Stories Behind Words

Etymology traces the origin of words. It is a fascinating field of linguistics, which can assist in the comprehension of language. Some people are passionate about it, and there is even a word for a “lover of words” (logophile). Martin Heidegger (a 20th-century German philosopher) was one. He considered etymology a very important field, a vital one for communication and understanding skills.

Languages evolve, and in time new words are incorporated into our vocabulary. Some old words become obsolete and are even forgotten, or they get new meanings as time passes by.

Here are a few examples of words with an interesting initial meaning.

Palace comes from “Palatium” (the Palatine Hill) in Latin, where the emperor used to have his residence. In time, this word was used to refer to the residence rather than the hill as such.

Avocado is a highly popular fruit nowadays, mainly due to its excellent nutrition facts. The word comes from an Aztec word (ahuacatl), which means testicle.

Sarcasm comes from the Greek word “sarkazein” (literally “to cut or tear flesh”). Its origin reveals the pain caused when using sarcasm in a conversation, so we could all avoid it when talking to the others. Even “disaster” comes from a Greek word. We can spot the word “aster”/star and the negative “dis”, which leads to its definition: “unfavourable conditions of the stars”/ill-starred or ill-fated. Ostrich comes from Late Latin (struthio), from Old Greek “strouthion” (from “strouthos megale” = big sparrow). The Greeks also called it “strouthokamelos” (camel-sparrow), for its long neck.

Jumbo was an elephant in the 1880s, and its name came from the Swahili word for “hello” (jambo). That’s why jumbo means “very large”. The word “penguin” comes from Welsh (pen/head and gwyn/white).

“Robota” is a Czech word, and it means “forced labour” – a sort of slavery. Hence the word “robot”. “Clud” meant “rock” in Old English, hence the word “cloud”. Some clouds do look like heavy stones in the sky.

Whiskey is a short form of the Old English “usquebae”, made of two Gaelic words (uisce/water and bethu/life). So it literally means “water of life”. Salad (= “salted”) comes from “herba salata”, which means “salted herbs” in Latin.

John Montagu was an Earl of Sandwich, who was passionate about playing cards and used to have some food between two slices of bread. Thus, he could keep playing and eat without getting his hands (and cards) dirty. The others would order “the same as Sandwich”. Hence the word “sandwich”.

You can read about the etymology of a few words on this page: 

Number 10 on the link above explains the word “nice”, which comes the Latin word “nescius” and used to mean ignorant or stupid. “It was in the 14th century that it began being used to define clothing or conduct that was very luxurious.”

Sahara means desert in Arabic, so “Sahara desert” means “desert desert”. Quite pleonastic, we should say. Gobi means “waterless place”/desert in Mongolian. So “Gobi desert” means, literally, “desert desert”. Again, a pleonasm.  

Translation is so important when it comes to official documents and literature. Did you know? “Translation” originally referred to the practice of exhuming a saint and moving their body elsewhere. The way we do with texts now.

There are plenty of dictionaries that explain the origin and meaning of words (The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, for example, or the Online Etymology Dictionary). Have fun with them! Words are definitely worth-exploring. Ordinary words can have extraordinary meanings to them.

Article by Nadia Esslim


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