Curious Word Origins

~ A ~

abacus - an apparatus of beads sliding on wires for facilitating arithmetical calculations
Comes from the Greek word abax, which means 'sand tray'. Originally, columns of pebbles were laid out on the sand for purposes of counting.
abracadabra - a word used as a magic word by conjurors when performing tricks; nonsense, gibberish
A cabbalistic word used as a charm when written in triangular form - the first line containing the whole word, the others successively omitting first and last letters, till the last consists of only the final A - it was worn as an amulet, and was considered to ward off or cure certain diseases. It made its appearance in a Latin poem ( 2nd century AD) by Q. Severus Sammonicus and has been said to comprise the initials of the Hebrew words for 'Father, Son and Holy Ghost', but is more likely to be related to a Greek word for a deity.
acre - a measure of land
Originally the word meant any field, whatever its size, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon aecer, meaning land, or anything sown. Up to the 13th century an acre meant as much land as a yoke of oxen could plough in a day. It was not until the time of Edward I that the word became more definite; and by an act of George IV the varying measures of the acre then current were reduced to one uniform standard. However, even now, the Scottish and Irish acres are different in size from the English.
acrobat - a performer of daring gymnastic feats
Nothing to do with acting, or with bats. The word comes from the Greek akros, the point of extremity, and baino, meaning 'to go'. It means a person who goes on their extremities, i.e. uses only the fingers or toes in moving about.
amazon - a woman who is physically strong, aggressive or virile
The original Amazons were a mythical people of female warriors from the Caucasus who settled south of the Black Sea in Cappadocia and founded a state to which men were not admitted. Once a year they visited a neighbouring state to become pregnant, but only baby girls were retained and brought up to hunt and make war. The ancient Greeks gave them their name from two Greek words which appear to mean 'lacking a breast', explaining that the Amazons removed their right breasts so as to be able to draw a bow more easily. Curiously, neither they nor their great goddess Artemis have ever been depicted in Greek art with such mutilations, and it could be that their name really means 'large breast' or comes from a foreign word. They were famed for their ferocity in war, and in Greek mythology appear in many notable encounters including the Trojan War.
...The River Amazon in South America was so named by its Spanish explorer because he found a tribe of warlike women in the region.
ambrosia - delicious food
In Greek mythology the food of the gods, from a Greek adjective meaning 'immortal'.
apocalypse - an event of great moment and disaster, comparable to the end of the world
Literally, a revelation or uncovering. The word (from Greek) was originally a theological term for the revelation of the future granted in prophetic visions to St John the Divine on the island of Patmos and set out by him in Revelation (about 97 AD), the final book in the Bible and sometimes called the Apocalypse. The modern meaning comes from the fact that the book describes the final great battle between good and evil in the world, with visions of the Last Judgement of humanity by God.
arcadian - simply and innocently pleasurable, in a way associated with idyllic rural surroundings
Arcadia is actually a rather bleak mountainous area of the Peloponnese, the peninsula forming the southern part of Greece, but it was celebrated by the Latin poet Virgil (1st century BC) in his Eclogues as the location of his idealised world of shepherds, sunshine, love and song. This type of writing became very popular and influential in later English literature, such as Sir Philip Sidney's prose romance The Arcadia (1581-4), so much so that the adjective arcadian has now lost its geographical particularity and therefore its original capital letter.
armada - a large number of ships
A Spanish word meaning a fleet of warships, best known from the 'invincible armada' of 130 ships sent by Philip of Spain to invade England in 1588. It was routed by the English fleet under Howard and Drake, but chiefly by the weather. Because of the power of Spain and the magnitude of its threat, this success was greeted by the first outpouring of a sense of English nationhood and marks the birth of the English naval tradition, which is why an unnecessary foreign word entered the language.
armageddon - a catastrophic and decisive conflict
Often applied to a large-scale nuclear war with the power to destroy civilisation. It is a Hebrew word for the site of the final great battle between the forces of good and evil at the end of the world, according to biblical prophecy in Revelation, 16: 16.
assassin - murderer, especially of public figure or for political reasons
From the Arabic word hashshashin meaning 'hashish-eater', applied in the time of the Crusades to a set of fanatical Muslims dispatched by their leader to murder the Christians; they first intoxicated themselves by eating hashish. The Assassins were founded in Persia (modern day Iran) in the 11th century and extended their influence through what is now Iraq and Syria before their destruction by the Mongols in the 13th century.
atlas - a book containing a collection of maps
In Greek mythology Atlas was one of the
Titans. He was punished for his part in their revolt against Zeus, king of the gods, by being condemned to support the world on his shoulders. A drawing of him in this posture appeared on the title page of a collection of maps by Mercator in 1595 and his name thus began its passage into everyday use.
average - the typical or prevailing proportion; the general standard
This comes from the Latin habere, 'to have'. The havings, or possessions, of a farmer were his cattle; and he was compelled, when called upon, to place the cattle at the disposal of his feudal lord's retainers for carrying their armour in times of strife. It was also incumbent upon him to keep a stipulated number, say a hundred, 'loads', and this was proclaimed as his average.
avocado - pear-shaped fruit with dark green, leathery skin
Originally the Aztecs called this fruit ahucatl after their word for testicle. This may be partly due to its resemblance to that part of a man's body, but also because it was supposedly believed to be an aphrodisiac. The fruit arrived in Europe via the Spanish, who to them ahucatl sounded like avocado - their word for 'advocate', thus its name English remained.
...Avocados are also sometimes called 'alligator pears'. The etymology of this is far more obvious; the skin of the fruit is dark green, thick, leathery and knobbly, rather like that of an alligator.

