Etymology

Words are my bread, my butter and my passion

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. Welcome to my exploration of word origins and lexicographical oddities. Did you know that the merry Greek god Pan is the inspiration behind the word panic? Or that we have a humble condiment to thank for the words salary and salad? Join me for an armchair adventure as we investigate the surprising origins of some everyday words.

What could be more wholesome and innocuous than an avocado? Beloved of Instagrammers and health food aficionados alike, this versatile fruit has seen its global popularity soar in recent years. But you might be surprised to find out that the origins behind the name of this knobbly green beauty are...

Colour has played an important part in humankind’s history. Our ancestors painted the walls of their caves with coloured pigments made from ground up soil, plants and animals. Thousands of years later, paints and dyes were big business as inventors competed to produce valuable new commercial dyes. The sources of...

The word laconic means concise or abrupt. It’s used to describe the manner or speech of someone who says a lot while using only a few words. It’s also often used to specify a sense of humour that’s particularly dry and understated. The word has been around since the 1580s and...

When ordering your morning brew from your favourite barista, you're probably more concerned with getting a caffeine fix than with the etymology of your chosen cuppa. But there are some interesting stories behind our most popular coffees that are worth exploring. Incidentally, there's some uncertainty about the origin of the word...

Merchants in the Holy Land in the 13th Century would have been familiar with al-zahr. They were the dice used in a number of high-risk gambling games that were popular in the region’s medinas. The risk came from the large element of chance inherent in the games and also from...

Anyone who has felt the choking effects of anxiety will find a certain poetic justice in the origin of the two words most frequently used to describe the emotion. The Old English word wyrgan, which means “to strangle”, is the origin of the word worry. The original wyrgan had morphed into...

Take a look at your burly biceps. If you don’t have any burly biceps of your own, look at a friend’s. Do those rippling muscles look like a handful of little mice moving around under the skin? The Romans thought so. In Latin, the word muscle literally means “little mouse”....

Salt was a precious commodity in Ancient Rome. So much so that it was used as currency to pay for goods and services. This is where the word salary comes from, sal being the Latin word for salt. Roman soldiers were the first people to receive something called a salary, which...

This French word, adopted into the English language in the early 20th century, has a surprising link to footwear. At the beginning of our story, we find the Persian word ciabat. This influential word for shoe inspired the Spanish word zapata, the Italian ciabatta, the Arabic sabbat and the French word...

The early origins of the word mask are aptly shrouded in uncertainty. We know that the English word is derived from the French masque, “covering to hide or guard the face”. And that this derives from the Medieval Latin masca, which has the broader meaning of a mask, spectre or...