The Word “Escalator” Is Older than “Escalate” and Other Quirks of Back-Formations

One of my favorite sets of mindbending etymological facts is that: A) The word "escalate" didn't exist before the invention of the escalator. B) The word "escalade," which is not originally a brand name for a Cadillac SUV, did exist as early as the 1500s as a word for scaling fortifications with ladders. Yes, really.… Continue reading The Word “Escalator” Is Older than “Escalate” and Other Quirks of Back-Formations

Edible Words of Random Assortment: Hodgepodge, Potpourri, Gallimaufry, and Salmagundi

There are several interesting words in English that were once words for recipes and ended meaning “an assortment of random things.” Hodgepodge The word "hodgepodge" has been around since the 14th century. At the time, it was a word for  "a kind of stew," especially "one made with goose, spices, wine, and other miscellaneous ingredients.” … Continue reading Edible Words of Random Assortment: Hodgepodge, Potpourri, Gallimaufry, and Salmagundi

The Etymology of “Mystery”

The word "mystery" and its cousin “mystic” both trace back to Latin and Greek words (mysterium and mysteria) for secrets, especially religious rites performed by secret orders. The Greek root myein means "to close" or "to shut." Even in English, "mystery" was first used in a theological context, referring to divine revelations and mystical truths, but it… Continue reading The Etymology of “Mystery”

An Elocution of of Etymologists: Nouns of Assembly or Terms of Venery

You’ve probably heard of collective nouns for animals like a herd of cattle or a murder of crows—or perhaps… a prickle of porcupinesa flamboyance of flamingoesan ambush of tigersan exaltation of larksa dazzle of zebras These are called nouns of assembly or terms of venery, where "venery" is a word for the sport of hunting… Continue reading An Elocution of of Etymologists: Nouns of Assembly or Terms of Venery

What Is a “Whatsit”? On Kadigans, or Placeholder Names

Words like "thingamajig," "whatsit" and "doohickey" are called “placeholder names” or kadigans. The origin of “kadigan” isn’t clear. Some suggest it could somehow be related to the generic word “gin,” as in a “cotton gin,” (not related to the drink) which is a shortening of the word “engine” and took the place of engine in… Continue reading What Is a “Whatsit”? On Kadigans, or Placeholder Names

The (Etymological) Difference Between Tortoises and Turtles

The difference between a turtle and a tortoise can be confusing: Technically, all turtles, tortoises and terrapins belong ARE turtles and belong to the turtle order Testudines, which comes from the Latin word testa, meaning "shell" But for the most part, people use the word “tortoise” to refer to completely land-dwelling turtle species, while the generic word “turtle”… Continue reading The (Etymological) Difference Between Tortoises and Turtles

The Naked Truth About “Gymnasium”

One of my favorite things about the English language is how many perfectly innocent-sounding words are a little bit less wholesome than you might expect. Take the word "gym," for instance—that’s gym as in gymnasium, the place where you go to work out, train or play sports. Gymnasium is a Latin word, and originally comes… Continue reading The Naked Truth About “Gymnasium”

The Etymology of Trivia: A Place Where Three Roads Meet

The lessons I share here are often classifiable as trivia: little bits of information that are of little consequence outside of being curiosities. You might call them “trivialities"—even though I, and most of you, agree that words and their origins are not trivial and do matter a great deal. Trivia is a Latin word, the… Continue reading The Etymology of Trivia: A Place Where Three Roads Meet