~ B ~

backstairs - surreptitious, clandestine (influence, methods, etc.)
A palace or large house of the kind owned by important people would have not only a main staircase but also backstairs, a simpler set of stairs at the back of the house for the use of servants so that their toings and froings could be kept separate from the more dignified business of the house. The backstairs would also be useful for people not wishing to be seen using the main staircase because their business with the owner was private or underhand. This accounts for the metaphorical meaning of backstairs.
...The related phrase backstairs gossip is, however, a contemptuous term, meaning the sort of unreliable tittle-tattle thought to be typical of servants.
ball - a social assembly for dancing
The word comes from the Latin ballare, 'to dance'. However, our ball developed from the curious ancient ball-play in church by the Dean and choir-boys of Naples, Italy, during the Feast of Fools, at Easter time. The boys danced round the Dean, singing as they caught a ball thrown by him to them. Afterwards the ball was discarded, but the dance time received the name of
ballad, which is where we get the modern name for a light simple song.
ballyhoo - noisy publicity
From the language of the American circus or carnival. The ballyhoo was a short free exhibition or sample of a sideshow given on a small stage, called the bally stand, in front of the sideshow tent. It was accompanied by raucous commentary by the owner to attract spectators and lure them inside as customers for the whole show. Perhaps the word comes from 'hullabaloo', which is a rhyming duplication of 'halloo', a shout to call attention.
baloney - nonsense, rubbish
Initially the colloquial American pronunciation of the Italian 'bologna'; the Italian pronunciation does not sound the g, as may be seen from an earlier English spelling, 'bolonia'. It is short for Bologna sausage, named after the Italian city where it originated as a large spicy sausage of mixed meat.
barbarous - uncultured, savage
Like other words beginning with the same two syllables this comes from the Greek word barbaros, which originally meant 'foreign', i.e. non-Greek, hence outlandish, uncivilised. The Greek word was invented to signify stammering, meaningless speech, its first two syllables echoing the babbling sound of the foreigner.
barmy - crazy
Barm is not only yeast but also the froth that forms on the top of fermenting malt liquors. From this latter meaning it is easy to see how barmy came to be applied to a person who had a frothy top in the form of insubstantial brains.
barnstorming - (of a performance) enjoying huge popular success
The original barn-stormers were strolling players who acted in barns, usually the largest available spaces in small centres of population, and whose style of performance was stormy or ranting, either because they were not very good actors or because they performed popular pieces such as melodramas requiring an exaggerated style. The term was later applied to American politicians on campaign tours in rural areas, presumably delivering rousing speeches in a similar style.
barrack - shout derisively (at a person)
Originally Australian, from an Aboriginal word meaning 'chaff' or 'banter'. It became known in England in the early part of the 20th century from newspaper reports by cricket correspondents accompanying English touring teams in Australia. Spectators at matches, notably in Sydney and Melbourne, expressed their feelings noisily, in sharp contrast to the sedate behaviour of contemporary English crowds. The experience of visiting English teams was such that the word became synonymous with derision, though in Australia and New Zealand it retains its original wider meaning, including that of expressing friendly support.
bedlam - (place of) loud uproar and confusion
