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An Introduction To Etymology: Eight Great Word Origins

What is etymology and why is it important? Join us on an excursion into the world of eight common words' delightfully convoluted backstories.

What is etymology?

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the meaning of words has changed over the course of history. Let’s get meta and take the word etymology as an example. Etymology derives from the Greek word etumos, meaning true. Etumologia was the study of words’ true meanings. This evolved into etymology by way of the Old French ethimologie. That’s all fairly straightforward, but there are many, many words in the English language that have unexpected and fascinating origins. Here are a few such examples.

1. Avocado (origin: Nahuatal)

The word avocado comes from Spanish aguacate, which in turn comes from the Nahuatl ahuacatl, meaning testicle. Surprised? Perhaps, but the more one thinks about it, the less surprising it gets — they do rather resemble a man’s soft spot, and this resemblance becomes even more pronounced when you see avocado duos dangling clumsily from trees.

Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs, and is still spoken by approximately 1.5 million people native to Central America. Avocado isn’t the only Nahuatl word which has been borrowed by the English language; chili, chocolate, tomato and guacamole were also coined by speakers of Nahuatl. Indeed, the -mole of guacamole is derived from the Nahuatl molli, which means sauce. It’s a good thing the origin of this word has been obfuscated on its way into the English language, otherwise guacamole (Nahuatl: ahuacamolli) probably wouldn’t be as popular as it is.


2. Cappuccino (origin: Italian/German)

Two cappuccinos, please.

I assume you mean two cappuccini. Please pay attention to your Italian plurals. And at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, it’s far too late for milky cappuccini anyway. You’d best order an espresso instead. And make it snappy!

It’s become increasingly difficult to get your caffeine hit without someone dining out on your lack of cultural etiquette. The next time you’re scolded for how you order coffee, you can retaliate with this whimsical anecdote about the origin of the word cappuccino: it’s the diminutive from of the word cappuccio, which means hood in Italian. Wondering what the link is between a (little) hood and a cappuccino? One must look no further than the Capuchin Monks, whose hooded habits were a dark, oak brown similar to the color of a good cappuccino.

The first recorded use of the word was in 1790 in Vienna, Austria. Wilhelm Tissot jotted down a recipe for an exquisite Kapuzinerkaffee (lit. Capuchin coffee), which was rather different in constitution to its modern-day successor, containing sugar, cream and egg yolks. The current, somewhat simplified recipe now consists of espresso and foamed milk, but there are still parts of Austria where you can order a good ol’ Kapuziner.


3. Disaster (Origin: Italian/Greek)

The word disaster has been passed around Europe like a hot potato. The English version is most closely tied to the French désastre, which is derived from the Old Italian disastro, itself derived from Greek. The pejorative prefix dis- and aster (star) can be interpreted as bad star, or an ill-starred event. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by astronomy and the cosmos, and believed wholly in the influence of celestial bodies on terrestrial life. For them, a disaster was a particular kind of calamity, the causes of which could be attributed to an unfavorable and uncontrollable alignment of planets. It’s therefore interesting to note that the strict, modern English definition of disaster explicitly stipulates that a disaster is human-made, or the consequence of human failure.


4. Handicap (Origin: English)

This word originates from the the 17th Century English trading game hand-in-cap. The game involved two players and an arbitrator, or umpire. The players would present two possessions they would like to trade. The umpire would then decide whether the possessions were of equal value or not and, if they weren’t, would calculate the discrepancy. The owner of the lesser object would make up the difference with money, and then all three participants would place forfeit money into a hat. If the two players agreed with the umpire’s valuation, they would remove their hands from the hat with their palm open. If they disagreed, they would pull out their hands clenched in a fist. If both agreed or disagreed, the umpire would get the forfeit money, while if one agreed and the other didn’t, the player who approved the transaction would receive the forfeit money.

