Words That Have Interesting Origins

  • ATOMIC - I wonder how many people realise that the atomic theory of matter dates all the way back to Ancient Greece. The philosopher Democritus developed the theory that the ultimate components of matter must be particles that cannot be divided. If matter can be divided into infinitely small pieces, then it is hard to see how it can exist at all, seeing that an infinitely small particle seems to have the same description as one that doesn't exist. He called the fundamental particles atoms, which literally means 'uncutables'. The irony is that the modern atomic theory found itself forced eventually to speak of 'sub-atomic' particles, a term that, taken literally, is self-contradictory.
  • CARNIVAL - This word for a fun festival is related to such words as carnal and carnivore. It originated as a word for a festival held just before the beginning of the Christian holy period of Lent, a period in which the eating of meat was forbidden. Carnival literally means the witholding of meat.
  • CYNICAL - This word meaning "having the attitude that people are primarily selfishly motivated not socially motivated" is derived from the ancient Greek word kynikos meaning 'doglike'. There are two probable explanations. One is that Antisthenes, the founder of the philosophical movement called Cynicism, taught at a gymnasium called the Kynosarge - the Grey Dog. The other is that the behavior of the Cynics was seen as literally doglike. They taught that people should live "according to Nature" - which meant living off the land, using whatever food and shelter presented itself, wearing clothes only if needed, sex, even masturbation, in public, whenever nature called. Like dogs. (See also Diogenes at this list .)
  • DUKES (as in 'Put up your dukes') - Thought to be derived from the Cockney rhyming slang 'Duke of Yorks' meaning 'forks' - with a visual pun on forks as resembling hands (the tines as fingers).
  • DUNCE - This word meaning a bad scholar was derived from the name of the medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus (John Duns, the Scot). His philosophical writings were so impenetrable to readers, and so many scholars came to grief trying to understand them, that his name came to mean 'bad scholar'.
  • IMPORTANT - Not too surprisingly, 'important' is related to 'import' (as in import and export). The gist seems to be the following. Something imported to where its sort of thing has never been before can have far-reaching effects. Think of the import of potatoes and tobacco from South America to Europe (not to mention the diseases that went in the opposite direction). So, 'important' meant and still means 'having far-reaching effects'. So 'historical importance', for example, means 'having far-reaching effects down through history'.
  • INSULIN - The name given to this hormone is derived from the Latin insula, meaning 'island'. Why? An anatomist named Langerhans examined pancreatic tissue under a microscope and observed that it was speckled with groups of dark cells. He called these groups 'islets' and they became known to science as 'the islets of Langerhans'. Later it was found that these groups of cells are where the hormone is manufactured.
  • LENS - When trial-and-error experiments with the shapes of pieces of glass resulted in the double-convex shape that had the magical-seeming property of making small objects appear larger, a name had to be found for this marvellous new device. It was soon realised that the shape already existed in nature. The seed of the leguminous plant called the lentil had the same double-convex shape. Thus the word lens came about.
  • MAUDLIN - Weepily sentimental. Derived from the name Magdalen, specifically the biblical Mary Magdalen who in religious art is traditionally depicted as weeping. [Thanks to pianoshootis]
  • ORCHID - From New Latin Orchideae, family name, from Latin orchis, a kind of orchid, from Greek orkhis, testicle, orchid (from the shape of its tubers).
  • POLITICS, etc., POLITE, etc., POLICE, etc., COSMOPOLITAN, METROPOLITAN, etc. - All these words and their cognates (look it up) are derived from the Ancient Greek 'polis' meaning a city-state.
  • RELIGION - Have you ever been watching one of those tv crime-scene shows and heard them use the word 'ligature' to refer to a binding or a cord use to strangle someone? Well, believe it or don't, 'ligature' and 'religion' are both derived from the Latin religare meaning 'to bind'.
  • SWASTIKA - The word comes from the ancient Sanskrit language in which it was the name of the sign meaning 'good luck' or 'auspiciousness'. The Nazis read much more than this meaning into the sign when they adapted it for their flag.
  • TESTIFY - The resemblance between testimony, testify, testis, and testicle shows an etymological relationship, but linguists are not agreed on precisely how English testis came to have its current meaning. An old theory has it that the Romans placed their right hands on their testicles and swore by them before giving testimony in court. Another theory says that the sense of testicle in Latin testis is due to a calque, or loan translation, from Greek. The Greek noun parastats means "defender (in law), supporter" (para- "by, alongside," as in paramilitary and -stats from histanai, "to stand"). In the dual number, used in many languages for naturally occurring, contrasting, or complementary pairs such as hands, eyes, and ears, parastats had the technical medical sense "testicles," that is "two glands side by side." The Romans simply took this sense of parastats and added it to testis, the Latin word for legal supporter, witness.
  • WARFARIN - An anti-coagulant (blood clot preventing) medicine that has also been used as a rat poison (an overdose causes fatal bleeding). There are two main misconceptions about the name. One is that it is derived from the phrase "warfare on rats". The other is that it is derived from the acronym WARF, short for Wisconsin Anti-Rat Federation. It is in fact derived from the acronym WARF, short for Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation whose chemists developed it. (The trade name of the medicine is Coumadin.)

