An Introduction To Etymology: Eight Great Word Origins (2023)

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the meaning of words has changed over the course of history. Let’s get meta and take the word “etymology” as an example. “Etymology” derives from the Greek word etumos, meaning “true.” Etumologia was the study of words’ “true meanings.” This evolved into “etymology” by way of the Old French ethimologie. That’s all fairly straightforward, but there are many, many words in the English language that have unexpected and fascinating origins. Here are a few of our favorite examples.

1. Avocado (Origin: Nahuatl)

The word avocado comes from Spanish aguacate, which in turn comes from the Nahuatl ahuacatl, meaning testicle. Surprised? Perhaps, but the more one thinks about it, the less surprising it gets — they do rather resemble a man’s soft spot, and this resemblance becomes even more pronounced when you see avocado duos dangling clumsily from trees.

Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs and is still spoken by approximately 1.5 million people native to Mexico and other parts of Central America. Avocado isn’t the only Nahuatl word that has been borrowed by the English language; chili, chocolate, tomato and guacamole were also coined by speakers of Nahuatl. Indeed, the -mole of guacamole is derived from the Nahuatl molli, which means sauce. It’s a good thing the origin of this word has been obfuscated on its way into the English language. Otherwise, guacamole (Nahuatl: ahuacamolli) probably wouldn’t be as popular as it is.

An Introduction To Etymology: Eight Great Word Origins (1)

2. Cappuccino (Origin: Italian/German)

Next time you’re trying to flirt with someone at your local coffee shop, impress them with this whimsical anecdote about the origin of the word cappuccino: it’s the diminutive form of the word cappuccio, which means “hood” in Italian. Wondering what the link is between a (little) hood and a cappuccino? One must look no further than the Capuchin Monks, whose hooded habits were a dark, oak brown similar to the color of a good cappuccino.

(Video) Etymology 101 (Lesson 1: Introduction to Language) -- Brett Robbins

The first recorded use of the word was in 1790 in Vienna, Austria. Wilhelm Tissot jotted down a recipe for an exquisite Kapuzinerkaffee (lit. “Capuchin coffee”), which was rather different in constitution to its modern-day successor, containing sugar, cream and egg yolks. The current, somewhat simplified recipe now consists of espresso and foamed milk, but there are still parts of Austria where you can order a good ol’ Kapuziner.

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3. Disaster (Origin: Italian/Greek)

The word disaster has been passed around Europe like a hot potato. The English version is most closely tied to the French désastre, which is derived from the Old Italian disastro, itself derived from Greek. The pejorative prefix dis- and aster (star) can be interpreted as bad star, or an ill-starred event. The ancient Greeks were fascinated by astronomy and the cosmos, and believed wholly in the influence of celestial bodies on terrestrial life. For them, a disaster was a particular kind of calamity, the causes of which could be attributed to an unfavorable and uncontrollable alignment of planets. It’s therefore interesting to note that the strict, modern English definition of disaster explicitly stipulates that a disaster is human-made, or the consequence of human failure.

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4. Handicap (Origin: English)

This word originates from the 17th-century English trading game “hand-in-cap.” The game involved two players and an arbitrator, or umpire. The players would present two possessions they would like to trade. The umpire would then decide whether the possessions were of equal value or not, and if they weren’t, would calculate the discrepancy. The owner of the lesser object would make up the difference with money, and then all three participants would place forfeit money into a hat. If the two players agreed with the umpire’s valuation, they would remove their hands from the hat with their palm open. If they disagreed, they would pull out their hands clenched in a fist. If both agreed or disagreed, the umpire would get the forfeit money, while if one agreed and the other didn’t, the player who approved the transaction would receive the forfeit money.

(Video) The Etymology Behind the Word "Disaster" by Corbin Adams

Over time, hand-in-cap came to be known as “handicap” and started to be used to refer to any kind of equalization or balancing of a contest or game. The word handicap is still used in many sports today, such as golf and horse racing. Indeed, horse racing was probably the first sport to introduce the term in order to define an umpire’s decision to add more weight to a horse so that it runs equally to its competitors. This notion of being burdened or put at a disadvantage was carried over to describe people with a disability in the early 20th century. By the mid-20th century, it was widely used, but it has since fallen out of the popular lexicon.

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5. Jeans (Origin: Italian)

Although jeans are quintessentially American, and their invention is commonly attributed to Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss, the etymology of the popular garment is actually of European origin. The fabric Strauss used for his patented, mass-produced trousers was first produced in Genoa, Italy and Nimes, France. Why’s that significant? Well, the French word for Genoa is Gênes, and the name “jeans” is likely an anglicization of the material’s city of origin. Similarly, the word “denim” most likely comes from de Nimes, meaning “from Nimes” in French. Although we often talk about denim jeans nowadays, the two materials actually differed. Denim was coarser, more durable and of higher quality than the toughened cotton corduroy manufactured in Genoa. Workers in Northern Italy were sporting jeans as early as the 17th century, long before post-war American subcultures picked up on them as a fashion accessory.

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6. Salary (Origin: Latin)

The word “salary” comes from the Latin salarium, meaning “salt money.”

(Video) Why we say Goodbye! | Etymology Origin of Words | Anika Rose

In ancient times, salt was used for many important things and was often referred to as “white gold.” It could be used as an antiseptic to treat wounds — In Romance languages one can recognize a connection between sal/sale, meaning “salt,” and salud/saude/salute, meaning “health”) — and to preserve food, and also as a method of payment in Greece and Rome.

As far back as the Egyptian Empire, laborers were paid with salt that they could use to preserve their food. The Roman Empire continued using this form of payment and it took on the name “salary” for “that which was given to workers at the end of the working month,” which adds a new dimension to the notion of a company’s solvency.

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7. Trivial (Origin: Latin)

“Trivial” originates from the Latin word trivium, which was used to mean “a place where three roads meet” (tri- meaning “three,” and -vium from via, meaning “road”). A trivium gained the connotation of being an open, public place — a mini agora — where people from across society’s technicolor spectrum could relax, chat and simply coexist. The adjective trivialis was a derivative of trivium and came to mean “vulgar, ordinary, of little importance, common and contemporary,” and the English adjective trivial carries much of this definition to this day: tired, ordinary, commonplace; of little use, import, consequence or significance.

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(Video) Word Origins: Nerd

8. Whiskey (Origin: Gaelic)

Medieval monks called it aqua vitae, meaning “life water.” The expression was transformed into uisce beatha when it was transferred to Gaelic. As time passed and the word was anglicized, uisce evolved into uige, usque, and then uisky, which bears an obvious and close resemblance to “whiskey.”

You may have noticed that you can spell the drink two different ways — “whiskey” and “whisky.” Some people believe the extra “e” was added to by Irish and American distilleries to differentiate their higher quality whiskeys during a period when Scottish whisky had a bad reputation.

Scotch was also introduced to denominate a Scottish whisky, and the word “whiskey” has been adopted in other countries for quite different reasons. In some South American countries, it’s used as an alternative to “cheese” to encourage people to smile when being photographed. How and why we chose “cheese,” and why the South Americans chose “whiskey” (and the Spanish patata, or “potato”) is a story for another time.

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Why Study Etymology?

Etymology not only enhances your understanding of your native language but also gives you insights into its shared roots with other languages. Prior to reading this article, would you have thought that every time you say “avocado,” you’re prompting Moctezuma to chuckle in his tomb? Some word origins are wonderfully idiosyncratic and make for great anecdotes, while others demonstrate common standards and rules which help you assimilate new words and terms across languages.

