Without words, humans could never tell or write stories. But in a strange reversal of this relationship, some words would not exist without stories. Instead of deriving their form and meaning from similar words in other languages, some terms are named after and earn their meaning from myths or history. In fact, many unusual terms in English are named after people and places and the stories related to them. After a little digging, I solved the etymology enigmas of the following ten words, and I have included their origin stories below.
Bluetooth: This strange technological term has always intrigued me, and I recently discovered that it is named after Harald Bluetooth, a Danish king in the 900s A.D. who united and Christianized Denmark (Baltzan 197). The logo for the modern technology Bluetooth combines two runes which stand for the Danish king’s initials: and .
Cadmean/Pyrrhic: Adjectives used to describe a type of victory in which losses are so great that they offset the actual victory. In Greek mythology, Cadmus was a Theban prince who sowed dragon’s teeth which grew into men who ended up slaying each other (“Cadmean”). Pyrrhus was a Greek general who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279 B.C., but with such heavy losses that he “declared…that another similar victory would ruin him” (“Pyrrhic Victory”).
Laconic: An adjective for terseness, this word is named after the inhabitants of Laconia who were famous for their verbal brevity. We know them as the Spartans, but in the Greek, an inhabitant of this land was called Lakōn (“Laconic”).
Limerick: The poetry form limerick derives its name from a city in Ireland of the same name. (Header image is of a castle in Limerick, Ireland).
OK: This word signals agreement or acknowledgement and first appeared in 1839 when it was “a humoristic fashion in Boston newspapers to reduce a phrase to initials and supply an explanation in parentheses” (“OK”). In this particular case, OK was used as an abbreviation that meant “all correct”—obviously as a joke because neither letter in the abbreviation was correct. U.S. President Martin Van Buren popularized the term when he used it in his 1840 reelection campaign because his nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” named after his birthplace.
Robot: According to author Paige Baltzan, Karl Capek coined the term robot in a play in 1921, and robota is a Czech word that means “forced labor” (222). Since then, robot has become a common word, especially popular during the heyday of science fiction.
Sandwich: A popular form of food, the sandwich’s name comes from the Earl of Sandwich, who is credited for making the first sandwiches.
Sideburns: The term sideburns is a variant of the word burnsides, both of which have the same meaning and originated from the last name of Ambrose Everett Burnside, a general in the American Civil War who had very impressive side-whiskers (“Burnsides”).
Tantalize: Did you know that this word was named after a king in a Greek myth? Tantalus was a son of Zeus and the predecessor of Menelaus and Agamemnon. After betraying the gods’ trust and committing some pretty abominable deeds, Tantalus was eternally punished in Hades for his crimes. According to legend, Tantalus had to stand “up to his neck in water, which flowed from him when he tried to drink it, and over his head hung fruits that the wind wafted away whenever he tried to grasp them” (“Tantalus”).
Tarantism: This is a disorder characterized by an irresistible impulse to dance. Apparently there was a tarantism epidemic during the 15th through 17th centuries, predominately in southern Italy. Tarantism was popularly attributed to being bitten by a tarantula, and the tarantella was an energetic 6/8 meter dance thought to be a remedy for tarantism. Turns out, the tarantula was innocent of all accusations, but now it has at least two terms named for it. And in case you were wondering, all of these words derive their names from the Italian city Taranto.
Baltzan, Paige. Information Systems. 4th ed., McGraw-Hill Education, 2018.
“Burnsides.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.
“Cadmean.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913.
“Laconic.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.
“Limerick: Poetic Form.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/art/limerick-poetic-form.
“OK.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.
“Pyrrhic Victory.” Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, 2010.
“Tantalus.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Tantalus.
“Tarantism.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 5th ed., 2016.