The interesting etymology of 10 words + a Gothic overview

Do you like learning about the origin of words? Are you fascinated by the stories behind how words came to be? Then this article is for you! Take a journey through several languages and learn more about history itself. We’ll tell you about the origin and evolution of “tragedy”, ” assassin”, “whisky”, “shampoo”, “vaccine”, “etymology”, “disaster”, “orangutan”, “Bluetooth” and “goth”. Come along!


  1. Tragedy

Via Latin from Greek tragōidia, from tragos ‘goat’ + ōidē ‘song, ode’.

There are many theories that attempt to explain this etymology, one being that during theatrical performances dedicated to Dionysus, a goat would be sacrificed, with an ode being sung by a choir.


  1. Assassin

Via French, or medieval Latin assassinus, from Arabic ašīšī ‘hashish-eater’.

It is believed that the term refers to killers who would consume the substance before carrying out their attacks, which induced the vision of Paradise.


  1. Whisky

Abbreviation of obsolete whiskybae, variant of usquebaugh. from Irish and Scottish Gaelic uisge beathawater of life’.

A similar Latin term, aqua vitae, inspired coinages in other languages as well, such as aquavit (also styled as akvavit – Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian), referring to a clear liquor flavoured with caraway seeds. The French translation of the term, eau-de-vie, refers to a clear brandy distilled from the fermented juice of pears, raspberries, or other fruit.


  1. Shampoo

From the Hindi word champo, imperative of champna, meaning ‘to press’.

Derived from the Sanskrit root chapati (चपति), the word initially referred to any type of pressing or kneading. The definition was later extended to mean ‘wash the hair’ in 1860.


  1. Vaccine

From Latin vaccinus, from vacca ‘cow’.

In the 18th century, an English physician named Edward Jenner set about to determine whether there was any truth to an urban legend of his day: milkmaids who got cowpox didn’t get smallpox.

To that effect, Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy with material taken from a milkmaid’s cowpox sores. After the boy contracted and recovered from cowpox, Jenner went on to inoculate him with smallpox.

The boy was immune, and did not contract the disease. Later, the word came to mean any substance producing immunising antigens.


  1. Etymology

From Latin and Greek etymologia, meaning ‘analysis of a word to find its true origin’.

In other words, the ‘study of the true sense (of a word)’, with –logia ‘study of, a speaking of’ + etymon ‘true sense, original meaning’. The neuter of etymos ‘true, real, actual’ is related to eteos ‘true,’ which perhaps is cognate with Sanskrit satyah, Gothic sunjis, and Old English soð. The term was latinised by Cicero as veriloquium.


  1. Disaster

From Italian disastro ‘ill-starred event’, from dis- (expressing negation) + astro ‘star’ (from Latin astrum ).

The English word is most closely tied to the French désastre, which is derived from the Old Italian disastro, itself derived from Greek. The pejorative prefix dis- and aster (star) can be interpreted an ill-starred event.

The ancient Greeks were fascinated by astronomy and the cosmos, and truly believed in the influence of celestial bodies on terrestrial life. For them, a disaster was a particular kind of calamity, the causes of which could be attributed to an unfavourable and uncontrollable alignment of planets.


  1. Orangutan

From Dutch orang outang, from Malay: literally, ‘forest man’ (Malay orang ‘man, person’ + (h)utan ‘forest’.

It is possible that the word was originally used by the locals of Java to describe savage tribes of the Sunda Islands, made up of actual forest-dwelling human beings, and that Europeans misunderstood it to mean the ape.

However, the word underwent a semantic extension to include apes of the Pongo genus at an early stage in the history of Malay.

The name of the genus comes from a 16th-century account by Andrew Battel, an English sailor held prisoner by the Portuguese in Angola, which describes two anthropoid “monsters” named Pongo and Engeco. He is now believed to have been describing gorillas, but in the 18th century, the terms orangutan and pongo were used for all great apes.


  1. Bluetooth

1990s: said to be named after King Harald (910–85), credited with uniting Denmark and Norway, as Bluetooth technology unifies the telecommunications and computing industries.

Harald “Blåtand” Gormsson was a viking king who ruled Denmark and Norway from the year 958 until 985. There are many accomplishments credited to him, but greatest of all is that he united Denmark and Norway under his rule.

Gormsson was also known for his dead tooth, which had a very dark blue-grey shade. It was so prominent that his nickname was Blåtand, which literally translates from Danish to “Bluetooth”.

In 1996, three industry leaders (Intel, Ericsson, and Nokia) met to plan the standardisation of this short-range radio technology to support connectivity and collaboration between different industries. During this meeting, Jim Kardach from Intel suggested Bluetooth as a temporary code name, mentioning the king’s nickname and his feat. Eventually, the name became permanent.

The Bluetooth logo is a bind rune merging the Younger Futhark runes (Hagall) (ᚼ) and (Bjarkan) (ᛒ), King Harald’s initials.


  1. Gothic (and its semantic evolution)

“Of the Goths,” the ancient Germanic people, “pertaining to the Goths or their language,” 1610s, from Late Latin Gothicus, from Gothi, Greek Gothoi.

The etymology and meaning shown above are just the beginning of the path this word would take in history, starting with the Germanic instigators of the Dark Ages; then moving on to refer to the early Christian architectural wonders; the Romantic tales of terror; the supernatural, horror films; and, finally, the gloomy, post-punks and their moody teenage fans.

Essentially, it all begins in ancient Rome. As the Roman Empire expanded, it faced raids and invasions along its borders. Among the most powerful invaders were the Germanic people known as Goths, composed of the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, who fought against Roman rule in the late 300s and early 400s A.D. They helped bring about the downfall of the Roman Empire, which had controlled much of Europe for centuries; as such, the ascendancy of the Goths is said to have marked the beginning of the medieval period in Europe.

We’re now moving on to the second meaning, which pertains to Gothic architecture, also known as pointed architecture or ogival architecture. The term “Gothic architecture” originated as a pejorative description. Giorgio Vasari used the term “barbarous German style” in his Lives of the Artists to describe what is now considered the Gothic style, and in his introduction he attributes various architectural features to the Goths, whom he held responsible for destroying the ancient buildings after they conquered Rome, and erecting new ones in this style.

Now, Gothic fiction, sometimes called Gothic horror in the 20th century, is a genre of literature and film that covers horror, death and at times romance. It is said to derive from the 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, later subtitled “A Gothic Story”, by English author Horace Walpole. The previous meanings of the word were perfect to evoke the dark mood needed in this genre, with characters facing doom and gloom, often in a big, old, decrepit, overdramatic house.

However, Gothic horror and romances also explored Victorian fears and anxieties, regarding, for instance, sex, death and immortality. Fast forward to the 1970s, Siouxsie and the Banshees distilled that evolution into an aesthetic and a performance. They were a British post-punk rock band, but Siouxsie, the vocalist, dressed like a vamp, and wore Victorian lingerie on the outside, alongside fishnets and pointy boots. Still, she was regarded as a femme fatale. Intended as an insult, a journalist described their music as Gothic… and it all exploded from there.

Eventually, they created Gothic Rock, or goth-rock. The genre itself was defined as a separate movement from post-punk, standing out due to its darker sound and arrangements, and dramatic and melancholic melodies, drawing inspiration from Gothic literature allied with themes such as sadness, existentialism, nihilism, tragedy, melancholy and morbidity.

Finally, fans of Siouxsie and of bands such as Joy Division, The Cure, and Bauhaus ended up creating the subculture and look that we now call Goth.


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