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!
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?
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.)
The dromedary is a one-humped member of the camel clan. Dromedary came into English via Old French and Latin, with its original root in Greek dromas, dromad-, meaning “runner.”
Considering that wallabies are an Australian animal, it’s not surprising that the word came from an indigenous Australian language (possibly Dharuk). Wallaby is derived from wolabā, which may come from walla, which means “to leap.”
The word salmon came into English, via Anglo-Norman, from the Latin words salmōn-em and salmo. These words, in turn, are likely a derivative of salīre, “to leap.” As you can see from the picture above, that’s rather fitting.
On a similarly fishlike note, the word trout came (through Old English and Late Latin) from the Greek word trōgein, meaning “gnaw.” This was also the name of a species of sea-fish of that time period.
I mentioned before that some etymologies are just plain baffling; dog is unquestionably one of those. The word dog was docga in Old English, but nobody can decide where it actually came from. The word hund (of Germanic origin, which became modern-day hound) was much more common, so it’s likely that dog/docga was an informal or non-literary word… but how did it spring into existence? No one really knows for sure.
There are several conflicting explanations for the origin of butterfly. It may come from a combination of Old English bēatan “to beat,” and flēoge “fly.” The first part of the word may instead come from butere, or “butter,” which may have originally referred only to yellow-colored butterflies. However, my favorite explanation of butterfly is that is could have come from the Middle Dutch word boterschijte, which referred to the fact that their excrement may look similar to butter: literally, “butter-shitter.” Think of that the next time you encounter a gorgeous butterfly!
The fruity drink called punch has a rather interesting origin: it comes from the Sanskrit word pañca, meaning “five,” because the drink was traditionally made with five ingredients. This usage may be related to pañcāmṛta, which literally means “five nectars (of the gods).” In the original recipe, those ingredients were milk, curd, ghee/butter, honey, and molasses/sugar. Would you like a glass of five?
The word alcohol came into English with the help of Latin, but it’s originally from the Spanish Arabic al-kuḥul, which means “the kohl” (kohl being a black powder that is used as eye makeup). Wait, what? Well, the process that is used to make kohl involves vaporizing and then cooling a solid substance, while the process of distilling alcohol is the same deal, but with a liquid. So, over the course of centuries, it began to mean an “essence obtained by distillation” and then finally “spirit of wine, ethanol.”
As you might expect, vodka originally comes from Russian. The word voda means “water,” while the -ka on the end indicates that the word is in its diminutive form. Thus, vodka is akin to “little water.”
Whiskey also has a rather interesting etymology. It comes from the Gaelic word uisgebeatha, which literally means “water of life.” That explains quite a lot about whiskey connoisseurs, actually…
Can you guess what other word has the same root as vanilla? If you happened to guess vagina, you’re right. Both of them come from the Latin word vāgīna, meaning “sheath.” Vanilla‘s etymology refers to the structure of the seedpod, whereas vagina‘s etymology speaks of the mindset of early medical anatomists. The difference between them is that vagina came into English directly from Latin, while vanilla passed through old Spanish (vaynilla) on its way, hence the consonant change.
The origin of this delicious fruit refers to its shape, as well as to the belief that it’s an aphrodisiac. More specifically, avocado comes, via Spanish, from the Classical Nahuatl word āhuacatl, which means “testicle.” Why are these two forms so different? Early Spaniards misheard and rewrote the Nahuatl word as avocado (which resembles “advocate” in Spanish).
Orchids are such elegant and inspiring flowers that the word must be derived from a root that meant “beautiful” or “scented,” right? Nope. Once again, it’s all about testicles. The name of the flower comes from the name of its plant family, Orchidaceae, which was named after Latin orchis and Greek orkhis, which mean “testicle” and refer to the shape of the orchid’s root.
Okay, so a lot of disparate things were named based on humans seeing genitals wherever they looked. Surely testicle‘s original meaning was “testicle” too, right? Well… not so much. It’s derived from the Latin word testiculus, which comes from testis; while the meaning of the latter is uncertain, one common theory is that it meant “the witness or evidence of virility.” Gracious.
In current usage, paraphernalia just means any ol’ miscellaneous articles, especially if they’re related to a particular activity. It used to mean something much more specific: it came from the post-classical Latin paraphernalia, or “married woman’s property apart from a dowry”—basically, all of a woman’s personal articles, like clothing, which did not become her husband’s property upon marriage. (Thankfully, there is little use for this original meaning anymore.)
Husband came into English via Old English, from the Old Norse word bóndi, a “peasant owning his own house and land,” combined with hús or “house.” That puts a bit of a different spin on things…
Lunatic is an interesting one. It’s derived from the late Latin word lūnāticus, which is a combination of lūna “moon” and -atic “of the kind of”—together, they mean something like “moonstruck.” This originated with the belief that insanity is caused by changes of the moon.
While idiot is an insult these days, its original meaning was quite different, before it went through progressive changes. It comes from the Greek idios, meaning “own, private,” which became idiōtēs, a “private person, layman, ignorant person.” When the word went through Latin and French, it dropped the “private” meaning altogether, to become idiota, or “ignorant person.”
Some scholars argue that clock is one of the few common words to come into English from Celtic (cloc), while others claim its origin is in Middle Low German klocke, from medieval Latin clocca. Wherever it came from, its original meaning was “bell.” It’s likely that, like owl, it’s an onomatopoeic word; in this case, it may have been inspired by the rattling, clacking noise that early sheet-iron handbells made.
Ostracize comes to us from the Greek word ostrakizein, which came from ostrakon, meaning “shell or potsherd.” Why? Because, around 506–322 BC in Athens, there was a procedure called ostracism, in which any citizen could be expelled from the city-state for ten years. Each year, Athenian citizens had the opportunity to hold an ostracism; if they chose to, citizens would write the name of a person they wanted to expel onto potsherds (ostraka). Officials would tally the ostraka, and if there were enough, they would banish the person with the most votes.