Colorful flourishes often hide in everyday words. Here are a few the Word Hound’s favorites.
In Latin, sinister means left. Latin for right is dexter. In the old days, people were superstitious about left-handedness. Things appearing from the left (like flights of birds) portended misfortune; sinister acquired a sense of harmful, unfavorable, adverse. We still speak of sinister motives. Compare
dexter and its derivative, dexterous, meaning skilled or deft with the hands.
—an example of the hazards of presuming one can determine a word origin based on the way it sounds. If you thought the rein in reindeer was for the reins Santa uses to guide his eight-animal hitch, you were wrong. The critter first appears in Middle English around 1400 (or earlier) as rayne-dere. Though the dere part is an ancestor of our modern word, deer, the rein is hreinn, an Old Norse word for animal and would probably have been understood to mean
Originally meant placed on the knees. In Ancient Rome, a father legally claimed his newborn child by sitting in front of his family and placing his child on his knee.
From the medieval Italian words for bad, mal and air, aria, which described the odor rising from the swamps around Rome in Summer, believed to be the cause of fevers.
On the subject of air, this is from the French for good air. In the Middle Ages, you judged a person’s health partly by the way he or she smelled. Those who gave off good air were thought to be happier and better off.
From the Latin senex, meaning old—related to senile.
From the French Ped de gru, which means crane’s foot— the /|\ symbol used to denote succession in a genealogical table.
The Word Hound welcomes your questions, comments & pet words.