I find it fascinating that the Latin word humus, meaning of the earth, is the root of human. Though I suppose it’s reasonable to expect Mother Earth would be pretty darned good at giving birth, not only the humans, but to words.
In the early 1400s the Latin word humare (a verb form of humus meaning to bury), linked with the prefix ex- made its way into English as exhume, meaning to unearth. I’ll leave it to the sociologists to explain why modern usage continues to embrace the grisly word exhume, but has - for the most part - forgotten the kinder, gentler term, inhume, to put into the ground (which entered English two centuries later).
Though Genesis I couldn’t possibly lead to this, it’s no surprise – given the Genesis II telling of creation – that the Hebrew equivalent of humus, adamu, became the name Adam. Humus & adamu admittedly aren’t cognates, but they both mean of the earth, & both have many offspring.
Camomile has its roots in humus & means apple of the earth. Camomile entered English in the late 1300s through French & Latin, originating in Greek chamaimelon.
Also from humus, chameleon came to English in the mid-1300s, through French & Latin, originating in the Greek term khamaileon, meaning lion of the earth, which most likely comes from a species of chameleon whose crest resembled a lion’s mane.
Another Latin offspring of humus was the word humilis, meaning lowly or humble, giving us images of the lowly folk prostrating themselves before the mighty, literally on the ground. In the 1300s, humilis gave us the English words humble & humility. By the 1530s, these words gave birth to the noun humiliation, which in turn, gave us the verb, humiliate.
Good readers, please comment on all of this humus-ness, or possibly on Oscar Levant’s commentary on humility:
“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, The Quotation’s Page, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & Etymonline.
The word dirt came to English through Middle English (drit or drytt, which meant mud, dirt or dung) originating in the Norse word, drit. Back in the 1300s it was also used figuratively to make fun of people. The word dirty was born some two centuries later (originally dritty to match its Middle English kin). Though dirty originally meant muddy, dirty or dung-covered, by the 1590s it had grown to also mean smutty or morally unclean.
When compared with its synonym soil, dirt is one of the myriad words that reflects a prejudice against Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Norse terms in favor of Latin and Greek (due in part to the events following the Battle of Hastings). We English speakers generally consider soil (from the Latin word solium or solum) to be a classier person’s term for that lowly, horrible word dirt. I have a fascination with this prejudice & expound on it here.
But, back to dirt.
In the 1670s, English speakers could pull dirty tricks on one another.
By 1764, we could ask someone to do our dirty work.
By 1821 the term dirt cheap was born.
In the 1850s the mining trade gave us the literal term paydirt. By 1873 that term had become figurative, meaning profit or success.
It wasn’t until 1926 that dirt picked up the meaning gossip, This usage was introduced by none other than Ernest Hemingway.
Though dirty looks have been going on for centuries, we didn’t call them that until 1926.
And in 1932 the term dirty old man was born, to be artfully portrayed by Arte Johnson as Tyrone F. Horneigh a mere 40 years later.
Please, good followers, leave a thought regarding Tyrone F. Horneigh & his unrequited love for Gladys Ormphby, or maybe say something about dirt.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
I have a fascination with a prejudice in language. Indulge me by considering each set of four synonyms, then speedily categorizing individual words into two lists, one labeled “classy” & one labeled “not classy.” Don't overthink -- just go for it.
big large vast great
compact miniature little small
thin slender gaunt skinny
chubby stout fat obese
clever astute smart intelligent
Next, compare your lists with these:
The words on the left are words derived from Norse, Frisian, Dutch, and various Germanic sources. The words on the right mostly come through French from Latin, though one comes directly from Latin, one is Latin through Italian and stout is a Middle Low German word that came to English through French (that last stage being salient to this topic).
If you placed most of the words on the left in the “not classy” column and most of the words on the right in the “classy” column, like me, you have absorbed a prejudice that linguists attribute to the events following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After the big win, the Norman nobles who supported William the Conqueror (formerly known as Guillaume, since he was born in Normandy, France) became the ruling class of England. French became the language of the courts and royalty. This set French and its mother language, Latin, far above the everyday Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Celtic tongues spoken by the lowly peasants. This system lasted for centuries, as have the prejudices born of it.
This prejudice has some intriguing applications for those who write. Precise application of classy vs. non-classy words can subtly influence readers’ impressions of characters & events, encouraging or discouraging trust or likability.
