Words in English public website
LING 216 course information
Rice University
Prof. S. Kemmer

Word Stories

The following are some of the interesting etymologies found in the history of English words. Below they are classified by the modern meaning rather than the meanings of the source words.

Color words

azure From Persian Lazheward, the name of a place in northeastern Afghanistan that in ancient times was the main source for lapis lazuli, a semi-precious rock with a vivid blue color. The word was adopted into French as l'azur the initial /l/ meaning 'the') by the twelfth century. The word was adopted into English from French. First recorded use of it in English as possibly a color name was in 1374 in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde where he refers to "a broche, gold and asure" ('a brooch, gold and azure'). This could mean 'a brooch make of gold and lapis lazuli' OR a 'gold and blue brooch', or both simultaneously since the materials have their characteristic colors.

purple O.E. purpul, dissimilation from purpure 'purple garment, purple dye, purple color (from dye)', from L. purpura 'purple-dyed cloak, purple dye', also 'shellfish from which purple dye was made' from Gk. porphyra, of Semitic origin, originally the name for the genus of shellfish (murex)) from which it was obtained. Tyrian purple, produced around Tyre, was prized as dye for royal garments. As a color name, attested from late 14c.

vermilion 'bright red'. First appeared late 13c. as a noun; from the 1580s, also as an adjective. Originally meant a type of red dye and its color, and then also the red color of another dye. From Anglo-Fr. and O.Fr. vermeillon, from vermeil 'bright-red' from Late Latin vermiculus 'a little worm', specifically, the cochineal insect from which crimson dyes were obtained (see cochineal). In classical Latin vermiculus meant 'larva of an insect, grub, maggot', diminutive of vermis 'worm'.

carmine from Fr. carmin, from Medieval Latin carminium, from Arabic qirmiz "crimson," from Skt. krimiga 'insect-produced' from krmi 'worm, insect.' The dye comes from crushed cochineal insects. Influenced in Latin by minium 'red lead, cinnabar'. Possibly of Iberian origin.

'red or crystalline form of mercuric sulphide', also applied to other ores of mercury, originally with reference to its use as a pigment; from O.Fr. cinabre, from Late Latin cinnabaris from Gk. kinnabari, of oriental origin (cf. Persian zanjifrah in the same sense). Also used 14c.-17c. of red resinous juice of a certain Eastern tree, which was believed to be a mixture of dragon's and elephant's blood.

magenta Now 'deep saturated reddish pink', earlier bright crimson. Name given in 1860 to a brilliant crimson aniline dye (and its color) developed shortly after the battle of Magenta, in Italy, where the French and Sardinians defeated the Austrians in 1859. The color was named in honor of the battle, whose outcome advanced the cause of Italian independence and inspired the hopes and imagination of European political reformers.

Body and Brain

amygdala One of a pair of brain structures on the underside of the temporal lobe of the human brain. From Greek amygdala 'almond', a metaphor based on resemblance of size and shape. (To find the amygdala, hover your mouse around the brain on Whalen Amygdala Site until you see it and can click to enter the lab site.)




alligator A new-world Spanish loan, from el lagarto 'the lizard'. The definite article el was not understood as a morpheme, but taken as an unanalyzed part of a monomorphemic root. Oddly, a similar process happened in loans from Arabic to Spanish during the Islamic period in Spain. Words like alcoba 'alcove, bedroom' and azucar 'sugar' which had the Arabic definite article al or a- were taken as monomorphemic and borrowed whole. English has a number of such Arabic words too, most of them via Spanish and/or the other Romance languages (algebra, admiral, alcohol, azimuth...)

anaconda Probably a modification of Sinhalese henakandaya 'a slender green snake' (WNC)

armadillo from Spanish armadillo, 'little armored thing'. So called after its protective shell which looks something like a coat of mail.

