Fun Etymology Tuesday – Magazine

What do the magazines you find in the supermarket, full of gossip or specialist information, have to do with old buildings storing grain and dates in ancient Arabia?

Well, the word “magazine” ultimately comes from the Quranic Arabic word “makhzan”, meaning “storehouse, depot”, a form of the verb “khazana”, “to store”.
This was borrowed into Italian as “magazzino”, where it still has its original meaning of “storehouse”. Later, French brought the word to English, where its meaning of “storehouse” was metaphorically transferred to paper with the publication of the “Gentleman’s Magazine” in 1730, with the intended meaning of “storehouse of information”.

This metaphorical meaning supplanted the original and is now the primary one, the old meaning having survived only in military jargon, referring to the capsules storing ammunition for firearms.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Lord & lady

Eala, folcgestællan!

It’s Tuesday, and, as per long tradition, we have a Fun Etymology ready for you!

This week’s words are of noble stock: “lord” and “lady”.

These two noble titles, ubiquitous in films set in Ye Olde Merrie Englande, have surprisingly lowly origins: they both have to do with bread.

The word “lord” comes from old English “hlaford”, itself a contraction of “hlafweard”, literally “loaf-ward”, or “bread protector”, while the word “lady” comes from “hlæfdige”, which could be rendered as “loaf-dey”, or “bread kneader” (though it must be noted that this last etymology is disputed by the OED. However, nobody seems to have a better one, so there).

So the lady made the bread, while the lord stood there with his sword on the ready should any bread thieves dare tamper with their nutritious wheat derivate.

As an Italian, though, I must say that ladies were apparently not too good at making bread, considering the flaccid, sweetish mess English bread ended up being. No “hlafþeóf” would be interested in that.

Perhaps that’s why lords and ladies ended up moving on from baking to the far more profitable business of oppressing peasants.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Hypocrite

Hello peepz!
It’s Tuesday and, as usual, it’s time for our regular appointment with words and their wacky histories!

Today’s word is a word nobody likes to be called: “hypocrite”.

We’ve probably seen many of this kind of people in our lives (*cough*politicians*cough*), and we all know what they are: people who say one thing and do the opposite, who preach well but do wrong.

It’s no wonder then that the word comes from the Ancient Greek “hypocrites”, meaning “stage actor”.
This word is itself a nominal form of the verb “hypokrinesthai”, a compound of the words “hypo-“, ‘under’, and the middle voice (sort of like a reflexive) of the verb “krinein”, ‘to discriminate, separate’. So “self-under-separation”, if you like, or, in plain English, to separate yourself from your true self; i.e. playing a part.

Don’t be actors, people. Do what you say you do.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Coffee

People of the netz!
It is Fun Etymology day, and I know you’ve been waiting for this, so let’s get started!

Today’s word is “coffee”.

Ah, coffee. Some people swear they couldn’t live without it, others, like me, only drink it occasionally.

The coffea arabica plant, from which the coffee seeds are taken, is native of Ethiopia and Yemen, from which it was brought to Europe in the 1500. In fact, Yemen became so rich from the export of coffee that its laws decreed that no living plant or seed could be taken out of the country, in order to protect the monopoly they had.
When it arrived in France and England in the late 1590s, it sparked what can only be called a coffee mania, with more than 3000 coffee houses opened in England alone by 1670. These places were a popular meeting place for intellectuals and philosophers, because they offered a more egalitarian atmosphere from the clubs and universities of the time.

The word “coffee” is a borrowing from Arabic “qahwah”, itself of uncertain origin, filtered through Turkish “kahveh” and Italian “caffè”.
Some say the word originally meant “wine”, others that it comes from the Ethiopian region of Kaffa, one of the homelands of this incredible plant.

Whatever the origins of its name, we can all agree that love it or hate it, the world would not be the same without this black, powerful beverage.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Penguin

Hello, our internet friends!
It’s Fun Etymology day!

