The Creative Exploration of Language

Tag Archives: Word Origins

The Boys Will Be the Boys

Anyone with knowledge of the history of sports in South Africa and the ways in which it is entangled with its political and social history might be surprised to know that the nicknames for their national Rugby team, the Springboks (Springbokke in Afrikaans, sometimes shortened to Bokke), and their national soccer team, Bafana Bafana (Zulu for “The Boys, the Boys”), are, in essence, the same.

On its surface, this is surprising for a few reasons.  In modern South Africa, Rugby has traditionally been viewed as a “White” sport, while soccer has been considered a “Black” sport.  Despite this apparent difference, both team names suggest a rambunctious, wild, but not lethal, masculinity: the essence of boyhood.  The Zulu term does this directly, while the Afrikaans term needs a bit of interpretation to get there.

How did I find myself in this particular linguistic cul de sac?  It all started when I began using the Duolingo app to learn Irish.  One of the first words that I was given to learn was buachaill, which means “boy.”  I have learned over the years that when assessing a word, one should focus on its core, by which I mean the initial and second consonant sounds, as these are the elements that are most likely to connect to other words in the same language or cognates in other tongues.  Vowels tend to shift frequently and endings tend to be unique to each language group or even each language within a group, so I tend to give the former secondary importance and simply ignore the latter.

So, back to buachaill.  Like many people, I had long ago made the observation that Irish contained a lot of extra letters, both vowels and silent consonants, so my brain automatically focused on the core of the word, bu(a)ch-, and the English word buck sprang to mind, followed by the phrase young buck.  In my experience, this phrase refers to a young man or teenage boy who is acting in an aggressive or cocky manner.  I wondered, of course, if buachaill was connected to buck.

As it turns out, they do seem to be related at the Indo-European level.  Buck goes back the Old English bucc, which means a male deer.  A similar Old English word, bucca, means a male goat.  The fact that a very similar word was used to denote the male version of multiple animals indicates that the root word carried the basic connotation of “male”.

Given the fact that English and German are “cousin” languages that sometimes demonstrate close cognates, but are at other times widely divergent, I like to triangulate my etymological thinking by incorporating Scandinavian into the analysis of Germanic words.  In this case, it worked surprisingly well in that the Swedish word for “boy” is pojke (pronounced like “poika”).  This is an extremely close cognate to bucca if one accounts for two things.  First, Swedish often treats the letter “j” (at least unofficially) like a vowel (see hjärta, “heart” and jord, “earth”) and its function in pojke is to act like the English “i” in forming the “oi” diphthong.  Second, the “b” sound in English and German often becomes a “p” sound in Swedish (see , “at”, cognate with bei in German and by, in the sense of nearness, in English).  Put in phonetic terms, English and German tend to use a voiced bilabial stop where Swedish tends to use a voiceless one.

This is what I love about investigating the roots and origins of words.  Not only do you gain insight into the way related languages developed via subtle phonetic changes, you stumble across pleasing instances of synchronicity that reveal prosaic truths about the world we live in.  In this case, sports teams tend to be given names that evoke energetic, dangerous masculinity and this concept has validity across a wide range of languages and cultures.

If you don’t believe me ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Milwaukee Bucks.



Wink is a word that recently got my attention when I encountered it in German, where, in verb form as winken, it means “to wave” or “to beckon”.  I found it interesting that these two meanings, while not literally the same as in English, do seem to express an underlying idea that is similar to that expressed by the English word.    

For instance, a wave is something that is intermittent; think of the peaks and troughs of a wave in the physical sciences, or the back and forth movement of the hand.  In addition, a wave of the hand is generally viewed as a friendly and welcoming gesture, and to categorize it in some instances as a form of beckoning wouldn’t be going too far; think of a phrase like “they waved him over”.  In both examples, one can see the connection between the use of the word wave and concept of an intermittent action.  In addition, the act of waving is connected to the concept of attraction, of establishing a connection with another person and drawing them into one’s orbit.

Getting back to wink, when we use this word in English, we think of a short opening and closing of the eye, reinforcing the connection to the concept of being intermittent.  In addition, the connotation of beckoning is present in English as well in that a wink is generally something that is used to attract another person, whether sexually or simply to pull the person into something and make them complicit.  

All this thinking about wink brought to my mind the fact that the Dutch word for store or shop is winkel.  This is interesting because by utilizing the w-n-k consonant root that seems to be a feature of the Germanic languages for a place that sells goods to consumers, the Dutch word seems to suggest that a store is engaging potential customers actively, by waving, or beckoning to them.  In English and German the corresponding words (store and laden, respectively) are passive and appear simply to be borrowed from other domains related to the piling up of supplies, military or otherwise. 

