3 More Uncanny Etymologies


There seems to be no end to the elaborate ways in which words flit from language to language, work their way into our daily speech, and become so comfortable and familiar as to overshadow their surprising etymologies.  Below are three more examples of just such unexpected word origins to amuse any lover of language.


The green-eyed monster takes its name, via Old French, from the Greek and Latin.  The Greek root zelos (Latin zelosus) entailed fervor and devotion, making its way into English in the guise of “zeal” and “zealous”.  Over time, the word took a turn for the sinister: by the end of the 13th century, the Old French jalos reflected the grudge-bearing and covetous qualities that we associate with the word today.

In fact, a certain style of window called a jalousie draws its name from a behavior associated with jealous people.  Consisting of parallel slats that can be swiveled open and shut in unison, jalousie windows or blinds provide their owners with a chance to peek at the world outside without being spotted themselves.


The struggle and strife that we associate with this word happen to be symptomatic of its gory roots.  Ordeals were typically meted out in the Middle Ages as a form of trial for those suspected of committing a crime.  There were ordeals of fire, of water, of poison – of boiling oil and stinging insects.  The aim of these trials sheds light on the original meaning of the Old English ordel: a judgment or verdict.  It was believed that the innocent would not succumb to their ordeals or would be miraculously healed of the wounds they incurred in the process because God would intervene on their behalves.  In either case, trial by ordeal was the brutal method by which our medieval predecessors intended to finagle a verdict from the heavens.


While modern speakers can ostracize someone merely by showing disapproval and excluding that person from the group, the ancient Greeks employed a much more literal process of ostracism.  Beginning in the 5th century BC, members of Athenian society would banish those they deemed dangerous to the community by casting votes on shards of pottery called ostraka (singular ostrakon).  The unlucky citizen receiving at least 6,000 votes would be expelled for a period of ten years.

Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral