Our use of language makes us human. Yet, we pay little attention to where words come from. Well, here are 12 interesting word origins you may have had no idea about.

12 Interesting Word Origins

  1. Vaccine (Latin)

The word ‘vaccine’ has been in the news a lot recently. But where did the word originate from? This is the first of my interesting word origins and the word makes sense when you hear where it comes from.

In the late 18th century, smallpox was rife. It infected around 60% of the population and 20% died from it. In 1796, a physician called Edward Jenner heard a milkmaid boast that she would never catch it. This was because milkmaids often caught cowpox, a similar but less deadly strain of smallpox. Jenner extracted the pus from a milkmaid’s hands and then scraped it into an open cut on a boy called Phipps.

The boy developed a fever but no infection. Several days later he was injected with the smallpox virus. The boy developed no symptoms and thus the first ‘vaccine’ was produced.

But why ‘vaccine’? The word vaccine comes from the Latin word for a cow which is ‘vacca’. Jenner used cowpox in his first experiment to prove his method of using one virus to protect against another.

  1. Deadline (American English)

I work to a deadline, but if I went over it, I wouldn’t expect to be shot! But this is exactly what happened in the American Civil War. A deadline was the actual line drawn around a prison that prisoners could not cross.

If they did, they would be shot by the guards on duty. Later, newsrooms began to use the word to describe a time limit for a story.

  1. Handicap (English)

Originating in the 17th century, this word started off as an actual sport. It was called ‘hand-in-cap’ and two players would take part.

It was a kind of bartering game. Each player had something to trade. An umpire would then appraise the articles and decide whether they were the same value and could be exchanged then and there. If they were not the same, he would make a determination of the difference. The person who had brought the less valuable item would have to make up the difference.

Next, all three would add some forfeit money into the hat. Now, if the two players agreed with the umpire’s valuation, they would remove their hands from the hat with their palms open. However, if they disagreed, their hands would be balled into fists.

If they both agreed or disagreed, the umpire received the forfeit money. But if one player agreed and the other didn’t, then the one who agreed with the transaction would get the forfeit money.

Over a long time, the name of the game shortened to ‘handicap’ and became to signify any equalling of a sport or game.

  1. Oxymoron (Greek)

Just a quick explanation for this word but the origin of the word is just as interesting. Oxymoron originated in the middle of the 17th century. It comes from the Greek words ‘oxus’ meaning sharp and ‘mōros’ which means foolish. The beautiful thing about the word oxymoron is that it is itself an oxymoron.

  1. Parasite (Ancient Greek)

This is a compound word that comes from Ancient Greece. It is derived from ‘para’ which means alongside and ‘sitos’ which denotes food. In Greek and Roman times, a person would enter your home and flatter you in order to sit at your table and enjoy your hospitality and food. So a parasite was a person that was eating beside you.

  1. Nightmare (Old English)

When did you last have a nightmare? We all know what it means, but where does the word originate from? This is one of those interesting word origins you wouldn’t necessarily guess. In fact, if you pick it apart, it should represent a horse of the night, but it doesn’t.

Actually, it comes from an old English word ‘mære’ which is an evil female spirit that comes at night and sits on your chest, stifling them in their sleep. Other cultures had similar versions of this evil spirit including German folklore. An old Germanic word ‘marōn’ describes malevolent spirits. Stories emerged of methods designed to ward off these spirits by getting into bed backwards or plugging up keyholes.

  1. Avocado (Spanish)

What do avocadoes remind you of? Well, if I told you that the word avocado comes from the Spanish word ‘aguacate’, you’d be none the wiser. However, that word, in turn, derives from another language. The central Mexican language Nahuatl word of ‘ahuacatl’ means testicle.

And guess what? Avocadoes grow in pairs, dangling from trees. Guacamole anyone?

  1. Malaria (Italian)

The word malaria is so synonymous with flies and disease we can’t image it derived from ancient Rome. But it did. The word comes from medieval Italian words ‘mal’ which means bad and ‘aria’ meaning air.

So malaria literally means ‘bad air’, but why describe this disease as a bad air? It is an interesting word origin when you understand that it was used to describe the foul smells that emanated from the marshlands and swamps in Ancient Roman times. The disease was commonplace around these areas because it was an ideal breeding place for mosquitoes. However, the Romans believed it was the air surrounding the swamps that was bad.

  1. Upper and lower case (English)

Surely, such banal terms as upper and lower case can’t have interesting word origins? Actually, they can. Back when printing presses were used, the blocks for capital letters would be stored in higher cases (upper cases) and the blocks for the smaller letters in the cases lower down (lower cases).

  1. Salary (Latin)

Anyone worth his salt knows the origin of this word (I’m here all week). In the ancient world, salt was a precious commodity. Not only did it preserve food, but it could also be used as an antiseptic to cleanse and treat wounds. It was so useful that workers were paid in salt. Hence the word salary comes from the Latin word ‘salarium’ which means payment of salt.

The origins of this word are interesting because it’s also where we get the phrasea man worth his salt’ from. In other words, a man who has earned his money.

  1. Freelancer (English)

This word first appears in Sir Walker Scott’s Ivanhoe. Here he describes a kind of mercenary knight that would fight for any side for payment. These ‘free lances’ would be bought for a price by the lords and had no loyalties to any particular cause.

  1. Disaster (Greek/Italian)

Finally, the word disaster has many interesting word origins. For example, the French word for disaster is ‘désastre’. That word originates from an Old Italian word ‘disastro’, which comes from Greek.

However, the most interesting origins of this word derive from the Ancient Greeks. They were interested in the influence of the stars. They believed that events on earth were attributed to the movement and alignment of the planets.

The Greek prefix ‘dis’ means bad and ‘aster’ means star. So for them, a disaster literally means a bad star.

I hope you enjoyed my list of interesting word origins. If you have any you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.


  1. www.lexico.com

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Carol J Marshall

    Janey, The articles you write really interesting and educational. This one I think might be one of you best.is one of your best. Thanks for all the interesting subjects and the different topics you write about. Thank you, Carol

    1. Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

      Thank you so much Carol, that is such a lovely thing to say. I’m so happy that you enjoy reading them! I have a lot of fun writing them too so I am very happy that you like to read them. Many thanks, Janey

  2. annette archer

    I really enjoyed reading your 12 ancient word origins. So very interesting to me. Kee up the great work!

  3. Michael

    An (eye opener )to our English language.

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