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Episode
55

Weird Etymologies in English

May 19, 2020
Language Learning
-
18
minutes
Romans
English writing

From evil spirits to the Roman army, we look at the influences that have shaped the English language.

We'll discuss some of the weirdest ones, bust some myths about the origins of words, and talk about the mystery of where words come from.

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[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn interesting things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about etymologies, where words come from. 

[00:00:31] We'll first talk about some interesting and weird ones, we'll then talk about some etymologies that most people think are true but actually aren't. 

[00:00:44] And then we will finish with some pretty common words that people just have no idea where they came from, and we will have a bit of a think about what this might mean.

[00:00:57] It's going to be an exciting one. 

[00:01:00] Okay then let's get started. 

[00:01:03] First up is the word 'decimate', which now in English means to kill a large number of something or to reduce something severely. 

[00:01:17] So colloquially you might hear someone using the word decimate for a big win at a football match, for example, that team was decimated by the other one.

[00:01:29] Now the Latin scholars among you might recognise something here, and indeed the word decimate does have Latin roots

[00:01:41] You might see the first part of it 'deci', D, E, C I, you might think that has got something to do with 10.

[00:01:51] And you would be right. 

[00:01:52] There is a connection with the number 10. 

[00:01:55] The connection is that the Roman army would punish groups of mutinous soldiers, soldiers who had tried to rise up, to escape or do something else that they shouldn't have, and they would punish them by killing one out of every 10 of them. 

[00:02:16] So the word started out as a very precise term, to reduce something in size by a 10th. 

[00:02:25] However, it has sort of morphed, it has changed into meaning completely destroy or obliterate, which has a ruffled a few feathers, it has annoyed a few linguistic purists who say that it's a tragedy that now the accepted definition is just to destroy when historically it had a very specific definition.

[00:02:52] The response given by the Cambridge Dictionary to these linguistic purists was, 'well, words change, language changes, language always evolves and just deal with it'.

[00:03:07] Secondly, we have the word 'nightmare', when you have a bad dream. 

[00:03:14] Now, if you look at this word you might think it is formed of two different parts: night, I think we know what night is, it's the opposite of day and mare, which you may know is the word for a female horse. 

[00:03:32] So you might think, hang on female horse in the night, that's strange, but it doesn't make much sense. 

[00:03:42] In fact, mare in this case doesn't actually refer to a female horse, but refers to a female goblin, a little monster, a little evil spirit. 

[00:03:57] This evil spirit was thought to sit on your chest while you slept and give you this feeling of suffocation, of not being able to breathe.

[00:04:09] And interestingly enough, it isn't just in English that there was this idea that nightmares were caused by animals or spirits coming to visit you in the night and disturbing your sleep. 

[00:04:23] Similar sorts of ideas and words also exist in various Scandinavian languages and in German. 

[00:04:33] Our next weird and wonderful etymology is one that regular listeners of this podcast might be aware of, and that is the sandwich. 

[00:04:46] Now I'm sure you know what a sandwich is, maybe you've even eaten a sandwich today. 

[00:04:52] Statistically tens of millions of people will eat a sandwich today.

[00:04:57] But the term sandwich actually comes from the 18th Century when a British man called the Earl of Sandwich was too involved in a game of cards and requested to be brought a slice of meat between two pieces of bread so that he could continue his card game. 

[00:05:21] Soon enough, people were just asking for 'what sandwich has', and this was just shortened to 'sandwich'.

[00:05:30] I should say that there is a lot more to that story, and we actually made an entire episode about it. 

[00:05:37] It's Episode 19 if you haven't listened to it already. 

[00:05:41] Next on our list of interesting etymologies comes a word that you probably have heard a lot more of in the past couple of months than in the past 20 years, and that word is quarantine.

[00:05:59] Now, the word quarantine, just to clarify, in case you need a reminder, is the period of time during which an animal or person that might have a disease is kept away from other people or animals so that the disease cannot spread, so that other people can not get it. 

[00:06:19] And for the Italians listening, you may know the origin of this word already.

[00:06:26] You would certainly recognise the first part of the word 'quarant' in Italian, pronounced 'quarant', which sounds a lot like quaranta, 40 in Italian. 