A contraction of Bethlem, from the priory of St Mary of Bethlehem in London (1247). It later cared for the insane, then became a hospital for lunatics, and finally transferred to Moorfields (now the Imperial War Museum) where it became a popular resort for sightseers; admission tickets were sold so that people could watch the behaviour of inmates. Its name used to be synonymous with human degradation and callous indifference to it. Since 1931, as the Bethlem Royal Hospital, it has been at Bechenham, Kent. The modern meaning of bedlam reflects conditions in earlier times.
behemoth - gigantic thing (or animal or person)
An approximation to a Hebrew word, perhaps meaning 'hippopotamus', first used in Wyclif's translation of the Bible (1380) probably because he was not sure of the English meaning, and later adopted by the translators of the Authorised Version. It occurs in Job, 40: 15, as an illustration of the greatness of God's creation.
bigwig - noted or important person, especially one in public position
From the specially large wigs formerly worn by people of high station in life, now retained by judges, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Chancellor. Slightly jocular.
bikini - two-piece bathing costume for women
First used in France in 1947; the costume was previously named - erroneously, as it turned out - le minimum. The new name came from the atoll of Bikini, in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific, which had been the site of US atom-bomb tests during the previous year. It is not known whether the link between garment and atoll/atom was smallness or explosiveness of effect!
bilge - worthless remarks or ideas
The bilge of a ship is the lowest internal part of the hull, where water used to collect and gradually became stale or foul until its periodical removal. This bilge-water, also known as bilge, became synonymous with rubbish and thus with nonsense.
blackguard - scoundrel, specially one using bullying or abuse
Originally the band of kitchen servants or other menials of the lowest rank in a household, called the 'black guard' presumably because of their dirty work or appearance and their responsibility for pots and pans, etc. The term continued in use from the 16th century onwards, sometimes as two words, sometimes as one, to mean a variety of people connected with low life - army camp-followers, vagabonds, street shoe-blacks, criminals - before emerging with its modern sense. The -ck in the word is no longer pronounced.
blackleg - one who continues to work when others are working or who takes over someone else's job
The origin appears to be an ancient antipathy to the rook or crow because of its ravenousness and its feeding off cornfields. 'Rook' was initially a term of abuse or disapproval and in the 16th century came to mean a cheat, anyone who took advantage of others or lived on his wits. As the rook is black and has black legs, swindlers/rooks became known as blacklegs; it was then natural to use the same term for strike-breakers, who were believed to be cheating their fellows. This is the sense that has stuck, while the previous ones have disappeared.
...The American rookie (novice) is someone inexperienced enough to be easily rooked or taken advantage of. Thus an everyday term in modern American football has its origins in the cornfields of medieval England.
blacklist - a list of people contravening rules or conventions
The history of blacklist is closely connected with the expression in one's black books. It's probable first use was in the reign of Charles II, with reference to a list of persons implicated in the trial and execution of his father, Charles I. On his accession to the throne, he hunted them out, executing 13 and imprisoning many others. Particularly in the 20th century, the principal use has been in relation to management and union affairs. However, wider uses are fairly common, for example, a library might have a blacklist of borrowers who abuse the system.
blackmail - extortion by threats or other strong pressure
'Mail' here is an Old English and principally Scottish word for tax, rent or tribute, and 'black' is used in its familiar figurative sense of dirty, bitter or wicked. Black mail originated in the borders of England and Scotland in the 16th century when outlaw chiefs exacted tribute from small landowners in return for immunity from plunder.
