Beat first showed up in Old English as a verb meaning to thrash or inflict blows on. It came from the Proto-Indo-European word meaning to strike or thrust. Linguists represent this word as *bhau-.
*Bhau- is the source of a heap of modern English words. Here are a few:
The verb butt appeared in English in about 1200, meaning to strike with the head.
*Bhau- also gave us the noun bat, meaning a stick or club (obviously used to beat something). Bat has been with us since Old English. For the purpose of making sense of the next few etymologies, it’s important to note that the part of the bat one grips is typically narrow, while the business end of a bat is comparably thick.
When butt first transitioned to a noun in English (1200-1300) it meant both thick end and flat fish (possibly - but not definitively - due to the need to tenderize the fish by beating it with a bat). We still see the meaning flatfish in the word halibut which appeared in the 1400s.The meaning human posterior (another thick end) also showed up in the 1400s, and by the 1600s the noun butt also meant the target of a joke. By the mid-1800s butt also meant the remaining end of a smoked cigarette. Both butt in & buttinski showed up about 1900.
The word buttress (an element of a building that thrusts out from the primary structure) appeared in English in the 1300s.
Since the 1300s we’ve been thrusting buttons through button-holes.
And in argumentation, both the words rebut (1300s) & refute (1500s) mean to strike back & were born of the word *bhau-.
Inspired to butt in with a comment? Please do.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The OED.
Once upon a time there was a word used to refer to oneself in the plural; sort of a we-meets-ourselves word. Today, etymologists write the word *s(w)e-. This Proto-Indo-European word gave birth to a fascinating and diverse collection of words that all relate back to the idea of we/ourselves.
The word self came to us through Proto-Germanic back when folks were speaking Old English. Some time during its stay in Germanic languages it appears to have lost its plural, inclusive nature.
Another word from this source is secret, which appeared in English in the 1300s, through Latin words meaning private, set apart, withdrawn, or one one’s own.
Sullen made its way to English through Anglo-French. Initially meaning by oneself, alone (in Middle English), sullen didn’t pick up the meaning morose until the late 1300s.
The word swami appeared in English in the 1700s through Hindi. Swami, now meaning Hindu religious teacher, originally meant one’s own or our own master.
Sibling came to us via Proto-Germanic and Old English. Linguists consider sibling an “enlargement” of the root *s(w)e.
And though they appear nothing like their relatives, the words idiot & idiom also came from *s(w)e-. Born of the idea that folks who couldn’t function in society due to apparent lack of mental ability tended to stay to themselves, idiot came to English in the early 1300s through Latin & Old French. An idiom is a figure of speech peculiar to a particular group of people. Idiom came to English through Greek & Latin in the 1500s.The fact that we cling to our idioms as something that defines us appears to have contributed to the existence of this word
All from a little word meaning we/ourselves.
I’d love to know which of these word-siblings you found most surprising. Fee free to use the comments section for such commentary.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The OED.
English gives us many ways to express the action of throwing. Oddly, most these words seem to have been thrown into our language from uncertain northern European sources. Here are a few.
The verb throw appeared in English in the 1300s from the Old English word þrawan (that first character sounds like th). Initially, it meant to twist, turn or curl. It wasn’t until the 1500s that it began meaning to hurl. Though nobody’s certain of the source of this meaning, some etymologists believe it had to do with the fact that a spinning object (like a football or bullet) can be thrown more precisely than a non-spinning object.
An unspecified Germanic term gave us the word hurl in the 1200s, though it originally meant collision. By the 1300s, though, hurl acquired the meaning to throw. Hurl is related to both hurtle & hurry.
Lob appears to have come into being as a noun during Old English & originally referred to something lumpish, heavy or floppy. It’s unclear how lob morphed into a verb meaning to throw slowly or gently in the game of bowling in the 1800s. Soon afterward, lob was applied to the game of tennis & the use of artillery.
Fling probably made its way to English through Old Norse word meaning to flog from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to strike. This Proto-Indo-European word also gave us the word plague. It wasn’t until the 1300s that fling meant to throw.
In the 1560s an Anglo-French word made its way into English as jetsam, the act of throwing goods overboard to lighten a ship’s load. By 1848 jetsam morphed into jettison & meant to throw overboard. Soon afterward, it picked up the generalized meaning to throw away.