[00:06:37] But why would quarantine come from the Italian word for the number 40?

[00:06:45] Well, back in the 14th century, the plague, the black death was ravaging Europe. 

[00:06:53] The city of Venice was one of the great ports of Europe, and a great centre for trade. 

[00:07:01] Understandably, Venice didn't want to completely cut off trade and stop ships from arriving, but it did want to stop the arrival of people with the plague.

[00:07:14] So what did it do? 

[00:07:15] It made ships that were coming from ports where they had the plague, it made them wait offshore for 40 days until the passengers were allowed to come ashore

[00:07:29] The logic being that this would be enough time for symptoms to develop, and if nothing had happened after 40 days, well then it was fine to allow the sailors ashore. 

[00:07:42] And it's from this, from the 40 day rule that quarantine comes. 

[00:07:49] Fascinating, right? 

[00:07:51] So we've talked about a few weird and wonderful etymologies in English, but of course for words like quarantine, the equivalent in languages like Spanish and French are also pretty similar. 

[00:08:05] So they aren't unique to English, but they are pretty interesting nonetheless.

[00:08:11] Now it's time to talk about a few more weird and wonderful origins of words, words with fantastic backstories that lots of people know and talk about, but there's only one problem. 

[00:08:26] And that problem is that they aren't true. 

[00:08:31] But they do come with an interesting story, so it's worth talking about a few of them, in any case. 

[00:08:39] Firstly, it is the origin of the word quiz. 

[00:08:44] Q U I Z. 

[00:08:46] Now, legend has it that there was a Dublin theatre owner who made a bet that he could create a new nonsense word in English, a word that made no sense, and within 48 hours, everyone in Dublin would be using it. 

[00:09:07] To do this he reportedly got a load of street children to go and write this word on the walls all over Dublin so that people would see it, be surprised and start talking about it. 

[00:09:22] The word was quiz. 

[00:09:25] The story goes that the whole of Dublin was talking about this weird word and they weren't sure what it was. 

[00:09:34] They thought it was a kind of test to figure out the meaning, so a quiz was just a kind of test. 

[00:09:44] It is a great story, but unfortunately that's all it is.

[00:09:48] There is just no evidence that it is true.

[00:09:53] Another word origin story that is quite well known in Britain is the origin of the word 'posh'. 

[00:10:03] So 'posh', if you don't know, generally means of a high social class or expensive and high quality, a person can be posh, but so can a restaurant, a bar, and so on. 

[00:10:19] The story goes that the word 'posh', P O S H was an abbreviation for port out, starboard home. 

[00:10:31] On a ship port is the left side and starboard is the right side.

[00:10:38] The theory has it that when Brits used to travel from Britain to India by ship, the most desirable cabins in the ship were on the port side on the way out, on the way there, and on the starboard side on the way home. 

[00:11:00] So if you had more money to spend on a nice cabin, then you would have the posh ticket, the port out, starboard home. 

[00:11:13] And the only problem with this explanation? 

[00:11:16] There isn't any evidence for it whatsoever.

[00:11:20] I can't tell you the number of times that I have heard people telling me that theory and it was only doing the research for this episode that I realised that it was completely made up. 

[00:11:35] I actually had it on my list of words with interesting etymologies only to find out that it was completely untrue.

[00:11:44] And this actually takes us onto our next point quite nicely, which is just to talk about the origin of words in general. 

[00:11:55] English, as I'm sure you know, is a beautiful but messy mix of lots of different languages: old German, Norse, Latin, Greek, all sorts of other languages have had a role in developing English into what it is now.

[00:12:15] And every word started somewhere for a reason. 

[00:12:20] That reason might be very logical. 

[00:12:23] Or it could be just completely random. 

[00:12:27] But the first variant, the first version of every word, was decided by someone, somewhere for a particular reason. 

[00:12:39] Linguists and historians have a lot of fun trying to trace to, to find the etymology of certain words, but there are some in English that they just have no idea where they came from. 

[00:12:55] Some of these words are so common that you might think 'really? People have got no idea where that word came from?'

[00:13:05] I was certainly surprised when I looked into this and I wanted to share a few of them with you. 

[00:13:10] Firstly 'big'. 