Today’s word is a weird one: “penguin”!

The word “penguin” is yet another of a long string of borrowings in the English language, and that is rather unremarkable. What is remarkable though, is the language it probably comes from: Welsh.

Now what could the Welsh be doing naming a bird that lives on the opposite side of the Earth from Wales?

And the original meaning is even weirder: it comes from the words “pen”, ‘head’, and “gwyn”, ‘white’, but most penguins’ heads are black!

Well, it turns out that the name didn’t originally belong to the penguin, but to another bird: the Great Auk, a bird which is unfortunately now extinct and which lived in the northern Atlantic, and which happened to look very similar to a penguin.
Its head was also black, but it sported a very prominent white mark on its beak, which was probably the origin of its name.

It appears that sailors exploring Antarctica noticed the similarity between the two birds and were too lazy to give the newly discovered one a new name.

And that’s how a Celtic word meaning “white head” came to mean a black-headed bird from Antarctica.

Words. We never get tired of them.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Iron

Hello, followers! It’s Tuesday, and that means a shining new Fun Etymology is here for you!

Today’s word is “iron”.

It can be safely said that history changed forever when humanity discovered a way to smelt iron, an achievement comparable to the rise of agriculture or the industrial revolution. But iron was much more than that: for the peoples of Northern Europe, this metal possessed sacred and magical powers. It was thought to be able to chase away or even kill spirits and to be able to store spells.

This belief can be seen in the etymology of the word: the word “iron” comes from Old English “isern”, through a process called ‘rhotacism’ in which an ‘s’ sound becomes an ‘r’ sound between vowels. This word comes from Proto-Germanic “isarnan”, itself a loanword from proto-Celtic “isarnon” (whose descendants include Welsh “haiarn”, for example).
The Celtic word itself is thought to come from a PIE root *is(e)ro-, meaning “holy” or “powerful”, the same root from which the Greek word “hieros” (‘priest’) descends.
The original meaning would therefore had been “holy metal” or “powerful metal”.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Chocolate

Well met, people! Didn’t think we’d forget about our beautiful followers on Fun Etymology day, did you? Let’s get right to it!
Today, we’re going back to the origins of Fun Etymologies by bringing you another word from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.
Today’s word is “chocolate”!

This beloved food is made from the seeds of the evergreen tropical plant Theobroma Cacao (“Theobroma” means “food of the gods” in Greek, and who could disagree?), a relative of cotton native of Central America, and enjoys undying popularity in every corner of the planet due to its amazing taste and incredible versatility.

The etymology of its name is pretty straightforward: it comes to English through Spanish from a Nahuatl compound “xocolatl” (where “x” is pronounced “sh”), literally meaning “bitter water”, in reference to the drink the Aztecs used to make from cocoa seeds. The funny thing about this etymology, however, is that no Aztec ever used the word “xocolatl”! It can’t be found in any Aztec document dating to before the Spanish conquest, where the drink was simply referred to as “cacahuatl” (which is where our word “cocoa” comes from, incidentally. The Aztec word was itself a loanword from Olmec “kakawa”. Triple language chain!). Where did this word come from then? Nobody knows for sure!
A leading hypothesis is that it was coined by the Spanish themselves to avoid the similarity between “cacahuatl” and the Spanish word “caca”, meaning, well… “animal and/or human waste”, an association which would also be brought to mind by the… ahem… suggestive colour of the drink.

Hope I haven’t ruined your snack.

Let’s get Laut! 2

Welcome back, fearless blog readers!

If you remember last week’s post, or if you speak English at all, you’ll remember that sometimes English words can behave… bizarrely.

Last time, we explored the reason why some plurals (like mice or geese) can be totally out of control. Today, it’s time to look at their far more complicated cousins, the so-called “irregular” past tense verbs. These are really part of a wider Germanic phenomenon called strong verbs, but their roots sink much, much further in the past. If you’re a native English speaker, maybe you’ve wondered from time to time why some verbs change so drastically in their past tenses; if you are or have been an English learner, you probably remember memorising those frustrating tables in school.

But why? Why are they like this? Why can’t they just be like everyone else?

Remember the two German siblings we introduced last week?

No, not the fairy tale ones. The anthropomorphised linguistic abstraction ones.

They look pretty good for having no discernible physical form at all. Also they like Spätzle and Bratvwürst. Yummy!

We already thoroughly acquainted you with umlaut, and today we’re going to introduce his big sister, ablaut.

Hold on tight, this is going to be a wild ride!

The humble e

If you thought umlaut was old, get a load of this: his older sister ablaut goes back to Proto-Indo-European!

Her name literally means “sound gradation” in German, and she was given a name by none other than our old friend Jacob Grimm.

He (and other linguists during his time) noticed that in some Germanic verbs vowels alternated according to a predictable set of patterns. You might know these patterns as the so-called “irregular” verbs of English, such as swim/swam/swum.

Such patterns exist in all Germanic languages, but our linguist friends noticed that similar phenomena could be seen in other Indo-European languages, and not only in verbs. Ancient Greek, for example, exhibits similar patterns in nouns as well as verbs, and ancient Indian grammarians such as Panini had noticed it happening in Sanskrit millennia before, giving the different vowel grades fancy names such as guna and vrddhi.

From this evidence, our fearless heroes deduced that this system of vowel changes must go much further in the past than the birth of Germanic languages.

Today’s leading hypothesis is that all these changes spark from the same little source: the humble PIE vowel /e/.

This little vowel was PIE’s most important vowel. In fact, according to some theories, it might even have been its only vowel at some very early stage! How did the other vowels come about? Well, /a/ probably originated from a neighbouring consonant’s effect on /e/, while /i/ and /u/ probably arose out of the semivowels /j/ and /w/ respectively. The vowel /o/, on the other hand, came about because of ablaut.

You see, PIE /e/ was pronounced (or not pronounced, see below) in various, different ways depending on its position and the position of the main stress in the word. We call these different ways of pronouncing this most basic of vowels grades. Unfortunately, nobody has ever been able to figure out why this happened exactly, but we’re working on it, we promise.

In total, there were three basic grades and two lengthened grades. Let’s take a look at these changes using various forms of the PIE word *ph2ter-, ‘father’, as examples.[1] In these, the acute accent (é) indicates stress.

The three basic grades were the e-grade, which occurred when the stress was on the concerned vowel, as in

*ph2térm̥ (“father”, accusative)[2]

The o-grade, which turned the /e/ into /o/, and occurred when the stress came before the vowel, as in

*n̥péh2torm̥ (“fatherless”, accusative)[3]

And the zero-grade, where the /e/ just disappeared, which occured when the stress came after the vowel, as in

*ph2trés (“father’s”, genitive)

When the e- and o-grades were found in the last syllable of a word, they became long vowels, giving rise to the lengthened grades (a line on the vowel, called a macron, indicates length), as in

*ph2tḗr (“father”, nominative)


*n̥péh2tōr (“fatherless”, nominative)

Thousands of years of sound change in English have erased the effects of ablaut in nouns, but they can be seen in Ancient Greek. Using our examples above, here’s how they evolved in the language of Socrates:

*ph2térm̥ > patéra

*n̥péh2torm̥ > apátora

*ph2trés > patrós

*ph2tḗr > patḗr

*n̥péh2tōr > apátōr

Pretty similar, aren’t they?

This system of changes also applied to verbs, and, believe it or not, in early PIE all verbs behaved like the English irregular verbs! What a nightmare, eh?

Don’t commiserate the poor Indo-Europeans, though. At the time, these changes were perfectly predictable and regular.

Ten thousand years of sound change tend to wreck even the most clockwork-like of systems, however, and by the time Proto-Germanic made its entrance on the stage, the simple e/o/nothing system of Indo-European had been scrambled into a complex mess of vowels.

