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English Language & Linguistics

English Language


English Etymologies

based on several sources including the OED on CD-ROM and Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins, pub Bloomsbury 1999.

* indicates a presumed form although no written evidence exists.

You could use these words to play a game of Call My Bluff. Make three cards for each word. One card will have the genuine etymology but the other two will have spoof etymologies made up by you. Two teams of three play against each other alternately presenting the three etymologies to the opposing team who have to guess the correct version. A Chair is the only person to know the answers and award points.

This comes from the word "acme" the highest point, from the Greek word meaning "point" or "spot". The change from m to n is a mistranslation.

This dates back to the Indo European root *ag- which had a range of meanings such as "do" and "drive" including probably "drive animals across land." From this come many words such as the Latin "ager" becoming "agriculture" in English. The change in meaning seems to follow farming changes from herding animals to tilling enclosed areas of land and so the meaning relates to "field."
From the Germanic form came Old English "aecr", becoming "acra" in the middle ages.
The word originally meant unoccupied country, whether field or woodland, but came to mean land that could be cultivated and was defined, by the time of the Norman Conquest, as the area that a yoke of oxen could plough in one day. In the reign of Edward I it was fixed at 40 rods long by 4 rods wide, with a rod measuring sixteen and a half feet in today's measures. Practically this was considered to be 32 furrows by one furlong (furrow long). It is still fixed today at 160 square rods or 4,840 square yards.

From the Greek "bainen" meaning "walk" and "akros" meaning "topmost" and originally from the Indo European root *ak- meaning to be pointed (see also "acid" and acne"). Acrobat literally means "walking on tip-toe."

This originally meant "straighten" from the Latin "directum" meaning "straight" or "direct". The modern sense "where someone lives" developed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Originally this was a second crop of grass which needed a second mowing. The word is from Old English "Moeth", mowing.

The presumed Latin word *acsla, to do with "turning" gives us "axis", "axle" and "axilla" (armpit.) Another variation "ala" meaning "wing" gives us "aileron". A metaphorical use of "ala" as "wing of a building" gives us "aisle" as in "the sides of a church nave."

It is thought that the origin may be ultimately Greek "kados" meaning "jar" into Arabic "al qadus" a bucket, from the idea that an irrigation bucket was like a pelican's beak. The Spanish and Portuguese "alcatraz" describing "the place of pelicans" was used for the famous US island prison and "alcatras" was used to describe a variety of sea birds until the late 17th century, when it became specific to this particular bird.

The Latin "albus" means white (see albumen, albino etc) and the form "album" described a blank white tablet for writing notices or signatures. Eventually this autograph book became a place for collecting souvenirs of all kinds, including post cards and photographs.

Literally alert means "on the watch tower" from the Italian "stare all' erta" "to stand on the watchtower". The meaning has changed from "standing watch" to being vigilant."

This word is used today to describe complex calculations, for example in computer "number-crunching". It also enshrines the name of a very early Arab mathematician - Abu Ja'far Mohammed ibn-Musa al Khwarizmi who lived from 780 to 850. He was literally the "man from Khwarizm" and his name was used to describe the Arabic 10-based number system, going from "al-khwarizmi" to "algorismus" in Latin and eventually "algorithm" in late 17th century English by association with Greek "arithmos" number (hence "arithmetic").

The French army devised a vehicle, equipped with basic first aid materials, to carry wounded soldiers from the front to the rear of a battle so they could be treated more quickly. It was called the "hopital ambulant" or travelling hospital from the Latin "ambulo" to travel walk or move. for a time they were called "ambulances volantes" or "flying travellers" and this was shortened to "ambulance" - a traveller.

The protective garment was once known as a "napron." from the French "naperon" which in modern French means a napkin. However there was a process in English of the "n" moving from the article "an" to the noun and "a napron" became "an apron." Similar words include "adder" which was once "a nadder", "numpire" and "norange" (originally from the Arabic "naranj")

Though not a word in polite use, "arse", like many old words describing body parts and functions, originates in Indo-european. the IE word was *orsos which produced words meaning "bottom" or "tail" in most Germanic languages. The US "ass" is a euphemistic spelling of "arse" which reflects the general US pronunciation.
The bird the "wheatear" has nothing to do with wheat or ears but comes from "white arse" after its white tail feathers.

The traditional balance is of a pair of scales consisting of two pans. Weights were placed in one, the item to be weighed in the other; balance was achieved when the two sides were equal. Latin "libra bilanx" from "lanx", plate or pan, means "scales with two pans." English borrowed the word through French by which time it had changed from "bilanx" to "balance."

Money lenders and money changers were early bankers. They would originally offer their services in public places, where they would set up a bench or a table. If they were unable to repay their creditors or invested unwisely and had no money left, the creditors would break up the bench to show that the banker was no longer in business. In Florence in the middle ages this was known as "banca rotta" or broken bench. The Italian "rotta" gave way to the Latin "ruptus" or "rupta" and hence bank-rupt.

This is an Indo-European word thought to be *bhergo although it does not mean a particular species of tree and may refer to the light colour of bark - indeed the word "bark" may be related. the Old English version is "birce" or "bierce".

A group of unofficial guards was known in Switzerland as a "beiwacht" ("bei" additional and "wacht" guard or watch.) French adopted the form "bivac" and later "bivouac" which came into English to mean soldiers in an improvised camp guarding against a surprise attack. It is the "temporary tents" part of the meaning which we use today.

From the French word which once meant "handsome" it comes originally from the Basque word "bizarra" meaning "beard." The Spanish phrase "hombre de bigote" means literally "moustachioed man" but also "man of spirit" which suggests that bearded men could be seen as handsome when beards were fashionable but strange and eccentric when the fashion was for shaved faces.

The original meaning of "broach" is to pierce, from the Latin "broca" meaning "spike." This came into French as "broche" meaning a long needle or a roasting spit. Early broaches had the function of fastening material or clothing together and the ornamental aspect of a broach was secondary.
Related words include "brochure" (pages stitched together) and "broccoli" (cabbage sprout where brocco is Italian for shoot.)

The counting frame with beads as counters is still widely used in non-western countries.
The origin of the word is the Hebrew word "abaq" meaning "dust" and was borrowed by the Greeks as "abax" and later into Latin as "abacus" to describe a drawing board covered in dust or sand for writing calculations.
Both Greek and Roman mathematicians used an abacus for counting. While the abacus as we know it now consists of beads on a wire, it seems that the dust-covered board developed into a partitioned board with small pebbles in compartments. The Latin for pebble is "calculus" and so the person who counts with these pebbles "calculates."

The original camera was a dark room with a small hole in the wall. On the opposite wall will appear an inverted image of the scene outside. The name for this device is the "camera obscura" from the Latin meaning dark chamber. Later it was discovered that a small box could achieve the same effect as a whole room and this is now usually referred to as a pinhole camerra. The camera as we know it today is made possible by the same process of light entering a dark box, usually through a lens to focus the image, and the image being captured on a light sensitive coating.

Latin *catta pilosa means "hairy cat." "Catta" gives us modern English "cat" and "pilosus" is from "pilus" hair, giving us pile in carpets. That caterpillars should resemble cats in any way may be surprising, but note other names used to describe them - "pussmoth" and "woolly bear."

Chair comes from Greek "kathedra" ("kata" down and "hed-" sit) meaning seat. Into Latin this became "cathedra" and then to Old French as "chaiere". The word "cathedral" from the same source means the place where a Bishop sits (his "see," from Latin "sedem" meaning seat).

This is from Greek "kamara" meaning a room with a vaulted roof. From the Latin form "camera" we have our word camera while Old French adapted to "chambre" from which English in turn took as "chamber" the common name for a room from the 13th century. Hence also "chamber maid", "chamber-pot", "chamberlain" etc as well as "comrade" meaning "someone who shares a a room." See also "chimney."

Latin "campus" means field of battle or arena. People who fought in staged battles, often representing noblemen, were "campiones" which came via Old French as "champion." The meaning "winner" is a 19th century development. Related words based on "campus" include champagne, campaign and of course campus itself.

Chess is an ancient game whose aim is to capture the King piece of the opposing player. It is known to have been played in India and Persia, where it was adopted by Arabs and introduced by them to Europe. In Arabic the game was called "shah" after the Persian name for King. The end of the game was signalled by calling "shah mat" meaning "the king is dead." this eventually came from Old French "eschec mat" into English as "check mate". The name for the game comes from the Old French "esches" a plural of "eschec".

