Batman: Linguistic Origins
November 22, 2013 2:59 PM   Subscribe

What are some examples of really easy/obvious etymological descents that most people aren't really aware of? I'm trying to prove to somebody that there are a lot of these in the english language but I've forgotten most of the interesting ones I used to know.

Example: Pomegranate/Grenadine -> Grenade
posted by tehloki to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Mizu at 3:13 PM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

mouse (computer interface device) comes from mouse (rodent)
"joystick" is a phallic reference

spam? The way that term (a trademark for canned meat) became a term for unwanted digital commercial messages is very roundabout, making a stop in Monty Python along the way. I can fill it in if you want.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:14 PM on November 22, 2013

Where to begin? Just a few to begin...


"Polite" and "to polish" both come from the Latin polire, which means "to polish".


Various words have interesting etymologies based on old perceptions of the goodness of things on the right, and the badness of things on the left. "Dexterous" comes from the Latin dexter, meaning "on the right". Compare with "adroit", which comes from the Old French à droit, meaning "by right", with the term droit now also referring to the direction right in Modern French.

Contrast these two terms with "sinister", which comes from the Latin term sinister, meaning "on the left", and with "gauche", which comes from the French gauche, meaning left.


"Werewolf" literally means "man-wolf." The Old English wer, meaning "man" or "hero", compares neatly to the Latin vir, which we see nowadays in the words "virile" and "virtuous".


"Hag" comes from the Old English hægtesse, meaning "witch". "Hex" comes from a similar shared root, by way of the Old High German hagazussa.


"Gambol", "jamb", and "campus" each derive from the Late Latin gamba, meaning "horse's hock".
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:43 PM on November 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Digits", as in "numbers", come from the Latin digitus, meaning "finger or toe", as in what you might use to count to ten. Compare with the fancy word "prestidigitation," meaning "sleight-of-hand".
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:45 PM on November 22, 2013

posted by wintersweet at 4:57 PM on November 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I knew someone who didn't know that "divvy up" came from "divide"
posted by bleep at 5:56 PM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Pencil" comes from the Latin penis.
posted by Knappster at 6:11 PM on November 22, 2013

posted by alms at 6:18 PM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

"campus" ... derive[s] from the Late Latin gamba, meaning "horse's hock".

No, "campus" comes from Latin campus, meaning "field" or "plain."
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:40 PM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ah, you're right. But both gamba and campus derive from PIE *kamp-, meaning "to bend".
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:23 PM on November 22, 2013

"shark" from "xoc" ... except maybe not.
posted by mwhybark at 7:28 PM on November 22, 2013

The French word gentil (mainly meaning "nice") has arrived in English in three separate forms: "jaunty," "gentle," and "genteel." These three words are siblings, and all cousins to "gentile," which comes from the same Latin root.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:29 PM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Crescent and croissant are the exact same word, just borrowed into English at different times.
In fact a lot of French words were borrowed multiple times and as they've been naturalized into English meanings shift.
Chief and chef
Chattel and cattle
Chancellor and councillor
posted by teleri025 at 7:35 PM on November 22, 2013

Skirt and shirt both come to us from Old Norse.
You might want to look at cognates.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:59 PM on November 22, 2013

I have heard of who didn't know that a quart is one fourth of a gallon and others who didn't know that a quarter is one fourth of a dollar. Sorry, no citation.

Inch and ounce both derive from the same Latin root.

It's interesting to contemplate a culture in which a minute (noun) is a minute (adjective) period of time.
posted by Bruce H. at 8:47 PM on November 22, 2013

English "slave" comes from the name of a Central European ethnic grouping: Slav-- but to my surprise, I can't find anything definitive saying "slovenly" derives from the name of an early tribe of Slavs: Slovenes.
posted by jamjam at 8:57 PM on November 22, 2013

I like that "Mayday!" as a term of distress is just a transliteration of m'aidez, French for "Help me!"
posted by yellowbinder at 9:25 PM on November 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by buzzkillington at 1:09 AM on November 23, 2013

The ones I really like are where there was a surprising shift in meaning which seems to reflect a difference in attitudes between the language/ community of origin and the community/ language of destination, as it were (I say seems, cause who knows really?). Examples:

Silly - used to be happy, blessed, still blessed (frequently in a religious context) in German "selig".

Cretin - not a straightforward descent, but one way or the other, still used to mean "Christian".

Here are some point of view ones. My attention was first drawn to these via a text in which the shift was presented as a change from POV of (one language) master to POV of (different language) servant, as in the nuance these words introduce reflected the fact that the upper classes of the day would be exposed to the things that the words designate in one circumstance alone (even though the word was for the respective thing in all circumstances in the master language). The servants would adopt the word specifically for the circumstance they encountered it in, whilst preserving their own word for every other situation. Ultimately, this enriched the servant's language.


mutton - sheep when you're eating them.

veal - same for calf

beef - same for older cattle

Given how smooth the explanation for these is (as per the above), I suspect I might have found these (and the explanation) in André Maurois' History of England, which I found highly enjoyable (I have yet to read a history so lovingly written) but, I suspect, academically not entirely rigorous. As for the first examples, I seem to remember that they are from this book on language change (a really good intro, as I remember it), and that there were more examples there.
posted by miorita at 2:20 AM on November 23, 2013

Once on MetaTalk, in regard to the shift in meaning in the phrase "conspiracy theory," I laid down some righteous wisdom about the history of the word "clue."

And I wrote once before o9n the blue of the curious history of "harbinger".
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:27 AM on November 23, 2013

The English word "cherry". Its origin is the French word "cerise", which is singular. The English imported the word, decided it sounded plural and reverse engineered a singular for it: "cherry."
posted by workerant at 5:24 AM on November 23, 2013

"Primate", "prime", and "primacy" all come from the same Latin root, meaning "first". As in, "primates" are the "highest" form of animal.

Many legal doublets, such as "assault and battery", "will and testament", "fit and proper", and "breaking and entering", exist because of Anglo-Saxon words being paired with Norman words. Sometimes these words are synonymous, but sometimes they're not. This language mixture makes sense in the context of Norman conquerers.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:51 AM on November 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Many words with Germanic origins have earthier connotations than synonymous words with Latinate origins. Wikipedia has a handy dandy list.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:56 AM on November 23, 2013

> to my surprise, I can't find anything definitive saying "slovenly" derives from the name of an early tribe of Slavs: Slovenes.

That's because it doesn't, it comes from a Flemish word for a scold or gossip. Please, people, don't use this thread to spread fake etymologies; check your facts and if possible link to a reputable source (Online Etymological Dictionary is pretty good, and—based on the American Heritage Dictionary—is even better).

One of my favorites: bead originally meant "prayer" (the transition was via people misunderstanding the phrase "counting one's beads" in reference to a rosary).
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on November 23, 2013

Magic and machine share the same PIE root, meaning "to be able, to have power".

Camera originally meant "vaulted room". The original camera obscure was literally a room with a small hole in it. Compare with "chamber"; or, "bicameral" legislature, in which there are two "houses".
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:53 AM on November 23, 2013

Cravat from Hrvat/Croat - "Cravats came into fashion 1650s in imitation of linen scarves worn by Croatian mercenaries in the French army in the Thirty Years War."
posted by Gordafarin at 2:28 AM on November 26, 2013

Thanks, everyone! Especially alms, that previous question is asked much better than mine.
posted by tehloki at 3:30 PM on December 4, 2013

« Older How do I get the "follow" button to show up on...   |   Does black carbon silt coming from the filter in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.