Etymology is always an interesting subject. We often don’t give a second thought to the words we use in everyday life, but many of them have fascinating origins and have survived as part of our language for centuries. There are countless examples of words which have unexpected origins and represented very different things in societies and cultures of centuries past. Our language has changed considerably over the years and the original meanings of some of these words are far removed from our modern day usage.
We owe many of our favourite insults and quips to popular culture, and sometimes it doesn’t take long for a word – whether it’s a new one or a reappropriation of an existing word – to enter our modern lexicon. Quite surprisingly, one of the more interesting examples of this comes from Bugs Bunny. In a 1932 cartoon featuring the character, Bugs derogatorily calls his hunter archnemesis Elmer Fudd a ‘nimrod’. This is actually a biblical reference as nimrod was a great hunter and described as a “mighty one on earth”, so old Bugs is having a sarcastic dig at the incompetent hunting skills of Fudd. However, the reference flew over the heads of most people and, over time, it became a popular insult meaning idiot or nincompoop. It’s also thanks to Bugs Bunny and his penchant for carrots that most people think that rabbits love root vegetables, when they actually prefer greens.
Decimate is typically used as an off-hand way to describe the great removal or loss of something, e.g. the death of troops on a battlefield or the great loss of buildings during a natural disaster. However, the word has a much more precise meaning. Decimate is Latin for “removal of a tenth” and refers to a method of punishment used by the Roman army. Typically used to punish large groups of offenders for capital crimes such as mutiny or desertion, units were divided into ten and each soldier drew straws (or participated in some other similar ‘lottery-like’ system). The unlucky person who lost in this selection process was executed by the other nine men, typically by stoning or clubbing. The other men were still punished by the experience (and they usually had to suffer with reduced rations afterwards), but the large guilty group was only diminished by a tenth and the army didn’t have to lose a considerable portion of its ranks as a result.
Although it’s usually used as a way to describe an unwinnable situation or to claim a strategic victory, the vast majority of us know that checkmate originally comes from chess. Declared by the winner, checkmate describes the final move when the King has been captured and cannot move. Checking and checkmate is thought to have been introduced to the game by Persians sometime during the 8th century, and the term is derived from the Persian phrase ‘shah mat’ which means ‘the King is helpless’ or ‘the King is defeated’.
Usually used to describe an evil person or a heinous act, the word sinister actually has some seemingly innocent origins. Well, more innocent to our modern outlook, anyway. Sinister is derived from the Latin word ‘sinastra’, which means left-hand or left-side. Left-handed people used to be discriminated against for being untrustworthy, awkward, clumsy or even malicious, which led to the negative connotations of our modern word ‘sinister’. These prejudices were held against ‘lefties’ in many different cultures and societies throughout history, and this bias still technically exists as most tools and utensils are designed with right-handed people in mind (until fairly recently in Mainland China and Taiwan, left-handed children were encouraged to force themselves to learn how to write with their right hand because their language relies on stroke order – which is very difficult to write with a left hand). Interestingly, a person who is skillful with their hands is said to be dextrous, which is derived from the Latin word ‘dexter’ meaning right and proper. Ambi means both, so an ambidextrous person is someone who can write with both hands – both right. Meanwhile, someone who is clumsy is said to be ambisinistrous – both left.
The advent of Gutenberg’s printing press forever changed the way we communicated with each other and disseminated information. As this new technology was being refined, Italian typesetters realised that they were able to use less space by slanting the words. The text was still readable, but they could print much more on a single page. These slanted type pieces became known as Italics simply because they came from Italy. Similarly, because these metal type pieces were cast and created in foundries, the creations came to be known as fonts.
The origin of the word ‘dord’ is truly interesting because it is a word which doesn’t exist. Dord was first printed in Webster’s New International Dictionary in 1934 with the definition ‘Physics & Chem. Density” and it remained in further editions for five years until an editor noticed its presence. ‘Dord’ had somehow managed to make it past countless fastidious dictionary writers and checkers, but there was a good reason for its inclusion. This edition of Webster’s compiled abbreviations in a separate section at the back of the dictionary and ‘dord’ should have been there as an abbreviation for density (‘D or d, cont/ density”). Somehow, the entry managed to find its way into the ‘words’ section when the dictionary was being compiled. It was finally removed years later and cannot be found in printings from 1947 onwards. Ironically, dord is now listed in some encyclopedias and dictionaries with its definition being a non-word or a ‘ghost word’.
The word salary is derived from the Latin word ‘salarium’. The prefix ‘sal’ means salt and the suffix ‘arium’ means a receptacle, so salarium is thought to have originated because soldiers were once paid in salt (or they at least received some sort of separate payment for the purchase of it). Salt was a hugely valuable commodity as it was essential for preserving food, but it was also expensive because it was costly to mine. So as part of their scheduled wages they received this salt allowance. This is also thought to have been the origin of the popular idiom “he’s worth his weight in salt”.
The word maverick conjures up images of bold, independently-minded folk who refuse to play by anyone’s rules but their own. However, the origin of the word is considerably more boring. Samuel Maverick (1803 – 1870) was an interesting figure in the Texas Revolution which led to the state being annexed into the United States. This dispute between Mexico and its Texan colonists led to Maverick, a politician and landowner, being one of the signees on the Texas Declaration of Independence (he was also at the Siege of the Alamo, but he left to rally reinforcements before its bloody conclusion). However, Maverick’s name has not come to be widely used because of the man’s political tenacity. Maverick was known for refusing to brand his cattle, stating that he didn’t want to cause pain to the animals. Although other ranchers suspected at the time that this was so Maverick could claim any wandering strays as his own, historical evidence does suggest that the man simply had no interest in herding cattle and that he was more interested in real estate. Thus, any wandering stray calves were said to be mavericks and the term became one of the most enduring words to come out of the American Wild West.
Samuel Maverick isn’t the only member of the family who has left a lasting impression on our language. In 1944 his grandson Maury Maverick, a congressman from Texas who chaired the US Congress Smaller War Plants Committee, complained in a memo about about fellow committee members using pompous gibberish-sounding words which tripped people up. Maverick called it ‘”gobbledygook language” and likened it to the “gobbledy gobbling” of a turkey call. The word quickly caught on and even President Nixon himself was heard using it in his Oval Office tape recordings less than 30 years later.
The word berserk is often reserved for people who have completely lost control of themselves and flown off into a rage. This is quite apt as the word was originally used by Norsemen to describe “raging warrior[s] of superhuman strength”. The term is derived from Old Norse ber – meaning bear – and serk – meaning shirt. These warriors typically clothed themselves in bear skins as the animal was said to represent Odin, an important, warrior-like God in Norse mythology. These berserker soldiers worked themselves into manic, frenzied states because they believed that they could acquire levels of strength which were outside the limits of their own bodies, and these ‘Odin’s warriors’ (or ‘Odin’s son’s’) were rumoured to be able to fight with the strength and frenzy of a wild bear.