[00:13:15] Now you know what 'big' means, but only fairly recently, did it become the main way of describing something that was large in size. 

[00:13:26] Until the 14th century, people used to use the word 'great', or even the old English word, “mickle”. 

[00:13:35] 'Big' just seems to have appeared out of nowhere, and nobody seems to know why. 

[00:13:41] There are a few theories, perhaps it's from the Scandinavian word for a rich and powerful man. 

[00:13:49] Or maybe there was someone called big, a Mr. Big, who I imagine was big, and that's where it came from. 

[00:14:00] Anyway, this is probably one of the first words that any English language learner learns, yet we have pretty much no idea where it comes from, certainly no definitive evidence about its origin. 

[00:14:17] Secondly, and this is another word that you will know, it is 'bad', the opposite of 'good'. 

[00:14:26] We have some pretty reasonable ideas about the origins of the word 'good.' 

[00:14:32] And it's very similar to the German word for the same concept, but 'bad' is unique. 

[00:14:39] We don't have any concrete evidence for where it actually came from. 

[00:14:46] There are a few theories, such as it was a shortening of the old English word for hermaphrodite, 'bæddel, but people just don't know. 

[00:14:58] And it has troubled historical linguists for years.

[00:15:05] And finally it's the word 'girl', and there's a bit of a fun story to this one too. 

[00:15:14] So the point is that we know some of the roots, the etymologies of some words that mean a similar thing to 'girl' in English. 

[00:15:26] The word 'maiden' has German roots and the word 'damsel' has French roots

[00:15:33] These are both pretty old words, so don't worry if you don't recognise them or you haven't heard of them before.

[00:15:41] But 'girl', we just really don't know. 

[00:15:46] One interesting thing about the word girl though, is that it just used to mean child of either sex. 

[00:15:54] So you could have a girl who was male, actually called a 'knave girl'. 

[00:16:02] I should of course, point out that this stopped over 500 years ago, and I think that if you called a 14 year old boy, a 'knave girl', well, he probably wouldn't be very happy with you. 

[00:16:17] Okay then that is it for this little look at some weird etymologies in English.

[00:16:24] I hope that it has been an interesting one and that you have discovered a few new things about the English language that you didn't know 20 minutes ago.

[00:16:34] As a native speaker in English at least, you probably know 15 to 20,000 words, but you never really stop to think twice about where they came from, about the fact that some of these words have been said by people for hundreds, thousands of years and have a fascinating history behind them. 

[00:16:59] And even for those words that we don't know the origin of, I find this equally fascinating in one way, the fact that a word as common as a 'big' or 'bad', which have probably been said hundreds of thousands of times by people, even in the short time you've been listening to this podcast, yet we have really no idea at all where they came from.

[00:17:25] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show. 

[00:17:29] You can email hi H I @leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:17:33] I read and respond to every email we get. 

[00:17:37] Okay then, you have been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:17:44] I am Alastair Budge. 

[00:17:45] You stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.



Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn interesting things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about etymologies, where words come from. 

[00:00:31] We'll first talk about some interesting and weird ones, we'll then talk about some etymologies that most people think are true but actually aren't. 

[00:00:44] And then we will finish with some pretty common words that people just have no idea where they came from, and we will have a bit of a think about what this might mean.

[00:00:57] It's going to be an exciting one. 

[00:01:00] Okay then let's get started. 

[00:01:03] First up is the word 'decimate', which now in English means to kill a large number of something or to reduce something severely. 

[00:01:17] So colloquially you might hear someone using the word decimate for a big win at a football match, for example, that team was decimated by the other one.

[00:01:29] Now the Latin scholars among you might recognise something here, and indeed the word decimate does have Latin roots

[00:01:41] You might see the first part of it 'deci', D, E, C I, you might think that has got something to do with 10.

[00:01:51] And you would be right. 

[00:01:52] There is a connection with the number 10. 

[00:01:55] The connection is that the Roman army would punish groups of mutinous soldiers, soldiers who had tried to rise up, to escape or do something else that they shouldn't have, and they would punish them by killing one out of every 10 of them. 

[00:02:16] So the word started out as a very precise term, to reduce something in size by a 10th. 

