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Etymology Is Cool
Etymology Is Cool

Etymology Is Cool

I love etymology. In fact, I have an etymology app on my phone.

It’s fascinating knowing where words came from and how they developed, and it sometimes helps grasp or remember the meaning of a word.

I sometimes use it when teaching. It’s helped people get, for example, mitosis vs. meiosis, and some stages of the cell cycle: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase. I often use it when teaching “parallel” and “transversal.” I love adding that language, concept, and historical context to the lesson.

Etymology also comes up in scientific names of plants and animals.

The Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbirds are, in the Latin binomial system, Mimus polyglottos, so named, of course, because it mimics the song of many other birds. They are polyglots, like some humans who can talk different languages.

One I heard in Palo Duro Canyon had different calls than I’ve heard in Houston TX.

The “polygottos” comes from

1650s, of persons, “using many languages;” 1670s, of books, “containing many languages,” perhaps via Medieval Latin polyglottus, from Greek polyglōttos”speaking many languages,” literally “many-tongued,” from polys “many” (from PIE root *pele- (1) “to fill”) + glōtta, Attic variant of glōssa “language,” literally “tongue” (see gloss (n.2)). As a noun from 1640s, “one who speaks or writes many languages.”

and the Mimus comes from

”acting as a mime, practicing imitation, consisting of or resulting from mimicry,” 1590s, from Latin mimicus, from Greek mimikos “of or pertaining to mimes,” verbal adjective from mimeisthai “to mimic, represent, imitate, portray,” in art, “to express by means of imitation,” from mimos “mime”

As Harper Lee wrote in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird:

Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Other birds can do some mimicking, too: Blue Jays, for example, can mimic Red-shouldered Hawk calls, and other Hawk calls.

The Spinybacked Orbweaver

And a favorite of name of mine is Gasteracantha cancriformis, the Spinybacked Orbweaver.

The genus name Gasteracantha derives from

the Greek words γαστήρ (gaster, “belly”) and ἄκανθα (acantha, “thorn”), while the specific epithet cancriformis derives from the Latin words cancer (“crab“) and forma (“shape, form, appearance”).

The “gaster” is from

Greek gastēr (genitive gastros) “stomach, paunch, belly,” often figurative of gluttony or greed, also “womb, uterus; sausage,” by dissimilation from *graster, literally “eater, devourer,” from gran “to gnaw, eat,” from PIE root *gras- “to devour” (source also of Greek grastis “green fodder,” Latin gramen “fodder, grass,” Old English cærse “cress”).

And the “acanthus” derives from

type of tall herb or shrub native to the Mediterranean regions, 1660s, from Latin acanthus, name of the plant, from Greek akanthos, from akē “point, thorn” (from PIE root *ak- “be sharp, rise (out) to a point, pierce”) + anthos “flower” (see anther). So called for its large spiny leaves. A conventionalized form of the leaf is used in Corinthian capitals.

And that captures what the spider looks like: Gasteracantha cancriformis, a spider that is shaped like a crab and has a spiny belly. How cool is that?

Interesting how a word starts out meaning “to eat” then spins out a word meaning “belly.” But, of course, it makes sense conceptually. And interesting how a word starts out meaning “flower” then spins out a word meaning “thorn.”

The Question Mark

Then there’s the beautiful Question Mark butterfly, Latin Polygonia interrogationis. It is a species of the genus Comma.

The Polygonia, of course, means

in geometry, “a plane figure with numerous angles,” 1570s, from Late Latin polygonum, from Greek polygōnon, noun use of neuter of adjective polygōnos“many-angled,” from polys “many” (from PIE root *pele- (1) “to fill”) + -gōnos“angled,” from gōnia “angle, corner” (from PIE root *genu- (1) “knee; angle”).

Then for “interrogationis,” I will go with what they say for “interrogative,” rather than “interrogation.”

“asking or denoting a question,” c. 1500, from Late Latin interrogativus“pertaining to a question,” from interrogat-, past participle stem of Latin interrogare “to ask, question, inquire; interrogate judicially, cross-examine,” from inter “between” (see inter-) + rogare “to ask, to question,” apparently a figurative use of a PIE verb meaning literally “to stretch out (the hand),” from root *reg- “move in a straight line.” As a noun, “word implying a question,” 1520s. ”

The butterfly clearly has “many-angled” edges on its wings: it’s Polygonia. The “interrotationis” refers to the question mark-shaped marking on the underside of its wings.

