Interesting Historical Origins of 20 Commonly Used English Words

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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 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 unique cultural connections from all across the world. To that end, let us take a gander at the interesting historical origins of commonly used English words.

‘Algorithm’ – Related To A Persian Mathematician

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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 the 13th century, and continued in usage till the 19th century. The English variant ‘algorithm’ came into more popular usage after the 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’.

‘Cereal’ – Derived From A Roman Goddess Of Agriculture

Perhaps one of the most commonly uttered words by parents in the mornings of the Western Hemisphere, the term ‘Cereal’, originally meaning ‘edible grain’ (as used in the early 19th century) comes from French céréale. The French word, in turn, originates from Ceres, the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Demeter. However, Ceres was not only the Roman goddess of agriculture but was also associated with grain crops, fertility and the general sense of ‘motherliness’. And what’s more, there was an ancient Roman festival of ‘Cerealia‘ that was held for 7 days in April in honor of Ceres. 

And on the occasion (according to Ovid’s Fasti), people used to tie blazing torches to the tails of foxes, who were then ceremoniously let loose into the expansive space later known as Circus Maximus – as a symbolic punishment for the creatures’ yearly forays into Roman croplands that were sacred to Ceres. (*also check this citation). The festival was also marked by what can be termed as collective cos-play with Roman women dressing in white attires to mimic Ceres, who supposedly wandered through the earth in lamentation for her abducted daughter Proserpine.

‘Check’ – Derived From A Chess Move

Our familiarity with the word ‘check’ generally pertains to the usage of the phrase ‘checking out’ something. However, the origin of the word is intrinsically tied to the game of chess. For example, ‘check’ in chess means “the act of directly attacking the other player’s king” (according to Cambridge Dictionary), and it originated from circa early 14th century. The English word, taken from Old French eschequier, is derived from Vulgar Latin *scaccus, which, in turn, comes from Arabic shah, or Persian shah, meaning the king piece (shah means ruler). 

Quite intriguingly, to check oneself, suggesting the act of restraining oneself, probably also comes from the extended meaning of the check move in chess. To that end, the act of checking also alludes to the ‘means of detecting or preventing error’, thus making sense in the case of checking against forgery. Interestingly enough, it is widely believed that the word ‘cheque’ (as in bank cheques) was probably influenced by the Old French eschequier (or its English variant exchequer), thereby also suggesting its origin ties to the game of chess. In fact, cheque (meaning a ‘bill’) refers to a token that determines or prevents or ‘checks against’ loss or theft.

‘Climate’ – Derived From Slope of Earth

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Climate change is a hot topic in the modern era. And while the English word ‘climate’, first used in circa 14th century, pertains to the ‘general weather conditions of a specific place or region’ (over a certain time interval), the origin of the term comes from Latin clima and Greek klima – that refers to the ‘slope or inclination of the earth’, ultimately derived from the PIE (Proto-Indo-European language) root *klei ‘to lean’.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the historical context, ancient geographers put forth the notion of the Earth’s division into specific zones depending on the angle of the sunlight falling on that slope and the daylight that the region received. In that regard, they considered that were at least 24 to 30 ‘climates’ that existed between Upper Nile in Sudan to the mythical Riphaean Mountains of the north (possibly entailing the Arctic). Over the passage of centuries, temperature or rather the change in temperature was perceived as a more important parameter. Consequently, by circa 14th century, the word ‘climate’ was associated more with the prevailing weather conditions of a region rather than the region or slope of the region itself.

‘Curry’ – Derived From A Tamil Spicy Concoction

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Credit: BusyBaker

Curry is most likely an anglicized form of kari or kaṟi, which is a Tamil term for ‘sauce or relish for rice’. Interestingly enough, kari might have come from the fragrant kari leaves of a particular plant related to the lemon family; and as such, the leaves are still used in many traditional Indian curries. As for the historical side affairs, the first mention of kari in European circles came from a mid-17th-century Portuguese cookbook – possibly authored by members of the British East India Company who traded with the Tamil merchants of the southeast Indian coasts. The term was also used for a spice blend known as ‘kari podi’, which possibly ultimately morphed into what we know as the curry powder.

‘Diehard’ – Related To Brave Soldiers

The very term Diehard, made popular by the franchise of action films, has a rather grim origin. Initially, it was used in the 1700s as an expression to describe the condemned men who struggled the longest when they were being hanged as a form of execution – thus basically pertaining to the verbal phrase die-hard, meaning ‘struggle, or resist in dying’. 

However, quite incredibly enough, Die Hards, as a moniker, was earned by the 57th Regiment of Foot in the British Army after it suffered enormous casualties and yet carried on at the Battle of Albuera in 1811 during the Napoleonic Wars. According to one version, the noteworthy nickname came from the commanding officer of the battalion Colonel William Inglis, who in spite of being severely wounded from a canister shot, continued to order his troops from the front position by crying aloud “Die hard the 57th, die hard!”. The brave soldiers supposedly maintained their cohesive line even after suffering brutal losses – in the form of 422 out of the 570 men in the ranks and 20 out of the 30 officers.

