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17 Words with Interesting Etymology: The Evolution of Meaning

There are so many bizarre words out there that we use on a daily basis without really thinking about their origins. Learning about where words and phrases come from can actually really help to boost your vocabulary and make connections you’d never otherwise make. Consider the following words with interesting etymology and learn something new today. Here are the very useful punctuation worksheets, which you can take benefit of.


What Is an Etymology?

The academic field of etymology has to do with the origin of phrases and words that we use every day. If you look up what is an etymology for a particular word, you could actually be confronted with a range of possibilities. Sometimes even professional linguists can’t quite fathom the origin of a given word and don’t know how it obtained its modern form and meaning. That’s what makes linguistics so interesting: it’s a real puzzle.

words etymology interesting fact

When it comes to some weird words etymology is of great help in making sure that you use them properly. In fact, if you’re wondering why people often mix up similarly sounding weird words etymology is to blame. It’s easy to misunderstand the original meaning of a word and apply the modern variant incorrectly.

17 Truly Unusual Word Origins

The etymology of words is frequently bizarre and usually not quite what you’d expect. Some word origins are obvious, of course, especially if you have even a smattering of Latin or Ancient Greek. However, the etymology of words can often be delightfully unusual. When you learn about the beginnings of all the various components of the English language vocabulary options will skyrocket. Here is a comma usage check guide for you. Follow the link and make use of it!


  1. If you’ve ever traveled in a jumbo jet, you know that this unusual-sounding word means that the aircraft you flew on was gigantic. It is thought that “jumbo” comes from a similar word in a West African language that meant “large”. This was the name given to an African elephant belonging to London Zoo in the Victorian era. Ever since it’s meant “huge” in English.
  2. “Quarantine” is a word that comes from the French word for 40. It used to be the case that any sailing ship thought to be carrying diseased passengers or crew had to stay away from the dock for 40 days.
  3. You’d probably never guess that the word “disaster” has a really celestial origin. The ancient Greeks were notorious stargazers and were well-known for blaming events on the relative position of the planets. As such, disaster literally means “bad star”, coming from “dis-” and “-aster”.
  4. The concept and word “pamphlet” originally comes from a Latin love poem that was distributed among the populace from one person to the next. It was called “pamphilus”.
  5. “Lunatic” originates from the ancient belief that the moon causes people to lose their sanity at a certain time during the lunar cycle. You can actually see the connection to the moon in the word “lunar” as well. It comes from the Latin “luna”, simply meaning moon.
  6. “Lukewarm” is an unusual word meaning “slightly warm”. It’s extra weird because luke actually already meant “warm” in Middle English. Why “warm warm” should mean only slightly warm rather than extra hot is anyone’s guess.
  7. British people call “soccer” by its more understandable name of “football”. There’s a good reason why the rest of the Anglophone world calls it “soccer”, though. This word stems from the full name of the sport, which is “association football”.
  8. If you’re a homeowner, you might feel a little sympathy for those people still paying off their mortgages. You should, too, because a “mortgage” comes straight from a French term meaning “death pledge”.
  9. Here are two words for the price of one. The name of the fabric “denim” comes from the place in which it was first made: Nimes, in France. It used to be called “serge de Nimes” but we soon shortened it to plain old “denim”. On that note, “jeans” come from their place of origin to Genoa, in Italy.
  10. If you’ve thought of addiction as being a slave to whatever substance or activity is in question, you’ll be of the same mind as the ancient Romans, who used the term “addict” to mean “slave”.
  11. Another linguistic gift from Ancient Rome is the period of time known as “noon”. The original phrase was nona hora which referred to the ninth hour of the day and was originally at 3 PM or so.
  12. Yet another Latin friend, or foe in this case, is the disease “malaria”. Obviously, the Romans didn’t know about bacteria and other microbes that cause ailments, so they attributed “bad air” or mal aria as the cause of this malady.
  13. “Silhouette” is an interesting loanword from French, which itself took it from the surname of a rather famous fellow countryman. The finance minister during the Seven Years War was none other than Etienne de Silhouette, and his practices led to anything cheap or looked down upon at the time, including profile portraits, to be called “à la Silhouette”.
  14. The word “clue” has an intriguing mythological aspect. It comes from the Medieval English homonym “clew”, which simply means a ball of yarn. The meaning of “clue” is obvious when you remember the trail of thread left behind by Theseus when he went to confront the Minotaur.
  15. The popular term “robot” for a complex machine comes from the Czech word for forced labor. You’ll also find similar words throughout various other Slavic languages and it always refers to either slavery or working of some kind.
  16. The favorite tipple of many a liquor drinker, “whiskey”, owes its name to two Gaelic words meaning “water of life”. Interestingly, spirit-based drinks have often been referred to as such in many languages.
  17. The word “awkward” is a strange-looking one and that’s because it comes from the Old Norse afugr, which unsurprisingly meant “turned the wrong way around”.

Entertain yourself and observe also what the English words mean in other countries! 🙂


There are lots of words with interesting etymology, and these 17 are merely some of the more well-known. Pretty much every word in the English language has a story behind it. Make sure you take advantage of this and use these tales to boost your comprehension of the language.

Try to find even more words with interesting etymology and your English skills will grow greater and greater.