The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 16 Feb 2024

Etymology roundup 2024-02

The Recurse Center Zulip chat now has an Etymology channel, courtesy of Jesse Chen, so I have been posting whenever I run into something interesting. This is a summary of some of my recent discoveries. Everything in this article is, to the best of my knowledge, accurate. That is, there are no intentional falsehoods.

Baba ghanouj

I tracked down the meaning of (Arabic) baba ghanouj. It was not what I would have guessed.

Well, sort of. Baba is “father” just like in every language. I had thought of this and dismissed it as unlikely. (What is the connection with eggplants?) But that is what it is.

And ghanouj is …

So it's the father of coquetry.

Very mysterious.


Toph asked me if “nog” appeared in any word other than “eggnog”. Is there lemonnog or baconnog? I had looked this up before but couldn't remember what it was except that it was some obsolete word for some sort of drink.

“Nog” is an old Norfolk (England) term for a kind of strong beer which was an ingredient in the original recipe, sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century.

I think modern recipes don't usually include beer.


“Wow!” appears to be an 18th-century borrowing from an indigenous American language, because most of its early appearances are quotes from indigenous Americans. It is attested in standard English from 1766, spelled “waugh!”, and in Scots English from 1788, spelled “vow!”


Katara asked me for examples of words in English like “bear” where there are two completely unrelated meanings. (The word bear like to bear fruit, bear children, or bear a burden is not in any way related to the big brown animal with claws.)

There are a zillion examples of this. They're easy to find in a paper dictionary: you just go down the margin looking for a superscript. When you see “bear¹” and “bear²”, you know you've found an example.

The example I always think of first is “venery” because long, long ago Jed Hartman pointed it out to me: venery can mean stuff pertaining to hunting (it is akin to “venison”) and it can also mean stuff pertaining to sex (akin to “venereal”) and the fact that these two words are spelled the same is a complete coincidence.

Jed said “I bet this is a really rare phenomenon” so I harassed him for the next several years by emailing him examples whenever I happened to think of it.

Anyway, I found an excellent example for Katara that is less obscure than “venery”: “riddle” (like a puzzling question) has nothing to do with when things are riddled with errors. It's a complete coincidence.

The “bear” / “bear” example is a nice simple one, everyone understands it right away. When I was studying Korean I asked my tutor an etymology question, something like whether the “eun” in eunhaeng 은행, “bank”, was the same word as “eun” 은 which means “silver”. He didn't understand the question at first: what did I mean, “is it the same word”?

I gave the bear / bear example, and said that to bear fruit and to bear children are the same word, but the animal with claws is a different word, and just a coincidence that it is spelled the same way. Then he understood what I meant.

(Korean eunhaeng 은행 is a Chinese loanword, from 銀行. 銀 is indeed the word for silver, and 行 is a business-happening-place.)

Right and left

The right arm is the "right" arm because, being the one that is (normally) stronger and more adept, it is the right one to use for most jobs.

But if you ignore the right arm, there is only one left, so that is the "left" arm.

This sounds like a joke, but I looked it up and it isn't.

Leave and left

"Left" is the past tense passive of "leave". As in, I leave the room, I left the room, when I left the room I left my wallet there, my wallet was left, etc.

(As noted above, this is also where we get the left side.)

There are two other words "leave" in English. Leaves like the green things on trees are not related to leaving a room.

(Except I was once at a talk by J.H. Conway in which he was explaining some sort of tree algorithm in which certain nodes were deleted and he called the remaining ones "leaves" because they were the ones that were left. Conway was like that.)

The other "leave" is the one that means "permission" as in "by your leave…". This is the leave we find in "sick leave" or "shore leave". They are not related to the fact that you have left on leave, that is a coincidence.

Normal norms

Latin norma is a carpenter's square, for making sure that things are at right angles to one another.

So something that is normal is something that is aligned the way things are supposed to be aligned, that is to say at right angles. And a norm is a rule or convention or standard that says how things ought to line up.

In mathematics and physics we have terms like “normal vector”, “normal forces” and the like, which means that vectors or forces are at right angles to something. This is puzzling if you think of “normal” as “conventional” or “ordinary” but becomes obvious if you remember the carpenter's square.

In contrast, mathematical “normal forms” have nothing to do with right angles, they are conventional or standard forms. “Normal subgroups” are subgroups that behave properly, the way subgroups ought to.

The names Norman and Norma are not related to this. They are related to the surname Norman which means a person from Normandy. Normandy is so-called because it was inhabited by Vikings (‘northmen’) starting from the 9th century.

Hydrogen and oxygen

Jesse Chen observed that hydrogen means “water-forming”, because when you burn it you get water.

A lot of element names are like this. Oxygen is oxy- (“sharp” or “sour”) because it makes acids, or was thought to make acids. In German the analogous calque is “sauerstoff”.

Nitrogen makes nitre, which is an old name for saltpetre (potassium nitrate). German for nitre seems to be salpeter which doesn't work as well with -stoff.

The halogen gases are ‘salt-making’. (Greek for salt is hals.) Chlorine, for example, is a component of table salt, which is sodium chloride.

In Zulip I added that The capital of Denmark, Copenha-gen, is so-called because in the 11th century is was a major site for the production of koepenha, a Germanic term for a lye compound, used in leather tanning processes, produced from bull dung. I was somewhat ashamed when someone believed this lie despite my mention of bull dung.

Spas, baths, and coaches

Spas (like wellness spa or day spa) are named for the town of Spa, Belgium, which has been famous for its cold mineral springs for thousands of years!

(The town of Bath England is named for its baths, not the other way around.)