My favorite is "maudlin" meaning "weakly sentimental" from Mary Magdalene who is always shown as crying.

I love the thoery of the Romans taking oath in court.

That was neat. My favourite would have to be religion though. Ligature? Religion? I like that.

Yes, it's a nice irony. Especially in light of the fact that religion, once it becomes a Church (organised religion), it becomes factional - still binding, but in increasingly several bundles. (Did you know that the words 'several' and 'sever' - as in to sever bindings - are related :- D

The word "slave" is the same as Slav, because Slavs were so often conquered and enslaved. The Slavic word "robotnik" for slave is the direct origin of "robot".

Two good suggestions, already known to me. Perhaps I didn't put them on the list before because they verge on being *too* well-known.

There are several words other than 'robot' that originated in (or rather, were made well-known by) science fiction. Do you know what 'waldoes' are and how they got that name? - see "Waldo" by Robert Heinlein. Did you know the term 'atomic bomb' dates back to 1913? - see The World Set Free by H. G. Wells (in which Wells also foresaw nuclear power stations and the possibility of nuclear terrorism). Wells also foresaw the World Wide Web - he called it the 'World Mind'.

Thanks for your continued interest in this list. I'll probably add your latest suggestions -eventually - and I welcome any others you might find. (That's called 'politeness' - now see what I am about to add to the list.)

If well-known is a problem, you should know "important" is pretty obvious and "carnival" is still common in the original sense.

Waldo and The World Set Free are entirely new to me.

Try these:
"jingoism" derives from Jesus
"alcohol" is from kohl
"dukes" as in hands from "forks"

I agree that it's obvious that 'import' and 'important' are related, and that 'carnival' has something to do with meat, but it is far from obvious just what those relationships are, which is what makes them interesting - unless you already know. I don't know what others might or might not know, so I feel free to limit the list to what I find interesting.

'Jingoism' is surely obsolescent these days, you hardly ever hear it.

There are much more interesting English adoptions of Arabic words than that hoary old classic 'alcohol'. For example, admiral, adobe, alcove, alfalfa, cotton, gazelle, hazard, loofah, mattress, satin, sherbet, spinach, tabby, tariff, and that most important of numbers, zero.

I find 'dukes' the most interesting of your suggestions. From Cockney rhyming slang 'Duke of Yorks' meaning 'forks' - with a visual pun on forks as resembling hands (the tines as fingers).

You are the Big Cheese.

And yet you can always make a comment that I suspect has gone completely over my head - but is never beneath my notice (the notice on my door that reads "The Big Cheese").

I had to look it up to find out that it comes from the Urdu word for "thing," chiz (ciš-ciy).

It was in Sir Henry Yule's justifiably famous Anglo-Indian Dictionary which I had never heard of, Hobson-Jobson. What an amazing title. Oh, how I long for the return of the Empire.

I know the phrase from the word world of Ring Lardner. I love an obscure reference because...

You know me, Al(bert?)

Now here's a comment rich in material. A hankering for diction has seen all my Christmases arrive [this sentence to be read in an Indian accent]. Here's where I mologize my etys (note the punning logo).

Cheese shall adorn my list - think I'll use blue lettering - yum.

I'm not going to touch Ring Lardner :-)

I'm assuming that the "OE" coat-of-arms stands for "Old English." It truly is an excellent logo... full of etho, patho and Aramis. For some time I have been keeping the "lionize"/"lyin' eyes" pun to myself but I'm beginning to doubt that I'll ever get the chance to use it. (There's a "King of the Boasts" pun in there somewhere but I just can't find it.) Curse you, stupid brain!

Aside from that I have no idea what puns/references you might be using. Curse you, stupid brain! It is three days and fortnight since (Inter)National Pun Day. March 4th... get it? I have a feeling that in seventeen days I'll reread this and have no idea what I was saying. Curse you, stupid brain!

Sacré Bleu Cheese! or Oh my gouda!

You know me, Al is a great book by Ring Lardner. I extrapolated the "Al(bert)' although it might not be Albert, nor Robert, nor Bert, nor Norbert... although "Southern brightness" would be appropriate. Give me a month and I'm sure I'll have no idea what I just meant. Curse you, stupid brain!

I took OE to stand for 'Online Etymological' (and I can guess why it doesn't read OED) - and maybe I'm reaching but the whole logo is on a line... I take it you got my Henry Yule / hankering Christmases...but I'm not sure and I'd hate them to go to waste because my spare tyre's already too tiring.

The pun, you know, is just one of a wide range of concepts that are based on the concept of similarity. In language there's also such things as metaphor [hmmm, wonder if I'll ever get to use the "that's what he met 'er for" pun], simile, and synonymy. In reasoning there's analogy. In knowlege-theory there's perception-as-representation (just as in art-theory there's art-as-representation, and, within the concept of representation itself there's analog representation), in reality-theory there's the concept of identity, in truth-theory there's truth-as-correspondence (although I think the 'mapping' metaphor gets the idea across better), in ethics there's the Golden Rule (based on an analogy between self and other selves)...and so on.

Hmmm, I almost continued on with an analysis of punning, but...sufficient unto the day...