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18 English Words With a Surprising Origin

Definition of word etymology in dictionary

Etymology– the study of how words evolve – can often reveal the deeper meaning of a word. But sometimes, a word’s history is just plain crazy. Here are 18 words with an origin we didn’t expect.

1. Cliche

noun: a trite phrase or expression

From the French “clicher” (to click), and was supposedly named after the sound a type press made when striking metal and making copies.

2. Plumbing

noun: a plumber’s occupation or trade

From the original name for Lead (Pb), Plumbum. Lead was used at the time to make pipes (hence plumbing) and weights used for “plumbing” the depths of the sea. “Plummet” comes from the same root, as the weights would fall perpendicularly into the ocean.

3. Amateur

noun: one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession

The root of “amateur” is “amare,” the Latin verb for “to love.” So, if you’re an amateur, you don’t do something just because you have to – you do it because you love it.

4. Desolate

adjective: devoid of inhabitants and visitors Evolved from the Latin root “de-“ meaning thoroughly or completely, and “solus,” meaning alone. Completely, utterly, absolutely, and hauntingly alone.

5. Bless

verb: to hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word

From the Old English word for “blood,” to bless something may have evolved from the act of smearing blood on it.

6. Ponder

verb: to weigh in the mind

Much like the word “pound,” ponder comes from the Latin word “pondus,” which means “weight.”

7. Astronaut

noun: a person who travels beyond the earth’s atmosphere

“Astro” comes from the Greek word for “star,” and “-naut” comes from the Greek word for “sailor.” So, an astronaut is a star-sailor.

8. Nostalgia

noun: the state of being homesick

Born of a combination of the Greek words for “returning home” and “pain” – sometimes hauntingly translated as “the pain of homecoming.”

9. Lunatic

adjective: affected with a severely disordered state of mind

From the Latin word “luna,” meaning “moon,” immortalizing the belief that the moon could cause erratic personality changes, or even temporary insanity.

10. Helicopter

noun: an aircraft whose lift is derived from the aerodynamic forces acting on one or more powered rotors turning about substantially vertical axes

This mashup of Greek roots comes from “helix,” the Greek word for “spiral,” and “pteron,” the Greek word for wing (which you may know from the majestic winged dinosaur, the pterodactyl).

11. Race

noun: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock

The word “race” comes from the Old French “rasse” or Italian “razze,” both meaning “family.” The human race = one big family.

12. Compassion

noun: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

It may sound soft, but this word comes from the Latin “compati,” meaning “to suffer with.”

13. Language

noun: the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community

From the Latin “lingua” meaning “tongue.” “Linguine” is also from the same root – something to think about the next time you have a conversation over a bowl of pasta.

14. Privilege

noun: a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor

From the Latin word “privilegium,” meaning a law for just one person, or “private law.”

15. Feisty

adjective: full of nervous energy

From the Middle English word for “small dog,” which came from the 15th-century word for “fart.” So when someone says you’re feisty, they’re comparing you to a tiny hound with gas.

16. Ambidextrous

adjective: using both hands with equal ease or dexterity

From the Latin root “ambi,” meaning both, and “dexter,” meaning your right side. So if you’re ambidextrous, you have two right hands.

17. Earthworm

noun: a terrestrial annelid worm

From the Old English word “wyrm,” which is a type of poetic dragon without legs or wings. In a sense, you could call the wiggly fishing bait “dirt dragons.”

18. Conspire

verb: to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of the secret agreement

From the Latin roots “con” (meaning “with”) and “spirare” (meaning “to breathe”). To conspire is to “breathe together.”

[All definitions from Merriam Webster, and a big hat tip to this Twitter thread for the inspiration and information.]

Margaret Kaminski Margaret Kaminski
Margaret Kaminski is a writer and editor with experience crafting copy for ad agencies, magazines, TV, and events. She specializes in writing for teens and young adults Read Full Bio »