11 Words With Politically Incorrect Etymologies


At various moments in its life, a word will hop languages, change meanings, travel through sinister moments and land in pleasant ones. But no matter how many times it’s superimposed, and how far it gets from its original source, a word doesn’t let go of its memories easily. Here are 11 modern English words with socially insensitive origins.

1. Hysteria (n.) – a wild, irrational eruption of fear or emotion

Hysteria begins in the womb, or so thought the medical scholars of the 1610s, who named the condition after the Latin hystericus, meaning “of the womb.” Those who’ve studied the Victorian era, or read The Awakening in high school, may know that the go-to prognosis of the time for just about every female’s symptom from the occasional hissy fit to chronic seizures was a pesky wayfaring uterus. The condition was thought to be caused by sexual frustration and cured by intercourse or pelvic massage, the latter often performed by physicians and midwives. When doctors finally got fed up with the tedious task in the late 19th century, the personal vibrator was created to take their place

2. Barbarian (n.) – a savage, uncivilized person

The word barbarian was born from xenophobia in ancient Greece. Borrowing the Proto-Indo-European root barbar-, imitative of incomprehensible foreign babble, the Greeks used the word barbaroi to refer to all non-citizens of their superior state, particularly Medes and Persians. Ironically, other non-Greek cultures, including the Romans, adopted the word to refer to non-citizens of their superior states.

3. Paddy wagon (n.) – a large police vehicle used to transport prisoners to jail

A shortening of the popular Irish name Patrick, Paddy became a common slang term for “an Irishman” beginning in 1780. The slur must have stuck around for some time because in the 1930s, the police van in vogue was christened the Paddy wagon, given the number of Irish officers in the force.

4. Bigotry (n.) – intolerance of foreign beliefs and people

While a lot of contention surrounds the etymology of this word, no matter which way you spin it, all of the most popular theories come down to some serious violations of PC standards. The first version of name-calling was doled out by twelfth-century Frenchmen, who used the derogatory term bigot to describe Normans who wouldn’t get off their high-horses to kiss the king’s feet because of a religious oath they took, which sounded something like “bi God.” In French, bigot still means “religious zealot.”

A second theory speculates that bigot comes from the Spanish hombre de bigotes, “a man with a mustache,” referring to mustachioed Spanish men intolerant of their Jewish neighbors who refused to shave their facial hair for religious reasons.

5. Run amok (v.) – behave riotously; run around wildly

The term’s origins first appeared in Malay as the adjective amoq, defined by Marsden’s Malay Dictionary as “rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.” Its first appearance in other languages, however, makes clear that such acts were viewed as a uniquely and characteristically Malaysian habit. In 1772, the British ship captain James Cook used the words to describe frenzied Malaysians who would get high on opium, run into the streets, and kill anyone they confronted—an observation that had been previously recorded in Portuguese as early as 1516.

6. Gyp (v.) – swindle, cheat

The slur was shortened from Gypsy in 1889, referring to the tribe’s infamy as a swindling culture.

7. Bugger (n.) – affectionately or contemptuously, an annoying boy

Bugger’s etymology is an affront to both homosexuals and Bulgarians; its origins are in the Medieval Latin Bulgaris, meaning heretic. Literally, though, Bulgaris means “Bulgarian,” a people associated with heresy because they were said to practice sodomy.

8. Hooligan (n.) – aggressive, lawless youngster; ruffian

Not too many people can boast a common word as their legacy, but the lively Irish Houligan family of London can. The Houligans were rumored to have fought the police on numerous noise complaints. The word Hooligan began appearing in newspaper police reports in the 1890s in reference to noisy Irishmen.

9. Assassin (n.) – a murderer motivated by money or political zeal

The word assassin first appeared in the 1530s and comes from the Arabic hashishiyyin, “hashish users.” It was used to refer to Muslims who would eat hash and subsequently go on murderous raids, slaying their opposition.

10. Cannibal (n.) – one who eats human flesh

Basically, a cannibal in its original sense is someone who hails from the Caribbean. In the mid 16th century, Christopher Columbus referred to the islanders as Caniba, from their similar, self-given name. The Caribs then lent their name to cannibalism because it was thought that the locals doubled as each others’ dinner plates.

11. Vandal (n.) – one who destroys another’s property

The Vandals, a Germanic tribe, sacked Rome in 455. More than a thousand years later, their reputation still hadn’t improved, when in the 1660s their tribal name was embedded with a secondary meaning: “willful destroyer of what is beautiful or venerable.”

ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan
The Origins of 9 Great British Insults
ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan
ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan

For as long as people have been speaking the English language, they’ve been deploying it to poke fun at one another. Let's dig a little deeper into the grab bag of insults that language has bequeathed us throughout history, and find out where those terms come from.

1. Wazzock

Wazzock was a particularly prevalent—and particularly loutish—insult in the 1990s. At the time, "lad culture" ran throughout British music and television, and wazzock, a North-England accented contraction of the sarcastic wiseacre (a know-it-all) became a powerful tool to shoot people down in an argument.

2. Lummox

Though the etymology of lummox is heavily disputed, one thing is for certain: It came from East Anglia, the coastal outcrop of Britain above London. There, around 1825, someone threw out the word as an insult, and it stuck, becoming a typically British go-to term. Some linguists believe it comes from the word lummock, which typified a lummox: it means a clumsy oaf.

3. Skiver

Skivers and shirkers are one and the same. Someone who manages to duck under any responsibility and loaf around, doing very little, is a skiver. The origins of this particular insult are contested: some think it’s from an Old Norse wordskifa—meaning “slice,” whereby the worker slices off as much work as possible.

4. Minger

Often hurled at the opposite sex, to call someone a minger is to say they are objectively unattractive. Though etymologists struggle to agree where the word came from, it seems likely that it stems from the Old Scots word meng, meaning “sh**.” We didn’t say it was pretty.

5. Nincompoop

For such a colloquial word, nincompoop actually has a very learned past. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of England’s first proper dictionary, claims the word comes from the Latin phrase non compos mentis (“not of right mind”), and was originally a legal term.

6. Pillock

As words are used more regularly, the laziness of pronunciation can often warp them slightly. So it was with pillock. Originally pillicock (a Norwegian slang word for penis), the word has since been condensed to plain old pillock—though its meaning remains.

7. Clod hopper

According to the brilliant Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, dating back to 1811 and compiled by Captain Francis Grose, a clod hopper refers to a country farmer or ploughman—with the implication nowadays that you’re slow witted and bumbling.

8. Dunaker

Grose’s Dictionary of vulgarities is a rich seam of overlooked insults. In the 200 years since it was published, there have been several terms that have fallen out of favor. One of them is dunaker, a common thief of cows and calves.

9. Git

By calling someone a git, you’re invoking the old Scots word get, which means "bastard." When it came down south of the border, it lost its harsh vowel sound and became something softer, albeit with the required spikiness in.

14 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, 'Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression' or does it mean, 'Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default'? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’
3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)
4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.
5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.
6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).
7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning ‘to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,’ “trim” came to mean ‘to prepare, make ready.’ Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: ‘to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance’ or ‘to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of.’ And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?
8. Cleave can be cleaved into two “homographs,” words with different origins that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,” meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the contrary meaning ‘to split or sever (something), ‘ as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: “cloven,” which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”
9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced differently.
10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in "running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in "holding fast." If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.
11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm went off."
12. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come safely through,’ as in “The company weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”
13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).
14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including “auto-antonym,” “antagonym,” “enantiodrome,” “self-antonym,” “antilogy” and “Janus word” (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

Update: Here are 11 more words that are their own opposites.


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