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More Words With Unexpected Origins


Many modern words have had their original meanings and forms modified or even lost over the centuries. Here are eleven additions to my earlier list.

ELECTRIC . . . “Electric lights in the form of incandescent light bulbs first appeared in public spaces in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.” The words electric, electricity, and electron come originally from the Greek ἤλεκτρον (electron), referring to amber. It had been known from thousands of years ago that when amber—hardened, fossilized tree resin—is rubbed with a piece of cloth something is transferred between them, producing an attraction between the two (we now call it “electrostatic attraction”). So when you say “electric light bulb,” you would be saying what the ancients would have understood as “the bulb that produces light by means of that invisible stuff that’s in amber.”

ETIQUETTE . . . “Louise followed etiquette and wrote a prompt and personal thank-you note for every wedding present she received.” The origin of this word is the Old German verb stehhan, stechen, and the French estiquer, meaning to stick, or affix, and the later French noun étiquette, referring to a little note, label, or ticket (= étiquette with the initial é dropped) that was stuck on a container of some sort to indicate the contents, or on a wall detailing instructions to be followed. The modern sense of the word probably originated in the royal courts of 16th- to 18th-century France and Spain, where strict rules of protocol, court ceremonies, codes of conduct, and rules governing polite behavior were written down on an official list, which was affixed to a palace wall.

EXUBERANT . . . “If there’s one thing that characterizes my niece, it’s her exuberant good health.” The word can be traced back to the time when cattle were first domesticated in Europe ten thousand years ago, and cow’s milk began to be used as food for humans. In Latin the prefix ex- meant out of, and ūber meant udder. The Latin adjective ūberōsus meant fertile or abundant. So “exuberant good health” means “good health as it might come from the udder.” The word is also used figuratively, as in “His garden is plagued by an exuberant growth of weeds.” Here the word has lost its connection with its origin; it’s hard to imagine weeds taking nourishment from a cow’s udder, although the reverse happens.

FANCY . . . a word with several meanings: as a noun: “He took a fancy to her”; as a verb: “I fancy a trip to the art gallery today”; as an adjective: “That’s a very fancy dress you’re wearing this evening.”) The word fancy is a shortened form, arising in the 15th century, of fantasy. Earlier spellings of fancy included fantsy and phant'sy. The word is originally from the Greek ϕαντασία, phantasia, fantasia, a making visible, especially of something that is purely mental but regarded as real. The idea was of something imagined; it then came to stand for something desired, as in the first two examples above; and from there to something special or elaborate, the opposite of something plain, as in the third example.

GOSSIP . . . “She’s an old gossip.” “What’s the latest gossip?” The word comes from Old- and Middle-English words godsibbe, gossyppe and other variants, meaning god + sib (sibling). The god-sib was an adult agreeing to act as a sponsor at the baptism or christening of a child, and to help supervise its spiritual upbringing. This use of the word godsib or gossip persisted into the 1800s (and is still with us in the forms of godparents, godmother, godfather). Meanwhile the word also came to refer to friends invited to be present at a birth; then more generally to any friends or acquaintances, especially a woman’s female friends; and then to people (usually women, but sometimes men) who gather together for idle talk—a use already common in the 1600s—and eventually to the idle talk itself.

TWIG . . . “Go gather up some twigs so we can start a fire.” A twig is a small slender branch, one that originates from a larger one, or two that originate from a common fork. The word is based on Old English twi-, meaning two. The root is seen also in the idea of two-ness in the words twice, twin, twine, and possibly twilight (the dim light that belongs to both day and night). The doubleness of twigs can be equal if they arise from a common fork, or the doubling can refer to a small twig produced from a larger branch, as in this 1647 quotation: “Traiterous brat, impious twig of that old stock, dew'd with my kinsman’s gore.”

UMPIRE . . . Randle Holme III, 1688: “Being desired to be Umpeer between Apollo and Pan, Midas passed his verdict against Apollo.” An umpire is one who decides between contending parties, commonly in sports contests, and whose decision is usually accepted as final. The word umpire is one of several words where the n at the beginning of the original word was transferred to the preceding article, the pronunciation remaining the same. (Another example: “an apron” 500 years ago used to be “a napron”; napkin is a related word). In Middle English (approximately 1100-1500 A.D.) the word umpire could be spelled noumper, noumpere, nounpere, nounpeer, nounpier or some variant of these (the second consonant originally n but later often m for smoothness in pronunciation): “The decree and jugement of a nounpier [“a numpire”] to be chosen by arbitrores…” (1426 A.D). The word umpire came originally from the French, non + peer (not + equal; that is, superior)—someone superior to the contestants themselves and therefore authorized to make a final judgment when there was a dispute.

UTTER, UTMOST . . . “He did his utmost to ingratiate himself with his superiors; nevertheless, they ended up regarding him with utter contempt.” Old English had út, útera, útmest, equivalent to modern English out, outer, out(er)most (i.e., out, more out, most out). We don’t have ut anymore, but we’ve retained a use for utter and utmost. The utter(ly) of modern English means outside normal boundaries (as in “utter contempt” and “utterly ridiculous”); and utmost means as far outside normal boundaries as you can go (as in “he did his utmost”). Incidentally, the adjective utter has come to be used in other forms of speech, and gives us the same basic meaning of “out” in to utter, to give utterance to, and unutterably: “the lion uttered a roar”; “he gave utterance to his feelings; “her eyes were unutterably sad” (outed a roar; gave outing to his feelings; sadness that cannot be described or spoken out loud).

VENEER . . . “His thin veneer of politeness hides a basically brutal nature.” Although used figuratively in this sentence, the word veneer has a centuries-old, more technical, meaning: a thin slice or plate of fine wood or other material glued onto underlying coarse wood to produce a more elegant or decorative look. The word comes from the French fournir via the German furnieren, meaning to furnish. From these words the first r was dropped, as is common with syllables that are not stressed in pronunciation, and the first consonant was voiced (v instead of f). The French fournir itself came from earlier French formir and fromir (by an inversion of the r and o), which was derived from an old German word frummen, meaning to further a project or make progress. This same psychological sense of moving forward or onward, making an advance beyond where you started out, is seen in the Old English word fram and the modern English from. “I come from haunts of coot and hern…” (Tennyson, “The Brook”).

WANTON . . . “From his pulpit the pastor decried the wanton ways of Hollywood celebrities.” The meaning of wanton is the same as it was for Old English wantowen. The prefix wan- was equivalent to our mis-. Up until the 18th century northern English dialects still had the words wanfortune, wanhap, wantrust (misfortune, mishap, mistrust), but in modern English the prefix wan- is no longer used. And towen comes from the Old English verb forms téohan, tugon, towen (tow, towed, towed; tug, tugged, tugged; draw, drew, drawn; lead, led, led; i.e., present, past, past participle), related to the modern German ziehen, zog, gezogen. The sense of wantowen and wanton therefore was (and is) “mis-led” or “led astray.”

ZEST . . . “His near-death experience has given him an extra zest for life.” . . . from the French zeste, peel or scrapings from orange- or lemon skin added to food or drink to give it a sharpened flavor.


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