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Interesting Word Origins

Discover the origin of some English words, where they come from and their interesting little story. 



English has developed into the modern language that we speak and write through a long history of influences since the early Anglo-Saxon (Old English) form.
The Normans spoke a type of French which became intermixed with Anglo-Saxon, but even before that the Romans has introduced Latin to England.
In the centuries that followed, English adopted words from all over the world and new ones are always coming into use. 
The following list gives the history of some interesting English word.   
  • ALCOHOL – is from the Arabic and means”fine black powder”. Kohl is still used as eye make-up by many women. Later the word was applied to fine distilled liquids and finally was used for a spirit of wine.
  • ALLIGATOR- comes from the Latin word lacertus. The name came to English through Spanish. The Spanish for alligator is lagarto and the Spanish word for “the” is el. When el lagarto was heard by English speakers, it sounded like the one word “alligator”
  • BARBER- comes from the Latin barba “beard” because in early times a barber work was largely concerned with trimming and cutting beards.
  • BUTLER - comes from the Old French word bouteillier, describing a man who put wine into bottles. The Normans brought the word to England as buteler.
  • CANDLE - comes form a Latin word introduced into England at the beginning of the seventh century as candela from the word candere meaning "to shine".
  • CONFETTI - comes from Italian and means “small sweets” Traditionally sweets were thrown after weddings and later small discs of paper were used.
  • HAMBURGER is named after the German city of Hamburg. The full expression is “Hamburger steak” meaning steak in the Hamburg style.
  • FOREIGN is from the French forain which comes from the Latin foranus a foreigner. This in turn is taken from the Latin word foris “outside”.
  • KITE: is an old Old English word and comes from the Anglo –Saxon cyta which is the name of a bird of prey.
  • LIBRARY – comes form the Latin word libraria meaning a bookseller’s shop. The French still use the word librairie in the same way.
  • MOSQUITO - is a Spanish and Portuguese word and means simply little fly. This comes from the Latin word musca “fly”.
  • MUMMY came to English through French and Spanish but its origin is the Arabic word mumiya, meaning “an embalmed body." Mum is the Arabic word for the wax used in the preserving process.
  • NAVY is a word of Latin origin, from navis “a ship
  • PETROL is the shorter form of the word petroleum formed from the Latin petra oleum meaning “rock oil”.
  • SANDWICH is a word taken from a name John Montagu, the 11th Earl of Sandwich (1718-92) was so fond of gambling that he was reluctant to get up from the table for a meal. Instead he asked for meat to be served between two slices of bread.
  • SPAGHETTI – is an Italian word formed as a plural of spaghetto. This is taken from the word spago meaning “cord” So the whole word means little cords.
  • TARANTULA is taken from the town of Taranto, Italy where the spider is found.
  • TERRACOTTA is Italian and literally means cooked earth. The English use of the word to describe brownish-red unglazed pottery dates from the 8th century.
  • TENNIS - comes from the French word tenez from “tenir” to hold . In early times, the server shouted tenes to attract his or her opponent’s attention.
  • UMBRELLA - is from the early Italian word ombrella which meant little shade since the umbrella was originally used as sunshade. It comes from the Latin word umbra meaning “shade”.
  • VITAMIN – is an invented word first used by the Polish-born American biochemist, Casimir Funk in 1913. It is taken from Latin “vita” – meaning life and the chemical amine (from ammonia).
  • WRONG – originally meant “crooked, twisted or bent. In Anglo-Saxon the word was wrang meaning injustice. It took the meaning of “incorrect” in about the 13th century.
  • YOGA - is a Hindi word meaning union with the Supreme Spirit and is taken from a similar word in Sanskrit meaning union.

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