‘Father’ – Derived From A Common Indo-European Term

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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.

‘Gun’ – Related To A Giant Crossbow

While guns relate to a rather controversial topic in 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’.

‘Kamikaze’ – Related To A Mongol Invasion Of Japan

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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 fleet, 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 3,000 vessels; and though this number was depleted during the said event (at Kyushu), the Japanese Samurai 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 the 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.

‘Laconic’ – Related To The Ancient Spartans

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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”.

‘Loot’ – Originates From A Indo-European Word For ‘Snatching’

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A rather controversial term in the current video game industry, the word ‘loot’, in its noun form meaning ‘goods taken from an enemy’, comes from Hindi lut. It is derived from Sanskrit loptram or lotram, meaning ‘stolen property’, and the Sanskrit term, in turn, is influenced by the PIE *roup-tro-, from root *reup meaning ‘to snatch’. Incredibly enough, the English word ‘rip’ – meaning ‘tear apart’, of the Germanic origin or influenced by Scandinavian, is ultimately derived from Proto-Germanic *rupjan-. This also comes from the same PIE root *reup-, *reub- ‘to snatch’.

‘Media’ – Related To The ‘Middle Ground’

A word often used to describe the news, journalism, and entertainment-oriented establishments, ‘media’ is actually an abstracted form of mass-media, which was a technical term for advertising in the 1920s. Media is also the plural of ‘medium’, as denoted at least since the 1600s. And it is the historical origin of the word ‘medium’ that might tickle one’s fancy. As the Online Etymology Dictionary states – medium, directly derived from Latin medium, pertained to ‘a middle ground, quality, or degree; that which holds a middle place or position’, by the 1580s.

The Latin medium does convey the PIE root *medhyo- ‘middle’. Interestingly enough, considering the Indo-European connection, one of India’s current state is called Madhya Pradesh (meaning Central Province). Now as with earlier mentioned English words, over time, the extended meaning of ‘medium’ evolved into an ‘agency of communication’ or ‘substance through which qualities are conveyed’ – thereby suggesting a strong link with the modern usage of the word ‘media’.

‘Nightmare’ – Related To A Goblin

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Originating from circa early 14th century, the term ‘nightmare’ used to mean ‘an evil spirit, sometimes female (incubus), that afflicted men in their sleep’. Interestingly enough, it’s a simple compound of two words night and mare, with the latter NOT denoting a female horse (mare). Instead, it refers to a goblin or incubus that causes the affliction. By the turn of the 16th century, the focus of the ‘nightmare’ meaning shifted from the goblin to the ‘sensation of suffocation during our sleep’, thereby alluding to the modern connotation of a ‘frightening dream’. 

The Old English word mare means ‘monster’ or ‘goblin’. It is derived from mære, ultimately coming from Proto-Germanic *maron meaning ‘goblin’ (its PIE root is *mora- ‘incubus’). Quite incredibly, the first element of the name of Celtic Irish goddess Morrigain (Morrigan) is possibly also derived from maron. To that end, in modern Irish, her name Mór-Ríoghain roughly translates to the ‘phantom queen’. Befitting this cryptic epithet, in the mythical narrative, Morrigan was capable of shapeshifting (who usually transformed into a crow – the badb) and foretelling doom, while also inciting men into a war frenzy.

‘Renegade’ – Derived From The Moors Of Spain

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 relatively 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 our previous articles, the ‘slaves’ (ghulam or mamluks) of medieval Muslim societies had a far more honorable status and an 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 the 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 a 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.

‘Salary’ – Related To Salt

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While the word ‘salary’ is fairly innocuous (although sometimes stressful) for the office-goers, its origins are draped in myths and anecdotal evidence. To that end, ‘salary’ comes from Old French salaire, ultimately derived from Latin salarium. And while salarium also refers to a ‘stipend’, it has the root sal, which means ‘salt’ in Latin. 

This latter part has fueled many conjectural notions as to how the Roman soldiers were paid in salt (or salt-money) – since salt was a highly prized commodity in the ancient world. In fact, The Romans took particular interest in the supply of salt – so much so that many of their early road systems, including the famed Via Salaria, were developed for the efficient transportation of salt. Salt was even used for political machinations, with Roman leaders sometimes desperately reducing the price of this product to appease the masses.

However, in spite of the seemingly alluring nature of the scope, there is NO evidence to suggest that the Roman soldiers were paid directly in salt. On the contrary, there is documented evidence for how the legionaries were paid in coins (sesterces). So why is the word salarium related to salt? Well, the simple answer is – we still don’t know the reason. One lingering hypothesis suggests how salarium denoted compensation because salt was perceived as a valuable commodity. Another one suggests how the soldiers were paid compensations for their guarding duties along the salt roads.

‘Scapegoat’ – Related To Yom Kippur

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The very term ‘scapegoat’ was coined by 16th-century English scholar and Protestant figure William Tyndale. Originally referring to the ‘goat sent into the wilderness on the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)’ that symbolically bears our sins, the term was translated from Vulgate Latin caper emissarius. As the Online Etymology Dictionary states, the Latin term was a further translation of Hebrew ‘azazel – which either meant a ‘goat that departs’ (when read as ‘ez ozel) or a demon in Jewish myths (possibly associated with the Canaanite deity Aziz). 

Suffice it to say, the modern meaning of the scapegoat (possibly first attested in 1843) – ‘one who is punished for the mistakes of others’ does have a semblance of the original term referring to a ‘goat that bears our sins’. On an interesting note, the rarely-used term ‘scape-gallows’ refers to a person ‘who deserves hanging’.

‘Slogan’ – Derived From A Celtic War-Cry

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Illustration by Angus McBride

The very word ‘slogan’ is derived from the late-Medieval term slogorne, which in turn originates from Gaelic sluagh-ghairm (sluagh meaning ‘army’; gairm pertaining to ‘cry’), the battle-cry used by the Scottish and Irish Celts. The Celtic warbands were sometimes also accompanied by Druids and ‘banshee’ women who made their presence known by shouting and screeching curses directed at their foes.

Apart from psychologically afflicting the enemy, the ‘auditory accompaniment’ significantly drummed up the courage and furor of the Celtic warriors. By this time (in the beginning phase of the battle), the challenge was issued – when their champions emerged forth to duel with their opponents. And once the single combats were performed, the Celts were driven into their battle-frenzy – and thus they charged at the enemy lines with fury. As Julius Caesar himself described one of the frenzied charges made by the Nervii at the Battle of the Sambre (in Gallic War Book II)-

…they suddenly dashed out in full force and charged our cavalry, easily driving them back and throwing them into confusion. They then ran down to the river with such incredible speed that it seemed to us as if they were at the edge of the wood, in the river, and on top of us almost all in the same moment. Then with the same speed they swarmed up the opposite hill towards our camp and attacked the men who were busy fortifying it.

‘Sugar’ – Derived From Sanskrit For ‘Candy’ Or ‘Sand’

The word ‘sugar’, in usage since the 13th century, is derived from Old French sucre, which, in turn, comes from the Arabic sukkar. Interestingly enough, the Arabic term is derived from Persian shakar, which ultimately originates from Sanskrit sharkara – possibly referring to ‘ground candy or sugar’ or even ‘gravel or sand’. Now according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the product similar to sugar (‘honey without bees’) had already impressed the hetairoi (companions) of Alexander the Great in India. Some later Greek (like Dioscorides) and Roman sources perceived sugar as a form of medicine rather than a sweetener. 

Delving deeper into the realm of history, sugarcane originates from the tropical parts of India and Southeast Asia. Moreover, there is a hypothesis that sugar as a product, due to the crystallization of sugarcane juice, was possibly made during the glorious Gupta period of India, circa 350 AD. Other ancient Indian sources, like Tamil Sangam literature, also mention the process of extracting sugarcane juice with some form of machinery – thereby alluding to the early manufacturing of sugar (albeit still on a relatively smaller scale, since sugar was seen as a luxury item). 

The making of sugar (possibly having a more gravelly texture) spread to China (by the 7th century) and the Islamic world, including Spain and Sicily (by 9th-10th century) through the Silk Route and Indian envoys, and ultimately to Europe via the Crusader states of the Levant.

‘War’ – Related To ‘Confusion’

Illustration by Angus McBride

The word ‘war’ comes from (Late) Old English werre (or wyrre), which, in turn, is ultimately derived from Proto-Germanic *werz-a-. Incredibly enough, while war, in both historical and modern context, suggests an ‘armed conflict over a passage of time’, the High German term ‘werran’ (PIE *wers-) indicated ‘to confuse, or mix up’. In essence, the origins of the word ‘war’ possibly relate to ‘discord’ rather than ‘fighting’, thus alluding to the psychological impact of human conflicts. To that end, some academicians believe that there was no specific German word for ‘war’ during ancient times.

Moreover, Romanic languages, like Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, also derive their word for ‘war’, known as guerra, from Germanic, instead of Latin. The reason might have to do with the Latin term for war – bellum. This is close to bello, the word for ‘beautiful’ – as is derived by many of these languages.

Honorable Mention – ‘Goodbye’

An apt word to finish off our article, ‘goodbye’ might seem to be a simple compound of the words ‘good’ and ‘bye’. However, from the etymological perspective, it is actually a contraction of the phrase ‘God be with ye’, from circa 14th century. As can be discerned from the opening letters of the phrase after God, the words were condensed to form “God b’w’y,” which was then shortened to ‘Godbwye’, possibly by the late 16th century. And finally, influenced by similar phrases like ‘good day’ and ‘good evening’, ‘Godbwye’ was ultimately transformed into the more secular sounding ‘Goodbye’.

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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