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10 Weird Words: Surprising Roots

Sinister

Originally from Latin, meaning “left; to the left.” Even back then, it had a pretty, well, sinister sense. Omens having to do with the left were often considered bad, so by the time it moved onto French, it already had a sense close to what it means in English, though a secondary meaning still referred to the direction itself. English used it only in the “malicious, evil” sense, largely because church services were still in Latin and “the left side” is nearly synonymous with “evil” in the Bible. “Dexter,” the Latin word for “right,” is where dexterity and ambidextrous come from, and was associated with good omens. Fans of the show “Dexter” might appreciate a layer of irony to the main character’s name.

flanders-leftorium

Underrated linguistic puns are another reason to love “The Simpsons”

Nice

This is one of my favorite etymologies because it embodies what makes English both fascinating and a nightmare to trace back through history. Not only does “nice” average about 1 new definition every century, but it also apparently still means “stupid” or “needy” in the language we got it from over 700 years ago. It’s not much of a stretch to spot the Latin root, which literally translates to “un-knowing”: ne- (not) + –scire (to know), which is also the root for our word “science.” You can still see linguistic fossils lying around from when it meant “precise,” like when you say “nice and neat/tidy,” or “put that away nicely,” but those phrases probably only stuck around because we assumed it just meant that it’s pleasant when things are neat and tidy. It got so confusing that it’s difficult to tell which of the vastly different meanings an author meant to use. Here’s its complete etymology, with three distinctly separate definitions (fussy, delicate, precise) all coming on each other’s heels in the same 100 years.

nice etym

The etymology of “nice” (via Online Etymology Dictionary, citing Oxford English Dictionary)

Hazard

“Hazard” is from the French word for “an unfortunate throw of the dice.” Dice games were popular on treks during the Crusades, during which it started to gain the modern sense of “unfortunate, dangerous,” particularly given the sinful nature of gambling against the backdrop of religious campaigns. There is a doubtful theory that you might read on those “10 Word Origins You Won’t Believe” kind of Buzzfeed articles that it’s from Arabic, but that’s unlikely.

dice

Dice similar to those used today have been found among ancient ruins in(from left to right) Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. (via Smithsonian Institute)

Mortgage

From the French mort gaige, literally “death pledge.” Its path to its current meaning is just as jaded as you would think – you’re done paying a mortgage when you die or run out of money. You can see the root mort- in a whole lot of our words involving death: mortuary, mortal, moribund.

morticia

And Morticia

Genuine

I found the following passage about the origin of this word, and I was doubtful. It turns out that it’s not exactly the most widely-held belief, but it’s apparently quite possible.

The word “genuine” comes from the Latin word “genuinus”, meaning “innate”, “native” or “natural”, itself derived, somewhat surprisingly, from the Latin word “genu”, meaning “knee”. This unlikely origin arises from a Roman custom in which a father would place a newborn child on his knee in order to acknowledge his paternity of the child. This practice also gave rise to an association with the word “genus”, meaning “race” or “birth”. In the 16th century the word “genuine” meant “natural” or “proper”, and these days we use it to mean “authentic”.

Lemur

From the Latin for “evil spirits of the dead” because the guy who discovered them thought their faces were creepy.

lemur

I mean, I get it.

Avocado

From the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, meaning “testicle.” This was a very intentional reference by the Aztecs; they were never called anything besides “testicles.” However, avocados were also considered to be a strong aphrodisiac, so it was also a bit of a pun. Aztecs loved to name stuff for other, similar-looking stuff, and if it was a pun – all the better!

Close up of split Avocado

Sorry if I ruined avocados.

Vagina

Another fun look into what people historically thought about genitals, this word is from the Latin word for “sheath.” I don’t have a lot of exposition here; it was a pretty straightforward translation. Perhaps important to note that the term “vagina dentata” was not of Latin origin; we made it up around 1900.

nope

I do not have a picture for this entry.

Quarantine

“Quarantine” has a bit of a weird history but is quite well documented. In English, it originally referred to the forty days a widow was allowed to stay in her dead husband’s house, which itself as a reference to the forty days Jesus walked the desert. It originally just meant “forty” in Latin, but got re-used once 14th-century Venice decided to make sailors from disease-ridden countries wait in the harbor for forty days before coming ashore. This meaning has persisted the longest, still meaning a form of forced isolation, usually because of disease (or perception of disease).

quarantine

Ships docking at the Lazzaretto Vecchio, Venice, 14th century

Just deserts

Have you ever heard someone say “just deserts”? If you’re like me, you thought it was spelled “desserts” because that’s how you pronounce it, which kind of makes sense because dessert is like a reward, I guess? If that wasn’t a good enough answer for you so you looked up the word “desert,” you’d find out that it has a second definition that we don’t use anymore except in that one common phrase … which, in this one case, is pronounced exactly like “desserts” (duh-ZERT) … which, of course, came from a completely different word than “just deserts” … which also came from a completely different word than the other “deserts” with sand and cacti (DEH-zert). We also ended up getting yet another word, “to desert,” a verb meaning to leave one’s duty, which is also pronounced like “dessert.” In case you were curious, we got all four of them from the same language, which still spells and pronounces them all differently.

Sometimes the actual explanation is stupider than the one you made up.

justdesserts

This is a better pun than their audience could possibly know.

10 Weird Words: Portmanteaus

 

 

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