In the end, wink is a good example of what I find so interesting about language families.  From one basic root (in this case the consonant cluster w-n-k) numerous permutations and meanings can be derived and, much like human families, different aspects of the underlying root are brought to the fore in each language within the family.   


I became interested in twilight only accidentally, by virtue of my interest in another word altogether.  A few weeks ago, I happened to come across the word crepuscle in its adjectival form (crepuscular) a couple of times in quick succession.  I had heard the word before, and never really understood its meaning from context, but for some reason or another had failed to follow up and track down the definition.  To the extent that I had thought about it, I had supposed it had something to do with veins or the internal workings of the human body, perhaps due to its passing resemblance to muscular.  As it turns out, I was nowhere near the mark.

When I actually bothered to look up crepuscle, it turns out to be a Latin-derived term that means ‘twilight’ or ‘dusk’.  My initial thought was that it was fancier, Latin-derived term that equivalent to one or more native English words.  At first glance, this is unremarkable.  Many concepts in Modern English are described by words from both Latin and Germanic roots which have come down to us concurrently.  The interesting bit here is found only when one digs beneath the surface to examine the roots of the words in question.

Crepuscle ultimately comes from a complex of Latin terms connected to creper, which means ‘dark’ or ‘obscure’.  Similarly, dusk stems from the Old English word doxian, meaning ‘to make dark’.  The meaning of these terms shows a strong degree of equivalency and it is notable that, though they are used in relation to the setting of the sun, both focus solely on the aspect of darkness.  These concepts don’t make reference to light.

This is interesting because twilight takes a different approach, literally meaning ‘two lights’.  In other words, the concept of twilight incorporates both the dying of the light and the growing of the darkness.  From this perspective, crepuscle and dusk are reductive in that they position the phenomenon purely as the decline or passing away of light, while twilight is synthetic in that it captures the balance between light and dark and draws attention to its true nature.

While dusk certainly has its uses (I think I can live without crepuscle), I find that I am drawn to the concept of twilight, the time of two lights, as by far the more beautiful and poetic term.


Naughty is a word that I have used for years in a silly way, almost always spoken to one of my children when admonishing them for something mildly bad they have said or done.  This usage and meaning are widely understood, but an interesting question arose as I thought about this word recently: why exactly does naughty mean “bad”?

No answer came to me immediately and I didn’t bother to pursue one, but I let the question sit in my subconscious for a few weeks.  Then, one day, I had a flash of insight that allowed me to connect naughty to naught, as in the phrase come to naught, or there’s naught else I can do.  Making this connection made me realize that the root of naughty is an archaic word for “nothing”.

This sent me running for dictionaries and websites in order to understand where naught comes from.  What I found was that naught derives from the Old English word nawiht, where na means “no” and wiht means “thing”.

From this perspective then, to be naughty is to act in a way that is not constructive, that is likely to lead to nothing.  This sense of non-constructiveness seems to be the root of the moralistic tone the word has taken on, perhaps as an outgrowth of the Protestant Work Ethic, which was particularly strong in England.  It is interesting to note that most other European languages (at least the ones with which I am familiar) do not maintain this connection, by which I mean that the common way of rendering naughty in these languages has no connection to the concept of “nothing”.

This moral angle would also explain how the word has come to be used as a humorous descriptor of (often “illegitimate”) sexual behavior.

In the end, I think I find naughty to be such an interesting word because it hides in plain sight, while remaining flexible enough to change with the times and be used in various ways.


Horn is a deceptively simple word.  As a noun, it refers to a hard protuberance that sticks out from the head of certain animals.  It also refers to a class of instruments played by blowing, which were originally made from animal horns.  From a third perspective, horn refers to a device installed in your car that is used to make loud warning sound.  This meaning, like that of the musical instrument, comes from the fact that loud warning sounds were originally created by blowing into an animal horn.

As a verb, the ancient connection of horns with cuckoldry survives in the modern phrase “to horn in on,” which is used to describe the act of taking possession of something that belongs to someone else.  This sexual connotation is also present in the adjectival form horny.

While certainly divergent, one can see how they are connected and how they likely developed without too much effort.  What got me thinking about this word, however, was a different usage that seemed not to fit with others: the baseball phrase “around the horn”.  For those not familiar with the phrase, following an infield out or strikeout, the defensive players on the field customarily throw the baseball to each of their infield teammates at the various stations of the infield diamond before tossing it back to the pitcher to face the next batter.  The more I thought about this phrase, the more I wondered why the infield diamond should be referred to as a horn.

Around the same time that I had begun thinking about horn and its various uses, I stumbled across the fact that the word for corner in the Scandinavian languages was some variation on horn (horn in Icelandic, hjørne in Danish and Norwegian and hörn in Swedish).  Initially, this seemed like a strange coincidence, but then I recalled that Germanic languages generally have an “h” in place of a “c” in Latin and its daughter languages.  For instance, the English word hundred (honderd in Dutch, hundert in German, etc.) comes from the same root as the Latin centum.  Similarly, the Latin canis and the English hound (hund in German and Scandinavian, hond in Dutch and Afrikaans) spring from the same root.  In each of the examples above, the Germanic “h” is a “c” in Latin and the Romance languages.

