Fun Etymology Tuesday – Money & admonish

Guten Tag, mein gutes Volk!

It’s Tuesday and, as usual, it’s time for your weekly dose of Fun Etymology goodness.

If you’ve been following us on our journey so far, you know that words sometimes have the weirdest connections with other words. Today, we bring you another of those bizarre links: the one between “money” and “admonish”.

The word “money” is yet another word coming from the heap of vocabulary dumped on unsuspecting English by the French invaders in the Middle Ages and is directly cognate with modern French “monnaie”. The origin of both words can be found in the original Latin word “moneta” (which survived unchanged in Italian), and it’s the ultimate etymology of this word which is the most interesting part of our story today.

See, in ancient Rome, the official imperial mint was located right across the street from (or perhaps even inside) the city temple to the goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter.
Now, those of you who know your Greco-Roman mythology will know that Jupiter (or Zeus) wasn’t exactly the most faithful husband a woman could wish for.
Perhaps because of her husband’s constant misbehaviour, Juno was known to be a pretty stern and severe goddess, and one of her nicknames in Archaic Latin was “Moneta”, “The Admonisher”, from “monere” “to admonish”. Sound familiar?
In ancient Rome, money was what came out of the Moneta temple, and was therefore called “moneta”, from which came Old French “monoie”, which then gave English the word “money”.

The same verb “monere” (plus the strengthening prefix “ad-“) gave English the word “admonish”, again through French.

Isn’t it amazing how the ancient religion of the Romans still influences the words we use today?

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Guinea pig

¡Hola, pueblo de Facebook!

Happy new year!

Time moves inexorably forwards for all of us, and though it might seem that seven days be a long time, they’re but one flap of a beetle’s wings in the vast incomprehensible hugeness of time.
And so, here we are again with another Tuesday and yet another Fun Etymology!
This week’s word (or better, compound) is “guinea pig”!

Guinea pigs are medium-sized rodents native of the Andes in South America. They’re unique amongst rodents in being herbivores (whereas most other rodents are omnivores), and in having in common with humans the inability to create their own vitamin C. They’re also some of the cuddliest and cutest critters out there.
Reading this description, a couple of things probably occurred to you: guinea pigs are not pigs, and they don’t come from Guinea. Why the deuce (to borrow a very Victorian expression) are they called guinea pigs then?

The answer is: nobody knows for sure! Many hypotheses have been proposed, but none is entirely satisfactory. Some think they’re called that because they arrived in England on ships which came from South America via Guinea, so-called Guinea-men; others think it’s because they resemble the young of the breed of pig known as Guinea hog (they don’t); others still think it’s because of English people mishearing “Guyana” as “Guinea” (problem is they don’t come from Guyana either, though it’s a better approximation than Guinea, that’s for sure).
As for “pig”, it’s probably because of the squealing noises they make and the fact that they tend to become very fat.

Their original name in Quechua, the language once spoken in the Inca empire, is “quwi” (often spelled “cuy”). Perhaps we should just start calling them that.

To conclude this post, we’ll leave you with a photo of admin Riccardo’s own two little furry monsters.

See you around!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Mice, muscles and mussels

Ave, popule Libri Vultuum.

How were your Winter Holidays? We hope you had fun with your family and friends and that you ate to your heart’s content, because we sure did.

We at the HLC don’t like slacking off, though, so Boxing Day will certainly not stop us from bringing the usual dose of Fun Etymology goodness to you.

What do mice, muscles and mussels have in common?
Believe it or not, their names all come from the same root word, the Proto-Indo-European *mus-, meaning “mouse”.

The word “mouse”, as you can imagine, comes to English in an unbroken line from PIE through Germanic, and has changed very little in the millennia (the only significant change happened around the 14th to 17th centuries, during the Great Vowel Shift, when all the vowels of English were jumbled around. We’ll talk about this in a future blog post).

How do muscles connect in any way to mice, though?
The answer can be found in ancient Rome.
The Latin word for “mouse” was also “mus”, and the Romans were known to be keen observers of Nature in all its aspect.
If you’ve ever ogled a ripped bodybuilder showcasing their muscular prowess, you will have noticed that muscles stretching and relaxing under the skin seem to wriggle, as if those beefy arms were really bags full of live mice.
The Romans noticed this too, and that’s why they called whatever was wriggling under their skin “musculi”, or “little mice”, from which the modern English word “muscle” ultimately derives.