Dang, those authors are tricky cusses, aren’t they?
Please let me know whether any of this rings true. Did your lists look mostly like my lists or am I just some nutcase who puts too much time into thinking about words?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Merriam-Webster, Pixabay, Wordnik, & History.com, & Etymonline.
Etymology is all about sleuthing back to the origin of words. Sadly, even the most hardworking teams of etymologists reach the end of the sleuthing line still asking the word history equivalent of, “Who’s your daddy?” When a word’s parentage is in question, it's in the dictionary is listed as “origin unknown.” This week’s post will cover just a few of the many orphans in the world of words.
Pooch was first recorded in 1924. Though a few word historians believe pooch may have some relationship to the word pouch, this American-born synonym for dog has never been officially nailed down.
In 1809 the word hike showed up in English (spelled hyke). It meant to walk vigorously. Hike has no known origin, though at the time the similarly parentless word yike carried the same meaning.
Pokey, meaning jail or prison was first recorded in 1919. Some etymologists have suggested it may have come from pogie – an 1891 term meaning poorhouse, but like pokey, pogie is of unknown origin.
Hanker – as in “I’ve got a hankerin’ for possum stew” – first showed up around 1600, & though it probably came from the Dutch word hunkeren (to hanker), hunkeren is also of unknown origin.
Arbor, arboreal, arboretum & arborist all originate in the Latin word arbor, meaning tree, & showed up in English in the 1500s, but the Latin word arbor is an etymological mystery.
Squeamish showed up in English in the mid-1400s, meaning disdainful or fastidious. Its Anglo-French parent word escoymous is of unknown origin.
Scare showed up in English in the 1590s meaning to frighten. It came from the Norse word skirra, to frighten, shy from, shun, prevent or avert. Skirra is a form of the Norse word skjarr, meaning timid, shy or afraid of. Skjarr has no known parent.
About 1600 the verb rant showed up in English, meaning both to be jovial & boisterous, & to talk bombastically. It comes from randten, a Dutch word of unknown origin meaning to talk foolishly or to rave.
I find the nearly opposite original meanings of the last two words remarkable. Fellow word-folks, were any of these word orphans worthy of your remark?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
The term reduplication fascinates me. Wouldn’t the term duplication do the job? I love the fact that a redundant-sounding word is used to signify redundancy. According to Merriam Webster, reduplication is an act or instance of doubling or reiterating. Last week’s post covered a few reduplications & this week’s post will cover a few more.
Though etymologists aren’t certain, it’s likely that frou-frou is a reduplication of the rustling sound of a dress. It came to English in 1870 from French. Froufrou’s meaning today is fussy details, though in my corner of the world the word froufrou is used to refer to knick-knacks or frilly decorations.
Which brings us to knick-knack, a varied reduplication of knack, as in, “he’s got a knack for machines.” Knick-knack’s primary meaning is a pretty trick or subterfuge, which came to English in 1618. By 1682, knick-knack had picked up the secondary meaning, a curious or pleasing trifle more ornamental than useful.
A related reduplication is the term chichi or chi-chi, which arrived from France in 1908, carrying two meanings: sophisticated, & pretentious fussiness.
Bye-bye is also a reduplication. It started in 1630 as a sound used to lull a child to sleep. By 1709 its similarity to good-bye rubbed off on its meaning.
Jibber-jabber is a varied reduplication of jabber, & showed up in 1728 meaning to talk gibberish.
Pee-wee is most likely a varied reduplication of wee, meaning little. It came to English in 1848 to describe a small marble, & by 1877 became a bit more generalized, meaning small or tiny children.
Etymologists are pretty sure humdrum is a varied reduplication of hum, the sound one might make upon experiencing tedium, which explains why humdrum means tedious or monotonous. Humdrum entered the language in the 1550s.
Hip hop is a varied reduplication most of us might guess came to English recently. Surprisingly, Hip hop was in use to mean a successive hopping motion as early as the 1670s. To denote the popular music style, hip hop was first used in 1982.
Boogie-woogie is another music-related varied reduplication. Its earliest ancestor appears to have shown up in 1912 as boogie-boo. By 1917 a rent party was referred to as a boogie, & by 1928 that blues style & the term to describe it, boogie-woogie was born.