The word corner entered English through French (corne) and is ultimately derived from the Latin cornu.  It replaced the native English term hyrne, which was cognate with its Germanic cousins.  Based on this, I came to the conclusion that the use of the word horn in the phrase “around the horn” might simply be a survival of an archaic term and was simply another way to say “around the corner”.

At first, this seemed a bit unlikely, as hundreds of years lay between the adoption of the word corner into the English language and the invention of the game of baseball.  However, as I researched additional uses of the word horn, I came across it as a geographical term in reference to two specific locations: the Horn of Africa and Cape Horn in South America.  In both cases, the usage of the word horn fits with its archaic meaning of a corner, or a place where two sides come together and meet in a point.

The final twist in the saga of horn is that, in the case of Cape Horn, the name seems to be a coincidence.  The southern tip of South America was rounded and named by Dutch sea captain Willem Corneliszoon Schouten in 1616 and named Kaap Hoorn, after his hometown of Hoorn back in the Netherlands.  However, in a truly wonderful piece of synchronicity, the medieval history of the city of Hoorn indicates that it was so named because it stuck out into the waters of the Zuiderzee, and this despite the common word in Dutch for corner being hoek.

In the end, it seems that my initial hunch was correct and that a commonplace phrase used on a daily basis in American sports vernacular hides an interesting and complex medieval linguistic survival.


Glimpse has a beautiful ring to it which stems, I think, from the fact that it is both simple and complex at the same time.  It is simple in the sense that it is a monosyllabic word with a commonly accepted definition (something like “a quick look”) that is used with reasonable frequency.  On the other hand, it is complex because it contains the relatively unusual but aesthetically pleasing consonant cluster “mps” and because its exotic construction seems to offer the promise of deeper meaning.  After all, if glimpse simply means to have “a quick look”, then why do we have also have glance?

The answer is found quickly once one investigates the origins of glimpse.  It comes ultimately from the Old English word glimsian, which meant “to shine faintly”.  In Middle English, this became glimsen and meant “to glow” or “to glimmer”.  So, from an etymological standpoint, glimpse clearly has a connection to seeing something that is both difficult to see and also something that stands out from its surroundings, usually through emitting light.  This is an interesting paradox and seems to limit the number of things that might become the subject of a glimpse.

The connotation of “quickness” that sometimes causes glimpse to be confused with glance is somewhat misleading and is a secondary characteristic that stems from a structural source: something that is difficult to see is likely to be seen only briefly.

Once this clarification between glimpse and glance is made, some interesting observations result, such as the dichotomy between the words in terms of being passive versus aggressive.  To glance at something is an active effort which is controlled by the glancer and which often, but not always contains a hint of disdain which is the natural byproduct of the active nature of the glance.  What I mean is that if one controls the length and intensity of one’s gaze, then it follows that, by choosing to give something only a quick, cursory look, one is indicating that the item or person being observed is trivial or merely utilitarian.

A glimpse, on the other hand, is passive.  Something glimpsed is something that is revealed to the observer, and is often something that is subtle, incomplete or incongruous.  The true power of glimpse is that it implies a mystery, an incomplete view that promises more and entices the observer to try to see the whole that is hidden.

While a glance might tell you how much your dinner cost or which person in your subway car is speaking too loudly on their cellphone, a glimpse is often the catalyst for an adventure.


I never believed that shambolic was a real word until I looked it up.  While the word is clearly related to shambles, its limited and specific use, along with its non-standard feel, give it an air of unreality.  In fact, I had only ever come across the word in one particular context, as a derogotary description of a British football team’s defending (e.g., Liverpool’s defending has been absolutely shambolic!).

Despite its unfamiliarity, its relationship to shambles and the context in which I had heard it being used made its meaning as something that is a ‘mess’ very clear.  However, the arcane nature of shambolic indicates that something described as such is not just any mess, but something truly disastrous.  This led me to question what type of special mess could be meant by the use of shambolic or, for that matter, shambles.

As it turns out, shambolic has a long and interesting history that provides a surprising answer to that question.  It comes down to us in its present form from the Old English word sceamel, which itself derives from the Latin term scamnum, meaning ‘bench’.  As the word developed in English into shambles, it took on the connotation of a butcher’s bench, the bench on which butchers did their messy work.

Over time, the specific connotation of a butcher’s bench became the dominant one and shambles became a synonym for a butcher’s shop or even a slaughterhouse; in other words, a literal bloody mess.  Eventually, the literal level of meaning was lost and it is tempting to see the ‘bloody’ aspect as fading into the figurative, which, in my opinion, causes the word to lose some of its inherent power.

