Fun with Words

The ‘logy’ of etymology

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word ‘detour’? Did you think it was reverse use of route (read detour backwards) and also meant the reverse? Do words have origins and patterns that need to be explored? Do you get curious when you see words with common beginnings and endings? Most words in the English language have a distinct history. Etymology is the study of the origin of words. It is derived from the Greek words etumos which means real or true and ology suggests the study of something. And that is the etymology of etymology!

There are limited ways in which new words germinate. One of them is language change, the natural way in which language adapts itself over time. Language change is responsible for slang being included in dictionaries today. Other ways are word formation by deriving, compounding or blending words, borrowing — the adoption of loan words from other languages — and onomatopoeia and sound symbolism i.e, the creation of imitative words such as ‘click’ or ‘grunt’. 

Names of towns and villages in England are fine examples of etymology as most have their origin in Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language. For instance, Hampton is a combination of ‘ham’ and ‘ton’ i.e ‘home’ and ‘town’ and Hampstead means, more or less, ‘homestead’. The ‘-ing’ refers to a place founded by the followers of a chieftain. For example, Reading is named after a certain Reada and Hastings after Haesta, who was probably quick-tempered. Any town name ending in ‘-ford’ or ‘-bridge’ was sited at a point where you could cross the river e.g, Oxford and Cambridge. The word ‘stoke’ means a hamlet or small settlement. Places such as Basingstoke owe their name origin to that. City names ending in “-minster” are sited around minsters or monasteries — for example Buckminster, Axeminster and Westminster.  Most ‘-casters’, ‘-ceisters’ or ‘-chesters’ started life as Roman camps; Manchester and Winchester are examples. 

The word ‘nightmare’ has an unexpected origin. ‘Mare’ is an evil female spirit in German folklore, which suffocates sleeping persons. The world’s favourite snack — the sandwich — owes its origin to the Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu. The story goes that he used to ask his valet to serve him beef between slices of bread so that his hands wouldn’t get greasy. A very drab beginning to the world’s most convenient snack!

The word ‘clue’ is derived from Greek mythology. ‘Clew’ means a ball of yarn. A Greek myth tells the tale about Ariadne who gives Theseus a ball of yarn to help him find his way out of the monster Minotaur’s labyrinth. Thus, the word “clew” came to mean something that points the way. 

Something as American as ketchup got its name from a sauce of pickled fish and spices in 17th century China named kôe-chiap. Later, its popularity spread to Indonesia and Malaysia where the sauce was called kecap, the pronunciation of which, kay-chap, explains where we got the word ketchup.


Try it out

Understanding a word’s etymology helps us regard it in an entirely new light. Match the clues below with words of origin from the ‘answers’.

Word origins

1. The plural of the Latin word trivium, meaning a place where three roads come together.
2. Shah mat, Arabic for 'the king is dead'. 
3. Secunda pars minuta, second diminished part.
4. Novem, the Latin for 'ninth', and meant the ninth hour of the day. 
5. The Latin for movement — momentum — and meant the smallest weight that would move the pointer on a scale. 
6. Ancient Greek for 'eating beside', and referred to people who ate at someone else's table.


a) Parasite    b) Noon   
c) Moment   d) Checkmate    
e) Second     f) Trivia


1-f,   2-d,  3-e,  4-b,  5-c,  6-a