Cider comes from a Hebrew word "shekhar" meaning strong drink. It appears in the Bible and came into Latin as "sicera" then Old French as first "sisdre" then "sidre" by which time it was specifically refering to drink produced from apples.

The original Indo-European word was *gloi- *glei- *gli- from which we have glue and gluten. In Germanic this became *klai- and Old English "claeg" became modern English "clay." From the same source come "clammy" and the northern dialect "claggy" all of which describe a similar sticky consistency.

The coach, originally a carriage or comfortable wagon, originated in the town of Kocs in Hungary where it was known as the "Kocsi szeker" or "wagon of Kocs". it was a significant improvement over existing wagons and its name recalls the town of its origins. There are many other inventions which retain the place of origin in their name - see Bren and Sten guns, denim jeans, shantung silk, to go doolally etc

Portuguese explorers in the Indian Ocean found this nut about the size of a small head and with three dark holes looking like a grinning face. "Coco" means "grinning face" in Portuguese.

This has a complex history, going back to Indo European *quel- *quol- meaning first "to turn" (the origin of both "cycle" and "wheel") and later "to be busy". Latin "colere" is a development of this with the meanings "inhabit," (which lead to the modern English "colony") "cultivate" and "worship" (which lead to "cult" those who worship). "culture" originally meant "piece of tilled land.

Originally this was Persian "devan" meaning "small book" then "account book" then "accountant's office." Eventually "devan" described a long seat used in an official's office and came into English via Arabic and Turkish and through French. The French "douane" meaning customs has the same source.

The first part of the small intestine was measured as being some twelve finger-widths long and Latin duodeni means literally "twelve each". the phrase "intestinum duodenum digitorum" describes an intestine of twelve digits.

From the Greek "eu-" meaning good or well, and "pheme" speech, so "euphemismos" means speaking with good words. Originally it described avoiding unlucky words but now means using a pleasant word to replace an offensive word. "Dysphemism" is a modern word describing the use of a more offensive word than the original. So "water closet" is a euphemism for "toilet" and "crap-house" is a dysphemism.

Originally this described a word used to "fill up" or complete a line of verse, from Latin "ex-" out and "plere" fill. In due course it came to describe a redundant word. By 1815 it was being used to describe swearing or use of profanities. The well-known phrase "expletive deleted" describes the striking out of inappropriate, and therefore in a sense superfluous, swear words.

Medieval Latin "flasco" was a bottle, origin of flask and flagon. This became "fiasco" in Italian used in the phrase "make a bottle" with the meaning "a theatrical disaster."

Indo-European *pezd which may have imitated the sound of breaking wind, gives us English "fart" and "feisty" and the word "fizzle" used in the early 19th century to mean "fart silently and unobtrusively" and later "a weak spluttering sound".

The Indo-European *pod- and *ped- give a wide variety of modern English words and give the word for foot in most Indo-European languages.
The Greek "pous" gives us tripod (three feet), pew and podium.
The Latin "pes" gives us pedal, pedestrian, pioneer, quadruped, and pedigree. Related words include pyjamas, pilot and trapeze.

A furlong is Old English "furh" furrow and "lang" long so "a furrow long," from times when ploughing a field with oxen could give a rough idea of length. Related to the word "acre" the length came to be identified with the size of an ideal field measuring about an eighth of a Roman mile in each direction. This was then standardised during the reign of Edward I to forty rods long and eventually an eighth of a mile or 220 yards.

A gargoyle is often thought of generally as a grotesque carved creature. Etymologically this was applied to decorated water spouts on churches before the use of drain pipes and this shows its Indo-European origins from the root *garg- or *gurg- describing the throat sound as in gargle or gurgle. The Latin "gula" was a throat, "gluttire" was swallow and "gurgulio" means gullet. Related words are glut and, via French, glutton. Gorge, meaning a rocky ravine, and regurgitate are related to Latin "gurges" whirlpool, which in turn, though by a different route, go back to the Indo-European.

From the obsolete word "guiser" meaning someone wearing a mask or in a masquerade. The original meaning of geezer is of someone who wears a disguise.

Germanic *guthigaz , like a god, and *gutham god became Old English "gidig" meaning insane or stupid but suggesting "possessed by gods". In the 16th century it acquired its present meaning.
The word "enthusiasm" originally meant "inspired by a god" and is ultimately from Greek "enthous" possessed.

