Fun Etymology Tuesday – Beer

Well met, followers all! It’s Tuesday, and the Ancient and Sacred Texts mandate that we write a Fun Etymology for you, our lovely audience.

This week’s word is a favourite: “beer”!

Ah, beer. Beverage of the gods. Loved by all Germanic peoples everywhere.
This fermented barley drink is the oldest recipe known to humanity: it dates back to the Sumerians! Some scholars even believe agriculture was invented because of a pressing human need to produce more booze.
Before the 18th century, beer was the primary beverage for most of Europe, because water was far too dangerous to drink. When the first techniques of water purification were invented, it was such a novelty that the rich hosted parties where they would invite other posh people to taste water.

The word itself is of uncertain origin. It has a cognate in German “Bier”, but in no other Germanic language, where the original Germanic word, cognate to English “ale”, is ubiquitous.
Some linguists think the word was borrowed by West Germanic monks in the 6th century from the Latin word “bibere”, meaning “drink”. Others trace its origins to Proto-Germanic *beuwo-, meaning “barley”.

When Germanic tribes invaded what was left of the Roman Empire, the word was borrowed back into Italian and French, where it survives as “birra” and “bière”, respectively, supplanting the Latin word “cerevisia”, which survives in Spanish “cerveza” and, to a limited extent, in Italian “cervogia”, now mostly used jocularly.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Viking

Hello, good followers! It’s Tuesday, and you know the drill by now: it’s Fun Etymology time!
Today we’re doing a word we should have done a long time ago: “Viking”! Considering we have two in our staff, this is an unpardonable oversight.

The word “Viking” comes from the Old Norse “vikingr”, meaning “pirate, raider”. As you can imagine, this was not the name they gave to their people, as it was not exactly flattering, but it was the name they gave to the activity which they engaged in from time to time: namely, raiding and pillaging.

The word itself is of uncertain etymology, but it’s probably related to the word “vik”, meaning “bay” or “fjord”, from which Vikings used to launch their raiding expeditions. It’s also the second part of the name “Reykjavik”, the capital of Iceland, whose name literally means “smoking bay”.

Curiously, the Old English name “wicing” (wee-king), meaning “raider” or “viking”, appeared 300 years before the Old Norse “vikingr”, and might therefore have a wholly different etymology: it could come from Latin “vicus”, meaning “village, abitation”.
That would make the similarity between the two words completely coincidental!

One Nation, Many Languages

Lies your geography teacher told you

We all know that each country has one and only one language, right?

In China they speak Chinese, in England they speak English, in Iran they speak Farsi, and each language is neatly contained within the borders of its respective state, immediately switching to another language as soon as these are crossed.

Well, if you’ve been reading our blog, you have probably become rather sceptical of categorical statements like this, and for good reason: it turns out, in fact, that a situation like the one described above is pretty much unheard of. Languages spread across borders, sometimes far into a neighbouring country, and even within the borders of a relatively small state it’s not uncommon to have four or five languages spoken, sometimes even more, and large countries can have hundreds or more.

Then there’s the island of New Guinea, which fits 1,000 languages (more than some continents) in an area slightly bigger than France.

And yet, this transparent lie is what we are all taught in school. Why? Well, you can thank those dastardly Victorians again.

Before the rise of nationalism in the late 18th century, it was common knowledge that languages varied across very short distances, and being multilingual was the rule, not the exception, for most people. Even as a peasant, you spoke the language of your own state and one or two languages from neighbouring countries (which at the time were probably a few miles away, at most). Sure, most larger political entities had lingua francas, such as Latin or a prestige language selected amongst the varieties spoken within the borders (usually the language of the capital), but this was never seen as anything more than a way to facilitate communication.

It was the Victorian obsession with national unity and conformity which slowly transformed all languages different from the arbitrarily chosen “national language” into marks of ignorance, provincialism, and, during the fever pitch reached in the 1930s, even treason; this led to policies of brutal language suppression, which resulted the near-extinction of many of the native languages of Europe.

