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10 Words That Started Out as Errors

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Vocabulary.com, posted by Arika Okrent

Language change is driven by mistakes. If every generation of children perfectly learned what they heard spoken around them, then languages would be exact duplicates of themselves, never changing over the centuries. Clearly, this isn't what happens. As you can see from this list from Vocabulary.com, words have very often been formed by mishearings, inversion of sounds, dropping and adding of sounds, and other all-too-human errors.

1. ALGORITHM

a precise rule (or set of rules) specifying how to solve some problem

The Medieval Latin source for this word, algorismus, is actually a very bad transliteration of the name of the Arab mathematician who helped introduce higher math to the western world. His surname was al-Khwarizmi which in turn is derived from a place name.

2. AMMUNITION

projectiles to be fired from a gun

It is common to misanalyze an article that precedes a word as if it were part of that word. Here the French phrase la munition was misanalyzed so the "a" of the article became part of the word, becoming l'ammunition.

3. VARSITY

a team representing a college or university

This originated as versity, a short form of university, until the vowel changed for unknown reasons. The cause may be mysterious, but there are numerous examples that are similar, including varmint from vermin, showing the change can go in the opposite direction as well.

4. SQUEEZE

press firmly

Sometimes changes in words are influenced by the (unconscious) sense that words that mean the same should sound similar. That's what linguists think happened with squeeze. There is a form quease, from an Old English root, but linguists figure the initial "s" came about from speakers drawing an analogy between this word and all the other similar words that begin with "squ-": squash and squat most obviously, but also perhaps squirm and squelch.

5. SASHAY

to walk with a lofty proud gait, often in an attempt to impress others

This word is actually a mistake-ridden rendering of the French chassé "gliding step" from a verb that means "to chase". The "sh" and "s" sounds got shuffled from the original.

6. TORNADO

a localized and violently destructive windstorm occurring over land characterized by a funnel-shaped cloud extending toward the ground

This word comes from Spanish for "thunderstorm," tronada. The inversion of two sounds, in this case the "r" and the "o," is a well-documented process known as metathesis, which is historically also responsible for turning bridd into bird, beorht into bright, and helping turn a luchorpan into a leprechaun, among many others.

7. BURST

come open suddenly and violently, as if from internal pressure

This is another clear instance of metathesis, because the Proto-Germanic root is brest. At some point, the "r" sound jumped ahead in the word and the spelling followed suit.

8. MACE

spice made from the dried fleshy covering of the nutmeg seed

The origin here is from French macis. The "s" was mistaken for a plural marker and dropped, something that has also happened historically to cherry (from Greek kerasos), riddle (from Old English rædels), and recently to kudos, giving kudo.

9. AUGER

hand tool for boring holes

The original name of the tool was a nauger, but it was misheard as an auger, so the word lost its initial "n." Linguists call this process "misanalysis."

10. ARCHIPELAGO

a group of many islands in a large body of water

The etymology of archipelago seems like it should be from Greek arkhi meaning "chief" and pelagos "sea," suggesting the importance of a sea with so many islands. The problem is that this form never occurs in ancient Greek, and the modern form is actually borrowed from Italian, with the intended meaning being "the Aegean Sea." If that's the case, then the archi- in archipelago is actually a corrupted version of Aigaion, which is how you say "Aegean" in Greek.

To see more words that originated as errors, and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.

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10 Common Words We Don't Pronounce Like We Used To
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Vocabulary.com, posted by Arika Okrent

As languages change, so do pronunciations. This list from our friends at Vocabulary.com contains 10 words that have gone through relatively recent shifts in pronunciation or whose spelling is a mystery unless one knows a bit about the history of how they were pronounced.

1. RATION

a fixed portion that is allotted (especially in times of scarcity)

This was at one time pronounced to rhyme with nation, but sometime after World War I, the current pronunciation, which rhymes with fashion, began to predominate.

2. TROUGH

a long narrow shallow receptacle

As you can probably guess by the spelling, trough once was pronounced with a hard "gh" sound, as in Scottish loch. In its modern pronunciation, the "gh" has been softened to an "f" sound, so it rhymes with other words this has happened to, like cough.

3. ATONE

turn away from sin or do penitence

This one is notable because the second syllable of this word, the one that sounds like own, is how the numeral "one" used to be pronounced until the 14th century, when the one we know today, rhyming with done, began to take hold. It wouldn't completely displace the other pronunciation for a few hundred years, until around the 18th century.