And here a word meaning “move in a straight line” spins out a word meaning “to stretch out the hand” which in turn spins out a word meaning “to ask or question.” How cool is that?

As they say on Wikipedia about the genus of Commas:

Polygonia (from Greek πολύς — polys, “many”[1] and γωνία — gōnia, “angle”[2]) is a genus of butterflies with a conspicuous white mark on the underside of each hindwing, hence the common name comma. They also have conspicuous angular notches on the outer edges of their forewings, hence the other common name anglewingbutterflies.

You can see a “comma” vs. a “question mark” on the underside of the wings in Punctuation Butterflies: Comma and Question Mark by Leonard Weber, in Butterflies that Punctuate: The Eastern Comma and the Question Mark by Deb Platt, and in A Question Mark, a Comma, and a Question of Origin by Greg Dodge.

The Vulture

Black Vulture are Catharses atratus.

Turkey Vulture are Catharses aura.

From a source I lost the link to:

Vulture probably derives from a Latin word meaning “to tear.” Catharses derives from an ancient Greek word meaning “purifier.” Atratus derives from a word meaning “dressed in black.” Aura derives from an ancient Greek word meaning “air” or “breeze.” So a Catharses atratus is a (environmental) purifier clothed in black, and Catharses aura is a purifier of the air, or a cleansing breeze.

How beautiful and fitting is that? Vultures are important. They are ecological engineers and hygienists who work for free, don’t take vacations, train themselves, and love their jobs. Thank you!

And the Online Etymology Dictionary agrees. Vulture is from

late 14c., from Anglo-French vultur, Old French voutoirvoutre (Modern French vautour), from Latin vultur, earlier voltur, perhaps related to vellere “to pluck, to tear” (see svelte). Figurative sense is recorded from 1580s.

In “Indian vulture crisis” they say

By removing all carrion, vultures had helped decrease pollution, spread of diseases, and suppressed undesirable mammalian scavengers. The sudden collapse of the natural animal disposal system in India has had multiple consequences negatively impacting public health. A vulture’s metabolism is a true “dead-end” for pathogens, but dogs and rats become carriers of the pathogens. Without vultures, a large number of animal carcasses were left to rot posing a serious risk to human health by providing a potential breeding ground for infectious germs and proliferation of pests such as rats.

The diseases carried by these mammals from rotting carcasses are indirectly responsible for thousands of human deaths. The carcasses formerly eaten by vultures rot in village fields also contaminating water sources. The loss of vultures also resulted in a substantial increase in the population of feral dogs, whose bites are the most common cause of human rabies. The feral dog population in India increased by least 5 million, resulting in over 38 million additional dog bites and more than 47,000 extra deaths from rabies, costing $34 billion in economic impact. On average, it was estimated that human mortality rates increased by more than 4% during the period of 2000 to 2005, when vulture population reached the lowest levels.

On Wiktionary, they say Cathartes is from

Ancient Greek καθαρτής (kathartḗs, “purifier”).

The OED agrees. The related word “catharsis” comes from

1770, “a bodily purging” (especially of the bowels), from Latinized form of Greek katharsis “purging, cleansing,” from stem of kathairein “to purify, purge,” from katharos “pure, clear of dirt, clean, spotless; open, free; clear of shame or guilt; purified” (with most of the extended senses now found in Modern English clearcleanpure), which is of unknown origin.

The “aura” is

Borrowed from Latin aura (“a breeze, a breath of air, the air”), from Ancient Greek αὔρα (aúra, “breeze, soft wind”), from ἀήρ (aḗr, “air”). Doublet of eastausterair and aria.

The Online Etymology Dictionary takes the origin of “aura” back to Proto-Indo European (PIE)

from Latin aura “breeze, wind, the upper air,” from Greek aura “breath, cool breeze, air in motion” (from PIE *aur-, from root *wer- (1) “to raise, lift, hold suspended”).

Wiktionary says about The “atratus

ātrātus (feminine ātrātaneuter ātrātum); first/second-declension adjective

clothed in black (for mourning)


That’s 100% cool.

The Loblolly

In Loblolly Pine — Origin of the Name, Walter Reeves wrote:

Loblolly is a combination of lob, probably an onomatopoeia for the thick heavy bubbling of cooking porridge, and lolly, an old British dialect word for ‘broth, soup, or any other food boiled in a pot.’ Thus, loblolly originally denoted thick porridge or gruel, especially that eaten by sailors on board ship. In the southern United States, the word is used to mean ‘a mud hole; a mire,’ a sense derived from an allusion to the consistency of porridge. The name loblolly has become associated with several varieties of trees as well, all of which favor wet bottomlands or swamps in the Gulf and South Atlantic states.

On Wiktionary, they say loblolly is from

Yorkshire dialect lob (“boil”, literally “bubbling up”) + dialect lolly (“broth”).

And on the Online Etymology dictionary, they say loblolly is from

“thick gruel,” especially as a typical rustic dish, also the word for a nautical medicinal remedy, 1590s, probably from lob in some sense (or perhaps it is imitative of bubbling and boiling) + lolly, an obsolete Devonshire dialect word for “broth, soup, food boiled in a pot.” Compare lobscouse (1706), another obscure word for a sailor’s dish. Meaning “loutish person, bumpkin” is from c. 1600. Loblolly-pine “swamp-pine, an inferior lumber-producing tree growing in the U.S. South” is from 1760.

Funny that “loblolly” is from two words each originally meaning, basically, soup. It’s like the “soup-soup” Pine or the “mud-mud” Pine.

Another Source

Lots of good etymology of mammal names can be found in “The Mammals of Argentina: An Etymology” by Janet K. Braun and Michael A. Mares, both at the University of Oklahoma. Some examples:

Chironectes minimus (Zimmermann, 1780) chir — cheir (Gr), the hand + nect — nektris (Gr), a swimmer (Palmer, 1904; Gotch, 1979) minimus (L), smallest (Gotch, 1979) The genus name refers to the webbed hind feet, which are adapted for swimming (Palmer, 1904); this species was originally compared to an otter and found to be much smaller (Gotch, 1979).

Didelphis albiventris Lund, 1840 di- (Gr) a prefix meaning two + delph-delphys (Gr), the womb (Palmer, 1904; Gotch, 1979) alb — albus (L), white+ ventr — genitive ventris (L), the belly. The genus name refers to the marsupium or pouch as a secondary womb in which the young develop after birth (Palmer, 1904; Gotch, 1979). The species name refers to the white belly.

Etymology: Dig In

Fascinating how words develop conceptually and historically. I love that. It adds more interest to everything, it adds more context to everything we talk about, it adds richness to our experience and our thought. It helps us remember words and understand concepts.

In addition to the sources used, quoted, and linked to already, you can dig into words, language, meaning, history, origins, context in sources like these:

Building a Better Vocabulary by Kevin Flanagan

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter


The etymology of “serene” is

mid-15c., of a day, “clear, fair, calm,” from Old French serein and directly from Latin serenus”peaceful, calm, clear, unclouded” (of weather); figuratively “cheerful, glad, tranquil”(from PIE root *ksero- “dry,” source also of Greek xeros“dry, arid;” see xerasia).

In English, the word has been applied to persons, characters, etc. since 1630s: “tranquil, unruffled.” Related: Serenely. Middle English also had serenous (mid-15c.), of places, “having clear, fair weather.”

so here, enjoy:



On Wikipedia, they say of Proto-Indo European language:

PIE is hypothesized to have been spoken as a single language from approximately 4500 BCE to 2500 BCE[3] during the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age, though estimates vary by more than a thousand years. According to the prevailing Kurgan hypothesis, the original homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans may have been in the Pontic–Caspian steppe of eastern Europe. The linguistic reconstruction of PIE has provided insight into the pastoral culture and patriarchal religionof its speakers.[4]

As speakers of Proto-Indo-European became isolated from each other through the Indo-European migrations, the regional dialects of Proto-Indo-European spoken by the various groups diverged, as each dialect underwent shifts in pronunciation (the Indo-European sound laws), morphology, and vocabulary. Over many centuries, these dialects transformed into the known ancient Indo-European languages. From there, further linguistic divergence led to the evolution of their current descendants, the modern Indo-European languages.

PIE is believed to have had an elaborate system of morphology that included inflectional suffixes (analogous to English child, child’s, children, children’s) as well as ablaut (vowel alterations, as preserved in English sing, sang, sung, song) and accent. PIE nominals and pronouns had a complex system of declension, and verbs similarly had a complex system of conjugation. The PIE phonologyparticlesnumerals, and copula are also well-reconstructed.

