Your Friday etymological news roundup

Today, rather than zoom in on the origin of any one noteworthy word, let’s round up the etymologies of some of the top words buzzing in this week’s news:


Australian cardinal and papal advisor George Pell is on a leave of absence as he faces sexual abuse charges.

The word abuse entered English in the early 1400s, first meaning “to misuse” something. By the the 1440s, though, we already see the “sexual assault” sense of abuse. Via French, abuse is from the Latin abuti, “to waste, squander, exploit, take advantage of,” among many other senses. Abuti joins ab- (away) and uti, meaning and source of the English “use.”


Investigations into the fire in London’s Grenfell Tower have revealed contractors opted for cheaper, and less fire-resistant, aluminum cladding, which appears to have helped spread the tragic conflagration.

As a term for the “covering of a building,” cladding is a relatively young term. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in 1939 in the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Earlier, cladding was sometimes used in the US in the late 1800s for “clothing.”

“Clothing” indeed: Cladding, via the 16th-century verb to clad (dress, clothe, cover), comes from the adjective clad, e.g., ironclad or scantily clad. English has been wearing this clad since Old English (cláðod), ultimately a past participle of the verb clothe. Clothe, in turn, is based on the cloth, a word of Germanic origin.


On Thursday, President Trump tweeted bullying, crude, and sexist remarks at Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The tweets drew harsh criticism from some of his fellow Republicans, who variously noted they were “beneath the dignity of the office” of the presidency.

Dignity (1200s) is, yep, a French-Latin loan. The term comes from the Latin dignitas, a noun formed from “worthy, proper, fitting.” (Dainty, incredibly, also comes from this root.) Dignus is related to decere, “to be proper,” source of decent. I’ve said it before—and I’m sure I’ll say it again—but Trump could really learn a thing or two from etymology.

Hong Kong

Twenty years ago this week, the UK handed over Hong Kong to China.

Hong Kong, a Cantonese form of the Mandarin Xianggang, is said to literally mean “fragrant harbor,”  which may allude to the fresh waters of its estuary or the historic scent of incense from its factories.


The German parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage today.

Attested since beginning of the 14th-century, marriage weds—borrowed, as ever, from the French—the verb marry and the noun-forming suffix —age, which I’ve previously covered in my post on coverage. Marry comes via the Old French marier and the Latin maritare before it, both “wed” or “marry.” Maritare, in turn, comes from maritus, “husband,” an obscure word that’s been proposed to derive from *mari, “a young woman.” As Germany proves today, though, marriage isn’t just about men and women.


Much of the opposition to the Senate’s bill to repeal Obamacare is centered on its deep cuts to Medicaid, which provides healthcare support for individuals and families –of all ages, versus Medicare, which helps older Americans–with limited resources or income.

Introduced in 1966 in Title XIX of the 1965 Social Security Act, Medicaid is a simple blend of medic- and aid, modeled on the older Medicare (1953, first applied for a scheme for military families).

Medical (1640s), medic (1625), and medicine (1200s) were all prescribed from the Latin medicus, a “physician” or “doctor.” Medicus is related to the verb mederi, “to heal,” which Indo-European etymologists trace all the way back to *med-, a prolific root hypothesized to mean “to take appropriate measures.” We’ve seen *med- here in its many derivatives I meted out and meditated on in my post of accommodate.

Aid, meanwhile, comes to English’s aid in the early 1400s, via the French aide (noun) and aidier (verb). The earliest documented sense of aid in English, as it happens, is a “levy or subsidy paid to the Crown to defray military or other extraordinary expenses,” the OED explains. The general “help” sense of aid, though, follows soon after, evidenced in the 1430s.

French’s aide/aidier are from, you guessed it, ultimately from the Latin adiuvare, “to give help to.” Ad, as we’ve so often seen on this blog, means “to” while iuvare means “to help.” The deeper origins of iuvare are unknown, both some have proposed a connection to iuvenis, “young person,” a root which we explored in an old post on young

m ∫ r ∫

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