INTERESTING ETYMOLOGIES - Simply a collection of words whose history I found interesting or even surprising.


Actor – In ancient Roman society, this applied to prosecuting lawyers also. The Romans had no word for "baby" or "spinster"

Algebra – In Medieval Spain, barbershops displayed signs saying 'Algebrista y Sangrador'. The phrase means 'Bonesetter and Bloodletter', two trades that used to be part of a barber's repertoire.
The root of 'algebrista' is the Arabic 'al jabr' which, in addition to referring to crude surgical techniques, also means restoration or reunion. In ninth-century Baghdad, Muhammed ibn Musa al Khwarizmi wrote a maths primer entitled Hisab al-jabr w'al-muqabala, or 'Calculation by Restoration and Reduction'
When Al-Khwarizmi's book was translated into Latin, the 'al-jabr' in the title became 'algebra'

Algorithm (see 'algebra') – Al-khwarizmi's book, together with another one he wrote on the Indian decimal system, became so widespread in Europe that his name was immortalized as a scientific term: Al-khwarizmi's became Alchoarismi, Algorismi and, eventually, 'Algorithm'

Andalucía – Possibly from 'Land of Vandals' or maybe the Arab name for 'Atlantis', but nobody knows.

Apache – Means "Enemy" The first apache was the first human who defeated other beasts in order for man to grow - From Geronimo's autobiography as transcribed in 1904 by SM Barrett

Asia – sunrise in Sanskrit

Average – From 'Avarie' in Old French = 'Damage done to a ship'. When one ship was damaged, the owners of the others were expected to pay the 'average'

Bahamas – Baja Mares in Spanish = Low Seas (compare with Honduras... "las hondas"; the depths)

Bankrupt – 'Bank' means 'Bench' (still the same word in some languages), which is what they were in the beginning. And when they went under, the bench was broken (ruptus)

Barbados – From the Spanish 'Barbudos' = bearded

Beelzebub - beelzeboub, from'al-z'bub "lord of the flies," from ba'al "lord" + z'bhubh "fly." According to Robert Fripp, Beelzebub would be an anglicised form of the

Arabic phrase "B'il Sabab", meaning "the man with an aim" – although it literally means "with a cause"

Boogie Woogie – Originally just 'boogie'; a rent party, where musicians would pass the

hat to pay their rents. (Also known as 'house parties')

Botulism – Botulo meant 'sausage' (as in 'botuliform' = sausage-shaped). The original case of botulism sprang from pigs. See 'salchicha'; ''Hot Dog'

Butterfly – So called, apparently, because its excrement is butter-coloured. A very disappointing etymology, if you ask me.

Calculus – comes from Latin; small stones, as they were used for counting. Which is why it also means gallstones.

Calibre -  Middle French calibre, from Old Italian calibro, from Arabic qālib shoemaker's tool for making holes.

Cannabis - According to some Rastafari and other scholars, the etymology of the word "cannabis" and similar terms in all the languages of the Near East may be traced to

the Hebrew "qaneh bosm" קנה-בשם, which is one of the herbs that God commanded Moses to include in his preparation of sacred anointing perfume in Exodus 30:23

The above comes from Wikipedia while in - – nov 5th, 2013 we read:

"Investigators claim that the anointment oil used in those first years of the primitive Catholic church contained an extract of cannabis called kaneh-bosem. 'Kaneh' corresponds to the Semitic origin of the Greek word 'kannabus' and 'cannabis' (from the Latin) while 'bosem' comes from 'boosem', originally a Hebrew word which means 'aromatic herb'".And Jack Herer opines, in 'The Emperor Has No Clothes' – The word "kannabis" comes from the spoken Greek of the Hellenised Mediterranean basin, deriving from the Persian and the oldest Northern Semitic languages (Quanuba, Kanabosm, Cana?, Kanah?) which the learned relate to the Barth of the family of indo-semitic-european languages of Sumeria and Acadia from 6,000 years ago. The original Sumero-Babylonian word K(a)N(a)B(a), or Q(a),N(a),B(a) is a word whose root is one of the oldest which still exists in human language. ('KN' means 'reed' and 'B' means 'two': two ítems or two sexes).
Note 3 (P. 46) to Chapter 2 (P 9)
Note 2 points out the relationship between 'cannabis' and the English word 'canvas'; this is also backed up by the and the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910.

