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Did you know salary comes from salt? The origin of these 10 words will surprise you

In his new book May We Borrow Your Language? Philip Gooden tells the fascinating stories behind the etymological roots of English words that have become a part of everyday parlance.

books Updated: Apr 10, 2017 10:04 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
New Delhi
May We Borrow Your Language?,Philip Gooden,Origin of common words

In his new book May We Borrow Your Language? Philip Gooden tells the fascinating stories behind the etymological roots of English words that have become a part of everyday parlance.

Did you know the interjection ‘like’, so popular among teenagers today, was first used in 1886 by a character in RL Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped (What’s like wrong with him?). Or that the word cakewalk originated from an intricate dance, originally performed by African Americans, where the winner was rewarded with a cake?

In his new book May We Borrow Your Language?, British writer Philip Gooden looks at how commonly used English words were created and evolved by interacting with languages and cultures from across the world. In the introduction to the book, Gooden says he shortlisted words in the book “partly in a spirit of serendipity and partly to give due weight to the contribution of each strand that makes up English” that we speak today.

Here are 10 English words and the stories of how they came into being:

Salary (1377)

The word for the thing we all wish we had more of comes from the Latin word for salt: Sal. In his letters, Roman historian Pliny writes how soldiers in Rome in the first century AD were paid at one time in salt. Gooden says it is more likely that they got an allowance for buying salt and other things. By the 15th century, salary was used for the stipends priests got. Soon it acquired its modern-day connotations.


Ok (1839)

This fantastic, versatile multipurpose word, which originated in America in the 19th century, can be used as an adjective, verb, noun and adverb. Depending on the tone in which it is uttered, it can convey such a vast variety of emotions. There are many theories regarding its origins, but no one definite source. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first cited in a Baltimore newspaper in 1839 as a shortened version of ‘all correct’.


Robot (1920)

The word for machines that perform complex tasks and have risen to overthrow humanity multiple times in dystopian sci-fi, was first used in Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R (translates as Rossum’s Universal Robots). It is set in a factory where artificial beings are created for commercial purposes till they rebel against the humans. Capek wanted to call them ‘Labori’ but his brother Josef suggested ‘Roboti’ instead.


@ (1971)

Okay, so this isn’t strictly a word, but aren’t you curious? @ is a ligature (a character formed by combining two letters, in this case a and d from the latin ad—at, to, towards) that is said to have originated in the sixth or seventh century. It appeared in commercial records in Europe of the 16th century and found its way to the typewriter in the 19th century.

It was mostly used in accounting records (as at the rate of) till American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson picked it up while developing a programme to send messages between computers, and used it in the first email.

Turkey (1555)

The bird that is an integral part of American Thanksgiving has no remote relation to Turkey (the country) or the Ottomon Empire. The early European settlers in America mistakenly identified the bird that ran wild in the forests as the same species of African bird brought to Europe from Turkey. The misnomer stuck on.


Disaster (1604)

The first recorded use of the word disaster is by the villain Edmund in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Though it is not clear whether Shakespeare invented the word or just happened to be the first one to use it in writing. The Elizabethan Age was a period when people greatly believed in the influence of stars and planets on their lives. Disaster comes from French désastre, which puts the negative prefix dis- before the French word for star.


24/7 (1983)

This abbreviation that best describes contemporary work routines was first used by American basketball player Jerry Reynolds in 1983. In an interview to a sports magazine Sports Illustrated, the player described his jump shot as ‘24-7-365’ — good and consistent all year round.

Jargon (1386)

Fourteenth-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer is the first recorded user of the word jargon, which appears in his best known work The Canterbury Tales. In The Merchant’s Tale, Chaucer describes the old merchant as: And ful of jargon as a flekked pye [magpie]

Here jargon meant ‘chatter’ or ‘bird twitter’ much like the Old French word jargoun (chatter of birds). It soon evolved to mean ‘gibberish’ and it was only in the 17th century that it acquired its present connotations of a vocabulary specific to a profession.


Slogan (1680)

Slogan comes from two Gaelic words (the language spoken in parts of Scotland and Ireland) sluagh and ghairm (host+shout). It appears in several forms (slogorne, sluggorn, slughorn) in the seventeenth century. The slughorn was the war cry of native Irish. The word used in political and advertising campaigns today still retains its warlike original flavour.


Sandwich (1762)

The term for this ordinary snack owes its existence to one man’s devotion to gambling. British minister of state John Montagu was so addicted to the game that he used to ask his servants to bring him ‘a bit of beef between two slices of toasted bread’ to the gaming table. Gradually, others began to order the same and named the food item after Montagu who also held the title of — the Earl of Sandwich. Montagu may not have invented sandwich, but he certainly did make it popular. If only more men were so productively addicted to gaming.


May We Borrow Your Language?
By Philip Gooden
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 359
Price: Rs 799

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First Published: Apr 09, 2017 19:56 IST