Asterisks are used as a conventional mark of reconstructed words, such as *wódr̥, *ḱwn̥tós, or *tréyes; these forms are the reconstructed ancestors of the modern English words waterhound, and three, respectively.

Scholars have proposed multiple hypotheses about when, where, and by whom PIE was spoken. The Kurgan hypothesis, first put forward in 1956 by Marija Gimbutas, has become the most popular.[a] It proposes that the original speakers of PIE were the Yamnaya culture associated with the kurgans (burial mounds) on the Pontic–Caspian steppe north of the Black Sea.[22]: 305–7 [23] According to the theory, they were nomadic pastoralists who domesticated the horse, which allowed them to migrate across Europe and Asia in wagons and chariots.[23] By the early 3rd millennium BCE, they had expanded throughout the Pontic–Caspian steppe and into eastern Europe.[24]

Other theories include the Anatolian hypothesis,[25] which posits that PIE spread out from Anatolia with agriculture beginning c. 7500–6000 BCE,[26] the Armenian hypothesis, the Paleolithic continuity paradigm, and the indigenous Aryans theory. The latter two of these theories are not regarded as credible within academia.[27][28] Out of all the theories for a PIE homeland, the Kurgan and Anatolian hypotheses are the ones most widely accepted, and also the ones most debated against each other.[29] Following the publication of several studies on ancient DNA in 2015, Colin Renfrew, the original author and proponent of the Anatolian hypothesis, has accepted the reality of migrations of populations speaking one or several Indo-European languages from the Pontic steppe towards Northwestern Europe.[30][31]


Humans have been in some places, e.g., England, for maybe 40,000 years. Read, for example, First Britons by Lisa Hendry or An Introducton to Prehistoric England (Before AD 43) or Prehistoric Britain.

So, PIE ain’t the end of the story.

In Pre-Indo-European languages, they say

The Pre-Indo-European languages are any of several ancient languages, not necessarily related to one another, that existed in Prehistoric EuropeAsia MinorAncient Iran and Southern Asia before the arrival of speakers of Indo-European languages. The oldest Indo-European language texts are Hittite and date from the 19th century BC in Kültepe(modern eastern Turkey), and while estimates vary widely, the spoken Indo-European languages are believed to have developed at the latest by the 3rd millennium BC (see Proto-Indo-European Urheimat hypotheses). Thus, the Pre-Indo-European languages must have developed earlier than or, in some cases, alongside the Indo-European languages that ultimately displaced almost all of them.[1][2][3]

A handful of the pre-Indo-European languages are still extant: in Europe, Basqueretains a localised strength, with fewer than a million native speakers, but the Dravidian languages remain very widespread in the Indian subcontinent, with over 200 million native speakers (the four major languages being TeluguTamilKannada and Malayalam). Northwest, Northeast, and Kartvelian languages are still intact, with the former having the least language security of the three pre-indo European Caucasian language groups. Some of the pre-Indo-European languages are attested only as linguistic substrates in Indo-European languages. In much of Western Asia (but not Iran and swathes of Turkey), the pre-Indo-European Semitic languages and language isolates were never supplanted by Indo-European languages.

Michael helps students, teachers, and business professionals in academic subjects and professional fields, and in critical thinking, logic, and root-cause analysis. He has a B.S. in Mathematics, a B.A. in Philosophy, and a Texas Teacher Certificate (Secondary Mathematics), and is a MovNat Certified Level 2 Fitness Trainer. He studies the history and philosophy of physics, tracing out its logical development step by step from ancient times to modern, and has studied some history and philosophy of chemistry and mathematics. He has decades of experience with students in public schools, homeschools, elite private schools; decades of experience studying philosophy and logic; and decades of successful experience teaching logic and thinking skills. He teaches and tutors physics, chemistry, math, SAT/ACT prep, sentence diagramming, philosophy, fitness, logic, critical thinking, root-cause analysis, and epistemology. You may find him at Gold AcademyTotal Human FitnessLinkedIn, and Outschool, and on YouTube @GoldAcademy and @TotalHumanFitness. He also posts nature videos @TrueToNature and nature pictures on Flickr.

(Mockingbird image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mockingbird#/media/File:Mimus_polyglottos1.jpg)

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