4. ANTIQUE

made in or typical of earlier times and valued for its age

Originally this word rhymed with frantic because it was considered parallel to antic, a word of similar origin meaning "old and grotesque." The current pronunciation, rhyming with mystique, is modeled on the French pronunciation and dates from the 18th century.

5. QUANDARY

state of uncertainty or perplexity especially as requiring a choice between equally unfavorable options

Originally the second syllable was stressed, roughly to rhyme with yon fairy. In modern pronunciation, it rhymes with laundry.

6. ALGEBRA

the mathematics of generalized arithmetical operations

The word originally had stress on the second syllable, rhyming with gal Debra before the stress shifted to the first syllable.

7. SCHEDULE

an ordered list of times at which things are planned to occur

Although originally pronounced like said you'll, in modern times there are two pronunciations. One, associated with Britain, is "SHED-yul" while the other, American, pronunciation is "SKED-yul." It is interesting to note that while Americans tend to associate anything British with being proper, it is the American pronunciation of this word that more closely imitates the original Greek root.

8. HUMOR

the quality of being funny

The word dates from the mid-14th century, but a pronunciation including the "h" is very recent, around the early 20th century.

9. BLUSH

become rosy or reddish

The vowel in blush was originally a short "oo" sound, roughly rhyming with koosh, before taking on its modern pronunciation, rhyming with plush.

10. BUSINESS

the principal activity in your life that you do to earn money

Until the 17th century, this word was pronounced with three syllables, so it rhymed with dizzyness, as opposed to the modern two-syllable pronunciation.

To learn about more words whose pronunciations have changed over time and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.

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10 Words With Roots in Lesser-Known Languages
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Vocabulary.com, posted by Arika Okrent

English has borrowed words from all over the world to make up its lexicon. Our friends at Vocabulary.com compiled this list of ten relatively common words with historical roots in languages that are less well known for supplying English words than Latin, Greek, and the traditional Germanic and Romance languages.

1. BUCCANEER

someone who robs at sea or plunders the land from the sea without having a commission from any sovereign nation

The direct ancestor of buccaneer is French for "user of a boucan"—boucan being a type of grill. But the grill itself and the word boucan both have their source in the indigenous peoples of Brazil, where the word in Tupi is rendered mukem.

2. LAGNIAPPE

a small gift (especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase)

From New Orleans Creole, the origins of lagniappe are slightly murky. One popular theory has it deriving from Spanish la ñapa (one of the few words in Spanish to begin with ñ) which means "the gift." La ñapa comes from yapa, a word from Quechua, a native language family of the Andes mountains.

3. MAVEN

someone who is dazzlingly skilled in any field

This word comes from Yiddish meyvn, which means "one who understands." It was a favorite of the late William Safire, a self-styled language maven.

4. BUNGALOW

a small house with a single story

The word entered English from Gujarati, spoken in India. The Gujarati word bangalo in turn comes from a Hindi word meaning "Bengalese, in the style of Bengal."

5. MAIZE

tall annual cereal grass bearing kernels on large ears: widely cultivated in America in many varieties

The indigenous word for "corn" entered English from Cuban Spanish maiz. Spanish got it from Arawakan, the language of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, where the form is mahiz.

6. HUBBUB

loud confused noise from many sources

The word was originally whobub, either from Gaelic ub! which was an expression of contempt, or an Old Irish battle cry, abu.

7. SLOGAN

a favorite saying of a sect or political group

This is another word from Gaelic and is also related to battle cries. Slogan comes from sluagh-ghairm, literally "army-cry."

8. COMMANDEER

take arbitrarily or by force

The South African language of Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch, gave rise to this word. It comes from kommandeeren, Afrikaans for "to command."

9. ZENITH

the point above the observer that is directly opposite the nadir on the imaginary sphere against which celestial bodies appear to be projected

This word is originally from Arabic samt ar-ras, which means "the way over the head." The "m" in samt was misread as an "ni," so it became sanit when it was borrowed into Latin, eventually resulting in zenith.

10. SCHLEP

pull along heavily, like a heavy load against a resistance

This word is from Yiddish, where a schlepper is not just a dragger but a scrounger or loser, less worthy of pity than a nebbish. The nebbish has misfortune thrust upon him, whereas the schlepper has a hand in his bad luck. The verb schlep is first attested in English in James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922.

To see more words from lesser known-languages and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at Vocabulary.com.

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