The English language is known to be difficult to learn. First, it’s full of weird idioms like the sayings not to cry over spilled milk, look in the mouth of a gift horse, or have an egg on your face. Second, it’s shocking, baffling, impressive, and disturbing that we have so many synonyms.
Many of these difficulties arise from the fact that English is based on a combination of different languages. Sometimes we can easily see the similarities between English words and the languages from which they are borrowed. In other cases this can be a little more difficult.
The following 10 English words have rather strange origins that may surprise you.
The word “lesbian”, used to describe women who love other women, comes from the Greek island of Lesbos. Around 600 BC A poet named Sappho lived on this island. Most of their poems have been lost in time, but we have collected fragments of their works from other writers who have cited them in their works.
Much of her writing has been about women, and many of her poems are very passionate about love. This has led to speculation that she might have been homosexual. According to some reports, she may have been married with one daughter. However, it is difficult to piece together the snippets that existed via Sappho.
Their daughter’s name was Cleis, but some scholars argue that this was really the name of Sappho’s lover. Her husband is said to have been Kerkylas from the island of Andros.
However, the name “Kerkylas” comes close to the word for “penis” and “Andros” is like the word for “man”. The fact that her husband was called the “penis from the island of man” implies that this was probably a joke.
An “assassin” is a person who commits murder for financial reasons or for fanatical reasons such as political ideology. The history of this word goes back to the Crusades. At that time, a sect called Nizari Ismaili was operating from Lebanon. They were fanatical Muslims who responded to a leader known as the “Old Man of the Mountains”.
This sect was responsible for murdering many leaders of opposing forces. Western Europeans believed that the members of Nizari Ismaili did this after consuming large amounts of hashish, which would make them high. Although controversial, it earned them the nickname Hashishin (“Hashish User”).
When this word became part of the English language, it had already found its way through the Italian and French languages and had mutated into the word “assassin”.
Before writing Lord of the Rings, Author JRR Tolkien worked for the Oxford English Dictionary. As part of his assignments, he had to uncover the history of the words that begin with the letter W, including “walrus”. Tolkien found different stories behind this seemingly simple word.
He thought it most likely that “walrus” was derived from boast a balcony, an Old Norse word that translates as “horse whale”. The whale part makes sense because walruses are also massive and have fins. But the horse part is confusing. All we really know is that long ago someone probably looked at a massive creature with a mustache and huge tusks and thought the best comparison to a land animal was a horse.
Although Tolkien considered the “walrus” horse whale etymology to be the most sensible, he worked on this decision for some time. He reportedly had more than six versions of the history of this word, some of which are still in the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary.
No doubt we have all come across the word “quarantine” on television or in the newspaper. Some may even have seen it firsthand since the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, as the term has long been associated with disease outbreaks.
“Quarantine” is derived from the Italian word Quarantino (“40 Day Period”). As the plague spread across Europe, Venetian policy dictated that arriving ships from affected countries could only enter the ports after 40 days had passed. This was to ensure that no plague cases were brought into the country.
Similarly, people traveling during the coronavirus pandemic were instructed to isolate for two weeks to prevent disease transmission. We should probably be grateful that we no longer use the 40-day period from the time of the plague.
However, you may be wondering how 40 days was chosen as the right length of time to isolate a person. It is likely because 40 is an important religious number in Christianity. Medieval Christians believed that Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert and that in the story of Noah’s ark it rained for 40 days and 40 nights.
The idea that it took people 40 days to be cleansed went well with the existing religious beliefs of the time.
“Nimrod” is often used as an insult to someone who is clumsy or stupid, but the word originally had a very different meaning. Nimrod is the name of Noah’s great-grandson in the Bible, and he is said to have been a mighty hunter. This word wasn’t associated with clumsiness and stupidity until the 1980s, and the reasons for this are debatable.
According to one theory, the word’s alternate meaning comes from its use in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Bugs was relentlessly pursued by the incompetent hunter Elmer Fudd. Fudd sometimes referred to this villainous rabbit as “Nimrod” to sarcastically compare his lack of hunting skills to those of the mighty Nimrod of the Bible.
However, due to the young audience’s misunderstanding about the insult and sarcasm, “Nimrod” became a widely used term to describe someone who was clunky or stupid.
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When you’re looking at a tall, muscular person, the first picture that comes to your mind is unlikely to be a tiny mouse. Therefore, you may be surprised to know that the word “muscle” is derived from the Latin word Muscle (“little mouse”).
The reason for this strange connection between muscles and mice is because of their appearance. Our ancient ancestors simply thought that a flexed bicep looked like a tiny mouse moving under a person’s skin.
The Middle English language had a different word for someone who was muscular –Lacertœ. You can be happy to note that this word has nothing to do with mice. Instead, it means lizard-like. Maybe the lizards were pretty jacked up back then.
The connection between the zodiac sign Cancer and the disease of the same name is based on crabs. The word “cancer” is derived from the Latin word “crab”. The cancer astrology sign is based on a constellation that is supposed to look like a crab, although it really looks more like an inverted Y in the sky.
In Greek mythology, Heracles crushed a huge enemy crab under his foot during a fight with Hydra. Thereafter, Hera rewarded the crab for its service by laying its remains among the stars in the sky. That became the Cancer constellation.
Going back to reality, a cancerous growth, usually surrounded by swollen veins and joints, was named for its appearance similar to a round crab body with legs extending from it. The similarity between crabs and cancerous tumors has been noted by several prominent ancient Greek physicians, including Hippocrates.
Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease characterized by recurrent fevers, anemia, and jaundice. However, the story behind the name of this disease is based on a misunderstanding about its cause.
Before we knew that mosquitoes were responsible for infecting people with malaria, there was a so-called miasm theory. According to this theory, decaying materials gave off a toxic vapor that caused diseases such as malaria and cholera.
The word “malaria” comes from Italian Mala aria (“bad air”). Miasma theory vapors were often associated with swamps. Much decay was noted in these humid regions, and people who lived near swamps often got sick.
The real cause? Mosquitoes like to lay their eggs near standing water in swamps.
When you think of a tragic event, you probably don’t automatically think of goats. On the other hand, maybe. The ancient Greeks certainly did, and that is why “tragedy” is derived from the Greek words beverages and Earswhich means “goat song”.
Some confusion surrounds the exact origins of this word. However, the connection to goats seems to come from playing with satyrs, nature spirits that combine human and goat or horse characteristics. They were often seen in satyr plays. These pieces often accompanied the performances of tragic pieces, and they were rather dramatic but funny.
Candidates running for political office today are embroiled in scandals. Back in ancient Rome, they were instead wrapped in white togas. These garments were specially made to be very white, which resulted in the men who wore them being named Candidates (“White Men”).
This term comes from the Latin word Candidus (“pure white”). Funnily enough, this word is also the basis for the English word CandidaThis is a persistent type of fungus that can be difficult to get rid of.
This is likely because the fungus itself is white and can overgrow on the tongue, forming white patches called thrush. The connection between an annoying mushroom and politicians is certainly interesting enough to be mentioned.
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