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Words with Unexpected Origins


Some English words have fairly obvious origins, such as the word SYMPATHY, which comes from the Greek σύν (sym-), “with” + πάθος (pathos), “suffering, feeling.” But occasionally the origin of a word is mildly surprising, as in the following ten cases.

ABSURD . . . from the Latin surdus, meaning “deaf” (+ the intensifier ab-, meaning “really deaf”). The basic idea is about hearing and sound: “This is absurd” means “This is really out of tune” or “This really doesn’t sound right.”

BUS . . . By itself the Latin word-ending -bus has no referential meaning whatsoever (nor does it in e pluribus unum). But as a shortened form of omnibus, meaning “for all” (from the Latin omni-, “all”), it has come to stand for a large, four- or six-wheeled vehicle with seats inside for many passengers all together.

CANVAS . . . from cannabis, the Latin name for the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa), cultivated for the stem’s hemp fibers, which are used in making coarse, heavy cloth for sails, tents, painters’ canvases, and tennis shoes. (Other parts of the plant are used in preparing marijuana.) The verb “to canvass” (with two s’s), as in “to canvass the electorate,” has the same origin: in now obsolete usage it meant “to use a (canvas) sheet to toss a collection of things up and down to see which ones might be useful.”

FOOL . . . (related to the word folly) The OED starts out cautiously and politely defining a “fool” as “one deficient in judgment or sense.” It then goes on to say that fool in modern English has come to be a much stronger and contemptuous epithet, an insult. Earlier, from about 200 to 600 A.D. the Latin word follis or follem simply meant “a windbag”; in older Latin usage it referred simply to “a bellows.”

GOSSAMER . . . (“A trip to the moon on gossamer wings…”). The noun “gossamer” refers to the light threads of spider’s silk sometimes seen floating in the air or spread over dewy grass in the early morning. As an adjective (as in the quotation just given), “gossamer” refers to any light, flimsy, delicate, gauzy material. The airy spider’s silk supposedly is seen more often in late summer, around the same time that geese are migrating; that is, the season of goose-summer. The spider threads are therefore “goose-summer threads.”

GYPSY . . . When these wandering people first appeared in England in the 16th century, they were thought to have come from Egypt, hence the name (without the “E”). Their ancestors have in fact been traced to people living in northern India many thousands of years ago. They began migrating westward about a thousand years ago. Today the Romani (their name for themselves) remain an itinerant people, living mostly in the Middle East and Europe, but also in the Americas.

OUTRAGE . . . from the French ultre, outre, “beyond,” and Latin, ultra-, “beyond” as a prefix, as in “ultra-conservative.” The correct etymology is not “out” + “rage” but “outr-” + “-age” – “beyond-ness” (as is more obvious in the Spanish ultraje). The ending “-age” is often used to make a noun out of a verb (as in bondage, heritage, marriage, moorage), or to extend the meaning of a noun to its whole category (as in baggage, foliage, plumage, signage). The common understanding of the word as a combination of “out” + “rage” has nevertheless influenced the development of the word’s meaning over the centuries to the modern sense.

PEDIGREE . . . A pedigree is a genealogical diagram of a family’s line of ancestors or descendants. The word is from the Anglo-French pé de grue, “crane’s foot.” From the 10th century onwards, manuscripts depicting the pedigrees of royal families commonly had portraits of ancestors connected by curved lines to portraits of descendants in a manner that mimicked the appearance of a crane’s foot. See the illustration below.

ROBUST (and CORROBORATE) . . . ultimately from the Latin rōbur, oak tree. Robust therefore means “strong like an oak tree.” With the same root, to corroborate (“She corroborated his story.”) means “to strengthen, confirm, support.”

TAWDRY . . . an adjective meaning “cheap, gaudy, showy without real value” (“She came to the party decked out in tawdry necklaces and bracelets.”) The word was used in the 16th and 17th centuries to refer specifically to “tawdry lace,” a female adornment worn about the neck. Initially without any implication of shoddiness, the adjective devolved to its present pejorative meaning in the 18th century, presumably because of the cheap items that were often sold alongside the lace finery at the same fair. This was the Fair of St. Audrey (sain-tAudrey), given during the Middle Ages in celebration of an early and much revered Christian saint, also known as Saint Etheldreda, who died in 679 A.D. The Fair has been resurrected in modern times in Ely, in Cambridgeshire, England, the place where St. Audrey had founded a monastery in the 7th century, becoming the first Abbess of Ely.


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