You’ll be amazed to find out that many English words that we use on a daily basis have origins that are just plain bizarre. We often forget that just because the English language is the most popular doesn’t mean it has to make sense. It’s largely made up of words with vast histories in primitive languages.
Knowing more about the words we use makes studying English even more fun. This article will give you the necessary knowledge to be that annoying friend who has random facts about the English language that nobody really cares about until they realize how cool words are.
Believe it or not, there were ancient mullets. In the sixth century, Byzantine scholar Procopius wrote that some factions of young males wore their hair long at the back and cut it short over the forehead. It was called the “Hunnic look”. Even back then they knew the importance of having a ‘business in the front, party in the back’ attitude.
The modern version of the term “mullet” was coined and made popular by the Beastie Boys, who used “mullet” and “mullet head” as epithets in their 1994 song “Mullet Head”. It had always previously been used to refer a person of dubious intelligence.
The word “snob” was first recorded in the late 18th century as a term for a shoemaker or his apprentice. By the end of the century, it had been adopted by Cambridge University students who used it to refer to townspeople or local merchants who were not enrolled in the university.
It became popularized in 1848 by William Thackeray’s “Book of Snobs.” The meaning later broadened to include those who insist on their gentility in addition to those who merely aspire to it. By 1911, the word got its modern meaning of “the one who despises those considered inferior in rank, attainment, or taste.”
The word “Fiasco” is one of the Italian words for a bottle (it’s related to the English word Flask). The idiom “far fiasco” literally means “make a bottle” and was developed among the Italian theater and opera people in the 18th century to mean perpetrating a bad performance.
There are also roots to the French idiom “faire une bouteille” which means ‘to make a mistake’ (or a bottle). If you think of the common use of the word now, you can kind of see how it all comes back around. If something is a “fiasco” it’s probably not going very smoothly.
The word “disaster” comes from the Ancient Greek pejorative “dus-” meaning “bad” and “aster” meaning “star”. The root of the word “disaster” basically means “bad star” which comes from an astrological sense of a calamity blamed on the position of planets.
“Disaster” has its roots in the belief that the position of the stars influences the fate of humans, often in destructive ways. Its original meaning in English was in reference to an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star. I mean, this belief isn’t totally bananas like some of the other ones.
The word “denim” derives from the French phrase “serge de Nimes”. The term “serge” refers to a type of twill fabric that has diagonal lines or ridges on both sides, while Nimes is a city in the Occitanie region of southern France. The word “denim” comes from the de Nim part of “serge de Nimes”.
Denim was traditionally colored blue because it traditionally has a different, lighter cotton fabric attached to it. Denim initially became popular in 1873 when Jacob Davis, a tailor from Nevada, manufactured the first pair of reinforced denim pants.
A term we so often use, “Goodbye” actually has an interesting history. It comes from the term “Godbwye” which is a contraction of the phrase “God be with ye”. It popped up somewhere between 1565 and 1570. The first recorded writing of the contraction was by scholar Gabriel Harvey in 1573.
As time went on, it is believed that the phrase was influenced by terms like “good day” and “good evening”, transitioning then from “god be with ye” to god-b’wye to good-b’wy and finally ending in the word we see today.
The word is based on the medieval Latin words “ex” meaning “out” and “cappa” meaning “cloak”. The Old French word “eschaper” was the first root of the term we see today, it meant to “evade” or “avoid”.
It’s kind of interesting to see how words like “cloak” would somehow influence the word escape. It makes sense because when you want to escape you only wish you had an invisible cloak to throw on to make it easier. Man, the English language is weird.
The word “barbarian” originated in ancient Greece and was initially used to describe all non-Greek-speaking people, including Persians, Egyptians, and Phoenicians. The Greek word “barbaros” meant “babbler” because it was thought that anyone who didn’t speak Greek just made unintelligible sounds.
The ancient Romans (who were by definition barbarians themselves) transformed the term to refer to all foreigners who lacked Greek and Roman traditions. Scholars would use the term to describe any group of people attacking a civilization. Now, if something is “barbaric” it means it’s mean or cruel to the point of savagery or even uncivilized damage.
Who would’ve thought that the word “clue” derives from Greek mythology? It comes from the word “clew” which means a ball of yarn. Go figure. In Greek mythology, Ariadne gives Theseus a ball of yarn to help him find his way out of a Minotaur’s labyrinth.
Because of this, the word “clew” came to mean something that points the way. Think about a detective working his way backwards to solve a crime using clues. The word gained its modern-day spelling in the 15th century.
It may sound as though the word “nightmare” may refer to a female horse, but the “mare” part of the word actually comes from Germanic folklore. It turns out that “mare” is an evil female spirit or goblin that sits upon a sleeper’s chest, suffocating them and/or giving them bad dreams.
