15 English Words with Interesting Origins

The English language has a rich and fascinating history of borrowing and developing its language from across the world.

Apr 13, 2023By Rhianna Padman, BA Classics

english words interesting origins


Although English is primarily a Germanic language in terms of grammar and basic vocabulary, over time, it has evolved and absorbed vocabulary from several other languages, including Latin, Ancient Greek, and Old French, to name a few. The English language’s history is complex; various factors such as trade, cultural exchange, conquest, and globalization have shaped its vocabulary. Today, English is the most widely spoken language in the world and continues to evolve and adapt to new technologies and cultural influences. The diversity and richness of the English vocabulary reflect its long and complex history as a global language of communication and cultural exchange. Here are 15 English words with interesting origins.


1. Arctic (Ancient Greek)

“Ursa Major” in Urania’s Mirror by Sidney Hall, 1825, via Wikimedia Commons


The northernmost area of the Earth, characterized by its icy conditions, is known as the Arctic. The name of this frosty region stems, as with many other words in this list, from an ancient Greek word. In this case, the word is “ἄρκτος”, meaning bear. This was in reference to the Ursa Major and Minor, constellations visible only in the Northern Hemisphere, also known as the Great and Little Bear. Coincidentally, the


Arctic is the land of the polar bears and this is often mistakenly thought to be behind its name. In this line of thought, Antarctica is etymologically believed to be the land “of no Bear”. However, the Greek is actually “άντιάρκτικός” which translates to “opposite of the Bear”.


2. Awkward (Old Norse)


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The word “awkward” comes from the Old Norse word “afugr” which means “turned the wrong way” or “crooked”. This word was borrowed into Middle English as “awkeward”, which was used to describe something clumsy or difficult to handle. Over time, the meaning of the word evolved to describe something that was socially uncomfortable or embarrassing, and this usage has been in common usage in the English language for hundreds of years. The word “awkward” is used to describe a wide range of social situations and experiences, from minor blunders to major faux pas. It continues to be a valuable part of the English vocabulary for expressing social discomfort and embarrassment.


3. Checkmate (Persian)

Joueurs d’échecs by Honoré Daumier, 1863-7, via Wikimedia Commons


In chess, the term “checkmate” is voiced when the player’s king is attacked, and there is no way for the king to be escaped being captured. The term is said to have derived from the Persian phrase “shāh māt”; the translation of this expression has caused much debate. Originally, the phrase was simply understood as “the king died”. At the end of a chess game, however, a player’s king does not die but is placed in an inescapable position, a competition of capture rather than death. Instead, the word “māt” should be understood as the “shah” (“king”) is “at a loss” or “defeated”.


4. Chocolate (Nahuatl)


Chocolate, a favorite indulgence around the world, has Aztec origins. The exact etymology of the word is uncertain, though the Nahuatl word for chocolate drink is “cacahuatl” (cocoa water). One proposed source is from “xocolatl”, a bitter drink brewed from cocoa beans. Another suggested origin is the word “chicolatl” from “chikolli” (“hook”), the utensil used to mix chocolate and water, and “ātl” meaning “water”.


5. Genius (Latin)

Statuette of a Roman genius, 1-50 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


In Ancient Rome, a “genius” was a guardian deity or spirit that protected each individual throughout their life. The word stems from the Latin “gigno” meaning to “give birth”, “produce” or “bear” since the guardian spirit was thought to appear as an individual was born. These guardian spirits were said to dictate the mental prowess of an individual. If a person was exceptionally talented and skilled, they were considered to possess a powerful spirit. It is clear how the word evolved to a contemporary understanding of “genius” as a naturally gifted and outstandingly intelligent individual.


6. Nice (Latin)


The word originally comes from the Latin word “nescius”, which means “ignorant” or “unaware”. This word was borrowed into Old French as “nice” and was used to describe someone simple or foolish. Over time, the meaning of the word evolved. By the 14th century, “nice” was used in Middle English to describe someone who was pleasant, kind, or good-natured.


7. Quiz (Irish)


The word “quiz” comes from the Irish word “cuisle” meaning “a pulse” or “vein”, which was used in a word play to describe a short-written test as a quick pulse or sudden shock. In the late 18th century, the word was used to describe novelty entertainment, where people were asked impromptu questions to test their knowledge. This type of entertainment became popular in London and quickly spread throughout the English-speaking world. The word “quiz” eventually came to be used more broadly to describe any type of test or examination designed to evaluate someone’s knowledge or abilities.


8. Outrage (Latin)


A noun and verb, “outrage’ is triggered by a serious offense which causes an intense reaction of indignation, disbelief, and anger. Surprisingly, the word “outrage” is neither etymologically related to the word “out” nor “rage” though an outraged individual can be, but not exclusively, enraged. Instead, it has an entirely different root. The word stems from the Late Latin “ultraticum” (“going beyond”) in turn from the Latin word “ultra” (“beyond”). Therefore, from the original understanding, an “outrage” is an act that is beyond what is considered acceptable rather than one that enrages. This is evident in the form of “outrageous”, for instance, denoting shock or excess rather than just anger.


