Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories

by Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Editorial Staff

A gold mine of word histories for reference or browsing. Covers the origins of 1,500 words. Over 600 engagingly written articles. Explore the stories behind our vocabulary.


A gold mine of word histories for reference or browsing. Covers the origins of 1,500 words. Over 600 engagingly written articles. Explore the stories behind our vocabulary.

Product Details

Merriam-Webster, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.76(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.11(d)
Age Range:
12 Years

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


abigail See LOTHARIO.

[after Abigail, serving woman in the play The Scornful Lady,
by Francis Beaumont †1616 and John Fletcher †1625 Eng. dramatists]

abound See ABUNDANCE.

[ME abounden, fr. MF abonder, fr. L abundare to abound, overflow, fr. ab- ¹ab- + undare to rise in waves, fr. unda wave]

abundance Images of flowing water are at the origin of several of our Latin-derived terms for abundance. Abundance itself goes back to Latin abundantia, whose most basic meaning is 'overflow'. It is a derivative of unda 'wave', which, focusing on a different property of waves, is also at the root of our word undulate. The related verb abundare 'to overflow, be plentiful' is the ultimate source of our word abound.

    Affluence meant 'plentiful flowing' or abundance in general before it came to mean specifically 'wealth'. Its Latin source affluentia is derived from the prefix ad- 'towards' and fluere 'to flow' (this last, despite appearances, bears no relation to English flow, which is rather related to Latin pluere 'to rain'). The original sense is thus close to another Latin-derived term whose root is fluere, namely influx.

    Profusion, finally, is ultimately derived from Latin profundere 'to pour forth'. Fundere 'pour' also had a more literal English offspring,namely the verb found, in the foundry sense, 'to melt (metal) and pour into a mold'.

[ME abundaunce, habundaunce, fr. MF abundance, fr. L abundantia, fr. abundant, abundans + -ia]

academy When Helen was only twelve years old (long before she ran away with Paris to become the cause of the Trojan War), she was abducted by Theseus, who hoped eventually to marry her. But her brothers, Castor and Pollux, went in search of her. It was a man named Akademos who revealed to them the place where Helen was hidden and won for himself a place in Greek mythology.

    The Akademeia, a park and gymnasium located near Athens, was named in honor of the legendary hero Akademos. It was there that Plato established his school, which is, in name at least, the grandfather of all modern academies. English academy was first used in the fifteenth century simply to refer to Plato's school. But in Italian, and later in French, the descendants of Greek Akademeia were losing their status as no more than proper nouns and developing more general senses. A French académie may be any school above the elementary level, or it may be a learned society (the most famous being l'Academie française 'the French Academy', which has, since it was established in 1634, been trying heroically to preserve the French language from corruption). These later senses of academy entered English from French.

    See also STOIC.

[L academia, the school of philosophy founded by Plato, fr. Gk Akademeia, Akademia, fr. the name of the gymnasium near Athens where Plato taught, fr. Akademos Attic mythological hero + Gk -eia or -ia -y]

accident See CHANCE.

[ME, fr. MF, fr. L accident-, accidens nonessential quality or circumstance, accident, chance, fr. pres. part. of accidere to happen, fr. ad - + - cidere (fr. cadere to fall)]

acquire See QUESTION.

[alter. (influenced by L acquirere) of earlier acquere, fr. ME aqueren, fr. MF aquerre, fr. L acquirere, fr. ad - + - quirere (fr. quaerere to seek, gain, obtain, ask)]

acronymic etymologies An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a phrase. We may distinguish three stages of integration of the result into the general non-acronymic vocabulary:

    (1) At one extreme, the result still clearly shows its alphabetic origin, like FBI from "Federal Bureau of Investigation." Such forms are the principal ingredient of today's "alphabet soup" of government agencies and technological innovations. In many cases the acronym is more familiar than the source phrase, so that there are people who know, say, that TNT and PCBs are hazardous, without being able to tell you what the letters stand for.

    (2) The next step of integration into the lexicon involves pronouncing the form like a regular word instead of a succession of letter-names: thus NASA and NATO are pronounced as two-syllable words. If the form is written lowercase, there is no longer any formal clue that the word began life as an acronym: thus radar ('radio detecting and ranging'). Sometimes a form wavers between the two treatments: CAT scan pronounced either like cat or like C-A-T.

