This A to Z of word origins, adapted from Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons by Paul Anthony Jones, collects together 26 unusual etymologies – beginning with the last letter of the alphabet.
Until as recently as the early 1900s, “&” was considered a letter of the alphabet and listed after Z in 27th position. To avoid confusion with the word “and”, anyone reciting the alphabet would add “per se” (“by itself”) to its name, so that the alphabet ended “X, Y, Z and per se &”. This final “and per se and” eventually ran together, and the “ampersand” was born.
Proving that political long-windedness is nothing new, “bunkum” derives from Carolina’s Buncombe County. The local congressman, Felix Walker, gave such a lengthy and unnecessary speech to Congress in 1820 that its name became a byword for any tediously nonsensical rubbish.
A croupier was originally merely a gambler’s associate, whose job it was to back his companion’s wagers and give extra cash and advice during play. In the sense of “one who sits behind another” it is derived from croupe, an old French word for the hindquarters of a horse.
Adapted into English from French in the 1500s, “dismantle” literally means “to remove a mantle” – in other words, to take off a cloak.
The word “explode” is derived from the same Latin root as applause, and when it first appeared in the 17th century it actually meant “to jeer a performer off the stage”. It was from this sense of expelling something violently that the modern meaning developed in the mid-1700s.
Sir Walter Scott coined the word “freelance” in Ivanhoe, using it to refer to a mercenary knight with no allegiance to one particular country and who instead offers his services for money.
The earliest grenades mentioned in English date back five centuries. They took their name from an even older name for the pomegranate, which they were supposed to resemble.
The jumbled hotchpotch, or hodgepodge, is thought to derive from the French hochepot, a meaty stew containing a similarly random medley of ingredients.
The word “illustration” originally meant “enlightenment” or “illumination”. Like lustre and illustriousness, it is descended from the Latin verb lucere, meaning “shine”.
The Jurassic in Jurassic Park derives from the Jura Mountains straddling the French-Swiss border, which are made of a form of limestone typical of the Jurassic period.
Keelhauling was originally precisely that – a brutal naval punishment in which the unfortunate victim would be tied to a rope looped around the keel of a ship, thrown overboard and hauled along its underside.
In Ancient Rome, “lemures” were the ghosts of murder victims, executed criminals, drowned sailors and other unfortunate souls who had died leaving some kind of unfinished business on Earth. These eerie, skeletal apparitions would walk the world of the living at night – and when the naturalist Carl Linnaeus first observed a number of surprisingly human-like creatures doing precisely that, he thought it was the perfect name.
Derived from the Dutch words for “whirl” and “stream”, the original maelstrom was a huge whirlpool off the Arctic coast of Norway that was apparently capable of drawing in ships from far away and pulling them beneath the waves.
The word noon is a corruption of the Latin for “ninth”, “novem” (as in November). It originally referred to the ninth hour of the Roman day – reckoned by modern clocks to be around 3pm, not midday.
Of course the “octo” of octopuses (or rather octopodes to be absolutely correct) means”eight”, but “pus” doesn’t mean “leg” or “arm”, but rather “foot”. A platypus, similarly, is a “flat-footed” creature.
As the name of a type of mixed alcoholic drink, “punch” was adopted into English from the Hindi word for “five” in the mid 1600s, as a traditional Indian punch always contained only five ingredients: some type of liquor, water, lemon juice, sugar and spices.
As the name of a hunted animal, quarry comes from a French word for “skin” or “leather”, “cuir”. As the name of a stone-works, it comes from the Latin “quadraria”, a place where rocks would literally be made cut into “quadria”, or “squares”.
When baseball games in mid 19th century America were postponed due to bad weather, spectators would be given a ticket – a literal rain check – that allowed them to return to a future game for free.
It might not be the most well known of the elements, but samarium (used in the manufacture of certain magnets, including those in headphones) has secured its place in history as the first element named after a living person. Russian mining engineer Vasili Samarsky-Bykhovets granted scientists access to mines in Russia’s Ural Mountains where samarskite, the mineral from which samarium is obtained, was first discovered in the early 19th century.
If you’re not a fan of the gym then it will come as no surprise that the original treadmill – a vast man-powered mill used to crush rocks – was invented as a hard-labour punishment for use in Victorian prisons. Oscar Wilde was famously made to work on one during his incarceration in Reading Gaol.
The adjective “ultracrepidarian” describes anyone who comments on subjects outside of their own knowledge or expertise. It derives from a tale from Ancient Greece in which an Athenian shoemaker pointed out a mistake that Apelles, a renowned artist, had made in a drawing of a sandal in one of his artworks. Apelles gratefully corrected the error but when the shoemaker went on to point out another, Apelles sourly replied that a shoemaker should never give advice ultra crepidam – or “above the sandal”.
As well as being a blood-sucking monster, a vampire is also the name of a kind of theatrical trapdoor fitted above a spring-loaded platform that allows an actor to make a sudden appearance on stage. This vampire trap was invented for a production of a play called The Vampyre in the 1880s.
“Adding insult to injury – as the parrot said when they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langvidge arterwards” – or so says Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s Cockney manservant in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1837). Renowned for twisting existing turns of phrase into ludicrous alternate versions of themselves, Dickens’ character inspired the word “wellerism” in the mid-1800s, referring to any similarly comically reworded expression.
Chocolate doesn’t begin with X of course, but in its native Aztec “xocolatl” was the name of a bitter chocolatey drink made from the seeds of the cacao tree. It was brought back to England in the Middle Ages and became what we now know as chocolate today.
No one is quite sure where the word yonks comes from, but if not an amalgamation of “years, months and weeks”, it is probably a corruption of “donkey’s years”.
zed (or zee)
At one time both “zed” and “zee” – as well as “izzard”, “ezod” and “shard” – were used as names for the 26th letter of the alphabet in British English. It just so happens that “zed” stuck in Britain, while “zee” (a variation based on the “bee”, “cee”, “dee” pattern of the alphabet) found favour in America during the push for independence, when sounding as un-British as possible became the in thing.
Paul Anthony Jones is the author of Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons.