Did you know there are approximately 1.5 billion people who speak English? Furthermore, it is the official language of about 67 countries. This is not a mean feat considering that there are over 7,100 languages worldwide. Major organizations, sports, and the internet massively rely on the language.

While there is no doubt about the English language’s influence, have you ever wondered where the words that form it come from? The language is primarily Germanic but has since borrowed from others such as Latin, French, and ancient Greek. Here, we discuss some surprising etymologies of words.

1. Handicap

We start with the word “handicap,” which originated from a 17th-century English game called “hand-in-cap.” Usually, the game featured a couple of players and an arbitrator (an equivalent of a referee in the modern world).

The players would come with their trade items, and the arbitrator would value them. If the products were balanced, the exchange would happen, and everyone would go home happy. If one was less valuable, the owner would compensate for the difference (calculated by the umpire) with money.

Money collected was then put in a hat, and the players decided whether or not the arbitrator was fair with their valuation. To do this, the involved parties would put their hands in the hat, and results would be decided based on how they pulled them out. It was more like rock, paper, scissors.

For instance, if players agreed, they removed their hands from the hat with their palms open. On the other hand, if they disagreed, they would take out their hands with their fists clenched. The game would continue until they achieved what they thought was a fair valuation for everyone.

As time passed, the game’s name evolved to “handicap.” Today, anyone familiar with sports betting probably knows what the term means. It serves as an equalizer to seemingly unfair contests.

2. Avocado

Avocado graces tables globally today. It is rich in nutrients, perfect for hair treatment, and suitable for making cooking oil. Surprisingly, the widely adored fruit’s name has a weird origin. It comes from the Spanish word “aguacate,” which evolved from the Nahuatl “ahuacatl,” translating to a testicle.

At first, it sounds worse. But when you think about the shape of most avocado species, it starts to make sense why anyone would compare it to testicles. If you wander further with your thoughts and imagine how avocados dangle on their trees… you get the point.

3. Tattoo

Tattoo originates from the Polynesian word “tatau.” It means having a mark on the skin and was developed from the Samoan word “tattow.” Captain James Cook first used the term in English in 1786 to refer to the marks he saw on Polynesian people during his voyage.

Through his journal “Endeavour,” Cook described the colors on the skin of Polynesians vividly. Even though the Brits tattooed themselves long before the word became popular, it wasn’t before Cook’s revelation that it became popular. UK natives used to describe tattoos as simply “paintings.”

4. Salary

The word “salary” evokes mixed reactions for most adults worldwide. Some are happy that they are receiving pay for their work, while others are furious that they had to work in the first place. Regardless of the side you are on, do you know where the term originated from?

Salary originates from the  Greek word “alas,” which translates to “sea and salt.” Here is a thing, before sugar leap-frogged salt in the pecking order, the iodine-filled product was highly valued. In fact, salt was so important that people called it “white gold.”

Salt was a valued measure of payment – more like today’s crypto. Okay, that’s perhaps too stretched, but you get the point. Ancient laborers were paid with salt at the end of each month. The compensation became the famous and evolved to the modern-day “salary.”

5. Ox-moron

Phrases like an original copy, falsely true, and seriously funny are oxymoron examples. Some people joke that “happily married” is also an excellent example. Ironically, even the origin of the word oxymoron is in itself one.

Oxymoron originates from two Greek words, “oxy” and “moron,” which translate to “sharp” and “baby,” respectively. So in Greece, the word oxymoron translates to “sharp baby.” However, it’s common knowledge that babies are not that smart, making the whole phrase contradictory.

6. Quarantine               

Before 2020, quarantine was a term only popular with medics. Then Corona Virus hit the world, and the authorities put in measures to curb the pandemic. One of the famous steps adopted required people to stay indoors or in segregated areas. That’s how almost everyone above 12 years knows about quarantine.

Of course, the word existed before 2020, but where did it originate from? Unfortunately, it comes from another devastating pandemic known as Black Death. In the 14th century, the pandemic hit Europe, doing away with about 30% of the population.

As a result, ships in nearby islands didn’t sail for about 40 days. This was to prevent further spread of the disease and an overall safety measure. Italians used the phrase “quaranta giorni,” meaning forty days, to describe the situation.

Interestingly, a document from 1377 claims the isolation days were 30 “trentine.” However, a further 10 days were added to ensure everyone was safe. Today, the word “quarantine,” possibly a merge of “Quaranta” and “trentine,” refers to limited movements, especially during a pandemic.

7. Vaccine

During the 2020 pandemic (Corona Virus), the word quarantine was used hand in hand with “vaccine.” People could subconsciously pair the two, given how often they were mentioned. However, as opposed to “quarantine,” which has an Italian origin, “vaccine” is indirectly Italian.

The Latin word for a cow is “Vacca,” while cowpox is “variolae vaccinae.” The story is that Edward Jenner, a British doctor, noticed that people who contracted cowpox had a smaller chance of suffering from smallpox.

He then experimented by making an incision on a little boy’s arm and fed it with pus from a woman’s cowpox lesion. Fortunately, it worked. The boy was free from smallpox, and that’s how the word “vaccine” started.

If you look at it keenly, you will realize there is heavy interlinking between the English word “vaccine” and “cow” in different languages. For example, vaccino and vacca in Italian or “vacuna” and “vaca” in Spanish.

8. Shambles

Whether in real life or in movies, it’s common to hear the word “shambles” thrown around. For instance, “the team is in shambles.” It turns out the origin of the word is equally shambolic. The term comes from the Latin word “scamillus.”

In ancient times, “scamillus” had two meanings. One was a small chair (stool), and the other was “a real mess.” Over time, the word evolved to mean only furniture. Then it moved to specifically a stool on which something was sold.

As more time passed, “scamillus” meant a slaughterhouse, where the word “shambles” originated. With constant puns about how things were “a bloody mess,” just like the slaughterhouse, people associated “scamillus” with “shambles” more.

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General Knowledge,

Last Update: August 8, 2023