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Wonderful word origins

Many of us are fascinated by the origins of the words we use. The genealogy of our vocabulary choices is not always obvious – even though English may be a relatively young language, many of its words have been around for over a thousand years, and a word can change its meaning dramatically in far less time than that.

The word nausea, for example, shares a root with nautical: it comes to English from the Greek word naus, ‘ship’ – because originally it meant just seasickness. Another modern word that derives from Greek is athlete. It is related to athlon, ‘prize’: the word athlētēs, from which we get ‘athlete’, literally meant ‘someone who competes for a prize’.

Below is a list of ten words with etymologies that are interesting, unusual, or perplexing. See if you can match the word on the left to its origins on the right.

Match up the word on the left with its origin on the right:

1. Adolescence              a) ‘pointedly foolish’

2. Antediluvian             b) ‘on the right’

3. Dexterity                    c) ‘I shall be acceptable’

4. Naïve                            d) ‘grow to maturity’

5. Nice                               e) ‘eat on the sly’

6. Oxymoron                  f) ‘native, natural’

7. Placebo                        g) ‘home-born slave’

8. Sinister                         h) ‘ignorant’

9. Snoop                            i) ‘before the flood’ (or deluge)

10. Vernacular               j) ‘left’ (as in left-handed)

How many did you get right?

Scroll down to see the answers …




1. Adolescence              d) ‘grow to maturity’

2. Antediluvian             i) ‘before the flood’ (or deluge)

3. Dexterity                    b) ‘on the right’

4. Naïve                            f) ‘native, natural’

5. Nice                               h) ‘ignorant’

6. Oxymoron                  a) ‘pointedly foolish’

7. Placebo                        c) ‘I shall be acceptable’

8. Sinister                          j) ‘left’ (as in left-handed)

9. Snoop                            e) ‘eat on the sly’

10. Vernacular               g) ‘home-born slave’


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