Words and Their Origins


Quintessential comes from quintessence, which in ancient and medieval philosophy meant the pure essence of which the heavenly bodies are composed. It is literally the fifth essence (from the Middle French word ‘quinte’) beyond the four essences of the physical world – fire, air, earth, and water.

Motley, which nowadays means a rag-bag or varied and ill-sorted collection of people or things, has a secondary meaning that is no longer used, which is clothes that are varied in colour. It comes from the archaic word ‘mote’ meaning a spot or speck of something such as dust.

Bumper as in ‘a bumper crop’ is an upbeat word and is derived from the very word ‘bumper’ which was the name used in the 17th century for a particular drinking vessel that was filled to the brim.

Aristocracy is from the Greek, where it means ‘the rule of the best’.

Milieu is from the combination of two French words meaning ‘middle + place’.

Brawl is from a dance of the Middle Ages called the Brand, or Branle, or Brawle, that was noted for being rowdy and boisterous.

Phew is one of those onomatopoeic words the origin of which is uncertain, but which for some reason we thought was a fairly modern word. So it was a surprise to learn there is a recorded instance of the use of the word from 1604. It is somehow pleasant and interesting to think of someone in Shakespeare’s time saying “Phew, that was a close shave.”

Haggard is a word whose meaning has drifted from its meaning of ‘wild’ or ‘unruly’ as recorded in the 1500s, through to ‘careworn’ as recorded in the 1800s, until its meaning today.

Othello calls Desdemona haggard when he accuses her of being an unfaithful wife, and he surely did not mean that she looked gaunt and starving. The word comes from the French, and is the adjective that was used to describe a wild falcon that has been captured young for training rather than one reared in captivity from birth.

Lurid is an interesting word because it has meanings that are diametrically opposite. One meaning is the one we normally associate with the word, namely to describe something shocking and sensational, as in ‘the lurid details of the murder’. But there is a second meaning, which is to describe something pale in color, even death-like in its paleness. This meaning harks back to the Latin origins of the word, luridus (pale) luror (paleness).

The attribution for this tidbit goes to Joseph Heller, in his novel Something Happened, in which the main character explains the meaning of lurid.

Planet is an interesting word derived from the ancient Greek word meaning to wander. And that is because the planets move in the skies, unlike the stars, which appear fixed in place. Except that a sidereal day (the time it takes the Earth to rotate relative to the stars) is four minutes shorter than a solar day (the time it takes the Earth to rotate around the Sun), so that the stars do appear to wander, but very slowly, with some disappearing over the horizon as the weeks progress, while others appear over the opposite horizon.

Frugal – meaning the sparing use of the things one has – derives from the Latin word frugi, meaning the proper profit or value obtained from something.

That in turn derives from fructus or fruit, as in the reward from the fruit of the earth that is to be used sparingly.

Ostracize – meaning to exclude from a group – derives from the word for potsherds (pieces of broken pottery), which was the material upon which citizens of ancient Greece wrote the names of those who they thought were a danger to the State. Anyone whose name came up repeatedly was banished or ostracized.

Coupon – a noun meaning a printed form that offers a discount – derives from the french verb couper meaning ‘to cut’. In its narrow sense, a coupon is a detachable part of a ticket or advertisement and this is obviously where the cutting or clipping aspect originates.

Tour – as in a tour of duty or a visit to a number of interesting places for pleasure and then back home – has its origin in the Latin ‘tonare’ meaning to round-off something as one might on a lathe, so there is that sense of visiting and returning to one’s starting point.

Commuter is a person who purchased a commutator ticket that was introduced by US rail and road companies in the late 1800s. A commutator ticket was what we would nowadays call a season ticket. So the word commuter is really very recent.

Slew, meaning a large number of things or animals or people originates from the Irish word sluagh meaning a large number. And it is connected to the word slogan which means the battle cry used by a large number of people.

Agenda was originally theological and is the complementary to credenda. Credenda is a matter of faith and agenda is a matter of practise.