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.
In a World Where Protolanguages Could Not Be Understood…
We all know that academic titles don’t exactly sell like hotcakes, but I’m not sure this marketing strategy will actually work.
Tip o’ the Hat: languagehat
zero gravity, zero g, microgravity
Zero gravity is one of those words that appears in science fiction before science and engineering had an actual need for it. Zero gravity, also called zero g or microgravity, is the state of weightlessness experienced in outer space (and, as we shall see, at the center of the earth).Read the rest of the article...
In modern English the word yard has two primary meanings: 1) a unit of linear measurement; 2) an open area near a house or other building. These are both yards, and they both come from Old English, the language spoken in England prior to the Norman conquest, but the two senses are different words with different origins.Read the rest of the article...
weapon of mass destruction / conventional weapon
Most people became aware of the term weapon of mass destruction during the run up to the first Gulf War in 1990–91. And it again entered the public consciousness during the second war with Iraq which started twelve years later. Both times Saddam Hussein had been thought to have developed these nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, an assessment that was only correct the first time. But the term is much older than widespread public awareness of it.Read the rest of the article...
conventional weapon / weapon of mass destruction
Of the words I’ve discussed on this site, the word Viking may have one of the more perplexing etymologies. It’s not a simple case of “origin unknown;” we have pretty good of evidence about where the word comes from, only that evidence doesn’t point to where one would expect. The word’s origin seems like it should be straightforward—a borrowing from the Old Norse vikingr—but that’s not the origin. And to make matters more complex, our modern use of the word is a nineteenth-century revival of a word that had long since passed out of our vocabulary.Read the rest of the article...
“Weird Al” Yankovic has a new video that’s making the rounds. It’s Word Crimes, a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. It’s very clever (despite the “cunning linguist” chestnut; that ancient pun was only mildly amusing upon first hearing and just plain not funny subsequently; no self-respecting comedian should use it), but it’s also very wrong. Many of the “errors” that Yankovic descries are not wrong at all.
The things that Yankovic doesn’t understand about English:
- Less used to modify count nouns is perfectly acceptable
- I could care less is correct; it’s an idiom and doesn’t have to be logical (hint: acceptable usage is never determined by logic)
- Innovative abbreviations are okay; what’s important is that the message gets across
- Whom is dying; using who in its place is okay in most contexts
- Good can be an adverb too
- Literally has a figurative meaning too
In short, Weird Al is exposing himself as a peever, someone who doesn’t understand that:
- Language changes
- There is no single “correct” style that works in all cases; different contexts call for different styles and diction
- Use determines what is “correct,” not arbitrary rules or logic
There’s a place for artful, well-written English prose, but this kind of peeving has never led to better English, and when it’s wrong—as in this case—it tends to lead to stilted, poorly written prose.
Still, it’s an amusing and well-constructed parody.
Word Origins Quiz
Medievalists.net has this twenty-question quiz that asks you to guess whether words come from Old English or not. Try it out.
(I got twenty out of twenty. Any less would have been embarrassing.)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton