14 of the Most Fascinating Word Origins in the English Language

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Etymology – the study of word origins – is a fantastically interesting discipline that yields some incredible facts about where the hugely diverse array of words that make up the English language come from.

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Whether you’re a native speaker or currently learning English, you’ll be amazed at some of the stories behind words you use every day. From tales of frenzied Viking warriors to a theatre-owner’s bet to get people using a made-up word, a little-thought-about history lies waiting to be discovered. Knowing more about the words we use makes studying English even more fun, so here are fourteen of our favourite word origins – and we’ve barely scratched the surface!

1. Dunce

Image shows a portrait of Duns.
Duns was known as “Doctor Subtilis” because of the subtlety of his thinking.

The origins of this derogatory word for someone considered incapable of learning (the opposite of a “bright” student) are surprisingly old, dating to the time of one John Duns Scotus, who was born around 1266 and died in 1308. Scotus was a Scottish Franciscan philosopher and theologian whose works on metaphysics, theology, grammar and logic were so popular that they earned him the honour of a papal accolade. His followers became known as ‘Duns’. So how did this word come to be associated with academic ineptitude? Well, the Renaissance came along and poor Duns’ theories and methods were widely discredited by Protestant and Humanist scholars, while Duns’ supporters clung to his ideas; subsequently, the word “Dunsman” or “Dunce” (which arises from the way in which “Duns” was pronounced in Medieval times) was used in a derogatory fashion to describe those who continued to support outdated ideas. The word gradually became used in a more general sense to refer to someone considered slow-witted. Interestingly, though his name is now used disparagingly, Duns’ teaching is still held in high regard by the Catholic Church, and he was beatified as recently as 1993.

2. Quiz

The story behind the origins of the word “quiz” is so good that we really wish it was true – but it probably isn’t. Legend has it that a Dublin theatre-owner made a bet that he could introduce a new word into the English language within a day or two (the amount of time differs in different tellings of the story), and that the people of Dublin would make up the meaning of the word themselves. So he wrote the nonsense word “quiz” on some pieces of paper and got a gang of street urchins to write it on walls across Dublin. The next day everyone was talking about it, and it wasn’t long before it became incorporated into everyday language, meaning a sort of “test”, because this is what the people thought the mysterious word was supposed to be. According to the telling of the story recorded in Gleanings and Reminiscences by F.T. Porter (written in 1875), the events of this humorous tale unfolded in 1791, and this is where the story becomes less convincing. The word “quiz” is attested earlier than this date, used to refer to someone who is eccentric or odd (hence the word “quizzical”); it was also the name of a yo-yo-like toy popular in 1790. That said, it’s still difficult to find a compelling explanation for the origins of this word, so perhaps there is an element of truth in this excellent story after all.

3. Berserk

Image shows a man in a horned helmet with a man wearing a bear's head beside him.
A berserker pictured with Odin.

When someone “goes berserk”, they go into a frenzy, run amok, perhaps even destroying things. Picture someone going berserk and it’s not difficult to imagine the ancient Norse warriors to whom the word “berserker” originally referred. The word “berserk” conjured up the fury of these men and the untamed ferocity with which they fought, and it’s thought that the word came from two other Old Norse words, “bjorn”, meaning “bear” and “serkr”, meaning “coat”. An alternative explanation, now widely discredited, says that rather than “bjorn”, the first part of the word comes from “berr” meaning “bare” – that is, not wearing armour. Some have said that the “berserkers” were so uncontrollably ferocious due to being in an almost trance-like state, either by working themselves up into a frenzy before battle, or by ingesting hallucinogenic drugs. So, next time you use the expression “going berserk” to describe someone acting irrationally, remember those battle-crazed Vikings and be glad that you’re not on the receiving end of the wrath of a real “berserker”!

4. Nightmare

It sounds as though it refers to a female horse, but in fact the “mare” part of the word “nightmare” (a terrifying dream) comes from Germanic folklore, in which a “mare” is an evil female spirit or goblin that sits upon a sleeper’s chest, suffocating them and/or giving them bad dreams. The same Germanic word – “marōn” – gives rise to similar words in many Scandinavian and European languages. Interestingly, in Germanic folklore, it was believed that this “mare” did more than just terrorise human sleepers. It was thought that it rode horses in the night, leaving them sweaty and exhausted next day, and it even wreaked havoc with trees, twisting their branches.

5. Sandwich

Image shows a delicious-looking sandwich.
The Earl would be proud.

The nation’s favourite lunchtime snack gets its name from the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu. The story goes that 250 years ago, the 18th-century aristocrat requested that his valet bring him beef served between two slices of bread. He was fond of eating this meal whilst playing card games, as it meant that his hands wouldn’t get greasy from the meat and thus spoil the cards. Observing him, Montagu’s friends began asking for “the same as Sandwich”, and so the sandwich was born. Though people did eat bread with foods such as cheese and meat before this, these meals were known as “bread and cheese” or “bread and meat”. The sandwich is now the ultimate convenience food.

6. Malaria

You wouldn’t have thought that a word we primarily associate with Africa would have originated in the slightly more forgiving climate of Rome. It comes from the medieval Italian words “mal” meaning “bad” and “aria” meaning “air” – so it literally means “bad air”. The term was used to describe the unpleasant air emanating from the marshland surrounding Rome, which was believed to cause the disease we now call malaria (and we now know that it’s the mosquitoes breeding in these conditions that cause the disease, rather than the air itself).