    (3) The furthest state of blending in with the non-acronymic vocabulary is achieved by words whose acronymic letters have been transformed or suffixed with non-acronymic material. Thus we have vipoma, from "vasoactive intestinal polypeptide" plus the suffix -oma, which looks no more acronymic than viremia, or Seabee, an appropriately naval-looking alteration of the initials of "construction battalion," a group in the U.S. Navy.

    No origin is more pleasing to the general reader than an acronymic one. Reading that a word comes down to us via a seemingly endless cascade of meaningless little sound changes from the remote and ultimately unknowable Indo-European, many readers find their lids have turned to lead. But opening up a word into a comprehensible English phrase is like opening a present, like sticking in your thumb and pulling out a plum. Accordingly, fanciful acronymic etymologies are perennially popular. You will from time to time find it stated as fact that news comes from "north, east, west, south," which is certainly more colorful than its actual derivation from new (possibly on the model of French nouvelles 'news', from nouvelle 'new'). Such purported origins are especially tenacious when the word in question is in fact of obscure or disputed or unknown etymology. Thus we have spud 'potato' falsely explained as being from "Society for the Prevention of an Unhealthy Diet"; tip, as from "to improve performance"; wop, from "without passport"; and gorp (trail-munch), from "good old raisins & peanuts." (See also COP, POSH.) Such expansions amount to a parlor game and are pursued even when the non-acronymic origin is known to everyone. Thus when the Ford cars first came out, everyone knew they were named for Henry Ford, but it was still more fun to etymologize the word as being from "found on road dead" or "fix or repair daily."

    A special class of acronyms consists of words for which the alleged phrasal origin is indeed connected with the word but is essentially post hoc: an appropriate word or other form was targeted and a phrase was invented to fit. This is quite common in the case of names for organizations: PUSH ("People United to Save Humanity"), CORE ("Congress Of Racial Equality"), MADD ("Mothers Against Drunk Driving"), and TNT ("Tactical Narcotics Team").

adamant See DIAMOND.

[ME, a fabulous mineral, diamond, lodestone, fr. OF, fr. L adamant-, adamas hardest iron or steel, diamond, fr. Gk]

adder See APRON.

[ME addre, alter. (resulting from incorrect division of a naddre) of naddre, fr. OE nædre adder, snake; akin to OHG natara adder, ON nathr, Goth nadrs, L natrix water snake]

adjudicate See JUDGE.

[L adjudicatus, past part. of adjudicate, fr. ad- + judicare to judge]

adolescent The English adjectives adolescent, adult, and old, which designate stages of life, share a common Indo-European ancestor, whose meaning was 'to nourish' or 'to grow'. Alere, 'to nourish', and its derivative alescere, 'to grow', are Latin descendants of this Indo-European root. Latin adolescere, 'to grow up', is formed by the addition of the common Latin prefix ad; meaning 'to' or 'at', to the verb alescere. The present participle of adolescere is adolescens, which gives us English adolescent; an adolescent person, then, is one who is growing up. A person who is adult has grown up: Latin adultus is the past participle of adolescere.

    Old is not of Latin origin but is a native English word. Old English ald or eald like Latin adultus is ultimately a past participle form, not formed in Old English itself but descended from the past participle of an earlier Germanic verb cognate with Latin alere.

    Other native English words formed from the same root as old are elder and alderman.

[F, fr. L adolescent-, adolescens, pres. part. of adolescere to grow up]

adroit See RIGHT.

[F, fr. à droit properly, fr. à to, at (fr. L ad) + droit right, fr. L directus straight, direct]


[L adultus, past part. of adolescere to grow up, fr. ad- to, at + -olescere (fr. alescere to grow, incho, of alere to nourish)]

adulterate See ADULTERY.

[L adulteratus, past part. of adulterare to pollute, defile, commit adultery, fr. ad- to, at + -ulterare (fr. alter different, other)]

adultery The resemblance between adult and adultery is great enough to give anyone pause. Indeed, one young lady is reported to have answered, in an apparent slip, when asked about her job, that she worked for a household of several children, "one adult, and one adultress." Yet the words are unrelated. (For the origin of adult see ADOLESCENT.) Adultery comes to us, through the French, from Latin adulterium, derived from the verb adulterare, 'to pollute, defile, or commit adultery'. Later influence of the original Latin source word has meant that we spell adultery more like its distant Latin than its immediate French ancestor, avoutrie. Adulterare itself is a compound of the prefix ad-, 'to, at', and the adjective alter, which means 'different' or 'other'.

