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Learning the Etymology of the English Language

9 min read
22 January 2021
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Etymology - or the origin of a word - can sometimes be obvious. Some parts of the English language, however, can have a quite an interesting history. Learn English langauge etymology for some of the stranger adjectives you might come across while you are learning a language. 



Noun: an informal way of describing a very studious or academic person.

An "egghead" is slang for a really clever person!


"Mary will do well at university. She has always been an egghead - even when she was in elementary school."


The term “Egg Head” was created in the 1950’s when a historian used the word to describe intellectuals in American politics. It was then used by Richard Nixon and soon became a well-known word in American slang.



Noun: A style of journalism or storytelling in which the journalist is also a main character. Also, entertainment is more important than correctness.


"Hunter Thomson's article on the Kentucky Derby is a great example of gonzo journalism."

"Gonzo" is a word that is used mostly for talking about types of news articles or television programs - especially MTV2's show "Gonzo".

Etymology: The word "gonzo" was first used by a newspaper called The Boston Globe to describe Hunter Thompson's 1970 article on The Kentucky Derby. The word was originally a Boston Irish slang term for the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon!



Noun: A person who is afraid of technology, or will not use gadgets or the internet

Origin: A member of the Luddite movement - a group of British cloth makers who smashed the machines that were taking their jobs.

In England in the 1700s, most cloth was made by hand by skilled workers in textile (cloth) factories. Some of the first machines ever made were "mechanical looms" which turned cotton into cloth much faster than a human could. The workers began to lose their jobs to the new machines, and a man called Ned Ludd (who lived in the same forest as Robin Hood, near our English school in Manchester) gathered them in groups, and began to attack the factories.  They smashed up the machines that were taking their jobs, and became the first organised anti-technology group in history.


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Noun: A mischievous trick or practical joke

A prank (which is also known as a practical joke, gag, jape or shenanigan) is a mischievous trick played on someone, which normally causes the victim to experience embarrassment

Pranks are typically light-hearted, reversible or non-permanent.


“I played a prank on Jenny last week and hid her food at lunch time.”


The word originates from the 16th century and is believed to come from the German word “prunken”, which means to display.



Adjective: Attractive or fashionable

Patrick looked snazzy in his top-hat.


It's not entirely clear where "Snazzy" originates. The obvious explanation is a combination of snappy and jazz, however some people beleive it comes from the Irish "snas" which meants "good appearance". 



Adjective: 1) Wicked in its literal sense means evil. A wicked person is someone who has no morals or just generally does bad things in matters of clear-cut right and wrong; 2) As well as actual plain evil, wicked can also be applied in cases of lighter playfulness. It is possible for someone to have a “wicked sense of humour” for example, which would be someone who maybe makes jokes that are a bit close to being offensive. 3) Wicked was a very popular word in the 90s. If something was wicked, it meant that it was amazing, or otherwise full of wonder. 4) One of the most common uses of this word in the US is a way of emphasizing the magnitude of something. Something can be interesting, but if it’s really interesting, it’s “wicked interesting.”


The word wicked comes from the Old English term for witch 'wicca'. 



Noun: a lightweight summer dress that normally exposes the arms and shoulders.

Example: Since it was so warm outside, I wore a sundress to the picnic.


While the word "sundress" was first used in the early 1940s, they really came into vogue in the 1950s.

New York socialite and fashionista Lilly Pulitzer opened a juice stand in Palm Beach, Florida. When she kept staining her clothes with fruit juice, she asked her dressmaker to make a dress that would hide fruit juice stains.

Soon, her brightly colored, sleeveless dresses were popular. Once her school friend and First Lady Jackie Kennedy wore one of her dresses, they became the the height of fashion.



Noun: 2) A strong emotional relationship between two people; 2) A tale of adventure, often involving the supernatural.

Adjective: ("Romantic") An activity or setting that inspires romance.

Example: "He gave me roses and took me out for dinner - it was very romantic."


As you might suspect, the word "romance" has something to do with the ancient Romans - meaning "of Roman style", but it doesn't come straight from them. Instead, it comes from the 14th Century, and originally meant "French" - usually referring to stories, poems, or songs.



Noun (American/Australian/Canadian): Any clothing worn on the legs (over underwear) that has a separate section for each leg.

Noun (British English): Any kind of underwear worn on the legs

Slang meaning (British English): Un-cool, annoying or disappointing


"I had a dream that I forgot to put on pants before I went to school."


The word "pants" has a muddled history. According to one account, the word has its beginning in Saint Pantaleone, a Christian doctor in the 3rd century who wore trousers instead of togas (long robes), which were popular at the time.

"Pantaleone" slowly changed into the word "pantaloon", which is the full word for pants (though it is not used today).  Pantaloons were usually long, trouser-like garments worn by women (and later men) underneath dresses or robes.

Other sources say that the word "pants" comes from the Greek god Pan, who was always drawn with the legs of a goat, or wearing trousers instead of a toga.



Noun: A line of waiting people or vehicles

Plural: queues.  Verb: to queue ("He queued for movie tickets"), ("At 5pm, we'll need to queue to get good seats.")


"When the new iPhone was released, there was a long queue outside the Apple store of people waiting to buy one."


What's interesting about the word "queue" is where it comes from.  It's a word borrowed straight from French, and the French word queue originally comes from the Latin word cōda, which you might know if you studied music. Cōda means "tail", and this is the original meaning of the word "queue".


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