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Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the meaning of words has changed over the course of history. Let’s get meta and take the word “etymology” as an example. “Etymology” derives from the Greek word etumos, meaning “true.” Etumologia was the study of words’ “true meanings.” This evolved into “etymology” by way of the Old French ethimologie. That’s all fairly straightforward, but there are many, many words in the English language that have unexpected and fascinating origins. Here are a few of our favorite examples.
• Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the
meaning of words has changed over the course of history.
Let’s get meta and take the word “etymology” as an example.
“Etymology” derives from the Greek word tumors, meaning
“true.” Etymology was the study of words’ “true meanings.”
This evolved into “etymology” by way of the Old French
• That’s all fairly straightforward, but there are many, many
words in the English language that have unexpected and
fascinating origins. Here are a few of our favorite examples.
1. AVOCADO (ORIGIN: NAHUATL)
• The word avocado comes from Spanish aguacate, which
in turn comes from the Nahuatl ahuacatl, meaning
testicle. Surprised? Perhaps, but the more one thinks
about it, the less surprising it gets — they do rather
resemble a man’s soft spot, and this resemblance
becomes even more pronounced when you see avocado
duos dangling clumsily from trees.
2. CAPPUCCINO (ORIGIN: ITALIAN/GERMAN)
• Next time you’re trying to flirt with someone at your local coffee shop,
impress them with this whimsical anecdote about the origin of the word
cappuccino: it’s the diminutive form of the word cappuccio, which means
“hood” in Italian. Wondering what the link is between a (little) hood and a
cappuccino? One must look no further than the Capuchin Monks, whose
hooded habits were a dark, oak brown similar to the color of a good
• The first recorded use of the word was in 1790 in Vienna, Austria. Wilhelm
Tissot jotted down a recipe for an exquisite Kapuzinerkaffee (lit. “Capuchin
coffee”), which was rather different in constitution to its modern-day
successor, containing sugar, cream and egg yolks. The current, somewhat
simplified recipe now consists of espresso and foamed milk, but there are
still parts of Austria where you can order a good ol’ Kapuziner.
3. DISASTER (ORIGIN: ITALIAN/GREEK)
• The word disaster has been passed around Europe like a hot potato. The
English version is most closely tied to the French désastre, which is
derived from the Old Italian disastro, itself derived from Greek. The
pejorative prefix dis- and aster (star) can be interpreted as bad star, or
an ill-starred event. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by astronomy
and the cosmos, and believed wholly in the influence of celestial bodies
on terrestrial life. For them, a disaster was a particular kind of calamity,
the causes of which could be attributed to an unfavorable and
uncontrollable alignment of planets. It’s therefore interesting to note
that the strict, modern English definition of disaster explicitly stipulates
that a disaster is human-made, or the consequence of human failure.
4. HANDICAP (ORIGIN: ENGLISH)
• This word originates from the 17th-century English trading game “hand-
in-cap.” The game involved two players and an arbitrator, or umpire. The
players would present two possessions they would like to trade. The
umpire would then decide whether the possessions were of equal value
or not, and if they weren’t, would calculate the discrepancy. The owner of
the lesser object would make up the difference with money, and then all
three participants would place forfeit money into a hat. If the two players
agreed with the umpire’s valuation, they would remove their hands from
the hat with their palm open. If they disagreed, they would pull out their
hands clenched in a fist. If both agreed or disagreed, the umpire would
get the forfeit money, while if one agreed and the other didn’t, the player
who approved the transaction would receive the forfeit money.
• Over time, hand-in-cap came to be known as “handicap” and started to
be used to refer to any kind of equalization or balancing of a contest or
game. The word handicap is still used in many sports today, such as golf
and horse racing. Indeed, horse racing was probably the first sport to
introduce the term in order to define an umpire’s decision to add more
weight to a horse so that it runs equally to its competitors. This notion of
being burdened or put at a disadvantage was carried over to describe
people with a disability in the early 20th century. By the mid-20th
century, it was widely used, but it has since fallen out of the popular
5. JEANS (ORIGIN: ITALIAN)
• Although jeans are quintessentially American, and their invention is commonly
attributed to Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss, the etymology of the popular garment is
actually of European origin. The fabric Strauss used for his patented, mass-produced
trousers was first produced in Genoa, Italy and Nimes, France. Why’s that significant?
Well, the French word for Genoa is Gênes, and the name “jeans” is likely an
anglicization of the material’s city of origin. Similarly, the word “denim” most likely
comes from de Nimes, meaning “from Nimes” in French. Although we often talk about
denim jeans nowadays, the two materials actually differed. Denim was coarser, more
durable and of higher quality than the toughened cotton corduroy manufactured in
Genoa. Workers in Northern Italy were sporting jeans as early as the 17th century, long
before post-war American subcultures picked up on them as a fashion accessory.
6. SALARY (ORIGIN: LATIN)
• The word “salary” comes from the Latin salarium, meaning “salt money.”
• In ancient times, salt was used for many important things and was often referred
to as “white gold.” It could be used as an antiseptic to treat wounds — In
Romance languages one can recognize a connection between sal/sale, meaning
“salt,” and salud/saude/salute, meaning “health”) — and to preserve food, and
also as a method of payment in Greece and Rome.
• As far back as the Egyptian Empire, laborers were paid with salt that they could
use to preserve their food. The Roman Empire continued using this form of
payment and it took on the name “salary” for “that which was given to workers
at the end of the working month,” which adds a new dimension to the notion of
a company’s solvency.
7. TRIVIAL (ORIGIN: LATIN)
• “Trivial” originates from the Latin word trivium, which was
used to mean “a place where three roads meet” (tri- meaning
“three,” and -vium from via, meaning “road”). A trivium gained
the connotation of being an open, public place — a mini agora
— where people from across society’s technicolor spectrum
could relax, chat and simply coexist. The adjective trivialis was
a derivative of trivium and came to mean “vulgar, ordinary, of
little importance, common and contemporary,” and the English
adjective trivial carries much of this definition to this day: tired,
ordinary, commonplace; of little use, import, consequence or
WHY STUDY ETYMOLOGY?
• Etymology not only enhances your understanding of your native language but also
gives you insights into its shared roots with other languages. Prior to reading this
article, would you have thought that every time you say “avocado,” you’re
prompting Moctezuma to chuckle in his tomb? Some word origins are wonderfully
idiosyncratic and make for great anecdotes, while others demonstrate common
standards and rules which help you assimilate new words and terms across
• Take the simple examples of the Latin prefixes con- (also “com-” in English) and
dis-, which are widely used in Romance languages and indicate “togetherness”
and “apartness,” respectively. Knowing such elements of etymology can vastly
improve your guesswork when it comes to deciphering words, whether it be
concatenate (con– and -catenate, from catena, meaning “chain”; a verb meaning
to chain together) or disconsolate (dis- and con– and -solate, from solari, meaning
“to comfort”; an adjective describing someone who can’t be comforted or