Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another Five Words With Surprising Etymologies

Because how else do you follow up “Five Words With Surprising Etymologies” and “Five More Words With Surprising Etymologies”?


diamond: Everyone knows that the two most important qualities of diamonds are that they’re expensive and that they’re hard. It’s that second quality that should ring a bell when you learn that the word goes back to the Latin adamentem, which meant “the hardest metal” — hence Wolverine’s skeleton being fortified with adamantium — but was also used figuratively in the way we use adamant today. The Latin word comes from the Greek adamas, “unbreakable, unflexible,” but literally “unconquerable.”

spruce: It’s a tree, but I feel like I hear it used more often as the verb paired with the adverb up and meaning “to make spiffy.” What’s the connection? In the fifteenth-century, spruce goods were fashionable, and the word has retained this positive meaning ever since. But these old-timey spruce goods weren’t made of wood. Instead, the term spruce is an alteration of Pruce, the French equivalent of Prussia, and the goods came to England via German mechants.

sideburns, etymologically
why it’s not vespuccia
pajamas and pyjamas
partridge: We get the word from the Old French name for the bird, pertis, and that ultimately goes back to the Greek perdesthai, which means “to break wind,” probably because of how much noise the bird makes. So yes, that first syllable’s similarity to fart is not coincidental.

California: In short, we’re not exactly sure where it comes from, but explorers called the westernmost part of the New World this name as a result of Las sergas de Esplandi├ín, a Spanish adventure novel that featured a island populated by amazons. The island was called California and its ruler was Queen Calafia. While some guess that both California and Calafia come from the Arabic word khalifah — which means “Muslim leader” and which gives English the word caliph — we don’t know where the author got the idea for the name. Similarly, the Song of Roland mentions an area called Califerne — “And in Affrike, and those in Califerne” — that could be the genesis of California, but even then the association between the state’s name and Islam remains, given that Califerne is probably supposed to refer to an area ruled by a caliph.

comptroller: Until I looked it up, I actually had no clue what comptroller meant. I assumed it resulted from the forced mashing-together of controller and computer. Nope. A comptroller is just a specialized type of controller, essentially, with the dictionary definition being “the chief accountant of a company, organization or government.” And it’s supposed to be pronounced exactly like controller, through the “p” is seldom silent. Etymonline explains that comptroller is just a variant of controller that was influenced by the unrelated French word compte, “account,” and that lingered in English for the last 500 years. Wikipedia conjectures that comptroller results from a blend between compte and the Middle English countreroller, “someone who checks the copy of a scroll,” that became associated with the checkers of financial records. And Webster just states that it’s an alteration of countreroller. I don’t know which, if any, is the most correct, but I’m sure that I shouldn’t be pronouncing the word phonetically if I want to sound smart.

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