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.

terror, terrorism, terrorist

Terrorism is not simply a modern phenomenon; it’s existed since time immemorial. But it wasn’t until the French Revolution that it was given its name.

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prorogation, prorogue

In September 2019, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked the queen to prorogue parliament, that is to discontinue its meetings without formal dissolution, in the run-up to the UK’s Brexit from the European community. The queen granted the request. Prorogation is a commonly used but little noticed parliamentary tool, and in the UK its traditionally used in a pro forma manner in the few days leading up to a new session or just prior to parliament’s dissolution and a new election. But Johnson used it to end debate on Brexit and prevent backbenchers from taking action on Brexit contrary to what he wanted. This particular instance of prorogation is of dubious constitutionality, and, as of this writing, is under review by the UK courts. [24 September: The UK Supreme Court ruled this prorogation of parliament unconstitutional, and parliament will return to session on 25 September as if it had never happened.] But where did the word come from?

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Anglo-Saxon

Update: Friday, 13 September 2019

The University of Illinois Press has given permission for me to post a pre-publication copy of the paper which will appear in an upcoming issue of JEGP (tentatively October 2020, 119.4).

A pdf of the paper can be downloaded from here.


[Note: I have a forthcoming article in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology (JEGP) on this topic which goes into much greater detail. I am posting this summary to correct some misinformation about the term Anglo-Saxon, its history, and its present-day usage that is currently circulating. Contrary to what others have said, the term is overwhelmingly used as a contemporary racial or ethnic label rather than as a reference to the historical, pre-Conquest period. This racial usage is also prevalent in other academic fields where Anglo-Saxon is used to mean “white.”

The information presented here is based on a study of corpora of usage, including the:

  • Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED)
  • Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH)
  • Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse (CoME)
  • Middle English Dictionary
  • Corpus of Early Modern English (CoEME)
  • Corpus of Historical American English (COHA)
  • Hansard Corpus
  • Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)
  • Strathy Corpus of Canadian English
  • Corpus of News on the Web (NOW)

My study is of English-language and medieval Latin usage only, including present-day use in countries where English is not the predominant language. I have not studied how the term is used in other present-day languages, such as Spanish, French, and German.]

What sparked my interest in the usage of Anglo-Saxon was an off-hand remark at the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) 2013 conference in Dublin. At a reception at the British embassy, the host, the chargé d’affaires at the embassy, quipped that when they had been first approached to host the group, they had to do some background research to determine whether or not ISAS was some sort of white supremacist organization. The remark, made in jest, is a succinct summation of how the name affects how those outside the field view us and what we do.

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whip

Whip is a word that is used in a variety of contexts with different senses, and I’m only going to be exploring the development of its political senses here—in both British and US political parlance, a whip is the official who maintains party discipline in the legislature and ensures the members and representatives vote the way the party wants them to. While we know the general outlines of the word’s origins, the specifics are lost to the ages.

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jones

The exact origin of this word meaning an overwhelming yen or craving is unknown. It obviously refers to the name Jones, but exactly how it arose and developed is uncertain. 

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rapture

The other day, a friend of mine who lives in Berkeley, California posted this on her Facebook feed:

Anyone not getting raptured want to go to Nerd Nite East Bay on Monday?

After someone asked what she was talking about, she went on to explain in a comment:

raptured = the burning man rapture, or what happens to the Bay Area when everyone goes to burning man. Nerd Nite east bay is a monthly night of entertaining science-based presentations. You know, for nerds.

Burning Man, for those unaware, is a week-long festival held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada at the end of August. Around 70,000 people attend each year. The capstone event of the festival is the burning of a giant, wooden effigy of a man, hence the name. I was very familiar with Burning Man—I’ve never attended myself, but having lived in the Bay Area, I know many people who go each year—but before her post I’d never heard rapture used to describe the emptying out of the Bay Area each year.

Most people are at familiar with the word from the apocalyptic Christian doctrine of the rapture, but that’s a relatively recent development in theology. The word is much older.

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computer

Computer has a rather straightforward etymology, although its usage may be a bit surprising. The word was originally applied to people, not machines.

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The Guardian on Language Decline

David Shariatmadari has a nice piece on the myth of the decline of the English language in The Guardian.

He writes:

There is no such thing as linguistic decline, so far as the expressive capacity of the spoken or written word is concerned. We need not fear a breakdown in communication. Our language will always be as flexible and sophisticated as it has been up to now. Those who warn about the deterioration of English haven’t learned about the history of the language, and don’t understand the nature of their own complaints – which are simply statements of preference for the way of doing things they have become used to.

There’s nothing new here for those that have studied the myth, but it’s a concise debunking and useful for reference.

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Voynich MS

Lisa Fagin Davis, an actual expert on the manuscript, has an excellent article in the Washington Post on the Voynich manuscript and how people keep proposing crackpot ideas about it. She gives no solutions or answers to the as-yet-undeciphered work, but she provides some excellent commentary on the misuses of medieval history.

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