blackout - temporary loss of memory or consciousness
This relatively modern meaning originates, as did the WWII blackout (covering of lights as an air-raid precaution), in the theatrical term for the darkening of the stage between scenes. The earliest use of the verb black out meant to obliterate with black ink, notably in public libraries where racing information in newspapers used to be so treated to discourage lingering or in the interests of public morality. It finds a modern echo in news blackout, the suppression of news to maintain secrecy.
blighty - England
This word belongs to the time of the First World War when British soldiers served in India. It is an adaptation of the Hindi word bilayti (foreign, far away) to refer to their distant homeland. The word was picked up and passed on to the much larger temporary army who fought alongside them in the war and a number of popular songs helped to disseminate it even more widely. A variation, blighty-one, meant a wound that was serious enough to cause the injured man to be returned home to England.
blockbuster - a particularly effective or successful thing or person
Originally a high-explosive bomb developed during the Second World War, capable of destroying a whole block of buildings.
blockhead - a stupid person
Originally a wooden block shaped like a head, used for making hats or wigs.
bluestocking - a pedantic, earnest woman
In Venice in 1400, a society was founded by erudite men and women. It was named Della Calza, 'of the stocking', and had blue stockings as its emblem. The idea was copied in Paris in 1590 when a club called Bas-bleu, 'Blue-stocking', was begun and proved very successful among ladies of learning. It was not until 1750 that London had a similar society. Its members met at Montagu House and they held conversations about literature. One of the principal members, Benjamin Stillingfleet, habitually wore his everyday blue worsted stockings because he could not afford the black silk ones normally worn as evening dress. According to Boswell his conversation was so good that when he was absent the members felt lost 'without the blue stockings'. Admiral Boscawan, husband of one of the most successful hostesses of such gatherings, derisively dubbed them 'The Blue Stocking Society'. Although both men and women, some of them eminent literary and learned figures of the day, attended these meetings, 'bluestocking' became attached exclusively to women. This was partly because women were instrumental in organising the evenings, and partly because they were sometimes ridiculed for encroaching on matters not thought to be their concern.
bootleg - make, transport or sell something illicit
Although no longer confined to trade in alcohol, this word first became known in Britain during the 1920s in connection with the years of prohibition in the USA (1920-34), when illegal traffic in alcoholic liquor was an important criminal activity. The original bootleggers, however, were so named in the 19th century; they were people who illegally sold liquor to Indians, using flat bottles which they smuggled in the tops (i.e. boot-legs) of their long boots.
bugbear - something or somebody causing irritation, anxiety, dislike or fear
Bug is an obsolete word for a hobgoblin or ghost and survives only in this word, though 'bog(e)y' is related. Bugbear is a later development in folklore and is a hobgoblin - perhaps in the shape of a bear - supposed to eat naughty children. It was therefore employed in threats to encourage improved behaviour and later came to mean any object of terror. The modern meaning is a dilution of this.
bumf - paperwork, especially in bureaucratic excess
Short for 'bum-fodder', originally schoolboy and military slang for toilet paper, then for paper in general. During the First World War it became a disparaging term for documentation, often trivial or routine, sent to the front from the safety of headquarters.

Main Index

Next Page >>

Home ~ The Stories ~ Diversions ~ Links ~ Contact