9. Robot (Czech)

Rossum’s Universal Robots by Bedřich Feuerstein, via The Guardian


The word “robot” was first used in the play “Rossum’s Universal Robots” by Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1920. The word “robot” comes from the Czech word “robota”, which means “forced labor” or “drudgery”. In the play, the term “robot” is used to describe artificially created beings that are designed to perform menial tasks for their human masters.


10. Sarcasm (Ancient Greek)


Sarcasm, often humorously, is the use of acerbic comments that mean the opposite of what they are saying in order to criticize or mock someone. The word “sarcasm” derives from the Ancient Greek “σαρκασμός” (sneer, jest, taunt) from the verb “σαρκάζω” (I gnash, I tear the flesh). Indeed, sarcasm is often described as a cutting or biting type of humor intending to get under another’s skin.


11. Shampoo (Sanskrit)

La Coiffure by Edgar Degas, circa 1896, via The National Gallery


Shampoo is an essential and commonplace item in every household; the name of this hair-washing liquid stems from the Hindi word “champna” in turn deriving from the Sanskrit “capayati”. The word “capayati” can be translated as “pounds” or “kneads” suggesting a sort of massaging motion. During the colonial era, the word appeared in the English language, taking on the meaning of cleansing and massaging the scalp, which later came to the modern understanding of the liquid used to wash hair.


12. Sinister (Latin)


If an individual or situation is described as “sinister”, they provoke an ominous feeling of evil, harm, and malice. The adjective stems from the Latin word “sinistra” meaning “the left-hand side”. In many cultures, the left was associated with unluckiness, weakness, and even the devil in opposition to the fortunate right. The Romans, for example, would interpret good or bad omens by watching which direction birds would fly in. The birds flying right would predict a good auspice, but those flying left signified bad luck. The favor of right over left can be observed in another word deriving from Latin. The adjective “dexterous”, meaning skillful, comes from the Latin word “dexter” meaning “right”.


13. Tantalise (Ancient Greek)

Tantalus by Gioacchino Assereto, 1600-49, via Museum Joanneum


The word “tantalize” originates from the infamous Greek myth about the punishment of Tantalus for his crimes against the gods. One version of the myth states that Tantalus — among the first generation of mortals invited to dine with the gods — abused this honor by stealing their ambrosia and nectar. He brought these stolen goods to his people and revealed divine secrets to them. Tantalus is notoriously also known for hosting a banquet where he served forbidden food to the gods. Horrifically, this food was revealed to be his son, who he had slaughtered and cooked into a stew to test the omniscience of the gods. The gods recognized the atrocity and were not fooled. Only Demeter, troubled by her daughter’s abduction, ate a chunk of the meat. Furious at Tantalus’ offenses, Zeus enacted the most wicked of punishments upon him. In the depths of the Underworld, Tantalus was made to stand in a pool of water under the low branches of a fruit tree. If he reached down to quench his insatiable thirst, the water would drain away. When he reached up to satisfy his ravenous appetite, the branches would rise away from his grasp. As such, the word “tantalize” is to torment or tease by presenting something desirable but, ultimately, unobtainable.


14. Tulip (Persian)

Four Tulips by Jacob Marrel, circa 1635-45, via The Metropolitan Museum


Tulips, bulbous flowers known for their vibrant colors, originated from the Middle East. The word itself has Persian roots stemming from the word “dulband”, meaning turban, most likely selected due to the rounded shape of the flower resembling this cultural headwear. Ottoman sultans wore this flower on their turbans to symbolize luxury and power.


15. Whisky (Gaelic)

A Language Family Tree by Minna Sundberg, 2015, via The Guardian


Funnily enough, the English word ‘whisky’ derives from the Gaelic “uisge beathe” translated as “water of life” referring to a distilled spirit. This Classical Gaelic phrase was most likely borrowed from the Romans, who referred to alcohol as “aqua vitae” (“water of life”). Fascinatingly, the Gaelic word shares its roots both with the Germanic word “water” as well as the Slavic “voda”, from which another alcoholic spirit, “vodka”, derives.

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By Rhianna PadmanBA ClassicsRhianna is a recent Classics graduate from the University of Exeter. Her studies mainly focused on Ancient Greek and Latin, allowing her to explore in depth a range of ancient texts. She is especially interested in mythology, language, and psychology, with her dissertation focusing on applying Freudian psychoanalysis to Homer’s Odyssey. During her year abroad at the University of Malta, she developed a keen passion for traveling. Since her time in Malta, she has been to Italy, Croatia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and she plans on many more places to visit!