Welcome to Wordorigins.org

Wordorigins.org is devoted to the origins of words and phrases, or as a linguist would put it, to etymology. Etymology is the study of word origins. (It is not the study of insects; that is entomology.) Where words come from is a fascinating subject, full of folklore and historical lessons. Often, popular tales of a word’s origin arise. Sometimes these are true; more often they are not. While it can be disappointing when a neat little tale turns out to be untrue, almost invariably the true origin is just as interesting.

armadillo

The armadillo is an American mammal of the order Cingulata. There are a number of species of armadillo, of which the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) is perhaps the most familiar to English speakers. That species is found in South and Central America and in the southeastern United States, as far west as Texas and as far north as Nebraska, and is the only species of armadillo common to the United States.

Armadillo has a straightforward etymology. Its name comes from its keratinous skin that forms a leathery, armored carapace about its head, upper body, and tail.  The word is a borrowing from Spanish, armado (“armored,” past participle of armar) + -illo (diminutive suffix). So an armadillo is literally a “little armored one.”

The word first appears in Spanish in Nicolas Monardes 1574 Historia Medicinal de las Cosas Que se Traen de Nuestras Indias Occidentales (Medical study of the products imported from our West Indian possessions). That work was translated into English three years later by John Frampton, which is the first known use of the word in English:

He is called the Armadillo, that is to saie a beaste armed.


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2016, s. v. armadillo, n.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, 2011.

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satellite

In his prepared statement to Congress of 8 June 2017 (released 7 June), former FBI Director James Comey wrote about a 30 March phone call he had with President Trump:

The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out.

Now that’s an unusual use of the word satellite, a fact that Comey was apparently aware of because of his use of quotation marks. The word is most commonly used in the astronomical sense of a body, either natural or artificial, that orbits around another. It’s also used in a political sense of a client-state of a larger power and in a few other senses where one thing is subservient to a larger entity. The word, however, is not typically used to refer to people. But this was not always the case.

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arch

I used the word arch the other day—not in the usual sense of a curve, but in the sense of jocular, waggishly clever—and immediately got to wondering where that word came from.

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akimbo

To stand akimbo is to have one’s hands on one’s hips with the elbows turned outward. The word dates to the fifteenth century, but its origin is unknown. There are, however, a number of competing hypotheses.

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confabulation, confab, fable

Confabulation is a word with two meanings. It can mean simply a conversation, formed from the Latin con (together) + fabulor (to speak, talk). This sense appears in the mid fifteenth century. By the early seventeenth century it had become a verb, to confabulate meaning to converse or talk. And confabulation was clipped to confab by the beginning of the eighteenth century.

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fable

See confabulation, confab, fable.

zeppelin

This word for a dirigible airship comes, of course, from the name of Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who designed such airships. Ironically, the word appears in English before it does in German. On 14 February 1896 the Washington Post referred to Zeppelin’s design for such a craft as a Zeppelin air ship, but the German Luftschiff Zeppelin doesn’t appear until 1904. By 1908 and the publication of H. G. Wells’s The War in the Air, the stand-alone noun zeppelin was being used.

Ferdinand Zeppelin had first formulated his idea for an airship in 1874, but didn’t patent the invention until 1895. Zeppelins were first flown commercially in 1910.

The most famous zeppelin was, of course, the Hindenburg, which exploded and crashed spectacularly at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on 6 May 1937 after a transatlantic crossing. Thirty-six people died, thirteen passengers, twenty-two crew, and one member of the ground crew. While the Hindenburg crash is the most famous of airship disasters, it was not the deadliest. It was preceded by the crashes of the British R38 airship in 1921 (44 dead), the French Dixmude in 1923 (52 dead), the British R101 in 1930 (48 dead), and the USS Akron in 1933 (73 dead).

Cf. airship, blimp, dirigible


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2014, s. v. Zeppelin, n.

Image: US Navy

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dirigible

Today, the word dirigible is almost always used as a noun, referring to a zeppelin-type airship, and I always had it in my head that the word was related to rigid, a reference to the rigid frame of such an aircraft. But that is not the case. The word began life as an adjective meaning capable of being directed or steered. It was formed from the Latin verb dirigere, meaning to direct, steer, or guide. So a dirigible is a steerable balloon.

The adjective dates to the late sixteenth century but in the 1880s began to be applied specifically to balloons. By 1907 the word was being used as a noun to refer to Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s airships.

Cf. airship, blimp, zeppelin


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. dirigible, adj. and n.

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airship

Today, the word airship refers to a dirigible aircraft, a flying machine with a rigid frame that is buoyed by gas bags and powered by engines, but it wasn’t always that specific. Originally, airship referred to any type of balloon or aircraft, and it wasn’t until 1900 and the advent of Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s flying machines that the word started to be applied specifically to dirigibles.

The word is, of course, a compound of air + ship and dates to at least 1817. But English wasn’t the first language to compound similar words. The German Luftschiff dates to 1735 and the French navire aérien to 1784. The English word was undoubtedly modeled on these.

Airship continued to be used to refer to other types of aircraft, including airplanes, through the 1920s, so if you find an old use of the term you have to rely on the context to tell you exactly what type of aircraft it refers to.

Cf. dirigible, blimp, zeppelin


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2008, s. v. airship, n.

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