Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Today we reach a milestone: the 100th addition to In a Word. Yes, it’s my 100th dive into the weird, unexpected, and exciting history of common English words. And as my 100th article, there’s really only one suitable subject:
Most of the words I’ve focused on in this column were adopted from other languages, especially Greek and Latin (you can thank the expansion of the Roman Empire for that). In some cases, foreign words were borrowed and adapted because they described things or concepts that simply didn’t exist for the earliest speakers of English, so they didn’t already have their own names for them.
But counting is a foundational concept, one of the first areas that languages must find some way to communicate about. Consequently, number words — even if they only mark “one” and “many” — are some of the earliest words to appear in a language. And that’s true for English, too: Modern English names for numbers trace back to the very beginning of the language, having evolved from a language that even predates Greek and Latin.
Historical linguists believe that the word for “one” in nearly all languages in Europe and western Asia derived from a single, theoretical mother tongue called Proto-Indo-European. That’s why we see the similarities in, say, Latin (unus), Welsh (un), and Russian (odin). Over centuries, languages differentiated; one of those branches is Proto-Germanic, which itself branched into more languages. We can still see the similarities today in the word for one in those languages that grew from early Germanic tongues, for example, German (ein), Dutch (een), and Swedish and Danish (en).
In Old English, the word for “one” was an. If that reminds you of an indefinite article, you’re on the right track. In many European languages the word for “one” also became the singular indefinite article. For example, the French word for “one” is une, but une souris is also how you would say “a mouse.” English did the same thing, sort of. An developed into modern a and an, but during the 12th century, the word one diverged and was used only for the numerical value.
And it wasn’t until the 14th century that people began pronouncing it “wun” as we do today. Before then, it was closer to “own,” a pronunciation still used in the related words only, atone and alone and only a vowel shift away from the pronunciation of the original an.
The word hundred has a similarly long history. In its Old English form, though, the -red ending was a suffix that meant “reckoning,” basically marking the word as a number. Some Old English texts even use the shortened hund, without the suffix, to refer to the number 100.
The Greek word for 100 is hekaton. Because much of the Greek-derived language we have in English was filtered through Latin, and Latin already had well-established language for numbers, we don’t have many English words, outside of scientific jargon, that hearken back to ancient Greek number names. But you can pop open a dictionary and discover that a hecatomb is a sacrifice of 100 oxen or cattle, a hecatontarchy is rule by 100 people, and a hectogon or hecatonagon is a 100-sided figure.
As I said, Latin had its own word for 100, centum, the root for quite a number of common English words:
- Century, from centuria, originally any group of 100 things.
- Centennial, lasting 100 years. The –ennial ending, from annum “year,” was lifted from biennial; the older form is centenary.
- Centipede, from pes “foot.”
- Percent, originally per cent, literally “by the hundred.” It’s through the influence of percent that the root shifted in the 17th century to also indicate 1/100 part.
- Cent, 1/100 of a dollar.
- Centimeter and centiliter, 1/100 of a meter and liter.
A Look Back
It’s hard to believe I’ve reached 100 of these little lexical explorations. We use words to tell stories, but so many words are stories in themselves — weird stories, exciting stories, unexpected stories. Even, on occasion, naughty stories. But they aren’t just stories of words; the history of a word is bound up with the history of humankind itself, and by examining where our language comes from and how it has changed we can see where we come from and how we have changed.
The history of language is the history of humanity. Sure, it can be dark sometimes, but it can also be uplifting, enlightening, and funny. Here are some of my favorite word stories; if you’re looking for sparks to ignite an excitement for etymology, these can be great places to start:
- The three etymological surprises that sparked the idea of this column in the first place: gymnast (from the Greek word for “naked”), dandelion (from the French for “lion’s teeth,” for the shape of its leaves), and mortgage (literally a “death pledge”).
- “Jesus Was Born in a Penthouse,” because not only do I love the title, but it’s a great illustration of how much a word’s meaning can shift over time.
- “The Canary, from Woofer to Tweeter,” the story of a color named after a bird named after an island named after dogs.
- “Thank Goodness for ‘Oxygen,’” because, from a purely scientific point of view, the word is inaccurate, but it saved us from Joseph Priestley’s dephlogisticated air.
- “The Surprising Story behind Every State’s Name” was fun to research, and it’s full of surprises. (Who knew that our smallest state had the longest official name?)
Featured image: Shutterstock
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