[00:02:25] However, it has sort of morphed, it has changed into meaning completely destroy or obliterate, which has a ruffled a few feathers, it has annoyed a few linguistic purists who say that it's a tragedy that now the accepted definition is just to destroy when historically it had a very specific definition.

[00:02:52] The response given by the Cambridge Dictionary to these linguistic purists was, 'well, words change, language changes, language always evolves and just deal with it'.

[00:03:07] Secondly, we have the word 'nightmare', when you have a bad dream. 

[00:03:14] Now, if you look at this word you might think it is formed of two different parts: night, I think we know what night is, it's the opposite of day and mare, which you may know is the word for a female horse. 

[00:03:32] So you might think, hang on female horse in the night, that's strange, but it doesn't make much sense. 

[00:03:42] In fact, mare in this case doesn't actually refer to a female horse, but refers to a female goblin, a little monster, a little evil spirit. 

[00:03:57] This evil spirit was thought to sit on your chest while you slept and give you this feeling of suffocation, of not being able to breathe.

[00:04:09] And interestingly enough, it isn't just in English that there was this idea that nightmares were caused by animals or spirits coming to visit you in the night and disturbing your sleep. 

[00:04:23] Similar sorts of ideas and words also exist in various Scandinavian languages and in German. 

[00:04:33] Our next weird and wonderful etymology is one that regular listeners of this podcast might be aware of, and that is the sandwich. 

[00:04:46] Now I'm sure you know what a sandwich is, maybe you've even eaten a sandwich today. 

[00:04:52] Statistically tens of millions of people will eat a sandwich today.

[00:04:57] But the term sandwich actually comes from the 18th Century when a British man called the Earl of Sandwich was too involved in a game of cards and requested to be brought a slice of meat between two pieces of bread so that he could continue his card game. 

[00:05:21] Soon enough, people were just asking for 'what sandwich has', and this was just shortened to 'sandwich'.

[00:05:30] I should say that there is a lot more to that story, and we actually made an entire episode about it. 

[00:05:37] It's Episode 19 if you haven't listened to it already. 

[00:05:41] Next on our list of interesting etymologies comes a word that you probably have heard a lot more of in the past couple of months than in the past 20 years, and that word is quarantine.

[00:05:59] Now, the word quarantine, just to clarify, in case you need a reminder, is the period of time during which an animal or person that might have a disease is kept away from other people or animals so that the disease cannot spread, so that other people can not get it. 

[00:06:19] And for the Italians listening, you may know the origin of this word already.

[00:06:26] You would certainly recognise the first part of the word 'quarant' in Italian, pronounced 'quarant', which sounds a lot like quaranta, 40 in Italian. 

[00:06:37] But why would quarantine come from the Italian word for the number 40?

[00:06:45] Well, back in the 14th century, the plague, the black death was ravaging Europe. 

[00:06:53] The city of Venice was one of the great ports of Europe, and a great centre for trade. 

[00:07:01] Understandably, Venice didn't want to completely cut off trade and stop ships from arriving, but it did want to stop the arrival of people with the plague.

[00:07:14] So what did it do? 

[00:07:15] It made ships that were coming from ports where they had the plague, it made them wait offshore for 40 days until the passengers were allowed to come ashore

[00:07:29] The logic being that this would be enough time for symptoms to develop, and if nothing had happened after 40 days, well then it was fine to allow the sailors ashore. 

[00:07:42] And it's from this, from the 40 day rule that quarantine comes. 

[00:07:49] Fascinating, right? 

[00:07:51] So we've talked about a few weird and wonderful etymologies in English, but of course for words like quarantine, the equivalent in languages like Spanish and French are also pretty similar. 

[00:08:05] So they aren't unique to English, but they are pretty interesting nonetheless.

[00:08:11] Now it's time to talk about a few more weird and wonderful origins of words, words with fantastic backstories that lots of people know and talk about, but there's only one problem. 

[00:08:26] And that problem is that they aren't true. 

[00:08:31] But they do come with an interesting story, so it's worth talking about a few of them, in any case. 

[00:08:39] Firstly, it is the origin of the word quiz. 

[00:08:44] Q U I Z. 

