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.

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.

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conventional weapon / weapon of mass destruction

See 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.

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Word Crimes

“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.

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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.)

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The Future of the Crossword Puzzle

The Atlantic has a solid article on the subject. Unlike many articles of its ilk, this one actually sensibly discusses the differences between digital and paper puzzles. (The chief difference as it relates to the future of crosswords is demographics.) And while the lead paragraph discusses the “impending print collapse,” it’s specifically talking about the collapse of print newspapers (which is a real thing) and not the collapse of print in general (which isn’t).*

Personally, I solve the New York Times crossword on my iPad. Unlike the users cited by the article, I think the new version of the app is a godsend. The old version was buggy and never worked properly. I’ve yet to experience problems, beyond the usual adjustment to a new interface, with the new one. And even the new interface wasn’t a major issue. Unlike most user interface redesigns, this one changed only the things that were clumsy, clunky, or didn’t make sense. There was no moving controls around or changing what icons look like just for the sake of doing so. I was shocked at the $40 annual price tag though. Last time I re-upped my subscription it was $17. Given that much less expensive crossword apps are available, I’m not sure I’ll pay $40 when it comes around again, which should be in a few weeks.

* I’m not saying that the digital technologies won’t shake up the market for what content appears in print, just that paper is not going to disappear, i.e., “collapse.” After all, we still have radio some 60+ years after the advent of television. Plus the collapse of newspapers really has little to do with the internet. The problem is aging demographics and lifestyles—a trend that was solidly in place before public access to the internet became a thing—and the mountain of debt that media companies assumed through consolidation and mergers and acquisitions. Newspapers remain tremendously profitable cash cows, but all the profits now go into servicing the debt of their parent companies.

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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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