Word Origins And Interesting Facts

The following list is some of the words from our Reading Program. If you are an Academic Associates Reading Instruction Specialist, you may find stories about the words that would be of interest to your clients. If you are not a client or Instructor keep in mind that even First Grade students who complete our program can read these words. There is no program like Academic Associates. Sign up today!


ACCESS - developed, along with other words, from the Latin "cede" which means to "yield," "move" or "withdraw." If you access a room or a file it means that entry to the room as been yielded.

ACCORD - comes from a Latin term which refers to the heart. If two people are in accord, their hearts are in agreement.

ACE - gets its name from a ancient Roman coin called the "as." In Latin "as" also meant "one" or "unity" and so it entered English as the "score of one at dice."

ADD - comes from the Latin "addo." "Ad" is "to" and "do" means "put" so we put together things. The use of the word "add" in its math sense did not start until the early 16th century.

ALLEY - like many words connected with roads, came from an action word. In this case, it comes from the French word meaning "to go."

APE - was the only English word for non-human primates until the early 16th century when the word "monkey" was added. It then began to take on its current more restricted meaning.

AUGUST - is named after Octavian Caesar, nephew of Julius Caesar. He is better known as Augustus - the official title given him by the Senate. Although Augustus was born in September, he selected the month we call August because it was when his career had been successful.

AX - is spelled as "axe" by the British although it is spelled without the "e" by the Americans. The spelling with the "e" first appeared in the late 14th century.


BEND - appears at first to refer to tying especially to pulling bow-strings tight causing the tension on the bow. This, naturally, made the bow curve and the late 13th century "bend" came to refer more to "curve" than to "tie."

BERRY - originally referred only to grapes. It was used that way in an AD 1000 translation of Deuteronomy 23:24 in the Bible which read, "If you go into your friend's vineyard, eat the berries." Later it came to have the wider meaning that we have today.

BICYCLE - means "two-wheeled" and the word came to English from French. The first English use was in the Sept. 7, 1868 edition of the Daily News. Until the introduction of air-filled tires in 1880s, bicycles were also nicknamed "bone-shakers."

BLAME - and "blaspheme" both originally come from the same Greek word meaning "to say disrespectful things about." Blame has changed to mean more "accuse" or "reproach" while "blaspheme" retains more of its original meaning.

BOUGH - is an old word which is found in many Indo-European languages. Only in English has it come to mean "branch." In most other languages it relates more to things like arm, forearm, or shoulder.

BRAVE - is only of those words which has almost totally changed meaning. Today it means "courageous" but it comes from a Latin word which means "uncivilized, savage, wild."

BUT - originally meant "outside." However, in Old English it quickly came to mean "without" or "except."


CAB - is a short from of "cabriolet." The Italians used the word "capriolare" to mean "jump in the air." Since the suspension of the light horse-drawn carriages was so springy that it made it look like it was jumping up and down, the French borrowed the word [first as a verb] making it "cabriolet" and applying it to the carriage itself.

CANDY - comes from the Sanskrit word "khanda." It meant "a piece of something." Before Sugar Candy was shortened to just candy, it mean a piece or lump of sugar.

CHRYSANTHEMUM - comes from a Greek word which means "gold flower."

CLAM - was first named in Scotland in the 16th century probably because its two shells closed like a clamp.

CLASS - comes from the Latin "classes" which originally meant simply the Roman army. A 6th century BC Roman king, Servius Tullius, divided the army into six classes based on the amount of land a person had. Later it was based on their monetary wealth. This developed into our ideas of social class.

COBWEB - used to be spelled "coppeweb" because "coppe" was the word for spider.

COCONUT - was named by Spanish and Portuguese explorers who thought the three holes made it look like a human face. "Coco" means grinning face. The English made it "coconut" in 1613 [first recorded usage].

CODE - used to mean "a system of laws" and it is still used in that way. In the early 19th century the meaning of "a secret message" was added.

COFFEE - was discovered about the year 850 by a goatheader named Kaldi. He noticed this goats acting strangely and then saw it was because they were eating certain berries. He tried them himself and was exciting by the effect it had on him. It did not take the Arabs long to figure out how to dry and boil the berries in what they called "qahwe." Turkey used this brew and it travelled to France to give her "cafe" from which our word "coffee" comes.

