10 Words Whose Etymology You Don't Know

by Robin Bloor on May 6, 2009

I like etymology; the study of the origin of words. It’s enlightening, amusing and confusing all at once. I enjoy the fact that in the heyday of communism there were etymological marxist theories that sought to prove that all human language originated from the word “hand” – implying that “the worker” was the foundation of everything, including thought. Did anyone really believe that? Yes, apparently.

I’m intrigued by what etymology reveals. Consider, for example, the etymology of the word “sin”.  It comes from the Old English “synn”, which has the meaning of a crime and is associated with doing evil. The Old Norse is “synd”, and the German Sünde. But its inclusion in the Bible is as a translation from the Latin “peccatum,” which doesn’t mean the same thing at all; its meaning is more in the sense of a religious error. In the original Greek version of the New Testament, the word is “hamartia,” which literally means to miss the target – a word normally associated with archery. In biblical Hebrew, the generic word for sin is het. It means to err, to miss the mark. Judaism teaches that sin is an act, and not a state of being, while Christianity (at some point) decided we were all born in a state of sin. All of which indicates that it’s easy for meaning to get mangled in translation.

Here’s my list of 10 etymological derivations that you are unlikely to know. It’s just possible that knowing one or two of these will make you wiser.

1. Sophisticated. This is a word whose meaning has traveled a real distance. Sophos is Greek for wisdom. This gives us the word philosophy meaning “love of wisdom.” But it also gives us the word sophistry, which refers to deceitful and misleading argument. The confusion harks back to a division in Ancient Greece between the philosophers (the good guys) and the sophists (the bad guys – despite the fact that sophos also means sage). The sophists decided to accept money as a fee for enlightening and educating their clients, while the philosophers refused to do so. Eventually the sophists became ingenuous, telling people what they wanted to hear.

So the word “sophisticated” came to mean “deceitful and actively misleading.” That tide turned in the late 19th century when the original Greek root began to reassert itself – probably as a result of academic musings. Soon, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defined a sophisticate as “a person free of naivety.” By 1945 the word sophisticated had acquired the meaning of “being technically superior.”

2. Salary, salient. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt, which is sal. Specifically, it comes from the Latin term “salarium argentum,” which means “money of salt.” In Roman times, salt was practical as a currency because it was needed for preserving food and was also useful medicinally as an antiseptic. That made it a commodity that had value in every part of the Roman Empire.

It was also a commodity whose trade was closely controlled by Rome and hence it became a very practical currency for paying the  various Roman garrisons that peppered the Roman Empire. You might thus be inclined to think that the word salient (meaning important) has the same etymology. No so, I’m afraid.  Salient does come from Latin, but from salire (to jump), the meaning of salient thus being “something that jumps out.”

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