The word origins we encounter on this blog are compelling for a variety of reasons, I think. Oftentimes, an etymology takes us to some surprising places, like candy. Other times, it tells a fascinating story, such as turkey. With a word like new, though, I am struck by the word’s sheer durability. So, to bring in this New Year, let’s take etymological stock of new, which, as we will see, is anything but.

"Old news." Doodle  by me.
“Old news.” Doodle by me.


According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, the root behind the English new is *néwos. It means–you guessed it–”new.”

This root has done very well for itself over time and across the Indo-European languages. We have evidence for it in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. We have evidence for it across Germanic, Celtic, and Baltic languages. The root turns up, too, in Avestan, Hittite, and Tocharian A and B. If I’m not mistaken, this means there are cognates for new in all major Indo-European daughter language groups except Albanian and Armenian. (These latter two language groups were so influenced by surrounding languages that reconstruction in them is very difficult, notes the Oxford Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.)

Apparently, there was no reason to invent a new wheel.

The Latin for new is novus, which stays fresh in words like innovatenovelnovice, novocainrenovate, and supernovaIn Greek, we have néos, which you may recognize in the prefix neo-, seen in neolithicneologism, neon, and neophyteMore directly, the English new is owed to the Old English nīwe, also recorded as nēowe and nīowe. Displaying a great deal of vowel change and complexity, the word comes from the Proto-Germanic *neuja- or *neujaz. From Newfoundland to newfangledNew Age to New Deal, and new man to the news, new has indeed served English long and served it well. 


But why has new been so sturdy? A different question might be instructive: What’s new? How would you define it? Oxford Dictionaries offers phrases such as “discovered recently” or “not existing before.” Merriam-Webster provides “not old” and “recently born, built, or created.” puts forth “having but lately come.” It’s really difficult to define new without quickly resorting to tautology or self-relfexivity.

But one word that these dictionaries bring forth in their noble efforts to define new is now–which, it turns out, is etymologically related. Etymologists take now back to the Proto-Indo-European *nu-, which they link to and see as a source of *newos. Etymologically speaking, something now is very much something new. Which makes sense. Nothing, then something. One way, then another. Nothing happening, suddenly something happening.

New, now–words, so seemingly unchanged in sound and sense, marking change.

New, now–there’s a carpe diem to fuel your New Year’s resolution, tucked away in an etymology, of all places.

Happy (Gregorian calendar) New Year!

m ∫ r ∫

twelve words of Christmas

I am excited to share another guest post I’ve composed for Oxford Dictionaries’ OxfordWords blog. The post, “Twelve Words of Christmas,” delivers  some choice yuletide etymologies, turning up “fame-wolves” and “broken wind” and everything in between.

Be sure to check it out–and enjoy the holidays.

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Last week, President Obama announced that he is normalizing relations with Cuba. This means we will be giving one word quite a bit of attention in the days ahead: embargo. Policy-wise, I’ll leave that matter to the experts, but we can give it some etymological attention here.

"Embargo." Doodle by me.
“Embargo.” Doodle by me.


The United States’ trade embargo with Cuba has been in place since 1960. This may be quite a long time by modern standards, but the word embargo has been in place in the English language for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests it in 1602 in a passage referring to an “Imbargo with Spaine.” 

It’s not surprising that Spain comes up in the early days of embargo, for it’s a word of Spanish origin. The Spanish Empire, you may recall, dominated the 16th century in many ways. Their extensive holdings included possessions in the Netherlands, which you may not always recall, if you’re like me. In the 1550s, Catholic Spain felt threatened by English Protestantism, to put it simplistically, and so barred English cloth imports to the Netherlands. England retaliated by barring Dutch imports. This conflict, of course, escalated over the ensuing decades, coming to a head most famously in the Spanish Armada. (Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries, 2007)

Various ships and trade may have been embargoed during this historical stretch, but embargo‘s passage into English certainly was not.

This Spanish embargo, generally meaning a “prohibition,” is formed from the verb embargar, “to restrain,” “seize,” or “impede.” This verb, etymologists propose, comes from a Late Latin *imbarricāre, which breaks down to “a putting of a bar in the way,” according to Walter Skeat. If we take the Latin apart further, we end up with in– (“in”) and *barra.  We don’t know where this *barra comes from, in spite of efforts to link it to a Celtic root referring to the “bushy tops” of trees.

No Bars Barred 

We do believe, however, that *barra, referred to–wait for it–a “bar.” If we look to English, lots of things can bar one’s way, so what was this Latin “bar” like?

Perhaps it was like a barrier, a derivative which English gets from the French. Barriers come in all shapes in sizes, such as those bars–or partitions–used in courts of law to variously set off judges, legal practitioners of different standing, and trial participants from the public. The phrase called to the bar and barrister are so derived, though these two in particular refer to practices at the Inns of Court at London.

