Seven Weird and Wacky Word Origins That’ll Blow Your Mind
From elephants to vikings, these words come from surprising places.
Have you ever looked at a word and thought “what a weird spelling” or “why is this a thing?”. Almost every word in the English language has a traceable origin, some being much wackier than others. In this article, we’ll cover our top seven weird and wonderful word origins.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — we’re all sick of the word quarantine. However, its origins are fascinating, deriving from the 14th-century catastrophe known as the Black Death.
One of the deadliest disasters in human history, the Black Death took the lives of over 25 million people — a third of the world’s population at the time. In a desperate attempt to stop the spread of disease from boats to coastal towns, ships were required to dock for forty days before passengers were allowed to come ashore.
Sailors were carefully monitored for symptoms, sealed in together, and therefore effectively doomed, should the disease be present onboard. Quarantine derives from the Italian words for forty days, quaranta giorni. One of the more macabre word origins, quarantine is not something we want to think about again.
We’ve all heard of the phrase “jumbo-sized”, but did you know this phrase comes from the name of an elephant?
Jumbo was a circus elephant who lived in 1862 and was said to be over 10 feet tall, weighing over six tonnes. He was given the nickname by one of his keepers, which means chief in Swahili.
P.T Barnum —yes, that P.T Barnum, said, “I tell you conscientiously that no idea of the immensity of the animal can be formed. It is a fact that he is simply beyond comparison. The largest elephants I ever saw are mere dwarfs by the side of Jumbo.”
Unfortunately Jumbo’s story had a tragic end, as in 1885 he was hit by a freight train while the circus was getting ready to travel. In his memory, we now use the term to describe something “very large, unusually large for its type”.
One of our favourite word origins from the 18th century, the word groggy derives from a British sailor called Admiral Vernon. Vernon was nicknamed him “Old Grog” by his men because of his coat, made from grogram, a silk and wool blend.
In 1740, his men were ordered to dilute their daily dose of rum with water, for reasons unknown (although we can probably guess why!). Later known as grog, sailors who had a bit too much to drink would go on to describe themselves as feeling groggy. We use it today when feeling tired, disorientated or sluggish.
We’ve all had nightmares. Whether plummeting from high or running from an axe-wielding murderer, bad dreams are an unfortunate side-effect of being human.
Have nightmares always been a thing?
The word nightmare originates from a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, with “mara” translating as “demon” or “evil spirit”. In Germanic folklore, nightmares were caused by a pesky demon sitting on a sleeper’s chest, either suffocating them or giving them bad dreams. The stuff of nightmares, indeed.
Going berserk conjures up images of destruction, screaming, and acting frenzied, just as the Vikings did some 1200 years earlier. Yep, that’s right. Old Norse combined the words “bjorn” meaning bear, and “sekr” translating as coat, to describe their feelings of rage and fury during battle.
Infamous for their fighting abilities, it’s now believed that Vikings took hallucinogenic drugs before battle to increase their rage, or to put on their “bear coat”.
Now this is a strange one. The word muscle, which we all know, derives from the Latin word “musculus”, or “little mouse”. Originally, people believed that muscles, particularly biceps, looked like mice wriggling under the skin. Not a pleasant thought or particularly encouraging for those wanting to buy front-row tickets to the gun show.
Modern day sarcasm is a form of comedy, but ancient societies didn’t really see it this way.
Originating from the Greek verb “sarkazein” meaning “to tear flesh like dogs,” the word eventually evolved into “to gnash the teeth” or “to speak bitterly”. Next time you’re sarcastic to a friend or loved one, remember how much the Ancient Greeks took it to heart!
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