Proto-Germanic strong verbs are divided into seven classes, depending on the path that humble PIE /e/ took in its evolution into all the vowels we know and love today.

The… messy evolution of vowels in English certainly didn’t help, and while today these seven classes of verbs still technically exist, they’re very hard to tell apart. The strong verbs of English have become for all intents and purposes irregular, which is what they’re called in school grammars everywhere.

What about regular verbs (also called weak verbs) then? Well, some of them were once strong verbs which became weak somewhere along their history (such as show/showed, which was once show/shew), but most of them were not originally verbs at all! Proto-Germanic weak verbs come from other words (mostly nouns) which got turned into verbs through derivation.

So here’s the plot twist: irregular verbs are not rebels at all! They’re old fogeys, shaking their heads and tutting at the young and hip regular verbs staring at their mobile phones all day.

You millennials are so lazy. Back in MY day we took the trouble of changing our vowels in our past tenses!

Life is full of surprises.

  1. That “h2” thing is one of the consonants from which /a/ arose, incidentally.
  2. That dot under the “m” shows that it’s a separate syllable. In PIE, m, n, l, and r could behave like vowels!
  3. Bonus points if you noticed the e-grade in the first syllable!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Hearse

Hello, splendid followers!
Let me ask you a question: how do you go from a wolf to a car model specifically designed to transport coffins?
No clue? Well, you’re in luck, because today’s Fun Etymology is about one of the English words with the most byzantine history of semantic shifts: “hearse”.

The original roots of the word are thought to be found in the Oscan word “hirpus”, meaning “wolf”. Oscan was a sister language to Latin, spoken during the time of the Roman Empire. This word would have gone extinct if some Oscan farmer hadn’t noticed how the tool he used to break up soil on his farm kinda looked like the fangs of a wolf, and decided to call it so. This word was quickly borrowed into Latin as “hirpex” and went on to describe this agricultural implement (what in modern English is called a harrow) for centuries. Then, at some point during the Middle Ages, someone noticed how certain kinds of chandelier used in churches kinda looked similar to these harrows, so they figured why not extend the meaning of this word to indicate those as well?
By this time, the word looked like “hercia”, and that’s how it was borrowed into Old English. Only guess what that particular kind of chandelier was used for in England? That’s right, it was hung above coffins during funerals! So someone thought: “What’s the harm in having this word mean “coffin” as well? It’s not like you talk about chandeliers every day, is it?”
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, and soon the word was further extend to indicate the carriage on which the coffin was transported to the church prior to the funeral, then those carriages got replaced by cars, and here we are!

Let’s Get Laut! (Part 1)

Mouse. Goose. Man. Swim. Drive. Bite.

These are some words students of English everywhere have learned to fear. Why? Because they’re rebel words: they won’t bow to the rules which would make English grammar so much simpler.

“Mouses”? That’s what the system wants, man! Go “mice”!

“Swimmed”? Pshaw! It’s “swam” or death!

Rise, Товарищ, smash the imperialist suffixes!

But why is it like that? Why can’t these words just behave and spare English students all the grief? Why do their vowels have to jump around like rocket-powered rabbits in a carrot field?

Well, turns out they have two very good reasons to do that, and those reasons are two lovely German siblings called umlaut and ablaut.

Aren’t they cute?

Let’s talk about the first of these for a bit.


Umlaut is the younger sibling: he’s just a little over 1000 years old!

His name literally means “sound alteration” in German, and he is a kind of assimilation or vowel harmony that appeared in two out of the three main branches of the Germanic family, leaving poor East Germanic behind.

Lots of sad goths out there.
Photo by Bryan Ledgard

Vowel harmony is a process in which the vowels of a word shift their sound to become more similar to another vowel, bringing all them roughly in the same part of the mouth (and therefore making it simpler to pronounce them in sequence).