This concept of a partition is also behind the bar you go to be served up a drink, perhaps from a barrel, which some suggest could be related to bar on the basis of cask construction. Barrel may also be behind barricade; the OED cites “casks filled with earth, paving stones, etc.” used in Parisian streets during 16th-century riots. Bars are rod-like, too, such as those put baddies who stole bars of gold behind bars, where, the cliché goes, you don’t want to drop a bar of soap.

Sports looked to bars as well, from raise the bar, which I believe refers to literally elevating the challenge in a high-jump, to the no holds barred said of certain wrestling matches.


Latin’s *imbarricāre may have also inspired the word embarrass. Passing into English through the French, the word may be from the Italian imbarazzare or Spanish embarazar, to put someone within “bars,” as Ernest Weekley see its. The OED, however, proposes the Spanish owes itself to the Portuguese baraço, a “cord,” “apparently originally with reference to animals being restrained by a cord.”

Whether leashed or barred, a person is thusly impeded. Its principal early meanings in English and French, though, point to causing someone confusion and perplexity. Over time, such confusion and perplexity were transferred to a sense of putting someone in an awkward or uncomfortable situation. By the mid-1800s, we see it referring to the feelings of humiliation and foolishness we associate with the word to today.

The French verb from which English more immediately picked up this embarrass–embarrasser–was “probably first used in the Spanish Netherlands,” pointing us back again to that Spanish Empire. Yet again, the impact of the Spanish Empire–from the word embargo to the embargoed island of Cuba, officially freed from Spain in 1902–is felt far and wide, indeed.

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Strong Language

“What the…?” Doodle by me.

I’m extremely excited to share Strong Language, a new “sweary blog about swearing” masterminded and managed by James Harbeck (@sesquiotic) and Stan Carey (@stancarey). (Those two are tops; you should be following their work in its own right, to be sure.) Follow the project on Twitter, too: @stronglang.

Strong Language has assembled an impressive and growing cast of contributors, from the indefatigable Ben Zimmer to the illustrious Jonathon Green. I’m really honored to be among them, and I’ve already posted on the etymology of bastard.

Don’t hold your breath or bite your tongue: vulgarities and profanities—and some really insightful and intelligent linguistic commentary from some of the best language writers around—are a click away. Stan Carey’s latest post will fill you right in.

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Each day, millions of people hop on and off a Latin dative plural as they carry out their lives. They take the bus. Let’s ride its etymology to see where it stops.

"Bus." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Bus.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, bus is first attested as buss in 1832. The word is shortened from the Latin omnibus, literally meaning “for all.” Concerning its origin, the OED offers:

the earliest use was in French in 1825, reportedly to denote vehicles run by a M. Baudry for the purpose of transporting passengers between Nantes and a nearby bathing place. The idea for the name is said to have come from a tradesman with the surname ‘Omnès’ who had the legend ‘Omnès omnibus’ written on the nameplate of his firm…

The vehicle–appearing in the French phrase voiture omnibus, “carriage for all,” in 1835–was originally a four-wheeled, horse-drawn public passenger vehicle and was distinct from other, more exclusive modes of transport of the time.

To Whom, It Concerns

If you can recall reciting your Latin declensions, omnibus is the dative plural, as noted, of the noun omnis, “all” or “everything.”

Indo-European languages are inflected languages. For our purposes here, this means, among other things, that endings are added to the base form of a noun. These endings, which take different cases, change the meaning and function of a noun in an utterance. One of these cases is the dative case, named after the Latin for “to give.” It is used to mark indirect objects. Put simplistically, the dative case shows that something has been given to the noun of interest. So, an omnibus is a vehicle made available to or for everybody.

For a fee, of course.

English, too, historically used such case endings, but they most fell off over time. Language pedants, prescriptivists, and self-appointed police officers actively patrol, however, one of the last vestiges of case in English: whom, hwām or hwǣm in Old English, and whose m indicates the dative case. Pronouns preserve cases, too, which is why we say he or his or him depending on what he has going on.

In Latin, omnis is a noun of the so-called “third declension,” and so it follows a system of endings such that its dative plural is –ibus. Hence, omnibus. This ending is actually reconstructed in Proto-Indo-European: *oibh(y)os.


Millions may ride the omnibus, but trillions ride on the omnibus bill newly passed in the U.S. Congress. There was much political, economic, and linguistic to-do about this congressional omnibus spending bill–sometimes referred to as the Cromnibus, a veritable Frankenstein of a word, a portmanteau of omnibus and CR, “continuing resolution,” an initialism on its own but acronymic in Cromnibus.

