9 Words With Totally Unexpected Origins


Between George Bush and the Internet, the English language is changing at an alarming rate.

You won’t believe how far some words have come.

We researched nine modern words and the strange histories that accompany them, also known as etymologies.

1. Avocado

(noun): a pear-shaped fruit with a rough leathery skin, smooth oily edible flesh, and a large stone

The word for avocado comes from the Aztec word, “ahuacatl,” which means testicle. Aside from the similar shape, avocados also act as aphrodisiacs, foods that stimulate sex drive. I propose we un-complicate the story and rename them “testicle fruit.”

2. Jumbo

(adjective): very large, unusually for it’s type

In 1880, P.T. Barnum bought an elephant, named “Jumbo,” from the Royal Zoological Society in London. By age 7, this pachyderm consumed 200 pounds of hay, one barrel of potatoes, two bushels of oats, 15 loaves of bread, a slew of onions, and several pails of water every day. His caretaker at the zoo also gave him a gallon or two of whiskey every now and then.

At full size, Jumbo stood at 11-and-a-half feet tall and weighed six-and-half tons.

His name likely stems from two Swahili words: “jambo,” meaning hello and “jumbe,” or chief. Although, “Hey chief” seems a little informal for a creature who could crush your organs with its trunk.

3. Clue

(noun): a fact or idea that serves as a guide or aid in a task or problem

According to Greek mythology, when Theseus entered the Labyrinth to kill the minotaur (a half-man, half-bull), he unravelled a “clew” — a ball of string — behind him, so he could find his way back.

The word “clue” didn’t even exist until the mid-1500s when people started to vary the spelling of “clew.”

4. Robot

(noun): a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer

The word “robot” comes from the Czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labour” — which sounds strangely like slavery. Remember iRobot?

5. Sycophant

(noun): a person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage

Technically, sycophant means someone who denounces someone else as a “fig-smuggler,” according to Charlotte Higgins, culture-blogger at The Guardian. Since the beginning of the sixth century, Athens outlawed transporting food, except olives, outside the city-state’s borders. People most broke the law by smuggling figs.

Back then, Athenian law permitted blackmailing (for profit). These blackmailers, or sykophantes in Greek, wanted to earn some extra cash and threatened to tell the courts about others’ fig-smuggling habits.

6. Assassin

(noun): a person who murders an important person for political or religious reasons

Members of a fanatical Muslim sect during the Crusades used to smoke hashish and then murder leaders on the opposing side. They started going by the name “hashishiyyin,” meaning hashish-users in Arabic.

Through centuries of mispronunciation, English arrived at “assassin.”

7. Phony

(adjective): not genuine, fraudulent

Back in day, pirates used to sell “fawney,” basically British slang for fake gold rings. Anything can happen when you add a buccaneer’s accent.

8. Nimrod

(noun): an inept person

Nimrod actually means a “skillful hunter.” The word comes from Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, one of the most powerful biblical kings. It sounds like a compliment, right?

During the golden age of American animation, Bugs Bunny called Elmer fud a nimrod in an episode of Looney Tunes. As Cracked puts it, that’s kind of like calling your friend “Einstein” after he makes a really dumb statement. Bugs’ sarcasm just stuck.

9. Whiskey

(noun): a spirit distilled from malted grain, especially barley or rye

Whiskey is the shortened form of whiskeybae, which comes from the Old English “usquebae,” derived from two Gaelic words: uisce (water) and bethu (life). Thus, whiskey literally means “water of life.” Accurate.


(slang interjection): Oh my God!

The Oxford English Dictionary claims this word predates the Internet (although not teenage girls).

Apparently, a sassy British admiral John Arbuthnot “Jacky” Fisher wrote in his memoir, ” I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis — O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!” No, we don’t know what that means either.

He was later reincarnated as Cher from “Clueless.”