Special Report

35 Very Common Words With Very Surprising Origins

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Well, “comrade,” I bet you always thought that word comes from Russian. Not so. Although the term was often associated with communism in Western culture during the last century, Communists of the Soviet Revolution used the Russian translation of “comrade” – “tovarisch.” The word “comrade” actually comes from Latin “camara,” in its earliest iteration meaning “vaulted room,” which evolved in European languages over time to mean someone who shares that room, hence a close companion.

Of course, it is not surprising that many English words have their origin in Latin or Greek or other European languages. Even then, however, given that language is constantly evolving, the original meaning of some words is often far different from their current meaning (“surprise” itself has an interesting origin; see below). Speaking of Latin, here are Latin phrases everyone should know.

Europeans also sailed across the globe, expanding to the new continent and other remote reaches, and bringing new ideas, foods, deities, and concepts back to the European continent and on to England. Today, these words are so entrenched in English that it’s interesting to learn where they actually come from. (Here are 30 everyday English words you didn”t know came from Arabic.)

To find common words with surprising origins, 24/7 Tempo reviewed several sources, including from Readable, EF Education, and ELT Learning Journeys. We checked the word origins against dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Language origin: Sanskrit

It is interesting how a word used in such a modern context has such an ancient origin, though the modern meaning is not far from the original. In Sanskrit, “avatar” means “descent” – as in the descent of a deity (such as Vishnu or another Hindu deity) to earth. And just like the bodily manifestation of the deity is its representation on earth, “avatar” today means an icon or figure representing a person on the internet.


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Language origin: Nahuatl

If you’ve ever seen a pair of avocados on a tree, you might have also thought they look like… you know… testicles. Indeed, the word “avocado” comes from the Aztec word “āhuuacatl,” meaning the male sperm-producing organs. It entered English by way of the Spanish adaptation of the Aztec word, “aguacate.”

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Language origin: Probably Taino/Arawak

The love of barbecue is universal, but how did this strange word come to be? The term comes from the indigenous Caribbean word “barbakoa,” sometimes rendered “babracot,” meaning a “framework of sticks set upon posts,” that was likely used to cook and smoke fish and meat. It came to English from the American Spanish “barbacoa.” (A popular folk etymology, connecting it to the French phrase “barbe à queue,” or “beard to tail” – referring to the skewering of a whole animal on a spit – has been widely discredited.)

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Language origin: Name/nickname

Of all the probable terms for the technology, “Bluetooth” is the least likely. But in 1996, Jim Kardach of Intel suggested Bluetooth as a temporary code name for the standardization of short-range radio technology and connectivity between devices. Just as King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson was known for uniting Scandinavia, the technology was set to unite the computers and cellular industries, he said. The temporary name stuck. (King Harald was also known for his dead, dark blue/gray, tooth.) The symbol for Bluetooth is a Nordic H and a Nordic B.


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Language origin: Chinese

This is a word-for-word translation from Mandarin, “xǐnǎo” – wash (xi) and brain (nao). The term gained considerable traction as an explanation why American POWs in the Korean War confessed to outlandish crimes. Today, brainwashing in its full meaning – a forcible indoctrination of someone into giving up certain basic beliefs and accepting contrasting ideas – is not given much merit outside of Hollywood films.

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Language origin: Dutch

Talk about language continually changing. The meaning of “bully” today could not be farther from its original meaning in English of “sweetheart,” which was probably borrowed from the Middle Dutch “boel,” “lover.” The meaning changed over time to anyone who seemed a good fellow, then for an aggressive person, until it reached its meaning today – a cruel, insulting person intimidating the weaker.


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Language origin: Latin

You probably already noticed how similar the word sounds to “cannabis.” Well, the word “canvas” indeed goes back to the Vulgar Latin cannapaceus, meaning “made of hemp,” which derives from the Greek “kannavis” by way of the pre-Latin word “cannabis” – both meaning “hemp.”

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Language origin: Persian/Arabic

“Checkmate” is one of several everyday words – including “endgame” and “gambit” – that originate in the game of chess. The term “checkmate” is said to come from the Persian words “shāh māt”, borrowed by Arabic, which translate to “the king is helpless” or “the king is left unable to escape.” Today the word often means to thwart, counter completely.

