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Etymology: Word Origins

Where do words come from? How and when were they invented? Why are there so many different languages? Why do many languages share the same or similar words for the same things?

The answers to all these questions lie in the study of etymology. This concerns the roots of words and how the sounds and spellings, as well as the meanings, have evolved over time.

In this section  we concentrate mainly on surprising, interesting, and amusing etymologies of words used commonly in the English language today. To discover how a word came about often puts it in an entirely new light.

Discover where these words came from and what they originally meant:

  • Assassin
  • Avocado (Pear)
  • Hazard
  • Malaria
  • Pedigree
  • Phony
  • Quarantine

Selected Etymology

Below is an alphabetically-arranged list of interesting English words, complete with a description of their origins (their etymologies). A brief definition for each word is included too. Some of the etymologies included here are uncertain, and where this is the case it has been indicated.

Assassin

n. Murderer, generally somewhat professional; esp. one who murders a prominent figure.

During the time of the Crusades the members of a certain secret Muslim sect engaged people to terrorise their Christian enemies by performing murders as a religious duty. These acts were carried out under the influence of hashish, and so the killers became known as hashshashin, meaning eaters or smokers of hashish. Hashshashin evolved into the word assassin.

Avocado (Avocado Pear)

n. Pear-shaped fruit with dark green, leathery skin, a large stony seed, and greenish-yellow edible pulp. Also the topical American tree on which this fruit grows.

Originally the Aztecs called this fruit ahucatl after their word for testicle. This is may be partly due to the fruit's resemblance to a testicle, but also because it was supposedly believed to be an aphrodisiac. To the Spaniards ahucatl sounded like avocado (=advocate, Spanish), and so the fruit came to Europe, via Spain, under that name. Avocado pears are also sometimes called Alligator pears. The etymology of this is far more obvious; the skin of these fruits is dark green, thick, leathery, and knobbly, rather like that of an alligator.

Hazard

n. Danger; vb. To risk or expose to danger.

This term evolved from the Arabic al zahr, which means the dice. In Western Europe the term came to be associated with a number of games using dice, which were learned during the Crusades whilst in the Holy Land. The term eventually took on the connotation of danger because, from very early on, games using dice were associated with the risky business of gambling and con artists using corrupted dice.

Malaria

n. Infectious disease characterised by chills and fever and caused by the bite of an infected anopheles mosquito.

This word comes from the mediaeval Italian mal (=bad) and aria (=air), describing the miasma from the swamps around Rome. This 'bad air' was believed to be the cause of the fever that often developed in those who spent time around the swamps. In fact the illness, now known as malaria, was due to certain protozoans present in the mosquitos that bred around these swamps, and which caused recurring feverish symptoms in those they bit.

Pedigree

n. A line of ancestors; descent; lineage; genealogy; a register or record of a line of ancestors.

Believed to be derived from the French ped de gru, which meant crane's foot (the modern French equivalent is pied de la grue). The crane's foot is said to resemble the /|\ symbol on genealogical trees. It has also been suggested that it comes from par degrés, the French for by degrees. A pedigree chart records the relationship of families by degrees.

Phony (or Phoney)

adj. Something that is not genuine; a fake or imitation.

British thieves and swindlers of old used many secret codewords. One such word was fawney, which referred to a gilt ring. They would sell these, saying that they were made of real gold. But the rings were not genuine gold, and the word phony – from fawney – came to be used for anything that is fake or not genuine.

Quarantine

n. Any forced stoppage of travel or communication on account of malignant, contagious disease, on land or by sea.

From the French quarante (=forty). Adding the suffix –aine to French numbers gives a degree of roughness to the figure (like –ish in English), so quarantaine means about forty. Originally when a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected with a malignant, contagious disease, its cargo and crew were obliged to forego all contact with the shore for a period of around forty days. This term came to be known as period of quarantine.

