15 Words With Origins So Obvious You Never Noticed Them


The red car is fast, the blue one is faster, and green is the fastest. As you may recall from grammar class, these three words make up the positive, comparative, and superlative forms of the word fast. But there is a handful of words in English so common that we’ve forgotten they were formed using these -er and -est suffixes. Like upper, which literally means “more up” (up plus -er). But this word has become so familiar that we no longer think of it as the comparative of up. Here are 15 other such words whose origins are hiding right under your nose.


Etymologically speaking, latter just means “more late.” It comes from the Old English lætra (slower), the comparative form of læt, (slow) and source of late. Lætra also carried the sense of our modern later, but the latter word didn’t actually emerge until the 1500s.


And if you’re “most late”? You’re last. Last is the superlative form of læt. Way back, last was latost, and was worn down over the years to last.


Last isn’t always least, as they say, but both words are superlatives. Leastlǽsest in Old English and meaning smallest—is the superlative of lǽs, itself a comparative meaning smaller.


The Old English lǽs gives us less. But if we’re sticklers, lesser is technically a double comparative: “more smaller.” Legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson couldn’t care less about lesser, calling it “a barbarous corruption of less, formed by the vulgar from the habit of terminating comparatives in -er."


Inner may just make you facepalm: It’s “more in.” The Old English comparative of in (or inne) was innera; the superlative was innemost, now inmost. With use and time, inner became its own positive form, now taking inmost and innermost as its comparative and superlative forms, respectively.

Now, most comparative forms are followed by than, as in "the green car is faster than the blue one." Curiously, inner stopped doing this in Middle English. For instance, we don’t say "the kitchen is inner than the foyer."


The end is nigh: we usually explain that crusty-sounding nigh as near. But near already means “more nigh”: In Old English, near was the comparative of nēah, now nigh. Over the centuries, near went off on its own and is now no longer felt as a comparative, just like inner. And so near is the modern nigh after all.


As for the superlative of nēah? That would be nēahst, “most nigh,” which we now call next. But why the x? In Old English, the h in nēahst would have sounded something like the ch in Scottish loch. Follow that guttural consonant with an s and you eventually get the x sound.


Historically, utter is just outer, or “more out.” Old English had the word út, meaning "out." Its comparative was úterra. By the early 1400s, utter had shifted to its modern meaning of absolute. Also emerging by this time was the verb utter, literally “to put out (goods, money, statements),” in part influenced by the adjective utter.


When utter moved on and lost its association with út/out, it left a gap in the language. Outer, meaning “more out” and formed by analogy with inner, naturally filled it. But like inner, outer has become its own positive form, taking outmost and outermost as its comparative and superlative. The original superlative of út/out would have been utmost, which moved on to mean extreme.


At this point you may be wondering, is further …“more furth”? Yes, it’s just that we’d recognize furth as forth today. This makes further “more forth” or “more fore.” And all that business about reserving farther for physical distances and further for abstract ones? Cockamamie. Farther began as a variant of further—and both of them ousted the normal comparative of far, which was simply farrer. Oh, could English go any farther, er, further to make things complicated?


If further corresponds to “more fore,” then what about “most fore”? That would be first, the “fore-est,” if we gloss over some vowel changes that happened in English long, long ago. It’s a sensible construction: That which comes before everything else is indeed first. Today, "fore-est" answers to foremost.


Everything else is after what comes first. Is after “more aft,” then? Not quite. It’s more like “more off” in the sense of “farther behind” or “more away.” The af- in after corresponds to off (as well as of), the -ter to an ancient comparative suffix. But we’d have to travel back thousands of years before we’d find any speaker would register after as a comparative.


It’s rare now, but English once had the adjective rathe, meaning quick or eager. (We might think of being rathe as the opposite of being loath.) So, if you are “more rathe”? You’re rather. If you’d rather watch paint dry than finish this article, you’d “more readily” do so. Or, rather, you’re the type who finds this arcane trivia edifying. This adverbial rather has the sense of “more properly”; you more truly do something if you carry it out willingly. And if you have your druthers, or preference, you have playfully contracted I would rather.


Literally speaking, your elder is just someone older than you—but you better not say that your grandparents. Elder and older are both comparatives of the Old English (e)aldOlder did not show respect for its elder, supplanting it as the common comparative around the 1500s. The Old English ald, meanwhile, hangs on in the auld of “Auld Lang Syne” (for Old Times’ Sake) and alderman.


Finally, erstwhile is a snazzy word for former, often seen in the expression erstwhile enemies. But what is the erst in erstwhile, anyway? Old English had ǽr (soon, before), which you’ll recognize as ere from your Shakespeare. Its superlative was ǽrest, or “most ere,” hence erst.

8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words

Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.


Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.


Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”


The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.


Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.


Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.


Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

Big Questions
What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?

One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.


While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

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