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10 Ordinary English Words That Have a Surprising Etymology

 The meaning of a word isn’t set in stone. Instead, it’s fluid and malleable, and essentially, the people who speak a certain language can change the current meaning of a word, usually unknowingly. This process of semantic change goes on every day. In fact, you surely witnessed it yourself. For example, remember when the word “nerd” used to be a derogatory term, or the word “awesome” used to actually mean “inspiring awe” and not used as an exclamation?
Well, guess what, if we fast-forward this process by hundreds or thousands of years, we can observe this change of meaning even more clearly. Even more, interestingly, we can find some words that used to mean something completely different and surprising. All 10 of these words have a pretty peculiar history and stem from ancient words that used to mean something very, very different.

1. From 'Salt' to 'Salary'

etymology English words From 'Salt' to 'Salary'
Your monthly earnings can be described by the English word 'salary', familiar to most English speakers, as it's been part of the English language for 200+ years. Surprisingly enough, though, this very word stems from an ancient Latin word 'salarium', which was the pay Roman soldiers were given to purchase salt, both a necessity and a luxury at the time. The root of the word 'salarium', in turn, is the Latin word 'sal', which means 'salt'.

2. From 'Ignorant' to 'Nice'

etymology English words From 'Ignorant' to 'Nice'
If you were to wish a nice day to an English speaker in the 13th century, they surely wouldn't like it. This is because the word 'nice' used to mean 'stupid' back then.
In fact, for centuries, 'nice' and its earlier versions have been used to describe all kinds of derogatory human characteristics, such as being frivolous, poor, silly and clumsy, but the origins of the word date back to the Roman times, where the Latin word 'nescius' used to mean 'ignorant'. In fact, it wasn't until the 15th century that this word came to mean something positive, more specifically, someone who is delicate or dainty.

3. From 'King' to 'Check'

etymology English words From 'King' to 'Check'
We routinely use the verb 'check' to say we examined or validated something, but the ancestor of this term isn't even a verb. This massive change in meaning and use can be explained by the long history of borrowing from one language to another.
The beginnings of this word date back to Middle Persian, where the word 'šāh' meant ‘king’. From Persian, it had jumped to Arabic, and eventually, to European languages, where it was first used in the game of chess to denote a situation in which the king is threatened. Only by the 19th century, the word 'checker' came to mean 'a person who checks or controls' in English, and with time, it gained widespread use and transformed into a verb.
Fun fact: 'checker fabric pattern' and 'checkerboard' also originated from this Persian term.
Even more fun word etymology here: The Extraordinary Origins of 11 Ordinary Words

4. From 'Ninth' to 'Noon'

etymology English words From 'Ninth' to 'Noon'
Another word with a Latin origin, the word 'noon', confusingly enough, used to refer to 3 PM. More specifically, the Latin term 'nona (hora)', literally translated as 'the ninth hour (from sunrise)'.
From Latin, the term was borrowed into Old English through Ecclesiastical Latin, and somewhere around the 12 century, it came to mean midday instead of 3 PM, likely due to a shift in the customary midday meal schedule. So essentially, we have our lunch break to thank for the word 'noon' as we know it.

5. From 'Star' to 'Disaster'

etymology English words From 'Star' to 'Disaster'
In the olden days, humans used to blame catastrophes on the unfavorable alignment of stars, and both astrology and the word 'disaster' are remnants of those days.
Until the 16th century, English didn't have the word 'disaster' in its vocabulary. The word was borrowed into English from Italian, where it literally meant an ill-starred event, with the Latin word for 'star', 'astra' being its base. With time, the relation to the stars was erased and the word turned into a synonym for 'catastrophe', as we use it in Modern English to this day. 

6. From 'Wander' to 'Planet'

etymology English words From 'Wander' to 'Planet'
The Greeks were one of the first people to have a scientific approach to studying the stars, and even the term 'astronomy' itself, as well as other astronomical terms, including the word 'planet' date back to Ancient Greece.
But the Greeks didn't invent a new word to name this group of space objects. Instead, the called them 'wanderers', or 'planetes' because they observed that these objects move throughout the night sky. From Greek, the word wandered (pun intended) into Latin, then to French, and finally, to English.
Do you know everything there is to know about English etymology already? Then we challenge you to take our etymology quiz: Can You Guess What These Words Used to Mean?

7. From 'Dormitory' to 'Cemetery'

etymology English words From 'Dormitory' to 'Cemetery'
Yet another term that now means the opposite of what it used to is the word 'cemetery'. When this word first originated in Ancient Greece it looked like 'koimētērion' and it was used to describe a dormitory, a place for sleeping.
Early Christian writers began using this term to denote a burial place, or a place where people take their final rest. It wasn't until the 15th century, however, that the term was adopted into English, before that the common English term used to speak about burial grounds was 'licburg' (from the word 'lich' meaning 'corpse'). 

8. From 'Confuse' to 'War'

etymology English words From 'Confuse' to 'War'
The word 'war' has an ancient Germanic origin, but the way it got into Old English was not through direct inheritance, but rather through the Old French word 'werre' (modern French 'guerre') that also meant military conflict. The ancient Germanic instances, however, meant something very different: the Germanic verb 'verwirren' meant to confuse or perplex.

9. From 'Milk' to 'Galaxy'

etymology English words From 'Milk' to 'Galaxy'
Today, we know that there are many galaxies in the universe, but until not so long ago, the only one we knew about and could observe was our own, the Milky Way.
But don't be mistaken, this lactose-related association doesn't belong to the English language, as it was the Ancient Greeks who first called our galaxy 'galaxias (kyklos)', or the milky (circle). The term stuck, and even today, we call all galaxies milky without even suspecting it.

10. From 'Little Mouse' to 'Muscle'

etymology English words From 'Mouse' to 'Muscle'
Oh, those Ancient Greeks and Romans and their peculiar associations... Apparently, they noted a resemblance between a small mouse and muscle tissues, particularly that of the biceps, and so they decided to call these tissues exactly that, a diminutive of the word 'mus' or 'mys' meaning mouse, namely the Latin word 'musculus'. The word spread throughout Europe, and ultimately, the little rodent inspired the biological term for muscle far and wide: from England all the way to Russia.
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