Etymological curiosities


On the whole I am interested in the phenomenon that any word that has anything remotely to do with 'woman' becomes pejorative. Of course, I get distracted by other bits. See Knight to see how the process works in reverse for men.

  • Avocado: a South American Indigenous word for testicle. The Spanish took this term and used to to refer to what we now call the avocado
  • Boudoir: 'a place to sulk in' from the French 'bouder' to pout
  • Bulimia: from the Greek 'bous' meaning 'ox' and 'limos' meaning 'hunger' presumably because one with Bulimia has the appetite of an ox.
  • Catharsis: In Early Modern English, used in the sense of 'vomiting'
  • Charlatan: from the Spanish 'charlan' to chat
  • Croissant: the 'croissant' or 'crescent' (to symbolize victory over the Turks whose flags bore a crescent moon)
  • Cunt: appears several times in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c1390), in bawdy contexts, but it does not appear to be thought of as obscene at this point, since it is used openly;seems to be an overlap between the words "cunt" and 'quaint'; also cunt hair is used as a measurement in construction; an expansion of 'to move it a hair' or very small distance; cuntline differently, as "the space between the bilges of two casks, stowed side by side; Gropecunt Lane was a name used in Oxford and London and other English towns and cities in the Middle Ages for streets where prostitutes conducted their business. But it must be the most discussed word in history, and Matthew Hunt must totally love cunts, because he collected (at length) the most complete etymology, and wrote it into real English. Click here if you want to follow the thread through to Feminism.
  • Daisy: from 'Day's Eye'. George Eddington writes, 'Not special in itself, but Mata Hari also means 'Eye of the day' and the lady took the name because she had lived in the Dutch East Indies and heard the natives so refer to the sun. What would it be like to refer to 'That famous spy of World War I, Daisy?''
  • Denim: made in Nimes, France, as well as Genoa, Italy. It was called Serge di Nimes--later shortened to di Nimes, which became denim. Genoa--called 'Gene' by sixteenth-century Europeans--was the first city to make denim cloth (see Denim) used for jeans. The pants were named after the city.
  • Gift: from the Old English 'asgift' meaning, 'payment for a wife' in the singular and meaning 'wedding' in the plural. The Middle Dutch 'gift' now written as 'gif' meant the same, but today means 'poison' The Old High German 'gift' also became 'poison' From the root 'geb-', from which in English we get 'give' There is another German word, however, which incorporates the word 'gift' but which retains the older meaning of 'payment for a wife'. The word is 'Mitgift' which is the modern German word for 'dowry'.
  • Harlot: Originally used to refer to 'riff-raff' of either gender, this came to mean only 'a disreputable woman'
  • Heresy: Greek for 'choice'
  • Husband: comes from the Old German words hus and bunda, which mean 'house' and 'owner' respectively. The word originally had nothing to do with marital status, except for the fact that home ownership made husbands extremely desirable marriage partners.
  • Hussy: The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology informs us that 'hussy' originally meant mistress of a household or housewife (around 1530) and eventually changed to mean any woman or girl. But by 1650 the term was applied to a woman who showed 'casual or improper behavior.'
  • Incentive: from the Latin 'incanere' meaning, 'to sing to' The idea is 'If you play the music, someone has to = dance'
  • Knight: from the Old English 'cniht' which meant 'boy, servant'
  • Madam: This used to be simply a polite form of address for women but now means the female head of a house of prostitution.
  • Mistress: from the French 'Maîtresse', which originally meant 'bride'. Originally meaning 'a woman who employs others in her service, who has the care of or authority over servants or attendants', this word was borrowed from the French maistresse as the female equivalent of master, and today has the additional meaning 'a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a continuing sexual relationship.'
  • Money: from the Latin word 'moneta' which originally meaning, 'warning'
  • Nemesis: a deity who restores a balance. There was no judgmentalism or divine punishment involved, simply a response from the other world to lapses occurring in this one.
  • Pig: when used to describe a person in general, usually carries the connotation of messy or uncouth; when describing a woman, the word takes on a sexual meaning, as in 'a woman with sloppy morals'
  • Prude: This word was adopted from the French prude-femme, meaning 'a good or virtuous woman' a parallel to prud'homme - 'a brave man.' It was later used to refer to a woman who is overly priggish or modest.
  • Pussy: is now rarely used to refer to a cat; from Low German puse "vulva" or Old Norse puss "pocket, pouch"
  • Queen: from the Gothic German 'qino' then the Old English word 'cwene' which was their common word for 'woman' This gave rise to the early Middle English word 'quean' which meant 'woman' but was used as a 'term of disparagement or abuse... a hussy, harlot' and used sometimes today to mean a male homosexual. Related to the modern Swedish word 'kvinna', for woman. The ancients didn't have too much respect for queens.
  • Robot: from the Czech word 'robot' which means 'worker' In 1923, Karl Capek, a well-known, Czech, science-fiction writer at the time, wrote a futuristic thriller about a nightmarish scenario in which the machines have taken over (a la, the 'Terminator') and implanted circuitry in humans to make them into mindless zombies willing to serve them as workers or 'robots'
  • Salary; Salt: In the early days of Rome its soldiers were given a handful of salt each day. The salt ration was subsequently replaced by a sum of money allowing each man to buy his own, and relieving the commisariat of the trouble of transporting it. The money received was referred to as their 'salt money' (salarium in Latin).
  • Spinster: is an unmarried older woman. This word has a very negative connotation in modern usage, but used to mean simply 'one who spins.' As it was women who did this work, the word was often used to denote their profession and came into usage from the 1600s into the 1900s in legal documents to mean simply 'an unmarried woman.' It is interesting to note that the history of this word as documented by Barnhart ends here, without addressing the derogatory connotation the word has acquired during the last century.
  • Sycophant: from the Greek 'sykon' meaning 'fig' a sycophant was thus originally someone who makes figs appear. There are a few suggested etymologies: fig smuggling was illegal in ancient Greece, so a sycophant could have been a telltale for a reward; or, it could be from the shaking of a fig-tree, which moved the figs from the hidden heights to the ground where all could see it; or, it could be from 'the sign of the fig', which is the gesture of making a fist with the thumb in-between the index and middle fingers, which represented female genitalia;--this gesture was used to indicate an accusation of wrong-doing.
  • Tart: taken from the name of the sweet pastry, was originally used as a term of endearment, then for women who were sexually desirable, and now tfor women of loose morals.
  • Trollop: has always had a negative connotation, but not always a sexual one; in 1615 it meant simply 'a slovenly woman' but today means a woman who is promiscuous or vulgar, or a prostitute.
  • Utopia: Greek for 'no where'.
  • Victim: from the Latin 'victima', meaning, 'an animal destined to be sacrified'
  • Villain: from 'Villaneus', meaning, 'inhabitant of a villa' i.e., a 'peasant'
  • Wench: around the year 1300, was used simply to describe a girl or young woman. Today this word is most often used to mean 'a lewd woman' or a prostitute.
  • Wife: meant 'woman' in Old English times (as in the original sense of mid-wife, literally a 'with-woman'). It narrowed to mean 'woman of humble rank or of low employment, especially one selling commodities of various sorts' Finally, of course, it shifted back to the neutral meaning 'married woman, spouse'
  • Woman: From the Old English 'Wyfmon' meaning, 'wife'

Source: and Steven Morgan Friedman


{Tanya Pretorius' Bookmarks: Infoholism, Etymological curiosities}


Creative Commons Licensespacerarmadilly logo
The parts of this website that are my own work,
are licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Tanya Pretorius' Bookmarks | []


About me

Email me
South Africa