The Extraordinary Origins of 11 Ordinary Words

In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary added more than 2,000 new words, and now the world's foremost authority on the English language includes such entries asand, naturally,
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In 2013, the Oxford Dictionary added more than 2,000 new words, and now the world's foremost authority on the English language includes such entries as badassery, showrooming, live blog, emoji, bitcoin and, naturally, twerking. The ubiquitous selfie moreover was named Word of the Year by the OD after its use skyrocketed by 17,000%, and it soon spawned an array of derivatives like belfie (a picture of your behind), helfie (a 'hair-selfie'), and shelfie (the word you'll need next time you take a picture of your own bookcase). To language purists, words like these are at best considered ungainly, and at worst represent a collapse in language standards. To less conservative English users, they are just signs of the times, and new words of any type are exciting reminders that the language is constantly developing and evolving. No matter what you might think of them, however, there's no denying that, etymologically at least, these words are a fairly uninspiring crop.

Yes they have an undeniable quirkiness, but etymology deals with the history and origins of words -- their nuts and bolts, their development over time -- and here, well, there's little to report. The Class of 2013 are typical of a great many modern neologisms in that they offer few etymological surprises, few eyebrow-raising moments. On the one hand there are blends and compounds - fusions of two pre-existing words smushed together into an amalgam like twerk (twist + work apparently). On the other there are "semantic conversions," wherein a word migrates from one part of speech to another -- use a noun as a verb and you'll have something like showrooming. In between are the borrowings, pilfered from other languages and parachuted into English (like emoji, Japanese for "picture character"), and the usual technical compounds and online jargon (bitcoin, live blog). All in all, it's a fairly predictable bunch.

I spent much of the last two years trawling through dictionaries and glossaries collecting together 500 interconnected word origins for a book, Haggard Hawks & Paltry Poltroons (so-called as both haggard and poltroon derive from hawking and falconry), and along the way I stumbled across some truly extraordinary etymological tales. A Victorian prison punishment now found in gyms. The original blockbuster. The twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet. Compared to these remarkable stories, often hidden behind some fairly unremarkable words, selfies and belfies are fairly unimaginative.

Eleven of these etymologies, amongst the most curious and most surprising that the language has to offer, are listed here. They show us how extraordinarily unexpected the English language can be. They show us how interesting the mundane can be. They show us why English is the finest melting-pot of a language in the world. So if you get the chance to coin a new word in 2014, why not make it a good one?

Until as recently as the early 1900s the ampersand, &, was considered a letter of the alphabet and was listed after Z in twenty-seventh place. At the time it was common practice to use the Latin phrase per se ("by itself") to differentiate between individual letters and single-character words -- so A would be A per se, I would be I per se, and so on -- and so to avoid confusion between & and "and," the alphabet would usually finish with a final "X, Y, Z and per se &." This and per se and eventually ran together, and the ampersand was born.


Archipelago comes from the Greek word for "chief sea," and as such was originally just another name for the island-strewn Aegean Sea separating Greece and Turkey. In fact, the Aegean is so famously strewn with islands that the name archipelago soon came to refer to any similar arrangement of islands, or to an island chain or group.

The original blockbuster was an enormous aerial bomb, literally large enough to be capable of destroying an entire block of buildings. Developed by Britain's Royal Air Force in the early 1940s, the first blockbuster -- weighing in at 4,000 pounds -- was used during an attack on Germany in 1941. Within just two years, the RAF had started using bombs three times this size, and dropped more than 25,000 blockbusters in 1943 alone. The name blockbuster was soon popularized by the press, and by the late 1950s had come to describe anything particularly vast or successful.

watch on wrist

The earliest curfews come from Mediaeval France when regulations were originally put in place that demanded all fires and flames be extinguished at a given time each evening to prevent fires from breaking out overnight. This couvre-feu or "fire-cover" was adopted into English in the early 14th century, and long after the law against extinguishing fires dropped out of use, curfew came to refer to any directive restricting activities or movements after dark.

A deadline was originally precisely that -- a line drawn on the ground of a military prison that, if crossed, a prisoner would risk being shot. The term first became widely known in the Civil War era with the trial and execution of a Swiss-born major of the Confederate Army named Henry Mirz, who infamously employed a strict deadline during his brutal command of Camp Sumter in Anderson, Georgia. This sense of a "line that should not be crossed" eventually gave rise to the modern deadline, a time limit or closing date, in the early 1900s.

Imagine two traders, each offering an item up for exchange. Between them is a neutral umpire who is so determined to arrange a fair swap that if he believes one item to be less valuable than the other, the owner of the cheaper item will have to add this difference, in cash, into the exchange. Both traders then simultaneously go to place a small amount of money for forfeit into the umpire's hat: If they agree with his assessment they drop their money into the hat, but if they disagree they keep it in their hand. The trade only goes ahead so long as both traders are in agreement, in which case the umpire is rewarded for his fairness by keeping the forfeited cash. If only one (or neither) party agrees, the umpire gets nothing, and no trade takes place. This means of bartering an exchange is the original handicap, or "hand-in-cap," which dates back to the Middle Ages in England. Handicap horse racing eventually developed from this idea of assessing a difference in quality between two things in the 18th century.

very nervous

Long before it came to refer to an unhealthy obsession with your health, hypochondria was a medical term referring to all of the bodily organs that lie beneath (hypo) the cartilage (chondros) of the chest and upper abdomen. Any illness affecting these organs, it was once supposed, could cause "melancholy," a vague feeling of unease or upset with no obvious cause.

mean girls

Alongside inventing democracy, the Ancient Athenians also had an amazingly simple means of ridding themselves of the least popular members of their society. Ostracism, as it was called, saw the people of Athens write on tiles or pieces pottery (known as ostrakons) the name of anyone they wanted out. The unlucky Athenian whose name came up the most would then be banished from the city, typically for a period of 10 years.

Paraphernalia literally means "beside a dowry," and originally referred to all of a woman's possessions that remained her property after marriage and did not automatically pass over to her husband. By Roman law, a husband could not use or sell any of these possessions -- known as a paraferna -- without his wife's permission, and she retained the exclusive control to bequeath them to others in her will, rather than have them obligatorily pass to her spouse on her death.

Tragedy derives from a Greek word, tragodia, literally meaning "goat-song." Precisely why Ancient Greek tragedies were given this name is admittedly unknown, although one suggestion claims that it perhaps refers to actors dressing in goatskins and furs to portray the satyrs and other mythical beings that often appeared in the stories.


Designed by the English inventor Sir William Cubitt, the first treadmill comprised an enormous cylinder that could be made to turn by a person or group of people treading on a series of steps lining its edge. If you're not a fan of the gym then it will come as no surprise that this original treadmill was an enormous man-powered contraption used not only to ease laborious tasks like raising water or crushing rocks, but also as a hard-labor punishment in Victorian prisons, wherein inmates would be made to trudge away on the mill for hours at a time.

CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to reflect that the press referred to bomb models of varying weight and size all as 'blockbusters.'

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