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Etymologists Share The Best Word Origins They've Learned--And We're Taking Notes

Time for some word Jeopardy...

Words are sexy. It's ok -- you can admit it. And learning about words is an under appreciated art. You don't have to gain knowledge just to maybe one day win Jeopardy. But when you think about words and how they're the basis for life... music, poetry, books, films, plays, basic communication -- how can you not want to know more? And there are people who's careers are the primary focus for word origins. The things they have to tell us. With Words!

Redditor u/ocddoc wanted to soak up some sexy knowledge by asking... Etymologists of Reddit, what is the coolest origin of a word? Entomologist of Reddit, what's your best bug fact?


Clue. 

Wow, good timing. I just learned this one today. Etymology of the word clue: The word clue originates with the myth of Theseus, who used a ball of yarn to find his way back out of the minotaur's labyrinth. The middle English word for a ball of yarn was clew (or clewe); when the myth was popularized in England by Chaucer, people started using the word clew figuratively to mean a hint or guide to solving a problem. RobotInDisgust

Bear.

The word "bear" in many languages in Europe (including English) just means "brown thing." There used to be a proper name for bear, but it was taboo because saying it was believed to summon a bear, who would then kill everyone. It was so taboo it was eventually forgotten and the euphemism (brown thing) became the name.

Ancient people were scared by bears. The Arctic draws its root from Arctus, greek for bear. So its the "land of bears"

The Antarctic is thus, "the land without bears." SolarDubstep

Tawdry.

The etymology of "tawdry" is a real ride.

There was a 7th century Anglo-Saxon saint named Æthelthryth. Now, nobody, not even 7th century Anglo-Saxons, wants to go around trying to pronounce that dense forest of th's, so she was commonly known as St. Etheldreda, and later, linguistically lazier people called her St. Audrey.

St. Audrey was the patron saint of a town called Ely, and the folks of Ely held a fair every year in her name. One of the primary products on offer at these fairs was lace. "St. Audrey's lace" was said a few too many times, and got slurred down to "tawdry lace."

Over time, the lace fell out of favor. It was mainly made by peasant women, and thus viewed as cheap, and the Puritans looked down on lace garments of any kind as ostentatious. "Tawdry" then began to be used to describe other things that were cheap and ostentatious, and the modern definition of the word was born.

"Tawdry" comes from the fact that Æthelthryth is really hard to pronounce.

Malaria. 

Malaria. Malaria is an infectious disease characterized by chills and fever and caused by the bite of an infected anopheles mosquito.

This word comes from the medieval Italian mal (bad) and aria (air), describing the miasma from the swamps around Rome.

This "bad air" was believed to be the cause of the fever that often developed in those who spent time around the swamps. In fact the illness, now known as malaria, was due to certain protozoans present in the mosquitos that bred around these swamps, and which caused recurring feverish symptoms in those they bit. Back2Bach

Cliche. 

Etymology : Cliche, is derived from the sound of dapping ink on typeface - anyone who has used an ink roller will understand the sound of sticky ink - so its the repeated sound of regularly and therefore overused piece of type ... MuttleyGrouch

I love that cliché is the sound that a stereotype makes. arandaer

I was all set to call bull on cliché so I just read a bunch of French webpages on etymology, and it turns out you're right. That's freaking cool. Thanks for teaching me something. Marius_de_Frejus

Shibboleth.

Etymology: Shibboleth was a Hebrew word for a part of a plant. But at one point it was used to determine whether someone belonged to one cultural group or another because the groups pronounced the word differently. Now, it refers to words and phrases like those that "out" someone as part of a particular group whether it's by pronunciation or understanding. For example, get a native German speaker to say "squirrel" and they almost definitely won't be able to. SmartAlec105

Nightmare. 

Etymology: Nightmare. The "mare" part of the word "nightmare" comes from Germanic folklore, in which a "mare" is an evil female spirit or goblin that sits upon a sleeper's chest, suffocating them and/or giving them bad dreams. So basically the word comes from a description of sleep paralysis. theonlydidymus

Nimrod. 

Etymology: Nimrod was originally a compliment referring to one's hunting skills (Nimrod being a biblical figure known for his ability to hunt), but the definition changed because people didn't understand Bugs Bunny was calling Elmer Fudd a Nimrod sarcastically. Seevian

Avacado. 

Etymology: The word "avocado" comes from the Aztec word for testicle. That's literally the only one I can think of right now. Sebaren

Damn millennials with their testicles on toast... UberAeriko

Please say that repeatedly in public, with no good raisin. segascott

Barbarian. 

The word "barbarian" comes from an Ancient Greek word referring to all non-Greek speakers (including Egyptians, Phoenicians, etc.) This was because to the Greeks, all other languages sounded like people saying "bar bar bar". This became the root for the word βάρβαρος (bárbaros), which roughly means "babble" or "gibberish."

It was later adopted by the Romans to refer to any culture that did not practice Greek or Roman traditions (even though Latin-speakers were technically classified as barbarians because they didn't speak Greek). Due to good old xenophobia, it eventually came to mean "uncivilized," and from there it made its way through the centuries into Middle English. CH-LSP-RT-NY


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