaning “star.” And for more wild linguistics lessons, learn the 40 Everyday Slang Words That Were Invented Online.
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