Food and drink

ketchup The name of this most American of condiments originates from the Malay word koetsiap, which literally means 'seafood sauce.'

cappuccino 'milky coffee drink, originating in Italy'
Named after the color of the robes of the Capuchin monks, which, like the drink, are light chocolaty brown. The word is from Italian Cappuccino, which is the Italian name for the monks' order. The Capuchins themselves got their name from the hooded robe they wear; cappuccio means 'hood' (a diminutive form of Late Latin cappa 'head covering, cloak')

vermicelli Italian for 'little worms', from the resemblance of the pasta to wriggly worms. Ultimately derives from Latin vermiculae 'little worms'.


arrive from ad + rip 'shore, riverbank'. The Latin prefix ad- assimilated completely to the following /r/ and later, in early French, the root rip shifted its consonant to a fricative, yielding arriver, with a French verb suffix. It was borrowed into English as arrive. In terms of meaning, once it became a verb it meant 'to come to the shore', i.e to land from a boat. Because boats that landed ashore were arriving at a destination, the word was understood as the broader meaning 'arrive at a destination', so that it included cases where there was no shore and no boat. This is the modern meaning. Generally some reference point is assumed -- one arrives at a given place -- and when no particular place can be inferred from the context, it means 'arrive at where the speaker is' as in she arrived at 10:30 which sounds like the traveler arrived at the speaker's house or party or city.

brainwash Although now associated mainly with spy movies, to brainwash originated as a military term during the Korean War. The word is a literal translation of the Chinese phrase HSI NAO, 'to wash the brain.' We call such cases of native word forms put together with a borrowed meaning "loan translations" or "calques". Another pair of loan translations is to save face/ lose face, both of which literally translate Chinese expressions.

caliber and calibrate From Arabic qalibr 'shoe last'. In English and other European languages, the word was spelled with an initial "c", the closest people could get to the Arabic stop q which is pronounced much further back in the mouth. Calibre, from its use as a measure of size for shoes, came to mean a general measure for artillery, applying to both the ballistic device and the long hollow tube containing it (an artillery barrel). When smaller guns evolved from large artillery, the word for the measure was kept for the bullets and the corresponding diameter of the gun barrel. Then a further generalization occurred, in which the word calibre could apply as a measure of quality. When we talk about the calibre of students or faculty, we in effect are using a word for a physical, quantitative measure for a qualitative judgement. This is a metaphor.

Calibrate arose in modern European languages by putting the verb-forming suffix -ate onto a root that did not exist in Latin. The word was coined specifically to refer to adjusting scientific instruments to take into account differences in size or weight. We can calibrate a scale for a particular range of weights, for example.

catalyze 'to induce a chemical reaction; to engender a change'
Comes from cata 'down' + lyze 'loosen, break'. A catalyst (the noun form of the word) causes things to break down chemically; this breaking down causes further chemical reactions, and this aspect of the process is represented by the modern meaning.

Everyday things, older and modern

sky from Old Norse sky 'cloud'. An example of metonymy, the shift of meaning of a thing to a thing closely associated with it in time and/or space. Clouds are located in the sky, so the word for 'cloud' came to mean 'sky'. Probably the frequently cloudy skies of northern England helped strengthen this metonymic shift.

cloak From Middle English cloke, from Old French cloque 'bell'. This is a case of a metaphorical extension: the garment was named after the word for 'bell', because of the bell-like shape of the garment around the body.

clock From Middle Dutch clocke, meaning 'bell, clock', from Old French cloche or cloque 'bell', from Late Latin clocca (imitative of the sound of a bell).

It was apparently in Dutch that the crucial semantic shift occurred in the history of this borrowed word: the word that was used to describe the time-keeping noisemaker in the churchtower (bong, bong) began to be applied to the newfangled timekeeper with hands and numbers on a round display 'face', located in the same tower (tick, tick). When the English imported these new timekeepers, often made in Holland and Germany, they imported the word for them: clock. But they had their own word for the more traditional bell (namely bell, which goes back to Proto-Germanic), so the word clock was never polysemous like in Dutch.

The semantic extension of the word clock from the meaning 'bell' to the meaning 'clock' is a classic example of metonymy.


gamut This word comes from the history of music. Guido d'Arezzo, an 11th century musician and former monk, devised a system of musical notation that was a precursor to our modern system of notes and staffs.

D'Arezzo's system had a six-note scale, represented on a higher and lower staff. The first line on the lower staff he called by the Greek letter 'gamma'. The lowest note in the scale was called 'ut' and was placed on gamma. This first note was soon called 'gamma ut', which contracted to 'gamut'. At some point, French musicians began referring to the whole scale (by then an octave) as the 'gamut', a typical example of metonymy. The term was next extended to refer to the musical range of an instrument or voice. By the seventeenth century 'gamut' was further generalized to mean an entire range of any kind.

