Curious Word Origins

~ M ~


maelstrom - a turmoil, an overwhelming situation
A metaphorical use of the name of a famous whirlpool near the Lofoten Islands off the north-east coast of Norway, formerly reputed to be able to suck in and sink ships within a wide radius. Legend has it that the original maelstrom was created when a ship carrying two magic millstones sank there and that the millstones continue to revolve at the bottom of the sea. The first syllable of the word is from the Dutch verb meaning to 'grind' and the second syllable means to 'whirl'.
magazine - periodical publication with articles by various writers
Originally this word meant 'storehouse' ( from the Arabic word makhzan of the same meaning), a sense now retained in military terminology. The modern meaning is entirely due to the publication in 1731 of The Gentleman's Magazine, the first issue of which explained its choice of title in terms of its intention 'to promote a monthly collection to treasure [store] up, as in a magazine, the most remarkable pieces ...'
malaria - infectious disease caused by the bite of infected anopheles mosquitoes
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 mosquitoes that bred around these swamps, and which caused recurring feverish symptoms in those the insects bit.
manure - animal dung used to fertilize land for cultivation
A corruption of
manoeuvre, which itself comes from the Old French manoevrer, to work with the hands, to cultivate with manual labour, develop with culture. It was an easy step to arrive at the improving of the land by adding some substance.
masterpiece - most outstanding piece of work
Originally a craftsman's piece of work done as a test-piece to gain the recognised rank of 'master' from a guild, the medieval confraternity responsible for standards, etc. within a particular craft.
mollycoddle - pamper someone in an extremely attentive an solicitous manner
Mollycoddle is an extreme form of coddle, which when it first appeared in English around 1598 meant 'to boil gently' (from the Latin calidum, 'hot drink'). The 'gentle' aspect of coddle led, around 1815, to its figurative use to mean 'nurse', 'pamper' or 'treat as an invalid', the sense found in mollycoddle.
...Considering the molly part of the word leads to the noun form of mollycoddle, which means 'a pampered weakling' or 'a sissy'. Molly is a pet form of the name Mary, often used in slang as a disparaging term for a prostitute or criminal's companion (as in a gangster's moll), But also contemptuous slang for a weak or ineffectual man. Thus to mollycoddle someone, in the original sense of the term, is to treat him or her in the delicate fashion a molly must be coddled. Mollycoddle first appeared in English as a noun around 1833 and the verb form was in use by 1870.
money - coin or other material used as a medium of exchange
The name is derived from the Latine moneta. The word is more plainly recognisable in our word used to describe financial transactions - monetary. Moneta was the surname of Juno, in whose temple, erected to her in Rome by either Lucius Furius or Camilllus, the first Roman coins were minted.

~ N ~


nabob - man of great wealth
This was the title, from an Urdu word, of a Muslim official acting as deputy governor of a region under the Mogul Empire or as governor of a town in India. The word was applied, with some contempt, to people returning to England from India in the 18th century after having made their fortunes as employees of the East India Company. Some of them set themselves up with estates and parliamentary seats and were rather looked down on as interlopers.
nepotism - favouritism to one's relations or close friends, especially in appointment to office
Coined in the 17th century as a result of the practice of popes and other senior ecclesiastics who gave patronage, often in the form of promotion within the church, to a 'nephew' (Latin nepos) who was sometimes in fact an illegitimate son. The word is now used more generally but the stigma remains.
nice - pleasing or agreeable
This word started life meaning something not very 'nice' at all, and has had more different meanings than meanings than most English words. It began as nescius, which in Latin means 'not knowing' or, more bluntly, 'ignorant'. The French turned nescius into nice, and used it to mean 'stupid or simpleminded', and it was this sense that was carried into English. However, by the 14th century nice had acquired another meaning, that of 'wanton or lascivious', so when Chaucer referred to a young woman as 'nice', he meant nearly the opposite of what we would mean today. In a remarkable reversal in the 15th century, nice swung in the other direction and was used to mean 'shy' or 'refined', and by the 16th century the word had been narrowed down to mean 'fastidious or tasteful'. We still use this sense in phrases such as 'a nice touch' or 'a nice distinction'. The modern use of nice to mean 'pleasant' dates only from the middle of the 18th century, and was remarkably controversial for many years, and even now some lexicographers label some uses of the word 'colloquial'.
nightmare - frightening dream
The second syllable here is not a horse but an old word for a spectre or hag. A nightmare used to be an evil spirit, in the Middle Ages thought to be a female monster, which was supposed to settle on people during their sleep and produce a suffocating effect. Only in the 16th century did the modern meaning emerge.
nipper - small child
The original sense of nip was 'pinch', and this remains one of its current meanings. In mid-16th century slang it came to mean 'arrest', from the idea of catching hold of someone painfully. Because an arrest often entails quick movements the verb later came to mean 'move swiftly and smartly', another sense it still retains. In workers' slang, from around 1850, a nipper was a boy or apprentice who 'nipped about' running errands. From this we get the modern meaning of the noun, no longer slang but still informal.

