11 Words in English Language with Weird and Surprising Origin Stories

“Every word carries a secret inside itself; it’s called etymology. It is the DNA of a word.”

– Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack & Honey

A typical individual speaks 16,000 words every day, but how often do we pause to consider what we’re saying or where it came from? Many of the origin stories for English words are amusing, interesting, or plain bizarre. Here are 15 words that come with the strangest origin stories 👇🏾

1.

Roofs were built with wide eaves, or overhangs, before guttering was invented, so that rain water would fall away from the home and not damage the walls and foundations. ‘The Eavesdrop’ was the name given to this region. The big overhang provided excellent cover for anyone who wanted to linger in the shadows and listen in on other people’s discussions. Because the space under the eaves was considered part of the householder’s property, being beneath the eaves with the purpose to spy might result in a fine under Anglo-Saxon law.

2.

At some point in our lives, we’ve all felt “groggy” – languid, sluggish, possibly due to a lack of sleep. It began in the 18th century with a British man named Admiral Vernon, whose sailors dubbed him “Old Grog” because of his cloak, which was composed of a waterproof blend of silk and wool called “grogram.” He ordered that his sailors’ rum be served diluted with water rather than neat in 1740. This was dubbed “grog,” and the feeling sailors had when they drank too much of it was dubbed “groggy.”

3.

It’s possible that the iconic tomato sauce you smear over your fries didn’t always taste as it does now. Many ideas exist regarding where the phrase came from, but the first possible reference to it dates back to the 17th century, when the Chinese used the term “kôe-chiap” to describe a pickled fish and spice mixture. And the first time ketchup was recorded in the English language was in a 1690 dictionary, when it was spelled ‘Catchup.’

4.

Lemurs are adorable, cuddly tiny creatures endemic to Madagascar, but their name has a dark history. Lemur is derived from the Latin word lemurēs, which means “ghosts or spectres.” Lemurs are nocturnal creatures who are supposed to have gotten their name from their love of the night. Either that, or we’ve spent the entire time swooning over wicked spirits.

5.

This dreadful sickness gets its name from the Italian words mal (“bad”) and aria (“air”). The Romans believed that breathing in the air surrounding their city’s wetlands caused malaria in the 1700s, however malaria is really spread by mosquitoes that live in such kind of swampy environments.

6.

Teachers in English-speaking nations are frequently frustrated by their students’ misuse of the adjective “lovely” in their writing. And it turns out that they now have even more reason to prohibit the term from the classroom: it was originally a derogatory epithet that meant “ignorant” or “foolish.” Linguists have identified a number of plausible roots for this word. It could have sprung from the late 13th century Old French variant of ‘lovely’ or the Latin necius. It’s claimed that it gradually became positive over time because it was frequently used to refer to someone who was ludicrously overdressed when it was first introduced into the English language. Later, this was misinterpreted as a reference to anything polished or to someone dressed “nicely.”

7.

With its teeny-small head, massive, long legs, and large, fluffy body, the first image that comes to mind when you see an ostrich is the tiny, cute sparrow, right? What’s going on here? That, at least, is what the ancient Greeks believed. The word ostrich is derived from the Greek word strouthion, which means “large sparrow.” That’s right, the Greeks apparently thought the ostrich was just a really big, odd sparrow. The ostrich was also known as strouthokamelos, which means “camel-sparrow” in Greek, because to its long neck, which resembles that of a camel. It’s almost as though we wished that name had stuck.

8.

It stems from the Latin word for “forty,” and was initially used to refer to Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Later, it came to refer to the amount of time widows were permitted to remain in the home of their departed husband, and later, a medical quarantine for ships suspected of carrying the plague.

9.

Sandwiches are named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, an English statesman and aristocrat who lived in the 18th century. Linguists disagree about the circumstances surrounding Lord Sandwich’s alleged invention of the sandwich. Some speculate that he ate his food between two pieces of bread so he wouldn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table, and that his fellow gamblers began to ask the servants for “the same as Sandwich” and then simply “a sandwich.” Others (maybe more appreciative of Lord Sandwich’s efforts) believe he ate this way just to be able to stay at his desk and attend to his political obligations.

10.

If you’ve ever been offended by someone’s sarcastic remark, now you know why: the word “sarcasm” is derived from the Greek verb sarkazein, which literally means “to tear flesh like dogs.” It grew to mean “to gnash one’s teeth” and “to speak harshly” through time.

11.

The walrus has an undeniably amusing appearance. It has a drooping, hangdog face with cranky old man whiskers and two ridiculous-looking tusks. (No insult to any walruses that may be reading this.) So it’s only natural that walrus has a humorous origin story. Well, perhaps. Walruses are said to have originated in the Netherlands. The words walvis and ros mean “whale” and “horse,” respectively. When you put it all together, a walrus is known as a “whale-horse.” When you look at this bizarre creature, it seems like an appropriate name.

The constantly intriguing field of etymology is barely scratched by this collection of remarkable word origins. Whether you’re a seasoned English speaker or attempting to learn this difficult language for the first time, you’ll undoubtedly discover some important data to aid in the memorization of new terms merely by looking into their roots.


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