The etymological elements of “arsenic”

Researchers concluded this week that nearly 60 million people in Pakistan are at risk of drinking water with “alarmingly high” levels of arsenic, the contamination leaching into groundwater from rock.

The poisonous qualities of arsenic, a semi-metal, and its various compounds have long been known to (and sometimes disregarded by) humans—as has the word. As we work to ensure clean water for Pakistan, let’s look into the etymology of arsenic.

Orpiment, the historic arsenic, glittering on quartz. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Looking directly at the—origin—of “eclipse”

A total solar eclipse will stretch across the United States today from Oregon to South Carolina. As umbraphiles look up at the eerie splendor of the rare astronomical event, I can’t help but look down—in my etymological dictionaries. Where does the word eclipse come from?

During an eclipse, the sun is ever so…delinquent. (Pixabay)

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Who knew the word “insurance” was so complicated?

Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.” 

Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.

Health insurance is about as far from carefree as it gets – unless we look to its etymology. Image from

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A “lewd” awakening

The Washington Post broke the bombshell story with this headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The candidate’s remarks, as many have rightly noted, aren’t just lewd, for in the video Trump boasts about sexual assault. But it’s this word lewd that has been littering the headlines since – and a word whose origins are quite surprising.


Today, lewd means “offensive in a sexual way,” a sense which has come a far way from its roots. Lewd derives from the Old English lǽwede, when it meant “lay,” or a person who is not a member of the clergy. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds lewd in a late 9th-century translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Clerics, unlike many historic laypersons, could read and write, which is why lewd went on to mean “uneducated” or “unlearned” in Middle English. The medieval mind associated this “ignorant” lewdness with “base,” “coarse,” and “vile” behavior, including “licentious” actions. (It had class associations as well.) These meanings emerge by the late 1300s, with Chaucer using lewd for “lascivious” in his Miller’s Prologue around 1386: “Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.”

The deeper roots of lewd are unclear. Some, like Walter Skeat, think the Old English lǽwede is formed from the verb lǽwan, “to betray” or “weaken.” Is one lewd because their lack of education is betrayed, that is, exposed? Is one lewd because enfeeblement is a form of baseness? The sense development here is tricky.

Others, such as the OED, suppose the Old English lǽwede might have been borrowed from a late form of lāicus, a “lay” person, source of English’s own nonclerical lay as well as liturgy. Latin’s lāicus comes from Greek’s λᾱϊκός (laikos), referring to something “of the people” as opposed to the clergy. At root is λᾱός (laos), “the people,” which is featured in the name Nicholas: “victory-people,” which joins laos to nike (νίκη), the word for and goddess of “victory” as well as source of the athletic brand name.

Since the video’s release, politicians, pundits, and public figures have been decrying Trump’s comments. But, ironically enough for the etymology of lewd, many in the evangelical community continue to defend the Republican candidate – including some “un-lewd” clergy themselves.

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In a “galaxy”… so, so close to home

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

From its opening lines to its ticket lines, Star Wars,  whose latest episode, The Force Awakens, opened this week, is as epic as its interstellar setting.  But the etymology of this galaxy, it turns out, is so, so close to home.

Not just any old trip to the store. "Galaxy." Doodle by me.
Not just any old trip to the store. “Galaxy.” Doodle by me.


English first gazes at the word galaxy, so to speak, late in the 1300s. It first named the Milky Way. Several centuries later, it was referring to other such star systems, whose existence Edwin Hubble only officially verified in the 1920s.

Galaxy derives from the Latin galaxias. It may have entered English either directly from Latin or through a French form of the word, galaxie. Latin borrowed its word from Greek’s γαλαξίας (galaxias)short for γαλαξίας κύκλος (galaxias kyklos), which means “milky circle.” And at the center of this galaxias is no black hole: it’s γάλα (gála), “milk.” (The base is γαλακτ-, or galakt-.)

Milky ways 

Have you ever looked up a clear night sky and marveled at that streaming band of stars glowing white overhead? You’re beholding the Milky Way, the galaxy we call home. Indeed, as galaxy‘s etymology has already suggested, the Milky Way takes its name from its milky-white appearance. Chaucer himself notes this a long time ago in his oft-quoted “House of Fame”:

Se yonder, loo, the Galoxie,
Whiche men clepeth the melky weye,
For hit ys white…

This poetry of Milky Way was indeed inspired: the English name calques the Latin via lactea, a translation of the Greek galaxias kyklos, as we saw before.


Now, fix your etymological telescope on the Latin lactea and Greek galaxias. Do you see anything in common? Gaze at lact- and –lax- and you might see that the words share an orbit. (The basic Latin noun for “milk” is lac, source of lactic, lactate, latte, and even lettuce, whose juice is milky, apparently.)

For these Latin and Greek cognates, Indo-Europeanists propose a root *g(a)lag- or *g(a)lakt-, “milk.” But, interestingly, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that “no common Indo-European root for milk can be reconstructed.” This is little curious, perhaps, given that scholars can construct a common root for, say, cow. Germanic words, such as English’s milk, suckle a different root: *melg-, which refers to “rubbing off,” an action for obtaining milk, I suppose.

The universe is home to hundreds of billions of galaxies, each of which holds hundred of billions of stars. And our word for these incomprehensibly huge, imponderably numerous phenomena derives from something so mundane, so ordinary: “milk.” Now I think that’s epic.

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