Word origins: 10 English words and where they came from

Word origins: 10 English words and where they came from

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated May 11, 2022

Have you ever wondered about where certain words come from? 

Etymology, the study of word origins, describes what a word’s roots are, when it was first used and how it’s evolved over time. Whether words are old or new, they can all be traced back to a starting point. 

Learning etymology is not only fascinating in a general interest sense; it’s also useful when learning a language. Knowing a word’s origins can help you make connections between other words with similar roots, allowing you to learn and build your vocabulary more easily. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the surprising etymology of 10 well-known words, including definitions and examples. 

  1. Sandwich
  2. Picnic
  3. Clue
  4. Avocado
  5. Whiskey
  6. Nightmare
  7. Nice
  8. Ketchup
  9. Soccer
  10. Cocktail

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1. Sandwich

What it means: A light meal usually consisting of two pieces of bread with filling, such as meat, cheese or vegetables, in between

Where it comes from: There are various beliefs about the roots of the word “sandwich.” Regardless, it’s commonly agreed that it was named after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, in the 18th century.

John Montagu was either at a gaming table for 24 hours or working long hours at his desk, and sustained himself by eating beef between pieces of toast. And the sandwich was born!

Example: Most people think of sandwiches as lunch food, but I like to eat them for breakfast.  

2. Picnic

What it means: An outing in which a meal is packed and eaten outdoors

Where it comes from: While the word’s origins aren’t 100% definitive, it seems as though it came from the French words piquer, which means “to peck” or “to pick” and nique, “a small amount.”

The word pique-nique was used in France as far back as the late 1600s. The first picnics in the 17th century, however, were elaborate indoor dinners. The picnic wasn’t moved outdoors until the early 1800s (which is when the word first appeared in the English language).

Example: On nice days, we like to take some snacks and drinks down to the beach, lay a blanket down and have a picnic on the sand. 

3. Clue

What it means: A piece of information that helps someone solve a crime or mystery

Where it comes from: Originally, this word was spelled “clew,” which was “a ball of thread or yarn.” It’s derived from the Old English cliwen or cleowen, and the Dutch kluwen. It began to appear in people’s vocabularies more frequently in the 17th century. 

But what does yarn have to do with the word “clue” as we know it? Well, in various myths and legends, a ball of thread or yarn helps a person find their way through a maze—much like a clue helps lead you to the answer to a mystery. 

Example: I don’t know who stole my bicycle, but I bet that footprint outside my door is a clue!

4. Avocado

What it means: A fruit with dark green or purple skin, smooth, light-green flesh and a large pit

Where it comes from: This delicious toast topping originates from Central America and Mexico. When the Nahua people discovered them around 500 BC, they named them āhuacatl, or “testicles.” NPR suggests this is because of their shape and the fact that they were thought to be an aphrodisiac. 

Eventually, the Spanish conquerors changed the fruit’s name to aguacate. When they began being imported to the US, Americans had a hard time saying the name. They were briefly marketed as “alligator pears,” but in the end, the name “avocado” won out. 

Example: I think avocados are tasty on their own, but my favorite way to eat them is as guacamole on tortilla chips. 

5. Whiskey

What it means: A strong alcoholic beverage made of barley, rye or corn

Where it comes from: To understand the root of “whiskey,” we need to go all the way back to the 14th century. The Medieval Latin term aqua vitae—“water of life”—was coined at that time, referring to strong alcoholic spirits. 

Uisge beatha, the Gaelic translation of aqua vitae, popped up in the 18th century to refer to a drink made from barley. From there came the words whiskeybae and usquebaugh. “Whiskey” or “whisky” is a shortened version of those words.   

Example: My dad prefers rye, but my favorite type of whiskey is bourbon.

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6. Nightmare

What it means: A frightening dream

Where it comes from: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nightmare” originally comes from the Middle English word “mare,” an evil spirit that would sit on sleepers and suffocate them. Eventually, the word evolved into “nightmare” as we know it today: a bad dream that scares a sleeper. 

Example: I always have nightmares if I watch scary movies before I go to bed. 

7. Nice

What it means: Good, kind, pleasant or enjoyable

Where it comes from: “Nice” has had several meanings through the centuries. Since the word comes from the Latin word “nescius,” meaning “ignorant,” it’s no surprise that, in the 14th century, its definitions included “foolish” and “ignorant.” 

But “nice” has evolved since then. Through the years, the word has meant “fussy,” “delicate,” “precise” and “careful.” The 18th-century meanings, “agreeable” and “delightful,” and 19th-century definitions “kind” and “thoughtful” are much closer to the version of the word that we have today. 

Example: Her new boyfriend seems nice, but he’s not very interesting or exciting.

8. Ketchup

What it means: A sweet, tangy table condiment made of tomatoes

Where it comes from: Word has it that “ketchup” could be derived from the Chinese word koechiap, a pickled fish sauce used for seasoning dishes. In the 17th century, the English discovered the sauce and tried to recreate it using a variety of ingredients like mushrooms and oysters. Eventually, English settlers brought mushroom ketchup to the US. In 1801, there was a breakthrough when tomato was added to the sauce.

Example: When I was a child, I would only eat my dinner if it was covered in ketchup.

9. Soccer

What it means: A game played with two teams of 11 players, two nets and a round ball that cannot be touched by hand

Where it comes from: Would you believe that the word “soccer” actually has English rather than American origins?

Today’s version of soccer is believed to have been born in 1863 when England’s Football Association published official rules for the game. At that time, the sport, which was the most popular in the country, was called “association football.” 

The name was eventually shortened to “assoccer” (from the word “association”); it was then refined even further to “soccer” or “socker.” While the English eventually favored the word “football,”, “soccer was adopted by US players.

Example: Some people like hockey, but I prefer soccer. All you need is a ball and a few players, and you can have a game anywhere!

10. Cocktail

What it means: An alcoholic drink made of one or more liquors and other ingredients

Where it comes from: There are several explanations about the origins of the word “cocktail”. However, the following is one of the most widely accepted explanations.

Originally, “cocktail” described a horse with a docked tail that was raised up like a cock’s (rooster’s) rather than hanging down. These horses were not purebred—instead, they were mixed. So, it’s said that a drink that was mixed was called a cocktail.

Example: When I was in Peru, I had a delicious cocktail called a Pisco sour. It was made of an alcohol called pisco, lime, egg white and sugar. 


Learn word origins to boost your English practice

As you can see, the etymology of words can be really interesting and even unexpected. Learning word origins will help you grow your vocabulary as you learn common roots. On top of that, learning these wild word stories will add some fun to your English review!  

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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and son, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.

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