To finish up our look at reduplication, we’ll consider so so (or so-so), which came to English in 1520, meaning in an indifferent, mediocre, or passable manner or degree. And to make so-so even more so, in 1835 someone unveiled so-soish (I kid you not), meaning somewhat so-so, or rather indifferent. Apparently, so-so wasn’t indecisive enough as it stood, so it needed an indecisive ending.
In this week’s comments, I’d love to see sentences including as many of the bold words above as possible.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Merriam Webster, & Etymonline.
Years ago when I lived on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, I was fascinated by the culture’s take on many European traditions. One of those was the tradition of the use of Junior. In Samoa, Junior was applied to boys whose first name mirrored their family name. The full name of the first Junior I met was Eliapo Eliapo, Jr. I met a Tasi Tasi, Jr., a Malie Malie Jr., and many others.
In honor of that translation of one culture’s tradition into another’s, this week’s words all feature what etymologists call a reduplication, or words that masquerade as reduplications.
Bonbon showed up in English in 1796 from the French word bonbon – a reduplication of bon, or good. And doesn’t a bonbon deserve the moniker goodgood?
In 1954 boo-boo came to English. Its parent word, boob, entered English twenty years earlier, meaning foolish mistake. Boo-boo is a reduplication of boob.
Pompom entered English in 1748, meaning ornamental round tuft. It was originally pompon (1725) & appears to have come from the French word pompe, meaning pomp. It doesn’t appear to be a true reduplication, but it sure looks like one. Many arguments exist for why an ornamental round tuft might display pomp, but nobody knows for sure.
Beriberi came to English in 1725. It defined a paralytic disease prevalent in India. It came from Sinhalese, in which beri meant weakness, but the degree of weakness brought on by the disease was greater than your average weakness, thus beriberi.
The word for the frilly skirt worn in ballet came to us in 1910 from French. Tutu was originally cucu, a reduplication of a part of the body the tutu is intended to cover. A somewhat refined literal translation of tutu is derriere-derriere.
Another reduplication is the word pooh-pooh, which showed up in English in 1827, built on the word pooh, which (like its reduplication) meant to dismiss lightly & contemptuously. Pooh was one of many words first put on paper by William Shakespeare. The bard’s first pooh was uttered by Ophelia in Hamlet.
Reduplication (or faux reduplication, as in pompom above) is responsible for many more words. Please rack your brains for some possibilities, & enter them in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
What’s Etymosheeple, you ask? It’s explained here.
After our last exciting round of Etymosheeple, ending on the word adolescent Rachel6 of Sesquipedalian Dreamer contacted me, noting that she’s always associated the words adolescent & nascent, so nascent will be our next stop this round (thanks, Rachel6).
Nascent arrived in English in 1620 from the Latin word nascentum, meaning immature, arising, or young. Nascentum comes from the Latin word nasci, or to be born.
What other words also come from nasci? A smoking heap of them.
Obvious ones associated with birth include:
natal (late 1300s)
Renaissance (1840s – I would’ve guessed earlier)
Not-so-obvious ones include:
cognate, meaning of common descent. Though the words springing from nasci in this list are broadly related cognates, cognates are typically more closely related (like the French nuit, German nacht & English night).
But wait, there are more...
nee, as in Jacqueline Kennedy, nee Onassis)
innate, as in innate talents
Noel, as in Christmas
native, nation & nature
And my favorite of the bunch, puny, which entered English in the 1570s, meaning inferior in rank, from the Middle French word, puisné, which came from Latin that I’ll simplify as post-nasci, meaning after being born.
Thinking Etymosheepishly, the word puny leads me to wonder about other words meaning small (teeny, tiny, teensy), & whether they owe their –y endings to nasci, (as puny does) or to the more traditional diminutive –y ending we find in puppy orbaby.
And the answer is….maybe. It turns out both teensy (1899) & teeny (1825) are alternative forms of tiny (1400), which appears to have come from the word tine, (as in the tines of a fork), and may have been formed by adding the diminutive-making –y to the word tine, but nobody knows for sure.
Thanks for joining me for this particularly directionless round of Etymosheeple.
This week in the comments section, I’d love to see words with unlikely spellings. Mention one, mention two, mention a dozen…
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
The Urban Dictionary defines sheeple as people who follow trends mindlessly. Instead of trends, I mindlessly follow word histories. I refer to this practice as etymosheepling. Here’s an example:
I randomly land on the word genuine, meaning natural or not acquired. It arrived in English in the 1590s, its Latin root being gignere, meaning beget. Genuine’s etymological notes suggest that its form (ending in –ine) may have been influenced through contrast to adulterinus, which meant spurious or false.