(Video) Interesting Facts: Weird Word Origins

Take the simple examples of the Latin prefixes con- (also “com-” in English) and dis-, which are widely used in Romance languages and indicate “togetherness” and “apartness,” respectively. Knowing such elements of etymology can vastly improve your guesswork when it comes to deciphering words, whether it be concatenate (con– and -catenate, from catena, meaning “chain”; a verb meaning to chain together) or disconsolate (dis- and con– and -solate, from solari, meaning “to comfort”; an adjective describing someone who can’t be comforted or consoled).

Want to explore further? We encourage you to put on your etymologist’s hat and venture into the jungle of meaning.

Illustrations by Raúl Soria

FAQs

What is the etymology of the word great? ›

Etymology. From Middle English greet (“great, large”), from Old English grēat (“big, thick, coarse, massive”), from Proto-Germanic *grautaz (“big in size, coarse, coarse grained”), from Proto-Indo-European *gʰrewd-, *gʰer- (“to rub, grind, remove”).

What is the etymology of introduction? ›

The noun introduction comes from the Latin verb introducere, meaning "to lead in." This “leading in” might be the formal introduction of a speaker, or the speaker's own introduction to his remarks.

What is the word for origins of words? ›

Etymology is the study of the origins of words. The English language is living and growing.

What is the etymology of most English words? ›

About 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin. Over 60 percent of all English words have Greek or Latin roots. In the vocabulary of the sciences and technology, the figure rises to over 90 percent.

What is the origin of the word etymology? ›

“Etymology” derives from the Greek word etumos, meaning “true.” Etumologia was the study of words' “true meanings.” This evolved into “etymology” by way of the Old French ethimologie. That's all fairly straightforward, but there are many, many words in the English language that have unexpected and fascinating origins.

What is the full meaning of great? ›

1a : notably large in size : huge all creatures great and small. b : of a kind characterized by relative largeness —used in plant and animal names the great horned owl. c : elaborate, ample great detail. 2a : large in number or measure : numerous great multitudes.

What is the Latin word for introduction? ›

Borrowed from Latin introductio, introductionem, from introductus, from introduco.

What is the word introduction means? ›

noun. the act of introducing or the state of being introduced. a formal personal presentation of one person to another or others. a preliminary part, as of a book, musical composition, or the like, leading up to the main part. an elementary treatise: an introduction to botany.

What is introduction and its types? ›

Based on this practice, there could be two types of introduction. The first is a direct introduction in which the thesis statement comes first, and gives background information later. The second is an indirect instruction in which the thesis statement comes later, the background information being presented first.

What is the best example of etymology? ›

An example of etymology is tracing a word back to its Latin roots. The origin and development of a word, affix, phrase, etc.; the tracing of a word or other form back as far as possible in its own language and to its source in contemporary or earlier languages.

What is the importance of etymology? ›

Etymology can help you understand your native language better. It can also teach you about the common root of words in several languages. That often means that you can recognize words in other languages without being told exactly what they mean.

Who discovered etymology? ›

The study of etymology in Germanic philology was introduced by Rasmus Christian Rask in the early 19th century and elevated to a high standard with the German Dictionary of the Brothers Grimm.

What is one way to learn the etymology of a word? ›

Find a good etymological dictionary.

To start informally studying etymology, buy or gain access to an authoritative dictionary that includes the linguistic origins of words in its definitions. The easiest way to tell that it does is if it has, "etymological" in the title.

What are the 10 most frequently used words in English? ›

The 100 most common words in English
1. the21. at61. some
8. you28. had68. time
9. that29. by69. has
10. it30. word70. look
11. he31. but71. two
15 more rows

What is the most used word in the world? ›

Answer and Explanation: 'The' is the most used word in the English-speaking world because it's an essential part of grammar and communication. It would be difficult to speak English without repeatedly using 'the. ' Other frequently used words include 'of,' 'to,' 'and' and 'a.

What is the meaning of etymology? ›

etymology • \eh-tuh-MAH-luh-jee\ • noun. 1 : the history of a word or phrase shown by tracing its development and relationships 2 : a branch of linguistics dealing with etymologies.