According to the OED, omnibus has been referring to such big bills, which lumps together a great many legislative matters, especially budgets, since 1842. Omnibus has also referred to similarly “all-encompassing” books, newspapers, and broadcast programs.

Speaking of bills, busboys would collect fare from passengers as early as 1867. A few decades later, the term was transferred to “supplementary waiters” who cleared tables at restaurants, particularly in the U.S., the OED notes.

Omnia Considered

You may recognize the Latin omnia in other forms. It appears in amor vincit omnia, a Latin expression you probably know as “love conquers all.” It appears divinely, if you will, in the prefix, omni-, in words like omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. We can worship our celebrities on the big screen at an omniplex. Omnivores eat “everything,” biologically speaking.

Do we know anything about “everything”? The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots sees omnis as rooted in  the Proto-Indo-European *op-, “work” or “produce in abundance.” Due to phonetic assimilation, a suffixed form, *op-ni, eventually yielded omnis. It is this sense of abundance, at first natural and later abstract, that furnishes the notion of “all things,” I suspect.

This *op- did a lot of jobs via the Latin opus. It made opera, operate, opulent, and opus. Collaborating with the prefix for “with,” co-, it put together cooperate, copy, and copious. Working with the verb to do, facere, it went to the office. And it got its hands dirty, clasped with manus (“hand”) and fashioned via French, to make maneuver and manure. Inure is another derivative.

Seems the etymology of bus is its own kind of omnibus.

m ∫ r ∫ 


Final exams test your mettle? Perhaps you should have just taken Rocks for Jocks. Etymologically speaking, you kind of did.

"Test." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Test.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Take rocks, heat them up, and see what kind of good stuff you can get. This is just a test: As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, a test originally referred to the “cupel used in treating gold or silver alloys or ore.” Chaucer, once again, gets the first citation around 1386.

A cupel is a vessel used for the process of refining precious metals. In a test, an alchemist, say, would examine metals, very carefully assaying them for the amount and purity of precious metal melted down and separated therein. Hence, we initially spoke quite literally of bringing or putting a specimen to the test.

By the 1600s, a test was already metaphorical, describing a “trial” or “proof” of a matter’s true qualities. Over the centuries, the word took on broader meanings in religion, sport, and science, but it did not take on its academic sense of assessment until 1910, according to the OED.

Testing Culture

Metallurgy is rich with history. Such technology, for instance, helped make possible the advances of the Bronze Age. Alchemy, as another example, helped launch chemistry.

But metallurgy is also rich linguistically. Take examine and assay, as we saw above. Both were used early on for the testing of metals, as you may have gathered. Assay, source of essay, is from the French and initially denoted those metallurgic tests and trials. It was likened to writing efforts in the late 1500s and even comes from the same root as exam.

Speaking of the 1500s, at that time a touchstone was used to determine the quality of the gold or silver alloys put to the test. Such a stone, often quartz, would produce a particular color when rubbed against an authentic specimen. Later, in the 1700s, if you wanted to purchase precious metals, you would look for a hallmark, named for an assay office known as Goldsmith’s Hall London, to make sure you got the genuine article. The acid test was a special method using nitric acid to assay gold.

The test metaphor has indeed become a tried-and-true part of English-language culture, yielding everything from test match to pregnancy test to test anxiety.

Jugs & Jocks

The history of test in English may be all about metal, but its deeper etymology is all about clay. Passing through French, test comes from the Latin testum, a form of testū. It meant an “earthen vessel” or “pot,” hence the cupel we saw above. The word is related to testa, a “brick,” “tile,” and “potsherd,” a shard of a pot. It also referred to the “shell (of a tortoise, crustacean, or insect)” and the “skull.”

Walter Skeat connects the words to terra, “earth,” with a sense of “dried earth,” thus earthenwares. Indeed, terra is from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ters-, meaning “dry.” Eric Partridge, however, goes in the direction of a different material culture, seeing the words rooted in textus, a “woven” thing, from a Latin verb spun from the Proto-Indo-European *teks-, to “weave.” The technology of a text message, both so derived from the root, has indeed come along way,

French took testa and made it their tête, “head,” seen in tête-à-tête. We saw how testa could mean a “pot” and “skull.” Jughead, anyone? Via “skull” French gets the broader “head.” There is analogy for this: German has Kopf for “head,” related to the word for cup.

But head” may not be the only thing made out of clay.

There is a great deal of folk etymology linking the Latin word for testis (a “witness,” source of words like testify and protest) to the Latin word for “testicles,” testes. The story goes that Roman men swore oaths on another’s testicles, but this story does not stand the test. The family jewels, it could actually turn out, may be from testa, little “pots” of gold, if you will.

m ∫ r ∫


It’s finals week at many colleges across the U.S., which means our bug-eyed and heavy-lidded crammers are most certainly weighing topical, etymological matters as they prepare for their final exams. It turns out, though, that the word exam is all about weight–and even bugs.