~ O ~


odyssey - long, eventful journey
An illusion to the great epic Greek poem The Odyssey which describes the adventures of Odysseus during his ten-year return journey from the Trojan War to his kingdom of Ithaca; he was a warrior, counsellor and strategist known for his indomitable spirit and enquiring mind (although also capable of wiles). The work is generally thought to be by Homer (8th century BC) and with The Iliad to constitute the finest poetry of western antiquity.

~ P ~


pandemonium - tremendous uproar and confusion
The word, originally with a capital P, was invented by John Milton in his Paradise Lost (1667) as the name for the capital of Hell, containing the council chamber of the Evil Spirits. The pronunciation disguises the fact that the second and third syllables spell demon; the prefix means 'all', Now spelt with a small p, the word is in general use but indicates a state or condition rather than a place.
pants - a type of undergarment
short for 'pantaloons', the old name for a style of trousers, which in turn came from Pantaloon, the Venetian character in popular Italian comedy who wore them. His name was an adaptation of the Italian pantalone, the characteristic mask used for the Venetian character in a particular sort of play, so called after St Pantaleone, a favourite saint of the Venetians.
paraphernalia - miscellaneous things
Originally a legal term for the personal goods such as clothes and jewellery which a married woman was allowed to keep as her own - i.e. they were not included in her dowry, which passed into the ownership of her husband. The words literally means 'beside or beyond the dowry' and the modern meaning comes from the idea of personal belongings being a miscellany of articles.
pedigree - genealogy, lineage, especially of a domestic or pet animal
Believed to be derived from the Old French pee de grue (the modern French equivalent is pié de grue), which means 'crane's foot'. The cranes foot is said to resemble the upwards-pointing arrow 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.
plonk - cheap wine
Originally 'plink-plonk' or 'plinkety-plonk', soldiers' facetious slang for the French 'vin blank', during World War I.
posh - smart; expensively elegant; upper-class
Popularly supposed to be from the initials of 'port out, starboard home', an abbreviation used in booking the most desirable cabins on the shadier side of ships sailing to and from the east in the days before air-conditioning. Neither the main carrier, P and O, nor anyone else has ever been able to produce evidence to support this explanation, but if it is fictitious it is certainly ingenious and why anyone should invent it is difficult to understand.
...An alternative explanation is that the word used to be slang for 'money' (from the Romany); it later became a term for a dandy. Both these meanings are obviously related to the modern one, which belongs to the early 20th century.
...An early (1903) sighting occurs in a work by P. G. Wodehouse, who describes a brightly coloured waistcoat as 'quite the most push thing'. This may simply be a mis-hearing and consequent misspelling of a then unfamiliar word, or it raises the possibility of an origin in the idea of something ostentatious pushing itself on one's attention.
propaganda - tendentious information
A modern Latin word which came into use in 1622 when Pope Gregory XV set up the Congregatio de propaganda fide (Committee for propagating the faith), a group of cardinals responsible for overseeing foreign missions. The word was initially used to mean the propagation of doctrine but was later applied to any (biased) opinions, ideas, allegations, etc. spread around to help the cause of a government or other body, or to damage enemies.
protocol - code of etiquette
From the two Greek words proto and kolla, meaning 'first and 'glue', this was originally the term for a fly-leaf glued to a manuscript or its case and giving particulars of the contents. Then it came to mean a minute summarising a negotiation (e.g. legal or diplomatic) and forming the basis for later and more detailed agreement. This sense is still retained in the language of international diplomacy, where protocol also means a summary of an agreement. In the 19th century the French applied it to an official statement of the way in which state ceremonial was to be observed, whence its current and more general sense.
pundit - expert; authority
One of several words that have entered English as a result of British rule in India. It is a variant of the Hindi word pandit for a one learned in religion, philosophy and law. Its use in English was originally jocular, or even patronising, and something of this colouring still remains because a pundit is sometimes, though by no means always, self-appointed.

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