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22 Surprising & Weird Word Origins (Slideshow)

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22 Surprising & Weird Word Origins (Slideshow)

Do you think that etymology is boring? If so, well… this may convince you otherwise.

The English language has a long and strange history, with Germanic roots that were heavily influenced by waves of Scandinavian and Norman French invaders, and which intermingled with plenty of Latin and Ancient Greek. Since then, English has borrowed words freely from every existing language family.

While many words’ origins are exactly what you’d expect—for instance, the word chicken comes from the Old English word cicen, also meaning “chicken”—many other words have shifted away from their original meaning over the years. Sometimes that original meaning was more descriptive of the word in question, while other times the original and current meanings are related but strikingly different.

Some etymologies are fascinating, some are baffling, and others are genuinely amusing. Read on to learn more!

(Note: all the entries on this list are based on the Oxford English Dictionary‘s etymology listings, with additional information from the New Oxford American Dictionary and Wiktionary.)


1. Owl

Hoot! The word owl has its origin in the Old English word ūle, which is related to Dutch uil and German Eule, which are an imitation of the hooting noise that many owls make. Try to pronounce them aloud and see: do they really sound like owl calls?

2. Lemur

Although lemurs are a Madagascar mammal, the word lemur actually comes from modern Latin: the word lemures referred to “spirits of the dead” in Roman mythology. (The animal lemur was named this because of the ghostly appearance of its face.)

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Molly Allison

Molly is a nature and travel enthusiast who is passionate about endangered languages, natural history, and women's and LGBT issues. In her free time, she enjoys rock climbing, reading, and hanging out with her three cats.


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8:23PM PDT on Jun 15, 2014

Several surprises. Light touch and nice humor.

4:23PM PST on Nov 23, 2013

Very interesting that while much of language changes, much of it stays relatively same through time and travel. Thanks.

5:27PM PDT on Oct 26, 2013

fascinating, but 11 pages????

7:53AM PDT on Sep 22, 2013

I see lot coming from spanish

3:34AM PDT on May 25, 2013

I think avocado might be my favorite in this list.

7:00PM PDT on May 20, 2013

Totally cool...

1:06PM PST on Feb 11, 2013

awesome!!!! my favorite class in college was linguistics --- basically what this is, had I taken it before senior year might have changed my major....

2:24AM PST on Jan 19, 2013

i knew a few of those. the word 'testify' comes from the roman legal system, whereby you-if you were male-would swear to tell the truth in court, or get your testicles cut off. i don't know any more than that, but at least that's how the word has come about for today!

11:32AM PST on Dec 8, 2012


2:03AM PST on Nov 5, 2012

Interesting, thank you! I always found languages fascinating, it is after all the basis of communication among humans.
What about wife, you did not include the origin of the term?

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