The word pitch appeared with uncertain parentage in the 1200s meaning to set upright. We see this sense of the word today in the phrase to pitch a tent. It seems that to pitch a tent one needed to accurately strike the tent stakes. By the late 1300s, that sense of accuracy appears to have given pitch its new meaning of to throw. Pitch has any number of other meanings worthy of another post.
Toss showed up in the 1400s from an uncertain, though likely Norwegian source. Originally, toss referred to the sudden throwing of an object. By the early 1700s, one could toss a salad, & by the late 1700s, one could toss a coin.
If you’ve got one in you, throw a comment my way.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Ralph Keyes’s Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & The OED.
“First loke, then aftirward lepe.”
This proverb was embraced by cautious folk of the British Isles during the 1400s.Though we spell things differently these days, many of us still appreciate the proverb, look before you leap. It doesn’t suggest we avoid risk altogether, just that we employ caution before doing so.
The word risk came to English in the 1660s, from Italian through French, though nobody’s figured out where the Italians got their form, riscare, which meant run into danger.
A near-synonym of risk is gamble. It seems to have jumped into Modern English sometime around the 1720s from Middle English, where it was the word gamenen, to play, jest, or be merry. Before that, back in Old English, it was gamenian, to play, joke, or pun. Gamble is related to the words game & backgammon & was initially considered slang, though nobody’s sure whether the distinction was made due to linguistic reasons or in condemnation of the act of gambling.
Another near-synonym of risk & gamble is the word chance. The noun chance appeared in English in the 1300s, meaning an occurrence, something that takes place. It came from Proto-Indo-European through Vulgar Latin & Old French from a word that also gave us cadence, cascade, cadaver, & accident. Chance didn’t take on a verb’s meaning, to risk, until 1859.
And when we look before leaping, we take a leap of faith, an idiom introduced in the 1800s by Kierkegaard. Leap came to English as early as the 1200s, from an Old English word meaning to jump, run, do, or dance. We can’t seem to trace it back any further, though it’s noteworthy that forms of this word occur only in Germanic languages. And the faith bit of leap of faith came from Proto-Indo-European through Latin & Old French. Its linguistic brethren include bid, bide, fiance, fiancee, federal, & affidavit.
Thanks for taking the leap of faith & reading this Wordmonger post. If you’ve got something to say about it, please leave it in the comment section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: AnswerStand, Etymonline, Wordnik, LibraryOfTheology, & The OED.
Locked in poorly-lit word-dungeons, etymologists studying countless languages have done their best to construct the mother language for Indo-European languages. This hypothetical language is called Proto-Indo European.
One of the many proposed word-parts in this academically constructed language is ei-, meaning to go. Following is a very abbreviated list of some of the modern progeny of that ancient, imagined root, ei-.
exit — to go out — appeared in English from ei- in the 1530s through Latin.
Mahayana — a branch of Buddhism — appeared in English from ei- in the 1700s from a Sanskrit word meaning the great vehicle.
itinerary — route of travel — appeared in English from ei- in the 1400s from Greek through Latin.
Janus -- Roman god of portals & doors — came to English about 1500 through Latin, most likely from ei-.
sedition — revolt, uprising — came to English from ei- in the 1300s through Old French.
circuit — a going around — appeared in the 1400s from ei- through Old French & Latin.
errant — misplaced, originally traveling or roving — came to English from ei- in the the 1300s through Latin & Anglo-French.
sudden — unexpected — arrived in English in the 1300s through Anglo-French & Vulgar Latin from ei- through a verb meaning to come or go stealthily.
itinerant — traveling — appeared in English from ei- in the 1560s through Late Latin.
yew — evergreen tree that symbolizes death & mortality — showed up in Old Englishfrom ei- through Proto-Germanic.
obituary - registry of deaths - appeared in English from ei- in the 1700s through a Latin word meaning departure.
Look at all the places we’ve been taken by two little letters meaning to go. Bravo & brava to the etymologists who have put ei- into the mouths of people who couldn’t even have written those letters, since they had no alphabet to begin with.
Now that it's 2022, imagine all the fabulous places to go.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, clipartbest.com & wordnik.com.
It's the holiday season, so here are a few Yule-related etymologies.