The coach is named for the town of Kocs (pronounced “coach”), Hungary, where it was invented. This sounds like something I would make up to prank the kids, but it is not.

Spanish churches

“Iglesia” is Spanish for “church”, and you see it as a surname in Spanish as in English. (I guess, like “Church”, originally the name of someone who lived near a church).

Thinking on this, I realized: “iglesia” is akin to English “ecclesiastic”.

They're both from ἐκκλησία which is an assembly or congregation.

The mysterious Swedish hedgehog

In German, a hedgehog is “Igel”. This is a very ancient word, and several other Germanic languages have similar words. For example, in Frisian it's “ychel”.

In Swedish, “igel” means leech. The hedgehog is “igelkott”.

I tried to find out what -kott was about. “kotte” is a pinecone and may be so-called because “kott” originally meant some rounded object, so igelkott would mean the round igel rather than the blood igel, which is sometimes called blodigel in Swedish.

I was not able to find any other words in Swedish with this sense of -kott. There were some obviously unrelated words like bojkott (“boycott”). And there are a great many Swedish words that end in -skott, which is also unrelated. It means “tail”. For example, the grip of a handgun is revolverskott.

[ Addendum: Gustaf Erikson advises me that I have misunderstood ‑skott; see below. ]

Bonus hedgehog weirdness: In Michael Moorcock's Elric books, Elric's brother is named “Yyrkoon”. The Middle English for a hedgehog is “yrchoun” (variously spelled). Was Moorcock thinking of this? The -ch- in “yrchoun” is t͡ʃ though, which doesn't match the stop consonant in “Yyrkoon”. Also which makes clear that “yrchoun” is just a variant spelling of “urchin”. (Compare “sea urchin”, which is a sea hedgehog. or compare “street urchin”, a small round bristly person who scuttles about in the gutter.)

In Italian a hedgehog is riccio, which I think is also used as a nickname for a curly-haired or bristly-haired person.

Slobs and schlubs

These are not related. Schlub is originally Polish, coming to English via (obviously!) Yiddish. But slob is Irish.

-euse vs. -ice

I tried to guess the French word for a female chiropractor. I guessed “chiropracteuse" by analogy with masseur, masseuse, but I was wrong. It is chiropractrice.

The '‑ice' suffix was clearly descended from the Latin '‑ix' suffix, but I had to look up ‘‑euse’. It's also from a Latin suffix, this time from ‘‑osa’.


When you jot something down on a notepad, the “jot” is from Greek iota, which is the name of the small, simple letter ι that is easily jotted.

Bonus: This is also the jot that is meant by someone who says “not a jot or a tittle”, for example Matthew 5:18 (KJV):

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

A tittle is the dot above the lowercase ‘i’ or ‘j’. The NIV translates this as “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen”, which I award an A-plus for translation.

Vilifying villains

I read something that suggested that these were cognate, but they are not.

“Vilify” is from Latin vīlificō which means to vilify. It is a compound of vīlis (of low value or worthless, I suppose the source of “vile”) and faciō (to make, as in “factory” and “manufacture”.)

A villain, on the other hand, was originally just a peasant or serf; that is, a person who lives in a village. “Village” is akin to Latin villa, which originally meant a plantation.

Döner kebab

I had always assumed that “Döner” and its “ö” were German, but they are not, at least not originally. “Döner kebab” is the original Turkish name of the dish, right down to the diaresis on the ‘ö’, which is the normal Turkish spelling; Turkish has an ‘ö’ also. Döner is the Turkish word for a turning-around-thing, because döner kebab meat roasts on a vertical spit from which it is sliced off as needed.

“Döner” was also used in Greek as a loanword but at some point the Greeks decided to use the native Greek word gyro, also a turning-around-thing, instead. Greek is full of Turkish loanwords. (Ottoman Empire, yo.)

“Shawarma”, another variation on the turning-around-vertical-spit dish, is from a different Ottoman Turkish word for a turning-around thing, this time چویرمه (çevirme).

The Armenian word for shawarma is also shawarma, but despite Armenian being full of Turkish loanwords, this isn't one. They got it from Russian.

Everyone loves that turning-on-a-vertical-spit dish. Lebanese immigrants brought it to Mexico, where it is served in tacos with pineapple and called tacos al pastor (“shepherd style”). I do not know why the Mexicans think that Lebanese turning-around-meat plus pineapples adds up to shepherds. I suppose it must be because the meat is traditionally lamb.

Roll call

To roll is to turn over with a circular motion. This motion might wind a long strip of paper into a roll, or it might roll something into a flat sheet, as with a rolling pin. After rolling out the flat sheet you could then roll it up into a roll.

Dinner rolls are made by rolling up a wad of bread dough.

When you call the roll, it is because you are reading a list of names off a roll of paper.

Theatrical roles are from French rôle which seems to have something to do with rolls but I am not sure what. Maybe because the cast list is a roll (as in roll call).

Wombats and numbats

Both of these are Australian animals. Today it occurred to me to wonder: are the words related? Is -bat a productive morpheme, maybe a generic animal suffix in some Australian language?

The answer is no! The two words are from different (although distantly related) languages. Wombat is from Dharug, a language of the Sydney area. Numbat is from the Nyungar language, spoken on the other end of the continent.


Gustaf Erikson advises me that I have misunderstood ‑skott. It is akin to English shoot, and means something that springs forth suddenly, like little green shoots in springtime, or like the shooting of an arrow. In the former sense, it can mean a tail or a sticking-out thing more generally. But in revolverskott is it the latter sense, the firing of a revolver.

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