9 commonly used English words with unique historical origins

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Previously, we had harped about ten common English words derived from mythical gods and beasts. This time around, we have decided to broaden the scope of etymological influence, and compile a list of ten often used English words that have incredible historical origin stories.

1) Admiral –

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Amīr (or emir in Latinized form) was a pretty common term that was used in medieval Arabic, and it denoted a military commander (or leader) operating on land. Interestingly, this word gradually made way to a marine-based connotation only when the Normans defeated the Arabs in Sicily, in the year 1072. After the victory, the ‘Latins’ appointed a special military official as a Knight or ‘amiratus‘ of Sicily. In the year 1178, this official was also given the responsibility of the navy of the island.

Replicating this hybrid land-sea command structure, the maritime Republic of Genoa called their navy commander as the ‘amirato‘, a title which spread in popular usage in the Mediterranean during 13th century. This term finally gave way to the ‘amiral‘ in late-medieval French and English. Later on, the inclusion of ‘d’, as in ‘admiral‘ was most probably a nod to the common word ‘admire’ with Latin origins.

2) Algorithm –

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The word algorithm has its origins in al-khwārizmī, which was the short name for the noted mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. In fact, the appellation of al-Khwārizmī means – ‘from Khwarizm’ (a region in western Central Asia, north of Persia). The Latinization of this name came to Algorismi, from which the term ‘algorismus‘ was finally derived by 13th century, and continued in usage till 19th century. The English variant ‘algorithm’ came into more popular usage after 19th century, and it still denoted the Arabic decimal system in its earlier usage patterns.

In an interesting note, the word ‘algebra’ also relates to Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. The 9th century mathematician wrote the compilation known as ‘al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa al-muqābala‘ (in English, it can be translated as – “The Compendium on Calculation by Restoring and Balancing”). The phrase ‘al-jabr‘ pertained to equations, and hence its ultimate Latinization to ‘algebra’.

3) Avatar –

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The term Avatar originally stems from the Hindu concept of a deliberate descent of a deity or god to Earth. In simpler terms, it is roughly synonymous to ‘incarnation’ in English; but a more literal translation would pertain to ‘manifestation’ (thus making the movie’s portrayal of altered meta-identities more accurate than you would think). As for the mythological relation, the Hindu God Vishnu (who forms one of the trinity of major gods within the religious system) is said to have ten avatars (Dashavatara), with Matsya, Lord Rama, Krishna and even Buddha considered among the earthly incarnations.

There is also a bit of foretelling in these mythical traditions, with the final tenth avatar, Kalki (‘Destroyer of Filth’), still to be born. This remorseless warrior riding a white horse, will supposedly cleanse the world of its decadence and filth with his blazing sword. In essence, he is depicted as the harbinger of our end times in the current epoch; and the world will once again be ‘reset’ to the Utopian first age.

4) Desperado –

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Till now, we had talked about the etymological root of the words. However, with ‘desperado’ we will take route of history-fueled hypothesis as to what inspired the term. Before that once should know, the adjective ‘desperado‘ comes from Old Spanish, and it pertains to a ‘desperate man’ (with no known usage as noun). However, the English (or rather mock-Spanish version), ‘desperado’, relates to a ‘reckless criminal’, and it has been in usage since at least 1560 AD. And quite incredibly, this pop-culturally famous version of the term might just have its historical origins in ancient Spain (Iberia), circa 3rd century BC. This passage from Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, sheds some light into the conjecture (as mentioned in ‘Spanish Armies by Rafael Trevino‘) –

There is a custom characteristic of the Iberians, but particularly of the Lusitans, that when they reach adulthood those men who stand out through their courage and daring provide themselves with weapons, and meet in the mountains. There they form large bands, to ride across Iberia gathering riches through robbery, and they do this with the most complete disdain towards all. For them the harshness of the mountains, and the hard life they lead there, are like their own home; and there they look for refuge…

Regrading the passage, one should observe how the account talks about a ‘custom’ of criminal activities (akin to the popular version of desperado), as opposed to just a ‘desperate’ man.

5) Father –

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Perhaps one of the oldest words in existence, the common English term ‘father‘ is directly derived from Old English ‘fæder‘. This in turn comes from Proto-Germanic fader, which is ultimately borrowed from the term pəter that meant ‘father’ in PIE (Proto-Indo-European language). Unsurprisingly, the cognates of this word come from various geographical locations of the world – like, Sanskrit pitar-, Greek pater, Latin pater, Old Persian pita, and even Old Irish athir “father”. And, the now question remains – where did this ‘original’ PIE term come from? Well, most linguists have an easy hypothesis for the answer; the word simply came from ‘pa’, which was most probably how a baby (irrespective of nationality or race) uttered the sound when addressing his/her father.

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9 commonly used English words with unique historical origins

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