The word yule showed up in Old English from Old Norse long before anyone was writing down English or Norse. Yule originally referred to a two-month spate of Pre-Christian winter festivities some might refer to as heathen or pagan. Interestingly, nobody’s sure where the Old Norse got the word yule, but we do know it’s related to another winter-associated word, jolly.
The word egg-nog appeared in American English in the 1770s, a combination of egg & nog, the latter showing up in the 1690s & referring initially to a strong, old beer brewed in Norfolk. Then there is egg. The chicken-duck-or-goose sort of egg first entered the language in the mid-1300s from an Old Norse word that probably referred to birds &/or bird eggs. However, earlier than that, back in the 1200s, the Old Norse verb, egg, entered the English language, meaning to goad or incite. This fact poses the question of whether egg-nog was originally more about whipping eggs into beer or goading one’s compatriots into drinking more.
When the word wreath came to Old English it originally translated to that which is wound around. Wreath has some intriguing linguistic brethren: an Old High German word meaning twisted, a Frisian & an Old Norse word meaning angry, & a Dutch word meaning rough, harsh & cruel. All these came from a Proto-Indo European word meaning to twist or bend. It wasn’t until the 1560s that wreath meant a garland of flowers or greenery.
The Proto-Germanic word for basil or mistletoe (as if basil is anything like mistletoe) made its way into Old English, where it was combined with a word meaning twig to become our modern word mistletoe. Druids were big fans of hanging mistletoe in celebration of their winter rites, & as Christianity spread, the practice continued. We typically don’t discuss the Druids’ activities under the mistletoe, but the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe appears to have established itself sometime in the 1800s.
The word menorah entered the English language in 1886. It came from a Hebrew verb meaning to give light, to shine. Menorah shares a Semitic root with minaret, which appeared in English in the 1680s from Arabic through Turkish & French.
And two yule-related words we don’t typically associate with eating came from words referring to either the act of eating or the food itself. Creche made its way into English in 1892 from Old High German through Old French. In Old French, creche meant a crib, manger, or stall, but creche’s source word (the Old High German one) referred to the fodder the critters ate while in a crib, stall or manger — their food. Speaking of manger, in the 1300s the French word mangier, meaning to eat, gave birth to the English word manger in much the same way. Once more, critters in a manger eat.
And though most of us would rather not think about it, when truly little critters of the mite variety munch away on the larger critters in the manger, we employ another word based on the French verb to eat — mange!
May your holiday festivities be grand. Please leave any comments int he comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
Recently, controversy has erupted regarding the use of merry Christmas vs. happy holidays. Though the controversy is intriguing, I find myself etymologically interested in the difference between wishing someone a merry time vs. wishing that same someone a happy time.
Merry made its way into Old English before records of such things were kept. Merry meant agreeable, sweet, pleasant or melodious. Merry’s source was a Proto-Germanic word meaning brief. Yes, brief. Some argue the connection came through the idea that happiness is fleeting, therefore merriness is also fleeting. Others argue a connection to the thinking behind the idiom time flies when you’re having fun or the idea that one enjoys one’s pastime in brief jots between sessions of getting more important work done. During Middle English, merry broadened its meanings to include fine, handsome, pleasant-sounding, & pleasant-tasting.
Happy made its way into the language in the late 1300s. It originally meant lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous, or turning out well. These meanings morphed within the century to very glad, which grew in the following century to mean pleased & content.
Blessed is another adjective we hear over the holidays. The adjective form showed up in English in the 1200s, initially meaning both supremely happy & consecrated. Blessed came from the verb bless, which seems to have been a part of Old English from the start, initially meaning to consecrate, make holy or give thanks. The verb bless has what to the modern sensibility seems an undignified beginning. It came from a Proto-Germanic word, meaning to hallow or mark with blood. Those who first translated the English Bible appear to have chosen this word in an attempt to make the newly arriving Christian religion feel familiar.
Joy is another word we see & hear at the holidays. Joy appeared in English in the 1200s meaning a feeling of pleasure & delight. It came through the French word joie, which meant delight, bliss, joyfulness (& was also used to refer to erotic pleasure). The French word came from a Latin word meaning expressions of pleasure or sensual delight. The Latin word’s source — the grandmother word of all this joy -- was a Proto-Indo-European word meaning rejoice, which throws some light on how those Latin-&-French speaking folks might have been rejoicing.
