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The Extraordinary Origins of 11 Ordinary Words

 The English language is so ancient, rich and impressive that few other languages can compete with it. And each word, each symbol in this grand language has its own personal history.

To be frank, sometimes the origin of a word, also called etymology in linguistics, is just boring, but at other times, it’s better than reading an adventure novel. Let’s take a short journey back in time and trace the origins of 11 seemingly-ordinary words that have exceptionally-interesting histories. 

1. Quiz

  • (noun) a test of knowledge, especially a brief, informal test given to students.
The first on our list of word origins is the superficially-ordinary word “quiz”, which has a very cool beginning. According to a legend, it all started when a theater-owner in Dublin made a bet.
etymology English words quiz
He claimed that he could introduce a new word into language within just a day. He also said that the people of Dublin themselves would determine the meaning of that word.
To literally spread the word around, he wrote a nonsense word, “quiz” on a lot of small pieces of paper and made a gang of street kids write that word on walls across the city. A day later, everyone started talking about the word “quiz”.
Very soon, everyone started using it as another word for “test” because this is what everyone believed the puzzling word was. This legend was recorded in an 1875 book called Gleanings and Reminiscences by F.T. Porter, and the events of the story supposedly unfolded around 1791.
Truth be told, from earlier recordings we can determine that this word was used earlier than 1791, so the story might just be an urban legend, but it could also simply be misdated.

2. Clue

  • (noun) a fact or idea that serves as a guide or aid in a task or problem.
etymology English words clue
This next word is one of the many English words of Greek origin. In the famous Greek myth about the Minotaur, Theseus, the hero who has sworn to kill the half-human, half-bull beast, entered the labyrinth to kill it.
To find his way back out of the maze, he used a clever trick: he unraveled a "clew" (a ball of string) behind him. It wasn’t until the 1500's that the word became very popular and came to mean what it does today, so much so that people changed the spelling of the word to “clue” to reflect its new meaning.

3. Nimrod

  • (noun) an inept person.

The history of this word is a very concrete example of how media and entertainment can influence language. Until the 20th century, the word “nimrod” actually meant “a skillful hunter."

etymology English words nimrod

Nimrod is actually a Biblical character who was the great-grandson of Noah. He was a very powerful king and, surprise surprise, an excellent hunter. The meaning of the unfortunate word changed dramatically when Bugs Bunny, everyone’s beloved Looney Tunes character, sarcastically called the clumsy and downward stupid hunter Elmer Fudd a nimrod in one of the episodes.

The sarcastic remark stuck, and very soon nimrod came to mean a stupid and inept person, the absolute opposite of what it used to mean.

4. Tragedy

  • (noun) a very sad event that shocks people because it involves death.

Did you know that the word “tragedy” stems from the Greek word “tragodia” that literally means "goat-song"?

etymology English words Tragedy

It may seem very strange at first, but it makes sense if you know that all the first ancient Greek tragedies were performed by actors dressed in goatskins and furs.

Historians believe that they put on these weird fur coat costumes to portray satyrs, half-man, half-goat mythical creatures that often appeared in the ancient stories.

5. Deadline

  • (noun) a date or time by which you have to do or complete something.
Though deadlines can be very stressful and a little scary, the original meaning of this word was way scarier. A deadline used to refer to a line drawn on the floor in a military prison.
etymology English words deadline
If someone dared to cross it, they would immediately be shot. This word gained wide use during the times of the Civil War, when Henry Wirz, a major of the Confederate forces, was tried and executed for maintaining a very strict deadline rule.
He was infamously brutal, he tortured and executed prisoners for crossing the deadline during his command over Camp Sumter (Anderson, Georgia). Over time, the metaphorical meaning of a line that cannot be crossed stuck, and the word became what it means today in the 1900s.

6. Robot

  • (noun) a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.
One of the rare English words with Slavic origins, the word "robot" actually comes from a Czech word meaning physical labor, or "robota". In Czech, the word can also refer to forced labor.
etymology English words robot
But how did it get into English, you might ask? It’s an interesting story. The word was single-handedly coined by Czech science-fiction writer and painter Josef Čapek in a 1920 play about automatons that set in a robot factory.

7. Jumbo

  • (adjective) very large, unusually for its type.

One of the few adjectives on our list, “jumbo”, like the previous word, can be traced back to a single individual. In 1880, the Royal Zoological Society in London sold an elephant called Jumbo to American showman P.T. Barnum.
etymology English words jumbo

By the age of 7, Jumbo grew to be 11.5 ft (3.5 m) tall and weighed 6.5 tons, almost double the average weight. Linguists believe that his name probably stems from 2 Swahili words: "jambo," which means hi and "jumbe," meaning chief.

We think it’s a great name, since he was clearly a chief of the elephants, at least if we’re judging by size.

8. Nightmare

  • (noun) a very frightening dream.

Because English is a Germanic language (meaning that in the distant past, German, English and a few other languages were basically the same languages) it has many mutual words and stories with German.

etymology English words nightmare
In the case of the word “nightmare”, it comes from 2 words. The first one you already know, it’s night, and its meaning is the same. The other part, a “mare”, is more interesting. In Germanic folklore, a mare is an evil spirit or monster that sits on a person’s chest as they sleep, suffocating them and causing them to have bad dreams.
The despicable spirit was also believed to wreak around the house and outside: it rode horses at night to exhaust them and made noise as it twisted the branches of the trees.

9. Ketchup

  • (noun) a thick cold red sauce made from tomatoes that you put on food.

This popular condiment probably sits in your fridge right now, but do you know where it originated from?

etymology English words ketchup

This American staple food started its journey in 17th-century China. At first, the word, or a similar word, at least, kôe-chiap or kê-chiap were used to refer to a sauce made of pickled fish and spices. By the 18th century, the sauce became popular in Singapore and Malaysia, where it was first appreciated by British explorers.

But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the familiar tomato variation of the sauce was invented in America. At first, consumers didn’t want to buy it because people used to think that tomatoes were poisonous, so they rebranded it and called it “ketchup”.

And it clearly worked, as over 650 million bottles of the popular sauce are sold in stores every year and we can hardly imagine French fries without it.

10. Groggy

  • (adjective) weak and unable to move well or think clearly because you are ill or very tired.
Let’s travel to an 18th-century sailboat to learn why we say we’re groggy when we’re tired or sick. Admiral Vernon was a distinguished captain and his sailors gave him the nickname “Old Grog” because of his signature cloak made from a material called “grogram”, which is an extremely sturdy mix of silk and wool.
etymology English words groggy
Sometime in 1740, Vernon wanted to save money and said that his sailors have to drink their rum diluted with water. This mean drink was called “grog” after the dear admiral, and the terrible hangovers the sailors experienced after they drank it was described as “groggy”.

11. Blockbuster

  • (noun) an unusually successful hit with widespread popularity and huge sales (especially a movie or play or recording or novel).

The final word is not an ode to the Terminator, but to the whole genre of blockbuster movies and, characterized by the abundance of special effects and oriented at a mass audience. But did you know that the original blockbuster was an aerial bomb?

It was said to be so powerful that it could destroy an entire building block, hence the name. The weapon was developed by the British Air Force in the 1940s and it weighed 2 tons. It was used during WWII to attack Germany in 1941.

By the late 1950s, the term was first used to describe anything vast or particularly successful. In the past decade, the word slowly turned into a synonym to an action film.

etymology English words blockbuster
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