I recently stumbled upon the etymology of the word ‘melancholy’, a word I’ve always found to represent a gentle evocation of the wistful times of youth, or the ‘good old days’ with a pinch of sadness. It comes from the Ancient Greek stems ‘melan-’, meaning black, dark, and murky, and ‘kholḗ’, meaning bile. Black bile? This didn’t exactly fit with my concept of melancholic behaviour, so I did what librarians do best; I dug deeper. In the 5th and 4th centuries B.C., ‘melancholia’ was considered a disease due to the propensity for an increased level of black bile in an individual’s system; that is, old medical practitioners believed higher levels of black bile in a person will ultimately lead them to a melancholic disposition, eliciting feelings of sadness otherwise known as ‘melancholia’. This sparked my interest in finding out which of our ‘English’ words have the weirdest origins or etymologies. First let’s have a quick look at the definition of an etymology:\\
Etymology (/ˌɛt.ɪˈmɒl.ə.dʒi/) is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. By extension, the term “the etymology (of a word)” means the origin of the particular word.
Here’s a few of the strangest etymologies I’ve come across; from singing goats to death pledges, explore the absolute beauty of words:
- Quarantine – Comes from the French word for ‘40’, quarante. In the old days, when a ship arrived to port, it had to wait 40 days before contact with the shore if the fleet is suspected of being infected.
- Disaster – From the Greek word for bad, dis, and star, aster, disaster in ancient times was believed to come from an unfavourable alignment of the planets.
- Berserk – Comes from ancient Norse fighters called Berserker’s.
- Denim – Referring to fabric from the French town of Nimes, serge de Nimes (‘fabric of Nimes’) eventually lost it’s serge and simply became de Nimes, and ultimately, our very own ‘denim’.
- Addict – In Ancient Rome, soldiers were awarded addicts, which is Latin for slave. Eventually it came to mean addict in today’s sense; a slave to someone or something.
- Tragedy – From the Greek word tragodia, meaning ‘the song of the goat’. Yep, sounds pretty tragic to me.
- Mortgage – From the French word for death, mort, and pledge, gage, mortgage literally means death pledge.
- Jumbo -Ever ordered a jumbo triple-shot vanilla soy latte? An African elephant by the name of Jumbo was transported around the world for display during the 1860s; Jumbo was probably the word for ‘elephant’ in a west African language, but came to be known as ‘huge’ thanks to Jumbo the elephant.
Interested to find out the etymology of a word? Type it into the search box at http://etymonline.com/. You may be surprised with what you find!
Maybe you want to increase your vocabulary with some ‘weird and wonderful’ words – check out this great list from the Oxford Dictionary online: