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The word was eventually superseded by “Christmas” in English (from “Cristes Mæsse”, “Christ’s Mass”), but it remained in the Scandinavian languages, as well as Finnish, which borrowed it as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?

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.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Hello

Hey there, inhabitants of the Internetz! It’s Tuesday here in cloudy Edinburgh, and it’s time for our usual Fun Etymology post.

Did you know that when Alexander Graham Bell popularised the telephone in the late 19th century, the word he proposed should be used when answering was “ahoy”?
Yes, the pirate greeting.
And yes, that would have been waaay more fun than “hello”.

Speaking of “hello”: that’s our word this week!

Believe it or not, this now ubiquitous word became the common greeting in the English language only around 1880, when it won over “ahoy” as the telephone-answering word of choice, and until the 1920s it was widely considered to be (*gasp*) an Americanism.

The word itself is a variant spelling of the then more common “hallo”, itself derived from a previous word “holla”, which can be traced back as far as the 14th century. Before that, its origins are a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary proposes that its origins lie in the emphatic imperative of the Old High German verb “halôn”, meaning “to fetch”, and that it was originally used for hailing ferrymen.

Before becoming the typical English greeting, it was mainly used as an exclamation of surprise, as in “hello! what’s this?” or “hello! Look what I found!”

We’re still not over the fact that we’re not going around greeting each other like pirates in Erroll Flynn movies, but them’s the breaks, folks.

Remember, if there’s a word that piques your curiosity and you want to know more, tell us in a comment, and we’ll consider exploring its history for you!

‘Til the tide rises again, mateys!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – werewolf

Hi everyone!

As those of you who can infer patterns from single occurrences might know, Tuesday is Fun Etymology Day here at the HLC.

However, this Tuesday is also Halloween! What an amazing coincidence! (Or is it???)
So, just for today, we’ll be having Spooky Etymology Day.

Today’s word is “werewolf”.

Ever since people started gathering around campfires at night, the werewolf has always been a fixture of scary stories: a human being who transforms into a ferocious wolf under the light of the full moon, overwhelmed by an insatiable urge to kill everyone they meet.

You probably already guessed what the “wolf” part of “werewolf” means, so we won’t dwell on that.
But what exactly is that “were” bit which distinguishes this terrifying beast from a regular old wolf?
One thing we can anticipate: it’s not the past tense of “to be”.

The “were” of “werewolf” is, in fact, the last remnant of the Old English word “wer”, which was once the common word for “man”, before disappearing and being replaced by the modern word “man” sometime around the 13th century. Those of you who studied Latin might recognize this word as coming from the same root as the Latin word “vir” (pronounced “weer”), meaning the same thing.

However, the word “man” was never able to fully kill its predecessor, and the word “wer” lives on in undeath, forever chained to its bestial counterpart in the word “werewolf”, the man-wolf!

Happy Halloween everybody!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Avocado & guacamole

Fun etymology time!

English is a very cosmopolitan language: it has borrowed words from a great number of languages from all over the world.

For example, did you know that the words “avocado” and “guacamole” come from the same root word?

Both of them come from Classical Nahuatl, the language spoken in the Aztec Empire before the regrettable arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

The original Nahuatl word was “ahuacatl” (pronounced /a’wakatɬ/, for those of you who can read the IPA), which was at first borrowed into Spanish as “aguacate”. However, fairly early on it became confused with the already existing Spanish word “avocado”, meaning ‘lawyer’, and was soon enough assimilated into English as such. A less common English name for the fruit, “alligator pear”, comes from an English reinterpretation of the word “ahuacatl” as “alligator”, probably influenced by the fruit’s rough green skin, somewhat reminiscent of the alligator’s scaly hide.

What about “guacamole”? Well, that’s simply a composite of the Nahuatl words “ahuacatl” and “molli”, meaning ‘paste’: “ahuacamolli”, meaning ‘avocado paste’.

Have some with your nachos, you probably don’t need us to tell you that it’s delicious.