COLONEL - began from the Latin "columna" which meant "pilliar." From there it went to "colonna" which is a "column," which then became "colonello" who was the chief commander of a regiment [i.e a column of troops]. Now you know why "colonel" is not spelled "kernel."

CRAZY - in the 16th century meant "full of cracks." Writers of that time would write things like, "a crazy pitcher unable to hold water" and " a crazy ship about to sink."

CREDIT - comes from the Latin "credo" which means "I believe." When you have good credit people believe in you.


DAFT - originally meant "mild" or "gentle." In late Middle English it developed it current meaning of "stupid" or "dumb."

DATE - as in the fruit, comes from the Latin word for "finger" because dates look like small fingers. The date palm is common in the Mediterranean area and was introduced into Mexico and other places in the Americas in the 18th century by Spanish missionaries.

DAY - has as its main idea "burning heat." It comes from the same root as the Sanskrit word "dah" which means "burn."

DICE - is a game almost as old as time. Our word comes from a Latin word which means "given" in the sense of being thrown. Cheating at dice is nothing new and even today we find hundreds of "loaded" dice in Roman ruins.

DINOSAUR - means "terrible lizard" although they are not closely related to lizards. The term was first used around 1840, which is why ancient writings never use the word "dinosaur." It is possible that words like "monster" or "dragon" were used in older writings to mean dinosaur. The Book of Job in the Bible may have two descriptions of dinosaurs.

DOFF - comes from the informal expression "do off," so to doff one's hat is to take it off or tip it for a lady.

DOLL - is a short form of Dorothy. In the 18th century to came to refer to a toy baby.

DOME - was originally a house from the Latin "domus" which also gives us "domestic."

DOT - was only used in writing one time in Old English as far as is known. It disappeared completely from written texts between 11th and 16th centuries and then reappeared meaning " a small lump." It took on its modern meaning in the 17th century.

DUKE - is a title that was brought by the Normans to England and comes from a Latin word meaning "leader."

DUN - although dun is a greyish brown colour, it can also refer to a debt-collector. In this case it is a short form of the word "dunkirk" which was used in the 17th century to refer to privateers who attacked enemy shipping. They were "dunkirks" in the beginning because they sailed from the port of Dunkirk in France to attack British shipping. From this idea of piracy then developed the thought of the unwanted debt collector.

DWELL - has changed meanings dramatically. It began by meaning "confuse" or "lead astray." Then it developed into the idea of "hinder" or "delay." From that came the idea of lingering somewhere, which is now, of course, our living somewhere.

DYE - until the 19th century was commonly spelled "die." This led to confusion into to which of the two meaning of "die" was being used. In the 19th century the spelling of "dye" became popular and the confusion disappeared.


ECHO - may have developed from the Greek personification of "sound." This developed into the mythological mountain nymph called Echo. She was said to have faded away for love until only her voice was left.

ELF - Elves were originally in legends as powerful, magical beings who could greatly help or hurt human beings. The modern idea which limits them to small, mischievous beings probably began in the 16th century.


FALL - in the sense of autumn, is used only in American English and came from the phrase "fall of the leaf."

FAME - come from the Latin word for "report" and means what people say about you. A reputation is longer lasting because it means what people think about you.

FAN - as in hockey fan or the fan of a movie star is just the short form of the word "fanatic."

FATE - is the ruling power in all ancient pagan religions. It means that the gods have spoken and it must be so regardless of the will of man.

FAZE - is an old used used before Anglo-Saxon times but is now used mainly in American English.

FINE - comes from the Old French "fin" which means "end." For example, paying a fine is the end of the matter.

FLAT - is also the British word for "apartment."

FLEET - comes from an Old English word meaning "it floats." For example, a fleet of ships or a fleeting glance is something that "floats" by. London, England's famous "Fleet Street" received its name from the stream floats beneath it into the Thames.

FOND - originally meant "foolish" and the current meaning probably developed in the 16th century from the idea of foolishly showing excessive love or liking.

FREEDOM - came to Old English through an Old Norse term which meant "love and peace."

FUN - began by meaning "a trick, hoax, or practical joke." In the 18th century it took on its present idea of "amusement."


GHOST - in Old English it simply meant a "spirit" or "soul." It was not until the 14th century that it came to mean the "spirit of a dead person." The spelling with the "h" appeared in the 15th century and may have been inspired by the Flemish "gheest."

GIRAFFE - was originally called a "camelopard" because people thought it looked like a mixture of a camel and a leopard.