The story of GAMUT also relates to the syllables commonly sung to the tones of the musical scale (do, re, mi...). D'Arezzo named the six notes in his scale after the first syllables of six lines of a hymn sung to John the Baptist:

Ut queant laxis
re sonare fibris
Mi ra gestorum
fa muli tuorum
Sol ve polluti
la bii reatum
Sancte Iohannes

"That with full voices your servants may be able to sing the wonders of your deeds, purge the sin from their unclean lips, O holy John."

In the seventeenth century ut was replaced by the more singable do. With the introduction of octaves a new note name was needed and si, was added, probably formed from the initial letters in sancte Iohannes . The seventh note is now more usually sung as ti. (MWE, AHD)

Social and institutional words

hoosegow 'jail'. From Spanish juzgado 'justice', used to refermetonymically to the institutions for administering justice, specifically to the place of confinement for lawbreakers. Comes from the old west, from areas that had been under the jurisdiction of Mexico. American settlers simply pronounced the word as it sounded to them. It spread, and became a slangy or jocular American term for jail even outside the southwest.

catholic 'universal'; when capitalized, the name of the church of Rome.
From cata 'down, entirely'' + hol 'whole' + ic 'ADJ'. The church, emphasizing the all-embracing nature of the religion, called itself catholic in the sense of entirely universal. Something of this sense survives in the phrase catholic tastes, meaning eclectic or non-parochial tastes. But the word stuck to the church most strongly, and became essentially its proper name, distinguishing the Catholic religion from other religions.

money n. From Old French monee, literally 'coined', from Latin moneta, from the honorific name of Juno Moneta, 'Juno the Guardian, Juno the Warning Goddess'. From the metonymic association of Juno with her temple, which was the place where money was coined. Similar etymology for mint in the sense of 'place where money is coined'.


lord A native word, going back to an ancient compound hlaf weard, literally 'loaf ward'--the guardian of the stock of bread in a household. Since this was usually the master of the household, the word came to mean specifically that in Anglo-Saxon (in the somewhat reduced form hlaford). Hlaford was used by Christian missionaries to translate the Latin word for 'master', Dominus, when referring to God. Lord in its ordinary social sense became a respectful term of address for a householder of means, then a title for a major landowner, and finally a hereditary title independent of land ownership. Unlike its counterpart German Herr 'lord, master', it never became an ordinary form of address prefixed to mens' last names; that role was taken on by Mister, from Latin magister 'great one'.

paparazzi, n. pl., singular paparazzo. Paparazzi are reporters or photographers, especially free-lance, who doggedly search for sensational stories about and/or take candid pictures of celebrities for magazines and newspapers

This word is an example of eponymy, or naming a concept after a person associated with that concept. In this case the person is a fictional character, one Signor Paparazzo, a character in the movie La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini (b. 1920), in the 1960s. In the movie, Paparazzo was a street photographer. The name was apparently taken from the dialectal Italian word paparazzo, a kind of buzzing insect.

In its current sense, the word is usually found in the plural, since such photographers are often found in insect-like clusters around celebrities. Paparazzi became a household word after the tragic death of Princess Diana while she was being pursued by paparazzi in Paris. (AWAD)

skipper from Dutch skip 'ship' + English and Dutch -er 'agentive suffix', 'ship captain'. Dutch skip is cognate with English ship. It has the old Germanic cluster sk which changed to sh in English before e and i.

sheriff from Middle English scirgerefa, in modern form 'shire reeve', an official who administered a large political region, the shire, as a representative of the crown. A reeve was a government administrator; the shire reeve in Anglo-Saxon England was a senior royal official of one of the largest sized territories below the level of the kingdom. After the Norman Conquest these large territories were given the name county instead of shire, and the sheriffe (in one of its Middle English spellings) became a keeper of law and order at a more local level. (Some of the old Anglo-Saxon shires still exist as counties although many have kept the ancient English word shire in their names, for example Yorkshire, Lancashire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Wiltshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Lincolnshire.)

More words with interesting etymologies:


Some eponyms


Also: many technical words including names for units of measure of various things: like Watt, Volt, Ohm, Celsius, Fahrenheit


American Heritage Dictionary (AHD)
Etymology Online website
Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto (DWO)
Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED Online)
Merriam Webster's Book of Etymologies (MWE)
A-Word-A-Day email list and website (AWAD)

© Suzanne Kemmer