[00:08:46] Now, legend has it that there was a Dublin theatre owner who made a bet that he could create a new nonsense word in English, a word that made no sense, and within 48 hours, everyone in Dublin would be using it. 

[00:09:07] To do this he reportedly got a load of street children to go and write this word on the walls all over Dublin so that people would see it, be surprised and start talking about it. 

[00:09:22] The word was quiz. 

[00:09:25] The story goes that the whole of Dublin was talking about this weird word and they weren't sure what it was. 

[00:09:34] They thought it was a kind of test to figure out the meaning, so a quiz was just a kind of test. 

[00:09:44] It is a great story, but unfortunately that's all it is.

[00:09:48] There is just no evidence that it is true.

[00:09:53] Another word origin story that is quite well known in Britain is the origin of the word 'posh'. 

[00:10:03] So 'posh', if you don't know, generally means of a high social class or expensive and high quality, a person can be posh, but so can a restaurant, a bar, and so on. 

[00:10:19] The story goes that the word 'posh', P O S H was an abbreviation for port out, starboard home. 

[00:10:31] On a ship port is the left side and starboard is the right side.

[00:10:38] The theory has it that when Brits used to travel from Britain to India by ship, the most desirable cabins in the ship were on the port side on the way out, on the way there, and on the starboard side on the way home. 

[00:11:00] So if you had more money to spend on a nice cabin, then you would have the posh ticket, the port out, starboard home. 

[00:11:13] And the only problem with this explanation? 

[00:11:16] There isn't any evidence for it whatsoever.

[00:11:20] I can't tell you the number of times that I have heard people telling me that theory and it was only doing the research for this episode that I realised that it was completely made up. 

[00:11:35] I actually had it on my list of words with interesting etymologies only to find out that it was completely untrue.

[00:11:44] And this actually takes us onto our next point quite nicely, which is just to talk about the origin of words in general. 

[00:11:55] English, as I'm sure you know, is a beautiful but messy mix of lots of different languages: old German, Norse, Latin, Greek, all sorts of other languages have had a role in developing English into what it is now.

[00:12:15] And every word started somewhere for a reason. 

[00:12:20] That reason might be very logical. 

[00:12:23] Or it could be just completely random. 

[00:12:27] But the first variant, the first version of every word, was decided by someone, somewhere for a particular reason. 

[00:12:39] Linguists and historians have a lot of fun trying to trace to, to find the etymology of certain words, but there are some in English that they just have no idea where they came from. 

[00:12:55] Some of these words are so common that you might think 'really? People have got no idea where that word came from?'

[00:13:05] I was certainly surprised when I looked into this and I wanted to share a few of them with you. 

[00:13:10] Firstly 'big'. 

[00:13:15] Now you know what 'big' means, but only fairly recently, did it become the main way of describing something that was large in size. 

[00:13:26] Until the 14th century, people used to use the word 'great', or even the old English word, “mickle”. 

[00:13:35] 'Big' just seems to have appeared out of nowhere, and nobody seems to know why. 

[00:13:41] There are a few theories, perhaps it's from the Scandinavian word for a rich and powerful man. 

[00:13:49] Or maybe there was someone called big, a Mr. Big, who I imagine was big, and that's where it came from. 

[00:14:00] Anyway, this is probably one of the first words that any English language learner learns, yet we have pretty much no idea where it comes from, certainly no definitive evidence about its origin. 

[00:14:17] Secondly, and this is another word that you will know, it is 'bad', the opposite of 'good'. 

[00:14:26] We have some pretty reasonable ideas about the origins of the word 'good.' 

[00:14:32] And it's very similar to the German word for the same concept, but 'bad' is unique. 

[00:14:39] We don't have any concrete evidence for where it actually came from. 

[00:14:46] There are a few theories, such as it was a shortening of the old English word for hermaphrodite, 'bæddel, but people just don't know. 

[00:14:58] And it has troubled historical linguists for years.

[00:15:05] And finally it's the word 'girl', and there's a bit of a fun story to this one too. 

[00:15:14] So the point is that we know some of the roots, the etymologies of some words that mean a similar thing to 'girl' in English. 

[00:15:26] The word 'maiden' has German roots and the word 'damsel' has French roots

[00:15:33] These are both pretty old words, so don't worry if you don't recognise them or you haven't heard of them before.