GOLF - may have been invented in Holland although that in not certain. It was soon a popular came in Scotland. King James I outlawed it because men were preferring it over archery - which was an important skill in war. Mary, Queen of Scots, like golf so much that she was seen playing a few rounds several days after the murder of her husband.

GRAPE - as a word came into England with William of Normandy in the 11th century. It replaced the English word "winberige." Grape originally mean the vine hook used to gather the grapes, which is also where the word "grapple" comes from.

GYP - means "cheat." In the 1400's a group of brown-skinned people appeared in Europe. They had no jobs, homes, or recognizable religion. They earned their living by crafty trading. Some people began to call them Egyptians, but that was changed to Gypsies from which our word "gyp" comes.


HOTEL - and "hospital" both come from the same Latin word meaning "where guests are received," in Old French the different words with different meaning began to develop and then were taken into English.

HULL - originally had the idea of "covering" or "concealing" and meant peapod - the pod covers the peas. In the 15th century it came to refer to the main part of a ship perhaps because it looks like an open peapod.

HYENA - comes from the Greek language and originally meant, "like a hog."


IF - in Old English was spelled "gif" and pronounced "yif."

INVESTIGATE - originally meant "looking for footprints." It comes from the Latin "in" [in] and "vestigo" [follow a footprint].


JAY - refers first to a specific bird, but in the USA it was used in slang to refer to a foolish person. So a "jaywalker" is a person who foolishly [or illegally] crosses a road.

JAZZ - it is uncertain where this word came from, perhaps a West African nation. Its first recorded use was in 1909.


KEEP - not much is known about the origins of this word, but it began to appear in writing around the year 1000.


LACE - at first meant a snare. It then developed into cords that hold things together by being tied, like shoe laces. Finally, it came to mean the material we call "lace" today.

LAD - first meant a male low on the social ladder - a servant - but by the 14th century it was in the process of just meaning "a young man."

LIEUTENANT - comes from two French words "lieu" [in place] and "tenant" [holding]. Originally a Lieutenant was holding the place of another officer.


MAY - is believed to be named after the mother of the god Hermes, Maia. The Romans considered it unlucky to be married in the month of May because of two celebrations which happened in the month: the feast of Bona Dea who was the goddess of chastity and the festival of the unhappy dead.

MILE - comes from a Latin word meaning "a thousand." The Roman mile was the length of a thousand paces which is about 100 yards shorter than the English mile.

MITTEN - literally means "half a glove" coming ultimately from a Latin word which means "cut off in the middle."

MOB - comes from the Latin "mobile vulgus" which means "fickle crowd." It was shortened to "mobile" and then at the beginning of the 18th Century shortened again to "mob."

MOLE - as a "traitor working undercover" was beginning to be used in the 17th century but was not made popular until the British espionage writer, John le Carre, used it in his books.

MOP - probably comes from the Latin word "mappa" meaning cloth. Over 200 years ago in England house-hold servants who needed jobs would form an annual parade [called a mop fair] walking through the streets carrying mops as a symbol of their trade. English housewives would look them over and then hire the ones they wanted.

MUSIC - comes from the Greek "mousike" which meant "belonging to the Muses" who were the Greek goddess of culture.

MUTT - is a short form of "mutton-head" [a dumb person] even through we now apply it to dogs.


NEIGHBOR - is "your friend on the next farm." It comes from an Old English word which meant "near-by farmer."

NOON - received its name originally by being the ninth hour of the day.

NUN - has gone through many changes in its history, but it traces back to the Late Latin word "nonna" which meant "a child's nurse."

NYLON - was first used in 1928 when its inventors made up the word using the element "on" [as in cotton] and added a random syllable "nyl."


ODD - meant "one left over from two" or "not divisible by two" when English borrowed it from Old Norse. The modern meaning [as in "strange" or "the odd one out"] did not develop until the late 16th century.

OX - was the name used by the Saxons, but by the time it ended up on the table of the conquering Normans it was called by the fancy name which came from the French language: Beef.

OYSTER - comes from a Greek word meaning "hard shell."

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PAIN - was originally connected with punishment as in "on pain of death." Only later did it come to mean suffering in general.

PEN - comes from the Latin "penna" meaning feather. Originally pens were made from feathers. "Penna" became the Old French "penne" and then the English "pen."

