viernes, 11 de junio de 2010

The Origin of Words and Names

The Origin of Words and Names
Where Words Come From

The English language has developed from an Anglo-Saxon base of common words: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and auxiliary verbs. Other modern words in English have developed from five sources. These are discussed below.

Words Created From Nothing

Examples of words that have just appeared in the language out of nothing are byte, dog (replacing the earlier hund), donkey, jam, kick, log, googol, quasar and yuppie. The latter two are acronyms (words made from initials).
Shakespere coined over 1600 words including countless, critical, excellent, lonely, majestic, obscene.
From Ben Johnson we got damp, from Isaac Newton centrifugal and from Thomas More: explain and exact.

Words Created In Error

The vegetable pease was thought to be a plural so that the individual item in the pod was given the name pea. The verb laze was erroneously created from the adjective lazy. The word buttonhole was a mis-hearing of button-hold.
Borrowed and Adopted Words
English has borrowed words from a variety of sources and other languages. Three examples show this.

The name of the fruit was NARANJ in Sanskrit. This language was spoken in ancient India. Indians traded with Arabs, so the word passed into Arabic as NARANJAH. The Spaniards were ruled by north African Arabs who passed the fruit and word into Spanish as NARANJA (pronounced as NARANHA).
This came into English where the fruit was a NARANJ. Words ending in J are not common in English so the spelling quickly changed to a NARANGE.
The initial N moved to the a because of mis-hearing to give an ARANGE (this is called metanalysis).
Over time, the initial A became an O to give an ORANGE.


When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they came across the Aztecs. The Aztec language is called Nahuatl. The Aztecs had a drink which they made from a bean they called CHOCO (bitter). They would put this bean into water (ATL) to produce CHOCO-ATL (bitter water).
The TL sound is common in the Aztec language but not in Spanish. The Spaniards mispronounced the drink CHOCOLATO.
This drink was brought to Europe (with sugar added) where the pronunciation and spelling in English became CHOCOLATE.


This is a mathematical term. It comes from Arabic.
Mohammad al-Khwarizmi was a mathematician who flourished in Baghdad around the year 800. He wrote a book about the solving of equations. It was called ilm al-jabr wa'l muqabalah (the science of transposition and cancellation).
The term al-jabr from this title gave the English word, ALGEBRA.


This is a term in chess. It is from the Farsi language spoken in Iran and Afghanistan. The original phrase is SHAH-K-MATE (every syllable pronounced) which means "The King is Dead".
The word SHAH means a "king" as in the last monarch (or SHAH) of Iran. MATE has the same root as the English "murder" and the Spanish "matador" (killer).
The word came via French (where the SH became a CH) and into English where the MA-TE (two syllables) became MATE (one syllable) to give CHECKMATE.
Words that imitate or suggest the source of the sound they are describing (onomatopoeia)
Many words were invented because they sound like the action, for example: a bell when struck makes a noise bing, so from there you get bingo like the sound, so when people are playing bingo games and they win they say bingo like it's like a bell has been rung; or when a cat makes a noise it's called meowing and the word sounds like the name meow.

Changes In Words

Many words used in modern English have changed their meaning over the years. This is shown in the table below.
Word Original Meaning
awful deserving of awe
brave cowardice (as in bravado)
counterfeit legitimate copy
cute bow-legged
girl young person of either sex
guess take aim
knight boy
luxury sinful self indulgence
neck parcel of land (as in neck of the woods)
notorious famous
nuisance injury, harm
quick alive (as in quicksilver)
sophisticated corrupted
tell to count (as in bank teller)
truant beggar

The word silly meant blessed or happy in the 11th century going through pious, innocent, harmless, pitiable, feeble, feeble minded before finally ending up as foolish or stupid.
Pretty began as crafty then changed via clever, skilfully made, fine to beautiful.
Buxom began with the meaning obedient and changed via compliant, lively, plump to large breasted.

The word nice meant stupid and foolish in the late 13th Century. It went through a number of changes including wanton, extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin, and shy. By the middle of the 18th Century it had gained its current meaning of pleasant and agreeable.
Words are changing meaning now: consider how the words bad and gay have changed in recent years.

Words Created By Subtraction Or Addition

Words can be created by adding suffixes: -able, -ness, -ment. They can also be created by adding prefixes: dis-, anti-.
Examples include: sellable, brightness, pavement, disestablish, antimatter.
Words can be combined to form new words (air and port gave airport; land and mark to give landmark). Sometimes the combination can go in more than one way (houseboat, boathouse; bookcase, casebook).
Many common words have been shortened from the original term as in the table below.

Modern Word Original Form

bra brassière
bus omnibus (Latin: for everyone)
exam examination
gym gymnasium
knickers knickerbockers
lab laboratory
mob mobile vulgus (Latin: fickle crowd)
petrol petroleum (Greek: rock oil)
pram parambulator

Metanalysis is the process where a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word. Examples below.