Cannibal The indigenous people of the Caribbean ('Canibs', 'Caribs' o 'Calibs') depending on the dialect) were believed to eat other human beings

Carnival – The Carnival, which preceded Lent (qv.) was intended as a last feast of meat

before the Lenten fast, hence its name carne vale ('farewell, meat')

Chapter 25, Machiavelli's Militia (P 353) from 'The Artist, the Philosopher and the

Warrior' by Paul Strathern

Champion – The 'best in the field (campo)' (of batlle). A lot of related words derive from this Latin word for field: a military 'campaign' meant 'to go to the country'. And then 'camp', 'camping' 'campus' and less obviously 'scamper' which meant 'to leave the camp' (probably to go gadding about), which was 'excampare' in Latin.

Cipher - Fibonnaci's book ("Liber Abaci" -"The Book of Calculation") appeared during the period of the Crusades against Islam, and the Clergy was suspicious of anything with Arab connections. Some... considered the new arithmetic to be the devil's work. ... A fear of Arabic numerals is revealed through the etymology of some modern words. From 'zephyr' came 'zero' but also the Portuguese 'chifre', which means '(Devil) horns' and the English 'cipher', meaning 'code'. It has been argued that this was because using numbers with a zephyr, or zero, was done in hiding, against the wishes of the Church.
In 1299 Florence banned Arabic numerals.
- From Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos, Chapter 3, 'Something about Nothing', Pp 124 - 6

Churlish – From Old English "ceorl"; a countryman, or peasant

Ciao – "sciao vostro schiavo" – "I am your slave"

Climate – Days required for travel and routes were regularly given, but the geography was organised according to the traditional seven climatic zones that united all regions from East to west. These aqalim, called klimata in Greek, were latitudinal zones that Ptolemy had defined according to the height of the noonday sun at solstice.
- Natalie Zemon Davies; in Trickster Travels – The Search for Leo Africanus, Chapter Three, Writing in Italy (P.100)

Comet – from Greek; "head of hair", appropriated by Aristotle who, like many, believed comets to be "hairy stars"

Cossack – From the Turkish 'quz-zak' = freebooter

Crimson – Carmine - qirmizī, color of a certain red dye widely used in the later medieval centuries for dyeing silk and wool. See kermes in this list. The letter 'n' in crimson and carmine descends from the medieval Latin forms cremesinus | carmesinus where -inus is a Latin suffix.

Crisis – Greek Krisis, from Krinnein; to decide

Curfew - in some medieval cities residents were required to put out their cooking fires – often the only interior light many could afford – after dinner. "Curfew" comes from the Old French couvre-feu, meaning "cover fire"

Demon – To most pagans, the air was full of powerful spiritual beings, Daimones in Greek, who were sometimes beneficent, sometimes not, sometimes controllable by

magic but above all fairly neutral to the human race. To many Christians ... this unseen world came to be seen as sharply divided into two, good angels and bad demons (the

word daimones was still used).

Chris Wickham – The Inheritance of Rome, Chapter Three, P.56


Disaster – O Fr, Desastre – from the Latin; Dis (with the sense of 'evil') + Astrum; 'star' (Chambers Concise Dictionary)

Divan – "Council of State" from Turkish divan. In turn from Arabic diwan, from Persian devan 'a bundle of papers, small book, collection of poems', related to debir; 'to write'.

