Origin and Word Meanings: Etymology of Ten Common Words That Might Surprise You (For Students)

Updated on April 18, 2018
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JoyLevine is an avid linguistics/language arts enthusiast. She grew up with her nose stuck in a book almost every day.

An explanation Of Etymology

Etymology is a big word for a pretty simple idea. Etymology is the study of the history of words and their origins. Etymology traces how words and phrases, and their form or meaning, changes over time.

Through etymology, linguists (people who study language) learn about the history and cultures of civilizations. By analyzing related languages with a technique known as the comparative method, linguists can make inferences about their shared parent language and its vocabulary. In this way, word roots have been found that can be traced all the way back to the origin of the Indo-European language family. (For a detailed look at the Indo European language family and its progression, please click here).

They have also been able to trace the progression, expansion, development and ancient migration of the human family through this study.

The word etymology is derived from the Greek "etymon," meaning "true sense" and the suffix "-logia," denoting "the study of."

Ofwaterfallsandtrails ©2007
Ofwaterfallsandtrails ©2007

Etymology can be a fascinating subject. For me, it has been a passion all my life. Like the recurring Fibonacci patterns we find in nature, such as in the petals of a flower or in the wispy seeds of a dandelion, it is something that connects everything. It seems to be a tangible way of defining relationships, detailing how everything relates to each other while at the same time tracing history and explaining how everything has evolved over time. It is a way of defining origin and change and giving us all a point of reference, if you will.

People thought me odd as a child, with my nose stuck in dictionaries and sometimes maps, reading the root Latin words of many everyday words and phrases, cross referencing them with their countries of origin.

Etymology not only explains interesting facts about the origins of words and phrases but traces the history and development of language as it evolves over time. It is interconnected with culture. It is co-relative and codependent and as you learn through etymology, you come to a knowledge and better understanding of the history and culture of different language groups, peoples and cultures.

Etymology, in effect, bridges differences between cultures and languages, as one group borrows words from another and certain words or phrases are associated with certain groups because of beliefs or customs.

In this article, we will look at the origins behind ten common, simple words. We will find out how these words developed and why. We will learn a little about language itself in the process. Then, I will give you a few pointers if you are interested in looking up the origins to certain words or phrases of your own that you are interested in finding out about.

We'll go ahead and throw in a few extra word pictures depicting several more just for fun! And remember, this article is for the whole family. This is not a boring and dull trip down a monotonous English lesson. This is something the whole family can enjoy. So without further ado, let's get started on number one.

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Ofwaterfallsandtrails © 2009
Ofwaterfallsandtrails © 2009
Ofwaterfallsandtrails © 2009

Teddy Bear

Almost every child has owned one of these at one time or another in their young lives. Soft, cuddly, and adorable, these irresistible furry stuffed animals are a staple of a young child's life. However, did you know the term "teddy bear" did not exist before 1902? Come to think of it, have you ever thought about or wondered why it's called Teddy Bear? I mean, why isn't it called Willy Bear, Timmy Bear or Susie Bear?

Turns out, the term "teddy bear" came about when these soft toys in the form of a bear were named after the president Theodore, or Teddy, Roosevelt. Apparently, Teddy enjoyed big game-hunting. The name derived from a bear-hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902 when Roosevelt's tracker, noted African-American hunter and sportsman Holt Collier, found and caught an old injured bear. Roosevelt refused to kill the lassoed animal, calling it "unsportsmanlike." "Teddy's Bear" was immediately publicized by political cartoonists who took journalistic license, changing it to a young cute bear.

The first such cartoon appeared the following day, November 16. Clifford Berryman, an editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post, immortalized the incident as part of a front-page cartoon montage. Berryman pictured Roosevelt with his gun beside him and the butt resting on the ground, his back to the bear. In the cartoon, he was gesturing his refusal to take the trophy shot. Written across the lower part of the cartoon were the words "Drawing the Line in Mississippi," which coupled the hunting incident to a political dispute.