    Etymologically, then, adulterare would simply have meant 'to alter', but a sense development from 'to change' to 'to change injuriously' is a fairly common one. Within English, alter itself underwent such a change, in the nineteenth century developing the meaning 'to castrate'.

    Another English derivative is adulterate, which means 'to corrupt or make impure by the addition of a foreign substance'. But the English word once had another sense as well; it meant 'to commit adultery'. In Shakespeare's King John (ca. 1596), Constance speaks to her son Arthur of fortune's inconstancy: "But Fortune, O,/She is corrupted, chang'd, and won from thee!/ Sh' adulterates hourly with thine uncle John."

[ME adulterie, alter. (influenced by L adulterium) of advoutrie, avoutrie, fr. MF avoutrie, alter, of OF avoutire, fr. L adulterium, fr. adulter adulterer, back-formation fr. adulterare to pollute, defile, commit adultery]

advent See CATHOLIC.

[ME, fr. ML adventus, fr. L, arrival, fr. adventus, past part. of advenire to come to]

aegis Today when we speak of something as being "under the aegis of ..." (as the word aegis is almost invariably used nowadays), we generally mean that it is under the authority, sponsorship, or control of another. In a way, then, the thing that is in the subordinate position is being "protected" by the other; hence, an aegis is something that protects or shields. In ancient Greece the word aigis was used literally of something that offered physical protection. In Greek mythology the aegis in one sense was a thundercloud, housing the thunderbolts that Zeus wielded as his signature weapon. In another sense (probably the original) it was a cloak or mantle made of goatskin taken from the she-goat who had suckled Zeus as a babe (in Greek, aigis literally means 'goatskin'). In this incarnation it was part of Zeus's protective armor in his war against the Titans. In another tradition the aegis became an impregnable, shield-like weapon that was fashioned by the metalworking god Hephaestus to resemble a thundercloud and fringed with tassels suggestive of thunderbolts.

    Zeus occasionally entrusted the aegis to other gods and especially to Athena, of whom the aegis later became an attribute. In the myths centering on Athena, the aegis became a goatskin mantle bearing the likeness of the Gorgon Medusa and fringed with serpents, actual or illustrated. In artistic representations Athena is shown wearing the aegis as a sort of protective buffcoat over her chest, or she is shown draping the leather cloak over her arm and using it as a conventional shield to ward off blows. The aegis became an attribute of the goddess's divine protection and power.

    The aegis became a familiar classical reference in English literature. It appears, for example, in the poetry of Thomas Gray and Lord Byron. Zeus, especially in poetical contexts, is identified by his Homeric epithets "aegis-bearer" and "aegis-bearing." By the eighteenth century the word aegis was being used figuratively for any kind of seemingly impregnable shield. While aegis is still used as a synonym of protection, the sense of the word equivalent to auspices has become dominant.

[L, fr. Gk aigis goatskin, shield of Zeus, perh. fr. aig-,
goat; akin to Arm aic goat, Av izaena leathern]

affluence See ABUNDANCE.

    [ME, fr. MF, fr. L affluentia, fr. affluent-, affluens + -ia]

aggregate See EGREGIOUS.

[ME aggregat, fr. L aggregatus, past part. of aggregare to add to, fr. ad- to, at + greg-, grex flock]

agnostic An agnostic is one who holds the view that any ultimate reality, such as God, is unknown and probably unknowable. The word was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley, the noted English biologist. Though the date of coinage is known, the specific etymology that Huxley had in mind has been a matter of debate for some years. The following portion of a letter dated 13 March 1881 (which has since disappeared) from R. H. Hutton was printed by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary at the entry for agnostic: Suggested by Prof. Huxley at a party held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, at Mr. James Knowles's house on Clapham Common, one evening in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St. Paul's mention of the altar to 'the Unknown God.'" The Greek form of the altar inscription given in Acts 17:23 is agnosto theo.

    The Metaphysical Society held an organizational meeting on 21 April 1869, and the first appearance of agnostic in print is in the Spectator for 29 May of that year in an article probably written by the same R. H. Hutton, who was the magazine's literary editor at the time: "All these considerations, and the great controversies which suggest them, are in the highest degree cultivating, and will be admitted to be so even by those Agnostics who think them profitless of any result." In 1889 Huxley himself said that he "invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of 'agnostic.' It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society." The most reasonable statement that can be made reconciling these differing opinions of Hutton and Huxley is that both are correct to a degree and each point of view is influenced by the other.

