Questions tagged [etymology]

Questions about tracing out and describing the elements of an individual word, as well as the historical changes in form and sense which that word has experienced over its history.

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6 answers
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Did English ever have a formal version of "you"?

From the top of my head, Danish "De" (practically never used), German "Sie", Chinese "您", French "vous", Spanish "usted" are a formal way of addressing someone, especially if one isn't familiar with ...
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288 votes
41 answers
141k views

Is there a phrase that means sleeping with someone without sex?

The phrase "sleeping with someone" often means "having sex." What is the origin of this sexual connotation? Is there a non-sexual equivalent of this phrase to express sleeping with someone without ...
185 votes
6 answers
34k views

What is the origin of ZOMG?

I have looked in a number of places, with contradictory results. The Urban Dictionary provides a whopping 73 "explanations", of which I will quote just a few. (Original spelling and punctuation ...
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139 votes
3 answers
26k views

Why does "quadratic" describe second power when "quad" means "four"?

In mathematics, quadratic means "involving the second and no higher power of an unknown quantity or variable". But the prefix quad- usually describes something that has to do with four, such as quad-...
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137 votes
7 answers
47k views

Why is "Pokémon" written with an accent?

Is there a language-related reason why the word has an accent on the "é"? The Japanese for Pokémon is "ポケモン" (pokemon), so it's not to represent a long vowel.
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131 votes
1 answer
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Did English ever have a word for 'yes' for negative questions?

The Germans have doch and the French have si as a word that means "yes" in response to a negative question, such as: Don't you want some ice-cream? Yes [I do]! In English, we only have yes (as ...
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123 votes
7 answers
16k views

What’s a “handegg”?

What’s a handegg? NOTE: This question is primarily related to the etymology of a compound noun which is not in The Dictionary. There is a hat this year called “Handegg”, given out for a posting that ...
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108 votes
9 answers
11k views

Is there a word for a person with only one head?

Reading this article by the fantastic Douglas Adams I came across this interesting quote: ‘[I]nteractivity’ is one of those neologisms that Mr Humphrys likes to dangle between a pair of verbal ...
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104 votes
2 answers
14k views

Why is embassy spelled with E but ambassador with A?

It seems both words are related to each other through French roots (ambassade, ambassadeur), both of which are spelled with an "A" in the front. Why and when was the initial letter of "embassy" ...
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103 votes
2 answers
4k views

Are the dual transportation and learning meanings of both "coach" and "train" just a coincidence?

In a learning context, you have one individual who "coaches" and another who "trains". In a transportation context, "coaches" and "trains" are both methods of transport. Is this just a coincidence ...
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99 votes
5 answers
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Why is it "geometric" but "theoretical"?

I just came across a course name: Geometric and Theoretical Optics. The mismatched endings bug me. Why do we have both -ical and -ic endings? Is there any difference in meaning between, say, ...
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96 votes
9 answers
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History of "X is dead. Long live X"

What is the history of "X is dead. Long live X"? For example, Location is dead. Long live Location. JavaScript is dead. Long live JavaScript. I feel like I'm missing out on a joke.
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95 votes
3 answers
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Why is there no "autumntime" or "falltime"?

Why is "autumntime" (or "falltime") not a word? wintertime => sure springtime => fine summertime => lovely But apparently autumn/fall has no equivalent. Why?
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95 votes
3 answers
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Is "believe you me" proper English?

I understand the phrase "believe you me" to be an emphatic version of "believe me" but how did it come to be? Is it a poor translation into English?
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93 votes
16 answers
20k views

"Soccer mom": why soccer?

...why not football mom, baseball mom, or basketball mom? Soccer mom, as far as I can tell, is an American term made popular during the 1996 presidential elections, used to describe a key demographic ...
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89 votes
10 answers
34k views

Is "denigrate" a racist word? [duplicate]

A few years ago I was told not to use that word because, in addition to its negative meaning, it comes from Latin denigratus, past participle of denigrare, which means to blacken. Therefore, "to ...
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80 votes
4 answers
55k views

Why do eleven and twelve get unique words and not end in "-teen"?