[00:15:41] But 'girl', we just really don't know. 

[00:15:46] One interesting thing about the word girl though, is that it just used to mean child of either sex. 

[00:15:54] So you could have a girl who was male, actually called a 'knave girl'. 

[00:16:02] I should of course, point out that this stopped over 500 years ago, and I think that if you called a 14 year old boy, a 'knave girl', well, he probably wouldn't be very happy with you. 

[00:16:17] Okay then that is it for this little look at some weird etymologies in English.

[00:16:24] I hope that it has been an interesting one and that you have discovered a few new things about the English language that you didn't know 20 minutes ago.

[00:16:34] As a native speaker in English at least, you probably know 15 to 20,000 words, but you never really stop to think twice about where they came from, about the fact that some of these words have been said by people for hundreds, thousands of years and have a fascinating history behind them. 

[00:16:59] And even for those words that we don't know the origin of, I find this equally fascinating in one way, the fact that a word as common as a 'big' or 'bad', which have probably been said hundreds of thousands of times by people, even in the short time you've been listening to this podcast, yet we have really no idea at all where they came from.

[00:17:25] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show. 

[00:17:29] You can email hi H I @leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:17:33] I read and respond to every email we get. 

[00:17:37] Okay then, you have been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:17:44] I am Alastair Budge. 

[00:17:45] You stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[00:00:04] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English, the show where you can listen to fascinating stories and learn interesting things about the world at the same time as improving your English. 

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about etymologies, where words come from. 

[00:00:31] We'll first talk about some interesting and weird ones, we'll then talk about some etymologies that most people think are true but actually aren't. 

[00:00:44] And then we will finish with some pretty common words that people just have no idea where they came from, and we will have a bit of a think about what this might mean.

[00:00:57] It's going to be an exciting one. 

[00:01:00] Okay then let's get started. 

[00:01:03] First up is the word 'decimate', which now in English means to kill a large number of something or to reduce something severely. 

[00:01:17] So colloquially you might hear someone using the word decimate for a big win at a football match, for example, that team was decimated by the other one.

[00:01:29] Now the Latin scholars among you might recognise something here, and indeed the word decimate does have Latin roots

[00:01:41] You might see the first part of it 'deci', D, E, C I, you might think that has got something to do with 10.

[00:01:51] And you would be right. 

[00:01:52] There is a connection with the number 10. 

[00:01:55] The connection is that the Roman army would punish groups of mutinous soldiers, soldiers who had tried to rise up, to escape or do something else that they shouldn't have, and they would punish them by killing one out of every 10 of them. 

[00:02:16] So the word started out as a very precise term, to reduce something in size by a 10th. 

[00:02:25] However, it has sort of morphed, it has changed into meaning completely destroy or obliterate, which has a ruffled a few feathers, it has annoyed a few linguistic purists who say that it's a tragedy that now the accepted definition is just to destroy when historically it had a very specific definition.

[00:02:52] The response given by the Cambridge Dictionary to these linguistic purists was, 'well, words change, language changes, language always evolves and just deal with it'.

[00:03:07] Secondly, we have the word 'nightmare', when you have a bad dream. 

[00:03:14] Now, if you look at this word you might think it is formed of two different parts: night, I think we know what night is, it's the opposite of day and mare, which you may know is the word for a female horse. 

[00:03:32] So you might think, hang on female horse in the night, that's strange, but it doesn't make much sense. 

[00:03:42] In fact, mare in this case doesn't actually refer to a female horse, but refers to a female goblin, a little monster, a little evil spirit. 

[00:03:57] This evil spirit was thought to sit on your chest while you slept and give you this feeling of suffocation, of not being able to breathe.

[00:04:09] And interestingly enough, it isn't just in English that there was this idea that nightmares were caused by animals or spirits coming to visit you in the night and disturbing your sleep. 

[00:04:23] Similar sorts of ideas and words also exist in various Scandinavian languages and in German. 

[00:04:33] Our next weird and wonderful etymology is one that regular listeners of this podcast might be aware of, and that is the sandwich. 

[00:04:46] Now I'm sure you know what a sandwich is, maybe you've even eaten a sandwich today. 

