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10 Words With Interesting Etymologies

Beowulf manuscript.
Beowulf manuscript. | Source

A Very Brief Explication of The History of English

The English language is a quirky and nuanced one. It offers an enormous vocabulary and boasts status as a lingua franca. It is archaeological in nature and hearkens back to an imperialistic culture.

English began developing sometime between 500 and 1100 A.D from a mix spoken by tribes called the Angles, the Saxons, the Frisians, and the Jutes. These tribes were from the mainland of Europe, in Western Germany and up along the lands of Denmark. As the Roman influence over England receded, these tribes began to settle in England. Or more accurately, they conquered it, razing Celt and Briton influence from the land and supplanting their own culture.

This language group is known as West Germanic, and the dominant branch spoken became West Saxon, the language in which the epic poem Beowulf is written in. Viking conquest during these times also drastically changed the language, and you can hear Old Norse through this window. Still, this Old English is quite different from Modern English, which comes from a specific dialect of Middle English (The Midland dialect, which you could most likely understand).

The big cultural change that started Middle English was the invasion of the Isles by the Normans in 1066, who spoke a very German-influenced French. They, too, were genetically and culturally defined by the Viking invasions, arriving from Normandy in France, just across the sea from England. The dynamic was that French was high-class and English more rudimentary. This Norman invasion decreased the popularity of English, which experienced a bit of a lull in the 1100's and 1200's. The language then underwent a little renaissance, though the Dark Age was spreading across Europe. The Plague reached England in the 1350's. After this, the English middle class picked up momentum. Of dire consequence, too, was The Hundred Years' War underway on France (1337 - 1453), which changed the dynamic of French in England.

The Renaissance, which began in the 1500's, brought increasing connectedness with other languages during England's Golden Age (Elizabethan Age). The language made bounding progressions in vocabulary as its gradual change in pronunciation tapered off. English became accepted as a language of education, awaiting popularization by artists like Kit and William Shakespeare, then the invention of the printing press — the rest is pretty easy to understand.

There are, of course, many languages that have influenced English. Greek was always a huge influence. Hebrew came largely by way of Christianity. More recently, through trading and exploration are Italian, Arabic, Indian, and Spanish. Plus, some of the languages that influenced English were influenced by other languages. It's a tangled web, but I wanted to give you an idea of the main channels of the language.

On to the Etymologies!

All of these are from a very nifty website called Etymonline with some help from the lovely Wikipedia archives.

For most of these words, I'm skipping the theoretical roots that predate recorded history.

10 Words With Interesting Etymologies

1. Obsess
2. Whiskey
3. Awkward
4. Compute
5. Electric
6. Random
7. Alcohol
8. Manticore
9. Journal
10. Decimate

This Will Make You Very Uncomfortable

1. Obsess

The word obsess is formed from Latin roots ob and sidere, which mean opposite from and to sit, respectively. So if you're really obsessive you may be found sitting across from the target of your interest, leaning in, creepily awaiting their next move.

2. Whiskey

I just remembered my high school Latin teacher speaking to the odd etymology of whiskey or in the Old World whisky. It's one of those rare, rare occurrences of Gaelic words that entered English. It comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha (this is not written how it sounds) which means "water of life". From the Old Irish uisce ("water").

Whiskey was originally a malt liquor.

The Romans used to call their alcoholic beverages aqua vitae, meaning "water of life", so it's possible the Celts responded with this their own phrase.

3. Awkward

Ah, the Vikings! Awkward arrived into English by Norse influences. It is built of two parts: awk- and -ward. Awk comes from Old Norse afugr which means "turned the wrong way."

This comes from the Proto-Germanic (very early Germanic) afug-, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European (a prehistoric, theoretical language) apu-ko.

These are all related to the early root apo-, which we see in apology, aposiopesis, apotheosis.

This is where it gets weird. The -ward suffix comes from the Old English -weard, which means "turned toward." -Weard stems from the Proto-Germanic warth.

Taking a step even deeper is the Proto-Indo-European wert. The root meaning here is "to turn or wind" or "turned towards."

So awkward is etymologically autological. It literally means "turned towards being turned away from."

Source

4. Compute

Another Latin one, compute is constructed of cum (with) and putare (to think or reckon), and basically means "to count up together." Though strangely the word putare has an older meaning to prune. Can you reckon how prune might be related to reckon or think?

5. Electric

Amber forms from very old sap that hardens over time.
Amber forms from very old sap that hardens over time.

William Gilbert coined Electric in his 1600 book De Magnete (as electricus) to mean the flow of charged particles through a medium. It comes from the Ancient Greek for "amber", elektron, because if you rub amber on cloth it generates static electricity.

6. Random

I wonder if you can sort of feel this one out. Random is contracted from the phrase at random, which we know was used in the 1560s. This phrase came from Middle English randon meaning "recklessness" or "speed" which entered through Old French with the same spelling, but bearing slightly different meaning. The Old French seems closer to "disorder," "force," and "rush". This was rendered from the Old Fench verb randir, "to run fast."

7. Alcohol

Wondering what this has to do with whiskey?
Wondering what this has to do with whiskey?

In the 1500's Alcohol may have been seen also written as alcofol. Bartholomew Traheron records the use of a "fine powder" in 1543 by the Moors called alcohol. This is because (ready for this one?) the Arabic-speaking Moors used to sublimate the mineral stibnite to form a black powder, antimony sulfide. It was used as eye-shadow and eye-liner, and also an antiseptic. The orgin is al-kohl (كحل), literally, "the [antimony sulfide powder we use for that stuff]". Eventually (somehow) this came to be used for distilled products and then finally ethanol.

For example, you might use this refining process in an analogy to refer to the distillation of wine (the al-kohl of wine).

The manticore is often depicted with three rows of sharp teeth.
The manticore is often depicted with three rows of sharp teeth. | Source

8. Manticore

This mythical beast entered English as the Latin manticora, from Greek martichora. Both of these spellings seem to have varied.

If you didn't know, it has the head of a man, the body of a lion, a scorpion's tail, and various other bestial features: bat wings, a trumpeting voice, and razor-sharp teeth. It is a legend of Persian origin, constructed of mardya ("man") and khvar ("to eat"). Watch out, because manticores eat you whole and leave no evidence behind.

9. Journal

Journal comes to us from the Late Latin diurnalis meaning "daily." It then became the Old French term jurnal for a book containing the daily prayer schedule. It then came to include other written records, but retained its "daily" implication. Related is the antonym of nocturnal, "diurnal."

10. Decimate

Decimate stems from the Latin verb decimare "to decimate". If you disobeyed the Roman army, I have some bad news for you. You might just be subject to decimation, or pulling lots and then receiving a good blow to one-tenth of your population. Yeah — the Romans could be pretty cruel.

Since then, it's broadened in meaning.

And what a bloody mess THAT was.
And what a bloody mess THAT was. | Source

So,

Which etymology is the most interesting to you?

See results

Comments 4 comments

Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 2 months ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

I liked the alcohol etymological definition because I remember using kohl in my misspent youth to enhance my, already, interesting eyes.

I have a friend who should read your hub because his attempts at making guesses at the etymology of words can be breathtakingly funny.

Mind you, he refers to it as entomology, so he doesn't stand on a very solid footing even at the start of things.


yobennu profile image

yobennu 2 months ago from Hatfield, Pennsylvania Author

How edgy ;)

Haha, that's pretty great. He should be a folk etymologist! It's sometimes even better to just make stuff up!


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 2 months ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Like William Shakespeare, Yeah?


yobennu profile image

yobennu 2 months ago from Hatfield, Pennsylvania Author

Exactly ;)

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