11 English Words With Strange and Surprising Origins

Ever wonder why it’s called a ‘seersucker suit’ or where the word ‘avocado’ comes from? Read on for these answers and more.
word origins

The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day, but how often do we stop and think about the words we’re saying or where they come from? Not very often, and we’re missing out! The stories behind many English word origins are funny, fascinating or just downright weird. We investigated the origins of 11 of them.

Seersucker Suit

This seemingly bizarre name for an outfit, known for being a choice for attire among men in the American South, actually has a semi-logical origin story. The fabric was traded in India and called shirushakar there, which stems from the Persian words shir and shekar for “milk” and “sugar” (probably due to the alternating smooth and bumpy texture of the fabric’s thin stripes). The English butchered the word when they brought over the fabric while trading with the East India Company in the 17th century.


Even if you love to throw back an Old Fashioned on a Friday night, you probably don’t know where the name “whiskey” comes from. It’s not because it’s so strong it causes you to grow whiskers. It actually originates from the Gaelic phrase uisge beatha, which means “water of life.” It was later shortened and anglicized, but many people still treat whiskey as a life-sustaining beverage.


When looking into various word origins, it wasn’t long before things took a sexual turn. While “testify” comes from the Latin word for “witness” (testis), the word testis also means “testicles.” Legend has it that in ancient Rome, men would hold their testicles when taking an oath, but this piece of strange mythology has been deemed probably untrue.


The popular produce that’s come to symbolize (somewhat ironically) the millennial generation also has a relation to male sex organs. “Avocado” is a modification of the Spanish word aguacate, which derives from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word āhuacatl, which means “testicle.” Please note the shape of an avocado, as well as its reputation for being an aphrodisiac.


For such an ominous word, the origin is fairly tame. Sinister is a Latin word, meaning “of the left.” Because most people were right-handed, left-handed people were considered unlucky or untrustworthy in ancient Rome. As time went on, the word came to mean “evil.” No offense to our leftie friends.


This word for a period or place of isolation to prevent the spread of disease has an interesting backstory. “Quarantine” comes from the Italian words quaranta giorni (“forty days”) because in the 14th century, that’s how long ships coming to Venice from plague-infected ports were required to sit before the passengers were allowed to come ashore, giving enough time to see if symptoms develop.


Now things get a little morbid. In Old French, the word mort meant “death” and the word gage meant “pledge,” so when you’re taking out a mortgage on your house, you’re technically making a “death pledge.” Yikes!


The word for this nasty disease derives from the Italian words mal (“bad”) and aria (“air”). In the 1700s, the Romans thought breathing in the air surrounding the marshland around their city caused malaria, when in reality it’s transmitted by mosquitoes that breed in those kinds of swampy areas.


The origin of the word “tragedy” is a little complicated. It stems from the Greek word tragodia, which means “song of the male goat.” There are a few different theories about this: one is that in Athenian acting competitions, a live goat was the prize. Another says that people dressed up as goats and satyrs (half-goats) in Greek plays. A third theory says goats were sacrificed to the gods in Greek plays and then a goat lament was sung. Whichever explanation is true, there were definitely goats involved. And it was sad.


Have you ever woken up from a bad dream and thought, “Why are they called nightmares?” No? Well, we’re going to tell you why anyway. The word “nightmare” comes from the Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse word mara, for a “demon” or “evil spirit.” According to Germanic folklore, the demon would sit on people’s chests as they slept, suffocating them or causing them to have bad dreams. Sounds pleasant.


It’s arguably America’s favorite condiment, but both the word “ketchup” and the sauce itself originated far from the United States. There are varying theories on where the word came from, but it probably originates from the Amoy dialect of Chinese word ke-tsiap, meaning “brine of pickled fish.” It later made its way to Malaysia, taking the form of the word kicap for “fish sauce.” British and Dutch merchants brought it back to their countries and called it “ketchup” or “catsup,”  and over time the recipe changed, eventually dropping the fish and adding sugar for preservation purposes.

Language is fascinating.
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