Compelling word origins- Stories nobody teaches at school
Did you know that the word computer has been used to refer to a person who calculates since 1613, to a machine since 1869 and to an electronic device since 1946! Languages are constantly evolving and the English Language is no exception. The popularity of English language has resulted in a varied and ever-changing vocabulary. Some words die, new words such as selfie (which didn’t exist at the start of this century) are formed and the meanings of some words change with time & cultural setting.
“Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit.”
– Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
Etymology is the study of origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. A dynamic language such as English, therefore, is ideal for etymological studies. There are numerous words which have a strange and sometimes, funny history. In this post, we look at some words with rather interesting origins.
Muscle is derived from the Latin word musculus, which literally means ‘little mouse’. The reason for this is that the shape and movement of some muscles (most notably the biceps) were thought to resemble mice!
Disaster comes from dis- (meaning bad) and astron (meaning star), effectively meaning ‘bad star’. The ancient Greeks used to blame calamities on unfavorable planetary positions!
Lunatic comes from the Latin word luna, meaning ‘moon’. It was thus coined because of the medieval belief that insanity is caused by changes of the moon.
Tragedy comes from the Greek word tragodia, which literally means ‘song of the goat’. While the exact reason for the strange connection is not known, a popular theory is that in ancient Greece, a group of performers used to dance and sing prior to goat sacrifices.
Nice comes from the Latin word nescius, which means ‘ignorant’ or ‘unaware’. The meaning of the word has changed quite dramatically from ignorant to stupid to delicate to precise or careful to delightful to kind or thoughtful.
The word penguin comes from pen (meaning head) and gwyn (meaning white), effectively meaning ‘white head’. While penguins don’t have white heads, the word was originally used to refer to auks, which did have white heads. After the auks became extinct, the name got transferred to the snow-dwelling, black-headed Antarctic birds!
Corridor comes from the Latin word currere, which means ‘to run’. It actually used to mean a running place before the modern sense of ‘a long passage in a building’ developed in the early 19th century. Use this the next time someone asks you not to run in a corridor!
War comes from Proto-Germanic werza, which means ‘to confuse’. In historical times, there was no common word for ‘war’. It is believed that Romanic people wanted to avoid using the Latin word for war, bellum, because it sounded like bello (meaning beautiful) and turned to Germanic!