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12 English words with truly strange origins

The English language is a curious melting pot of words from across the globe, forged through a millennia of invasions, wars, colonial expansion and scientific and cultural developments.

Out of an estimated 750,000 words, we’ve already identified the most beautiful, the funniest and the weirdest – but which English words have the strangest origins?

1. Sandwich

Sandwiches get their (strange) name from the 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th century English politician and nobleman.

The circumstances of Lord Sandwich’s supposed invention of the sandwich is a subject of hot debate among linguists. Some believe he consumed his food between two pieces of bread so he didn’t have to leave his beloved gambling table, and that his fellow gamblers began to ask the servants for “the same as Sandwich” and, later, just “a sandwich”. Others (those who are perhaps more respectful of Lord Sandwich’s work) believe he ate food in this fashion only so he could stay at his desk and attend to his political commitments.

2. Clue

Technically, English speakers stole this from the Greek Gods. It is taken from the word ‘clew’ In Greek mythology. When Mintatour – a monster with the body of a man and a head of a bull – trapped the mythical king, Theseus, in a labyrinth, Theseus is said to have escaped using a ball of yarn or a ‘clew’. He used the yarn to track his path so he could follow it back again if he got lost.

So, a “clew” came to mean something that guides your path, and later it came to mean this in the broader sense of offering guidance to discover a truth.

3. Hooligan

We have many words for troublemakers in English: ruffian, thug, hoodlum, yob, chav, lout… The list is endless. Each word not only has its own nuanced meaning, but also often suggests something about which region of the UK the speaker comes from.

But if you’re called a hooligan, the origin is less clear. According to the Oxford English Etymology Dictionary, the name originates from the surname of a racaus Irish family – Houlihan – mentioned in an old song from the 1890s. Another theory is that back during the 1745 Jacobite rising, an English commander misheard the Scots Gaelic word for the insect midge – “meanbh-chuileag” – and created the word “hooligan”to express his frustration at all the pesky midges. It later came to describe anything or anyone that was as irritating as the midges!

4. Nice

Teachers in English-speaking countries often despair at the overuse of the adjective “nice” in their students’ writing. And it turns out they now have even more reason to ban the word from the classroom – the term was originally a negative one, meaning “ignorant” or “foolish”.

Linguists track many possible origins of this word. It may have developed from the Old French version of ‘nice’in the late 13th century or from the Latin ‘necius’. It’s thought that it slowly became positive over time because, once it was introduced into the English language, it was often used to refer to a person who was ludicrously over-dressed. Later, this was confused with a reference to something that is refined or to someone who was “nicely” dressed.

5. Shampoo

Now you have even more of a reason to enjoy your shower time. The word shampoo comes from Hindi, and means ‘to massage’. Derived from the Sanskrit root chapati (चपति), the word initially referred to any type of pressing, kneading, or soothing. The definition was later extended to mean ‘wash the hair’ in 1860, and it was only in the 1950s that its meaning was further extended to refer to the washing of carpets and other materials.

 

6. Nightmare

It’s pretty clear where the first part of the word “nightmare” comes from. But what about the “mare” part? While the equestrians among you will wonder if it has anything to do with horses, this is misleading. A “mare” actually refers to a female goblin that sits on you, suffocates you while you sleep, entangles her hair around you in a “marelock”, and tries to induce bad thoughts… Pretty nightmarish, no?

7. Shambles

The origin of the word “shambles” is a real mess. Which is ironic, because a shambles literally means “a real mess”. It’s not uncommon to hear English speakers complaining that their “life is a shambles!”

The term is said to have derived from the Latin term “scamillus”, meaning a small stool (like a chair). But at the same time that the term ‘scamillus’ was being used, the word “shambles”, in the form we have it today, was also being used to refer to a stool. We don’t really know why the two terms were being used but at some point the meaning of a ‘scamillus’ became more specific to distinguish it from the other; it referred only to a stool upon which something is sold.

Some years later, the meaning of a ‘scamillus’ was refined further to mean a stool (or stall) where meat is sold. Then, it meant a meat market. Next, it came to mean a slaughterhouse. And finally, somewhere along the line we started using the word “shambles” to create witty puns about how our lives are a bloody mess, much like a slaughterhouse.

8. Tattoo

The “tattoo” gets its name from Polynesian word “tatau” which simply means “a mark made on the skin”. The term in this form developed out of the Samoan word ‘tattow’ meaning ‘to strike’.

It’s first known usage in English appeared in 1786 in Captain James Cook’s journal Endeavour, in which he described the tradition of tattooing among the people he met during his voyage in Polynesia. The practice of tattooing existed in England before this time, but before we acquired the loanword from Polynesia it was referred to as a form of ‘painting’. In fact, when a native Indonesia man of New Guinea was sadly brought over to the UK as a slave in 1691, he was known among English people as the “Painted Prince” due to the markings on his body.

9. Ketchup

The infamous tomato sauce you slather over your fries might not always have tasted quite like it does now. There are many theories about where the term originates, but the first possible reference to it might have been as early as the 17th century, when the Chinese used “kôe-chiap” (鮭汁) to refer to a mix of pickled fish and spices. And ketchup’s first recording in the English language is listed in a 1690 dictionary in which it is spelled ‘Catchup’.

10. Checkmate

The chess term ‘checkmate‘ is said to come from the Persian word “shāh māt” (شاه مات‎), which translates to ‘the king is helpless’. However, as chess travelled through the Arabic world towards Europe, and the Arabic word for ‘dead’ is ‘māta’ (مَاتَ‎), it is also said to mean ‘the king is dead’. Many object to this second tracing of the term’s etymology because the ‘shāh’ or ‘king’ in chess does not die, he is ‘simply pressed into a position from which he cannot escape’.

11. Robot

Shakespeare wasn’t the only writer who introduced new words into the English language. The English word ‘robot’ comes from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labour’. The word which was introduced back in the 1920s by the author Karel Čapek in his science fiction play, ‘R.U.R’ (‘Rossom’s Universal Robots’), which explores the idea of manufacturing synthetic people. Interestingly, he later revealed he did not invent the word himself, it was actually his brother who was himself a writer, but is best known for his work as a painter.

12. Barbecue

The term barbecue comes from the Caribbean word ‘barbakoa’ meaning ‘frame of sticks’. Makes sense. The interesting part is that the first recorded use of ‘barbecue’ in the English language was rather as a verb, not as a noun. While it first appeared in the noun form of ‘barbecado’ in 1648 in the sentence ‘the Indians instead of salt doe barbecado or dry and smoak fish’, it later appeared as ‘barbecue’ in 1661, in the sentence ‘some are slain, And their flesh forthwith Barbacu’d and eat”. So that should put an end to debates about whether barbecue can be used as a verb.

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