Whether you wish your friends & family happiness or merriment may the season find you experiencing whatever sort of joy, blessedness, happiness or merriment appeals most to you.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
Our modern word sound comes to us from three sources.
These first five meanings of the word sound started in Latin, then bounced around between Old French and Old English before finding themselves in Modern English.
As a noun, sound can mean:
-sensation sensed through the ear
As a verb, sound can mean:
-to be audible
-to cause an instrument to make sound
-to measure the depth of
The noun meaning a narrow channel or body of water didn't come from Latin at all. It came from the Old Norse word sund, which meant both swimming & strait.
The adjective form of sound meaning free from defect or injury came from an Old English word meaning safe, or having all faculties. This word was gesund, which, as you might have guessed, made its way into German to become gesundheit.
The term safe & sound showed up in the late 1400s. Sound-proof was born in 1853, ultrasound came about in 1911, sound barrier in 1939, sound effects in 1909, & sound check in 1977.
And the absence of sound is silence, a word that appeared in English in the 1200s from an unknown source through Latin & Old French.
Some silence-inspired meanings, words & idioms include:
-A Victorian idiom meaning the dead (1874)
-silencer - the mechanism that stifles the noise made by a firearm (1898)
-the strong silent type (1905)
-silent films (1914)
-the silent majority (1955)
And these two words together lead folks of a particular age to think of Paul Simon, whose “words like silent raindrops fell” in his 1965 hit song, “The Sound of Silence”.
As always, feel free to speak your mind in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, biography.com, & the OED.
Gratitude is a fine thing. Though there is clearly some ugly history to the Thanksgiving holiday, this post focuses on the gratitude, The word thanks came to Old English through a heap of loosely related languages including Old Saxon, German, Old Norse, Danish, and Old Frisian. We can still see the relationship with the modern German word danke.
All these terms shared the simple meaning, to thank. What I find fascinating is that the Proto-Indo-European grandmother of all these gratitude-expressing words meant to think or to feel. This might suggest that one must be thinkful in order to be thankful. The flipside being that thinklessness causes thanklessness.
This post is intentionally brief, as I’m hoping you’ll take some time to indulge yourself in thinkfulness and thankfulness. If you are inspired to express gratitude about anything at all in the comments section, feel free.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
I’ve just stumbled upon a Proto-Indo-European word that meant to rise like smoke, vapor or mist. The word is dheu-, & it has some intriguing offspring.
Because things that rise like smoke eventually disappear, dheu-‘s offspring include both dwindle (1590s through Old & Middle English) & die (die has been around forever & came through Old English). Dead & death were also born of dheu-, and like die, came to English so early we have no date of entry. Though nobody has nailed it down, it appears that after sometime while dheu- was visiting the Latin language, it grew into the word funeral.
At some point it seems rising like smoke suggested a limited ability or intelligence, as dheu- also gave us dizzy (also an Old English word that’s been around forever, initially meaning stupid or foolish). Dheu- also gave us dull, as in witless, blunt, not sharp. Dull showed up in English about 1200. Another word that showed up from this vein of dheu- is dumb (meaning both unable to speak & lacking in intelligence, now considered rude in either usage). Dumb appeared early enough in English, we have no date for its arrival.
The word dew also came from this source, appearing very early in English, from Old English.
Both airborne & settled smoke can be called dust, which came from dheu- through old Germanic languages.
Any of you who have walked across a patch of thyme while inhaling have experience with why it might have come from a word meaning rises like smoke. Thyme came to English from dheu- in the 1300s after a voyage through Greek, Latin, & Old French.
Fume made its way to English in the 1300s, also from dheu-.
And apparently because swirling dust can make one confused, the mental confusion & stupor associated with the disease typhus gave that disease its name in 1785, taken from the root dheu- after it spent some time vacationing in Greece & Rome.
Because an animal in cold weather creates small clouds of vapor with its breath, the deer got its name from dheu-, which came through old Germanic tongues to land very early on in Old English.
Dwindle, die, dead, death, funeral, dizzy, dull, dumb, dew, dust, thyme & typhus: they all started as a cloud of smoke, vapor or mist.
Anything to say about all this? Please leave a comment.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.
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.