BORED? Play our free word games – INTERACTIVE HANGMAN
Selected EtymologyBelow is an alphabetically-arranged list of interesting English words, complete with a description of their origins (their etymologies). A brief definition for each word is included too. Some of the etymologies included here are uncertain, and where this is the case it has been indicated.
Assassinn. Murderer, generally somewhat professional; esp. one who murders a prominent figure.
During the time of the Crusades the members of a certain secret Muslim sect engaged people to terrorise their Christian enemies by performing murders as a religious duty. These acts were carried out under the influence of hashish, and so the killers became known as hashshashin, meaning eaters or smokers of hashish. Hashshashin evolved into the word assassin.
Avocado (Avocado Pear)n. Pear-shaped fruit with dark green, leathery skin, a large stony seed, and greenish-yellow edible pulp. Also the topical American tree on which this fruit grows.
Originally the Aztecs called this fruit ahucatl after their word for testicle. This is may be partly due to the fruit's resemblance to a testicle, but also because it was supposedly believed to be an aphrodisiac. To the Spaniards ahucatl sounded like avocado (=advocate, Spanish), and so the fruit came to Europe, via Spain, under that name. Avocado pears are also sometimes called Alligator pears. The etymology of this is far more obvious; the skin of these fruits is dark green, thick, leathery, and knobbly, rather like that of an alligator.
Hazardn. Danger; vb. To risk or expose to danger.
This term evolved from the Arabic al zahr, which means the dice. In Western Europe the term came to be associated with a number of games using dice, which were learned during the Crusades whilst in the Holy Land. The term eventually took on the connotation of danger because, from very early on, games using dice were associated with the risky business of gambling and con artists using corrupted dice.
Malarian. Infectious disease characterised by chills and fever and caused by the bite of an infected anopheles mosquito.
This word comes from the mediaeval Italian mal (=bad) and aria (=air), describing the miasma from the swamps around Rome. This 'bad air' was believed to be the cause of the fever that often developed in those who spent time around the swamps. In fact the illness, now known as malaria, was due to certain protozoans present in the mosquitos that bred around these swamps, and which caused recurring feverish symptoms in those they bit.
Pedigreen. A line of ancestors; descent; lineage; genealogy; a register or record of a line of ancestors.
Believed to be derived from the French ped de gru, which meant crane's foot (the modern French equivalent is pied de la grue). The crane's foot is said to resemble the /|\ symbol on genealogical trees. It has also been suggested that it comes from par degrés, the French for by degrees. A pedigree chart records the relationship of families by degrees.
Phony (or Phoney)adj. Something that is not genuine; a fake or imitation.
British thieves and swindlers of old used many secret codewords. One such word was fawney, which referred to a gilt ring. They would sell these, saying that they were made of real gold. But the rings were not genuine gold, and the word phony – from fawney – came to be used for anything that is fake or not genuine.
Quarantinen. Any forced stoppage of travel or communication on account of malignant, contagious disease, on land or by sea.
From the French quarante (=forty). Adding the suffix –aine to French numbers gives a degree of roughness to the figure (like –ish in English), so quarantaine means about forty. Originally when a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected with a malignant, contagious disease, its cargo and crew were obliged to forego all contact with the shore for a period of around forty days. This term came to be known as period of quarantine.
More on Word HistoryOther etymological pages:
|• Etymology Books|
|• What's Etymology?|
|• Word Histories|
|• Phrase Histories|
|Link To This Site|
version of this page
Tell a friend|
about this page
| Taboo 10th Anniversary Edition...|
More Taboo Items|
All Word Games|
|The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary ...|
|Buy this book at Amazon|
View all in this category:|
General Wordplay Books
Hundreds more books at:|
Wordplay Book Store
Wild Madagascar on BBC Two|
with David Attenborough