Why then is this kind of thing still taught in schools? Because, sad to say, things have only become slightly better since those dark times. Most modern countries still accept the “One Nation, One Language” doctrine as a fact of life without giving it a second thought. Some countries still proudly and openly enact policies of language suppression aimed at eliminating any language different from the national standard (je parle à toi, ma belle France…).

Which brings me to our case study: my own Italy.

La bella Italia

Given my tirade above, it should not come as a surprise to you now when I tell you that Italian is not the only language spoken in Italy. Not by a long shot. In fact, by some counts, there are as much as 35! The map below shows their distribution.

What is today known as Standard Italian (or simply Italian) is a rather polished version of the Tuscan language (shown as TO on the map). Why not Central Italian, the language of Rome? For rather complex reasons which have to do with the Renaissance, and which we won’t delve into here, lest this post become a hundred pages long.

Even though Italy stopped enforcing its language suppression policies after WWII, it is a sad fact that even the healthiest of Italian languages are today classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO in its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with most of them in the “definitely endangered” category.

The Italian government only recognises a handful of these as separate languages, either because they’re so different it would be ludicrous to claim they’re varieties of Italian (such as Greek, Albanian and various Slavic and Germanic languages spoken in the North), or because of political considerations due to particularly strong separatist tendencies (such as Sardinian or Friulan, spoken in the Sardinia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, respectively). All other languages have no official status, and are generally referred to as “dialects” of Italian, even though some are as different from Italian as French is![1]

Stereotypically, speaking one of these languages is a sign of poor education, sometimes even boorishness: in the popular eye, you’re not speaking a different language, you’re simply speaking Italian wrong.[2]

To see how deep the brainwashing goes: suffice to say that it’s not uncommon, when travelling to areas where these languages are still commonly spoken, to address a local in Italian and receive an answer in the local language. When it becomes clear to them that you don’t understand a word of what they’re saying, the locals are often puzzled and surprised, because they’re sincerely convinced they’re speaking Italian!

To better highlight the differences between Italian and these languages, here’s the same short passage in Italian and in my own regional language, Emilian (Bologna dialect):


Si bisticciavano un giorno il Vento di Tramontana e il Sole, l’uno pretendendo d’esser più forte dell’altro, quando videro un viaggiatore, che veniva innanzi avvolto nel mantello. I due litiganti convennero allora che si sarebbe ritenuto più forte chi fosse riuscito a far sì che il viaggiatore si togliesse il mantello di dosso.


Un dé al Vänt ed såtta e al Såul i tacagnèven, parché ognón l avêva la pretaiśa d èser pió fôrt che cl èter. A un zêrt pónt i vdénn un òmen ch’al vgnêva inànz arvujè int una caparèla. Alåura, pr arsôlver la lît, i cunvgnénn ch’al srêv stè cunsidrè pió fôrt quall ed låur ch’al fóss arivè d åura ed fèr in môd che cl òmen al s cavéss la caparèla d’indòs.

Pretty different, aren’t they?

You can hear the Italian version read aloud here, and here is the Emilian version[3].

Here’s the English version of the same passage for reference:

The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveller came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveller take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other.

It is pretty hard to argue that these two are the same language, and yet this is what most people in Italy believe, thinking of Emilian as a distorted or corrupted form of Italian.

Compare this to the situation during the Renaissance, when Emilian was actually a very prestigious language, to the point that Dante himself once wrote an essay defending it from those who would claim the superiority of Latin, calling it the most elegant of the languages of Italy.


Italy is by no means an isolated example, as I’ve already made clear in the first section of this post: wherever you go in the world, you’ll find dozens of languages being suppressed and driven to extinction due to myopic language policies left over from an era of nationalism and intolerance.

The good news is that the situation is improving: in Italy, regional languages are not stigmatised as they once were. In fact, many people take pride in speaking their local language, and steps are being taken to teach it to the youngest generations and preserving them through literature and modern media. However, the damage done in the past is enormous, and it will take an equally enormous effort to restore these languages to the level of health they enjoyed a hundred years ago. For some of them it might very well be too late.

So if you speak a minority language, or know someone who does, take pride in it. Teach it to your children. They’re not “useless”, they’re not marks of poor education, they are languages, as dignified and deep as any national language.

And don’t mind the naysayers: whenever someone tells me Emilian is a language for farmers, incapable of the breadth of expression displayed by Italian, I remind them that when Mozart studied music in Bologna, he spoke Emilian, not Italian; and that when the oldest university in the western world opened its doors in 1088, and for 700 years after that, it was Emilian, not Italian, that was spoken in its halls.

  1. Lisa discussed the tricky question of  what’s a language and what’s a dialect here
  2. The same thing that happens to Scots or AAVE. See here
  3. The passages are taken from a short story used to compare different italian regional languages. All currently recorded versions can be found here.


Fun Etymology Tuesday – Robot

Hello, protocol-compliant friends! My system clock indicates it’s Tuesday, and that means a new Fun Etymology must be outputted!

Today’s word is “robot”!

We are very familiar with this word today, both from science fiction and, increasingly, in our everyday lives. Our cars are mostly built by robots, and some of us have tiny robots cleaning their floors.
But did you know that this word did not originate in a computer lab, but in the theatre?

The word “robot” was coined by the Czech playwright Karel Capek for his 1920 play “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots). It is a deeivation of the Czech word “robota”, meaning “hard labour”, from Proto-Slavic “*orbu”, itself from PIE *orbh-, the same root that gave us the german word “Arbeit”, “work”.

I’m afraid the fact that the word “robot” basically means “slave” will not work in our favour during the Great Robot Uprising of 2037.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Italy

Hello, fantastic followers!

After an empty week (sorry…), we bring you your scheduled Etymological Fun this Tuesday!

Today we finally conclude our short nation series with the last of the HLC countries: my own Italy!

The origin of the word “Italy” is disputed: nobody really knows where it comes from and what it means.
The most believable etymology would have the name of the peninsula derive from the Oscan language, one of the languages spoken in Italy before the rise of Rome.
The word “Viteliu”, originally referred to the southern part of Italy and is thought to be cognate with the Latin word “vitulus” and its Italian descendant “vitello”, meaning “calf”.
So according to this hypothesis, the etymological meaning of “Italy” would be “land of calves”. Why this would be, we’re not sure.
Some connect it to the name of an indigenous tribe in modern day Calabria, called the Vitali, who perhaps were cattle herders.

Another hypothesis would have it be a loanword from Illyrian, a language spoken in the Balkans in the Roman age. However, we know little to nothing about Illyrian and we literally have no writings to figure anything out, so we can’t know for sure whether this hypothesis is true, and what the word might mean if it is.

From this Calflander it’s everything. See you around peepz!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – America

Hello everyone! It’s Tuesday and there’s a new Fun Etymology waiting for you fresh from the HLC Etymology Factory.

This week we’ll explore our next-to-last country name (for now), homeland of our own Rebekah: “America”!

America is one of the most recent places to have been named, so its etymology is known for certain. It is not named after a tribe or some geographical feature, but after a person.
That person is the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who lived in the 15th century and was the first to recognise America as a new continent, and not just a collection of islands, which is what Christopher Columbus thought it was (too bad, Chris. But at least you get a country in South America named after you). The word “America” comes from a Latinisation of his name, “Americus”.
The name “Amerigo” itself is Germanic in origin, probably from Gothic “Amalrich”, or “work-ruler”. It survives in English today in the surname “Emmerich”.

Fun fact: if America were named after Amerigo Vespucci’s surname instead, we would have to talk about the United States of Vesputia!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Irish

Hello, my good followers! How’s it going?

It’s Wednesday, and, a day late (and not a minute too soon), we present to you our latest Fun Etymology!

Today we complete our little exploration of the British Isles with the word “Irish”!

The word “Irish”, from Old English “Iras”, was brought to our language by the Vikings, of all people. It is a loanword from the Old Norse “Irar”. Why the Vikings, who came from the exact opposite side of the sea from where Ireland is located?
Well, at the time, the Vikings had a… ahem… special relation with Ireland, in that they had raided it multiple times and establish numerous settlements there.
Their word “Irar” itself comes from Old Irish “Eriu”, the name they gave themselves, from Old Celtic “Iveriu”. This is thought to come from the PIE root *pi-wer-, meaning “fertile”, or “fat”, probably referring to the notoriously verdant island they settled.

