These Plain Words Have Very Odd Origin Stories

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Most people have fairly rigid ideas about what words mean, but the thing about language is that it’s constantly changing. Words that mean one thing today may expand in definition over the coming decades or come to mean the complete opposite of their current definition once a few hundred more years pass.

Sometimes, words even change meanings entirely, leaving behind little trace of what they used to signify. The words on this list are the perfect example of that.

Over the years, these words have gone on a journey from signifying creepy, strange, antithetical, and even paranormal ideas to taking on the standard meanings we know and understand today.

Melancholy

Most of us recognize
melancholy
as meaning “gloomy” or “listless,” and the word has always been associated with those feelings. What’s changed is our understanding of why one might feel melancholy.

WATCH: The Bizarre Origin Of The Word "Melancholy"

Nightmare

When our Medieval ancestors weren’t busy blaming our moodiness on black bile, they passed the time by attributing nightmares to some strange paranormal activity. A
nightmare
in the 13th century meant “an evil female spirit that tried to suffocate people in their sleep.” Though mare is typically associated with female horses, it derives from the Old English mare, meaning “incubus, or evil spirit.” In Middle English, the word came to be associated specifically with an evil female spirit.

Eventually, science happened and we realized it was just our brains acting up, and not evil she-demons. But prior to that, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone had nightmares at all, since falling asleep amidst the threat of demon stranglers sounds difficult.

Vanilla


Vanilla
is often used to describe something bland, safe, or otherwise not very unique, thanks to its association with the universally recognizable flavor of vanilla. But, the word used to mean something completely different.

Upon the discovery of vanilla beans, vanilla was dubbed vainilla, a Spanish translation of the Latin vagina, which means “sheath.” The name came from the shape of the vanilla pods, which had to be split open in order for the seeds to be extracted. We’ll take the simplicity of vanilla flavoring over the complex etymology of this word any day.

Avocado

These days, an
avocado
is a delicious fruit best served on toast. But, the word originally comes from something decidedly less appetizing.

The word avocado comes from a Nahuatl word, 
āhuacatl
, that means “testicle.” It makes sense given the shape of the fruit. To the Aztecs, avocados were a symbol of fertility. They’re still known for being an aphrodisiac, though most of us are more interested in using them for guacamole.

Lemur

Lemurs are cute, fuzzy little critters that are native to Madagascar, but their name actually has sinister origins.

The word lemur comes from the 
Latin 

lemurēs, meaning “
ghosts or specters.” Lemurs are nocturnal, and it’s thought that they may have been named for their night-loving tendencies. Either that, or we’ve been cooing over evil spirits this entire time.

Nimrod

The word nimrod came to be associated with klutzy or idiotic behavior in the 1980s, but before that, it meant exactly the opposite.


Nimrod
is a biblical word that actually means “great hunter.” It was derived from Nemrod in the Old Testament, a hunter who was famous for his prowess. It’s not clear exactly why the meaning of the word shifted so dramatically but if nimrod was ever the word of choice for your middle school bullies, just know they actually meant you were strong and awesome.

Whiskey

Alcoholic beverages generally aren’t known for their life-giving properties, but whiskey doesn’t follow anyone else’s rules.

The word
whiskey
comes from the Irish whiskeybae, a term filtered down through early Scots Gaelic from the 
Medieval 
Latin 


aqua

vitae, which literally means “water of life.” Maybe still keep drinking regular water, though, OK?

Sarcasm

Sarcasm denotes a “sharply ironical taunt” in 2019, but in the 16th century, the definition was a lot more violent.


Sarcasm
comes from the Greek 
sarkázein, which means “
to rend (tear away or rip apart) flesh.” Whew, that escalated quickly! At some point, it seems, we collectively decided that a verbal attack was a much better way to make our point. Who would have thought? (There’s that sarcasm thing again.)

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