If a person capitulates, then they surrender, or cede to another’s opinion. But originally—and, one finds with a bit of etymological digging, quite literally—a capitulation was an agreement drawn up under chapters or headings, and in that sense the word traces its way back to caput, a Latin word meaning head. A chapter, for that matter, means a “little head.”
But chapter and capitulate aren’t the only “head” words in the dictionary (so to speak). A capital city refers to a head city. A captain is one who stands at the head of others. If something capsizes, then it sinks head first. Precipices take their name from a Latin word meaning “headlong” or “headfirst.” And even though the biceps and triceps muscles might be in the arm, they actually mean two- and three-headed.
And if that last one sounds confusing, there’s a whole jumble of other body parts in the dictionary.
The word genuine originally referred to things that were natural or innate, rather than acquired or added later. In that sense, one explanation claims that it derives from gignere, a Latin verb meaning “to birth” or “to beget,” but a more imaginative (and no less likely) theory is that the word actually comes from genu, the Latin word for knee. According to this theory, a father would acknowledge the paternity of his genuine offspring by placing his child on his knee, and from there, the use of the word to mean authentic or real emerged.
The hypochondrium is a region of the upper abdomen lying below (hypo) the cartilage of the ribs and breastbone (chondros). Problems affecting the visceral organs inside the hypochondrium—the liver, the gall bladder and the spleen, among others—were once said to cause melancholic feelings or ill health, and ultimately the entire hypochondriac region gave its name to a morbid obsession with ill health.
There’s a reason why gargoyles are hideous figures with their mouths open: They take their name from the Old French word for throat, gargoule, and their open mouths are used to channel rainwater away from the main structure of a building.
The frantic symptoms or frenzy of someone suffering from hysteria were once wrongly believed to be unique to women. As a result, they were blamed on disorders or imbalances of the uterus. The word hysteria and all its derivatives, like hysteric and hysterical, come from the Greek word for the womb, hystera. Incidentally, the use of hysterical to describe something that sends you into uncontrollable fits of laughter emerged in the mid-1900s.
If you’re recalcitrant, then you’re extremely obstinate or uncooperative. The adjective derives from an earlier verb, recalcitrate or calcitrate, which originally meant “to kick out angrily,” like a stubborn or uncooperative horse—and in that sense the word derives from calx, the Latin name for the heel.
A glossary is literally a collection of glosses, short annotations or explanatory comments that were once written along or between lines of text to clarify or translate their contents. These glosses take their name, via Latin, from the Greek word glossa, meaning “language” or “tongue.”
The date you write at the top of a letter comes from the same root as data, and derives from a Latin word meaning “given”—the idea being that a letter would be dated when it was given over to be delivered. The date that you eat, however, is entirely unrelated: Its name comes, via French and Latin, from the Greek word for finger, daktylos, because the date palm’s fruits or leaves are supposedly shaped like human fingers.
Anatomically, the supercilium is the region of the forehead containing the eyebrows. And because inquisitive eyebrow-raising has been associated with haughty, condescending people, the adjective supercilious came to describe people and behavior precisely like that.
It may seem obvious, but the term handsome derives from the word hand. Less obvious is precisely why a word meaning “good-looking” should have anything to do with the hands rather than the face. In fact, when it first appeared in the language in the 15th century, handsome meant “close at hand,” or “easy to handle,” and from there, the word gained all manner of positive connotations, including “entirely fitting or appropriate,” generous, magnanimous, courageous, skillful, and eventually—by the mid-1500s—stylish, elegant, and good-looking.
And lastly, two for the price of one: We might use this word to refer to a foot specialist or podiatrist today, but a chiropodist was originally someone who treated disorders of both the hands and the feet. As a result, the word combines the Greek words for hand, kheir, and foot, pous.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.