Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I was recently exposed to the word horripilation, meaning "a bristling of the hair on the skin from cold, fear, etc." The -pil-, I assumed meant "hair", as in depilation ("removal of hair"), and indeed the Latin pilus means "hair".

I noticed that the horr- at the beginning of horripilation looked a lot like the horr- in the words horror, horrify, horrible, or horrid. Was there a connection? Yes: it turns out that Latin horrēre means "to bristle with fear"; thus, horri-pil-ation means, "a bristling of the hair".

So we have arrived at a deeper understanding of the horr- words: for example, something is horrifying if it causes your hair to stand up ("bristle").

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Miscellaneous sounds like it has a Latin root, but which one(s) is not immediately obvious. After some thought I came up with misc- meaning, I guess, "mix", as in miscible (two fluids are miscible if they will mix, or immiscible if, like oil and water, they won't). It sounds like the English mix may in fact be descended from that root too. Let's check and see if this is right...

So according to the American Heritage Dictionary miscellaneous comes from the Latin miscellus, "mixed". This comes from the verb miscēre, to mix.

Searching about suggests that all these words descend from this root: miscellaneous, miscible, miscegenation; also the French melee (mixed-up combat) and mélange (a mixed collection, a miscellany); also meddle (through Old French->Middle English). It seems that mix itself evolved somewhat differently from the rest, deriving from the Latin mixtus, the past participle of miscēre, which eventually arrived in Middle English as mixt/mixed, from which mix was derived as a back-formation.

Altogether this is a broader family of words than I would have guessed!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I thought prehensile just meant "able to be bent at any point in its length" -- a monkey's tail is prehensile, but apparently it specifically means "adapted for seizing, grasping, or taking hold of something." What is the root?

Apparently it comes from Latin prehendere "to grasp, to seize," related to hedera "ivy" (ivy clings to things).

I hadn't realized it, but this root is also present in words like apprehend or comprehend: to apprehend a criminal is literally to "seize" him and to comprehend an idea is literally to "grasp" it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Italics comes from "Italy". Why is that? Apparently an Italian guy wrote that way:

"from L. italicus "Italian;" so called because it was introduced in 1501 by Aldus Manutius, printer of Venice (who also gave his name to Aldine), and first used in an edition of Virgil dedicated to Italy. Earlier (1571) the word was used for the plain, sloping style of handwriting, as opposed to Gothic. Italicize "to print in italics" (for emphasis, etc.) is from 1795." (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Friday, March 14, 2008


Halcyon is a pretty word. It sounds Greek. In common use it has several distinct but similar senses according to
1. calm; peaceful; tranquil: halcyon weather.
2. rich; wealthy; prosperous: halcyon times of peace.
3. happy; joyful; carefree: halcyon days of youth.
The word derives from the Greek alkyon, meaning kingfisher. What? Kingfishers seems irrelevant. But Greek mythology strikes again; the American Heritage Dictionary explains that the halcyon was
A fabled bird, identified with the kingfisher, that was supposed to have had the power to calm the wind and the waves while it nested on the sea during the winter solstice.
In Greek mythology Alcyone (or Halcyon) was the daughter of Aeolus, ruler of the winds. She and her husband got turned into kingfishers after some bad run-ins with various gods. Halcyon is used today to refer to a family of kingfishers.

Monday, March 10, 2008


A surprising number of modern English words derive from, or share roots with, ancient gods and monsters.

Chimera -- a mythical monster with parts from various different animals: today, an organism with tissues of differing genetic composition.

Gigantes -- a race of giants who fought the Greek Olympaians: gigantic, obviously.

Hippocampus -- a Greek mythological creature with the front of a horse and the tail of a fish: today, the hippocampus is a region in the brain, so named because it is shaped like a hippocampus.

Hydra -- A Greek mythological water serpent with many heads which Hercules killed: clearly it comes from the root hydro-, water, as in hydrroelectric.

Python -- In Greek mythology, a dragon or serpent who guarded the oracle of Delphi until he was killed by Apollo: today, a kind of snake.

Ceres -- Roman goddess of agriculture: cereal.

Helios -- Greek sun god: heliocentric.

Eros -- Greek god of love: erotic.

Hypnos -- Greek god of sleep: hypnotize

Typhoon is a word with an interesting history, influenced to an extent by a creature of Greek mythology. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say:

the modern word represents a coincidence and convergence of at least two unrelated words of similar sound and sense. Tiphon "violent storm, whirlwind, tornado" is recorded from 1555, from Gk. typhon "whirlwind," personified as a giant, father of the winds, perhaps from typhein "to smoke." The meaning "cyclone, violent hurricane of India or the China Seas" (1588) is first recorded in T. Hickock's translation of an account in Italian of a voyage to the East Indies by Cæsar Frederick, a merchant of Venice, probably borrowed from, or infl. by, Chinese (Cantonese) tai fung "a great wind," from tu "big" + feng "wind;" name given to violent cyclonic storms in the China seas. A third possibility is tufan, a word in Arabic, Persian and Hindi meaning "big cyclonic storm" (and the source of Port. tufao), which may be from Gk. typhon but commonly is said to be a noun of action from Arabic tafa "to turn round."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Abyss is a word that I think is very well suited to its meaning. Even better is abyssal, which when read in the right mood conveys a chilling sense of bottomlessness. "The lightless abyssal depths..."--brrr!

Anyway, it sounds Greek. Indeed, it comes from the Greek abussos (bottomless) as a- (without) + bussos (bottom). It seems that bussos perhaps is used with special reference to the bottom of the sea, which would make sense--in modern English the abyssal plain is the vast, flat bottom of the sea to which no light can penetrate. A simple, reasonable derivation.