In short, why is it not oneteen and twoteen, and we start at thirteen in English? In another thread, I supposed that despite that fact that people have ten fingers, amounts of items leading up to and ...
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78 votes
11 answers
15k views

Why is "distro", rather than "distri", short for "distribution" in Linux world?

Why is distro, rather than distri, short for distribution in Linux world?
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78 votes
6 answers
7k views

Why "the powers that be"?

In the phrase "the powers that be," as in the sentence: It would never have occurred to the powers that be to run and supervise the National Lottery from anywhere but London. (Oxford ...
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75 votes
4 answers
12k views

Why is it "behead" and not "dehead"?

The be- prefix in behead doesn't seem to match similar words like become, besmirch, or befuddle. Of course, the same prefix could serve different roles depending on the word. What role is be- serving ...
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74 votes
3 answers
31k views

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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73 votes
9 answers
10k views

Why do we refer to computers and other machines as being up or down?

Generally when a machine is working we refer to it as "up" and when it's not we say the machine is "down." What is the origin of this?
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72 votes
6 answers
10k views

Has 'fat chance' always been used sarcastically or was it once a factual term?

That 'fat chance' means 'a small chance' (and is always used sarcastically) is clear to me. But what I was wondering about is if the term used to be factual and then changed meaning because it started ...
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72 votes
4 answers
6k views

Did gamblers get their lingo "hijacked?"

The earliest reference to "hijack" that OED lists is from 1923. 1923 Lit. Digest 4 Aug. 51/3 ‘I would have had $50,000,’ said Jimmy, ‘if I hadn't been hijacked.’ But the etymology is listed as ...
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72 votes
2 answers
6k views

Etymology of "fairy"

All the standard dictionaries--with the notable exception of the OED--seem to trace the etymology of fairy through Old French fae to Latin fata, meaning "the fates" or "the goddess of fate". As a ...
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69 votes
5 answers
189k views

How did the letter Z come to be associated with sleeping/snoring?

In cartoons and comics it's not uncommon to see a series of Z's to indicate that a person is in deep slumber, such as in the following political cartoon. (source: Berkeley Daily Planet) How and when ...
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68 votes
4 answers
7k views

Why do Wh question words in English so consistently map to Q words in Latin?

Who, Quis What, Quid When, Quando Where, Quo How, Quomodo Why, Cur There's one exception on each side, but otherwise this pattern is pretty consistent. Is there a linguistic or etymological reason ...
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67 votes
2 answers
19k views

Why is Santa Claus a man but Santa Maria a woman? [duplicate]

When it comes to cities and boats named after saints, it seems that "Santa" is always female and "San" is always male. e.g. Male Saints: San Diego, San Francisco, San Antonio ...
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66 votes
8 answers
71k views

If cow = beef, pig = pork, and deer = venison, then where is the word for human = [flesh as food source]?

Maybe it's the season of Halloween, because it's kind of a grim question, but I have seriously wondered from a language point of view - is there a word for human as 'food-meat', or has there ever been,...
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65 votes
3 answers
12k views

Why would you "throw" a party?

Where does this "throwing" action come from when talking about hosting a party? Throwing usually has to do with hurling something, usually an object (but it could be an emotion: throwing a tantrum). ...
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63 votes
7 answers
10k views

Etymology of the use of "Drive" to refer to a digital storage medium

When did the word "drive" begin to be used to refer to a digital storage medium (e.g. disc drive, hard drive, USB drive), and why was this term selected? Cross-link to related earlier question: "...
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  • 793
63 votes
3 answers
11k views

What did "pop a cap" mean, other than "shoot someone," in the 19th century?

Popping a cap Green's Dictionary of Slang defines "pop a cap" as: to fire a weapon; to shoot someone. In recent uses, the slang meaning is clear, and often extended to "pop a cap (in somebody's ...
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62 votes
2 answers
12k views

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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61 votes
7 answers
49k views

Where does the "quint" in "quintessential" come from?

Doesn't "quint" mean "five"? What does that have to do with the meaning of "quintessential"?
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61 votes
7 answers
6k views

What happened to the “ch” in moschito?