Adulterinus? It must be associated with adultery, but is it associated with adult? Etymosheepling rules lead me to look up adultery & adult.
Adultery is related to adulterate, both words coming from the Latin word adulterare, to corrupt. Adult – on the other hand – came from the Latin adultus, meaning grown up, mature, adult or ripe. Adult came into English in the 1530s. The etymological notes under adult explain – and I can’t believe I never imagined the connection – that adultus is the past participle of adolescere, to grow up, mature, or be nourished. This means that the root words for adolescent & adult reflect the same sort of growth reflected by in-the-flesh adolescents as they change to adults.
That would lead me to…WAIT!
I could go all night. I love this stuff.
A good game of Etymosheeple can be endless. With that in mind, we’ll call this round one, with plans of continuing next week.
Please join in the game, suggest in the comments section a thread we might follow from the final etymology or definition above.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, The Urban Dictionary, & Etymonline.
When trying to reach a goal, whether New Year’s resolution or otherwise, what works best for you? Coercing or compelling yourself? Promising, encouraging or goading yourself? Or maybe wishing? Do any of these words’ etymologies throw light on who you are or how you reach your goals?
The word wish came from the Old English word wyscan, meaning to strive after, wish, desire, or be satisfied.
To coerce is to control or restrain, & appeared in English in the 1400s from the French word cohercer. It most likely came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to hold, contain or guard.
Compel comes from the Old French word compeller, which was derived from a Latin word meaning to drive together, to force.
The noun promise showed up in the 1400s, meaning declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done. The verb showed up within a century, meaning to send forth or foretell.
Encourage came to English in the 1400s from the French word encoragier, meaning to make strong or to hearten – it’s related to the word courage.
The verb goad came from the Old English noun gad, meaning point, spearhead or arrowhead,
When it comes to resolutions, I find it fascinating that since the 1400s the first meaning of the word resolution has been a breaking into parts. Doesn’t our success in reaching some big goal almost always involve exactly that? No significant success is simple. By the 1540s, resolution’s adjectival sibling resolute picked up the meaning holding firmly.
What verb above helps you hold firmly to your goals or resolutions? Striving? Containment? Force? Foretelling? Poking yourself with a spearhead? Are there other verbs I left out? Please let me know in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Collins Dictionary, The OED & Etymonline.
This week, we’ll look at huff, then consider a few more words of imitative origin that refer to something annoying.
Huff made its way into English in the mid-1400s, as an imitation of an exhalation. By the 1590s huff picked up the meaning bluster with indignation. The idiom to leave in a huff, showed up in 1778.
In 1727 the word tiff came to English, meaning an outburst of temper, also based on the imitative sound of an exhalation, or slight puff of air. By 1754 tiff picked up the meaning, a small quarrel.
Another word imitating a puff of air is guff, which arrived in 1825. By 1888 it picked up its modern meaning, empty talk or nonsense, as in that’s a lot of guff.
In 1765, ugh showed up, imitating another sort of exhalation, a cough. By 1837 ugh morphed to become an interjection of disgust.
Squib, a short piece of sarcastic writing, showed up in English in the 1520s. Though etymologists haven’t determined that it has its origin in the firework of the same name, if it indeed does, then it is imitative of the sound of that particular firework, which hisses (as might the unfortunate targets of sarcastic writing).
In the 1620s, the imitative word squelch was born. It meant to fall, drop or stomp on something soft with a crushing force (imagine the sound of collapsing onto a sofa fashioned of marshmallow crème). Squelch picked up a second meaning in 1764, to suppress completely.
The final imitative annoyance for this post took me by complete surprise. The Sanskrit word mu referred to a gnat or fly, & was imitative of the sound of such insects. In time, mu made its way into Latin, where it became the noun, musca, fly. By the time it reached English, it referred to a particularly annoying little fly, so it picked up a diminutive ending to become mosquito.
It’s enough to make one exhale a puff of air, isn’t it?
So, did anyone out there already know that mosquito is imitative in origin? Or that nearly all these words relate to a n exhalation? Come on, fess up.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.