Ethiopia used to be called Abyssinia--any relation to the above definition of abyss? No--it comes from Arabic, according to Wikipedia.

I didn't know that Abyssinia was Ethiopia; the only time I had seen it before was in Samuel Coleridge's memorable poem Kubla Khan, the end of which is reproduced below:
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music lound and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Archaic is another fun word and one that I like saying. It clearly has a root meaning "old"; for example, the prefix in archaeabacteria. Indeed, it comes from the Greek arkhaikos, meaning "old-fashioned", which ultimately comes from the word arkhein, "to begin".

Here there arise a whole host of connections to other Greek words and it is not clear what came first, but all of these English words are related:
  • archaic
  • monarch
  • architect
  • archbishop
I never suspected any connection between these words above. How did it come about? describes the prefix archi- as
"a combining form with the general sense “first, principal,” that is prefixed to nouns denoting things that are earliest, most basic, or bottommost (archiblast; archiphoneme; architrave); or denoting individuals who direct or have authority over others of their class, usually named by the base noun (archimandrite; architect)."
and the prefix arch- as
"a combining form that represents the outcome of ARCHI- in words borrowed through Latin from Greek in the Old English period; it subsequently became a productive form added to nouns of any origin, which thus denote individuals or institutions directing or having authority over others of their class (archbishop; archdiocese; archpriest). More recently, arch-1 has developed the senses “principal” (archenemy; archrival) or “prototypical” and thus exemplary or extreme (archconservative); nouns so formed are almost always pejorative."
Makes sense! But how does architect fit into all this? It comes from the Greek architéktōn, which can be split into archi-, with the meaning described above, and téktōn, meaning "builder" or "craftsman". Therefore the architect is the "principal builder".


Island is a fun word. Even more fun is isle. How often do you have a silent 's'? How did it come about?

Island appears to come from the Middle English iland, from the Old English igland. says that the 's' comes from "association with isle", and that isle comes from the Latin insula (meaning island) through Old French. confirms that isle comes from "Anglo-French" and ultimately from Latin. The modern day word insulate clearly comes from insula, so that we can say that insulate literally means "to make an isle of (something)".

So island comes from Old English, whereas isle comes from Latin. We would be wrong, perhaps, to say that insulate means "to make an island of (something)" because island doesn't come from insula. Huh. I had assumed that island and isle had the same derivation and that isle was simply a shortened form or something. Instead it appears that they have very different origins but that once they both made it into English their spellings converged.

A note: I had assumed that island and isle had identical meanings, but the two dictionary sites mentioned above both suggest that isle often connotes a small island. Thinking about it, perhaps this is right. Also, both sites claim that each word can be used as a verb (meaning, as you might expect, "to make into or place onto an isle/island").

Friday, February 29, 2008


Ecstasy seems like it should have some roots in it. Perhaps stas- as in stasis? They have very different meanings though, so how would you get from stasis to ecstasy? confirms the guess of stas- as a root. Apparently ecstasy comes from the Greek ékstasis meaning "displacement" or "trance." The Greek ékstasis comes from the prefix ek- and the root stasis, which has its modern meaning. Ek- is a form of the familiar prefix ex- meaning "out" or "from." Thus ecstasy means "out of stasis," i.e., "out of balance/equilibrium (emotionally)," which is what it means today, though I think it has acquired a positive connotation that it did not always have.

The ec- form of ex- still appears in modern English; for example, eccentric, which presumably means, literally, "out of center."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Whence and co.

While none of these posts will contain original content (I am after all, mostly copying out of dictionaries etymologies that I happen to find interesting, elaborating and synthesizing a bit) this one is a particularly bad example. The only thing I have to add to this is a nicely formatted chart showing a regularity in these fun words (some archaic but some definitely still current) which I had never before suspected:


I didn't realize that herefore was a word, but it makes sense.

Of course, there are irregulars: while what and that follow the form we use this instead of "hat," and although which follows the wh- form for an interrogative we don't have "thich or "hich."


I suppose a blog on etymology should take a look at that word. It clearly has some roots in it, but what are they?

Looks like it comes from the Greek etymológos, which has essentially the same meaning. In this word there are two roots: étymo (true, actual, real) and lógos (which means "reason" as in logic but also "word" as in dialogue).

I've never heard of this étymo root before. Turns out it shows up as a modern English word, etymon (a pretty word), which defines as "the linguistic form from which another form is historically derived." It gives as an example the Latin root "cor" (meaning heart) which is the etymon of the modern English cordial or accord. A useful word for the writer of an etymology blog to know.


The words diploma and diplomacy seem like they must share a root, but they have widely differing meanings. Where is the common ground?

At first I thought of the French nom de plume, literally pen-name, where the plume means pen and is probably derived from the same place as the English plume as in feather (think quill pens).

It looks like this is dead wrong, though: diploma and diplomacy come from the Greek diploma meaning, originally, "a paper folded double," from diplo-, meaning double. We still use the prefix diplo- to mean double in English. For example, diploid cell, a cell where there are two versions of each chromosome (the chromosomes are doubled).

However, it looks like the words duplicate and double do not come from the Greek diplo-, but rather from Latin duplus, du- (two) + plus (-fold), meaning, literally, twofold (but not fold as in the sense of "a paper folded double," rather in the sense of "a twofold increase in profits").

So. Not what I was hoping for, but still interesting.

Hello world

Hello world. This blog will be about the etymology of interesting words, and words with interesting etymologies. Each post will be a detailed dissection of the roots and history of a word or set of words.