Druid – The word Druid means 'oak-man' because that is their sacred tree. The sacred year begins with the budding of the oak and ends with the falling of its leaves. There is a god called Tanarus, whose symbol is the oak. - this according to Claudius in Robert Graves' 'Caludius the God', Ch 16, P 220. 

Online Etymological Dictionary, meanwhile, offers: from Gaulish Druides, from Old Celtic *derwijes, probably representing Old Celtic derwos "true" and *dru- "tree" (especially oak) + *wid- "to know" (cf. vision). Hence, literally, perhaps, "they who know the oak". In Anglo-Saxon, the same word denoted 'tree' and 'wisdom'.

Ecstasy – from the Greek - existanai "displace, put out of place," also "drive out of one's mind" (existanai phrenon), from ek "out" + histanai "to place, cause to stand," so literally means "standing at the side of" (remaining in English as "to be beside oneself"?)

Electricity – from elektron, which is old Greek for amber.

Enthusiasm – from Greek; en theos – the God within

Eureka! – Greek: Heuriskein – 'to find'. (in this case: 'I've found it') – this word shares the same etymological root as Heuristic

Eros - As soon as the horse became domesticated (early in the second millennium BC) the sun was portrayed as guiding a chariot drawn by four flaming steeds. In Ancient India these were termed 'Arushá', Sanskrit for 'Sun Bright' (the Greek word 'Eros' shares that meaning, having evolved from the same root as 'Sun Horse').
- Richard Cohen: "Telling Stories", Chapter 1 (P. 12) of "Chasing the Sun"

Family – Famulus means domestic slave and 'familia' is the group of slaves belonging to one man. In Gaius' times, the family, i.e. patrimonium (or inheritance) was passed on by means of a will and testament. This expression was invented by the Romans to designate a new type of social organism, whose head would have under his power the woman, the children and a certain number of slaves under Roman law, and the right of life or death over them.
- From Friedrich Engels; The Originb of the Family, Private Property and the State P. 108

February - From 'Februalia'; the Roman festival of purification, whence the name of the month. In Britain it replaced the Old English solmonað "mud month."

Frank – the root meaning is 'free' as in 'Frankish (the dominant race)'; therefore 'speaking frankly', frankincense (it game from there) and to lose ones freedom; 'disenfranchise'.

Fuselage – French; fuseler – to shape like a spindle. Latin; fusus – spindle (Chambers)

Gazette – comes from the Italian word for magpie - Gazza – "a collection of interesting things"? therefore

Gens – (as in genetic, genesis, etc.) – The Latin word 'gens' comes, as does its Greek form 'genos' from the common Aryan root word 'gan', which means 'to beget'. The words gens in Latin, genos in Greek, dschanas in Sanskrit, kuni in Gothic... kyn in old Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon, kin in English and künns in Mid-High German all mean lineage or descent.

Geometry - the original meaning is closer to 'numerology', viz;Gematria or gimatria is a traditional Jewish system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other. It most likely derives from Greek geōmetriā.

Gladiator – means 'swordsman'. 'Glad' = 'sword' has many derivations. From the flower Gladiolus (its leaves are sword shaped) to a glade in a woods (where the sun comes through the trees in a sword-like shaft).

Glamour – From Chambers Dicitonary and the Online Etymological Dictionary: 1720, Scottish, "magic, enchantment" (especially in phrase to cast the glamor), a variant of Scottish gramarye "magic, enchantment, spell". Originally, 'grammar' meant 'knowledge' and often of occult things.
However, in his book The Victorians, Jeremy Paxman claims it has its modern roots in the following folk legend, A human midwife – so the story went – was summoned in the middle of the night by mysterious figures to deliver a baby, Before she entered the home, she was told to smear an ointment on her eyes – when she crossed the threshold, the house appeared to her as a palace. Having safely delivered the baby, she accidentally rubbed one eye with a sleeve – and the house was revealed to her as a hovel, its inmates fairies. The ointment was fairly 'glamour', a magic potion.

Gymnasium – gymnazein, in Greek = To train in the nude

Hallucinate – Latin; alucinare, 'to wander in the mind' - (Chambers Concise Dictionary)

Harem – 'a Turkish word meaning 'forbidden', according to Hugh Barnes in 'Gannibal', Ch 6, 'Sublime Port', P.57

Hazard – Hasart, a castle in Syria where the game of dice was invented (according to William of Tyre, during the crusades). This probably passed through Spanish via Arabic. According to Jordan Ellenberg in 'How Not to be Wrong' (footnote to P, 426) the word's 'ultimate origin' is the Arabic word for dice.

Heresy – From Greek haeresis, which means the act of taking, choice, set of principles, school of thought (haereein) - (Chambers Concise Dictionary) – my attention was drawn to this by reading 'The Friar of Carcasonne', P.196 by Stephen O'Shea

Heuristic - see Eureka!

Honduras... ver Bahamas

Hot Dog – In 1930s USA, the meat in the sausages was so of such poor quality that it was rumoured to be dog meat.

Idiot - Idiot as a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs ("person lacking professional skill", "a private citizen", "individual"), from ἴδιος, idios ("private", "one's own"). In Latin the word idiota ("ordinary person, layman") preceded the Late Latin meaning "uneducated or ignorant person" Its modern meaning and form dates back to Middle English around the year 1300, from the Old French idiote ("uneducated or ignorant person").
An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs. Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education. In Athenian democracy, idiots were born and citizens were made through education (although citizenship was also largely hereditary).
Abridged from

Interest – From Latin, meaning 'having to do with' or 'concerning'

Iran - Connected to the word 'Aryan'. Ultimately from Skt. arya- "compatriot;" in later language "noble, of good family."

Islam - 1818, from Arabic islam, lit. "submission" (to the will of God), from root of aslama "he resigned, he surrendered, he submitted," causative conjunction of salima "he was safe," and related to salam "peace."


Jazz – (from the Online Etymological Dictionary) - as a type of music, attested from

1913. Probably ultimately from Creole patois jass "strenuous activity," especially

"sexual intercourse" but also used of Congo dances, from jasm (1860) "energy,

drive," of African origin (cf. Mandingo jasi, Temne yas), also the source of

slang jism.

"If the truth were known about the origin of the word 'Jazz' it would never be

mentioned in polite society" - "Étude," Sept. 1924 - rather similar to Louis Armstrong's reply when a journalist asked him what jazz was: "Lady, if you gotta ask, you'll never know"

Jissom: See Jazz

Kiosk – The original word is  kōšk, which means 'Pavillion' in Pahlavi. This came into Spanish via the French kiosque, which itself was derived from the Turkish  köşk and this form the Persian  košk

Knight – Though it later came to be connected with chivalry (from 'cheval'; 'horse' in French) the original cnichts were the castle-owners' armed thugs and the original meaning of the word is more like 'lowly servant'.

Lens – Magnifying glasses became common in the Thirteenth Century, but these were cumbersome especially for writing. Craftsmen in Venice began making small discs of glass, convex on both sides, to be worn in a frame: 'Spectacles?. Because these were shaped like lentils, they became known as 'lentils of glass', hence, from the Latin, lenses
- Richard Cohen, Chasing the Sun, footnote to 'The Earth Moves', P.153

Lent - The Christian festival, derives its name from being a time when – as it was forbidden to eat meat – lentils were typically the most commonly-eaten meal.

Liberty – The first word meaning 'freedom' that we know comes from a Linear B tablet from 1400 BCE - 3,400 yrs ago (er re u ter io)) and in its original use it literally meant freedom from taxes

Macabre - Records begin in late medieval French (1376). The meaning can be fitted to the Arabic مقابر maqābir = "graves" (plural of maqbara; from root قبر qabar = "to bury"). Portuguese almocavar = "cemetery" is certainly from the Arabic al-maqābir = "the graves".  Most dictionaries say the origin is highly uncertain.