"Exam." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Exam.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Exam is short for examination, of course. It comes from a Latin verbexamināre. Much like its English derivative examine, the verb signified “to consider critically.” However, in its original usage, it meant “to weigh accurately” or “balance,” from a nounexāmen, the “the needle or tongue of the scale,” “scale beam,” or, more generally, a “means of weighing.”

The language of thought can indeed be metaphorical–and many would argue much of thought itself is so. As we’ve so frequently seen here before, etymology helps us reveal these metaphors. For the Ancient Romans, a careful consideration–an examination–was likened to weighing an object on a scale, sizing it up through balance. English itself is already heavy with this metaphor; consider how we might weigh two choices against each other in making a decision.

Latin has given us other examples of this weight/consideration metaphor. At root of the word to deliberate is libra, a “scale,” source of the abbreviation lb. and the astrological sign. It is also in equilibrium makes for an equal, or balanced, scale. A pound and to ponder are cognates. The former is from a Germanic root referring to a measure of weight; the latter ultimately comes from a Latin word for much the same. Both come from a common Indo-European root.

Other words for various modes of thought–to analyze or mull–yield yet other interesting metaphors, but we can treat those on a later occasion, as I imagine our midnight oil burners feel swarmed enough as it is. Indeed, the principal meaning of examen in Latin is “swarm,” as in a swarm of insects.

Weights and swarms–is there a connection? Metaphor again comes to our etymological aid again. Upon closer examination, examen, with a proposed earlier form of *exagmen, derives from another Latin verb, exigere, “to drive out.” The sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary aids me, may resemble a swarm of bees, say, driven out of a hive. This exigere is itself composed of the prefix ex– (“out of”) and agere, “to do,” “act,” “drive.”  Both of these components simply litter the English language–and perhaps that they have changed little from their Proto-Indo-European roots, the former seen in *eghs- (“out”) and the latter, ag– (“drive,” “draw,” “move,”), attests to their value.  Very apt, students: drive those exams out.

Now, in English, examine could take on a very specific sense in its young days, among its other early meanings which closely parallel its meanings today. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it was the alchemist who was busy examining, which points us to our next post: test.

m ∫ r ∫

ciao, slave!

After a blogging break, I figured there’d be no better way to say “hello” than to say “goodbye.”

Linguistically, the phenomenon is not uncommon, actually. Hawaiian has aloha and Hebrew has shalom, for instance. And Italian of course, has ciao, which has been widely taken up across different tongues as an informal and familiar greeting for “hi” and “bye.” This includes many parts of South America, as you may be well familiar. I heard it quite frequently last week in Chile as chau, often reduplicated as chau chau and sometimes spelled as chao.

From Slaves to Kings

You may also be familiar that the  Italian ciao goes back to a Venetian salutation of schiavo, part of an expression literally meaning “I am your slave” but functioning, as many note, as a good-will way of saying “at your service.” The word spread during extensive Italian immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries, especially to Latin America, although fashion may have motivated its English donning. Ernest Hemingway gets the first English-language citation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in his 1929 A Farewell to Arms. 

But etymologically, ciao gives up on any quick hello for what turns out to be its own kind of a long goodbye. See, the Venetian schiavo is indebted to the Medieval Latin sclavus, itself meaning “slave” but originally referring to Slavs, “the Slavonic peoples in parts of central Europe having been reduced to a servile condition by conquest,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains.

So, Slavs became slaves in deed and in word, and, in case you did not already make the connection, our own English slave is also so derived, cited all the way back in the 13th century. While my own Slavic bloodline boils at the thought of this fact, etymology may yet prove redemptive: Slav, related to terms like Slovene and Slovak as well as the name suffix of –slav, might go back to a proto-meaning of “fame” or “glory,” from the Proto-Indo-European *kleu-, “to hear.” The connecting sense is of a much talked-about reputation.

“Fame” is no small matter for both Indo-European culture–and language. Typically, historical and comparative linguists reconstruct single words, such as *kleu-. But sometimes they can put forth actual phrases, *klewos ndhgwithom, “imperishable fame.” As the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains:

The most ancient texts in Indo-European languages, such as the Vedic hymns of ancient India, the Homeric epics, the Germanic sagas, and Old Irish praise-poetry, all demonstrate that the perpetuation of the fame of the warrior or king was of critical importance to early Indo-European society.

Ciao: not so servile after all. We have plenty more etymological surprises–and doodles–to come as the Mashed Radish closes out 2014.

m ∫ r ∫