The Latin "gladius" meant sword, so a swordsman was a gladiator. it is related to the irish "claideb" which with the additional "mor" meaning great gave us "claymore." the plant the gladiolus is so named because it looks like a "little sword."

Until the 17th century, the only kind of grammar taught in schools was Latin grammar. Knowledge of this was so impressive to near illiterate people and its understanding gave access to so much knowledge that it semed almost magical. it gave rise to the word "gramary" - the ability to make magic through grammar. The word, in a variety of spellings such as "glamer", "glamor" etc in Scotland, was used by Sir Walter Scott and later came to mean what it does today - though without the need to be learned in order to be glamorous.

Both "guest" and "host" come from the same Indo-Eoropean *ghostis meaning stranger. the hard "g" sound is used for the visiting person and similar words appear in many Germanic languages. The Greek variant "xenos" give us modern English "xenophobia" while the Latin, taking the softer "h" sound meant stranger or enemy, as in modern English "hostile." Old French took a Latin variant "hospit-" and this became "host" in English. From this we have hospital, hostel, hotel.

British farmers rake their land with a harrow. The Latin for this is "hirpex" and in French "herse" a rake. The shape of the rake, a triangle of wood with spikes, gave its name to first a framework used for holding candles in some religious ceremonies, including burials, later the "hearse" or vehicle carrying a coffin.
The original meaning of "raking over" stays with us in the word "rehearse" - literally "to rake again."
A similar re-use of an agricultural word can be found in "aftermath", meaning the consequences of an action. This comes from the anglo saxon meaning "second mowing."

The name of the tomato flavoured sauce so common today comes from a Chinese word "ke-tsiap" discovered and imported by the Dutch, who spelled it "ketjap". Unlikely as it seems the original sauce was composed of mushrooms, fish, salt and spices.

Chaucer used lace to mean a noose or a snare, from the Latin "laqueus" or "lacius" meaning snare. The word once also meant a cord loop to hold clothes together as in the word "shoelace." As these loops became more decorative, first of gold and silver (leading to the present "necklace"), then of elaborate threads, we come to the present meaning of lace as a highly decorative piece of fabric.

Echo was a nymph in Greek tragedy who was condemned to speak only by repeating what others had spoken. She also fell in love with Narcissus, who did not return her love, so Echo prayed that he would fall in love with himself. On his death he was transformed into the flower narcissus and as some varieties of this flower contain a sleep-inducing drug, the word "narcotic" was used to describe it. So, from the interwoven Greek myth, we have gained the words "echo", "narcissism" meaning self-love, "narcissus" the flower and "narcotic" the effects of certain drugs.

A nickname is another name for a person, an alias, an additional name by which someone is also known (aka). Old English for "add" or "also" was "eke" which gave "ekename". "An ekename" became "a nickname" by the same process of moving the "n" which gives us "an apron" from "a napron".

Pen is derived from the Latin "penna" a quill or feather, which was used before the invention of steel nibs and ball points. A feather was cut and trimmed using a pocket knife called a "penknife". The common picture of a quill as a long curved feather is mostly false, as the sensible writer would have cut off the fluffy parts of the feather and chopped it to a reasonable length.

Salt is an essential for life. So much so that Roman soldiers were paid a quantity of salt in addition to their normal wages. This was called a "salarium", from the Latin "sal" for salt. "Salarium" came to mean the sum an officer received at intervals and it is now monetary payment at stated intervals.

Left handers have been thought to be odd in the past, while right handers have been normal and even good. The Latin word "sinister" is a variant of the word "sinistra" meaning left handed in Latin but meaning evil in English. Meanwhile the word "dextra" meaning right handed has given us the word dextrous meaning good or deft with your hands.

Greek dramas often featured a chorus dressed as woodland creatures, one of whom was the goat or satyr. Greek "tragos" goat plus "oide" song produced "tragoidia" and via Latin and French to English tragedy.
Other words using "oide" include melody, ode and parody.

Greek "toxon" meant a bow. At one stage there was a connection between "toxicos" meaning bows and arrows and "toxikon" describing a poison for putting on arrows. Latin took up the sense of poison and hence English toxic.

The vandals were originally a Teutonic tribe who invaded France, Spain and into Africa. In 455 they invaded and plundered Rome and later became infamous for torturing Christians and sacking their churches. Now we use their name to describe people who wilfully and mindlessly destroy beautiful or precious things