Over time, hand-in-cap came to be known as handicap and started to be used to refer to any kind of equalization or balancing of a contest or game. The word handicap is still used in many sports today, such as golf and horse racing. Indeed, horse racing was probably the first sport to introduce the term in order to define the an umpire’s decision to add more weight to a horse so that it runs equally to its competitors. This notion of being burdened or put at a disadvantage was carried over to describe people with a disability in the early 20th Century. By the mid-20th Century it was widely used, but it has since fallen out of the popular lexicon.


5. Jeans (Origin: Italian)

Although jeans are quintessentially American, and their invention is commonly attributed to Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss, the name of the popular garment is actually of European origin. The fabric which Strauss used for his patented, mass-produced trousers was first produced in Genoa, Italy and Nimes, France. Why’s that significant? Well, the French word for Genoa is Gênes, and the name jeans is likely an anglicization of the material’s city of origin. Similarly, the word denim most probably comes from de Nimes, meaning from Nimes in French. Although we often talk of denim jeans nowadays, the two materials actually differed. Denim was coarser, more durable and of higher quality than the toughened cotton corduroy manufactured in Genoa. Workers in Northern Italy were sporting jeans as early as the 17th Century, long before post-war American subcultures picked up on them as a fashion accessory.


6. Salary (Origin: Latin)

The word salary comes from the Latin salarium; the payment for salt.

In ancient times, salt was used for many important things, and was often referred to as white gold. It could be used as an antiseptic to treat wounds (in Romance languages one can recognize a connection between sal/sale, meaning salt, and salud/saude/salute, meaning health), to preserve food, and also as a method of payment in Greece and Rome.

As far back as the Egyptian Empire, laborers were paid with salt that they could use to preserve their food. The Roman Empire continued using this form of payment and it took on the name salary for that which was given to workers at the end of the working month… which adds a new dimension to the notion of a company’s solvency.


7. Trivial (Origin: Latin)

Trivial originates from the Latin word trivium, which was used to denominate a place where three roads meet (tri- meaning three, and -vium from via, meaning road). A trivium gained the connotation of being an open, public place — a mini agora — where people from across society’s technicolor spectrum could relax, chat and simply coexist. The adjective trivialis was a derivative of trivium and came to mean vulgar, ordinary, of little importance, common and contemporary, and the English adjective trivial carries much of this definition to this day; tired, ordinary, commonplace; of little use, import, consequence or significance.


8. Whisky (Origin: Gaelic)

Medieval monks called it aqua vitae, meaning life water. The expression was transformed into uisce beatha when it was transferred to Gaelic. As time passed and the word was anglicized, uisce evolved into uige, usque, and then uisky, which bears an obvious and close resemblance to whisky.

You may have noticed that you can spell whisky in two ways — whisky and whiskey. Some people believe the extra e was added to whisky by Irish and American distilleries to differentiate their higher quality whiskies during an epoch when Scottish whisky had a bad reputation.

Scotch was also introduced to denominate a Scottish whisky, and the word whisky has been adopted in other countries for quite different reasons: in some South American countries it’s used as an alternative to cheese (or cheeeeeeeese) to encourage people to smile when being photographed. How and why we chose cheese, and why the South Americans chose whisky (and the Spanish patata, or potato… ) is a story for another time.


So why study etymology?

Etymology not only enhances your understanding of your native language, but also gives you insights into its shared roots with other languages. Prior to reading this article, would you have thought that every time you say avocado, you’re prompting Moctezuma to chuckle in his tomb? Some word origins are wonderfully idiosyncratic and make for great anecdotes, while others demonstrate common standards and rules which help you assimilate new words and terms across languages. Take the simple examples of the Latin prefixes con- (also com- in English) and dis-, which are widely used in Romance languages and indicate togetherness and apartness respectively. Knowing such elements of etymology can vastly improve your guesswork when it comes to deciphering words, whether it be concatenate (con- and -catenate, from catena, meaning chain; a verb meaning to chain together) or disconsolate (dis- and con- and -solate, from solari, meaning to comfort; an adjective describing someone who can’t be comforted or consoled).

Want to explore further? We encourage you to put on your etymologist’s hat and venture into the jungle of meaning.

Illustrations by Raúl Soria

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