Etymology – the study of word origins – is a fantastically interesting discipline that yields some incredible facts about where the hugely diverse array of words that make up the English language come from.
You should also read…
Whether you’re a native speaker or currently learning English, you’ll be amazed at some of the stories behind words you use every day. From tales of frenzied Viking warriors to a theatre-owner’s bet to get people using a made-up word, a little-thought-about history lies waiting to be discovered. Knowing more about the words we use makes studying English even more fun, so here are fourteen of our favourite word origins – and we’ve barely scratched the surface!
The origins of this derogatory word for someone considered incapable of learning (the opposite of a “bright” student) are surprisingly old, dating to the time of one John Duns Scotus, who was born around 1266 and died in 1308. Scotus was a Scottish Franciscan philosopher and theologian whose works on metaphysics, theology, grammar and logic were so popular that they earned him the honour of a papal accolade. installment loans IN His followers became known as ‘Duns’. So how did this word come to be associated with academic ineptitude? Well, the Renaissance came along and poor Duns’ theories and methods were widely discredited by Protestant and Humanist scholars, while Duns’ supporters clung to his ideas; subsequently, the word “Dunsman” or “Dunce” (which arises from the way in which “Duns” was pronounced in Medieval times) was used in a derogatory fashion to describe those who continued to support outdated ideas. The word gradually became used in a more general sense to refer to someone considered slow-witted. Interestingly, though his name is now used disparagingly, Duns’ teaching is still held in high regard by the Catholic Church, and he was beatified as recently as 1993.
The story behind the origins of the word “quiz” is so good that we really wish it was true – but it probably isn’t. Legend has it that a Dublin theatre-owner made a bet that he could introduce a new word into the English language within a day or two (the amount of time differs in different tellings of the story), and that the people of Dublin would make up the meaning of the word themselves. So he wrote the nonsense word “quiz” on some pieces of paper and got a gang of street urchins to write it on walls across Dublin. The next day everyone was talking about it, and it wasn’t long before it became incorporated into everyday language, meaning a sort of “test”, because this is what the people thought the mysterious word was supposed to be. According to the telling of the story recorded in Gleanings and Reminiscences by F.T. Porter (written in 1875), the events of this humorous tale unfolded in 1791, and this is where the story becomes less convincing. The word “quiz” is attested earlier than this date, used to refer to someone who is eccentric or odd (hence the word “quizzical”); it was also the name of a yo-yo-like toy popular in 1790. That said, it’s still difficult to find a compelling explanation for the origins of this word, so perhaps there is an element of truth in this excellent story after all.
When someone “goes berserk”, they go into a frenzy, run amok, perhaps even destroying things. Picture someone going berserk and it’s not difficult to imagine the ancient Norse warriors to whom the word “berserker” originally referred. The word “berserk” conjured up the fury of these men and the untamed ferocity with which they fought, and it’s thought that the word came from two other Old Norse words, “bjorn”, meaning “bear” and “serkr”, meaning “coat”. An alternative explanation, now widely discredited, says that rather than “bjorn”, the first part of the word comes from “berr” meaning “bare” – that is, not wearing armour. Some have said that the “berserkers” were so uncontrollably ferocious due to being in an almost trance-like state, either by working themselves up into a frenzy before battle, or by ingesting hallucinogenic drugs. So, next time you use the expression “going berserk” to describe someone acting irrationally, remember those battle-crazed Vikings and be glad that you’re not on the receiving end of the wrath of a real “berserker”!