Mosquito > Moschito > Mosquito /məˈskito/ — [mɒˈskiːtəʊ], [məˈskiːtəʊ], [mɒˈskitoʊ], [məˈskitoʊ] The name of this insect is spelled with the letters ‹qu› in several languages, including Catalan ...
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61 votes
5 answers
154k views

Origin and exact meaning of the phrase "I have to go see a man about a dog"

I hear my older coworkers use this idiom/phrase occasionally. It seems possibly to be a humorous way to get out of a conversation. Even as a native English speaker, I've never figured out the exact ...
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60 votes
4 answers
14k views

If I farm, I'm a farmer. But if I guard, I'm a guard?

One who farms is called a farmer. One who waits is called a waiter. One who dives is called a diver. One who programs is called a programmer. But one who guards is called a guard. How did it come ...
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60 votes
5 answers
13k views

Why are there so few English words that begin with the letter X?

If one reads a lot of children's books, it is obvious that X is a real thorn in the side for those authors looking to have each letter of the alphabet represented in their books. Most of them either ...
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59 votes
22 answers
13k views

Are there any "fake" French words used in English?

Are there any "fake" French words used in English? By "fake French" I mean words that are of French origin but are not actually correct French. This could happen if the word changes as it becomes ...
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  • 733
59 votes
9 answers
19k views

Was "book" to "beek" as "foot" is to "feet"?

"Foot" is a curious word in English because it is pluralized in an unusual way; the "oo" in the word is changed to "ee". Did this once use to be a standard way of pluralizing things in English (or a ...
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59 votes
3 answers
20k views

Etymology of "a pride of lions"

Etymonline does not hesitate to assume that "a pride of lions" is the same word as pride, noun of adjective proud. There would be other possibilities, e.g. a connection with Latin praeda (prey). A ...
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59 votes
7 answers
27k views

Where did the term "OK/Okay" come from?

I've heard lots of varying histories of the term "OK". Is there any evidence of the true origin of the term?
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58 votes
5 answers
39k views

Is alcohol called spirits due to linking of imagery?

I was wondering if there is any correlation between the way alcohol burns and a common view of a spirit? Alcohol burns with a wavering blue flame that looks almost ethereal. Spirits are often ...
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  • 929
58 votes
4 answers
35k views

Why is "pound" (of weight) abbreviated "lb"?

Answers to Correct usage of lbs. as in "pounds" of weight suggest that "lb" is for "libra" (Latin), but how has this apparent inconsistency between the specific unit of weight "pound" and ...
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58 votes
5 answers
58k views

"Screwed" vs. "nailed": why is the slang so different?

While the two names nail and screw have similar shapes and functions, why do the verbs differ so much? Someone has screwed something sounds like they have ruined something to me, while someone has ...
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  • 737
58 votes
6 answers
45k views

Where does the phrase "dry run" come from?

I've heard the phrase "dry run" being used with the meaning of rehearsal, experiment or test exercise in various contexts. For example: They did a dry run of the demonstration before showing it to ...
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  • 21.3k
57 votes
6 answers
291k views

"Oriented" vs. "orientated"

What are the origins of the word orientated? As far as I know, the correct spelling is oriented and orientated is not an alternative spelling but an error that is in common use. Is it for example ...
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56 votes
3 answers
16k views

White Noise: Why White?

I'm always surprised when I hear the term white noise. White noise itself sounds a little more "evil" than anything else, I would almost expect it to be called black noise. Why is white noise called ...
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  • 5,339
56 votes
1 answer
3k views

What is "musset"?

I came across the word "musset" in Gregory Maguire's Wicked-- Her green traveling gown with its inset panels of ochre musset suggested wealth, while the black shawl draping just so about ...
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56 votes
3 answers
6k views

What is the etymology of “yellow”, and why is it so different in other European languages?

It seems like most of our names for colors come from our German roots (blue/blau, green/grün, red/rot, etc.). But yellow is gelb in German, amarillo in Spanish, jaune in French, and giallo in Italian. ...
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