Etymology Always Amazes!

I took two courses about etymology; however, the teaching style of my professor was not one of the best 🙂 He added thousands of words to his course book together with all the Latin and Greek affixes… As a second year university student, around the age of 19-20, it did not make much sense to me- I just memorized them for the exams. After years of learning other German and Latin languages, I understood it was one of the most important courses for a language student! When you know certain roots and affixes in Latin and Greek, you can easily guess the meaning of many words. When you know the history of a word, it is a piece of cake to recall it. If you are interested in languages and if you want to learn a language fast, you should really study etymology first. 

I forgot 80% of the words that I learned but I want to share a couple of interesting words and their histories with you:


n. Murderer, generally somewhat professional; esp. one who murders a prominent figure.

During the time of the Crusades the members of a certain secret Muslim sect engaged people to terrorise their Christian enemies by performing murders as a religious duty. These acts were carried out under the influence of hashish, and so the killers became known as hashshashin, meaning eaters or smokers of hashish.Hashshashin evolved into the word assassin.

Avocado (Avocado Pear)

n. Pear-shaped fruit with dark green, leathery skin, a large stony seed, and greenish-yellow edible pulp. Also the topical American tree on which this fruit grows.

Originally the Aztecs called this fruit ahucatl after their word for testicle. This is may be partly due to the fruit’s resemblance to a testicle, but also because it was supposedly believed to be an aphrodisiac. To the Spaniards ahucatl sounded like avocado (=advocate, Spanish), and so the fruit came to Europe, via Spain, under that name.Avocado pears are also sometimes called Alligator pears. The etymology of this is far more obvious; the skin of these fruits is dark green, thick, leathery, and knobbly, rather like that of an alligator.


n. Danger; vb. To risk or expose to danger.

This term evolved from the Arabic al zahr, which means the dice. In Western Europe the term came to be associated with a number of games using dice, which were learned during the Crusades whilst in the Holy Land. The term eventually took on the connotation of danger because, from very early on, games using dice were associated with the risky business of gambling and con artists using corrupted dice.


n. Infectious disease characterised by chills and fever and caused by the bite of an infected anopheles mosquito.

This word comes from the mediaeval Italian mal (=bad) and aria (=air), describing the miasma from the swamps around Rome. This ‘bad air‘ was believed to be the cause of the fever that often developed in those who spent time around the swamps. In fact the illness, now known as malaria, was due to certain protozoans present in the mosquitos that bred around these swamps, and which caused recurring feverish symptoms in those they bit.


n. A line of ancestors; descent; lineage; genealogy; a register or record of a line of ancestors.

Believed to be derived from the French ped de gru, which meant crane’s foot (the modern French equivalent is pied de la grue). The crane’s foot is said to resemble the/|\ symbol on genealogical trees. It has also been suggested that it comes from par degrés, the French for by degrees. A pedigree chart records the relationship of families by degrees.

Phony (or Phoney)

adj. Something that is not genuine; a fake or imitation.

British thieves and swindlers of old used many secret codewords. One such word was fawney, which referred to a gilt ring. They would sell these, saying that they were made of real gold. But the rings were not genuine gold, and the word phony – fromfawney – came to be used for anything that is fake or not genuine.


n. Any forced stoppage of travel or communication on account of malignant, contagious disease, on land or by sea.

From the French quarante (=forty). Adding the suffix –aine to French numbers gives a degree of roughness to the figure (like –ish in English), so quarantaine means about forty. Originally when a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected with a malignant, contagious disease, its cargo and crew were obliged to forego all contact with the shore for a period of around forty days. This term came to be known as period of quarantine.

Thanks for this compilation.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mohamed gamil on May 6, 2012 at 20:29

    Awesome, thank you so much!


  2. Posted by anne-marie on May 7, 2012 at 05:51

    Great, Müge, thanks! Turkish etymology is absoutely fantastisc as well… My former Turkish professor always referred to etymomogy when teaching us new words


  3. Posted by Christiane on May 7, 2012 at 15:19

    Thanks, that was interesting.
    As you know, ‘hasard’ in French has retained its original meaning of ‘chance’, when the French ‘chance’ means luck. It is very interesting to see how words common to French and English have evolved in there meanings as well. An English ‘maisonnette’ has nothing to do with its French counterpart, and ‘sympathique’ means ‘nice’, ‘friendly’ although it comes from the same Greek word meaning ‘sympathetic’.
    Hoping for some more from you….


  4. Posted by Lee Eisenberg on May 8, 2012 at 08:31

    There are few things that I love more than etymology. One of the most interesting things about language groups is how they’ll have similar-sounding words for certain things, but with other things, some of the languages use a certain word while others use a different word.

    For example, the cognates of “gold” in other Germanic languages are Gold (German), goud (Dutch) and gull (Norwegian); in the Romance languages, it’s aurum (Latin), oro (Spanish) and aur (Romanian); in the Slavic languages, it’s zlato (Czech), złoto (Polish) and золото (Russian, pronounced ZO-lo-to).

    However, “sickness” has the cognates ziekte (Dutch) and sykdom/sjukdom (Norwegian), but it’s Krankheit in German; it’s enfermedad in Spanish, but doença in Portuguese and boală in Romanian; it’s болезнь (pronounced bal-EZN) in Russian and болест in Bulgarian and Serbian, but хвароба in Belarussian, choroba in Polish and Slovene, and хворота in Rusyn.


    • Posted by Brendan on May 10, 2012 at 13:49

      Thanks for posting this. Etymology has always interested me a lot. However with regard to ‘phoney’ its very probable that the original word underlying this term is the Irish (Gaelic) word ‘fáinne’ (pronounced ‘fawn-yeah’) meaning ring. Even today Irish speakers wear a gold or silver fáinne to signify that they speak the language. Fake rings were presumably sold by Irish people – possibly Irish travellers – to unsuspecting punters.


  5. The Sanscrit etymology in Indoeuropean languages is amazing, especially in the Slavic languages. Numerals, agni – ogień, agon’, deva – diva, deus… But more intriguing is the word order in the sentence, because the evolution is more difficult to understand, Latin/Italian; it is as you would like change gradually left side traffic circulation to the right side one


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