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What is an etymology?

By Memrise Blog

Hello! I’m Katrina and I’m in charge of researching the etymologies of English words here at Memrise.

Etymologies are the histories of words: the stories of where they come from, and how they

came to mean what they now do.

Etymologies are a great tool for learning words, because they have intrinsic value and the same etymology often accounts for several words. Take for example the word ‘right’.

Right means good, correct, and can also, of course, mean the side of your body that points east if you are turned northwards.

The right hand has in very many cultures come to symbolize what is good, skillful and right in human life. The poor left hand, meanwhile, has historically signified the opposite. It is extraordinary now to think that people were once accused of witch-craft and burned at the stake on account of left-handedness; that till very recently it was common for them to have their left hand tied under their school desks to deter them from using it. Even today, left-handers are still routinely excluded from psychology experiments.

Knowledge of this preposterous prejudice is not only interesting in itself, but it helps decipher many words in our language- the word sinister for example.

You might know from studying languages such as Latin or French, or from using Memrise, that sinister in Latin means left.

Because left is associated with the bad, the definition of sinister in English is giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen.

Ambidextrous, meanwhile, comes from the Latin, ‘ambi’ meaning both sides, and ‘dexter’ meaningright-handed, so ambidextrous means skillful: able to use both hands equally well, like two right hands.

‘Levous’, meanwhile, means left-handed, so ambilevous means clumsy, able to use both hands equally unwell, like two left hands. It’s an excellent word to use in an insult, and one we frequently apply to our competitors.

Unfortunately, etymologies aren’t always so interesting, and most of the time it is much more enjoyable to remember the meaning of a word with an arresting mem that links the word’s form to its meaning by witty fiction, not historical fact.

But there are nonetheless plenty of interesting etymologies out there. Here is one of my favorites, for the word assassinate.

Around the time of the Crusaders, a branch of Ismaili Muslims were principally known for doing one thing—killing lots of people, an activity that they liked to warm up for by smoking a lot of hash.

Amazingly, 1000 years later, their legacy lives on in the word assassinate. In Arabic, haisisi, or hashish eater, gives us the root of assassinate, to murder for political or religious reasons.