    Agnostic is formed from the Greek agnostos, meaning 'unknown' or 'unknowable'. The ending -ic of agnostic is clearly influenced by English Gnostic, from Greek gnostikos, since in Greek the termination -ikos does not occur in words, like agnostos, containing the prefix a-. This same prefix is found in atheist, 'one who does not believe in the existence of a deity'. Atheist is borrowed from Middle French athéiste, from athée, which in turn comes from Greek atheos, 'godless, not believing in the existence of gods'.

[modif. (influenced by E Gnostic) of Gk agnostos unknown, unknowable, not knowing, fr. a- not, without + gnostos known, fr. gignoskein to know]

agony The ancient Greeks were fond of celebrations that included games and athletic contests. From their verb agein 'to lead, celebrate', the Greeks derived the noun agon to denote a public gathering for such celebrations. The struggle to win the prize in the athletic contests then came to be called agonia. This word also took on the general sense of 'any difficult struggle'. From this sense agonia additionally came to refer to the pain, whether physical or mental, that was involved in such a struggle. The Romans, as was their custom, borrowed the Greek words agon and agonia with essentially the same meanings.

    Agonia became agonie in Middle French and in fourteenth-century Middle English, when Chaucer used it for 'mental anguish or distress'. During the seventeenth century, agony acquired the sense of 'intense pain of body' and then took on the additional sense of 'a violent struggle, conflict, or contest', harking back to its Greek origins.

    An entirely new sense of agony developed in the eighteenth century: 'a strong sudden and often uncontrollable display (as of joy or delight)'. Thus we see the shift from intense pain to intense pleasure. This is exemplified by Henry Fielding in Tom Jones (1749): "The first agonies of joy which were felt on both sides are indeed beyond my power to describe," and more recently by Edith Wharton in New Year's Day (1924): "My cousin Kate ... was pinching my arm in an agony of mirth." Nevertheless, the distressful senses of agony still predominate, even though the word originally came from a verb meaning 'to celebrate'.

     The Greek agon also forms the root of such English words as antagonism, antagonize, antagonist, and protagonist.

[ME agonie, fr. MF & LL; MF agonie, fr. LL agonia, fr. Gk agonia contest, struggle, anguish, fr. agon gathering, assembly at games, contest for a prize, fr. agein to lead, celebrate]

ain't Even though everybody knows ain't, almost nobody has any idea of where it came from. How is this strange-looking word related to the verb be? The connections are not obvious.

    They begin back in the seventeenth century. During the Restoration period—after 1660—we begin to find the first printed evidence of several negative contractions that had come into spoken use during the century. (We actually don't know when spoken use started; a good guess by historians of the language is about 1600.) Several of these contractions look unfamiliar now: ben't, an't, en't, han't—these have either been replaced by other, newer contractions or have simply gone out of use. But several others are quite familiar: can't, shan't, don't, won't.

    The one we are interested in is an't (sometimes given an extra apostrophe to make an't). Our first printed evidence for it comes from a Restoration comedy; it means 'am not':

Miss Prue. You need not sit so near one, if you have any thing to say, I can hear you farther off, I an't deaf.

Ben. Why that's true as you say, nor I an't dumb, I can be heard as far as another—William Congreve, Love for Love, 1695

Hard on the heels of the 'am not' use comes one for 'are not'. This too is from a Restoration comedy:

Lord Foppington. Hark thee, shoemaker, these shoes a'n't ugly, but they don't fit me —Sir John Vanbrugh, The Relapse, 1696

    How an't came to be used for am not is fairly easy to figure out. Am not was contracted to amn't (a contraction that is still used in Irish and Scottish English), and then the sounds of m and n were combined. The conversion of aren't to an't is easier to understand if we remember that in the principal British dialects the r would not have been pronounced. The spelling an't should also warn us that the a of are was not then pronounced as it is today; it must have been close enough in sound to the a of am that writers were satisfied to use the same spelling for both meanings. The evidence of rhymes has been cited, too. For instance John Donne in some of his poems rhymed are with bare, starre, and warre, which do not rhyme among themselves in present-day English. But they must have all been close enough to make passable rhymes in Donne's time (Donne died in 1631). Presumably the development of the pronunciation of are in Donne's time would lead in some dialects to a pronunciation spelling, when -n't was attached and r not pronounced, of an't.

