The English language has a reputation for being rather ridiculous – full of exceptions to rules which don’t really make sense to begin with. I’ve scoured my stack of dictionaries and lexicons so you can wow your dinner guests with your lexicographic knowledge (or possibly make them never want to come back again).
Avocado: The word avocado derives from the Spanish term aguacate, which comes from the Nahuatl ahuacatl, meaning ‘testicle’. If you’re wondering why, have a look at an avocado tree; the sight of these soft, semi-round balls hanging down will likely give you a clue.
Cappuccino: ‘Cappuccin’ means ‘hood’ in Italian. How are hoods and coffee linked? By the dark oak-brown hue of the cloaks worn by Capuchin monks- the colour of a perfect cappuccino.
Salary:The origin of this word is the Latin, salarium – the payment given for salt. Centuries ago, salt was at a premium, so much so that it was referred to as white gold and in Egypt, labourers were paid with salt so they could preserve their food for the next month.
When the Romans took over, they continued the custom and the word ‘salary’ became a catchall term for payment given to workers at the end of each month.
Muscle:The Latin for muscle, which is ‘musculus,’ means ‘little mice.’ Romans apparently perceived rippling muscles as mice moving about under the skin.
Tell that to the grunting, flexing sweating specimens hogging the gym mirror. Or maybe not.
Vanilla: Hernando Cortes, who conquered the Aztec Empire, found the vanilla plant and named it ‘vainilla.’ ‘Vainilla’ came from the Latin word ‘vagina’ which means ‘sheath’.
It’s said Cortes chose the term for the way the pod must be split open for the beans to come out.
Electric : This is once for the gemmologists among you. William Gilbert coined the term in his 1600 book De Magnate, to describe the flow of charged particles from a medium. It comes from the ancient Greek term for amber, electron, likely chosen by Gilbertbecause rubbing amber on cloth generates static electricity.
Sabotage: Destruction and footwear are etymological cousins. The word comes from rioting French workers in the early 19th Century who would damage machinery by throwing sabots- wooden shoes- into them.
Tomfoolery: Like we use ‘Tom Dick and Harry’ as a generic term for the human race, Tom Fool was the generic idiot in the 16th Century. ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’ was also a popular term for the beggars and vagrants who would pretend to be maimed or mad in hopes of receiving donations from the public. Hence, we use ‘tomfoolery’ to refer to various varieties of shenanigans. Sorry Tom.
Rucksack: Another instance of linguistic thievery. ‘Ruck’ comes from the German word rücken which means ‘back’. So Rucksack literally means ‘backsack.’
That just sounds inappropriate to me.
Tofu: This many confirm a lot of things for some people, depending on which side of the ‘tofu is disgusting and should be banned’ argument you’re on.
‘Do fu’ is the Chinese word from which we get ‘tofu’ in English.
‘Do’ means ‘bean’ and ‘fu’ means rotten or sour.
So, as many will agree, tofu is literally ‘rotten beans.’
Ketchup: This one also comes from a Chinese word. ‘Ke-stiap’ is a potent concoction of picked fish and spices popular among the early Chinese.
By the 19th century, new versions of the recipe emerged in the U.S. thanks to colonialism. Of the three varieties available (Tomato, walnut and mushroom) the tomato version became the most popular. In a case of Chinese Whispers, ‘ke-stiap’ became ‘ketchup.’
Moped: Turns out I’ve been using this word wrong all my life and you probably have to – unless you’re Swedish. Moped combines the Swedish words ‘motor’ and ‘peddler.’
So technically, the proper definition of a moped is a bicycle with a motor, and we should be using it to talk about e-bikes rather than scooters. My life is a lie.
Loft: Yet more robbery. But there aren’t many Norse men wandering around these days to be offended. Another word for attic, loft comes from the Old Norse ‘lopt,’ which means sky.
I want a sky room now.
I hope you feel more entomologically informed than you were five minutes ago. That’s all from me for now. Toodle-oo! (A word which likely came from ‘toddle’ meaning ‘to walk’, or a neologism designed to resemble the farewell toot of a carhorn.)
And here are a few more words I found in the writing of this article that really have no place here other than that they’re weird and good for a giggle:
Doodle-sack – a word for bagpipe from the 19th century.
Erinaceous– resembling a hedgehog
Oxter– an outdated word meaning ’armpit.’
Winklepicker– a style of shoe from the 1950s which had a sharp and long pointed toe. Not sure I want to know what a ‘winkle’ is or how you pick it with a shoe. I’ll leave that particular bit of research to someone else.