What about mussels then?
Well, if you’ve ever seen a live mussel, you’ll have noticed that the function of what we call its meat is opening and closing its shell. It is, in fact, a kind of muscle.
That’s where the name of this tasty bivalve comes from, but, being a rather more humble word than “muscle”, which had to appear in many academical anatomy books, no effort was made to keep its spelling similar to Latin, and that’s how we ended up with the modern spelling “mussel”.

And that’s how you go from mice to mussels.

Festive Etymology Tuesday – Yule

It’s that time of the week again, friends! Time for our weekly appointment with the history of words.

Christmas is coming! Do you hear that chiming sound? Do you feel that warm fuzzy feeling inside?
We certainly feel it: that’s why today we’ll be having a Festive Etymology.

Even though Christmas is a predominantly Christian festivity today, most of its traditions (the tree, gift giving, the stopping of all conflicts and many others) are actually much more ancient.
The tree, in particular, was an important symbol in the religion of the Germanic people, and the winter festival in which that tradition originated had a name which we can still hear from time to time: “Yule”.

The origins of the word “Yule” are shrouded in mystery. We know this word existed in Old English as “geól” (pronounced “yohl”), and in Old Norse as “jól”, and that it indicated both the festival and the month the festival was held in (modern-day December).

The word was eventually superseded by “Christmas” in English (from “Cristes Mæsse”, “Christ’s Mass”), but it remained in the Scandinavian languages, as well as Finnish, which borrowed it as “joulu” (whence their name for Santa, “Joulupukki”, literally “Old man Christmas”).

The word might have disappeared, but the spirit is still all there. So, on behalf of all of us at the HLC, Merry Yule and a Happy New Year!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Nice

Hello boys, girls and everyone else!
It’s the moment you were all waiting for: Fun Etymology time!

Have you ever had a schoolmate you remember as being kind of a jerk, who you then meet at a school get-together years later and he’s become this really nice person?
Some words are just like that, and the process they undergo is called “semantic amelioration” (fancy Latin-speak for “meaning improvement”).

Speaking of nice people, today’s word is the poster child for this process: “nice”.

The roots of “nice” lie in the Latin word “nescius”, a word meaning “ignorant” (from “ne-scire”, literally “not-know”), this word was then filtered through 12th century French and then arrived in English, where it originally meant “stupid, ignorant or annoying”. In the 13th century, the meaning shifted to “fastidious” or “fussy” (probably as an extension of “annoying”). From there, it became associated with attention to detail, then with finesse, until by the end of the 14th century, it had come to mean “delicate” or “fragile”. In the 18th century it was already commonly used to mean “lovely, agreeable”. Finally, in the 19th century, it got its modern meaning of “kind” or “enjoyable”.
In the 19th century, the use of this word had become kind of a fad, so much so that some old curmudgeons started complaining that everything was constantly being described as “nice”, to the point that the word seemed to have lost all kind of meaning. Of course, the word survived very well, thank you very much, and is still going strong today, with as much meaning as it had before, albeit a very different one.

And that’s how in just eight centuries “That guy is really nice” went to being an insult to being a compliment.
The roads words take never cease to amaze us.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Shirt & skirt

Hello faithful followers.

Quick! Look at your calendars!
What day is it? That’s right: Fun Etymology day!
And what a special Fun Etymology day it is, good folk, for today we have not one, but TWO words: “shirt” and “skirt”.

As those of you who follow this little recurring segment of ours know, English is a language that borrowed quite liberally from many other languages. Amongst these languages, two have a very special place: Old French and Old Norse. Today, we’ll talk about the latter.

Old Norse was the language of Scandinavia during the Viking Age, and it was very closely related to Old English. Some even hypothesise that speakers of the two languages might have been able to understand each other with some effort.
Starting from the 9th century, the Vikings invaded and conquered parts of England, and this intense and sustained contact between the two cultures gave the English language the opportunity to borrow quite a lot of words from Old Norse, even some very frequent ones, such as the pronoun “they” (but that’s a story for another Fun Etymology).

A legacy from this time can be seen in one particular phonological phenomenon: the fate of the Proto-Germanic consonant cluster “sk”.
Both English and the Scandinavian languages have their ultimate origins in the Proto-Germanic language, but this consonant cluster evolved quite differently in the two branches: in English, it became the modern sound “sh” as in “shoe”, while in the Scandinavian languages it remained “sk”.
What this means is that if you find an English word that begins with the cluster “sk”, then it’s almost certainly a borrowing from Old Norse.

Which brings us to today’s Fun Etymology: the words “shirt” and “skirt”, which, etymologically, come from the same Proto-Germanic word *skjurton, meaning “short garment”. Where “shirt” represents the natural evolution of the word in English, “skirt” was borrowed from Old Norse, but with a different meaning.
Sometimes, in the tumultuous history of words, one word can split in two. Isn’t that neat?

How many sk- words can you think of?

Morphological Typology, or How Language is Like Ice Cream

Language is like ice cream: it’s delicious, it’s addictive, it’s refreshing, and it comes in an enormous number of varieties.

Did you know that in my native Italy, where modern ice cream was invented, it is customarily divided into three major categories, depending on how much milk it contains?

First of all, there’s sherbet: this is the most ancient kind of ice cream, and it’s basically just flavoured ice. It contains no milk. Then there’s the so-called “frutte” (fruits), which, as the name implies, are exclusively fruit-flavoured, and contain some milk. Finally, there’s the “creme” (creams), such as chocolate, vanilla or hazelnut. These are the true kings of ice cream, and contain the most milk of all.

Believe it or not, language is divided in the exact same way, only with morphological complexity (i.e. how many prefixes, suffixes, and word changes they have) instead of milk: language sherbets with little to no morphological complexity are called isolating languages; language frutte, with a moderate amount of morphological complexity, are called fusional languages; and language creme, with lots of morphological complexity, are called agglutinating languages.

Let’s look at each kind in a bit more detail.

Isolating Languages

Isolating languages are the simplest languages as far as morphology goes (which doesn’t mean they’re “simple” or “easy” languages though!). In a purely isolating language, words never change form: verbs don’t conjugate for tense or mood (as in love – loved), and nouns don’t decline for number or case (as in cow – cows) or anything else.

Now you’re probably thinking: “What a nightmare! How are speakers of these languages supposed to know if there’s more than one of something? Or if something happened in the past or will happen in the future?”

The answer to this question is that they use context, or, when that fails, they “cheat” by using special separate words which carry grammatical meaning, much like English suffixes do.

The classic example of an isolating language is Mandarin Chinese, which is also the language with the largest number of speakers in the world. Let’s look at a Chinese sentence to see how it deals with number and tense:


wǒ sān nián qián chī guo sìshí kuài dàngāo, dùzi téng sǐ la!

I three year before eat PAST forty slice cake, stomach hurt death PERF.EXCL!1

Three years ago I ate forty slices of cake, my stomach killed me!”

See? With the use of clever little words like guo (which basically means ‘past tense’), there’s no need to conjugate the verb! And the fact that we’re talking about more than one slice of cake is fully conveyed by the number “forty”, relieving the noun of the burden of plural suffixes.

Fusional Languages

The middle children of the linguosphere, fusional languages are probably the most familiar to readers of this blog, and that’s because most European languages, English included, are fusional.

Fusional languages have a moderate amount of prefixes and suffixes, such as the un- in unimportant or the -ed in cooked (collectively called affixes), and other morphological tricks up their sleeves, and they particularly like changing the forms of their words without adding stuff to them (à la goose – geese). What they don’t like doing is adding more than one or two extra pieces to their words, which keeps them small and contained.

“Well, what if a verb is both past and perfect, or a noun both plural and genitive (possessive)?” I hear you ask. Well, fusional languages have a neat trick to deal with these situations, and that is having a single affix or a word change have more than one meaning.

Now, English is kind of the runt of the litter when it comes to fusional languages, and has some peculiarities which make it somewhat of a bad example to use to explain how they work, so I’ll use my native Italian to show you a fusional language in action:

Se Giovanni facesse quelle stramaledette salsiccie, mangeremmo come dei re.

if Giovanni do-3P.SING.PRES.COND those blasted.PL sausage.PL, eat-2P.PL.PRES.SUBJ like of.the.PL king.PL

If Giovanni were to make those blasted sausages, we would eat like kings.”

Look at those suffixes! The suffix -eremmo in mangeremmo means second person, plural, present and subjunctive2. How’s that for multitasking!?

Agglutinating Languages

Remember two sections ago when you were wondering how isolating languages managed to work with no affixes at all? Well, that laughter you heard coming from the back of the room were the agglutinating languages, mocking our puny fusional lack of affixation.

Agglutinating languages love affixes: the more stuff you can stick to a word, the better. They treat their words like daisy-chains, adding affix upon affix, nevermind how long they end up to be. For agglutinating languages, there’s no need for multitasking in affixes, because you can string as many as you like one after another.

An example of an agglutinating language we can find here in Europe is Finnish, which, as everyone knows, is the native language of Santa Claus, or Joulupukki as he’s known up there.

Let’s have a look at some Finnish:

Kirjastoissammekin on ruskeakarhuja!

book-COLL-PL-INESS-2PL-TOO is brown.bear-PL-PART!

We have brown bears in our libraries too!”

Look at that. Eight words in English, three words in Finnish, isn’t that amazing?

The word kirjastoissammekin alone means “in our libraries too”, and can be neatly taken apart like this: kirja-sto-i-ssa-mme-kin “book-collection-plural-in-our-too”. If you don’t find that neat, then I frankly don’t know how to impress you.

Sometimes, agglutinating languages go mad with power and let their words run amok, gobbling up everything they see, including other words. We call these extreme examples of agglutination polysynthetic languages. These mad scientists can incorporate pieces of words inside other words, giving rise to Frankensteinian monstrosities which can carry the meaning of a whole English sentence on their own. Here’s an example from Inuktitut, an Inuit language spoken in Canada:



“I’ll have to go to the airport”

More literally, this über-word could be translated as “I will have to arrive at the place where the big rising things are.”


Now that we’ve reached the end of our brief trip through the three morphological types of language, let me quickly go back to my ice cream metaphor to explain an important point about this classification: just as you can mix and match different kinds of ice cream in your cup, languages rarely fit neatly into these categories. Most languages combine characteristics from at least two of these groups, with one being dominant and the others subordinate. For example, it could be argued that English is a fusional language that’s rapidly moving towards becoming isolating; Mandarin Chinese is mostly isolating, but it has some agglutinating characteristics; and Finnish has been known to stray into fusional behaviour from time to time.

The takeaway from this is that things in the world are rarely clear-cut, and language is no exception.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief (but wild) jaunt through the various ways languages organise their morphology. Next week, it will be Sabina’s turn again, and this time she will answer the pressing question: what is the relationship between language and writing? Are they the same thing? (SPOILER: They’re not.)

See you then!

Glossing Glossary (Gloss-ary? Anyone?)

The following is a list of the abbreviations I’ve used in the glosses for the examples. You can happily and safely skip this if you’re not interested in what the abbreviations mean.

PERF : perfect

EXCL : exclamative

1-2-3P : first/second/third person

SING : singular

PRES : present

COND : conditional

PL : plural

SUBJ : subjunctive

COLL : collective

INESS : inessive (a case in Finnish)

PART : partitive (a case in Finnish)

HAB : habitual

FUT : future


  1. By the way, that cool thing in italics I did with the word-by-word translation is called glossing and we use it a lot in linguistics to explain how sentences work in different languages (don’t worry about the PERF.EXCL thing, it doesn’t concern us).

  2. The subjunctive is what we in linguistics call a mood, which can be very roughly understood as the way of the verb of telling the listener how factual the information you’re giving them is. The subjunctive indicates that the information is hypothetical.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Girl

Guten Abend boys and girls!

Did you know that as far as the beginning of the 20th century, the colours usually associated with boys and girls were reversed? That’s right, pink was considered to be the more “masculine” colour, since it was closer to red, while blue was the colour of girls, since it was perceived as soft and friendly. How times change, am I right?

Speaking of changing gender associations, today’s Fun Etymology is “girl”!

Back in the 13th century, when we find the first attestations of the word gyrle, it simply meant “young person”, with no distinction of sex. Only by the late 14th century did its meaning specialise as “female child”, then it extended to refer to any young woman in the 15th century. It finally became an affectionate way to refer to grown women around 1640.

The origins of this word before the 13th century are shrouded in mystery, and numerous etymologies have been proposed. Once, it was thought to be ultimately traceable to Latin garrulus, meaning “talkative”, but this hypothesis has been since discarded. Some think it might be derived from Old English gierela, meaning “clothing, garment”, in reference to the special clothes children wore in the middle ages which distinguished them from toddlers, who usually went naked. Other propose an unattested Old English word *gyrele, meaning “young person”, justifying this reconstruction from the existence of words such as Low German gære, or Norwegian/Swedish dialectal gorre/gurre, all meaning “young child”, from Proto-Indo-European *ghwrgh-.
Liberman (2008) proposes that the word is not ultimately traceable back to Proto-Indo-European, but that it was invented out of whole cloth at some point, probably because it sounded funny, and that the final -l might, in fact, be a diminutive (as in Austrian German würstl).

Quite the etymological quagmire for such a commonplace word!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Acorn

Salutations to all our loyal followers!

Yesterday here at the HLC we heard a wailing cry of despair swelling from you: “Where is our Fun Etymology??”
We understand your pain, and we’re sorry. The doom-train of deadlines is barrelling out of control towards the railway exchange post of our lives, and in out eagerness to meet it head-on we have neglected our duties.
So, without further ado, here’s our very first (and let’s hope also our last) Belated Etymology!

Yesterday’s word was “acorn”.

Acorns are the seed par excellence, the tiny brown nuts which become the mighty oak. They’re also the squirrel’s favourite food, and we all know the squirrel is one of the Best Animals Ever™.

The word “acorn” is a very ancient one, going all the way back to a Proto-Germanic word that referred to all forest tree fruits. Cognates can be found in most Germanic languages (Old Norse: akarn; German: Ecker; Gothic: akran).
Some even trace the word back all the way to the Proto-Indo-European root *agr-, meaning “open space”, from which we also get the words “acre” and “agriculture”.

From the Old English form “æcern” one would expect a Modern English word spelled “akern”. So why do we get “acorn”?
Well some people in the late Old English period thought the “æc” part of “æcern” to be a variant of the word “āc”, meaning “oak”, and the “cern” part to refer to corn.
Since they come from oaks and they look like corn kernels, they reasoned, it makes sense that they might be called “oak-corn”, from whence we got the spelling “acorn”.

Even the simplest words often have the most convoluted history!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Pineapple

Hey there internauts and internautettes!
It is the day known as Tuesday in these Nordic lands and, as usual, it’s time for our weekly appointment with the history of words.

Today’s Fun Etymology is “pineapple”!

What a bizarre fruit a pineapple is, all yellow and spiky, and yet sooo sweet. We love pineapples.

As thousands of “English is so weird” memes have probably taught you, the word used in the English language is not the one most other languages use to name this South American fruit.
The word “pineapple” can be traced back to as far as the late 14th century, when nobody in Europe even knew of the existence of pineapples, and it used to refer to pine cones. If you think about it, it kind of makes sense, what with pine cones being the fruits (or I guess “apples”) of the pine tree.
When the pineapple was discovered, its similarity to a big pine cone prompted English settlers to refer to it with the name they usually reserved for that fruit.
Eventually, the name stuck, and the compound “pine cone” had to be invented in the 1690s to refer to the pine fruit, which had been cruelly robbed of its name.

The name most other languages use to refer to the pineapple, “ananas”, comes from a South American language (either Tupi or Guaranì, we’re not sure). The original word was “nanas”. The “a” is actually the Portuguese definite article that got stuck there when the word was transferred to other languages.

No matter what you call it though, we can all agree that pineapple is delicious, especially in cocktails.