Where can I study etymology? ›

Etymology is the study of the origins of words and how their meaning has changed throughout history.
...
Top Institutes In The World For Learning Etymology
  • University of Amsterdam. ...
  • The University of Melbourne. ...
  • University of Toronto. ...
  • The University of Hong Kong. ...
  • Nanyang Technological University.
Mar 23, 2022

What phrase defines etymology? ›

Etymology is the study of the origins and historical development of words. The etymology of a particular word is its history.

What does great mean biblically? ›

Something or someone that is larger in size, quality, or quantity may be called "great." It is a term used for something beyond the ordinary. In the Bible, God, humans, and Christ receive this designation with theological significance.

What kind of word is great? ›

GREAT (adjective) definition and synonyms | Macmillan Dictionary.

What is a good word for great? ›

  • excellent.
  • famous.
  • fine.
  • glorious.
  • grand.
  • heroic.
  • impressive.
  • major.

Is introduct a word? ›

transitive verb obsolete To introduce.

What type of noun is introduction? ›

The act or process of introducing. A means, such as a personal letter, of presenting one person to another.

What does ā mean in Latin? ›

from, since, after, by.

How do I start my introduction? ›

5 Ways to Write an Introduction [Summary]
  1. Start with a quotation.
  2. Open with a relevant stat or fun fact.
  3. Start with a fascinating story.
  4. Ask your readers an intriguing question.
  5. Set the scene.
Sep 8, 2017

What is introduction in the story? ›

The introduction is the beginning of the story which, as the name suggests, introduces the characters, setting, and plot. It should paint a clear picture of the time period, genre, and the main character's normal world in general. It is also where you hook the reader in so they'll want to read on.

How do you start an introduction example? ›

Strong Introduction Paragraph Examples
  1. Use a Surprising Fact. You can capture the reader's attention with a surprising fact or statement. ...
  2. Pose a Question. ...
  3. Start With an Anecdote. ...
  4. Set the Stage. ...
  5. State Your Point Clearly. ...
  6. Start With Something Shocking. ...
  7. Use a Statistic. ...
  8. Get Personal.

What are the 4 types of introductions? ›

There are four different ways of writing an introduction to an essay. These include; funnel, quotations, dramatic, and the turn-about form. A funnel introduction runs from background information to a more focused thesis. Quotation introductions use quotes to lead the reader to the thesis statement.

What are the 6 types of introductions? ›

This lesson explains seven ways to write an introduction.
  • Funnel.
  • Anecdote.
  • Survey.
  • Quotation.
  • Question.
  • Setting the Scene.
  • Definition.

What are the elements of introduction? ›

There are three parts to an introduction: the opening statement, the supporting sentences, and the introductory topic sentence.

What is etymology and examples? ›

Etymology investigates and documents the lives (mainly the origins) of words. The etymology of a word may include many things. A word's birthday is usually given as the date of the first known usage of the word in print. If a word, like “selfie” was created within historical times, it's origin is described.

How do you use the word etymology? ›

Etymology sentence example
  1. The etymology of the word Pali is uncertain. ...
  2. The etymology may be wrong, but this is the popular sense of the word. ...
  3. This etymology, however, is not much in favour now. ...
  4. In etymology he endeavoured to find a Roman explanation of words where possible (according to him frater was =fere alter).

How do you write etymology? ›

Give the word's earliest spellings and meanings, how it was used, and the date that the word first appeared in writing in English. Repeat this step for each stage in the word's development. Each time the spelling, meaning, and/or usage of the word changes, discuss that new meaning and usage.

What does word etymology have to do with education? ›

Etymology, the study of word origins, has all the attributes of what educational psychologists term meaningful learning. This is a type of learning connected to prior learning, more highly retainable and generalizable, making it superior to simple rote learning of vocabulary.

