Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

voluntary, volunteer

The adjective voluntary has a rather straightforward etymology. It comes from the Latin voluntarius, meaning willing, of one’s own choice, via the Old French voluntaire. The Latin noun voluntas means will or desire.

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Ur-etyma Count

Linguist Victor Mair has a post over at Language Log on how many root-concepts appear in Proto-Indo-European and other language families. Mair concludes that there are only some 1,200–1,500 root concepts in each of the language families that are used to form other words.

There are a lot of problems with the data, which Mair acknowledges, primarily that the number can vary wildly depending on how one defines what a root-concept is, not to mention that any detailed work on proto-languages is highly speculative. He is conducting a “back of the envelope” estimate, and we must be careful not to put too much faith in the data. Still, it’s an interesting result.

The 1,200–1,500 figure is a plausible one. There is an upper limit to the number of roots and words that can exist in a language at any given time—our human brains are limited. And that number of roots seems about right to support the standard vocabulary counts we find in languages.

I’d like to see someone do a similar, albeit more rigorous, study using modern languages.

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Tolkien’s Beowulf

When I heard the news that J. R. R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was to be published, edited by his son Christopher, I was excited. (Counting this one, I own nine different editions of the poem.) Tolkien, most famous for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was also a noted scholar of Old English, so an edition of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem by him carries some rather high expectations. But when I learned that it was a prose translation he completed in 1926, I became somewhat more cautious in my expectations.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014, hardcover, $21.17*

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If We Won

This ad for Newcastle Brown Ale plays off the differences between American and British swearing. The analysis is, as you might expect from a beer commercial, anything but deep, but it makes you think about how Americans might talk if the British had won the war for independence. (Actually, probably not all that differently. After all, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders don’t sound British.)

This video is NSFW for mild British swearing.

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undermine, mine

To undermine something is to destroy it through some surreptitious means, to subvert it, and undermine is one of those words whose etymology is readily apparent by examining its constituent elements, under + mine, a reference to the military tactic of digging under the walls of a fortification in order to collapse them. But the word is first recorded in its figurative sense in the South English Legendary, a medieval collection of saint’s lives. The manuscript in which it appears was copied prior to 1325 and the particular version was written around 1280:

ȝif þe hosebonde wiste þe tyme [...] Whanne þe þeof wolde come, wake he wolde ffor to him ffounde And nolde him soffry nou3t his hous to vndermyne.

(If the husband knew the time [...] when the thief would come, he would wake to find him. And he would not suffer his house to be undermined.)

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mine

See undermine.

redskin, red man

Redskin, a now disparaging term for a Native American, is nearly two and a half centuries old. It is first recorded in a transcript of a speech given by Chief Maringouin, an Indian of the Illinois people, on 26 August 1769. It was interpreted by a Frenchman from the Illinois language and transcribed and translated into English by William Johnson:

I shall be pleased to have you come to speak to me yourself if you pity our women and our children; and, if any redskins do you harm, I shall be able to look out for you even at the peril of my life.

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WWI Vocabulary

Cooties, doughboys, and foxholes. Jonathan Lighter has a rather good article on CNN.com on the words spawned during the First World War, which began one hundred years ago next month.

If there is a complaint about the article it’s that Lighter only scratches the surface. There are many, many other terms that could have been mentioned, like tank, over the top, and storm troop. But there is only so much that can be included in an article such as this, and the ones that Lighter includes are a good representational sample.

(CNN gives the date of the war’s start as 4 August, which is the date Britain entered the war, but hostilities had started on 28 July 1914 between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. I wonder if, as the anniversary approaches, if there will be quibbling in the press as to the “true” date.)

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Business Jargon Tumblr

I’ve just discovered Use Sparingly, a tumblr that is a Devil’s Dictionary of business jargon.

Rather amusing.

[Tip o’ the hat to Lowering the Bar]

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