Modern Word Original Form
a nickname an ekename
a newt an ewt
an adder a nadder
an apron a napron
an orange a narange
an umpire a nonper
Where Surnames Come From

English and British surnames (family names) have four main sources: the person's occupation, the place of origin, a nickname and relations. Examples of these can be seen in the tables below.


Name Meaning
Archer bow and arrow user
Bishop bishop's man
Butcher meat worker
Carpenter wheel repairer
Fletcher arrow maker
Fuller cloth cleaner
Miller grain grinder
Shepherd herder of sheep
Smith metal worker


Name Origin

Devonshire an English county
French from France
Lincoln an English city
Kent an English county
Preston an English city
Scott from Scotland
Walsh from Wales
Name Meaning
Armstrong strong armed
Campbell crooked mouth
Goldwater urine (derogatory)
Kennedy Gaelic: ugly head
Morgan Welsh: white haired
Russell French: red haired
Whistler one who whistles
Whitehead white headed


Name Meaning
Johnson son of John
MacDonald son of Donald (Scottish)
O'Connor son of Connor (Irish)
Robinson son of Robin

Where First Names Come From

First names (given names in American English, a more accurate term) have many sources as can be seen in the tables below. Please note that the phrase first name may be ambiguous in some cultures (eg. Chinese) where the family name comes first. I do not use the term Christian name as it makes cultural assumptions.
There is a Search facility for finding names or meanings.
Arabic Names
Examples: Amber, Ali, Mohammed...
Aramaic Names
Examples: Bartholomew, Martha, Thomas...
Celtic Names
Examples: Brian, Dylan, Kermit, Tara...
French Names
Examples: Alison, Bruce, Olivia...
Germanic Names
Examples: Charles, Leonard, Richard, William...
Greek Names
Examples: Angel, Christopher, George, Selina...
Hebrew Names
Examples: Adam, David, John, Michelle...
Italian Names
Examples: Bianca, Donna, Mia...
Latin Names
Examples: Cordelia, Diana, Patrick, Victoria...
Norse Names
Examples: Brenda, Dustin, Eric...
Old English Names
Examples: Edward, Oscar, Wayne...
Persian Names
Examples: Esther, Jasmine, Roxanne...
Phoenician Names
Example: Hannibal...
Sanskrit Names
Examples: Beryl, Opal, Uma...
Slavic Names
Examples: Boris, Nadia, Vera...
Spanish Names
Examples: Dolores, Linda, Rio...
Turkish Names
Example: Ayla...
Search on First (Given) Names
A search engine that allows a search for First (Given) names.

Where Place Names Come From

The table below shows the historical influence of various languages in names of places and their derivations for the British Isles.

Source Language Meaning Modern Forms

ac Anglo-Saxon oak Ac-, Oak-, -ock
baile Gaelic farm, village Bally-, Bal-
bearu Anglo-Saxon grove, wood Barrow-, -ber
beorg Anglo-Saxon burial mound Bar-, -borough
brycg Anglo-Saxon bridge Brig-, -bridge
burh Anglo-Saxon fortified place Bur-, -bury
burna Anglo-Saxon stream, spring Bourn-, -burn(e)
by Old Norse farm, village -by
caer Welsh fortified place Car-
ceaster Latin fort, Roman town Chester-, -caster
cot Anglo-Saxon shelter, cottage -cot(e)
cwm Welsh deep valley -combe
daire Gaelic oak wood -dare, -derry
dalr Old Norse valley Dal-, -dale
denn Anglo-Saxon swine pasture -dean, -den
dun Anglo-Saxon hill, down Dun-, -down, -ton
ea Anglo-Saxon water, river Ya-, Ea-, -ey
eg Anglo-Saxon island Ey-
ey Old Norse island -ey, -ay
gleann Gaelic narrow valley Glen-
graf Anglo-Saxon grove -grave, -grove
ham Anglo-Saxon homestead, village Ham-, -ham
hyrst Anglo-Saxon wooded hill Hurst-, -hirst
-ing Anglo-Saxon place of ... -ing
leah Anglo-Saxon glade, clearing Leigh-, Lee-, -ley
loch Gaelic lake Loch-, -loch
mere Anglo-Saxon lake, pool Mer-, Mar-, -mere, -more
nes Old Norse cape -ness
pwll Welsh anchorage, pool -pool
rhos Welsh moorland Ros(s)-, -rose
stan Anglo-Saxon stone Stan-, -stone
stede Anglo-Saxon place, site -ste(a)d
stoc Anglo-Saxon meeting place Stoke-, -stock
stow Anglo-Saxon meeting place Stow-, -stow(e)
straet Latin Roman road Strat-, Stret-, -street
tun Anglo-Saxon enclosure, village Ton-, -town, -ton
thorp Old Norse farm, village Thorp-, -thorp(e)
thveit Old Norse glade, clearing -thwaite
wic Anglo-Saxon dwelling, farm -wick, -wich
© 2001, 2005 KryssTal

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