Magazine – From the Arabic verb 'kazena' = to store; from there 'macsa' ( = storehouse), whose plural is 'macsin'. (The first known use is Edward Cave's "Gentleman's Magazine" in London in 1731)

Minute – in the 17th century, to divide the hours: from 'Pars minuta prima'. Minuta = 'small'. See 'second'.

Money – The temple of Juno Moneta ('Juno the Warner') was next door to the place where coins were 'MINTED'

Mumpsimus - mid 16th century: erroneously for Latin sumpsimus in quod in ore sumpsimus 'which we have taken into the mouth' (from the Eucharist), in allusion to the

story of an illiterate priest who, when corrected for reading quod in ore mumpsimus, replied 'I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus'

Muslim – one who submits.

Mystery – from Myein (Greek) 'to close' – as in closing ones eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the rites) and lips (for secrecy) during the mysteries (secret rites or doctrines) from 'mystes'; one who has been initiated.

Noon – from Lat. "None", the ninth hour – which was about 3 p.m. until the prayer service was moved forward to mid-day

Orchid - from Greek "orkheos" = testicle (from the shape of the root)

Paradise – "'Paradaida' the Persians called their exquisitely beautiful parks, a word transcribed by the Greeks as 'paradeisos'. – Tom Holland: Persian Fire, P. 213, The Gathering Storm

Pistol – "The word 'pistol' means literally 'Pistoian' and, before the days of firearms, a 'pistole' was  dagger, called after Pistoia (a town in Italy) because daggers were made or used there so commonly" – From 'Hawkwood – Diabolical Englishman' by Frances Stonor Saunders, P. 80, Chapter 5 'Betrayal'

Pornography – 'Porne' was one of the various types of prostitutes in Ancient Greece, and 'pornography' simply means 'writing about prostitutes'

Precarious – According to The History of Warfare by John Keegan, the precario was the land granted to Roman soldiers in exchange for service. Online dictionaries only have this: 1640s, a legal word, "held through the favor of another," from Latin precarius "obtained by asking or praying," from prex (genitive precis) "entreaty, prayer" (connected to 'pray')

Punch – This drink was originally made from five ingredients from panch, the Hindu word for 'five' (this was Pancas in Sanskrit, which later found its way into the Greek penta-)

Probably – First seen in English in 1357 by which time it had its modern meaning. However, originally it was the same as 'provable'. Its misuse by jurors and fortune tellers led to a weakening in meaning. Related to 'proof'.

Problem – Gr. Problema – atos – pro, before, ballein, to throw. (Chambers Dictionary)

Prostitute – Pro Stitutio, in Latin; 'I stand before', which is what they did. Stand in front of buildings (usually the whorehouse)

Religion – Acc to Chambers, this may come from the Latin religare: to bind.
according to Cicero, derived from relegere "go through again, read again," from re- "again" + legere = "read". However, popular etymology connects it with religare "to bind fast", via notion of "place an obligation on," or "bond between humans and gods." Another possible origin is religiens "careful," opposite of negligens.

Rigmarole - from "The Ragman Rolls"; Edward I made the Scottish noblemen inscribe themselves on a bureaucratic list.

Rock 'n' roll – In Black American slang since at least the 1930d: To fuck

Russian – Thus baptised by the people who lived lower down the Volga. 'Rus' meant 'rower' OR: I have since read another etymology (Chris Wickham) which relates this to the name for the earliest Swedish settlers there, viz:

These Swedish settlers (near St Petersburg) must have been the communities referred to in the Annals of Saint Bertin for  of 839, and by Byzantine sources of the next century, as Rhos. The Saint Bertin annalist also called the Rhos 'Swedes' and 'Swede' in Estonian – the nearest Finnic language – is Root'si. (This latter theory is also expressed in John Keegan's History of Warfare).