Language origin: Old English

Clue is a variant spelling of clew “a ball of thread or yarn,” so how did it come to mean anything that guides or directs in an intricate case? Well, in Greek mythology, Theseus entered the Labyrinth in search of the Minotaur and unraveled a clew behind him so that he could find his way back out of the maze.


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Language origin: Latin

Though the word was used in Hollywood films about Communist Soviet Union and therefore has Russian connotation, it is actually from the Latin word “camara,” meaning “vaulted room, chamber,” which evolved in Spanish to “camarada,” “chamber mate” – one who shares the same room, hence a close companion.

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Language origin: Latin

With such ancient origin, it’s not that surprising that “disaster” derives from Latin words relating to stars (specifically, “dis” meaning “bad” and “astro” meaning “star”). After all, in those times, it was often believed that the stars and their position could influence our fate, often in destructive ways.


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Language origin: Dutch/Low German

Despite the ubiquity of this word, it is not that ancient. It originally referred to a coin minted in the town of Sankt Joachimsthal in Bohemia, which was known as the Joachimstaler. The name was shortened to “Thaler” in German, and from there became “daler” in Dutch and Low German. By the middle of the 16th century, the latter term was used in English ro refer to several coins from Europe and elsewhere circulating in the Colonies. The dollar was proposed as the monetary unit of the United States in the early 1780s, adopted formally in 1792, and first issued in 1794.

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Language origin: Malay/Javanese

This means the same in English as it does in Malay and Javanese,an onomatopoeic imitative of the sound “G-O-N-G.”

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Language origin: Surname

Some people just leave an impression – for better or worse. “Hooligan” likely originates from the surname of a raucous Irish family – Houlihan – or perhaps from one Patrick Hooligan, who was a known Irish hoodlum in Southwark, London, in 1896.


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Language origin: Hindi via Sanskrit

“Juggernaut” likely evolved from the story of an enormous carriage that carried an image of the Hindu god Vishnu, whose title was Jagannath, literally, “lord of the world.” The carriage passed through the streets of India in religious processions supposedly with worshipers willingly lying in its way to get crushed (though that was likely an exaggeration). The English came to refer to any massive vehicle and to any other enormous entity with powerful crushing capabilities as juggernaut.

Language origin: Malay

Bet you’d like some ketchup with your fries or burger. But how about fish sauce? Probably not. Well, “ketchup” is borrowed, directly or via the Malay “kecap” (phonetically kətʃap) “fish sauce,” which came in turn from Southern Min (Chinese dialect) terms meaning “salted or pickled fish or shellfish” and “juice” or “sap.” The first recording in English is listed in a 1690 dictionary in which it is spelled “Catchup.”


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Language origin: Yiddish

Some words just work. “Honk,” “zap,” and “babble” are just the perfect representation of their meanings. And so is “klutz.” “Klots” in Yiddish literally means a wooden beam, coming from the Middle High German “kloz,” a lumpy mass. A klutz, in turn, is an awkward clumsy person.

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Language origin: Latin

If you feel like your mortgage is a noose around your neck, you might have a good reason. “Mort” means “dead” (from Latin “mortuus”) and “gage” means “pledge.” So, a death pledge? Some experts claim the death in question is that of the pledge, not the person, so by honoring it, you’ll not be saddled with a mortgage until death!

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Language origin: Latin

The Latin word “musculus” translates to “little mouse” and is derived from the appearance of a muscle – particularly biceps – which were thought to resemble a mouse running beneath the skin. So, if you’re muscular, does that mean you’re mousy?


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Language origin: Latin

Just like the word “bully” started as something nice and turned negative, the word “nice” began as something negative and turned positive. Derived from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant” or “unaware,” the word was used to refer to a stupid or foolish person. Over time, “nice” shifted meanings, becoming applied first to one who dressed foolishly, then one who paid attention to fashion, and finally to one who was fastidious about his or her reputation – from which it came to refer to something pleasant and agreeable.

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Language origin: Middle English

The word “nightmare” derives from the Middle English word “mare,” meaning not a female horse, but, in an obsolete sense, to an evil spirit that was once thought to produce feelings of suffocation in people while they slept. The rest is self-explanatory.


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Language origin: Swedish

Got any complaints? File them with the ombudsman (or ombudsperson), a term borrowed from Swedish, where it means “representative,” ultimately deriving from the Old Norse “umboth” (“commission”) and “mathr” (“man”).

