14 Word Origins Hiding In Plain Sight


It’s fair to say that some word origins are pretty straightforward—straightforward being a fine example of that. Then there are those word origins that are so obscure, the word in question offers few clues to its history. Tragedy, for instance, might come from the Greek for “goat song” (perhaps a reference to actors in Ancient Greek tragedies dressing in animal furs, or maybe because a goat was once offered as a prize). A glass of punch takes its name from the Hindi word for five (because the original recipe for punch had just five ingredients: water, liquor, lemon juice, sugar, and spices—although the Oxford English Dictionary says that the original recipe was milk, curd, ghee, honey, and molasses). And the less said about avocados and orchids the better, frankly.

But then there are those word origins that are hiding in plain sight: words whose origins, after a just little consideration, seem obvious once you know them.


The original secretaries were officers or aides working in the courts of European monarchs, a sense of the word that still survives in the titles of positions like “secretary of state.” As close associates of the king or queen, these secretaries were often privy to a lot of private information—which made a secretary literally a keeper of secrets.


You might well know that this word was coined by the poet John Milton, who used it as the name of the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost in 1667. And you might also have figured out that the pan– here is the same as in words like pandemic and panorama, and literally means “all” or “every.” Put together, that makes pandemonium literally “a place of all demons.”


Preposterous is one of a handful of so-called oxymoronic words in the English language, whose roots combine elements that contradict one another. A pianoforte, for instance, literally produces a “soft-loud” sound. And the contradiction is even more obvious in words like bittersweet, bridegroom, and speechwriting. The preposterous meaning of preposterous derives from the fact that it brings together the prefixes pre–, meaning “before,” and post–, meaning “after”—and so literally describes something that is back to front or in the incorrect order.


That meal you have first thing in the morning? It would have originally “broken” the previous night’s “fast.”


The months of the year were originally calculated from the phases of the moon, and ultimately a month is essentially a “moon-th.” Another Moon-related word that’s staring you in the face is lunatic: originally an adjective, describing someone whose behavior was affected by the phases of the moon.


The first few letters of words like nausea and nauseated are closely related to maritime words like nautical and nautilus. That’s because nausea was once specifically used to mean “seasickness,” and in fact derives from the Greek word for a ship. Moreover …


… the astro– of astronaut is related to the root of words like asterisk and asteroid, while the –naut comes from the same seafaring root as nausea. Put them together, and an astronaut is literally a “star-sailor.” Likewise …


… a disaster is literally an ill-starred event: a catastrophe blamed on an ill-fated astrological misalignment of the stars and planets.


It stands to reason that if you can appoint someone, then you can disappoint them; in fact, the word originally meant (and literally means) “to remove someone from office.” The current sense of “to let down” or “to fail” developed in the late 15th century from the earlier use of disappoint to mean “to frustrate someone’s plans” or “to renege on an engagement.”


Yes, the “lance” in freelance is the same one carried by a medieval knight, at least in early 19th century fiction. That’s because the original freelancers were mercenary knights in stories like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe—characters who carried no allegiance to any specific cause, and could instead be paid or hired to fight.


The equinox is the date at which the Sun passes the Earth’s celestial equator, on which night and day are exactly equal; appropriately enough, the word itself literally means “equal night.”


The original blockbusters were enormous bombs developed by Britain’s Royal Air Force for use in raids on German targets during the Second World War. To the RAF, they were officially known as HC, or “high-capacity” bombs. To the pilots involved in the raids, they were known by the unassuming nickname “cookies.” But to the press, these enormous bombs (the largest of which weighed 12,000 pounds and contained 8400 pounds of explosive Amatex [PDF]) were nicknamed blockbusters—bombs powerful enough to destroy an entire block of buildings. After the War, the military use of the word fell out of use so that only a figurative meaning, describing anything, from films to political speeches, that had a similarly impressive impact, remained in use.


Mal– essentially means “bad,” as it does in words like malfunction and malpractice, while aria is the Italian word for “air.” Ultimately malaria was so called because it was once said to be caused by the stagnant air and choking fumes the emanated from areas of marshland or swamp, rather than the infected mosquitos that inhabited them.


Once you remember that jour is the French word for “day,” it’s easy to figure out that a journey is literally a day’s traveling—while a sojourn is literally a one-day stay; you write up a day’s events in your journal; and you can read accounts of the day’s events in journalism.

Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?

While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

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YouTube, Hélio Surdos
How a Deaf-Blind Person Watches the World Cup
YouTube, Hélio Surdos
YouTube, Hélio Surdos

Brazilian Sign Language interpreter Hélio Fonseca de Araújo woke up on the day before the opening of the World Cup in 2014 thinking about how he could help his friend Carlos, who is deaf and blind, get access to all the excitement. So he hit the hardware store, rigged up a tabletop model of the field, and enlisted his friend Regiane to provide extra interpretation for all the complex information that needs to come through in a game. He recently brought the setup out again for this World Cup.

Here you can see Carlos watching the Brazil vs. Croatia match live, while Hélio provides Brazilian Sign Language interpretation (which Carlos follows by feeling it with his own hands—this is called tactile signing), and Regiane relays information about fouls, cards, times, and player jersey numbers with social-haptic communication on Carlos’s back.

This is the moment in the second half when it appeared that Brazil had scored a goal, but a foul was called. Hélio later makes sure Carlos can see how Neymar covered his face with his shirt.

And here is Coutinho’s game-turning goal for Brazil.

If you're wondering why Carlos occasionally looks at the screen, many deaf blind people have some residual sight (or hearing). Many deaf-blind people become fluent in sign language as deaf people, before they begin to lose their sight.

See the entire video at Hélio’s YouTube channel here.

A version of this story ran in 2014.


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