[00:04:52] Statistically tens of millions of people will eat a sandwich today.

[00:04:57] But the term sandwich actually comes from the 18th Century when a British man called the Earl of Sandwich was too involved in a game of cards and requested to be brought a slice of meat between two pieces of bread so that he could continue his card game. 

[00:05:21] Soon enough, people were just asking for 'what sandwich has', and this was just shortened to 'sandwich'.

[00:05:30] I should say that there is a lot more to that story, and we actually made an entire episode about it. 

[00:05:37] It's Episode 19 if you haven't listened to it already. 

[00:05:41] Next on our list of interesting etymologies comes a word that you probably have heard a lot more of in the past couple of months than in the past 20 years, and that word is quarantine.

[00:05:59] Now, the word quarantine, just to clarify, in case you need a reminder, is the period of time during which an animal or person that might have a disease is kept away from other people or animals so that the disease cannot spread, so that other people can not get it. 

[00:06:19] And for the Italians listening, you may know the origin of this word already.

[00:06:26] You would certainly recognise the first part of the word 'quarant' in Italian, pronounced 'quarant', which sounds a lot like quaranta, 40 in Italian. 

[00:06:37] But why would quarantine come from the Italian word for the number 40?

[00:06:45] Well, back in the 14th century, the plague, the black death was ravaging Europe. 

[00:06:53] The city of Venice was one of the great ports of Europe, and a great centre for trade. 

[00:07:01] Understandably, Venice didn't want to completely cut off trade and stop ships from arriving, but it did want to stop the arrival of people with the plague.

[00:07:14] So what did it do? 

[00:07:15] It made ships that were coming from ports where they had the plague, it made them wait offshore for 40 days until the passengers were allowed to come ashore

[00:07:29] The logic being that this would be enough time for symptoms to develop, and if nothing had happened after 40 days, well then it was fine to allow the sailors ashore. 

[00:07:42] And it's from this, from the 40 day rule that quarantine comes. 

[00:07:49] Fascinating, right? 

[00:07:51] So we've talked about a few weird and wonderful etymologies in English, but of course for words like quarantine, the equivalent in languages like Spanish and French are also pretty similar. 

[00:08:05] So they aren't unique to English, but they are pretty interesting nonetheless.

[00:08:11] Now it's time to talk about a few more weird and wonderful origins of words, words with fantastic backstories that lots of people know and talk about, but there's only one problem. 

[00:08:26] And that problem is that they aren't true. 

[00:08:31] But they do come with an interesting story, so it's worth talking about a few of them, in any case. 

[00:08:39] Firstly, it is the origin of the word quiz. 

[00:08:44] Q U I Z. 

[00:08:46] Now, legend has it that there was a Dublin theatre owner who made a bet that he could create a new nonsense word in English, a word that made no sense, and within 48 hours, everyone in Dublin would be using it. 

[00:09:07] To do this he reportedly got a load of street children to go and write this word on the walls all over Dublin so that people would see it, be surprised and start talking about it. 

[00:09:22] The word was quiz. 

[00:09:25] The story goes that the whole of Dublin was talking about this weird word and they weren't sure what it was. 

[00:09:34] They thought it was a kind of test to figure out the meaning, so a quiz was just a kind of test. 

[00:09:44] It is a great story, but unfortunately that's all it is.

[00:09:48] There is just no evidence that it is true.

[00:09:53] Another word origin story that is quite well known in Britain is the origin of the word 'posh'. 

[00:10:03] So 'posh', if you don't know, generally means of a high social class or expensive and high quality, a person can be posh, but so can a restaurant, a bar, and so on. 

[00:10:19] The story goes that the word 'posh', P O S H was an abbreviation for port out, starboard home. 

[00:10:31] On a ship port is the left side and starboard is the right side.

[00:10:38] The theory has it that when Brits used to travel from Britain to India by ship, the most desirable cabins in the ship were on the port side on the way out, on the way there, and on the starboard side on the way home. 

[00:11:00] So if you had more money to spend on a nice cabin, then you would have the posh ticket, the port out, starboard home. 

[00:11:13] And the only problem with this explanation? 

[00:11:16] There isn't any evidence for it whatsoever.

