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Interesting Word Origins in the English language
Not even native speakers of English are aware of where each word in their language comes from and how it came to be used in the first place.
Etymology is the study of word origins which offers some incredible facts about the hugely diverse words found in the English language.
By learning more about word origins, we are also being introduced to the history of the United Kingdom, and all other cultures who had influence on this country.
A Brief History of English
English was brought to Britain between the 5th and the 7th century by Germanic invaders and settlers. This new West-Germanic language displaced different Celtic languages that predominated among the British people.
Of course, the Old English spoken then is not the English we speak now. It developed into Middle English, which was greatly influenced by the Scandinavians who colonized parts of Britain. This led to many grammatical simplifications currently existing in English.
From the 1500s onwards, Early Modern English became dominant. This version of English was used by Shakespeare, and it incorporated many borrowings from Latin, Ancient Greek and French. During this period, the Great Vowel Shift occurred, which changed the pronunciation of long vowels and affected all dialects of English.
Modern English proper, nearly the same as what is spoken today, was in place in the late 17th century, and it spread out all over the world through British colonization.
Some Interesting Word Origins
Sandwiches are such popular snacks that the English word “sandwich” is used all over the world. Not many people know that this snack got its name more than 250 years ago from John Montagu, who was the 4th Earl of Sandwich.
Back in the 18h century, this aristocrat asked his valet (personal servant) to bring him beef served between two slices of bread. This particular method of serving beef became the Earl’s favorite meal to eat while playing cards, because his hands would not get greasy from the meat.
Soon after, the Earl’s friends began to order “the same as Sandwich” when they came to visit, and the method of putting anything – bread, cheese or vegetables – between two slices of bread became known as a “sandwich”.
As the English language changed over the years, many foreign words and expressions were adopted. One such word is “clue”, which in fact derives from a Greek word “clew”, which means “a ball of yarn” (thread used for knitting, making cloth, etc.).
What is more interesting is that the particular Greek word was actually motivated by Greek mythology. Namely, according to the story of Minotaur (part man, part bull), Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of yarn to help him find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Because of this, people started using the word “clew” to describe something that points the way, like when a detective works on solving a crime.
Ancient Rome also had some impact on how the English language developed. The word “palace” has its origins from the Rome’s famous Palatine, or the Seven Hills, where the Emperor stayed.
His residence eventually grew to be a sprawling (existing over a large area) and rich home, so the word “palatine” became associated with the residence of emperors, and not the hill.
This word reached Britain through Old French, in which the word “palais” actually referred to the Palatine Hill. Over the years, this word was modified to “palace”, but its original form is still visible in the word “palatial”, meaning something that is palace-like in terms of its size.
The word “awkward”, which is one of the most commonly used adjectives today to describe something strange, came to Britain from the Vikings, people from Scandinavian countries in the North.
The etymology of the word suggests that the word can be split into two parts: awk- and –ward. Awk, or afugr, means “turned the wrong way” in Old Norse. The –ward suffix comes from the Old English –weard, which means “turned toward”, and this word actually has Germanic origin.
Put together, the word “awkward” literally means “turned towards being turned away from”. Isn’t that awkward?