Etymology is the field of study that unveils compelling facts about the origins of the words that make up the English language.
Even if you’re a native English speaker, you’ll be astonished by the stories behind some of the words that you use every day. They can come from tales of a long-distance past, of the middle age, war or funny interactions that the people at the time had.
Let’s take a look at our top 4 words with fascinating origins.
Originally, a dashboard is a board that people attached to the front of the horse carriage to prevent mud from kicking up on the passengers when a horse comes dashing in. It was often made of wood or leather.
Over time, the word has evolved to mean the front part of something. Nowadays, it is used to mean the panel in front of the driver of a vehicle or aircraft pilots. Some even use it to mean the front page of a website or a business overview.
The Ampersand, which most people know as the logogram “&” was a letter in the English alphabet way back in the day. It came after “Z” in the old alphabet and it means “and”, taking after the Latin word “et”.
In the old days, when kids were singing the alphabet song, they would sing “and per se and” after finishing the Z. The phrase “and per se and” is where Ampersand comes from and it basically means “also and as itself”.
The word “Barbarian” is an interesting one. It originates from an ancient Greek word βάρβαρος, which was used to refer to all non-Greek speakers such as Egyptians and Phoenicians. To all Greeks back then, all other languages sounded like people saying “bar bar bar” – they couldn’t really comprehend foreign languages’ sounds and vocals.
The “bar bar bar” became the root of the word “barbarian”, which means “babbling” or “gibberish”. Later, the word was also adopted by the Romans to refer to foreign cultures that didn’t practice Greek or Roman.
As time went on, it eventually evolved to mean those who are savage and uncivilized. From then on, it spread through the continent and made its way to England where it became “barbarian”.
In Europe, the word “bear” was just used to depict anything brown – so it basically means “the brown thing”. Bears actually had a different name back then but the name was considered a taboo. People believed that by saying or using that name would summon a bear that would kill everyone. As it got used less and less due to being a taboo, the old bear name was eventually forgotten, and the euphemism “bear” came to be the name of bears.
According to some research, the original name for bear in Proto-Indo-European was “Rktho”, “Rkto”, “Rkso” or “Rtko”.
It’s interesting to note that in some Slavic countries, even “bear” or “the brown thing” became taboo because people were too scared of bears, so they had to go even further. They had to call them in a very round-about way like “the one who knows where honey is”. Bears are scary!