• Luccia Haughton

Words With Very Interesting Etymology

Have you ever wondered why some things are named the way they are? Why isn't 'meese' the plural of 'moose'? You're not the only one who has been wondering these things! Today, we explore some of the most interesting etymologies of very common words.


Malaria

The germ theory of disease wasn't proposed until the 16th century and not fully accepted until the 19th. Before then, people blamed the concept of "bad air", the belief that disease was caused by vapors that were endemic to certain places. They knew that visiting a swamp could lead to a fever but didn't understand the role the mosquito played, so they just blamed it on bad air. Or in Latin... mal aria. Meanwhile, the Italians felt that flu epidemics depended on astrology or the influence of the stars. Thus influence = influenza.


Nickname

"Nickname" is one of those words where "a/an" got mixed up (ex: "a napron" got mistaken for "an apron" and thus, we have the modern-day word of "apron"). It used to be "an ekename", but it got misheard as "a nekename", and a few spellings later, we have "a nickname". This etymological phenomenon is known as morpheme boundary reanalysis — related examples of this process in English include adder (< a nadder) and apron (< a napron), in which the opposite occurred — here the initial n- of the noun became reanalyzed as part of the article.


Candy

The word candy has a very long-winded history. We have to trace it all the way back to the Sanskrit word "sharkara", meaning "ground/candied sugar", and "khanda", meaning "fragment". "Sharkara" then became the Persian "shakar" and then the Arabic "sukkar". "Khanda" becomes the Arabic "qandi", meaning "candied". Then, From the Arabic "sukkar" and "qandi", you get the French "sucre candi", meaning "crystallized sugar". When we finally arrive at Middle English, the words were turned into "sugar candy". Around the mid 17th century, the English shortened the word to just "candy".





Tantalizing

'Tantalize' is derived from Tantalus, a character from Greek mythology who was condemned to stand chin deep in the water of Hades with fruit above his head. The water receded when he reached to drink it and the branches of the fruit trees moved away when he reached up to eat them. The word evolved to mean anything desired that is barely out of reach.


Idiot

This word derived from the greek world ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs. An idiot in Ancient Greece was one who did not participate in society because he had nothing particular to add, i.e an untalented person who kept to himself.


Moose

People often wonder why the plural of "moose" isn't meese, like in goose vs. geese. The reason is mostly because they have vastly different origins. "Goose" is derived from an old Germanic language. "Moose", on the other hand, is a recent addition to English from a Native American Algonquian language, either the Narraganset "moòs" or the Abenaki "moz".





Obituary

This word has its roots in Medieval Latin, specifically from the word obituarius which literally means a record of the death of a person. This word itself stems from the Latin obitus ("departure," a going to meet, encounter) and from obire ("go toward, go to meet," as in mortem obire - meet death). A poetic meeting of death has now become the loving words we say about the loved ones we have lost.


Istanbul

The etymology is interesting for 2 reasons. One, it makes a They Might Be Giant's song all the better, and two: it's counter to the folklore of the Turks living there and the Greeks without.

Istanbul comes from the Greek eis tan (ten) polin roughly translated to being "in the city." Which city? The City. Constantinople wasn't just a big city, if you lived within 5 days ride, it was the city. When the Turks conquered Constantinople (and kept that name for hundreds of years) many of the locals started using the colloquial eis tan polin, by then truncated to Istanbul, for the city's name. There's a popular folk myth that the name comes from "Islam bol" meaning that the city is full of Islam, but the first appearance of this comes around the time of when Mehmed II conquered the city, largely as a pun off of the established nickname; a fact that has not stopped many a person from insisting the name change is a symbol of Islam trying to conquer the world. It wasn't until 1920 that the city's name was properly changed to Istanbul, largely to distance the new nation-state of Turkey from the Ottoman Empire, but also because that's what most of the people were calling it anyway. So why'd they change it? I can't say. People just liked it better that way.




What word have you always pondered the meaning of? Do you know where your name has its origins? Etymology is a really fun field of study that shows how several cultures can intertwine so easily.