7. Quarantine

The word “quarantine” has its origins in the devastating plague, the so-called Black Death, which swept across Europe in the 14th century, wiping out around 30% of Europe’s population. It comes from the Venetian dialect form of the Italian words “quaranta giorni”, or “forty days”, in reference to the fact that, in an effort to halt the spread of the plague, ships were put into isolation on nearby islands for a forty-day period before those on board were allowed ashore. Originally – attested by a document from 1377 – this period was thirty days and was known as a “trentine”, but this was extended to forty days to allow more time for symptoms to develop. This practice was first implemented by the Venetians controlling the movement of ships into the city of Dubrovnik, which is now part of Croatia but was then under Venetian sovereignty. We now use the word “quarantine” to refer to the practice of restricting the movements, for a period of time, of people or animals who seem healthy, but who might have been exposed to a harmful disease that could spread to others.

8. Clue

Who knew that the word “clue” derives from Greek mythology? It comes from the word “clew”, meaning a ball of yarn. In Greek mythology, Ariadne gives Theseus a ball of yarn to help him find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Because of this, the word “clew” came to mean something that points the way. Appropriately enough, Theseus unravelled the yarn behind him as he went into the maze, so that he could work his way back out in reverse. Thus the word “clew” can be understood in this context and in the context of a detective working his way backwards to solve a crime using “clues”. The word gained its modern-day spelling in the 15th century, a time when spelling was rather more fluid than it is today.

9. Hazard

Image shows a painting of three men bent over a table, playing dice.
18th century dice players.

Our word for danger or risk is thought to have its origins in 13th-century Arabic, in which the word “al-zahr” referred to the dice used in various gambling games. There was a big element of risk inherent in these games, not just from the gambling itself but from the danger of dishonest folk using weighted dice. Thus the connotations of peril associated with the word, which got back to Britain because the Crusaders learnt the dice games whilst on campaign in the Holy Land.

10. Groggy

We’ve all felt “groggy” at one time or another – lethargic, sluggish, perhaps through lack of sleep. It originated in the 18th century with a British man named Admiral Vernon, whose sailors gave him the nickname “Old Grog” on account of his cloak, which was made from a material called “grogram”, a weatherproof mixture of silk and wool. In 1740, he decreed that his sailors should be served their rum diluted with water, rather than neat. This was called “grog”, and the feeling experienced by sailors when they’d drunk too much of it was thus called “groggy”.

11. Palace

Image shows a view of Rome on a sunny day.
Today, the Palantine Hill offers wonderful views of Rome.

The word “palace” is another English word with origins in Rome. It comes from one of Rome’s famous ‘Seven Hills’, the Palatine, upon which the Emperor resided in what grew into a sprawling and opulent home. In Latin, the Palatine Hill was called the “Palatium”, and the word “Palatine” came to refer to the Emperor’s residence, rather than the actual hill. The word has reached us via Old French, in which the word “palais” referred to the Palatine Hill. You can see the word “Palatine” more easily in the form “palatial”, meaning palace-like in size.

12. Genuine

The word “genuine” comes from the Latin word “genuinus”, meaning “innate”, “native” or “natural”, itself derived, somewhat surprisingly, from the Latin word “genu”, meaning “knee”. This unlikely origin arises from a Roman custom in which a father would place a newborn child on his knee in order to acknowledge his paternity of the child. This practice also gave rise to an association with the word “genus”, meaning “race” or “birth”. In the 16th century the word “genuine” meant “natural” or “proper”, and these days we use it to mean “authentic”.

13. Ketchup

Image shows someone adding Heinz-brand ketchup to a burger.
More than 650 million bottles of ketchup are sold every year throughout the world.

It’s hard to believe that this British and American staple started life in 17th-century China as a sauce of pickled fish and spices. Known in the Chinese Amoy dialect as kôe-chiap or kê-chiap, its popularity spread to what is now Singapore and Malaysia in the early 18th century, where it was encountered by British explorers. In Indonesian-Malaysian the sauce was called “kecap”, the pronunciation of which, “kay-chap”, explains where we got the word “ketchup”. It wasn’t until the 19th century that tomato ketchup was invented, however; people used to think that tomatoes were poisonous, and the sauce didn’t catch on in America until later that century. One couldn’t imagine chips or burgers without it now!

14. Ostracise

The word “ostracise” and the concept of democracy were both born in Ancient Greece, where the practice of a democratic vote extended to citizens voting to decide whether there were any dangerous individuals who should be banished (because they were becoming too powerful, thus posing a threat to democracy). Those who were eligible to vote exercised this privilege by writing their vote on a sherd of broken pottery – an “ostrakon”. If the vote came back in favour of banishing the individual, they were “ostracised” (from the Ancient Greek verb “ostrakizein”, meaning “to ostracise”). The word has nothing to do with ostriches, the flightless birds – similar though the words are!

As we said at the start of this article, this selection of fascinating word origins barely even scratches the surface of the endlessly interesting world of etymology. Whether you’re a seasoned English speaker or trying to learn this challenging language for the first time, you’re bound to find out some useful facts to help you memorise new words simply by exploring their origins. What remarkable word histories will you discover the next time you find out what a word really means?

Image credits: banner; Duns; berserker; sandwich; dice game; Rome; ketchup.

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