Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Short and Sweet Word Origins

Here’s a collection of short etymologies for a selection of words.

According to Greek mythology, when Theseus entered the Labyrinth to kill the Minotaur (half man, half bull), he unravelled a ‘clew’ behind him so he could find his way back. Then, a ‘clew’ was a ball of string. Over time, the meaning of the word ‘clue’ has become more figurative but has the same concept at its heart – the idea of getting to a destination using a navigational aid, whether physical or verbal. Our word ‘clue’ with the current spelling dates back to the mid-1500s.

'Robot' is one of few words to
enter English from Czech. 
The word ‘robot’ comes from Czech ‘robota’ meaning ‘forced labour’. It is one of few words taken from Czech in English and comes from Karel Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920).

‘Assassin’ means someone who kills for political or religious reasons. Members of a fanatical Muslim sect  during the Crusades used to smoke hashish and then murder the leaders of the opposing side. They started going by the name ‘hashishiyyin’ meaning ‘hashish users’ in Arabic. Centuries of mispronunciation has resulted in ‘assassin’ becoming naturalised in English.

When something isn’t genuine it may be described as ‘phony’. Pirates used to sell ’fawney’ which was British slang for fake gold rings. This is where our word ‘phony’ originates.

‘Whiskey’ is short for ‘whiskeybae’ which comes from an old English word ‘usquebae’, derived from two Gaelic words: ‘uisce’ (water) and ‘bethu’ (life). The literal translation of ‘whiskey’ is therefore ‘water of life’.

When something is in ‘quarantine’ it must be kept separate from something else. The word comes from French ‘qarante’ meaning forty. Whenever a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected it had to avoid contact with a shore for forty days.

‘Disaster’ comes from Greek ‘dis’ (bad) and ‘aster’ (star). The ancient Greeks used to blame calamities on unfavourable planetary positions.

A ‘loophole’ originally refered to the slits in a castle wall that cannons and archers would use to attack.

‘Muscle’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘little mouse’ because people used to think the bulges under the skin resembled small rodents.

In Latin, ‘luna’ means ‘moon’. Our word ‘lunatic’ originated because people thought human behaviour was altered by the changing moon phases.

If something is described as ‘lukewarm’ it is between hot and cold. It is actually a redundant word because ‘luke’ in Middle English means ‘warm’. Therefore, to describe something as ‘lukewarm’ literally translates as ‘warm warm’.

The word ‘mortgage’ derives from French and means ‘death pledge’.

If you have a ‘nightmare’ you have an unpleasant dream. The word comes from the Old English ‘mare’ and referred to a demon who would suffocate people in their slumber.

Americans call dollars ‘bucks’. This is because American frontier deerskins were used as units of commerce.

If you are an ‘addict’ you depend on something. The word comes from ancient Rome when soldiers were awarded slaves who were called ‘addicts’; the Latin word for ‘slave’. Today, if you are addicted to alcohol or other things, you are a slave to it.

‘Noon’ comes from the Latin phrase ‘nona hara’ meaning ‘ninth hour’ (ninth hour after sunrise). In ancient Rome, noon was around 3PM. The time shifted to midday because of events in Italy. ‘Nones’ were prayers generally uttered at 3PM but Benedictine monks in Italy said them closer to our 12PM midday.

Finally, the word ‘malaria’ literally means ‘bad air’ from Latin ‘mal aria’. It was used to describe the atmosphere of the swamps in Rome.

A selection of words that have quite interesting histories, I hope you’ll agree. 

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