So, the next time you hear a British football commentator (or anyone else) describe a team’s defending as shambolic, don’t just think of their back four as being a bit disorganized, think of it as a bloody, gory mess.


I have always seen perdition as a poetic and romantic word, as if I instincually understood that it was a word which has two levels of meaning, both of which are interesting.  The word is a variation on the Old French perdiciun, derived from the Latin perditionem, which means “destruction” or “ruin”.  However, perdition carries with it special connotations that are intriguing.

The first meaning of perdition is the simplistic, religious one, where it acts as a synonym for “hell”.  While I have less affection for this meaning because in this context it is simply replacing an English word, I still can’t help but be somewhat taken in by the borrowed glamour of its more figurative and poetic meaning as a state of total and hopeless ruination.  What I find so compelling about the word is that the condition implied is ongoing, as if one is beyond hope or help, forever lost.  It is easy to see why the word became associated, presumably in medieval or early modern times, with the Christian concept of hell, a place of eternal suffering.

A further layer of meaning is uncovered if one looks further into the Latin perditio.  As it turns out, it derives from the base verb perdere.  When one breaks down the parts of the Latin root perditio, which are per-, which means “away”, and –dare, which means “to give” or “to put”, a sense of culpability, of wastefulness, is attached to the word.

Perdition can then be understood as a state of ongoing and utter ruination brought upon oneself by poor choices and it works equally well in religious and secular terms.  I think that the word would be even more interesting if used in contexts that highlight or reveal this sense.


The word bashful came to mind recently and I realized that, while I understood its meaning, I didn’t understand how the meaning was arrived at.  In short, I realized that I had no idea what “bash” meant.

When I looked into it, I was surprised to find that “bash” actually comes from a French root, “abaissier”, which means “to humiliate” or “to bring low”.  In this case, the word seems to have been adopted into English and altered to sound, and be used, like an English word.

The meaning has changed slightly in English to mean shy or timid rather than humiliated.  Bashful, then, means to be full of shyness.  What I find interesting is the way that the French word was absorbed and modified until it reached a point where it looks and sounds like a native English word.  This seems not to be the case very often.

For instance, a word like office is incongruous because it involves pronouncing the letter “c” in a way that is not natural in English.  In other words, office is obviously a foreign loan word, while bashful masquerades successfully as a Anglo-Saxon.


Sound is an interesting word because, despite its relative simplicity, it carries a number of extremely divergent meanings.  As is often the case with English homonyms, this is due to words entering the language from other languages with which it came into contact.  In the case of sound, this would be Norman French and Old Norse.

When considering sound in a modern context, three potential meanings quickly come to mind.  The first, and native English, meaning is to be whole or healthy.  The word is still used in this context relatively often (e.g., in phrases like of sound mind) and in phrases relating to inanimate objects (e.g., determining that a set of stairs is sound.).  As might be expected, there are strong cognates in German (gesund, Gesundheit) and Dutch (gezond, gezondheid).

The second meaning that comes to mind easily is something that is heard.  This meaning came into English via French (son), itself derived from the Latin sonus, which both carry this meaning.  The word morphed in Middle English into soun and from there seems to have been modified further into a more familiar form by adding a ‘d’.  In this case the equivalent terms in German and Dutch (klingen and klink, respectively) do still have a cognate in English, which is clinkClink, however, also seems to have been borrowed from Dutch and refers in English to a specific type of sound and not sound in general.

The third meaning of sound that comes to mind immediately is of a narrow body of water, either between two landmasses or between an island and the mainland.  Two well known examples from the United States are Puget Sound and Long Island Sound.  This meaning comes from the Old Norse word sund, which was used to describe just such a body of water.  The same word also exists in Old English, but seems to be indirectly related, as it holds a meaning related to swimming.  As with the Latin-derived term described above, there seems to have been an effort to make the word conform to comfortable patterns by changing the spelling and pronunciation, in this case by adding a vowel.

English is perhaps uniquely susceptible to these types of overlaps and inconsistencies due to the amount of borrowing that has gone on from other languages over the centuries.  However, the issue has been exacerbated by the fact that, unlike other languages such as French, German and Afrikaans to name a few, there is no board or commission designated to oversee the language and institute rational reform or even consistency within the language.

As a native English speaker, I recall being baffled as a child at English spelling conventions such as pronouncing “laugh” as “laf” and I have always marvelled at the ability of people around the world to learn what to me seems to be a largely non-sensical and capriciously structured language.  Having spent a considerable amount of time studying other languages, I find that it is hugely helpful to have reliable rules and phonetic spelling applied to a language and I believe English could benefit greatly from this.