Sunday, 17 January 2016

An A-Z of Word Origins

A is for ‘alphabet’. The word derives from the Greek ‘alpha beta’ which are the first letters of the Greek alphabet.

B is for ‘bidet’. The word originates from a French word meaning ‘pony’ because you straddle a bidet in the same way you would sit on a small horse.

C is for the onomatopoeic ‘crepitate’ which means to make a crackling sound. It comes from Latin meaning ‘to rattle’.

D is for ‘dole’. Nowadays to ‘be on the doll’ means to sign up in order to get money. In the Middle Ages, to be on the dole meant you received food; the same concept applies today i.e. to give out or share something.

E is for ‘egregious’ which used to mean something remarkably good and it has since switched in meaning to mean the opposite. It derives from Latin ‘exgrex’ meaning someone standing outside of the flock i.e. something so good it stands out from all the rest. Our modern sense of the word, meaning something appallingly bad, was probably used ironically but then became more popular.

F is for ‘fridge’. ‘Fridge’ has a ‘d’ but ‘refrigerator’ doesn’t. This is because the word ‘fridge’ was inspired by the proprietary name Frigidaire in the 1920s.

G is for ‘gallant’. Women were described as such in the sixteenth century if they were elegantly dressed. It is linked to the word ‘gala’ and the idea of rejoicing and joy and the word ‘gallivant’ meaning to roam in a joyous whimsical mood.

H is for ‘horror’ which goes back to the Latin ‘horrere’ which literally means hair standing on end.

I is for ‘idiot’ which derives from Middle English through Old French meaning someone of low intelligence. Some of you may have read my blog post in the summer about the word ‘idiot’: the word goes way back to the Latin word ‘iodiata’ meaning an ignorant person, and Greek ‘idiotes’ meaning someone who preferred to remain a layman and remained private and not join in.

J is for the verb ‘jirble’ and means to spill liquid through clumsy hands (it has not yet entered standard English or the OED).

K is for ‘karaoke’ which originates from Japanese meaning ‘empty orchestra’.

L is for ‘lemur’ and goes back to a word meaning ‘spirit of the dead due to the animal's spectral face.

M is for ‘mistletoe’ and literally translates as ‘dung on a twig’.

N is for ‘nodding’ which, believe it or not, is linked to the word ‘innuendo’ through what’s called in linguistics as an ‘ablative gerund’. In the courts, ‘innuendo’ meant to refer or nod to someone; a judge may say ‘He innuendo the plaintiff’ i.e. this idea of nodding to someone to be addressed to get an explanation.

O is for ‘onyx’ and comes from a Greek word meaning ‘fingernail’ because it’s the colour thereof.

P is for ‘pantophobia’ which is a fear of everything.

Q is for ‘qintar’ which is a monetary unit in Albania. An alternative spelling is ‘qindar’. Both are useful to remember as the Q does not need the U (for Scrabblers!). 

R is for ‘ringxiety’; a word that hasn’t yet entered the OED but means ‘a mistaken belief that one’s phone is ringing’.

S is for ‘soliloquy’ which is a lovely sounding word applied to theatre when one character is alone on stage and speaking to the audience. You can ‘soliloquize’ something and be a ‘soliloquist’. The word derives from Latin ‘soliloquium’ – ‘solus’ (alone) and ‘loqui’ (speak).

T is for ‘tmesis’ and refers to a word being inserted within an existing word: examples would be ‘pretty un-bloody-likely’ or ‘I can’t find it any-blooming-where’. ‘Tmesis’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to cut’ and by using it in writing you are cutting up existing words.

U is for ‘umbrella’ and the word came from Italy in the early seventeenth century. It derives from Latin ‘umbra’ meaning ‘shade’. Umbrellas were originally created to protect someone from the sun hence its Latin root. Britain’s wet weather meant they began to be used more for staying dry about twenty years after the word’s first appearance. The word ‘umbrage’ has the same Latin root. An early sense of ‘umbrage’ was ‘a shadowy outline’, giving rise to ‘a ground for suspicion’ and led to the current sense of it meaning to take offence.

V is for ‘vespertine’ meaning ‘related to the evening’. It comes from Latin ‘vespertinus’ meaning evening.

W is for ‘wabbit’ which isn’t a nod to Elmer Fudd but to a Scottish adjective which means tired or slightly unwell. For example, ‘I’m feeling a bit wabbit’.

X is for ‘xylophone’. Interestingly, ‘xylo’ in Latin means ‘related to wood’ and is also the root of the word ‘xylography’ meaning to engrave wood.

Y is for ‘yellow’ which has plenty of negative connotations. It is related to ‘gold’ but also ‘gall’, ‘bile’ and melancholy. In the seventeenth century, it was yellow (not green) that symbolised jealousy probably because yellow was deemed to reflect a bitter or jaundiced point of view. The word ‘jaundice’ itself is from Old French ‘jaune’ (yellow) meaning a yellowish complexion. Yellow is now associated with cowardice – for example, since the 1920s, a coward has been known as ‘yellow-bellied’.

Finally, Z is for ‘zeugma’ which is a figure of speech where a word applies to two others, such as ‘he took his hat and his leave’ and ‘John and his driving licence expired last week’. 

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