[00:11:20] I can't tell you the number of times that I have heard people telling me that theory and it was only doing the research for this episode that I realised that it was completely made up. 

[00:11:35] I actually had it on my list of words with interesting etymologies only to find out that it was completely untrue.

[00:11:44] And this actually takes us onto our next point quite nicely, which is just to talk about the origin of words in general. 

[00:11:55] English, as I'm sure you know, is a beautiful but messy mix of lots of different languages: old German, Norse, Latin, Greek, all sorts of other languages have had a role in developing English into what it is now.

[00:12:15] And every word started somewhere for a reason. 

[00:12:20] That reason might be very logical. 

[00:12:23] Or it could be just completely random. 

[00:12:27] But the first variant, the first version of every word, was decided by someone, somewhere for a particular reason. 

[00:12:39] Linguists and historians have a lot of fun trying to trace to, to find the etymology of certain words, but there are some in English that they just have no idea where they came from. 

[00:12:55] Some of these words are so common that you might think 'really? People have got no idea where that word came from?'

[00:13:05] I was certainly surprised when I looked into this and I wanted to share a few of them with you. 

[00:13:10] Firstly 'big'. 

[00:13:15] Now you know what 'big' means, but only fairly recently, did it become the main way of describing something that was large in size. 

[00:13:26] Until the 14th century, people used to use the word 'great', or even the old English word, “mickle”. 

[00:13:35] 'Big' just seems to have appeared out of nowhere, and nobody seems to know why. 

[00:13:41] There are a few theories, perhaps it's from the Scandinavian word for a rich and powerful man. 

[00:13:49] Or maybe there was someone called big, a Mr. Big, who I imagine was big, and that's where it came from. 

[00:14:00] Anyway, this is probably one of the first words that any English language learner learns, yet we have pretty much no idea where it comes from, certainly no definitive evidence about its origin. 

[00:14:17] Secondly, and this is another word that you will know, it is 'bad', the opposite of 'good'. 

[00:14:26] We have some pretty reasonable ideas about the origins of the word 'good.' 

[00:14:32] And it's very similar to the German word for the same concept, but 'bad' is unique. 

[00:14:39] We don't have any concrete evidence for where it actually came from. 

[00:14:46] There are a few theories, such as it was a shortening of the old English word for hermaphrodite, 'bæddel, but people just don't know. 

[00:14:58] And it has troubled historical linguists for years.

[00:15:05] And finally it's the word 'girl', and there's a bit of a fun story to this one too. 

[00:15:14] So the point is that we know some of the roots, the etymologies of some words that mean a similar thing to 'girl' in English. 

[00:15:26] The word 'maiden' has German roots and the word 'damsel' has French roots

[00:15:33] These are both pretty old words, so don't worry if you don't recognise them or you haven't heard of them before.

[00:15:41] But 'girl', we just really don't know. 

[00:15:46] One interesting thing about the word girl though, is that it just used to mean child of either sex. 

[00:15:54] So you could have a girl who was male, actually called a 'knave girl'. 

[00:16:02] I should of course, point out that this stopped over 500 years ago, and I think that if you called a 14 year old boy, a 'knave girl', well, he probably wouldn't be very happy with you. 

[00:16:17] Okay then that is it for this little look at some weird etymologies in English.

[00:16:24] I hope that it has been an interesting one and that you have discovered a few new things about the English language that you didn't know 20 minutes ago.

[00:16:34] As a native speaker in English at least, you probably know 15 to 20,000 words, but you never really stop to think twice about where they came from, about the fact that some of these words have been said by people for hundreds, thousands of years and have a fascinating history behind them. 

[00:16:59] And even for those words that we don't know the origin of, I find this equally fascinating in one way, the fact that a word as common as a 'big' or 'bad', which have probably been said hundreds of thousands of times by people, even in the short time you've been listening to this podcast, yet we have really no idea at all where they came from.

[00:17:25] As always, I would love to know what you thought of the show. 

[00:17:29] You can email hi H I @leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:17:33] I read and respond to every email we get. 

[00:17:37] Okay then, you have been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:17:44] I am Alastair Budge. 

[00:17:45] You stay safe and I'll catch you in the next episode.