How does etymology help in learning the vocabulary? ›

Etymology is the scientific study of the origin or history and derivation of words. When you know the meaning of a Latin or Greek root, prefix, or suffix; you can better understand, and more easily remember, all the vocabulary words built on these element that exists in English words.

What is etymological philosophy? ›

Philosophy is a combination of two Greek words, philein sophia, meaning lover of wisdom. In ancient times a lover of wisdom could be related to any area where intelligence was expressed. This could be in business, politics, human relations, or carpentry and other skills.

Who invented the word great? ›

c. 1300, at first found chiefly in writings from northern England and north Midlands, with a sense of "powerful, strong;" a word of obscure origin. It is possibly from a Scandinavian source (compare Norwegian dialectal. Old English used micel (see much) in many of the same senses.

What is the prefix of great? ›

We found 1 solutions for Prefix Meaning "Great" . The most likely answer for the clue is MAGNI.

Where did the terms gross and net come from? ›

Entries linking to gross

1300), from Old French net, nette "clean, pure, unadulterated," from Latin nitere "to shine, look bright, glitter" (see. Meaning influenced by Italian netto "remaining after deductions." As a noun, "what remains after deductions," by 1910. The notion is "clear of anything extraneous."

What's the origin of the word grateful? ›

Grateful comes from gratus, Latin for pleasing. Originally it meant pleasing, or agreeable (Walter Scott wrote of "the grateful and cooling shade"), but now means thankful.

Who invented etymology? ›

The study of etymology in Germanic philology was introduced by Rasmus Christian Rask in the early 19th century and elevated to a high standard with the German Dictionary of the Brothers Grimm.

What is the best example of etymology? ›

An example of etymology is tracing a word back to its Latin roots. The origin and development of a word, affix, phrase, etc.; the tracing of a word or other form back as far as possible in its own language and to its source in contemporary or earlier languages.

How do you study etymology? ›

To perform an etymological study:
  1. Research etymological dictionaries. Here are some to try: LibrarySpot Etymology Dictionaries. ...
  2. Look up the root words of your topic. Explore the history and evolution of your keywords. ...
  3. Work with those words. Use what you've learned to develop more sophisticated wordplay.

What is a suffix for great? ›

In order to convert 'Great' into an abstract noun using a suffix, we will add suffix '–ness'. Great+ness = Greatness. So the abstract noun formed by using a suffix is 'greatness'.

What greatness means? ›

Definition of greatness

: the quality or state of being great (as in size, skill, achievement, or power) Today, many Inca buildings still stand—all witnesses to an empire of unforgettable greatness.—

Why is 12 dozen called a gross? ›

It derives from the Old French grosse douzaine, meaning "large dozen”. The continued use of these terms in measurement and counting represents the duodecimal number system. This has led groups such as the Dozenal Society of America to advocate for wider use of "gross" and related terms instead of the decimal system.

When was the word gross invented? ›

Gross's first recorded use was in 1350–1400, and it originates from the Old French gros (“large”).

What does net stand for? ›

. net is a top-level domain, also known as a TLD. Derived from the word network, it was originally developed for companies involved in networking technology. Today, . net is one of the most popular domain names used by companies all over the world to launch their business online.

What's the origin of the word breakfast? ›

From Middle English brekefast, brekefaste, equivalent to break +‎ fast (literally, "to end the nightly fast"), likely a variant of Old English fæstenbryċe, (literally, "fast-breach"). Cognate with Dutch breekvasten (“breakfast”).

What are the Latin words of gratitude? ›

Gratitude, which rhymes with "attitude," comes from the Latin word gratus, which means "thankful, pleasing." When you feel gratitude, you're pleased by what someone did for you and also pleased by the results.

Who invented the word gratitude? ›

The noun gratitude comes ultimately from the Latin adjective 'gratus' meaning 'pleasing' or 'thankful'. It came into English in the 16th century, either from the Old French word 'gratitude', or from the medieval Latin 'gratitudo'.

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