It’s fair to say that some word origins are pretty straightforward—straightforward being a fine example of that. Then there are those word origins that are so obscure, the word in question offers few clues to its history. Tragedy, for instance, might come from the Greek for “goat song” (perhaps a reference to actors in ancient Greek tragedies dressing in animal furs, or maybe because a goat was once offered as a prize). A glass of punch takes its name from the Hindi word for five (because the original recipe for punch had just five ingredients: water, liquor, lemon juice, sugar, and spices—although the Oxford English Dictionary says that the original recipe was milk, curd, ghee, honey, and molasses). And the less said about avocados and orchids the better, frankly.
But then there are those words whose origins, after a just little consideration, seem obvious once you know them.
The original secretaries were officers or aides working in the courts of European monarchs, a sense of the word that still survives in the titles of positions like “secretary of state.” As close associates of the king or queen, these secretaries were often privy to a lot of private information—which made a secretary literally a keeper of secrets.
You might well know that this word was coined by the poet John Milton, who used it as the name of the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost in 1667. And you might also have figured out that the pan– here is the same as in words like pandemic and panorama, and literally means “all” or “every.” Put together, that makes pandemonium literally “a place of all demons.”
Preposterous is one of a handful of so-called oxymoronic words in the English language, whose roots combine elements that contradict one another. A pianoforte, for instance, literally produces a “soft-loud” sound. And the contradiction is even more obvious in words like bittersweet, bridegroom, and speechwriting. The preposterous meaning of preposterous derives from the fact that it brings together the prefixes pre–, meaning “before,” and post–, meaning “after”—and so literally describes something that is back to front or in the incorrect order.
That meal you have first thing in the morning? It would have originally “broken” the previous night’s “fast.”
The months of the year were originally calculated from the phases of the moon, and ultimately a month is essentially a “moon-th.”
Another moon-related word that’s staring you in the face is lunatic. The word was originally an adjective, describing someone whose behavior was affected by the phases of the moon.
The first few letters of words like nausea and nauseated are closely related to maritime words like nautical and nautilus. That’s because nausea was once specifically used to mean “seasickness,” and in fact derives from the Greek word for a ship.
The astro– of astronaut is related to the root of words like asterisk and asteroid, while the –naut comes from the same seafaring root as nausea. Put them together, and an astronaut is literally a “star-sailor.”
A disaster is literally an ill-starred event: a catastrophe blamed on an ill-fated astrological misalignment of the stars and planets.
It stands to reason that if you can appoint someone, then you can disappoint them; in fact, the word originally meant (and literally means) “to remove someone from office.” The current sense of “to let down” or “to fail” developed in the late 15th century from the earlier use of disappoint that meant “to frustrate someone’s plans” or “to renege on an engagement.”
Yes, the “lance” in freelance is the same one carried by a medieval knight, at least in early 19th century fiction. That’s because the original freelancers were mercenary knights in stories like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe—characters who carried no allegiance to any specific cause, and could instead be paid or hired to fight.
The equinox is the date at which the sun passes Earth’s celestial equator, on which night and day are equal; appropriately enough, the word itself literally means “equal night.”
The original blockbusters were enormous bombs developed by Britain’s Royal Air Force for use in raids on German targets during the Second World War. To the RAF, they were officially known as HC, or “high-capacity” bombs. To the pilots involved in the raids, they were known by the unassuming nickname “cookies.” But to the press, these huge explosives (the largest of which weighed 12,000 pounds and contained 8400 pounds of explosive Amatex) were nicknamed blockbusters—bombs powerful enough to destroy an entire block of buildings. After the war, the military use of the word fell out of favor so that only a figurative meaning, describing anything—from films to political speeches— that had a similarly impressive impact, remained in use.
Mal– essentially means “bad,” as it does in words like malfunction and malpractice, while aria is the Italian word for “air.” Ultimately malaria was so called because it was once said to be caused by the stagnant air and choking fumes that emanated from areas of marshland or swamp, rather than the infected mosquitos that inhabited them.
Once you remember that jour is the French word for “day,” it’s easy to figure out that a journey once meant a day of travel. A sojourn is literally a one-day stay; you write up a day’s events in your journal; and you can read accounts of the day’s events in journalism.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.