    An't came to be used for 'is not' too. Jonathan Swift used "an't he" as early as 1710 in his Journal to Stella. How this use developed is not clear. A development through a series of sound-variations has been postulated, but it leads more comfortably to the spelling ain't than to an't, which is earlier. One historian supposes that an't was simply extended to the third person singular since it already served all the other forms of present-tense be.

    So an't was established in the meanings 'am not', 'are not', and 'is not' by early in the eighteenth century. Remember that an't is a speech form. We don't have a lot of printed evidence for it, and what we have comes from fictional dialogue and from letters.

"... I am sure I shan't go if Lucy an't there." —Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811

A'nt you sorry for her—Emily Dickinson, letter, 24 Dec. 1851

    You can see from the quotations that an't continued to be used well into the nineteenth century, but by then it was competing with another spelling, ain't. Ain't is first attested in print in Fanny Burney's Evelina, a novel published in 1778. It represented the way a countryman said the word. This spelling probably represents one of the main directions in the development of the vowel sound of are, mentioned earlier. Just how this pronunciation became extended to the uses of an't meaning 'am not' and 'is not' is not known. But ain't was popularly associated with Cockney speech in the nineteenth century—in some of Dickens's novels, for instance. (The other main branch in the development of the vowel of are would bring it in the direction of aunt—a plausible pronunciation for an't—and would by the end of the nineteenth century result in the spelling—remember southern British English omits the r—aren't. The spelling aren't I? looked very strange to Americans when it was first noticed in British novels around the turn of the century.)

    Ain't is also used in the meanings 'have not' and 'has not'. The connection here is a little plainer. We have evidence of a seventeenth-century contraction ha'nt used for both 'have not' and 'has not'. (Have you noticed how the middle consonant always seems to disappear from these old contractions?) The long a needed for ain't came from a variant pronunciation of have (we still pronounce it that way in behave). And the h is not aspirated in some dialects of British English. All of these forces combined to produce the 'have not' and 'has not' meanings of ain't.

    The development of ain't in the United States has not been traced. Both an't and ain't are attested in the late eighteenth century, and presumably both appeared here because they were brought by early settlers. Some of the same influences on pronunciation were present here, too; for instance, nineteenth-century dialect humorists use the spelling air for are.

    Ain't began to displace an't, for reasons we do not understand, during the nineteenth century. We have one hint, perhaps, in the fact that Johnson J. Hooper in a book published in 1845 has a story about his rascally hero Simon Suggs in which young Simon regularly says ain't but his father says an't. Hooper's tale is set in the South; in New England we find Emily Dickinson using an't in 1851 and the elder Oliver Wendell Holmes hearing it from his fellow boarders in 1860. The evidence is slim, but perhaps the change worked its way from south to north. At any rate, an't is hard to find after the 1870s, and even New England writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman spell it ain't. In some parts of the U.S. hain't is interchangeable with ain't.

    That's about all we know about ain't. You can see that there are some murky areas that could do with further investigation, but currently ain't is far more often reprehended than researched.

    [prob. contr, of are not, is not, am not & have not]

aisle See DEBT.

[alter. (influenced by F aile wing, aisle) of earlier isle, alter. (influenced by isle "island") of ME ile, alter. (influenced by ile isle, island) of ele, eile, fr. MF ele, aile wing, wing of a building, fr. L ala wing, armpit; akin to OE eaxl shoulder, ON öxl, OHG ahsala, L axilla armpit]


[ME alacke, prob. fr. a ah! + lack fault, loss, fr. MD lac]


[ME, fr. OF, fr. a ah! + las weary, wretched, fr. L lassus weary]

alchemy See LUTE.

[ME alkamie, alquemie, fr MF or ML; MF alaquemie, fr. ML alchymia, alchimia, fr. Ar al-kimiya' the philosoher's stone, the alchemy, fr. al the + kimiya, fr. LGk chemeta, prob. alter. of chymeia, prob. fr. Gk chyma fluid, fr. chein to pour]

alcohol See LUTE.

[NL & ML; NL, liquid produced by distillation, fr. ML, finely pulverized antimony used by women to darken the eyelids, fr. OSp, fr. Ar al-kuhul, al-kuhl the powdered antimony]

alcoholic See WORKAHOLIC.

