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, quasar, google, and yuppie.
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 inserted an A between the T and L and pronounced 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.
Changes In Words
Many words used in modern English have changed their meaning over the years. This is shown in the table below.
|awful||deserving of awe|
|brave||cowardice (as in bravado)|
|girl||young person of either sex|
|luxury||sinful self indulgence|
|neck||parcel of land (as in neck of the woods)|
|quick||alive (as in quicksilver)|
|tell||to count (as in bank teller)|
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, antideluvian.
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|
|bus||omnibus (Latin: for everyone)|
|mob||mobile vulgus (Latin: fickle crowd)|
|petrol||petroleum (Greek: rock oil)|
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.
|Archer||bow and arrow user|
|Shepherd||herder of sheep|
|Devonshire||an English county|
|Lincoln||an English city|
|Kent||an English county|
|Preston||an English city|
|Kennedy||Gaelic: ugly head|
|Morgan||Welsh: white haired|
|Russell||French: red haired|
|Whistler||one who whistles|
|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..
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.
|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|
|burh||Anglo-Saxon||fortified place||Bur-, -bury|
|burna||Anglo-Saxon||stream, spring||Bourn-, -burn(e)|
|by||Old Norse||farm, village||-by|
|ceaster||Latin||fort, Roman town||Chester-, -caster|
|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|
|ey||Old Norse||island||-ey, -ay|
|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|
|mere||Anglo-Saxon||lake, pool||Mer-, Mar-, -mere, -more|
|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|
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