Etymology is the study of word origins – where they come from and how and where they were created. Many words that we use today come from different languages that have evolved and changed over time. To discover where a word comes from often puts it in an entirely new light. The following are some interesting and amusing examples.
Meaning: (n.) a person who murders someone for political or religious reasons
Etymology: In the literal sense an assassin was a person who used cannabis. The root of the word, which entered English in the 16th century comes from the Arabic for ‘hashish eater’. It was first used in reference to the Nizari branch of Ismaili Muslims who ruled part of northern Persia in the 12th and 13th centuries, during the time of the Crusades. Renowned as militant fanatics, they were reputed to use hashish before being sent to murder the Christian leaders.
Meaning: (n.) 1. exaggerated or aggressive patriotism 2. excessive or prejudiced support or loyalty for one’s own cause, group or sex
Etymology: Named after Nicolas Chauvin, a Napoleonic veteran noted for his extreme patriotism.
Meaning: (n.) a danger or risk; (v.) to risk the loss of
Etymology: The term evolves from the Arabic ‘al zahr’, meaning ‘the dice’. In Western Europe the term came to be associated with a number of games using dice, which were learned during the Crusades in the Holy Land. The term eventually took on the connotation of danger because, from very early on, games using dice were associated with the risky business of gambling and con artists using corrupted dice.
Meaning: (n.) a violent and aggressive man, especially a criminal
Etymology: Thug comes from the Hindi word thag ‘swindler, thief’, and beyond that goes back to ancient Sanskrit. The original Thugs were an organisation of robbers and assassins in India, followers of the goddess Kali, who waylaid and strangled their victims in a ritually prescribed manner. The modern sense, denoting any violent man, was first recorded in 1839.
Meaning: (adj) of little value or importance
Etymology: Trivial entered Middle English from Latin trivium ‘place where three roads meet’, from tri- ‘three’ and via ‘road, way’. A medieval trivium was an introductory course at university involving the study of grammar, rhetoric and logic. In the Middle Ages seven ‘liberal arts’ were recognised, of which the trivium contained the lower three and the quadrivium the upper four (the ‘mathematical arts’ of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music). This association with elementary subjects led to trivial being used to mean ‘of little value or importance’ from the 16th century.
Meaning: (n.) offence or annoyance
Etymology: Umbrage is first recorded in the late Middle Ages. It comes from Latin ‘umbra’ meaning ‘shadow’. The first meaning of umbrage in English were ‘shade or shadow’ or a ‘shadowy outline’. The latter sense gave rise to the meaning ‘ground for suspicion’, which led in turn to the current meaning. Umbrage is also related to the words umbrella, sombre, umber and adumbrate.