Sal(t) – words which come from this route include: salary (originally an extra stipend), soldier (possibly), salami (salted meat), salad ("herba salata"), sausage ('salcesus' = salted meat)

Satan – Mainodes' etymology gives satah – 'to turn away', 'to go astray' - as the root of this word. From Jacob Mantino's XVI Century translations.

Satellite – from Latin "satelles" (an attendant at court). First used 'astronomically' in a letter form Kepler to Galileo in summer, 1610

Scamper – 'excampare' in Latin. See 'Champion'

Scrofula – From Late Latin scrōfulae swollen glands in the neck, literally: little sows (sows were thought to be particularly prone to the disease), from Latin scrōfa sow

Second – in the 17th century, to divide the hours: from 'Pars minuta secunda'. Secunda = 'second'. See 'minute'.

Senate – This word is related to 'senile' as it comes from 'senex', the Latin word for 'old man'

Shampoo – from the Hindi champi = 'massage' – S.K. Mahomad c. 1775, imported Eastern Therapies to the south coast of England (Brighton)

Silhouette – Étienne de Silhouette was driven from office as controleur géneral after an abortive attempt to limit the power of tax farmers and to find new ways of taxing the nobility. (It was in mockery of his paring down of expenses that comic portraits à la silhouette began to circulate, lending his name to a minor art form)
Leo Damrosch in Rousseau; Restless Genius, Chapter 16; Rousseau the Controversialist, P.359

Spain (España) – Known to the Romans as Hispania, which means 'Land of Hyraxes'. They mistook the Rabbits for this animal from their homeland.

Spam – In 1937, Hormel Foods Corporation of Minnesota produced a cheap tinned meat known as Spam (Spiced Ham). In the 1970s, Monty Python's Flying Circus performed a TV sketch which featured a café where every dish was spam. From this it came to mean the bombardment of the internet by repeated adverts. And these days, just about anything unwanted in your in-box.

Stoics – Stoa Poikile in Greek; The painted Porch, which is where the movement began

Swastika -  "su" meaning "good," "asti" meaning "to be," and "ka" as a suffix. The swastika literally means "to be good". "Swa" is also "higher self", so the translation can be interpreted as "being with higher self". In one word, one might say 'talisman'.

Tennis – This was not the original name of the game (which was 'sphairistike' from the Greek for 'ball skill') but comes from the French  'Tenez' = 'Hold!'

Text – Essentially the same as 'texture' = weaving, due to a metaphor employed by the Roman writer Quintilian.

Tragedy – 'Tragoidia' in Greek = 'Goat song'

Tycoon – Japanese taikun, from old Chinese; T'ai , great, k'iun, prince

Usted – Vuestra Merced – "your mercy"

Vegetable – Look what happens if we follow the etymology of this word backwards. (from the Online Etymological Dictionary)
c.1400, "living and growing as a plant," from O.Fr. vegetable "living, fit to live," from M.L. vegetabilis "growing, flourishing," from L.L. vegetabilis "animating, enlivening," from L. vegetare "to enliven," from vegetus "vigorous, active," from vegere "to be alive, active, to quicken," from PIE *weg- "be strong, lively," related to watch (v.), vigor, velocity, and possibly witch (see vigil). The meaning "resembling that of a vegetable, dull, uneventful" is attested from 1854 (see vegetable (n.)).

Venezuela – named thus by Amerigo Vespucci as many of the natives lived in huts on stilts over the Waters, like a kind of Little Venice.

Viking – From the old English 'wicinga' – 'robber' or 'pirate'

Xenophobia – Fear of 'guests' (not foreigners or 'the unknown') Xenos means 'guest' in Ancient Greek.

Yellow – The word "gleam" stems from an Indo-European root, ghlei-, ghlo- or ghel-, meaning "to shine, glitter or glow", which is also the origin of the word 'yellow' ('geolu' in Old English)

Zero - see 'Cipher'

'+' and '&' – Both come from the Latin 'et'. The first is a 'T' and the second a stylized 'E'



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