PINE CONES - were originally called pineapples but in the mid-17th century it came to refer to the tropical fruit which we know by that name today.

PLOT - has two different origins based on two different meanings. The first is the Old English "plot" which was "an area of ground" which then developed the meaning of "ground plan" or "diagram" which in turn [in the 17th century] led to the "events in a story." The second meaning comes from the Old French "complot" which was a "secret scheme." The "com" was soon dropped in English leaving it as "plot" as well.

POPE - comes from the Greek work "papas" which is the child's name for "father." It developed into the Latin "papa" which in the 5th century onwards was applied to the bishop of Rome - the leader, "father," of the Rome Catholic Church.

PUPPY - was originally a toy dog, but towards the end of the 16th century it came to mean a young dog.

PYRAMIDs - were the tombs of the ancient Pharaohs. They first began to take their famous shape in 2600 BC. The biggest pyramid was completed about 2580 BC. It is estimated that it took 100,000 men 20 years to build it. It contains 2,300,000 slabs of granite each with an average weight of 2 1/2 tons.


QUILT - originally meant "mattress" but later developed to be the covering to lay under. In the med-16th century it took on the more specific meaning we have today.

QUOTE - comes from a Latin word meaning "how many." The Latin verb form, which meant "number," was used of the system of marking sections of manuscripts with numbers as reference points [like chapters and verses in the Bible]. The English changed it to "quote" and by the 16th century were using it for citing or referring to the works themselves.


RABBIT - replaced the name "cony" in the 18th century.

RAGE - comes from a Latin word meaning madness and fury. It also gives us our word "rabies." In fact, in French the word "rage" means both anger and rabies.

ROUND - comes to us from Latin, through Old French, to English. The original Latin word simply meant "like a wheel."


SANDWICH - gets its name from John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich in England in the 18th Century. He was given to vices, one of which was gambling. During one 24-hour gambling session he refused to stop for meals, but demanded to be served roast beef placed between two pieces of bread...and the sandwich was born.


TAPER - can trace its beginning back to the Latin word "papyrus" which meant "wick" because the wicks in ancient days was made from the pith of the papyrus which grew in Egypt. Taper then came to be applied to candles which were thinner on one end, i.e. they tapered off or grew thinner on one end.

TATTOO - was originally used as a signal on the drums for the closing of the bars. It came from the Dutch "taptoe" which meant "the tap is closed." It was later used in the military to warn the men it was time to go to quarters. The word "tattoo" as used in the modern reference to skin markings came from Polynesia through the writings of Captain Cook.

TIRE - was common in Old English but meant more "come to an end" than "weary." It disappeared from English for a while and then returned in the 14th century.

TOP - comes from a prehistoric Germanic word which appears to have meant the "tuft of hair on the top of the head."

TRADE - comes from the Old English word "trod" because salesmen in doing their trading had to walk many miles.

TREE - originally referred only to the oak, but later came to be more general in meaning.

TRIBE - comes from the Latin "tribes" which meant "a division of the Roman people." The "tri" [three] part probably referred to the three beginning tribes of Rome: the Tities, the Ramnes and the Luceres.

TULIPs - look a little like a turban and comes from the Turkish word which means "turban."


USURY - comes from Medieval Latin and meant "use of money lent" i.e. interest, although the Hebrew word translated "usury" in the Bible does not refer to interest in general, but to interest taken on loans to poor Hebrews.


VAN - is a shortened version of "caravan."

VERY - originally just meant "true." It did not come to be used in its modern sense [as in very important] until the 15th century.

VIVID - comes from a Latin word meaning "life." A vivid description is a description full of life.

VOTE - comes from a Latin word meaning "a vow or wish."


WRITE - first meant "to scratch" as to scratch marks on birch bark or other objects.


XENON - comes from the Greek "xenos" meaning "strange." Sir William Ramsay, its discoverer, named it in 1898. It was a strange gas.


YES - is probably a combination of the Old English "gea" [yea] and "swa" [so] to mean "be it so."


ZOOLOGY - is the combination of the Greek "zoion" [animal] and "ology" [study or science]. Looking at how this word was made we can understand why the "oo" is not making the Long U 2 sound.

Resource Materials
Dictionary Of Word Origins, John Ayto, Arcade Publishing, 1990
Word Origins And Their Romantic Stories, Wilfred Funk, Litt.D., Grosset & Dunlap, 1950
Words From History, Isaac Asimov, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968

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