Our word for danger or risk is thought to have its origins in 13th-century Arabic, in which the word “al-zahr” referred to the dice used in various gambling games. There was a big element of risk inherent in these games, not just from the gambling itself but from the danger of dishonest folk using weighted dice. Thus the connotations of peril associated with the word, which got back to Britain because the Crusaders learnt the dice games whilst on campaign in the Holy Land.
It originated in the 18th century with a British man named Admiral Vernon, whose sailors gave him the nickname “Old Grog” on account of his cloak, which was made from a material called “grogram”, a weatherproof mixture of silk and wool. In 1740, he decreed that his sailors should be served their rum diluted with water, rather than neat. This was called “grog”, and the feeling experienced by sailors when they’d drunk too much of it was thus called “groggy”.
The word “palace” is another English word with origins in Rome. It comes from one of Rome’s famous ‘Seven Hills’, the Palatine, upon which the Emperor resided in what grew into a sprawling and opulent home. In Latin, the Palatine Hill was called the “Palatium”, and the word “Palatine” came to refer to the Emperor’s residence, rather than the actual hill. The word has reached us via Old French, in which the word “palais” referred to the Palatine Hill. You can see the word “Palatine” more easily in the form “palatial”, meaning palace-like in size.
The word “genuine” comes from the Latin word “genuinus”, meaning “innate”, “native” or “natural”, itself derived, somewhat surprisingly, from the Latin word “genu”, meaning “knee”. This unlikely origin arises from a Roman custom in which a father would place a newborn child on his knee in order to acknowledge his paternity of the child. This practice also gave rise to an association with the word “genus”, meaning “race” or “birth”. In the 16th century the word “genuine” meant “natural” or “proper”, and these days we use it to mean “authentic”.
It’s hard to believe that this British and American staple started life in 17th-century China as a sauce of pickled fish and spices. Known in the Chinese Amoy dialect as koe-chiap or ke-chiap, its popularity spread to what is now Singapore and Malaysia in the early 18th century, where it was encountered by British explorers. In Indonesian-Malaysian the sauce was called “kecap”, the pronunciation of which, “kay-chap”, explains where we got the word “ketchup”. It wasn’t until the 19th century that tomato ketchup was invented, however; people used to think that tomatoes were poisonous, and the sauce didn’t catch on in America until later that century. One couldn’t imagine chips or burgers without it now!
The word “ostracise” and the concept of democracy were both born in Ancient Greece, where the practice of a democratic vote extended to citizens voting to decide whether there were any dangerous individuals who should be banished (because they were becoming too powerful, thus posing a threat to democracy). Those who were eligible to vote exercised this privilege by writing their vote on a sherd of broken pottery – an “ostrakon”. If the vote came back in favour of banishing the individual, they were “ostracised” (from the Ancient Greek verb “ostrakizein”, meaning “to ostracise”). The word has nothing to do with ostriches, the flightless birds – similar though the words are! As we said at the start of this article, this selection of fascinating word origins barely even scratches the surface of the endlessly interesting world of etymology. Whether you’re a seasoned English speaker or trying to learn this challenging language for the first time, you’re bound to find out some useful facts to help you memorise new words simply by exploring their origins. What remarkable word histories will you discover the next time you find out what a word really means?Posted by