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Etymology of Everyday Words

How often have you marveled at words, scratching your head as you wonder where they come from? Who invented them? When were they first used? Etymology studies exactly this—the history of words and their evolutions over time. After all, every word was once a made-up one with interesting stories to boot!

The following list explores ten words that came to us by way of languages ranging from Italian, to Turkish, to Chinese Amoy, and more:-

Ketchup (Chinese Amoy)

/ˈkɛtʃəp/ [keh·chuhp]

a smooth sauce made chiefly from tomatoes and vinegar, used as a relish.

For those of us who use tomatoes in our cooking on a daily basis, it's hard to believe that the fruit was once feared. Europeans erroneously believed that tomatoes caused the death of aristocrats, not knowing that they died as a result of lead poisoning from their pewter plates and not the tomatoes. The now popular condiment first popped up in China as a sauce of pickled fish and spices known as kôe-chiap or kê-chiap in the Chinese Amoy dialect. British explorers learned of it after it spread to modern-day Singapore and Malaysia. In Indonesian-Malaysian, it was called kecap - pronounced “kay-chap.”

“Her friend enthusiastically told her that Maggi ketchup was the most delicious kind.”

Bigot (French)

/ˈbɪɡət/ [bi·guht]

a person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions.

As some words do, this one has contention surrounding its origins. The most popular theory goes back to 12th century France where an ethnic group called the Normans overused the phrase bi God (“By God.”) The French grew tired of the Normans saying this and gave them a new nickname, "bigots.” Over time, the word has evolved to describe anyone who is prejudiced toward others who are different.

“The candidate is steadfast in her efforts to not let bigots bother her.”

Nightmare (Old English)

/ˈnʌɪtmɛː/ [nait·meuh]

a frightening or unpleasant dream.

“Nightmare” comes from mare (middle English) and mære (old English), referring to a malicious spirit said to sit on people's chests and suffocate them while they sleep. Readers of dark fairytales and fables will be unsurprised to hear that “mare” is common in Germanic and Slavic stories. “Night” was later added to the word “mare” to emphasize that such evil creatures interrupted peaceful sleep at nighttime.

“I don’t like watching horror films because they give me nightmares.”

Quarantine (Italian)

/ˈkwɒrəntiːn/ [kwo·ruhn·teen]

a state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed.

We’re all too familiar with this one but less so with its roots. We get “quarantine” from the Italian quaranta, derived from the Latin quadraginta, both of which mean “forty.” This goes back to the 14th century when the bubonic plague (Black Death) spread throughout Europe, wiping out about a significant chunk of the continent's population. In the Venetian-governed city Ragusa (Dubrovnik, Croatia), officials made it mandatory for ships arriving from plague-impacted areas to enter a 30-day period of isolation known as trentino. Over the course of a century, this was extended from thirty to forty days and the term changed to quarantino.

“I used my time in quarantine to finish writing my book.”

Slogan (Gaelic)

/ˈsləʊɡ(ə)n/ [slow·gn]

a short and striking or memorable phrase used in advertising.

In commercial and sociopolitical contexts, slogans are catchy and concise phrases used to emphasize ideas and messages. However, the origin of the word has a very different story. “Slogan” stems from the Scottish word slogorne, from sluagh-ghairm, a battle cry used by Scottish Highland and Irish clans. This root is broken up into sluagh (army) and gairm (a cry). During the Middle Ages in Europe, slogans were used not only during battles, but also as passwords to help people recognize each other at night.

“The more concise a slogan, the easier it is to remember.”

Fiasco (Italian)

/fɪˈaskəʊ/ [fi·as·co]

a complete failure, especially a ludicrous or humiliating one.

Ah, here’s a word that many of us have used this year. “Fiasco” comes from fare fiasco which is Italian for “to make a bottle.” The origins are unclear but one theory suggests that Venetian glassmakers put aside imperfect pieces and turned them into common flasks or bottles. One Italian dictionary says that fare il fiasco would mean “to play a game so that the one that loses will pay the fiasco,” meaning that the loser would buy the next bottle of wine. In the mid-19th century, “fiasco” started being used as theater slang for “a failure in performance.”

“Despite her initial worries that her play would be a fiasco, she ended up receiving a ten-minute long standing ovation.”

Tulip (Turkish)

/ˈtjuːlɪp/ [tyoo·lip]

a bulbous spring-flowering plant of the lily family, with boldly coloured cup-shaped flowers.

For my fellow anthophiles (flower lovers) out there, here's an interesting one! Credit for the word “tulip” goes to the Turkish word tülbent and the Persian word dulband (both meaning “turban”) as people thought the flower resembled a turban. Contrary to popular belief, tulips are not native to The Netherlands, but were actually introduced to the country by Turkey in the 16th century.

“I put my bouquet of yellow tulips in a vase as soon as I got home.”

Clue (English)

/kluː/ [kloo]

A fact or idea that serves to reveal something or solve a problem.

The origin of the word lies in Middle English “clew,” a ball of thread or yarn. However, its use as we know it today was popularized by a Greek myth. The hero Theseus is known for slaying the Minotaur, a half-man and half-bull creature who lived in a labyrinth beneath the palace of King Minos of Crete. Before Theseus embarked on this quest, Minos’s daughter Ariadne gave him a ball of yarn (Ariadne’s Thread,) which he rewound to guide him out of the labyrinth.

“They knew that no one could decipher a string of clues like Hercule Poirot.”

Glitch (Yiddish)

/ɡlɪtʃ/ [glich]

a sudden, usually temporary malfunction or fault of equipment.

What comes to mind when I think of “glitch” is my laptop acting up. Or those bizarre “how did that even happen?” moments (commonly known as “glitches in the matrix.”) “Glitch” is said to come from the Yiddish word glitsh, meaning “slippery place.” Its first documented use is in Into Orbit, a 1962 book by American astronaut John Glenn, to refer to “a spike or change in voltage in an electrical circuit which takes place when the circuit suddenly has a new load put on it.”

“Due to a console glitch, my game wasn’t saved where I left off.”

Jigsaw (English)

/ˈdʒɪɡsɔː/ [jig·saw]

a puzzle consisting of a picture printed on cardboard or wood and cut into various pieces of different shapes that have to be fitted together.

Doing jigsaw puzzles is a fun and interactive pastime for people all over the world - especially nowadays when we’re all staying indoors. The word “jigsaw” was allegedly used for the first time around 1760 by John Spilsbury, a cartographer and teacher in London who wanted to help his students visualize England. To achieve this, he used a tool (a jigsaw) to create wood blocks that could be fit together side by side, with each block representing one part of the country.

“When my roommates and I got snowed in, we took on a huge jigsaw puzzle together.”

Written by Aakanksha Gupta (Weloquent)

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