Soon, and not surprisingly, entrepreneurs jumped on the bandwagon and raced to market the idea into an everyday household item that soon became the rage with all the young kids in America and slowly trended to other countries, as well. It was Morris Michtom who saw the drawing of Roosevelt and was inspired to create a new toy. He created a little stuffed bear cub and put it in his shop window with a sign that read "Teddy's bear," after sending a bear to Roosevelt and receiving permission to use his name. The toys were an immediate success and Michtom founded the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co. These came to be known as the "Roosevelt bears". There was even a series of children's books that were written based on the name.


The term "jigsaw" was believed to first be used around 1760 by John Spilsbury. He was a teacher in London. He wanted to produce a tool to teach his students what the country of England looked like.

He came up with this idea which was to have separate wood blocks that you could fit together side by side. Each block represented a part of the country. This way his students could visualize the whole country and separate it into pieces in order to understand each part better. He used a jig saw to cut the blocks into unique pieces that fit together in a special way. This is how the name developed.

This idea became popular and spread rapidly. Private companies jumped on his
idea and started to develop it into other types of big pictures, such as the world map, and marketed them as educational tools and toys, until they became the jigsaw puzzles we know today.


Hazard is a term that refers to a type of danger or something that may be harmful to us in some way.

This term evolved from the Arabic term "al zahr," which means "the dice."

Dice? What sounds so harmful about dice?

In Western Europe the term came to be associated with a number of games using dice, which were learned during the Crusades while in the Holy Land. The term eventually took on the connotation of danger because, from very early on, games using dice were associated with the risky business of gambling and con artists using corrupted dice.

Interesting, isn't it?

goldleaf process
goldleaf process

Check out this interesting video by Russ Balbirona...


Phoney is a word used to describe something that is fake, or imitation, not the real thing.

British thieves and swindlers of old used many secret code words. One such word they used was the word "fawney", which referred to a gilt ring.

Gilt metal is metal that has been spread over the surface of an object for decorative or ornamental purposes. Traditionally, gold leaf is used in the gilding process. Other, cheaper metals may also be used in leaf form. Gilt metal can be placed over a number of different surfaces.

They would sell these gilt rings, saying that they were made of real gold. But the rings were not genuine gold and thus the word "phony", which originated from "fawney", came about and was used for anything that was said to be fake or not genuine.


Now the word malaria refers to an incurable infectious disease characterized by fever and chills that results from the bite of a mosquito carrying the disease. I always thought that the name of the disease came from the region or had something to do with the mosquito.

As it turns out, the word comes from the medieval Italian root word "mal"meaning bad and "aria" meaning air, which describes the miasma (noxious fumes that come from organic matter) that emanates from the swamps around Rome.

This "bad air" was originally believed to be the acute cause of the fever that often developed in those who spent time around the swamps. Of course, now we know that malaria is caused by certain protozoans present in the mosquitoes that breed around these swamps, and which caused recurring feverish symptoms in those that the mosquitoes bit.


We usually think of quarantine when we think of disease and infection. It basically means the forced stoppage of travel or communication on account of malignant, contagious disease, on land or by sea.

From the French word "quarantine", you derive the prefix "quarant" meaning forty and the suffix "aine", in French, gives a degree of roughness to the figure (like –ish in English), so quarantine means about forty.

Originally when a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected with a malignant, contagious disease, its cargo and crew were obliged to forego all contact with the shore for a period of around forty days. This term came to be known as period of quarantine.

Who knew?


Pedigree is a family tree, of sorts. A family's lineage can be called a pedigree. We might think of a pedigree when we think of tracing a dog or a horse's lineage.

This word is said to be derived from the French word ped de gru, which meant crane's foot. The crane's foot is said to resemble the /|\ symbol on genealogical trees. It has also been suggested that it comes from par degres, the French equivalent of "by degrees." A pedigree chart records the relationship of families by degrees.


An avocado is a pear-shaped fruit with dark green, leathery skin, a large stony seed, and greenish-yellow edible pulp. It should be pretty straightforward how this fruit got its name, right?

Not exactly.

Originally the Aztecs called this fruit by the name ahucatl, after their word for testicle. This may be partly due to the fruit's resemblance to a testicle but also because it was supposedly believed to be an aphrodisiac.

