Etymology: how words are born

Words are funny things. In their base form, they are thoughts spoken aloud – we want to voice a thought, and so we are assigned a word for that particular thought, and so we use that word to express what we’re thinking. Words (and all other kinds of verbal communication) are what separates us from all the other species. But where do we get all these words from?

English has the largest vocabulary of any language, and it continues to grow. No language so far comes close to the number of words in English – around 2 million, though it is difficult to be precise about this figure. Some words were born long ago, taken from other languages (in the case of English, mainly from Latin, Ancient Greek, and German).

The word “etymology” itself has a very literal origin, from the Ancient Greek word ἐτυμολογία (etumologia). The ἔτυμον part means “true sense”, and -λογία comes from the word λόγος, which among its many meanings are “word”, “speech”, and “reason”.

However, due to the fact that English loves to borrow words from other languages, some modern words have rather more interesting origins.

Take, for example, the word “quarantine”. This word comes from the French word quarantaine, meaning “about forty” (quarante = forty, -aine suffix = about). Originally this word was used when ships would arrive in port which were suspected of carrying some kind of contagious disease from its country of origin, and so the cargo and crew of the ship would be forbidden from any kind of contact with those onshore for around 40 days.

Likewise, the word “assassin” has an unexpected source. During the era of the Holy Crusades in the Middle East, certain Muslim sects and organizations would contract murderers to kill some of their key Christian enemies, to undermine and weaken their invaders. Due to the fact that these killers would commit the murders under the influence of the drug hashish, they became known as hashshashin, literally meaning “those who smoke hashish”. This has since evolved into the English word “assassin”.

However, there are some words that although amazingly commonplace, still have unknown origins. Take, for example, the words “big” and “dog”. These words are used daily throughout the English-speaking world, and yet their origins are utterly unknown.