The origins of some common words can be a little surprising.
These are some examples of words with an intriguing history.
So for the next few weeks the words themselves may be more commonplace than usual but their origins may surprise you.
algebra comes, through Italian and Spanish,
from Arabic al-jebr, resetting (of anything
broken), hence ‘combination’.
alphabet comes from Greek alphabētos,
from alpha and bēta, the first two Greek
antipodes comes from Greek antipodes,
the plural of antipous, with feet opposite
(describing the direction of people on the
other side of the globe).
arena comes from Latin arena, sand (from the
sand-covered areas in which gladiators
assassin comes, through French or Italian,
from Arabic hashshāshīn, hashish-eaters
(describing members of a military and religious
order in Persia and Syria in the
11th to 13th centuries who were believed to take
hashish before carrying out secret
attic originally referred to a low storey or
structure which was supposed to be in the
Athenian style (Attica being the area around Athens).
belfry originally and properly means a watchtower,
coming through Old French
berfroi from German berchfrit, from bergan,
to protect, and frit, a tower. The
connection with bells came later, from the sound
of the word.
berserk comes from Old Norse berserkr, frenzied
warrior, probably literally meaning
‘bear-shirt’ (from the bearskins worn by Viking warriors).
bikini comes from Bikini, an atoll of the Marshall
Islands that was the scene of atom-
bomb experiments in the late 1940s; the bikini’s
effects on men were reputed to be
candidate comes from Latin candidātus, dressed
in white (because in Ancient Rome,
candidates for election wore white togas).
canter is short for Canterbury-gallop, from the
easy pace at which the pilgrims rode to
caterpillar probably comes from Old French
chatepelose, meaning ‘hairy cat’.
In coconut, the Portuguese and Spanish coco
refers to a grimace or grinning face.
The word was applied to the nut from the three
marks at the end of it, which were
thought to resemble a grotesque face.
dandelion comes from French dent de lion,
lion-tooth (from the long, pointed shape of
A deadline was originally a line in a
military prison, on going beyond which a
prisoner was liable to be shot.
dinosaur comes from Greek deinos, terrible,
and sauros, a lizard.
dismal comes from Old French dismal, which
is from Latin diēs malī, evil or unlucky
days (two days each month that were
believed to be exceptionally unlucky).
dollar is derived from Taler or daler
(short for Joachimsthaler), a coin
first made of metal
from silver-mines in Joachimsthal
(Joachim’s dale) in Bohemi
electricity comes through Latin ēlectrum
from Greek ēlektron, amber (in which, when
rubbed, electricity was first observed).
ferret comes from old French furet,
a diminutive of Latin fūr a thief,
making a ferret a ‘little thief’.
Next week we continue our look at these words with interesting origins.
* All words in this blog post have been supplied by The 12th edition of The Chambers Dictionary. ISBN 97805501002379