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What is Etymology?

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which they have developed throughout history. For English language students, discovering the origin of words can help them to develop a rich and varied vocabulary. This blog will introduce you to some well-known English words as well as their lesser-known origins.


Many people believe orang-utans were named in reference to their orange hair, but in truth the name comes from the Malay words for “man of the forest”. Amazingly, orang-utans are one of our closest relatives – they are genetically closer to humans than they are to chimps!


Moped is a portmanteau of the Swedish words ‘motor’ and ‘pedaler’ which are almost identical to their English equivalents, ‘motor’ and ‘pedals’. Put simply, a moped is essentially a bicycle with a motor. Misleadingly, many people call scooters or small motorcycles ‘mopeds’ but this is a common misnomer.


Very’ is used in English to express emphasis or precision. It stems from the Old French word ‘verai’ which means ‘true’, making ‘very’ a synonym for ‘truly’.


Another word which the English language has borrowed from French is ‘court’. In France, a ‘court’ was the king’s residence and was often the place to which someone was called in order to respond to accusations.


There are a couple of competing theories regarding the origin of the word alcohol.  It is argued by some that alcohol comes from the old Arabic word for eyeliner, ‘al-kuhul’. Another theory is that alcohol stems from ‘al-gawl’ which was used in Arabic to describe evil spirits or demons. “Gawl” is also the origin of the English word ghoul.


This is an easy one! When Dutch colonists in South Africa first spotted an aardvark, they noted it’s resemblance to Dutch pigs and its habit of burrowing underground. In a fit of brilliance, they combined their words for ‘earth’ (aarde) and ‘pig’ (vark) to create the name ‘aardvark’.


The word ‘hug’ was given to us by our Scandinavian neighbours. ‘Hug’ derives from the Old Norse term “hygga”, meaning ‘to comfort’. ‘Hygga’ bears a distinct resemblance to ‘hygge’, the Danish feeling of ‘cozy intimacy’ which is often considered a factor in the Danes topping the World Happiness Report.


Punch is a fruity drink commonly served at parties. As punch can sometimes contain alcohol, its name is often misconstrued as a reference to the debilitating effects of strong alcoholic drinks – that they “pack a punch”. In fact, punch derives from the Sanskrit word “pancha” which means five. Punch originally had five ingredients; alcohol, sugar, lemon, water and tea or spices.


Nowadays, a quarantine is used to isolate a person suffering from a contagious disease. Quarantine stems from the Italian for forty days, quaranta giorni. This is a reference to the practice of refusing entry to ships and sailors for 40 days in an attempt to inhibit the spread of diseases like The Black Death.

So there you have it! If you have any other examples, let us know in the comments below!

WSE Team