Let’s DEWEY This! – the 400s


Perhaps it comes with being a writer, but I’m a big fan of language. Learning a new word gives my brain a little hopskip of happy. Give me your nouns, your adjectives! Your portmanteaus, your puns! I want them all!

So I was glad to see that section 400 in my Dewey Decimal Discovery Project would be alllll about language. One of my most favorite things in the world (allow me to slip on my nerd hat – ahh, there) is unexpectedly discovering how one word relates to another word. Like, there’s a word you’ve barely thought about before, and suddenly you notice its obscure prefix is the same as another seemingly irrelevant term and OH MY CHOMSKY THOSE WORDS ARE LONG-LOST SIBLINGS AAAHHH. 😀

That is why, for this month’s nonfiction read, I chose Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs, by Katherine Barber, DD# 422 – a collection of various assorted SUNDRY (oooh yeah that’s a good one) word origins. Here were the most fascinating:

line break 3

Peculiar ~ This one’s my favorite! It comes from an old Latin term for “property,” or specifically “that which you own and nobody else.” Eventually it took on personal qualities as well, or “traits belonging to you and nobody else.” And since traits that set one apart tend to be thought of as strange and weird, “peculiar” evolved to mean “strange and weird.” I love that! 🙂

Algebra ~ Another favorite! From the Arabic term “al-jabr,” this word meant “the reunion of broken parts,” or more specifically, the setting of bones. It became associated with mathematics  due to its function of “restoring what is missing and equating like and like.” Putting bones back together, putting numbers back together. Isn’t that awesome??

Anthology and Thesaurus ~ My fellow writers will like this one. In Greek, an anthology was a collection of flowers, and a thesaurus was literally a “treasure house.”  Accurate!

Plagiarism ~ Another one for the writers. To the Romans, this word meant to abduct someone’s child. It gradually came to include not just people, but literary works, since as AAAANY author will confirm, our books are our babies!

Travel ~ I adore traveling, and was surprised to find it comes from an old torture device.  The French borrowed the term and applied it to “work,” as I’m sure the 9-to-5ers out there will agree with. It later became the word for what we know as “travel,” since making a journey in that time was such a grueling task. As much as I love stamping my passport, I gotta say, long plane flights have a lot in common with this word’s origin!

Cab ~ As in taxi cab. This word comes from a horse-drawn carriage in the 1800s that bounced around a lot, called a “cabriole,” which was named after the French word for a “springy jump,” which  was named after the word for a young goat. And you know how goats are. They like jumpin’. Next time you’re in a movie-style taxi chase, it wouldn’t be wrong to say “Follow that goat!”


Romance ~ This comes from the medieval French word for a written story, “romanz.” Favorite tales at the time were about the relationship between a knight and the lady he protected with every fiber of his being. These were called “courtly romances,” and while technically that just meant a written story about the court, the devotions of such knights were so admired by readers that the phrase came to take on a more sappy connotation.

Partridge ~ Okay, this one’s hilarious. Due to the sound made by their wings when flapping away in fright, Greeks named this bird after their term for “breaking wind.” Partridge? More like Fartridge! Har har har.

Hurricane ~ This comes from the now-extinct Caribbean language of Taino, in which “hurakan” meant “god of the storm.” I love it when mythology leaks into our vernacular. You know what’d be a good one? “Zeus” as a verb for when you get an electric shock. “This car door just zeussed me!”

Rhubarb ~ This vegetable is actually related to barbarians! The Romans gave this unfamiliar plant the suffix “barbarum,” meaning “foreign.” To them, anyone foreign was uncivilized, which is why “barbarian” has its brutish connotation despite the fact that it technically just means the person is not of your country.

Fuel/Focus ~ “Fuel” was an extensive tweaking of the Latin word for fire: “focus.” This came to mean what we know as “focus” today (the point where two lines meet) with the writings of astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604. You know how if you direct sunlight at something via a magnifying glass, it will burn? The “focus” is the “fire point.”

Verse ~ This was borrowed by the term for the lines made by plows in a field. Since lines of writing look like lines of farming, people called them verses. Thankfully, you don’t need cow manure to write a poem.

Chocolate ~ Well, not chocolate exactly, but the active ingredient: theobromine. As sciencey as that sounds, its etymology actually breaks down to “food of the gods.” Agreed!

line break 3

There are a lot of other good ones in this book – too many for one blog post. So with that, I bid you farewell. (Which actually means “have good travels,” since “fare” was originally a verb for travel and okay okay I’m done I’m done!)

Your turn now. Do you know any interesting word origins? 🙂


25 thoughts on “Let’s DEWEY This! – the 400s

  1. OH MY CHOMSKY I love this post so much. So, so much. I always wondered how travail/travailler in French came to be such a close “faux ami” of travel. I think “verse” is my favorite, though. No, thesaurus. NO, FOCUS. OK I can’t decide.

    I remember reading somewhere that the word “decimate” literally means to kill every tenth person — a punishment used by the Roman Army for deserters and the like. I thought that was incredibly cool, and also incredibly horrifying.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Love this post! I’ve always liked the derivation of mortgage – two french words conjoined effectively meaning “death pledge” which is appropriate every time I look at my bank balance on a Monday morning.

    I heard a lovely one today – there is an Afrikaans word “voetstoots” which generally applies to the sale of something. So if you buy something voetstoots it’s basically you take it “as is” and without warranty. It comes from a Dutch phrase met de voet te stoten (to push with the foot) which historically signified the action taken at the end of a sale of a wheel of cheese – the cheese would be pushed/rolled away by the foot of the seller and then became the buyer’s object.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this post! As weird as it sounds, I find learning about etymology to be somehow very calming and satisfying, as if just a little of the complicated human linguistic puzzle is clicking into place, one word at a time. Sounds like an excellent book!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Like this a lot Shannon, thanks for sharing.

    Ok, here I go.

    Don’t know how much you know about Welsh, being American I’m going to guess not a lot, but you may surprise me. Anyway, it’s such an old language that a lot of modern words don’t have direct translations, and ones that are, just seem to have been converted o make them sound a bit welshy. So you get a ‘bus’, which becomes ‘bws’ and ‘policeman’ becomes ‘plismon’. Big playground har hars, back in the day, for those little nuggets I can tell you.

    But you also get a lot of literal and poetic translations like ‘peach’ which in Welsh is ‘eirin gwlanog’ meaning ‘woolly plum.’ ‘Rat’ is ‘llygoden fawr’ meaning ‘big mouse’ and ‘daisy’ is ‘llygad y dydd’ meaning ‘eye of the day.’

    Language is cool yo.

    Liked by 1 person

Let's chat!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s