To the Spaniards, the word ahucatl sounded like avocado, which meant advocate in Spanish, and so the fruit came to Europe, via Spain, under that name. Avocado pears are also sometimes called alligator pears. The etymology of this is far more obvious; the skin of these fruits is dark green, thick, leathery, and knobbly, rather like that of an alligator.

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When we think of the word sardonic, we think of dark or derisive humor. Sardonic can refer to being disdainfully or skeptically humorous, or derisively mocking.

Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (after Sicily). It is an autonomous region of Italy, and the nearest land masses are (clockwise from north) the French island of Corsica, the Italian Peninsula, Sicily, Tunisia and the Spanish Balearic Islands. The name Sardinia came probably from the ancient sardinian mythological hero and god whose name was Sardo.

The name Sardinia is from the pre-Roman noun sard, romanised as sardus (feminine sarda). That the name had a religious connotation is suggested from its use also as the adjective for the ancient Sardinian mythological hero-god Sardus Pater "Sardinian Father" (misunderstood by many modern Sardinians/Italians as being "Father Sardus"), as well as being the stem of the adjective "sardonic". Sardinia was called Ichnusa, the Latinised form of the Greek Hyknusa, Sandalion, Sardinia and Sardo by the ancient Greeks and the Romans.

A rather disturbing custom among the very ancient people of Sardinia, was to kill their old people. The Sardi would laugh loudly as they performed this ritual. This is one of the origins of the notorious sardonic laughter, now meaning cruel, malicious laughter. In the eyes of the ancient people, however, their religious belief was that laughter accompanies the passage from death to life and creates life and accompanies birth. So, for them, laughter accompanying killing transforms death into a new birth, nullifies murder as such, and is an act of piety that transforms death into new life.

This word traces its earliest roots to the notion of grinning (Greek "sairo") in the face of danger, or curling one's lips back at evil. One explanation for a later morph to its more familiar form and connection to laughter (supported by the Oxford English Dictionary) appears to have sprouted from the observation that ingesting the sardonion plant from Sardinia (in ancient Greece) resulted in convulsions resembling laughter and, ultimately, death.

In 2009, scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy claimed to have identified hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) as the plant responsible for producing the sardonic grin. This plant is the candidate for the "sardonic herb," which was a neurotoxic plant used for the ritual killing of elderly people in pre-Roman Sardinia. When these people were unable to support themselves, they were intoxicated with this herb and then dropped from a high rock or beaten to death.

Pretty grim origins, if you ask me.

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Fringe is a word that is used to refer to the decorative border, usually small tassels or strings, hanging around the end of a garment. You find the fringe on the edge, or the border, of the garment.

The root Latin word for "fringe" is fimbria. The word "fimbria" was named for Friulia, or more accurately, Friuli-Venezia Giulia. This was a settlement in the Ancient Roman Empire, named for the god Frey, the Norse god (original spelling Frehr) of Peace, prosperity and fertility.

This settlement was located, on the edge, on the border, the farthest northeast corner of the ancient Roman empire.

Now, think of that... "on the edge, on the border." That is exactly where fringe is located.

Even if we speak of fringe, not as a noun, but as an adjective, what is it that we are usually trying to imply? Aren't we usually trying to refer to someone or something that is perhaps on the edge, or right at the borderline?

I guess it's fitting.

So we've seen that etymology can be fun, entertaining, enlightening and most of all, perhaps surprisingly (and enjoyably) simple. It doesn't take a wizard to figure this stuff out. With just a little digging, we can all find out the origins to any word or phrases we want to.

Of course, the simplest way now we can do this is simply by 'googling' the question "What is the origin of---?" Sometimes you come up with a satisfactory answer. Sometimes you don't. You do have to remember to always be wary of what you find on the internet.

For instance, there are a lot of myths regarding the origins of certain words or phrases out there. You need to do your research and look up reputable and reliable sources so that you know your information is correct. Wikipedia can be a great resource tool, but it isn't always completely accurate, since almost anyone can add anything to it. However, it's a great place for royalty free images!

Bottom line is, always try to find several sources that confirm the same information.

Just to give you an example, I remember reading many years ago about the origin of the word "kangaroo." The old story goes that the name was first recorded as "kanguru" on 12 July 1770 in an entry in the diary of Sir Joseph Banks that occurred at the site of modern Cooktown on the banks of the Endeavour River where a ship under the command of Lieutenant James Cook was beached for almost seven weeks to repair damage sustained on the Great Barrier Reef.

Guugu Yimithirr is the native language of the people in the area. According to the legend, Lieutenant Cook and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks were exploring the area when they happened upon the animal. They asked a nearby local what the creatures were called. The local responded "Kangaroo" or in their tongue Kan Gu Ru, meaning "I don't understand you", which Cook took to be the name of the creature.

However this particular myth was debunked in the 1970s by linguist John B. Haviland in his research with the Guugu Yimithirr people.

Now, this story is so funny and cute, I wish it were true! But alas, it is not. So you do need to be careful not to believe everything you hear without finding factual information to back it up. If you do your research right, it shouldn't be hard to separate fact from fiction.

There are many resources on the web and in libraries on etymology.There are many books you can read, both in the library and online or in digital format. There are endless websites devoted to the subject of etymology and linguistics. There are pocket guides. There are also local interest groups in some cities and they can be of great help in finding both broader and more local resources, especially when you are first starting out.

Think of asking teachers or other people in educational fields in the community, perhaps at local museums or similar venues, for information also. The possibilities are endless.

Another simple way of finding out meanings and origins, or at least finding clues, is to look up the information in dictionaries. The last two entries that I explained, "sardonic" and "fringe" are words that I did just that with. I started out finding the origins of these words simply by cross referencing some information on the root Latin words in a Webster dictionary. Later, I did more research at libraries. I learned about history, culture, geography, customs, religious practices, and relationships in the process. All of that I found in just doing research on two simple words.

In short, it's always interesting to find out the origins of language. It is never boring or dull in any way. No matter how much you look up, you find you've only scratched the surface. There is always so much more to explore! It's rewarding, educational, and most of all, fun. It's something you can share with the whole family, or simply enjoy by yourself.

So the next time you run across a phrase or word that piques your interest, look it up and find out more! You may be surprised by what you find out. You will definitely be glad you did.

Another amusing example of why you need to be wary of what you hear on the internet
Another amusing example of why you need to be wary of what you hear on the internet | Source

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I enjoy writing on a number of different subjects. If you are interested in dolphins, butterflies, reptiles, insects, science, technology, astronomy, nature, or other current events, please check out the other hubs on my profile, JoyLevine. I add articles all the time, so feel free to check back often. If not, thank you for stopping by this hub and I hope you have a great day!

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Questions & Answers


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      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        23 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        Interesting. I love all these explanations. They make the words more understandable.

      • ocfireflies profile image


        5 years ago from North Carolina


        It appears we share something in addition to a fascination with fireflies: etymology. I have found myself looking up one word only to find that this one word started me on an etymological quest. Your hub is exceptional. Voted Up and Shared. Excellent Work!



      • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR


        6 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        I agree... My old Webster dictionary, which is ancient, is far better than anything I've had since. I keep going back. Same thing with a set of encyclopedias I inherited from my parents. They had this set long before I was born, and they are still more detailed and accurate than anything I've seen since!

      • profile image

        Scott P Williams 

        6 years ago

        I got an online copy of an Oxford dictionary a while back and the etymologies are much more detailed in the older dictionaries.

      • JoyLevine profile imageAUTHOR


        6 years ago from 3rd Rock from the Sun

        Thank you for all the positive comments. I really do appreciate it. I enjoy studying the meanings behind language. I have always found it a fascinating subject.

      • Colleen Swan profile image

        Colleen Swan 

        6 years ago from County Durham

        Enjoyed reading this hub, so much I didn't know.

      • Paul Kuehn profile image

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        This is an awesome hub which I found extremely useful and interesting. I knew the origin of teddy bear, but not the others. I commend you for the research and time you put into this article. Your illustrations are excellent. Voted up and shared with followers and on Facebook.

      • Lee Tea profile image

        Lee Tea 

        6 years ago from Erie, PA

        This is a brilliant article, both in content and structure. As a communications grad, it totally excites me. I like to write hubs that examine words and ideas in depth as well - pleasure to meet one with this common interest on my news feed! Write on!

        Be well,

        Lee @ Lee's Teas


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