Thursday, February 11, 2016

Word Origins (Part One)

Jessica Nelson

Every culture has its colloquialisms. In an English Language class I’m taking, I recently learned that a lot of words, idioms, and other phrases in the English language have their origins in other languages or in particular cultural movements. These words become part of the everyday lexicon (“the vocabulary or word-stock of a region, a particular speaker, etc.” from the Oxford English Dictionary online), and we no longer consider what they may have originally meant or where they came from. For me, it’s fascinating how certain words make themselves at home in a language not originally their own—so at home we consider them to be native.

Just for fun, I’m going to list some common phrases—at least ones I’m most familiar with—and their origins, based on the findings of Robert Crum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran as written in their book, The Story of English and filling in the blanks with information from the uber-useful OED online (Oxford English Dictionary, This will be part one of a two part blog.

From World War II:

·         blitz – as in “blitz attack” comes from the German blitzkrieg.
·         snafu – originally an American military acronym for “situation normal, all f’ed up.”
·         honcho – as in, “Who’s the head honcho on this project?” was appropriated from Japanese, where it meant “squad leader.”

From the Korean War: 

·         brainwashing – the book gives no etymology, but rather cites the Korean War as the point at which this word entered the common lexicon. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) says that brainwashing is an American word compounded from the words brain and wash (obviously), but may be modelled on the Chinese xǐ nǎo ( meaning “wash” and nǎo meaning “brain”).

From the Church or the original Bible (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew): 

·         angel – from angelos, meaning “messenger.” The book doesn’t specify which of the languages angelos is from. According to the OED, this derivation is from the Latin angelus (an alternate spelling), but keeps the meaning of “messenger” from its Greek counterpart ἄγγελ-ος. (Brownie points to anyone who can read Greek!)
·         devil – from diabolos, meaning “slanderer,” where diabolos (or diabolus) is a Latinate translation of the Greek word for slanderer.
·         gospel – originally from the Latin evangelium, which became the English god-spell, later combined and shortened to what is now gospel.

From Thomas More (an English author, philosopher, and statesman): 

·         More supposedly coined the words:

o   absurdity
o   contradictory
o   exaggerate
o   monopoly
o   paradox  

However, the OED can trace the etymology (or “The facts relating to the origin of a particular word or the historical development of its form and meaning; the origin of a particular word”) for all these words. (The etymologies on these are long, so I won’t use them here.) In the case of words like absurdity and contradictory, Thomas More was not the first to use them, but he was one of the first. However, in the cases of exaggerate, monopoly, and paradox, More is credited with their first written use. In other words, he may have coined them, but that doesn’t mean he made them.

From Native Americans (North America): 

·        plants like hickory (a shortening of pohickery) and pecan (from pakani)
·        animals like chipmunk and moose
·        moccasin – from the Powhatan mockasins, a type of shoe that used to be particular to Native Americans, but have become relatively mainstream.
·        igloo – an Eskimo dwelling made of compacted snow blocks.
·        pow-wow – a variation of powwaw, originally meant a priest or medicine man. It quickly adapted to refer to a ceremony involving magic, but now it is generally used to refer to a gathering.

From French: 

·         gopher – from the French word gaupher which means “honeycomb.” This word was apparently applied to the animal we know as a gopher because its digging pattern resembled honeycomb. In recent modern English, gopher or gofer (go-for) is someone who is sent to retrieve things for other people.

From Dutch: 

·         poppycock – usually used to mean something that is said is silly or wrong, poppycock comes from the Dutch pappekak which means “soft-dung.” (So it's a nice way of calling BS.)
·         boss – this comes from a mix of Dutch and Black English, primarily from Surinam creole (Surinam was a Dutch colony). In the Surinam creole, boss was an alternate term for “master.”

From Scots-Irish:

These phrases come from the early days of Scots-Irish settlement in America, particularly in Appalachia. 

·         “so drunk he couldn’t hit the wall with a handful of beans” – similar to the phrase “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” this phrase means that someone is so drunk that their hand-eye coordination is practically nonexistent.
·         “an axe to grind” – means you have a problem with or a grudge against someone or something.
·         “sat on the fence” – later shortened to “on the fence,” meaning that you won’t choose a side on a issue or decision.
·         “go whole hog” – meaning, “to go all in,” or not to hold anything back.

From Gaelic/Irish: 

·         banshee – we understand this word in English to mean a supernatural creature, generally associated with a terrible screaming. Banshee has English equivalent, but it literally means “fairy woman” in Gaelic.

·         keening –  means a sharp wailing and is a variation of the word keeny, which is “to wail.”

·         brogue – currently used to refer to an Irish or Scottish accent, this word originally comes from the Irish word bróg, which means “shoe.” To quote the text, “the Irishman was said to speak with ‘a shoe on his tongue.’”

·         galore – an English take on the Irish word go leór, meaning “sufficient.”

·         shenanigan – means “mischief” or “trickery.” This comes from the Irish word sionnachuighim which means “I play tricks.”

Fascinating, isn’t it? Or maybe I’m just a huge word nerd. Before this, I thought I knew quite a bit about the English language: I knew it borrowed and adapted a lot of words like tortilla (Spanish) and beret (French), but I never realized just how much of our language is comprised of words from languages across the globe. Believe it or not, there are still tons more words out there that we consider “English” but came from somewhere else.

Next week, I’m going to explore the contribution of Black English to the Standard English lexicon, and how the innovations in technology created a new vocabulary of (mostly) Americanisms that are now common phrases.

Did the origins of any of these words surprise you? Know any words commonly thought of as “English” that come from another language? Tell us in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating topic, Jessica! Thanks for posting this. I'll add a word: beaucoup. It's French meaning "a lot." It became popular with American GIs during the Vietnam War, and now has become a part of our lexicon.