Lorraine Forrest-Turner

12 words with original meanings that might surprise you

30 Nov / by: Lorraine Forrest-Turner

Ever wondered what the ‘tide’ in ‘yuletide’ means? Do you know the literal meaning of the word ‘conspire’? Over time, meanings of words change with popular use. Here are 12 words with surprising original or literal meanings.

The word ‘bankrupt’ (meaning insolvent or financially ruined) seems self-explanatory, doesn’t it? ‘Bank’, a place where we keep our money, and ‘rupt’, implying ruptured. ‘Rupt’ does indeed come from the Latin rupt, meaning ‘broken’, but the word ‘bank’ comes from banca meaning ‘bench’. Why did the word for bench become the name for a bank? Because money dealers used benches as tables.

The literal meaning of ‘biscuit’ describes how a biscuit is baked. It originates from the Latin bis, meaning ‘twice’, and coctus, from coquere, meaning ‘to cook’. Originally, biscuits were cooked twice – first baked in a hot oven and then dried out in a cool oven so they’d keep. Incidentally, in the US a biscuit is more like a UK scone. What the UK call biscuits, the US calls cookies. Although the word ‘cookie’ is now commonly used in the UK too.

Ever wondered why the Russians named the two sides of their political parties Bolsheviks and Mensheviks? When the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) split in 1903, Lenin and his supporters gained a temporary majority and took the name Bolshevik, from the Russian word bol’she meaning ‘greater’. Their opponents thus became known as the Mensheviks, from the Russian word men’she meaning ‘less’ or ‘minority’, even though they were the larger faction overall. Of course, we now use the word ‘bolshie’ to mean pushy, awkward and uncooperative.

The word ‘conspire’ (meaning to agree, plot or make secret plans to commit an unlawful or harmful act) has an interesting literal meaning. It comes from the Latin con spirare. Con means ‘together with’ and spirare means ‘to breathe’. So, ‘conspire’ literally means breathing together.

Why is a grapefruit called a grapefruit when it has nothing to do with grapes? The reference to grape simply relates to how the fruit grows in pale green clusters, like grapes. Interestingly, the grapefruit was originally known as a ‘shaddock’, named after Captain Shaddock, who introduced it to the West Indies in the 17th century. However, a shaddock is another name for a pomelo, which isn’t, in fact, a grapefruit but a much larger citrus fruit. The confusion arose because the grapefruit looks like a pomelo. Not surprising since the grapefruit is a hybrid originating from a sweet orange and a pomelo. With all this renaming of the grapefruit, there’s a lot to be said for using its Latin botanical name, Citrus paradisi.

Most often used now to describe uncontrolled emotion (including laughter), ‘hysterical’ originates from the Latin hystericus and the Greek hysterikos meaning ‘of the womb’. The word ‘hysteria’ originally meant a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus.

The word impede means to stop or delay someone from doing something. But why?  Looking at its Latin origins, we see that ped means ‘foot’ (as in ‘pedal’ and ‘paediatrician’) and impedire means to ‘shackle the feet’. So, when we’re impeding someone we are literally tying their feet.

The word malaria (an incurable, infectious disease resulting from the bite of a mosquito) comes from the Latin mal, meaning ‘bad’ and aria, meaning ‘air’. Bad air around swamps was originally believed to be the cause of the fever. We now know that malaria is caused by certain protozoans present in the mosquitoes that breed around swamps.

When we think of manufacturing, we tend to think of big, industrial machines and long production lines. But the original meaning means ‘made by hand’, from the Latin manu factum. Nowadays, we use the word ‘artisan’, which has a more attractive ring to it, to say that something is made my hand.

We usually think of ‘quarantine’ as a period or place of isolation to stop the spread of disease. But quarante means forty in French, so what’s the connection between forty and isolation? Originally, when a ship arriving in port was suspected of being infected with a contagious disease, its cargo and crew were obliged to forego all contact with the shore for around forty days. This term came to be known as the period of quarantine.

Why does the word ‘rehearse’ mean ‘topractise something before a performance’ when a hearse is a vehicle for carrying a coffin? The word ‘hearse’ comes from the Old French and Middle English harrow, a tool for ploughing a field, while the word ‘rehearse’ comes from the Old French rehercier meaning to ‘again harrow’ or ‘replough a field’. When we rehearse something, we do it over again. It’s not certain where the word ‘hearse’ (as in a vehicle for carrying a coffin) came from but it’s believed to have originated from a triangular frame, shaped like a harrow, that was used to carry candles in church.

‘Tide’ has come to mean the rising and falling of the sea, but it originates from Old English tīd, Dutch tijd and German Zeit, all meaning ‘time’. As people noticed the sea rising and falling at specific periods, these movements took on the word for ‘time’ and became known as ‘tides’. The words ‘yuletide’ (yule time) and ‘springtide’ (springtime) retain the original use of the word. By the way, the word ‘yule’ originates from the Old Norse jól, a midwinter heathen festival lasting twelve days.

Photo by Mira on Unsplash

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Lorraine is a traner for the PRCA
Lorraine is a traner for the PRCA
Lorraine is a member of the Professional Copywriters' Network