    [alcohol + -ic]

alderman See ADOLESCENT.

[ME, fr. OE aldorman, ealdorman, fr. aldor, ealdor parent, head of a family (fr. ald, eald old) + man]

alfalfa See LUTE.

[Sp, modif. of Ar dial. (Spain) al-fasfasah the alfalfa, alter. of al-fisfisah]

algebra See LUTE.

[ML, algebra, bonesetting, fracture (whence ME, bonesetting, fracture),
fr. Aral-jabr the algebra, the bonesetting, lit., the reduction]

alibi In Latin, alibi was used only as an adverb meaning 'elsewhere'. This word was formed by the contraction of the words alius 'other' and ubi 'where'. When alibi was first brought into English in the early eighteenth century, it was still used as an adverb. In his satirical pamphlet "The History of John Bull," written in 1727, the Scottish writer John Arbuthnot illustrates this usage: "The prisoner had little to say in his defence; he endeavoured to prove himself Alibi."

    By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, however, alibi also began to be used as a noun in legal contexts for 'the plea of having been at the time of the commission of an act elsewhere than at the place of commission'. It was then also applied to 'the fact or state of having been elsewhere at the time'. These legal senses were included in Noah Webster's Dictionary in 1828.

    By 1912, alibi had also acquired in American English the generalized sense of 'an excuse, especially for failure or negligence'. An early example of this appeared in the dialogue of a baseball player in Ring Lardner's 1915 story "Alibi Ike":

"He's got the world beat," says Carey to Jack and I. "I've knew lots o' guys that had an alibi for every mistake they made.... But this baby can't even go to bed without apologizin'...."

    This sense of 'excuse' gained footholds in other contexts too, especially politics. Newspaper and magazine writers were quick to pick up this useful sense, but usage writers, both American and British, were also quick to voice their disapproval. The Second Edition of Webster's New International Dictionary (1934) labeled this sense Colloquial]. British disapproval appeared in Eric Partridge's book Usage and Abusage in 1942. More recently, some usage commentators have accepted and have even defended this sense of alibi, but the controversy continues, more so in British English than in American English.


aliment See ALIMONY.

[ME, fr. L alimentum, fr. alere to nourish + -mentum -ment]

alimentary See ALIMONY.

    [L alimentarius, fr. alimentum + -arius -ary]

alimony Alimony is simply an Englishing of the Latin alimonia 'sustenance', which is derived from alere 'to nourish'. In English alimony has meant not only 'an allowance given to a spouse' but also 'a means of living, maintenance'. Both meanings appeared at almost the same time in the middle of the seventeenth century. Alimony is related to such words as alimentary and aliment; aliment is the Scottish legal term for 'an allowance given to a spouse'. (For more terms related to Latin alere see ADOLESCENT.)

    Palimony is a recent addition to the language that grew out of the suing of an actor for support by his former mistress. It is a blend of pal and alimony and looks very much like it was intended as a witty coinage at first. When the mistress won the suit, it was taken very seriously indeed. See also BLENDS.

    [L alimonia sustenance, fr. alere to nourish]

almanac See LUTE.

[ME almenak, fr. ML almanach, prob. fr. Ar al-manakh the almanac, calendar]

ambidextrous See RIGHT.

[LL & ML ambidexter (ML, double-dealing, fr. LL, dexterous with both hands, fr. L ambi- both + dexter on the right, skillful) + E -ous]

ambrosia The Greek and Roman gods were in many ways like mortal men, but they had the major distinction of immortality, which came as a result of their eating-habits. Ambrosia, the food of the gods, and nectar, their drink, had the property of preventing death. Greek ambrosia, literally 'immortality', is a derivative of ambrotos, 'immortal'. The prefix a- (sometimes known as the alpha privative) indicates negation, as does the related Latin in- or im-. And -mbrotos is close kin to Latin mortally.

    Nectar comes from Greek nektar, which may have a similar etymological meaning of 'overcoming death', if it is derived from the Greek root nek- 'death'. This root is reflected in several English words of classical derivation, such as necrosis and necrophilia. But the origin of the Greek term is uncertain.

    The name ambrosia has been given to many things whose taste or smell is especially pleasing. The ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans called several aromatic-leaved plants ambrosia, but modern botanic use of the name is less appropriate. Ambrosia is the scientific name of a genus of plants, the ragweeds, which have neither flavor nor fragrance, nor even beauty, to recommend them

[L, fr. Gk, lit., immortality, fr. ambrotos immortal (fr. a- not + — assumed — Gk mbrotos mortal — whence Gk brotos mortal) + -ia; akin to OE morth death, murder, OHG mord, L mort-, mors death, mori to die, Gk mortos mortal, Skt mrta death]

amethyst Ancient peoples made innovative use of gemstones. They found precious stones to be not only ornamental but therapeutic as well, a fact that influenced the naming of the amethyst. The Greeks believed that this violet-colored variety of quartz could protect its owner from harm and from drunkenness. The Greeks called this stone amethyst, which comes from the Greek word amethystos, meaning 'not intoxicating'. A story told by Aristotle is that Amethyst was a beautiful nymph who invoked the aid of the goddess Artemis to protect her from Dionysus. Artemis did this by turning her into a precious gem, and Dionysus, in honor of his love for the nymph, gave the stone its color and quality of preserving its wearers from the influence of wine. (For another word associated with Dionysus see BAGGHANALIA.)

    The color of the amethyst varies in intensity, but is always clear purple or bluish violet. Throughout the Middle Ages, the stone was greatly admired for its beauty. Eventually it found its way into poetry, becoming a standard by which earthly beauty was measured. In his "Endymion: A Poetic Romance" (1818) John Keats writes.

Although, before the crystal heavens darken, I watch and dote upon the silver lakes Pictur'd in western cloudiness, that takes The semblance of gold rocks ... And towers of amethyst,—would I so teaze My pleasant days, because I could not mount Into these regions?

    Another gemstone whose name is rooted in ancient folklore is the sapphire. The name sapphire comes from the Sanskrit term sanipriya, which means 'dear to the planet Saturn'. The exact nature of this association of the sapphire with Saturn is obscure. It may have to do with the star-like sparkle exhibited by certain sapphires. Or it may have its foundations in ancient astrology; in modern Western astrology, however, the sapphire is associated with Venus rather than Saturn.

    Over the years, sapphires have served a variety of purposes, many of them mystical. Like jade the sapphire was believed to cure illness, particularly of the eye. The bright blue stone was associated with calmness and tranquility of mind and body. Supposedly the person who wore the stone would be granted peace and happiness, so long as that person led a moral life. Today the sapphire and the amethyst are valued as ornamental rather than medicinal gems. See also JADE.

[ME amatist, ametist, fr. OF & L; OF amatiste, ametiste, fr. L amethystus, fr. Gk amethystos remedy against drunkenness, amethyst (so considered), fr. amethystos not drunk, not indicating, fr. a- ²a- + -methystos drunk (fr. methyskein to make drunk, fr. methyein to be drunk, fr. methy wine)]


[prob. fr. G amisch, fr. Jacob Amman or Amen fl 1693 Swiss Mennonite bishop, the founder of the sect + G -isch -ish]

ammonia The modern names of many chemical elements and compounds have their origins in the obscure lore of the ancient world. In Egyptian mythology Amen was a god variously represented as a ram with great horns, as a creature with a ram's head and a human body, or as simply a man—either enthroned or standing. To the Greeks, Amen became known as Ammon. His chief temple and oracle were at an oasis in the Libyan desert near Memphis. It is said that near this temple a cesspool was located, where the urine of camels was collected. For centuries in Egypt camel's urine, soot, and sea salt were heated together to form sal ammoniac, which in its Latin form literally means "salt of Ammon." To designate the gas produced when sal ammoniac is heated with an alkali, the Swedish chemist Torbern Olof Bergman in 1782 coined the New Latin term ammonia. In less than two decades ammonia entered English.

    In Greek mythology Cadmus was the reputed founder of the Greek city of Thebes. His most celebrated exploit was his battle with a man-eating dragon. After slaying the monster, he removed its teeth and sowed some of them in the ground. From these sown teeth sprang up a company of armed men. Cadmus reacted by surreptitiously striking them with stones; the men, suspecting one another, began a mutual slaughter until only five remained. With these five men Cadmus founded his new city of Thebes. The ancient citadel of Thebes was named Cadmea in his honor. It was in this Greek city that the ancients first discovered the substance known to us as zinc oxide. For zinc oxide, or for any ore abounding in zinc, the ancients used the Latin word cadmia, after Thebes's legendary founder. It was not until centuries later, in 1817, that the German chemist Friedrich Stromeyer discovered the presence of another metal in a zinc compound, which in his case happened to be zinc carbonate. Stromeyer called this new discovery cadmium, the old name for any zinc-rich ore.

