About 20 percent of the world’s population speaks English – that’s 1.5 billion people!
This is quite a leap from how the language first began to evolve at around 500 A.D., when several Germanic tribes settled in Britain. What started as a combination of dialects is now used worldwide as a common means of communication – but that doesn’t mean all the English words and phrases we use today are the same as what were spoken hundreds of years ago.
Here are five examples of English words that had surprising beginnings:
Of course, this is short for telephone, but did you know that telephone is the combination of two Greek words? Phon in Greek means “sound”, while tele means “far away”. Phon actually appears in many other English words. If you’re a student, you’ve probably studied homophones, which are words that sound (phon) the same (homo) but have different spelling.
Before the 14th century, the word “happy” in the United Kingdom – particularly Scotland and Wales – had a slightly different meaning, describing things and people that are lucky. However, the way English speakers used it over the next several centuries changed to explain that uplifting feeling we get when something good happens.
The word “doctor” is now claimed by medical practitioners and academics, but of course only one of them is allowed to prescribe us medicine or perform surgery. However, more than 700 years ago, the term was mostly used in reference to teachers, particularly those who teach theology (the study of God and religion). It comes from the Latin word docēre, which means “to teach.”
It’s easy to assume that “helicopter” – adopted from the French word hélicoptère coined in 1861 – is a combination of heli and copter. However, the true origins of both iterations are Greek and merges helico (spiral) with pter (one with wings). You may know another word with pter in it: pterodactyl.
Bonfires usually conjure up images of camping, outdoor celebrations and a sense of togetherness. Who would have thought that the term has a much more sinister beginning? It took more than 500 years for bonfire to evolve from its original form, bonefire – that’s right, as in a fire of bones. In 15th century England, these open fires were used to burn bones, sometimes as part of a celebration, and other times to get rid of the remains of murdered heretics, or someone who didn’t follow the majority religion at the time.
Were you surprised by the origins of some of these words? But like most things, language never stays the same, so the words listed above may have drastically different meanings in 50 years’ time!