In some languages, such as Finnish or Turkish, this process happens all the time, and vowels on suffixes must be “adapted” to the vowels of the word they are to be attached to to be grammatically sound. For example, the vowels “a” and “ö” cannot be together in any native Finnish word: if you want to add an “a” to a word with “ö” sounds, you have to turn it into “ä” first.

Umlaut is a rather more limited form of vowel harmony, because it usually only extends one syllable to the left in languages in which it appears.

In Germanic, it only happened in the past, and only involved the vowels /a/, /u/ and, most importantly, /i/. In this post, we’re going to concentrate on the umlaut involving the vowel /i/, because it’s the one that most influenced modern English.

If Germanic words were American high-schools (or Japanese ones, depending on your tastes in entertainment), then /i/ would have been the cool kid. Everyone wants to be like /i/: he’s smart, athletic and almost sinfully handsome.

Notice me, senpai!

Whenever he’s around, the back vowels /a/, /o/ and /u/ try to look like him, hoping to attract his attention. They never succeed entirely, no-one can be like /i/, but they come as close as they can. Only /e/ remains aloofː he’s a bookish geek, and doesn’t care about these status games.[1] Also, he’s already pretty similar to /i/, because he possesses the thing that makes /i/ so coolː frontness.

In the classroom of the mouth, /i/ and /e/ always sit in the front rows, near the teeth, while /a/, /o/ and /u/ are confined to the back, near the squishy soft palate. Ew.

When /i/ appears, everyone shuffles their desks forward to be near him. However, they can’t be too conspicuous, or they’ll appear desperate. That’s why they only move forwards if they are within one syllable to his left.

Suppose one of these words looks like this:


Here’s /u/, happily minding its own business. But when the word is plural, it looks like thisː


Well look who appeared on the sceneǃ It’s good ol’ /i/, and he’s right in the next syllableǃ /u/ almost panicsː this is his chance to be seen with the cool kidǃ He shuffles his desk forward and becomes /y/.


Time passes, /i/ and /z/ graduate from the school of language change and disappear from the word. /y/ is behind on a few exams and remains where he is.


He’s really important nowː if he moved his desk back and became /uː/ again, the speakers of the school’s language would not be able to tell the plural of the word from the singularǃ

Eventually, through hard study and the unrounding of front vowels in the passage between Old and Middle English, /y/ finally lives the dreamː he becomes /i/ǃ Now he’s the cool kidǃ


He’s hardly finished celebrating when the Great Vowel Shift sweeps the language like a storm, sending vowels flying all over the place. Now the singular form sounds like /maʊs/, and the plural like /maɪs/. Our words have now becomeː

mouse and mice

And that’s how they’ve looked ever sinceǃ To summarise, /u/’s path when near /i/ was /u/ > /y/ > /i/ > /aɪ/.

The other back vowels also had similar pathsː /o/ > /ø/ > /e/ > /i/ gave rise to words such as goose/geese, and /a/ > /æ/ > /ɛ/ gave rise to the word man/men.

What did the words that make their plural with regular -s have that set them apart from these? Well, it’s simpleː their plurals didn’t involve /i/. Instead, they had some boring other vowel. Usually /a/.

It’s important to note that this process only took place in native Germanic words. That’s why it’s goose/geese, but not moose/meeseː the word “moose” is not Germanic at allǃ It comes from an Algonquian language of Canada, and therefore never went through the umlaut process.

Finally, many words which once formed their plural through umlaut were later regularised to form it with -s. If this hadn’t happened, the plural of cow would be kye, and the plural of book would be… beech.

A veritable library.

So there you have it: that’s why some words in English have crazy plurals. What about the verbs with the crazy past tenses? Well, you’ll have to wait for a future post, when we’ll examine umlaut’s older sister, ablaut.

In the meantime, stay tuned for next week, when Rebekah will start us on a journey on why English spelling looks so bafflingly insane.

  1. Be like /e/, guys.