People who know me well understand two things about me: I hate coffee and I love words. Words are my trade and I take care of them. We have a very strange language with a long history, but most people do not stop to think about how it came together. So here is a brief tour of some of the more peculiar points of English.
With many words, it can be hard to keep track of where they came from. The answers may surprise you.
Camera. A camera is a device used for taking pictures. When a meeting goes “in camera,” it is closed off. Both uses come from the phrase “camera obscura” (“dark chamber”), which described a darkened room that allowed a tiny point of light to project an enlarged image. This concept formed the basis of the modern photographic camera.
Carnival. This word is actually related to the word “carnivore.” Its literal meaning is “putting away of meat.” It was used to describe the celebration before the beginning of the Lenten fast, when people would abstain from meat for 40 days.
Idiot. This stems from the Greek root “idio,” which indicates something personal (as in “idiosyncrasy”). An idiot was simply a private person, as opposed to one involved in public office. The word took its pejorative meaning as someone too stupid to understand public affairs when it was adopted by the Romans.
Talent. A talent was an ancient unit of currency. Its modern meaning comes from a Biblical parable in which three servants were each allotted talents. Two invested their money to make a profit but one hid his talent in the ground. The word gained a metaphorical meaning in the Middle Ages to refer to natural ability, since just like in the parable, your talents are useless if you keep them hidden.
Words of the Bard
We all took Shakespeare in high school. While you may or may not have enjoyed his plays, chances are at some point you paused to wonder what the big deal was. There are many reasons, but one that does not get much air time is just how much of our language little Will came up with himself.
If you find yourself using words like “advertising,” “gossip,” “retirement,” “traditional,” “engagement,” “glow,” “partner,” or “watchdog,” then you owe something to the Bard. But Shakespeare did not simply string letters together and declare them a words; rather he took existing words and shifted them for his own purpose. “Retire” was a word that he used to make “retirement.” “Gossip” referred initially to a loud-mouthed woman. Shakespeare made it a verb.
Additionally, many common colloquial phrases have their origins in the Shakespearean canon. Just a few of them include “cold-blooded,” “eye-sore,” “come full circle,” “shooting star,” “love letter,” “into thin air,” “never-ending,” and “puppy-dog.”
In the end, it is estimated Shakespeare coined approximately 2,000 of what are now household words. Oh, and he came up with “household words” too.
Days of the week
Sunday and Monday have the most obvious origins, coming from Old English terms for Sun-day and Moon-day. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are all taken from the names of Norse gods — Tyr, Woden, Thor and Frejya. And Saturday is named after the Roman god Saturn.
Words you didn’t realise were euphemisms
I don’t care for euphemisms. My reason is that they don’t really work and invariably end up being corrupted to the point of requiring a new euphemism. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some famous euphemisms that you didn’t even realise were euphemisms.
Execution. Understood meaning: the death penalty. Literal meaning: any undertaken action. It was given as the most neutral and vague term that could be applied to capital punishment. While its innocuous meaning is still used to an extent today, at a glance, “execution” always carries with it the connotation of death.
Affair. Understood meaning: an act of infidelity. Literal meaning: Any sort of business. The term was useful as a conveniently vague word to cover any indiscretion (“Where are you going?” / “Oh, I just have an affair downtown.”). We still acknowledge its literal meaning in phrases like “getting my affairs in order” or titles like The Thomas Crown Affair, but for general usage it has slipped out of common parlance because of its new connotation.
Retarded. Understood meaning: derogatory term for the mentally disabled. Literal meaning: hindered in any way. “You’re not retarded; you’re just a little slow.” Whether the writer of that Quantum Leap episode understood the irony is a mystery. At this point there is no shaking the sense of “retarded” in reference to people as insulting, but it is a shame that we have lost it in all other usages as well. Talking about the retarded traffic on Idylwyld will likely give a different impression than it should.
Period. Understood meaning: menstruation. Literal meaning: any length of time. At some point in the past century, a very polite genius came up with this euphemism. Because after all, what could possibly be more inoffensive than a period of time?
Toilet. Surprised? Our household biological waste facilities have earned many euphemisms: bathroom, washroom, powder room, water closet, throne. But none can come close to the deftness of the original. Deriving from the French word “toile” (cloth), the word toilet spent a period of several hundred years referring to a woman’s dressing table, or more generally to a woman’s routine of dressing and grooming.
Much like with ShamWows, where word origins are concerned, beware of imitators. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” does not originate from cats and dogs living on people’s roofs in the Middle Ages and falling off during the rain. “The Rule of Thumb” actually has nothing to do with wife beating. Golf comes from the Scottish word “gowf,” not from an acronym for “Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.” I refuse to believe anyone out there actually believes this, but “fuck” most definitely does not come from an acronym for “fornication under consent of king.”
And that’s all the space I have. Just remember, verbosity is sometimes a virtue.
Thanks to The Essential Shakespeare Handbook, Thereby Hangs a Tale by Charles Funk, and the OED Online.