Words are funny things. For one thing, they are always changing. Consider lit, which, conventionally, refers to “lighting something up, e.g., a lit candle.” But, in slang, lit means something is “excellent.” It’s hot, it’s on fire—which are just more examples of how we play with words.
And, some words look like one thing but are actually another. Bridal, for instance, looks like a simple adjective form of bride, but it actually smushes bride together with ale, as bridal originally referred to a “marriage feast.”
Brides and beer? Now that sounds fun. So do these six other words with surprisingly formed origins.
Helicopter actually joins helico, from a Greek root meaning “spiral” (think helix) and pter, from a Greek root meaning “wing” (think pterodactyl). That means a helicopter is, literally, a machine with “spiral wings.” Makes sense.
The first operational helicopters took flight in the 1930s, though the word dates back to the 1860s, thanks to French models and toys. The concept is yet older, found in ancient China and in da Vinci’s notebooks.
A mortgage is “an agreement under which a person borrows money to buy property, like a house.” Typically, a mortgage can take 15–30 years to pay off. If that sounds like a heavy burden to shoulder through life, then wait til you learn where it comes from.
Borrowed into English in the 14th century, mortgage literally means “dead pledge” (mort is “dead,” like mortal and gage, “pledge” or “stake,” related to wage.) If the debt of a mortgage is paid, then the deal is done—like it’s dead.
Suddenly housewarming parties seem like much more somber occasions.
Which is why it’s reasonable to think the –rilege part of sacrilege would come from or be related to religion. Plus, the adjective form sacrilegious sounds a lot like religious.
But sacré bleu! Sacrilege actually goes all the way back to a Latin phrase, sacrum legere, meaning “to steal from a holy place.” Indeed, a sacrilegious thing to do.
Via French, the word salary (recorded in English in the 14th century) ultimately goes back to the Latin salarium, “an allowance” or “stipend.” The root of this word is sal, or “salt,” referring to the money Roman soldiers got to buy salt.
Salt is humble today, but this meat-preserver and flavor-added has long been very valuable, once worth the same as gold. Put that on your French fries.
Think you have enthusiasm? Try the origin of the word.
Found in English by the mid-1500s, enthusiasm ultimately comes (via French and Latin) from a Greek word meaning “inspired by or possessed by a god,” such as an artist or poet is said to experience when creating a visionary work. The -thus- part of enthusiasm goes back to the Greek theos, “god,” which shows up in words like theology.
Early instances of enthusiasm weren’t so kind in English in the 1500s, though, as the word referred to “pretended frenzies of divine inspiration.” There’s nothing quite like fake enthusiasm.
We use the word sabotage for “underhanded interference with work or production,” and the word treads, shall we say, an unusual past.
Sabotage comes from sabot, an old French word for a type of “wooden shoe.” It’s often said that, in the 19th century, discontented workers would throw their sabots into machines to destroy them. The evidence for this, though, isn’t well-soled. It seems sabotage grows out of a comparison of clumsy, lazy workers to people wearing wooden shoes. So, apparently saboteurs stuck it to their employers by slowing down their work.
English picked up sabotage in the 1910s. The Beastie Boys picked it up in 1994. And wooden shoes became a thing of the past.