If you know an Irishman (or if you are one), maybe you could consider adopting the name “Fertile Ones” for a bit of flattery.

Just don’t call them “fatties”, please.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Welsh

Good evening, loyal friends!
It’s Tuesday and, as regular as clockwork, our new Fun Etymology is out!
In our ongoing series about country/language names we’re going to explore another one of the constituents of the United Kingdom: Wales!

We wanted to do Scotland first but sadly nobody knows where the word Scotland (or better, Scot, the name of the
Celtic tribe giving its name to the land) comes from! That would have been a very short Fun Etymology indeed.

The word “Welsh”, by contrast, has a very rich and curious history.
It comes from the Old English word “wielisc” or “wælisc”, meaning “foreigner”.
This word comes from the Proto-Germanic word *walkhiskaz, which was used to signify any non-Germanic foreigner. The result of this is that there have been many “Welshes” along the ages: to the Vikings, the “Valir” were the French, to the old High Germans, the “Walh” were the Romans.
The Proto-Germanic word comes from the name of a Celtic tribe which lived in the Alps in northern Italy, known in Latin as the “Volcae”.

So, the name of a Celtic tribe came to mean “foreigner” in proto-Germanic, and then Old English extended this meaning to become the name of another Celtic tribe only remotely related to the one which originated the word in the first place!

Such is the way of the world.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – English

Hello hello hello, good friends!
It’s Tuesday, and long tradition dictates a new Fun Etymology is waiting for you, fresh and crispy!

Today’s word is the first in a mini-series we’ll be doing in the following weeks about country and language names, and where else to begin if not with our own lovely English?

The word “English” comes from Old English “Englisc”, the adjectival form of the noun “Engle”, which is the name the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes who came to Great Britain and colonised it in the fifth century AD, called themselves.

Now you might think the word Angle sounds suspiciously the same as the word “angle”, i.e. what you get when two lines intersect, but they couldn’t possibly be related, could they?

Well, it turns out that they are! The Angles named themselves after their original homeland Angul, located on the Jutland peninsula in what is now the German state of Schleswig-Holstein (how cool are German state names, by the way?). The name Angul comes from Proto-Germanic *angul, “hook”, which itself comes from the PIE root *ank- “to bend”, which gave us the words “angle” and “ankle” (the part of the foot that bends), amongst others. They called their land that way because it sort of looks like a fish hook.

Another interesting aspect of this word is that by all accounts it should be pronounced “Anglish”, not at all how it is pronounced today. The explanation for this irregularity is that by the 14th century, the sound “e” before “ng” had become very rare, and the influence of the far more common “ing” combination resulted in the pronunciation shifting that way.
In some Middle English and Scots texts, the spelling “Inglis”, which reflects the modern pronunciation, can be found relatively frequently, but over time the archaic spelling prevailed, and here we are.

So, my dear Fish Hook People and other Fish Hook Language speakers, let me wish you a very nice week while you wait for our next foray into the history of words.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Book

Friends and followers, welcome one and all to a brand new Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is one of my favourite things in the world: “book”.

Books are the closest thing we humans have to actual magic, as Carl Sagan once said. We have found a way to encode our thoughts into shapes we can draw and thereby preserve them for millennia.
Think about it: when you read Plato or Confucius or Caesar, you’re listening to the thoughts of someone who’s been dead for thousands of years, exactly as he expressed them. If that’s not sorcery I don’t know what is.

The word “book” comes from Old English “boc”, itself from Proto-Germanic *bokiz, meaning “beech” (from which the word “beech” also comes, predictably). This refers to the ancient custom amongst Germanic peoples of carving runes on the bark of beech trees, particularly suited to writing due to their white colour.
This is not unique of Germanic. The Latin word “librum”, from which come Italian “libro” and French “livre”, amongst others, itself originally meant “inner bark of a tree”.

So thank a tree on your way to the park today, for they give us not only the oxygen we breathe, but the means of preserving our thought and our wisdom through the centuries.