In a Word: Word Origins So Obvious You Might Have Missed Them

How these words came to be is so obvious you’ll wonder how you never noticed it before.

Oblivious woman smacks her forehead.
Andrei Korzhyts / Shutterstock

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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.

One of the joys of digging into word histories is the surprise that comes from discovering connections between words you thought were completely unrelated. But sometimes such etymological explorations lead you to look more closely at words you use and hear all the time and finally notice how obvious their sources really are. Here are a few of those words:


We don’t refer to movies today as talkies because the word applies to practically all films; silent films are now the aberration. But back when synchronized soundtracks were cutting-edge technology, we needed a simple word like talkies to differentiate them from the then-more-common silent films. Similarly, at the dawn of the 20th century, when moving images on a screen were the latest in entertainment, people reached for a simple descriptive word to describe it. We call them movies because the images move.


Speaking of film, today we use the word footage to describe any length of captured video, whether on analog film or from a digital camera. But back in the early days of movies, footage referred to the physical length of a section of film. Just like the yardage refers to the yards that football teams always want more of, footage derives from the length in feet of a strip of film.


When secretary first started appearing in print in the 14th century, it referred to someone who was entrusted with secrets — a word that’s built right into the name. That can still apply today — one assumes the Secretary of State actually keeps some state secrets — but discretion probably won’t be in the job description of your average business secretary.


We are taught early on that the suffix -ly often indicates an adverb, but that’s not always the case. There are plenty of -ly words that are adjectives — like friendly, brotherly, daily, and, of course, only. The –ly suffix as an adjective marker goes back to the Old English suffix -lic. (The history of -ly as an adverb marker is a little more involved.) The word only comes from this adjective marker being combined with the Old English an, the word for “one.” Though it originally found its way into English as anlic, the word only really boils down to the word one turned into an adjective.

Some Brand Names

Entrepreneurs can spend a lot of time and money coming up with the perfect company and trademark names. Some are descriptive, some evocative, and some just made-up words that the owners hope to imbue with their brand’s meaning. But some brand names, like the following, are more straightforward and informative than we might recognize:

  • Coca-Cola: So named because the original formula was made from coca leaves (where cocaine comes from) and the kola nut.
  • Microsoft: So named because they made software for microcomputers. Supposedly, some other names considered for the company were Outcorporated Inc. and Unlimited Ltd.
  • Nabisco: Though it sounds vaguely Spanish or Italian, this snack-maker’s name comes from a much simpler source: It’s a shortening of the company’s earlier name, National Biscuit Company.
  • Ore-Ida: If you’ve got some Ore-Ida frozen potatoes in your freezer, take a look at the logo on the bag and it will tell you that the name is a combination of Oregon and Idaho, where their potatoes came from. In fact, the original company logo was the brand name on top of an outline of the two states.

Want to discover some more words whose roots are staring you in the face? Find out why seconds are called seconds and learn why the word preposterous is so preposterous.

Featured image: Andrei Korzhyts / Shutterstock

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  1. I knew most of these actually, but found the feature pretty interesting. I thought briefly about name brands that turned into generic terms for a particular object, like calling tape ‘Scotch tape’ even though it’s the Rite-Aid brand or Walgreen’s facial tissues ‘Kleenex’ when it’s not their brand either.

    The top portion made me think of a possible connection between obvious and oblivious, when they’re basically the opposite of each other. Then there’s oblivion. Just the wheels going round and round.


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