Immune: Word origin

Immune normally in English means an inability to develop a disease, normally due to inoculation. But the word did not always carry this meaning, and far predates vaccination.

In 15th Century to 17th Century the sense of the word meant ‘free from liability’. The word entered English from Middle French, and the word immun, which is from the Latin immunis. 

The Latin word meant free from taxation or public service, and is formed from: the prefix -in which is the source of the English prefix that gives words like inability or inaction; the word munus meaning a duty or service or obligation, which itself is derived from the PIE root *moy-nós meaning to change or exchange, which is also the root of words such as municipality.

Goods exchange is crucial to the existence of early societies, and so the word for exchange of goods came to mean a conformation to society. From the PIE through a Germanic root (*gamainiz,) Old English gets the word gemæne meaning common or mutual, which is the origin of the English word mean with the sense of lowly or inferior, selfishness or without dignity.


Shibboleth: Word origin

Shibboleth is an unusual sounding word, in English it means a test to distinguish someone as an outsider, belonging to a different profession, class or country. It has also come to mean a belief associated with a particular group.

This meaning has a biblical origin. In the book of Judges chapter 12 the Gileadites, under Jepthah, defeat the Hebrew tribe of Ephraim in a battle. Following the battle some of the Ephraimites escape, and the Gileadites, in order to identify them ask to say “Shibboleth”, the word for a flood, or ear of corn. Because Gileadites and Ephraimites speak a different dialect of Hebrew the Ephraimites said “sibboleth”.

This sense of shibboleth as a watchword was first recorded in 1630, and by the 1860s it had evolved to an outdated belief belonging to a group.

Shibboleth itself in Hebrew (שיבולת) is from the root ש־ב־ל (sh-b-l), which is a cognate of Akkadian šubulta and Aramaic šubbaltā. Aramaic is a middle eastern language part of the same language group as Hebrew that became the lingua franca of the Assyrian empire, Babylonian empire, Achaemenid empire and the Parthian and Sasanian empires in the first millennium BC. Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus. Akkadian is the oldest  attested semitic language of ancient mesopotamia and used a cuneiform writing system. It is named after the city of Akkad, but precedes the founding of the city.

Parsnip: Word Origin

Parsnip is a surprisingly interesting word for its humble meaning. It comes to English from the Old French pasnaie, which is from the Latin pastinare, meaning ‘to dig up the ground’. The verb pastinare is derived from the Latin pastinum meaning a hoed field, or the action of hoeing, or a two pronged dibble tool.

The end of parsnip is different from pasnaie because it was merged with the older English neep, which was used for turnips, and is derived from another Latin word, napus, meaning turnip or rapeseed. The Latin napus itself comes from the Ancient Greek νᾶπυ (nâpu), which meant mustard, and probably came from Ancient Egyptian.

By comparison a turnip gets its turn- from the shape, as though it had been turned on a lathe.

Bachelor: Word Origin

Bachelor now carries the sense of an unmarried man but in Middle English, when it first entered the language, it had the meaning of a young knight serving under another’s banner because he was not old or wealthy enough to have his own followers.

The modern sense emerged at least by Chaucer’s time, in the 14th Century, for he uses it in that meaning.

The Old French word, bacheler, derives from the Italian baccalare, but from there it is uncertain. One theory is it comes via the Late Latin baccalarius, a vassal farmer. A baccalaria is a field belonging to a lord, which is likely related to vacca, meaning cow. Another theory understands that the word is related to the Latin baculum meaning ‘stick’, due to young knights training with sticks.

By the 14th Century bachelor had come to mean guild members, young monks, or students at universities. From this we obtain the sense of a bachelor’s degree.

[Boswell] I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it…

[Johnson] That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.

Samuel Johnson. English poet, critic and lexicographer.

In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson vol. 1 p392 (16 May 1763).


Emulsion: Word Origin

Emulsion now means a paint to most ears. The word specifically refers to a suspension of small droplets within another liquid, in such a way that they will not dilute. We use emulsifiers in food to help these immiscible liquids bind together.

But the word has not always meant paint or pesto, in English originally the word meant almonds crushed in water to produce a milky liquid. So the word derives from the Latin  mulgeō meaning I milk.

The English ‘milk’ has a similar origin to the Latin. The PIE root h₂melǵ- gives the Proto-Germanic melkaną, source for our milk, as well as Scots melk and German melken. From the PIE root we also get the Sanskrit marjati, meaning to wipe; the Greek αρμέγω (armégo) and Lithuanian melžti, which mean milk.

So next time you have almond milk, you are drinking the original English emulsion.

Word origins: Barista

Barista comes to English from Italian, where a barista is a bartender. The Italian word derives from the English bar and the suffix -ista which comes from the Latin prefix -ista meaning one who practices something. A little like describing a musician who plays the cello as a ‘cellist’. or a person who rides a bicycle as a cyclist. Any word like economist, sexist, dentist, activist is derived from this root.

This Latin suffix is derived from Ancient, -ιστής (-istḗs), from  -ίζω (-ízō) used to form verbs from nouns and adjectives, and the suffix τής (-tḗs) used to form agent nouns. Words in Ancient Greek that use this suffix include ἁγίζω (hagízō) meaning to make sacred or hallow, from the root ἅγιος (hágios) meaning holy, the origin of words such as hagiography, meaning writing to do with Saints. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is the church of Holy Wisdom.

Picture: Word Origin

Picture in English comes from the Latin pingere meaning ‘to paint’, via the Latin pictus, past particple form of pingere. This comes to English via French.

Pingere descends from the PIE *peyḱ- meaning colour, which is also the source of the Sanskrit  पिंशति (piṃśati) and the Greek πῐκρός (pikrós), meaning ‘to carve’ and ‘pointed’ respectively. Other descendant words include Greek  ποικίλος (poikílos, ‘coloured’), Sanskrit  पिशङ्ग (piśáṅga, ‘reddish’) and Lithuanian piẽšti ‘to draw’ among many others.

With picture we in English get words such as depict, with the de- prefix here meaning completely, and deriving from the Latin depingere, which can be translated as ‘portray’, but also paint or colour. Depingere occurs for instance in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, at Book 6 chapter 29 in the form depictam.

A picture paints a thousands words, and dates to certainly 1927, and the Printer’s Ink magazine on December 8th, where that phrase appears as an ancient Chinese proverb. Some say the phrase originates from American Fred R. Barnard writing in that publication. Printers Ink also has the phrase appear in 1921 and 1927. Other examples include a newspaper quoting then editor Tess Flanders in 1911, and the Syracuse Advertising Club member Arthur Brisbane wrote in that same year ‘use a picture it’s worth a thousand words’. One instance of the phrase comes from a 1918 paper, and an advertisement for the San-Antonio Light newspaper.

Charlotte Brontë precedes them all, writing in Jane Eyre (1847) ‘the letter press I cared little for, each picture told a story’.

Freedom and Whisky gang thegither.

Robert Burns.

Scottish Poet.

‘The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer’ (1786) 1.185

If they [the Republicans] will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.

Adlai Stevenson.

American Democratic Politician. 

Speech suring 1952 Presidential campaign; in J.B. Martin Adlai Stevenson and Illinois (1976) ch. 8