“Every word carries a secret inside itself; it’s called etymology. It is the DNA of a word.”

 — Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack & Honey 

“Etymology” derives from the Greek word etumos, meaning “true.” The practice of etymology is uncovering the truth by tracing the root of a word. If you’re interested in language, it can be quite exhilarating. Like being a linguistic detective. 

The English language is strange at the best of times, it being a historical cocktail of Germanic and Latinate influences. Never is this more apparent than when we trace the origins of words. We used the fantastic resource etymonline for all the definitions and origins cited in this article. 

1 | Disaster

disaster (n.)

  • "anything that befalls of ruinous or distressing nature; any unfortunate event," especially a sudden or great misfortune, 1590s, 
  • from French désastre (1560s), 
  • from Italian disastro, literally "ill-starred," from dis-, here merely pejorative, equivalent to English mis- "ill" (see dis-) + astro "star, planet," 
  • from Latin astrum
  • from Greek astron "star" (from PIE root *ster- (2) "star").

The origin of the word points to unfavourable events being blamed on certain planet positions. Destiny is written in the stars - in some conceptions of fate in mythology, the universe is fixed and inevitable. 

2 | Muscle 

A far cry from World’s Strongest Man, the origin of the word ‘muscle’ is perhaps the most surprising. 

muscle (n.)

  • "contractible animal tissue consisting of bundles of fibers," 
  • late 14c., "a muscle of the body," 
  • from Latin musculus "a muscle," literally "a little mouse,"
  • diminutive of mus "mouse" (see mouse (n.)).

Rather than relating to strength and brawn as we understand it, ‘muscle’ is derived from the appearance of a muscle under the skin. Particularly biceps, which were thought both in Latin and in Greek to resemble a mouse running beneath the skin. 

3 | Nice

Perhaps you’ve been told by an English teacher in the past to avoid using the word ‘nice’. This is because the word is so commonly used in our language that it’s not highly descriptive or imaginative. 

Many English teachers consider it a cop-out. One of the most scathing commentaries on the word ‘nice’ is in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Henry snarkily berates Catherine for overusing the word, remarking, “it does for everything.” 

Yet its origins are far more interesting than the word appears. 

nice (adj.)

  • late 13c., "foolish, ignorant, frivolous, senseless," 
  • from Old French nice (12c.) "careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish," 
  • from Latin nescius "ignorant, unaware," literally "not-knowing,"
  • from ne- "not" (from PIE root *ne- "not") + stem of scire "to know" (see science). 
  • "The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid, faint-hearted" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c. 1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830).

Here, you can clearly see the amelioration of ‘nice’ throughout history. Interestingly, though, there are still hints of its root in how many people regard the word today. Although it came to acquire a positive meaning, we might associate it with the word ‘frivolous’ just as it was in the late 13th century. It is the kind of weak adjective many of us carelessly throw around, in want of a better word. With that being said, society undervalues niceness. It’s still nice to be nice. 

4 | Cloud

cloud (n.)

  • Old English clud "mass of rock, hill," related to clod.
  • The modern sense "rain-cloud, mass of evaporated water visible and suspended in the sky" is a metaphoric extension that begins to appear c. 1300 in southern texts, based on the similarity of cumulus clouds and rock masses. 
  • The usual Old English word for "cloud" was weolcan (see welkin). 
  • In Middle English, skie also originally meant "cloud." 
  • The last entry for cloud in the original rock mass sense in Middle English Compendium is from c. 1475.

The origins of the word ‘cloud’ are surprising. You wouldn’t automatically associate their wispy appearance with the solidity of rocks. The etymology explains that it refers to the mass it accumulates and thus appearing similar to earth formations. 

5 | Oxymoron

This is a great example of the word being an example of itself.

oxymoron (n.)

  • in rhetoric, "a figure conjoining words or terms apparently contradictory so as to give point to the statement or expression," 
  • 1650s, from Greek oxymōron, noun use of neuter of oxymōros (adj.) "pointedly foolish," 
  • from oxys "sharp, pointed" (from PIE root *ak- "be sharp, rise (out) to a point, pierce") + mōros "stupid" (see moron). 

Now, it's used more broadly to denote a contradiction in terms. Originally, though, it was a clash of terms around sharpness and dullness. 

6 | Quarantine

Sorry to use this example mid-pandemic, but the origins of ‘quarantine’ may interest you. 

quarantine (n.)

  • 1660s, "period a ship suspected of carrying disease is kept in isolation," 
  • from Italian quaranta giorni, literally "space of forty days," 
  • from quaranta "forty," from Latin quadraginta "forty," which is related to quattuor "four" (from PIE root *kwetwer- "four"). So called from the Venetian policy (first enforced in 1377) of keeping ships from plague-stricken countries waiting off its port for 40 days to assure that no latent cases were aboard. Also see lazaretto. 
  • The extended sense of "any period of forced isolation" is from the 1670s.
  • Earlier in English the word meant "period of 40 days in which a widow has the right to remain in her dead husband's house" (1520s), and, as quarentyne (15c.), "desert in which Christ fasted for 40 days," from Latin quadraginta "forty."