In the Germanic folklore, the “mare” didn’t just stop at terrorizing humans. They were also said to ride horses in the night and make them all sweaty and exhausted the next day. If anyone has had sleep paralysis, this chest-sitting spirit is all too real.
You might be shocked to learn that the two parts to the word “helicopter” are not “heli” and “copter”, but “helico” meaning spiral, and “pter” meaning one with wings. In 1861, the French coined the term “helicoptere” which was a device that enabled airplanes to rise perpendicularly.
The idea was to gain lift from spiral aerofoils and it didn’t work. Used by Jules Verne and the Wright Brothers, the word transferred to helicopters in the modern sense when those were developed in the 1920s.
The word “addict” evolved from the Latin word “addictus”, which is a past participle of “addico” which literally means to “devote or surrender”. According to history, Roman soldiers were given slaves as a reward for their fine performances in battles. These slaves were known as ‘addicts’.
Eventually, a person who was a slave to anything would be known to be an addict. This is where we see the modern connotation come into play. The idea is that if you’re a drug addict that you’re a slave to the drug and that you can’t really do anything about it.
It’s derived from the Latin words “nona hora” which is the ninth hour of the day. It’s related to the liturgical term “none”. Since the Roman and the Western European medieval monastic day began at six in the morning, it made the ninth hour start at what we would consider 3:00 p.m. In English, the meaning of the word shifted to midday and time gradually moved back to 12:00.
This is amazing. Let’s go back to the times when noon was actually 3: 00 pm. That would mean you could say you slept till noon (actually mean you slept till 3) and no one is going to judge you.
It’s interesting now to think that we basically only associate the word “malaria’ with where it is most prevalent, Africa. But, the root of the word actually came from Ancient Rome. It comes from the medieval words “mal” meaning “bad” and “aria” meaning “air”— so it literally means bad air.
It was always used to describe the unpleasant air emanating from the marshland that surrounds Rome. It’s believed that the disease we all know as malaria only hung around those areas, which is primarily true because those marshlands were mosquito infested.
The word “mortgage” comes from the Anglo-Norman root word “morgage” and from the Old French words “mort” and “gage”. The word “mort” might seem familiar because it means “death” while “gage” means “wage”. Back then, Mortgage was debt secured against property. It roughly translates to “death pledge” because a deal would only die when the debt is paid or when payment fails.
This is probably the most accurate origin of a word. It’s bang on. Getting a mortgage is a death pledge. In some countries, people sign 70-year mortgages that literally outlive them and are passed down to other family members.
For anyone who is wondering, this doesn’t just refer to someone named Luke being warm. There’s no Stevewarm or Lucywarm popping up in this article. It turns out that “Luke” is derived from “lew” or “leuk” in Middle English which meant “tepid” (slightly warm).
The word “lukewarm” popped up in the 14th century to basically mean “slightly warm”. Within two centuries, it also began having a figurative meaning, that of “lacking in enthusiasm”. So if you put the pieces together, lukewarm in today’s English just means “warm warm”. Weird.
The word comes from the Middle French “muscle, sinew” during the 14th century and directly from Latin musculus, which literally translates to “little mouse.” So-called because of the shape and movement of some muscles (notably biceps) were thought to resemble mice. The analogy was made in Greek where “mys” is both “mouse and “muscle”.
Imagine being so primitive that you thought your biceps were little mice running around and under your skin playing hide and go seek? Although I will say, those biceps must be pretty small.
Our word for danger or risk first got its origins in 13th century Arabic, derived from the word “al-zahr” referred to the dice used in various gambling games. There’s a lot of risks involved in these games, not just from the gambling itself but from the danger of dishonest folk using weighted dice.
It would be good if the word “hazard” was more closely associated with gambling today too. It’s such an easy addiction to have because it lures you in. When you’re losing you feel like you have to break even and when you’re winning you feel unstoppable.
The word “lemur” is derived from Latin beginnings which translates to “spirit of the dead”. The name was selected because of the nocturnal activity and slow movements of the Lemur Tardigradus observed in 1754.
Could you imagine just going along with your day, being a good lemur, jumping on trees and hangin’ around only to find out that no matter how good a Samaritan you are, your name will still be “spirit of the dead”? Before people make names for animals they have to think of the emotional and social distress that something like this could put on one.
Believe it or not, Ketchup has roots all the way back to 17th century China as a sauce of pickled fish and spices. It was known in the Chinese Amoy dialect as koe-chiap or ke-chiap and it began to get popular in what’s known as Singapore and Malaysia in the 18th century.
British explorers encountered it first while exploring the Malaysian area where the sauce was called “kecap” and had the pronunciation of “kay-chap”. The British took the idea and ran with it in the 19th century when they made tomato ketchup. It’s interesting to note that tomatoes were thought to be poisonous for a long time, which hindered the growth of ketchup.