 

Read about the history of each of these phrases and expressions here too:

  • To break the ice
  • To make hay while the sun shines
  • To throw the book at someone
  • Rraining cats and dogs
  • Mad as a hatter
  • Without rhyme or reason
  • Crocodile tears
  • To make no bones about
  • To throw in the towel

Etymology of Phrases

The origins and histories of idioms, sadinys, phrases, and other expressions are often even more fascinating than the etymologies of the individual words themselves. Here is a selection of well-known expressions and how they came into being.

To break the ice

(1) to relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation; (2) to make a start on some endeavor.

This came into general use, in sense (1), in English through Lord Byron's "Don Juan" (1823) in the lines:

And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you've broken their confounded ice.

The ice in question is metaphorically that on a river or lake in early spring. To break the ice would be to allow boats to pass, marking the beginning of the season's activity after the winter freeze. In this way, this expression has been connected to the start of enterprise for abour 400 years.

To make hay while the sun shines

to take advantage of favorable circumstances; they may not last.

This old expression refers to the production of hay, or dried grass. The warmth of the sun is required to dry the grass and turn it into hay. As the sun is notoriously unpredictable (it may be cloudy later) the message of this aphorism is clear. The expression dates back many centuries, and has changed little in form. John Heywood included the following in his "All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue" (1546):

Whan the sunne shinth make hay.

To throw the book at someone

to punish someone severely.

This figurative book is presumably a book of rules or laws. Originally, and still in its normal usage, this expression meant to impose the maximum penalty. For criminals this is likely to mean life imprisonment. Nowadays, the expression may be used more generally, often where the punishment or reprimand is far less extreme.

It's raining cats and dogs

It is raining torrentially.

The first known record of this phrase is in Dean Jonathan Swift's "Polite Conversation" (1873). But it is questionably whether he originated this peculiar hyperbole. More than two centuries previously, Richard Brome write a play entitled "The City Witt" (c.1652) in which one of the characters, Sarpego, says:

From henceforth...
The world shall flow with dunces...
And it shall rain...
Dogs and Polecats
, and so forth.

As mad as a hatter

utterly insane

There is a number of theories about the root of this similie. Perhaps the most intriguing, and also plausible, was offered in "The Journal of the American Medical Association" (vol. 155, no. 3). Mercury used to be used in the manufacture of felt hats, so hatters, or hat makers, would come into contact with this poisonous metal a lot. Unfortunately, the effect of such exposure may lead to mercury poisoning, one of the symptoms of which is insanity.

Famously, Lewis Carroll wrote about the Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland" (1865), but there is at least one earlier reference to the expression: in "The Clockmaker" (1817) by Thomas Haliburton.

These days speakers of American English, who use "mad" to mean "angry" as well as "crazy", may be heard to misuse the expression in the former sense.

Without rhyme or reason

lacking in sense or justification

Rhyme and reason are synonymous, so this expression means "without reason". English usage dates back to the sixteenth century, when the phrase was borrowed from the French na Ryme ne Raison. It lives on in modern day French, too, as ni rime ni raison.

Crocodile tears

hypocritical grief

It is proverbial that crocodiles cry like a person in distress to lure men close enough to snatch and devour them, then shed tears over the fate of their victim. References to this proverbial belief are found in ancient Greek and Latin literature.

In a book entitled "Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville" (c.1400) it was written that:

Cokadrilles... Theise serpentes slen men, and thei eten hem wepynge.

The fable is found in the works of many early English writers, including those of Shakespeare.

To make no bones about a matter

to speak frankly and directly

A form of this expression was used as early as 1459, to mean to have no difficulty. It seems evident that the allusion is to the actual occurrence of bones in stews or soup. Soup without bones would offer no difficulty, and accordingly one would have no hesitation in swallowing soup with no bones.

To throw in the towel / sponge

to surrender; admit defeat

In its original form, to throw up the sponge, this appears in "The Slang Dictionary" (1860). The reference is to the sponges used to cleanse combatants' faces at prize fights. One contestant's manager throwing in the sponge would signal that as that side had had enough the sponge was no longer required. In recent years, towels have been substituted for sponges at fights, and consequently in the expression too.