We understand ‘quarantine’ as a period of isolation to prevent the spread of an illness, but the background on this is very interesting. The root of the word is more specific in the period of time elapsed. 

7 | Tragedy

Without the word ‘tragedy’, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest songs by the Bee Gees. But there is also an interesting word history to be grateful for. 

tragedy (n.)

  • late 14c., "play or other serious literary work with an unhappy ending,"
  • from Old French tragedie (14c.), from Latin tragedia "a tragedy,"
  •  from Greek tragodia "a dramatic poem or play in formal language and having an unhappy resolution," 
  • apparently literally "goat song," from tragos "goat, buck" + ōidē "song" (see ode), probably on model of rhapsodos (see rhapsody).

Although the specificity of the goat connection is debated, the connection to goats, in general, is accepted. There are a few different possibilities as to why. The etymology includes the literal translation “goat song”. Tragedy as we know it has its roots in ancient Greece, where it’s thought people dressed as goats and satyrs in plays. There are other theories surrounding goat sacrifices. Either way, who knew goats were involved at all?

8 | Surprise 

What would a list of surprising etymology be without the word ‘surprise’ itself? 

surprise (n.)

  • also formerly surprize, late 14c., 
  • "unexpected attack or capture," from Old French surprise "a taking unawares" (13c.), 
  • from noun use of past participle of Old French sorprendre "to overtake, seize, invade" (12c.), 
  • from sur- "over" (see sur- (1)) + prendre "to take," from Latin prendere, contracted from prehendere "to grasp, seize" (from prae- "before," see pre-, + -hendere, from PIE root *ghend- "to seize, take"). 
  • Meaning "something unexpected" first recorded 1590s, that of "feeling of astonishment caused by something unexpected" is c. 1600. 
  • Meaning "fancy dish" is attested from 1708.

When you think of the word ‘surprise’ today, you might think of smiling faces. They're shouting the word at you as you open your eyes to an unexpected party. Remember parties?

In history, though, it had a much more violent origin. The word is rooted in an invasion. In having the element of surprise as an advantage. It is also interesting that it has root words meaning “grasp". This can also be related to words like “comprehend”. 

9 | Comrade

It is interesting how the word ‘comrade’ is considered a non-neutral term. Whether it’s a veteran recalling time spent with his old army comrades, or used among the political left. Its origins point to it being more widely applicable. 

comrade (n.)

  • 1590s, "one who shares the same room," hence "a close companion," 
  • from French camarade (16c.), 
  • from Spanish camarada "chamber mate," 
  • or Italian camerata "a partner," 
  • from Latin camera "vaulted room, chamber" (see camera).
  • In Spanish, a collective noun referring to one's company.
  • In 17c., sometimes jocularly misspelled comrogue
  • Used from 1884 by socialists and communists as a prefix to a surname to avoid "Mister" and other such titles. 
  • Also related: Comradely; comradeship.

With this considered, you could call any of your cohabitants “comrade”. And it’s perfectly acceptable to use it for your partner, no matter what your politics are. 

10 | Clue

To end where we started, with the spirit of investigation, let’s have a look at the word ‘clue’. 

clue (n.)

  • "anything that guides or directs in an intricate case," 1590s, a special use of a revised spelling of clew "a ball of thread or yarn" (q.v.). 
  • The word, which is native Germanic, in Middle English was clewe, also cleue; some words borrowed from Old French in -ue, -eu also were spelled -ew in Middle English, such as blew, imbew, but these later were reformed to -ue, and this process was extended to native words (hue, true, clue) which had ended in a vowel and -w
  • The spelling clue is first attested mid-15c.
  • The sense shift is originally in reference to the clew of thread given by Ariadne to Theseus to use as a guide out of the Labyrinth in Greek mythology. The purely figurative sense of "that which points the way," without regard to labyrinths, is from 1620s. 
  • As something which a bewildered person does not have, by 1948.

The word origins rooted in old stories like this are the most fascinating. A clue could be any object now. But, once upon a time, it was explicitly a ball of yarn a character used to find his way. 

We always advocate being mindful of the language you’re using. Hopefully, you found it interesting to go on this etymological journey with us to uncover the truths of some words we take for granted.

This article was originally published in our July issue of Readfeed, our monthly newsletter. To see content like this first, along with helpful writing and readability tips, you can sign up here.

Laura Kelly

Laura is a freelance writer and worked at Readable for a number of years. Laura is well-versed in optimising content for readability and Readable's suite of tools. She aims to write guides that help you make the most out of Readable.