Etymology is the history of the origin of words and phrases.

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Rhetoric vs. Mathematics: ellipsis/ellipse, parable/parabola, hyperbole/hyperbola

Do ellipsis, parable, and hyperbole from rhetoric have anything in common with the geometric curves ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola used in mathematics? There are three geometric curves known as ...
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Terms for collections of animals

As I watched the murder of crows sitting on the line above my house this evening, I got wondering where all of the collective nouns for animals (pod of whales, gaggle of geese, pride of lions) came ...
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I've said it once, I've said it twice, I've said it a thousand times: English doesn't make sense

I had a student moaning at me because I insisted he say twice and not "two times". And he asked "But why?" to which I replied, "Because that's how you say it!" However on reflection, his question was ...
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How did the letter Z become to be associated with sleeping/snoring?

In cartoons and comics it's not uncommon to see a series of Zs to indicate that a person is in deep slumber, such as in the following political cartoon. How and when did the letter Z become to be ...
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Why are clothes “hung” but men “hanged”?

It is said that clothes can be hung but men are hanged. Is this correct, and if so, why?
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Hip Hip Hooray!

I am looking for the etymology and history of the cheer “Hip Hip Hooray”. I’m curious due to its interesting entry in Wikipedia, which reads thusly: The call was recorded in England in the ...
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Origins of “turn over in his grave”?; “turn over in her grave”? etc., etc

The best result of my google-search for the origins of the idiomatic phrase, “turn over in the grave” was this, from wikipedia: One of the earliest uses is found in William Thackeray's 1849 work ...
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Why is there an “a” in “beggar”? Why not an “e”?

Why does beggar end in -ar? Many identically sounding words just use -er, if not all. Examples: bumper pepper tagger chanter pegger They all use the -er version. Also, history shows that beggar ...
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Why are “hard water” and “soft water” so called?

I can't think of anything else to say. All I can find via Google is that it's because it's harder to create lather with hard water, but that doesn't seem very convincing to me.
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What does the fox say?

It is true that as a fox, I should know this, so consider this a spoilers warning. In a recent post, Geek Girl mentions that the mating call of the fox is a series of sharp, eerie barks and that this ...
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What does “P.U.” (in reference to stinkiness) stand for?

"What does {holding nose} P.U. mean?" my son asked me tonight. I told him I didn't know, and he laughed and said "It means stinky, Mommy!" Very funny and well said, but it left me wondering. A ...
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What does the “s” in “thanks” mean?

I'm teaching English in a non-English-speaking country where plural "s" and third-person "s" get confused a lot with no "s" at all. The dialogue in the textbook was explaining how you should respond ...
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Why is “pineapple” in English but “ananas” in all other languages?

Why is "pineapple" in English but "ananas" in all other languages?
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Is it correct to say Person A is the “spitting image” or the “splitting image” of Person B?

I understand that when trying to describe a person who has a resemblance to another, the common term is spitting image. As in: Person A is a spitting image of Person B. Here's my issue, I've ...
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Is there any relation between the suffix “-ship” and actual ships?

I am curious if there is actual relation between all nouns ending in -ship, such as relationship, citizenship, sportsmanship, etc. with the vessel for transporting people or goods over the sea?
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How does the “be-” prefix change the words to which it is applied? How did it come about?

What does the be- prefix change when applied to adjectives and verbs? There are many such words that seemed to be coined of this process, for example: behold, beget, befallen, beridden, ...
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Why are knobs called “pots” by some sound designers?

I was recently introduced to the term "pots" to mean "dials" or "knobs" in the field of sound design and audio engineering. (It rather took me by surprise; I had no idea what the sound designer was ...
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Apart from place names, are there any Native American words used in English?

Apart from place names, are there any Native American words used in English?
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Etymology of a “pegged CPU”

There's a slightly obscure, slang meaning in tech circles of the word "pegged" as it relates to a computer's CPU. When it is fully utilised for a duration (at least several seconds), you can say that ...
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What does the phrase “Does the Pope sh** in the woods?” mean?

I heard this phrase in the GTA San Andreas game. Sounds pretty offensive, nonetheless I don't really get what he meant to say. The context was something like: "Hey do you wanna make some money?" ...
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Of Yuppies and Yippies and Hippies

While innocently passing by on my way to Big Rep City, I happened to overhear (alright! I was dropping eaves) a dialogue in some podunk Commentary Cafe wherein two fellow ELU consumers were debating ...
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Is there a difference between “arse” and “ass”?

From a comment here, in frequent usage, arse and ass are often interchangeable when used to refer to buttocks or to a person of dubious charms. However, although “to arse about” has a vague connection ...
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“Whereäs” as an alternative spelling of “whereas”

Wiktionary shows whereäs as a valid alternative spelling of the word whereas (see here). It gives the following quotations to illustrate the usage: 1 Permanent International Association of ...
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Why “daily” and not “dayly”?

Checking how adjectives related to time are created, I see: year → yearly month → monthly week → weekly day → daily Why has “day” derivated into “daily” with an ‘i’ instead of “dayly” with a ‘y’? ...
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How did “stuck-up” get to mean “snob”?

I was inclined to believe that the expression "stuck-up", meaning staying aloof from others because one thinks one is superior, had its origins with somebody's nose stuck (up) in the air and yet, ...
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What is the name for the process which turned “iced cream” into “ice cream”?