    Niobe was the daughter of the Lydian king Tantalus in Greek mythology. She is most famous as the proud mother of twelve children who insulted the goddess Leto. For her affront, all of her children were killed. She grieved bitterly, and even after she was turned into a block of marble, a stream of tears continued to flow. Her father, Tantalus, was the subject of an even more famous myth. For his offenses against the gods, he was condemned to perpetual thirst in Hades, even though he was standing chindeep in water. Whenever he attempted to drink the water, the prize receded just out of reach. Appropriately, the metallic element tantalum was named after him because its inability to absorb acid suggested the king's inability to drink. Tantalite is a rare mineral of which tantalum is a basic component. When niobium was first identified, it was discovered in tantalite, so it was only fitting that the metallic element be named after the daughter of the parched king. See also TANTALIZE.

    For other articles on words derived from ancient mythology and legend see VOLCANO.

[NL, fr. L (sal) ammoniacus sal ammoniac, lit., salt of Ammon, fr. ammoniacus of Ammon, fr. Gk ammoniakos, fr. Ammon, an Egyptian deity identified by the Greeks with Zeus, fr. Egypt Amon; fr. its having been prepared near a temple of Ammon in Egypt]

amok See BERSERK.

[Malay amok, fr. amok, n., furious attack, charge (as in mengamok he runs amok, pengamok one that runs amok)]

ampersand In the late Middle Ages, spelling, though less rigidly standardized than it is today, was already a subject studied in schools. The usual practice was to spell by syllables rather than taking on the whole word at once. So in the Promptorium Parvulorum ("Storeroom for Young Scholars"), an English-Latin dictionary compiled in 1440, English Spellyng is rendered by Latin Sillabicacio (syllabication). When a single letter formed a word (like I) or a syllable (like the first i- in iris), it was spelled I per se, I or in other words I by itself, I. The per se spellings were used especially for the letters that were themselves words. Because the alphabet was augmented by the sign &, which followed z, there were four of these: A per se, A; I per se, I; O per se, O; and & per se, and. A, as the first letter, had a special position, and A per se, A became a figurative expression for a most excellent or distinguished person or thing. Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseide (ca. 1475) describes Cresseide as "the floure and A per se of Troie and Grece." I's uniqueness is in its meaning as a word rather than its place in the alphabet. In 1622 James Mabbe wrote: "I only was compleat; I was I per se I; I was like a Rule, without exception." And per se, and was not liable to such figurative use, but it did become, in slightly altered and contracted form, the standard name for the character &. Jacob Storey, in George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859), who was trying to acquire a rather belated education, expressed his poor opinion of the letter z: "It had only been put there to finish off th' alphabet, like, though ampus- and would ha' done as well, for what he could see."

    The character & is derived from &, the ligature of Latin et 'and'.

[alter. of and (&) per se and, lit., (the character) & by itself (is the word) and]

amuse A couple of our words show a curious sense development from 'delude' to 'entertain'. One of these is amuse, which originally meant 'cheat, mislead', a meaning it retained down through the eighteenth century. Beguile began life with the same meaning, which remains in its base guile, but it has added the sense 'charm, entertain', a meaning which now predominates exclusively in the adjective beguiling. Divert, which in its adjectival form likewise means only 'amusing, entertaining', originally had only meanings like 'avert, deflect, deviate'. While never meaning precisely 'cheat', it could still have a rather negative implication in context, as when someone was diverted from his true aim. The Latin etymon, divertere, etymologically 'to turn away', typically meant 'to divorce'. In all three instances, the evolution of the new sense 'entertain' arose from the image of leading someone away from his or her cares.

    Delude, or rather its Latin source deludere, almost illustrates the opposite evolution, since it means 'deceive, dupe' yet is etymologically a derivative of ludere 'to play', via the prefix de- 'away from'. Here the deciding implication was evidently that of leading someone away from his or her best interests, rather than cares.

[MF amuser to cause to waste time, amuse, bemuse, deceive, fr. OF, fr. a- (fr. L ad-) + muser to muse]


Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews