After numerous twists and turns (and loaning) for over 1400-years, English is without a doubt the global lingua franca of our modern era. In fact, it is easily the most widely spoken Germanic language, and as such an astronomical 359 million people spoke English as their first language – according to 2010 statistical figures. And these numbers only include the native English speakers, with English estimated to be the most commonly spoken language in the world including non-native (second language) speakers. Given such fascinating credentials, it is not surprising that the history of English is laden with incredible episodes and unique cultural connections. The Open University has concocted a nifty animated video that aptly presents this scope and evolution of English through the years (starting from 5th century AD) with dollops of ‘British’ humor.
Now since we are talking about history and English, there are some words in English that have particularly interesting history behind them. We have decided to compile a list of eight such words that might just tickle the historian inside you –
1) Algorithm –
The word algorithm has its origins in al-khwārizmī, which was the short name for the noted mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. In fact, the appellation of al-Khwārizmī means – ‘from Khwarizm’ (a region in western Central Asia, north of Persia). The Latinization of this name came to Algorismi, from which the term ‘algorismus‘ was finally derived by 13th century, and continued in usage till 19th century. The English variant ‘algorithm’ came into more popular usage after 19th century, and it still denoted the Arabic decimal system in its earlier usage patterns.
In an interesting note, the word ‘algebra’ also relates to Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. The 9th century mathematician wrote the compilation known as ‘al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa al-muqābala‘ (in English, it can be translated as – “The Compendium on Calculation by Restoring and Balancing”). The phrase ‘al-jabr‘ pertained to equations, and hence its ultimate Latinization to ‘algebra’.
2) Avatar –
The term Avatar originally stems from the Hindu concept of a deliberate descent of a deity or god to Earth. In simpler terms, it is roughly synonymous to ‘incarnation’ in English; but a more literal translation would pertain to ‘manifestation’ (thus making the movie’s portrayal of altered meta-identities more accurate than you would think). As for the mythological relation, the Hindu God Vishnu (who forms one of the trinity of major gods within the religious system) is said to have ten avatars (Dashavatara), with Matsya, Lord Rama, Krishna and even Buddha considered among the earthly incarnations.
There is also a bit of foretelling in these mythical traditions, with the final tenth avatar, Kalki (‘Destroyer of Filth’), still to be born. This remorseless warrior riding a white horse, will supposedly cleanse the world of its decadence and filth with his blazing sword. In essence, he is depicted as the harbinger of our end times in the current epoch; and the world will once again be ‘reset’ to the Utopian first age.
3) Desperado –
Till now, we had talked about the etymological root of the words. However, with ‘desperado’ we will take route of history-fueled hypothesis as to what inspired the term. Before that once should know, the adjective ‘desperado‘ comes from Old Spanish, and it pertains to a ‘desperate man’ (with no known usage as noun). However, the English (or rather mock-Spanish version), ‘desperado’, relates to a ‘reckless criminal’, and it has been in usage since at least 1560 AD. And quite incredibly, this pop-culturally famous version of the term might just have its historical origins in ancient Spain (Iberia), circa 3rd century BC. This passage from Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, sheds some light into the conjecture (as mentioned in ‘Spanish Armies by Rafael Trevino‘) –
There is a custom characteristic of the Iberians, but particularly of the Lusitans, that when they reach adulthood those men who stand out through their courage and daring provide themselves with weapons, and meet in the mountains. There they form large bands, to ride across Iberia gathering riches through robbery, and they do this with the most complete disdain towards all. For them the harshness of the mountains, and the hard life they lead there, are like their own home; and there they look for refuge…
Regrading the passage, one should observe how the account talks about a ‘custom’ of criminal activities (akin to the popular version of desperado), as opposed to just a ‘desperate’ man.
4) Father –
Perhaps one of the oldest words in existence, the common English term ‘father‘ is directly derived from Old English ‘fæder’. This in turn comes from Proto-Germanic fader, which is ultimately borrowed from the term pəter that meant ‘father’ in PIE (Proto-Indo-European language). Unsurprisingly, the cognates of this word come from various geographical locations of the world – like, Sanskrit pitar-, Greek pater, Latin pater, Old Persian pita, and even Old Irish athir “father”. And, the now question remains – where did this ‘original’ PIE term come from? Well, most linguists have an easy hypothesis for the answer; the word simply came from ‘pa’, which was most probably how a baby (irrespective of nationality or race) uttered the sound when addressing his/her father.
5) Gun –
In our modern times, we have many powerful weapons names identified with women, with examples like Big Bertha, Mons Meg and Brown Bess. And, as it turns out, the derivation of the common weapon term ‘gun‘ also comes from a woman’s name Gunilda! Often known as Lady Gunilda (which probably comes from Middle English gonnilde), this particular contraption of war was a part of the arsenal of the Windsor Castle from at least 1330 AD. The weapon was basically a very powerful and big crossbow mechanism that was capable of hurling rocks, arrows and other missiles.
As for the term gonnilde, it came from Old Norse Gunnhildr – which was also a woman’s name, while alluding to the combination of both war and battle. This ultimately had its origin in *gwhen-, which in PIE language meant ‘to strike, kill’.
6) Kamikaze –
The Japanese term ‘kamikaze‘ came into popular usage after World War II, when the desperate Japanese forces adopted the audacious tactic of suicide attacks on American warships. This frenzied tactical scope was officially known as Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (which translates to ‘Special Attack Unit’), and by the end of the war, more than 3,860 pilots were killed with the hit rate of a mere 19 percent. However beyond saddening figures and statistics, the term kamikaze literally translates to ‘divine wind’ (kami means god or divine, while kaze means wind). Quite fascinatingly, this was the folkloric name given to the chance typhoons that severely afflicted Kublai’s Khan’s huge Mongol fleets, when they tried to attack the Japanese mainland in both 1274 AD and 1281 AD.
From the perspective of history, the second (and larger) fleet of 1281 AD supposedly contained more than 4,000 vessels; and though this number was depleted during the said event (at Kyushu), the Japanese samurais were still badly outnumbered for the ensuing battle. In spite of this numerical disadvantage, it was ‘divine’ nature that came through for the Japanese forces when a massive typhoon damaged the Kyushu coastline for two days – that ultimately helped in destroying majority of the Mongol ships. So, in other words, the historical episode served as the symbolic veneer for the Japanese pilots who went on the suicide missions during the ‘kamikaze‘ attacks.
7) Laconic –
The Laconic phrase implies a concise statement that still manages to drive home its point; and as such the scope entails the use of very few words (by a person or speech). This term itself comes from the geographical region of Laconia, which comprised of the city state of Sparta. In fact, the Spartans were known for their terse replies and pithy remarks, alongside their austerely disciplined lifestyles. Many of such concise yet blunt retorts can be seen in the otherwise historically inaccurate movie ‘300′, with the notable example being when Xerxes offered to spare 7,000 Greek soldiers who were defending the strategic mountain pass. However, the emperor’s condition was that Leonidas’ men had to willingly lay down their arms. In reply, Leonidas simply uttered ‘Molon labe‘ which translates to ‘come and get them’.
In another interesting example, Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) sent a message to Sparta that read – “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.”. The Spartan leader (ephor) replied – “If”.
8) Renegade –
Renegade roughly translates to ‘apostate’ in English, while the term is derived from Spanish renegado, which originally applied to ‘Christians who had turned Muslims’. This was a pretty common occurrence during the times of Islamic Moorish kingdoms which held sway over much of Spain from late antiquity to 12th century AD. The Moors themselves were ruled by an Arab minority, while their thriving (and remarkably tolerant) society was an assortment of local Iberians (Spaniards), Berbers from North Africa, and a sizable minority of Jewish people. The Moors also continued with their traditional recruitment of slave soldiers, from both captured young Christian prisoners and Berber tribesmen. And, as we mentioned in of our previous articles, the so-called ‘slaves’ (ghulam or mamluks) of medieval Muslim societies had a far more honorable status and even higher standard of living than that of ordinary folk.
Continuing with this societal trend, the renegados (and their descendants) gradually formed the military elite of Granada, which was the last surviving Moorish kingdom in the Spanish mainland by 15th century. However, the burgeoning and religiously-motivated Christian kingdoms from North were not fond of such renegados – so much so that during the latter part of the Reconquista, the captured Muslim-converts were treated with barbarity that was seldom seen in the history of ‘civilized’ Spanish middle ages before this epoch. One brutal example during the early part of Inquisition epitomized this cruel side of war when the prisoner renegados were used en-masse as acanaveados, or live targets for practicing the art of throwing cane-spears from horses.
Video Source: YouTube (I Want You To Speak English)