There are several words (mostly related to food) which are shortenings of their historical forms. For example, the cold treat ice cream was originally known as iced cream in the 1680s. The -ed ending ...
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What purpose does an '-o' serve?

I have been singing a lot of children’s songs lately, and this afternoon in the car I noticed three songs that add an ‑o to the end of words: “He had many a mile to go that night before he ...
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Why is it “on *the* one hand”?

According to all dictionaries I can see and everyday use by native speakers, this is the correct way: On the one hand, it's larger; on the other hand, it's more expensive. What makes no sense to ...
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What is the origin of “daemon” with regards to computing?

Daemon has an interesting usage in computing. From my local dictionary: a background process that handles requests for services such as print spooling and file transfers, and is dormant when not ...
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What is the origin of the term “ginger” for red-headed people?

I'd like to know the etymology of the word "ginger" in reference to red-headed people. In particular, if "ginger" in this context is related to the plant root used in cooking, I'd like to know how ...
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What word can I use instead of “tomorrow” that is not connected with the idea of the rising sun?

I'm working on a novel while trying to take into account the historical context surrounding it. It begins in 1140 AD, so the characters would use Old English, Latin, Old French, and other similar ...
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Is there any “swearword” in English not associated with excrements, the genitals, sexual activity or religion?

SWEARWORD - A popular term for a word or phrase that is obscene, abusive, and socially offensive. For some reason, all of them seem to be associated with excrements, sex and religion. This ...
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Why is 'sheep' the same when talking about one or more than one?

I am trying to find out why sheep has the plural sheep. I have found different explanations, such as, "it is because they were seen as uncountable, as in 'a herd of sheep'", "because it comes from ...
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Why do we say that an obscene joke is “off-color”?

Why do we say that an obscene joke is "off-color"? Is a G-rated joke "on-color"? What color? When and how did this idiomatic expression come from?
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Where did “elbow grease” come from?

I was reading a French blog the other day and I came across the phrase l'huile de coude, meaning "elbow grease." Since "elbow grease" is something I've known about in English all my life (parental ...
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Why is “primer” pronounced with a short “i” sound?

This word—used to mean an elementary textbook, not a painting material—annoys me to no end. Does anyone know why, exactly, "primer" is pronounced with a short "i" sound? I don't know why, call it ...
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Why are nicknames called “nicknames”?

Where did this term originate from? According to Etymonline.com, it originates from O.E. eaca, which means to "increase". However, I can't see how the "n" got stuck in there too. Does anyone have ...
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How did 'sanction' come to have two opposite meanings?

Sanction is an unusual ambiguous word to me. In some cases it means to approve some action, while in other cases it means to prohibit or punish some action; and there being near opposite meanings, ...
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Origin of the term “driver” in computer science

According to Wikipedia: … a device driver or software driver is a computer program allowing higher-level computer programs to interact with a hardware device. What is the origin of the term ...
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What causes the euphemisation of medical terms?

George Carlin has a famous sketch where he laments the dehumanising of ailments by “euphemisation”, illustrated by the use of “shell shock” during World War I, followed by “battle fatigue”, then ...
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How did “sinister”, the Latin word for “left-handed”, get its current meaning?

Sinister is the Latin word for left-handed. What evolution of meaning turned left-handed into evil and threatening?
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Where did the expression “my two cents” come from?

I've seen "$.02", "2¢", "just my two cents", etc, similar in meaning to IMHO, except usually appended to the main text. As the Ngram shows, it is only "two cents" that is popular in this usage: ...
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When did “while” and “whilst” become interchangeable?

I think most folk happily use either "while" or "whilst". I've a vague recollection that at one time "while" indicated the passing of time and "whilst" was essentially the same as "whereas" or ...
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Raper vs. Rapist; Why the shift in suffix?

I’ve always been vaguely aware of raper as an alternative to rapist, as a vaguely wrong sounding, possibly archaic formulation. Nowadays, it’s most often heard from speakers of English as a second ...
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“Take a photo” — why “take”?

I don't understand why it's "take a photo". Why take? Is there any rule for this?
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Is the “-b” to be pronounced in the word “limb”? What about “thumb”? “Crumb”?

I'm confused about the differing pronunciations of words that end in "-b". For example, I remember being told by some of earliest teachers that the "-b" in limb was meant to be silent, and one ...
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What is the origin of “hot” as “good-looking” or “attractive”?

I'm not sure if "hot" as "warm" or "heated" existed before "hot" came to mean "good-looking" or "attractive", but if so, how did this new meaning come to be?
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Etymology for “Mc‑” and “O’‑” prefix in surnames

There is clearly a prefix in names like McDonald, McChrystal, O’Brian, O’Neal. What does this Mc- and O- prefix signify? It looks like Donald, Chrystal, Brian, Neal are perfectly fine names on their ...
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What's the literal meaning of “Real Estate”?

Today I realized that the word "Real" in "Real Estate" might be about "royalty" instead of "reality". English is a foreign language to me, so I don't really know the literal meaning and origin of the ...
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Why does “puce” mean two different colors depending on where you live?

I always thought puce was green, then saw on Wikipedia that it is purplish-brown. Further research tells me that it's generally regarded as purplish-brown in the United States, whereas Europeans think ...