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Language origin: Greek

If you’re seriously funny, you’re an oxymoron. In Greek, “oxymōron” means “pointedly foolish/dull” – from “oxys” (“sharp” or “keen”) and “mōros” (“foolish” or “dull”). This clash of terms around sharpness and dullness has come to denote any contradiction in terms.

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Punch (the drink)
Language origin: Hindi/Sanskrit/Urdu

Punch gained such popularity in the ’80s that it seems to belong in that decade. But the drink is far older than that. The word comes perhaps from the Hindi and Urdu “pā̃c,” or “five,” in turm from the Sanskrit “pañca,” similar to the Greek word for the number, “pente.” The original drink had five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water, and either tea or spices. Modern versions have variations of these five ingredients, namely the alcohol type, different fruits, and sodas.


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Language origin: Czech

“Robot” comes from the Czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labor.” It was introduced in the 1920s by author Karel Čapek – at his brother’s suggestion – in his science fiction play, “R.U.R” (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”). The play explores the idea of manufacturing synthetic people to do dull labor, and as in many sci-fi stories since, the robots rebel with disastrous results to humans. “R.U.R” was translated into English in 1922, and the word made it into our language.

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Language origin: Surname

The sandwich got its name after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, a town in Kent, in southeastern England. As the story goes, he asked for his food to be served between two pieces of bread so he could eat with his hands and not have to leave his gambling table.


Language origin: Greek

The usual meaning of “sarcasm” today is often a biting remark intended to cause pain. While the meaning in Middle French “sarcasme” or Late Latin “sarcasmos” is similar – “mockery” – these languages borrowed the word from Late Greek “sarkasmós” and earlier Greek “sarkázein” combining the meaning “to jeer at while biting the lips” with “smos,” a suffix of verbal action. Merriam-Webster cautions the earlier Greek sense is conjectural. Well, much do they do know at that dictionary – yes, just a bit of sarcasm for fun.

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Language origin: Hindi/Urdu

The word “shampoo” comes from Hindi and Urdu “cā̃po,” to press or massage. The definition was extended to mean “wash the hair” in 1860.

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Language origin: Latin

Though it means evil or foreshadowing of bad things to come, “sinister”: comes from a Latin word meaning “on the left side.” \The ancient Romans considered left-handed people abnormal, therefore believing the left side was unlucky or untrustworthy. Meanwhile, “dexterity” comes from the Latin word “dexter,” “on the right side.”


Language origin: Algonquian languages

English borrowed this word from one of the Native American Algonquian languages. The earlier “squuncke” was from a Massachusett reflex of the Algonquian “šeka·kwa,” from “šek” (“urinate”) and “-a·kw” (“fox” or “fox-like animal”).

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Language origin: Middle English/Anglo-French

The word “surprise” comes from Middle English “suppryse,” or “seizure,” in turn from the Anglo-French “sousprise” or “supprise” – a variation of “surprendre,” meaning “to capture” or “take by surprise,” a compound of “sur” (“over”) and “prendre” (“to take”). For now, let’s keep that surprise birthday party invasion free.


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Language origin: Tahitian/Polynesian

The word “tattoo,” in its meaning “pigment design in skin,” gets its name from a Polynesian word such as the Tahitian and Samoan “tatau” or the Marquesan “tatu,” meaning “puncture” or “a mark made on skin”). It first appeared in English in 1769 in writing by members of Capt. Cook’s expeditions.

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Language origin: Greek

The word “tragedy” originates from the Greek word “tragōidia,” which literally means “goat song.” Tragedy as we know it has its roots in ancient Greece, where it’s thought that people dressed as goats and satyrs on stage. Other theories relate the term to goat sacrifices.

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Language origin: Turkish

These flowers got their name from the Turkish word “tülbent,” which means both “gauze” or “muslin” and “turban” – the headgear that may have been fashioned from such cloth. Do you think a tulip’s shape resembles that of a turban?


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Language origin: Irish/Gaelic

Perhaps not much of a surprising origin here. The word “whiskey” (or “whisky”) derives from the Irish “uisce beatha” and Scottish Gaelic “uisge beatha,” – both meaning literally “water of life.”

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