At various moments in its life, a word will hop languages, change meanings, travel through sinister moments and land in pleasant ones. But no matter how many times it’s superimposed, and how far it gets from its original source, a word doesn’t let go of its memories easily. Here are 11 modern English words with socially insensitive origins.
1. Hysteria (n.) – a wild, irrational eruption of fear or emotion
Hysteria begins in the womb, or so thought the medical scholars of the 1610s, who named the condition after the Latin hystericus, meaning “of the womb.” Those who’ve studied the Victorian era, or read The Awakening in high school, may know that the go-to prognosis of the time for just about every female’s symptom from the occasional hissy fit to chronic seizures was a pesky wayfaring uterus. The condition was thought to be caused by sexual frustration and cured by intercourse or pelvic massage, the latter often performed by physicians and midwives. When doctors finally got fed up with the tedious task in the late 19th century, the personal vibrator was created to take their place
2. Barbarian (n.) – a savage, uncivilized person
The word barbarian was born from xenophobia in ancient Greece. Borrowing the Proto-Indo-European root barbar-, imitative of incomprehensible foreign babble, the Greeks used the word barbaroi to refer to all non-citizens of their superior state, particularly Medes and Persians. Ironically, other non-Greek cultures, including the Romans, adopted the word to refer to non-citizens of their superior states.
3. Paddy wagon (n.) – a large police vehicle used to transport prisoners to jail
A shortening of the popular Irish name Patrick, Paddy became a common slang term for “an Irishman” beginning in 1780. The slur must have stuck around for some time because in the 1930s, the police van in vogue was christened the Paddy wagon, given the number of Irish officers in the force.
4. Bigotry (n.) – intolerance of foreign beliefs and people
While a lot of contention surrounds the etymology of this word, no matter which way you spin it, all of the most popular theories come down to some serious violations of PC standards. The first version of name-calling was doled out by twelfth-century Frenchmen, who used the derogatory term bigot to describe Normans who wouldn’t get off their high-horses to kiss the king’s feet because of a religious oath they took, which sounded something like “bi God.” In French, bigot still means “religious zealot.”
A second theory speculates that bigot comes from the Spanish hombre de bigotes, “a man with a mustache,” referring to mustachioed Spanish men intolerant of their Jewish neighbors who refused to shave their facial hair for religious reasons.
5. Run amok (v.) – behave riotously; run around wildly
The term’s origins first appeared in Malay as the adjective amoq, defined by Marsden’s Malay Dictionary as “rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.” Its first appearance in other languages, however, makes clear that such acts were viewed as a uniquely and characteristically Malaysian habit. In 1772, the British ship captain James Cook used the words to describe frenzied Malaysians who would get high on opium, run into the streets, and kill anyone they confronted—an observation that had been previously recorded in Portuguese as early as 1516.
6. Gyp (v.) – swindle, cheat
The slur was shortened from Gypsy in 1889, referring to the tribe’s infamy as a swindling culture.
7. Bugger (n.) – affectionately or contemptuously, an annoying boy
Bugger’s etymology is an affront to both homosexuals and Bulgarians; its origins are in the Medieval Latin Bulgaris, meaning heretic. Literally, though, Bulgaris means “Bulgarian,” a people associated with heresy because they were said to practice sodomy.
8. Hooligan (n.) – aggressive, lawless youngster; ruffian
Not too many people can boast a common word as their legacy, but the lively Irish Houligan family of London can. The Houligans were rumored to have fought the police on numerous noise complaints. The word Hooligan began appearing in newspaper police reports in the 1890s in reference to noisy Irishmen.
9. Assassin (n.) – a murderer motivated by money or political zeal
The word assassin first appeared in the 1530s and comes from the Arabic hashishiyyin, “hashish users.” It was used to refer to Muslims who would eat hash and subsequently go on murderous raids, slaying their opposition.
10. Cannibal (n.) – one who eats human flesh
Basically, a cannibal in its original sense is someone who hails from the Caribbean. In the mid 16th century, Christopher Columbus referred to the islanders as Caniba, from their similar, self-given name. The Caribs then lent their name to cannibalism because it was thought that the locals doubled as each others’ dinner plates.
11. Vandal (n.) – one who destroys another’s property
The Vandals, a Germanic tribe, sacked Rome in 455. More than a thousand years later, their reputation still hadn’t improved, when in the 1660s their tribal name was embedded with a secondary meaning: “willful destroyer of what is beautiful or venerable.”