Interesting Etymologies

A number of English words have come a long way to become part of the language. A brief look at the histories that accompany them reveal some interesting stories.

Avocado [Noun.]
A pear-shaped fruit with a rough leathery skin, smooth oily edible flesh, and a large stone.

The word for avocado comes from the Aztec word, ahuacatl, which means ‘testicle’. Aside from the similar shape, avocados also act as aphrodisiacs, foods that stimulate sex drive. Avocado therefore is the ‘testicle fruit’.

Jumbo [Adjective.]
Very large, unusually for it’s type.

In 1880, P.T. Barnum bought an elephant, called Jumbo, from the Royal Zoological Society in London. By age 7, this pachyderm consumed 200 pounds of hay, one barrel of potatoes, two bushels of oats, 15 loaves of bread, a slew of onions, and several pails of water every day. His caretaker at the zoo also gave him a gallon or two of whiskey every now and then. At full size, Jumbo stood at 11-and-a-half feet tall and weighed six-and-half tons. His name likely stems from two Swahili words: jambo, meaning ‘hello’, and the word jumbe, meaning ‘chief’.

Clue [Noun.]
A fact or idea that serves as a guide or aid in a task or problem.

According to Greek mythology, when Theseus entered the Labyrinth to kill the minotaur (a half-man, half-bull), he unraveled a ‘clew’ — a ball of string — behind him, so he could find his way back. The word clue didn’t even exist until the mid-1500s when people started to vary the spelling of ‘clew’.

Robot [Noun.]
A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning ‘forced labour’ — which sounds strangely like slavery.

Sycophant [Noun.]
A person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage.

Technically, sycophant means someone who denounces someone else as a fig-smuggler. Since the beginning of the sixth century, Athens outlawed transporting food, except olives, outside the city-state’s borders. People mostly broke the law by smuggling figs. Back then, Athenian law permitted blackmailing. These blackmailers, or sykophantes in Greek, wanted to earn some extra cash and threatened to tell the courts about others’ fig-smuggling habits.

Assassin [Noun.]
A person who murders an important person for political or religious reasons.

Members of a fanatical Muslim sect during the Crusades used to smoke hashish and then murder leaders on the opposing side. They started going by the name hashishiyyin, meaning hashish-users in Arabic. Through centuries of mispronunciation, English arrived at assassin.

Phony [Adjective.]
Not genuine, fraudulent.

Back in day, pirates used to sell fawney, basically British slang for fake gold rings. Anything can happen when you add a buccaneer’s accent.

Nimrod [Noun.]
An inept person.

Nimrod actually means a skilful hunter. The word comes from Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, one of the most powerful biblical kings. During the golden age of American animation, Bugs Bunny called Elmer fud a nimrod in an episode of Looney Tunes. As Cracked puts it, that’s kind of like calling your friend “Einstein” after he makes a really dumb statement. Bugs’ sarcasm just stuck.

Whiskey [Noun.]
A spirit distilled from malted grain, especially barley or rye.

Whiskey is the shortened form of whiskeybae, which comes from the Old English usquebae, derived from two Gaelic words: uisce meaning ‘water’, and bethu meaning ‘life’. Thus, whiskey literally means water of life. How accurate.

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