etymology, Semantics

Road and Routes from Latin to English


Did you know that the English term route and Swedish rutt ‘route’, as well as French route ‘road’ comes from the Latin term via rupta ‘broken road’. At first I thought about the slowly decaying Roman roads spread all over Europe, but in fact, broken here means ‘broken through nature/the underbrush’.

The English term road is not from the same stem at all! It comes from Middle English rode ‘act of riding, journey’, and ultimately from Old English ridan ‘to ride’.


Buck, Carl Darling. 1949. A dictionary of selected synonyms in the principal Indo-European languages; a contribution to the history of ideas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Co-hort or cohort?

 A cohortus in a hortus…

Just saw a CNN (entertainment) journalist write “co-hort” for “cohort”. A misunderstanding, a reanalysis following co-op or co-ed? Or just historical play on form, since cohort comes from com-hortus, where “hortus” means garden and “com” means with. The people at the garden/plot of land -> guards -> army division in the roman army -> modern day group of people who work together. (Also the origin for “court”.)

etymology, Historical Linguistics

How German is Scandinavian?

German Flag

Between one third and half of the everyday vocabulary of Scandinavian languages is borrowed from Low German. The borrowing mainly took place during the 13th to 16th century, when the Hanseatic Trade League’s influence on northern Europe was largest. Not only words were borrowed, but many frequent derivational affixes, such as be- (be-rika, be-ivra, be-tvinga in Swedish) and -het (svensk-het, tursam-het), were borrowed. We don’t know to which extent the Low German influence also contributed to the massive simplification in the morphology of especially nouns – so that the only thing that remains of e.g. the dative form are fossilized expressions like gå man ur huse where huse is inflected in its old dative form.

Here’s a Norwegian example (from Torp 2002) of a sentence where all content words are borrowings from Low German:

Skredderen tenkte at trøya passet fortreffelig, men kunden klaget og mente at plagget var kort och tøyet simpelt tog grovt.

[The tailor thought that the jacket fittet perfectly, but the customer complained and means that the garment was short and the material was unsophisticated and coarse.]



Arne Torp. 2002. Chaper 2: The Nordic languages in a Germanic perspective. In Bandle, Oskar, Lennart Elmevik, and Gun Widmark (Eds) The Nordic languages an international handbook of the history of the North Germanic languages. Volume I. Berlin: W. de Gruyter.

etymology, Semantics

The etymology of the word “bad”


I’ve just discovered the etymology for English bad ‘not good’ in Darling Buck 1949, and was going to write a postabout it – but the writers over at Online Etymology Dictionary have read the same chapter as I, and sum it up nicely:

bad (adj.) c.1200, “inferior in quality;” early 13c., “wicked, evil, vicious,” a mystery word with no apparent relatives in other languages.* Possibly from Old English derogatory term bæddel and its dim. bædling “effeminate man, hermaphrodite, pederast,” probably related to bædan “to defile.” A rare word before 1400, and evil was more common in this sense until c.1700. Meaning “uncomfortable, sorry” is 1839, American English colloquial.

Comparable words in the other Indo-European languages tend to have grown from descriptions of specific qualities, such as “ugly,” “defective,” “weak,” “faithless,” “impudent,” “crooked,” “filthy” (e.g. Gk. kakos, probably from the word for “excrement;” Rus. plochoj, related to O.C.S. plachu “wavering, timid;” Pers. gast, O.Pers. gasta-, related to gand “stench;” Ger. schlecht, originally “level, straight, smooth,” whence “simple, ordinary,” then “bad”). ”


When did hermaphrodite become something which such a negative sentiment attached to it in the west? Clearly post-Roman empire, since they have hemaphrodite gods…

etymology, Semantics

Where did our color names come from?


Did you know that brun ‘brown’ once also covered the lila ‘purple’ color area? And that even further back it also meant ‘shining’. That lila ‘purple’ and rosa ‘pink’ are named after or possibly gave name to flowers (Syringa and Rose respectively). That orange ‘orange’ comes (via German) from French, meaning ‘gold’?. That turkos ‘turquois’ comes from the French expression pierre turquoise (stones from Turkey – the stones of this color found there and used for jewellry). That the term blå ‘blue’ once also covered more svart ‘black’ color nuances. That grön ‘green’ is probably derived from ‘vegetation-color’. And that it’s highly likely that there was no unique name for the rosa ‘pink’ color region back in Viking terms – it was just considered a red color.

Oh, I’d love to make a much longer post about this, but as it is I’m just going to post some brief research notes on the origin of Swedish color terms.
Svart    ’black’    Proto-Germanic, possibly also connected to Latin sordes ’dirt’?
Vit    ’white’    Traceable to Indo-European
Röd    ’red’    Traceable to Indo-European
Grön    ’green’    Traceable to Germanic, from ’grow’ > ’grow-colored’? From color of vegetation?
Blå    ’blue’    Traceable to Germanic ’blue, black’ > ’blue’
Gul    ’yellow’    Traceable to PIE, g̑hel- ‘, ‘yellow, bright color’, Possibly yellow-green? Also found in Sanskrit, Greek.
Orange    ’orange’    First attested 1640. < German < French or ’gold’
Turkos    ’turquoise’    First attested 1538, < French pierre turquoise
Brun    ’brown’    Traceable to Indo-European: ’brown, shining’
Lila    ’purple’    First attestted in 1805, < French, name of the Syringa flower
Grå    ’grey’    Traceable to Germanic
Rosa    ’pink’    First attested 1773, < Romance language (French?). Gave name to, or got form, Rose flower.


Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious = 12 million dollars

This was one of my favourite Disney songs when I was little – supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I loved the word, and all the long words (like precocious (: ) in the song which meanings I would try to untangle. Little did I know that this single word was worth 12 million dollars….

In 1965 the Disney film was released to the delight of kids everywhere – and soon after came a law suit. Two song writers claimed they had written more or less the same song as early as 1949 – with the word supercalafajalistickespeealadoju.

Supercalafajalistickespeealadoju is basically the same as Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, except that the latter follows the written norm more carefully. They’re so similar, that Disney’s only hope in getting out of this mess was to prove that the word was in the public domain – generally known – even earlier. They looked in all the neologism (=new word) dictionaries, talked to lots of linguists – even published ads in the newspapers, asking people to contact them if they’d ever seen the word in print before. They did find similar words, like rambunctiousc, ombobberationh, elliferociousg, randiferous, exflunctificate, and teetotalaciously – but not supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Lots of people claimed to have heard the word – but to work as evidence, the law require it to have been written down, before.

And they found it! In the 1930s it had appeared in print in a Syracuse University humor magazine – and this saved Disney 12 million dollars.



Algeo, John. 1980. “Where Do All the New Words Come from?” American Speech 55 (4): 264–277.