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Here's Where That Word's From

The answers to our etymology quiz

Blurred trees showing clear roots

Reaching mainstream adoption of new words (neologisms) can be a long, drawn-out process.

When a new word is called for, we prefer not to start from scratch. So we borrow from other languages.

We combine words and we contract words.

We take parts of original meanings. We adapt or ignore the rest.

We change the pronunciation. We play with the inflexion. We alter spellings.

You can take our etymology quiz here.

And you will find the answers below. You might be surprised to find out where our words came from.

Here's Where That Word's From

The Answers

1. Carnival: A) The removal of meat from the flesh

The word may suggest the colour and music of any large street party.

But a carnival is specifically a Catholic celebration that takes place in February just before Lent.

The Late Latin ‘carne levare’ means ‘remove meat’ or ‘farewell to meat’ and refers to the period of abstinence that follows.

2. Cloud: B) A mass of rock

From Old English clud, meaning mass of stone, rock, boulder or hill.

When people looked up, they were reminded of what they saw when they looked down.

3. Clue: B) A rope

Okay then, it's more likely a ball of string than a thick rope.

A 'clew' would be used to mark the correct path through a maze or labyrinth.

4. Coconut: C) The grinning face of a mad man

From the Spanish and Portuguese 'coco' meaning the 'grinning or grimmacing face.'

Just look at a coconut. With its tufty hair and hollow-looking eyes, it doesn't take much to see the similarity.

5. Debacle: A) To break up ice for travelling

From the French ‘debacler’ for ‘unbolt, unbar’.

Imagine the disaster that would be caused by the rush of water released if the ice was broken up in a river.

This sense of disaster gives the meaning to the word we have today.

6. Guacamole: C) Sauce of the testicle

This definition is really more of a back-fit than literal.

‘Mole’ comes from the Nahuatl Indian ‘molli’, meaning ‘sauce’ or ‘broth’.

Avocado is derived from the Aztec ‘ahuacatl’; we borrowed the sound to give us ‘waca’ and added the ‘g’.

But 'ahuacat' was so-named due its shape resembling that of the other definition of the word. Testicle. QED.

7. Mortgage: B) A promise bound by death

From the Old French, ‘mort’ for death and ‘gage’ for pledge.

Not quite as dark as it sounds, the death refers to the deal ‘dying’ when the debt is paid.

8. Muscle: B) A small rodent

Specifically a mouse.

From the Latin ‘musculus’ meaning ‘little mouse’

So-named as the movement of some muscles was thought to resemble a small rodent running under the skin.

9. Nice: A) Mentally ignorant, stupid

Nice was first appropriated in English in the 14th century (via the French) from its Latin origin nescius, meaning 'ignorant' or 'not aware'.

Read more about the journey taken by ‘nice’ to become the empty pleasantry it is today here.

10. Prestigious: C) A conjuror's tricks

From the 16th century Latin ‘praestigiosis’ meaning ‘full of tricks’ or ‘deceitful’, the word was used to define ‘conjuring, illusion or trickery’.

By the 19th century the definition had been extended to cover the feeling of being dazzled or awestruck by such a trick.

This in turn led to today’s definition as esteemed or illustrious.

11. Sarcasm: A) To tear at flesh

From the Greek ‘sarkazein’ meaning to strip off the flesh (like dogs).

Its metaphorical use for cutting humour has become its primary meaning today.

12. Sinister: B) The left-handed child

From Old English ‘sinistre’ meaning left, from the Latin for ‘on the left side’.

As right-handedness is dominant in any population, being left-handed is less common, which becomes unusual.

It’s a small step from unusual, to odd, to evil.

13. Tragedy: C) The song of a goat

From the ancient Greek ‘tragos’ meaning ‘goat’ and ‘oide’ meaning ‘song’.

Dramatic performances at this time included poetry being read by actors dressed in goat skins.

This is thought to be where we take the word from today.

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