Favorite word etymologies What are some favorite word etymologies? Here's a super one: Notwithstanding: it derives from Old English notwiþstondynge from the late 14th century. It is the...

Favorite word etymologies

What are some favorite word etymologies? Here's a super one:

Notwithstanding: it derives from Old English notwiþstondynge from the late 14th century. It is the combination of not with the present progressive form of the Old English verb wiþstondyn.

Here's the interesting part. It is an English translation of the Latin loan word non obstante. The actual meaning and usage of notwithstanding is enlightened by understanding the meaning of non obstante, which is being no hindrance.

The meanings of notwithstanding as in spite of, despite, nevertheless, in spite of the fact make more sense to a modern speaker when referenced to the Latin loanword meaning being no hindrance. In other eras, when Latin was routinely learned, the relation between notwithstanding and being no hindrance would have been immediately understood.

late 14c., notwiþstondynge, from not + prp. of the verb withstand. A loan-translation of L. non obstante "being no hindrance."

1. prep
(often immediately postpositive) in spite of; despite
2. conj
(subordinating) despite the fact that; although
3. sentence connector
in spite of that; nevertheless
[not + withstanding, from Old English withstandan, on the model of Medieval Latin non obstante, Old French non obstant]
Collins English Dictionary

vb -stands, -standing, -stood
1. (tr) to stand up to forcefully; resist
2. (intr) to remain firm in endurance or opposition
withstander  n
Collins English Dictionary


Expert Answers
bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Since it's the "Holiday Season" (formerly known as the Christmas Holidays), I thought the word "humbug" would be appropriate. Forever remembered as a Dickensian word uttered by Scrooge, the word had actually been around for about a century before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is often mistakenly referred to as a humbug himself, but he quite rightly (at least in his mind) used the term to explain his belief that the Christmas season was being fraudulently used for its commercial potential and non-religious financial expenditures. Ebenezer was a scrooge but definitely not a humbug. According to the earliest known reference ("in the 1751 book The Student"), "humbug" was popular slang even then. Possible origins?

  • Charles Godfrey Leland mentions the idea that the word could be derived from the Norse word hum, meaning 'night' or 'shadow', and the word bugges (used in the Bible), a variant of bogey, meaning 'apparitions'. The Norse word hum mentioned, or hume, actually means 'dark air' in Old Norwegian. From the other Scandinavian languages based on Old Norse, there is húm in Icelandic which means 'twilight', hómi in Faeroese which means 'unclear', and humi in Old Swedish which means 'dark suspicion', documented back to 1541. From this word is also derived the Swedish verb hymla, still in use, which means 'to conceal, hide, not commit to the truth'.
  • According to the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose, 1731–1791, to hum in English indeed originally meant 'to deceive'. To combine this early medieval Scandinavian word with bugges from the English Bible of a later date may seem far-fetched. The word bug is derived from the Middle English Bugge (of which the term bogey is also derived) which is in turn a cognate of the German word bögge (of which böggel-mann ("Goblin") is derived) and possibly the Norwegian dialect word bugge meaning "important man". The Welsh Bwg ("ghost") could also be connected, and was thought in the past to be the origin of the English term however more recent studies indicate that it is a borrowing from the much older Middle English word. Also, with bug meaning ghost or goblin, the use of the term applies in Dickens' novel about the Christmas ghosts. In Etym. Diet. of 1898, Walter Skeat also proposed a similar theory, although using contemporary versions of the words, where hum meant to murmur applause, and bug being a spectre.
  • It could also come from the Italian uomo bugiardo, which literally means 'lying man'. There was considerable Italian influence on English at the time (e.g. Shakespeare's numerous Italian-based plays).
  • Uim-bog is supposed to mean 'soft copper' in Irish, worthless money, but there is no evidence of a clear connection to the term.
  • The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica also suggests that it is a form of "Hamburg", where false coins were minted and shipped to England during the Napoleonic wars, which is inaccurate as the Napoleonic wars were 50 years after the word first appeared in print.
  • A modern conception is that it actually refers to a humming bug—i.e. something small and inconsequential, such as a cricket, that makes a lot of noise. In Norton Juster's novel The Phantom Tollbooth, there is a large beetle-like insect known as the Humbug, who is hardly ever right about anything.
bigdreams1 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have my seniors do an etymology paper each year, and it always amazes me the words they choose (or attempt to choose) to do their papers on.

A couple of years back, one of my students did "school", and laughed to find the following:

O.E... also "leisure, spare time," originally "a holding back, a keeping clear," from skhein "to get" + -ole by analogy with bole "a throw," stole "outfit," etc. The original notion is "leisure," which passed to "otiose discussion," then "place for such."

We had a grand time talking about how a word that now connotates drudgery and work to students, originally centered around "leisure time".

readerofbooks eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Post one was awesome. Here is one of my favorite etymologies. The word, "nice," comes from the Latin work "scio" to know + "ne," which make the following word negative. So, we can say that a nice person is one who is ignorant from a literal point of view. However, language develops and eventually the word "nice" comes to mean something else, namely, a person who is pleasing and agreeable.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A word that has lost one of its meanings over time is the word tell.  It is derived from the Old English word tellan, which became telle in Middle English.  The Dutch word tellen, meaning to count and the Icelandic word,telja meaning to count are the origins of the word teller as the person who counts money in the bank.

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I collect books on these, but one of my favorites is one I stumbled on myself, when my son decided to make candy one day.  Butterscotch, I speculated, and then verified as one theory, is butter "scorch."  Another possible theory is that the word "scotch" is from a word meaning "to score."  But I am quite partial to the "scorch" theory myself.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of my favourites is oxymoron, coming from the Greek adjective oxymoros, meaning "pointedly foolish," which in turn comes from the combination of the two words oxys, meaning "sharp" and moros meaning "stupid." It is so interesting to see where words have come from and how they are used today!

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One etymology I've always enjoyed is the etymology of "mediocre." Here's the etymology from the World English Dictionary:

[C16: via French from Latin mediocris moderate, literally:halfway up the mountain, from medius middle + ocris stony mountain]

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

How about the word "weird", which is of Germanic origin, but is from the Old English word "Wyrd", which meant the power to control destiny.  It was attributed to the witches in Macbeth. Only in the 19th century did it come to be more associated with a sense or feeling.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Curious about the posting, I decided to examine some of the origins of words. The one I found most interesting was "aftermath." Aftermath was derived from after mowth (which refers to the grass or crop which appears after one mows).