Government: word origin

Government, meaning the official body that controls a country and enforces law. The state. The word derives from French, governer meaning to guide or steer, which is from the Latin guberno meaning to pilot a ship, but also to manage and govern.

The Latin word’s origins are unknown. It is definitely not Indo-European, and likely from a Mediterranean language, since Ancient Greek has a cognate κυβερνάω (kubernáō). The sense of a ship being likened to government is attested in the Ancient world. In Sophocles’ Antigone the king of Thebes Creon likens the city to a ship which he must steer. Here in Sir Richard C. Jebb’s 1900 translation

Nor would I ever make a man who is hostile to my country a friend to myself, because I know this, that our country is the ship that bears us safe, and that only when [190] we sail her on a straight course can we make true friends.

The suffix of government, the –ment is also from Latin, and is used to form nouns from verbs, often an action resulting from the verb. The Latin -mentum is derived from the PIE  *-mn̥teh₂ (*-mn̥ + *-teh₂). This root has attested other descendants across the Indo-European world including Sanskrit’s -ता (-tā) suffix, and Ancient Greek’s -μα (-ma).


Lady: word origin

Much like lord, as covered before, lady has connotations with bread. Lady is derived from loaf maid –  hlāf, dīġe.

Dīġe is related to dæge, meaning maker of dough, giving the word Lady a double bread-y origin. This dæge root is also the source of the first part of dairy. It comes from Proto-Germanic *daigjon, meaning a female servant or maid, source of Swedish deja meaning a dairy maid. Ultimately this derives from the PIE *dheigh- meaning to form or build.

This PIE root is attested through the Sanskrit word for body – dehah – literally that which is formed.

A lord then is the keeper or warden of the bread, while a lady is the kneader, or former, of the bread.

Lord: word origin

Lord in English comes from the sense of keeper of bread. Old English hlaford, from hlafweard, which is formed from hlaf and weard, meaning ‘bread’ and ‘keeper’.

Loaf is a Germanic word, and its root is uncertain, likely the Proto-Germanic *hlaibaz, but that is reconstructed. Words for loaf are common across the Germanic languages: luffe in Frisian, Laib in German, hleifur in Icelandic, leivur in Faroese, lev in Swedish. Slavic also borrows from the Proto-Germanic giving Russian хлеб (xleb), Ukrainian: хліб (xlib), Czech: chleba, Polish: chleb and Slovak: chlieb.

Ward is also Germanic, from the Proto-Germanic *wardō, meaning protection. This is an extension of *wara- meaning attentive, source of English wary and beware. This root is from the PIE *wer- (to cover). This root also gives the English guard via French. Other words derived from this root include garnish also via French.


Geek: etymology

It is often hard to find etymologies for slang. Geek is an exception. The word is older than you might expect, coming from an old English dialect geek or geck meaning a fool or freak, which is attested as early as the 1510s.

This word is descended from the Middle Low German Geck, which likely comes from an imitation of croak. Danish still retains the root word, with the adjective noun gek meaning a crazy person. Old Norse had gikkr meaning a rude person or jester.

Geek developed its modern meaning from US carnival slang. In the 50s Webster’s dictionary defined geek as a “wild man” act, normally involving biting off the head of a snake or chicken. By the 70s this definition remained the only one given in the American Heritage Dictionary. Quite how it obtained its modern meaning is hard to say, but the word was certainly used derogatorily to associate tech literate people with freak shows performers.

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.

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.

Rampant: word origin

Something rampant is uncontrollable, though in heraldry it means something on its hind legs, such as a Lion Rampant, rearing up, as opposed to couchant, lying down for instance. The heraldric sense has existed since the 14th Century in English, while the rampage sense has only existed since the 17th Century.

The word has its origins in French, ramper, meaning to ‘creep’ or ‘climb. The –ant suffix of rampant is derived from French too, and is a common way of creating an adjective from a noun. Examples include: bouyant, flippant, coolant, lubricant, propellant, Protestant, triumphant, depressant, compliant and accountant.

Related to rampant is ramp, now meaning a slope, this sense of the word only originated in the 18th Century. In Middle English ‘ramp’ meant to ‘rear up’.

Unrelated to rampant is rampart, which is descended from a separate French word, remparer, meaning ‘to fortify’, from re- and emparer, meaning to take possession of, and that from the Latin ante- and parare, meaning to prepare.

The Old French ramper derives not from Latin, like much of French, but in fact from Frankish (*rampōn meaning to hook, or climb), and so ramper is actually Germanic in origin. The Frankish is descended from the Proto-Germanic *hrempaną (to curve, shrivel).

An interesting related word is ripple. Ripple is an alternative form of the Old English rimple, which was descended from the same Germanic root meaning ‘to curve’.


Squire: word origins

Squire or esquire, which are essentially the same word (the e- prefix seems to emerge as early as late latin, where some speakers had difficulty with words beginning with sc, and so they developed an esc sound instead, which often in French later dropped the to become état from status) descend from Latin via French.

The Old French word escuier  literally meaning shield bearer became the Middle French esquier, and then entered English as esquire and modern French as écuyer. It is not related to the Latin equus, meaning a horseman or knight, but to the Latin scutarius (shield bearer) from scutum, meaning shield.

Scutum is of uncertain origin. It may come from the PIE root *skewH- meaning to cover, or from the PIE root *skey- meaning to cut. The second root is the origin of the Irish scíath, meaning shield, and also the Proto-Germanic skaiþaną, which ultimately gives English shed – as in to shed skin. This root also gives the vulgar slang to shit. 


Jeans: word origin

Jeans, ubiquitous heavy cotton trousers made famous by 1950s rockers as we know them go back to the 1860s. At this time Levi Strauss and partner Jacob W Davis began to make work trousers out of the fabric known as denim. The trousers became popular with cowboys around this time, and because of their inexpensive price and hard wearing nature became popular with travelling workers during the dustbowl era.

Jeans though go further back, all the way to the 15th Century, when jeans fustian meant a durable cotton cloth, specifically fustian from Genoa, in Italy. Fustian itself has origins in Latin, fustaneum or fustanum in late Latin refers to a cloth possibly from Fustat in Egypt.

Denim too has an origin from a place name. Originally serge denim, or serge de Nîmes, where serge is a wool cloth, also with origins in Latin: serica, meaning silken.

So when you wear denim jeans, you are wearing the latin for silk, from France, made into Genoese fabric from Egypt.